Genesis Chapter 2
After four tries my Sunday school class finally made it through Genesis Chapter One, albeit with several mysteries unsolved in our wake. Even Wayne, an apricot aura-ed doctor and gentleman farmer who loves to discuss science and philosophy, laughed each time I started the weekly class by saying we had one more issue to address about the face of the deep or the nature of light. But there was no easier sledding in sight, because the leaps through faith and mystery in Chapter Two are no less perplexing and profound.
Chapter One is all about the cosmological, geological and biological evolution of the earth, where the stars and heavens were formed, land emerged from the sea, and birds filled the skies overhead—whether it occurred over five billion years or in the space of five minutes each. Either way, humans made their stage entrance at the end, around Chapter One, verse 27.
So why does Genesis Chapter 2 pick right back up and cover the same material, the creation of life, the creation of man? One reason is to set up man in the Garden of Eden with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We don’t even have to read ahead to Chapter 3 to know that this will mean trouble. Genesis 2 also tells a separate version of the creation of woman than Chapter One. More trouble in store there, as well, it is safe to say in hindsight.
But there are other less politically incorrect reasons for re-covering this same ground. Because the Genesis writers, without the benefit of any organic chemistry classes, are about to go beyond God’s simple commands in Chapter 1and offer more intuitive insights into the processes of the creation of life Chapter 2 has more water in it than The Old Man and the Sea. It talks about rain. It talks about mists of water covering the earth. It locates the Garden of Eden by reference to four rivers, though no other historical record remains of most of them. Obviously people have to live where there is water to drink, but it is more basic even than that. Without water as a medium, the transfers necessary for complex life processes cannot occur, and it is no coincidence that blood mimics the chemical composition of seawater.
But that is just chemistry. The water metaphors of Genesis work on a higher plane. The word “soul” comes from the Old English sawol, or spiritual part of a person, which originally meant “coming from or belonging to the sea,” because that was the stopping place of the soul before birth and after death. That is where the four rivers really run when we are talking about the beginning of human life.
Biology’s transcendence of geology is more explicit in Genesis’ rough instruction manual for creating Adam:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Gen 2:7.
There are a couple of points about God breathing life into water-soaked dust. The first is also merely chemical, in that scientists have found that complex molecules placed into clay start to arrange themselves into compounds resembling nucleotides, the building blocks for RNA, and eventually DNA, and the replication of proteins.
But the more fantastic insight by this ancient author is that, physically, life is made of the same common materials as any inert clod of dirt. It contains the same periodic table elements, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen. This divinely-inspired understanding of modern science underscores the miracle leap across the nether divide that makes inorganic matter come alive.
The passage also exposes the limits of modern science. Nothing about the theory of evolution, or the chemistry of a petri dish, can explain the spark that puts life into otherwise lifeless matter, or where that brilliant energy goes after life departs and its form returns to dust.
In the search for life on other worlds, we send probes into space looking for molecules of oxygen, complex carbon, or water. But there is nothing so special in the materials themselves. Silicon could replace carbon as a platform for the creation of complex molecules. Other fluids or gases could provide the same medium of transfer as water. In deep sea trenches here on earth, creatures living near heat vents burn sulphur for energy instead of oxygen.
Genesis Two gives us the further insight that what gave life to common dust was breath. That is not as simple as saying that living things breathe air, just as they process water. It is to say that what separates the living from the non-living is invisible, and that there is an unseen internal connection between the living being and the nonliving world it inhabits--that goes in and out with each breath. Every creature invisibly interacts with its environment this way. As do we, inhaling the atmosphere that surrounds us to extract oxygen for our needs and dispensing carbon dioxide for the trees, creating an interdependent balance with all life. But people who were not blinded by science understood that this was more than chemistry.
We call the invisible essence that permeates our clay model to inspire life in it, for lack of a better understanding, a soul or a spirit. And just as our word for soul comes from the sea, our word for spirit comes from the breath, from the Latin spirare, to breathe. But a spirit is not just the vital, animating force inside us. A spirit in our language is also a supernatural being, as in the Holy Spirit.
Thus, in the beginning, Genesis was ahead of its time when it philosophized, as no physical description can, that the breath of God, an inexplicable wind that pervades our world and infused us with a supernatural spirit, made us much more than the sum of rock-minerals, salt seawater, and methane gases which otherwise share our chemical composition.
But we are far from finished with the nature of life in Genesis. Later in Chapter Two, God goes through an entirely different operation to create Eve. Whether we take it literally or metaphorically, he undoubtedly could have blown breath into more dust, to bring life to more inert matter, to make Adam’s help-mate. Instead he takes the rib from Adam’s living body and fashions from it the next human.
That troubled me even in sixth-grade Sunday school class. Later I feared it foreshadowed the first gruesome experiment in cloning. Now I see in it another divinely inspired insight from this writer, who never studied genetics any more than organic chemistry, but who understood the second miracle of life.
The first miracle is that life can come from non-life, from dust, through no trajectory we can define or discern. The second, in the story of Adam’s rib, is that life also comes from life. All living beings, not just humans, pass down their traits, the secrets coded within their flesh, from one generation to the next. For humans, as the sage story tells us, the male may provide some genetic material, but the woman is the vessel through which life ultimately intercepts the future.
God made lots of other life in the creation story, from the fish of the sea to the fowl of the air, but the Genesis writer reserves the description of these special life-giving operations to Adam and Eve, because with no living thing that could conceive them, what would be the point of all the gravitation, fusion, evolution, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, relativity, and any other force operating in a lifeless universe.
And God went through the story of finding a mate for Adam again in Chapter 2, after already recounting the creation of man and woman in Chapter one, and after going through the strange charade of parading every other beast of the earth in front of Adam as a potential companion, to make the point of what a futile and lonely universe it would be unshared by a consciousness like our own.
And God leaves Adam and Eve together alone at the end of Chapter Two, naked and unashamed. They enter the world without the slightest selfconsciousness. But not for long.