Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Genesis 2:5-7 and Implications

Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. 6 But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:5-7, NASB)

Genesis 1-2 are two of the most contested chapters in the Bible. “Young-earth creationists” think it’s all rather simple, and that a face-value reading of these chapters inevitably leads to a belief that God created the world in six ordinary days. “Old-earth creationists” believe both the text and the world are more complex than this. And so the debate has raged.

In my view, interpreters on both sides have not paid enough attention to a crucial text: Genesis 2:5-7. Though I am unpersuaded of his “framework interpretation,” I do think that Professor Mark Futato of Reformed Theological Seminary—in his article “Because It Had Rained” (part 1 and part 2)—rightly discerns the logic of Genesis 2:5-7 and explains its role in OT covenantal theology. Futato sees a twofold problem, a twofold reason, and a twofold solution:

Twofold Problem (No Wild Vegetation, No Cultivated Vegetation)

1. No wild vegetation had appeared in the land.

2. No cultivated grains had yet sprung up.

Twofold Reason (No Rain, No Cultivator)

1. The Lord God had not sent rain on the land.

2. There was no man to cultivate the ground.

Twofold Solution (God Sent Rain Clouds, God Formed a Cultivator)

1. God caused rain clouds to rise up from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.

2. The Lord God formed the man.

The “bush of the field” (siah-hassadeh) described in 2:5 are the wild, uncultivated, desert vegetation that grows spontaneously after the onset of the rainy season in the fall (Gen. 21:15; Job 30:4, 7). The “small plants of the field” (es eb-hassadeh) in 2:5 refer to cultivated grains like flax, barley, wheat, and pelt (Gen. 3:18; Exod. 9:22, 25).

Now note the reason these had not yet grown: because it had not yet rained. Ed in 2:6 is best translated as “rain cloud” (cf. Job 36:27). Its “rising from the earth/land” is from a human perspective. Clouds appear on the horizon (whether a plain or a mountain or the sea), thus giving the appearance of rising (cf. Ps. 135:7; 1 Kings 18:44; Jer. 10:13; 51:16).

A Contradiction?

If the above interpretation is on track, then there is an apparent contradiction, for according to Genesis 1:9-13, vegetation was made on the third day. But in Genesis 2, it is the sixth day and there is no vegetation.

Three options are available by way of response: (1) abandon harmonization; (2) abandon seeing a sequence of events (i.e., logic, not sequence, is the organizing principle—cf. the “framework interpretation”); (3) reexamine the Hebrew terms. Since it seems that harmonization is encouraged by Genesis 2:4 and by the doctrine of an inerrant Scripture, and because the numbering of the days one after another encourages us to think in terms of a sequence, the third option is the most viable.

There are two sets of terms, the reexamination of which would change our interpretation of the passage. First, we might argue that the vegetation referenced in Gen. 2:5 is not included in the reference of Gen. 1:9-13. Hence there is no contradiction. This is the option that most commentators (Waltke, Sailhamer, et al) seem to prefer. Though I tremble to disagree with such experts of Genesis, I just don’t find their arguments very persuasive. The vegetation (dese) described in Gen. 1:9-13, is broken down into two broad categories: seed-bearing plants (eseb mazria zera) and trees that bear fruit (es peri oseh peri). It seems that the vegetation described in Genesis 2 are a subcategory of those described in Genesis 1. The traditional idea is that the lack of tilling foreshadows post-fall work and the lack of rain foreshadows a post-fall flood. But this assumes that there was no agricultural work before the fall and that it didn’t rain until the flood. I definitely don’t think the latter is true (for the text tells us that it rained, and I see no reason to think the earth existed for over a thousand years without rain!), and I don’t think we can be dogmatic about the former (see Gordon Hugenberger’s Is Work the Result of the Fall? A Note on Genesis 2:15.)

The second solution would be to reexamine the term “earth” (eretz) in 2:5-6. It can refer to the earth as a whole (Gen. 1:1-2), the region of dry land (Gen. 1:10), or some particular region (Gen. 2:11-13). So perhaps eretz in Genesis 2:5-7 refers to a particular land (the Garden of Eden), whereas eretz in Gen 1:11-13 to the earth as a whole. In fact, that’s exactly the solution presupposed by the English Standard Version (ESV) translation, and I believe this was the correct decision.

Ordinary Providence

But note again the startling reason in Genesis 2:5-7 for why there were no shrubs or small plants in the Garden: because “it had not yet rained.” Note well: there is an explanation for this lack of vegetation, which is a reference to ordinary providence. To see the theological implications of this feature, we need to examine the context—of the ancient Middle East, of the original audience, and of the Old Testament as a whole. (Much of the following is dependent on Futato’s careful work.)

Geographic Context

Moses narrated these events for his audience, the people of Israel, who were living in Canaan prior to the exile. What was the climate like there? At the end of the dry season and after five months of drought, the hills in Canaan are dry as dust and the vegetation is brown. Plowing and planting are impossible because the field is as hard as iron. Then the rains come, and the hills of the steppe become clothed with verdure (Job 38:25-27), the soil is softened, and the farmer is able to plow and plant (Ps. 65:9-10).

Theological Context

The agriculture of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia depended upon irrigation from rivers. In Canaan, however, agriculture depended on rain (see Deuteronomy 11:10-11). Because the basic equation was “water = life,” this understanding influenced their respective theologies and religions. Hence, the religions of Mesopotamia and Egypt were concerned with river gods, whereas the primary god of the Canaanites was Baal, the storm god who was the “rider on the clouds.”

Futato points out that the “struggle against Baalism is part of the fabric of Genesis through Kings.” The Israelites had been led by Yahweh through the desert and the sea, but as they were set to enter the land of Canaan, the question became, “Is Yahweh also the God of Canaan?” The temptation was to inquire of the Canaanites what made their gardens grow, and hence to be drawn to Baal worship. The polemic against Baalism is at the heart of OT covenant theology. Covenant loyalty to Yahweh resulted in rain, vegetation, and life. Covenant disloyalty—worshipping other gods—resulted in no rain, no produce, and death (see Deut. 11:10-17). Therefore, as Fatuto writes, “the ubiquitous threat of Baalism provides the theological context in which Genesis 1-2 is to be read.”


If the above interpretation is accurate, Genesis 2:5-7 serves a significant polemical function, for it demonstrates that Yahweh is the true God of rain, over against the pretender god Baal.

I don’t believe that Moses was at all concerned about the length of time in which God created the world and prepared the garden. In fact, the church has not historically been overly concerned about such issues. But since it is a preoccupation of our scientific age to inquire into the duration of the creation account, responsible interpreters must eventually lay their cards on the table and reveal their position (even if they get accused of heresy in the process!).

So here’s my view: I believe that Genesis 2:5-7 decisively rules out the idea that the sixth day was a 24-hour period. If the sixth day is a 24-hour period, then the explanation for the lack of vegetation (namely, that it had not yet rained) makes no sense. The very wording of the text presupposes seasons and rain cycles and a lengthier passage of time.

Genesis 1?

Along with many scholars (Waltke, Sailhamer, et al) I believe that Genesis 1:1 is neither a title nor a summary of the following narrative. Rather, it is a background statement that describes how the universe came to be. The typical function of such a background statement (also found in Gen. 16:1; 21:1; 24:1) is to give an action that took place some unspecified time before the narrative actually gets under way. If Genesis 1:1 is a title or a summary, then Genesis does not teach creation out of nothing. The main point of the narrative (in Gen. 1:3–2:3) is the making and preparation of the earth for its inhabitants.

Many incorrectly assume that the creation of the sun, moon, stars, and light occurs in Genesis 1:3, 14, 16. But there is a distinction in the Hebrew words for create and make. For example, as Jack Collins points out, the Hebrew construction let there be is used in the phrase “Let your steadfast love…be upon us” (Ps. 33:22; cf. 90:17; 119:76). This obviously isn’t a request for God’s love to begin to exist, but rather to function in a certain way. Similarly, the sun, moon, stars, and lights were created in Genesis 1:1, but were made or appointed for a particular function in Genesis 1:3, 14, 16—namely, to mark the set time for worship on man’s calendar.

Evening and Morning

What then does the repeated refrain “evening and morning” in Genesis 1 mean? Many think it’s a reference to an ordinary, 24-hour day. But evening to morning isn’t 24 hours, is it? What is it? It is nighttime! It’s the same phrase used to indicate when an Israelite would take his daily rest (cf. Ps. 104:23; Gen. 30:16; Ex. 18:13). The daily rest in Israel looks forward to the weekly Sabbath rest.

When we take this insight, and then combine it with a proper understanding of anthropomorphic, analogical language, a solution begins to emerge. What does God do on the seventh day? Exodus 31:17 tells us that on the seventh day God “rest and was refreshed.” God—refreshed? It’s the same Hebrew word used for getting your breath back after running a long race (Exod. 23:12; 2 Sam. 16:14)! The reason it is not improper to say God was refreshed is the same reason it’s not improper to say that God breathes, hovers, is like a potter, gardens, etc (all images used in Genesis 1-2). God’s revelation to us is analogical (neither entirely identical nor entirely dissimilar) and anthropomorphic (accommodated and communicated from our perspective).

In essence, I agree with the great 19th century theologian Herman Bavinck:

“The creation days are the workdays of God. By a labor, resumed and renewed six times, he prepared the whole earth….” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol.1 , p. 500).

Another great 19th century theologian, W.G.T. Shedd, wrote about it this way:

The seven days of the human week are copies of the seven days of the divine week. The “sun-divided days” are images of the “God-divided days.” This agrees with the biblical representation generally. The human is the copy of the divine, not the divine of the human. Human fatherhood and sonship are finite copies of the Trinitarian fatherhood and sonship. Human justice, benevolence, holiness, mercy, etc., are imitations of corresponding divine qualities. The reason given for man’s rest upon the seventh solar day is that God rested upon the seventh creative day (Exod. 20:11). But this does not prove that the divine rest was only twenty-four hours in duration any more than the fact that human sonship is a copy of the divine proves that the latter is sexual. (Dogmatic Theology, p. 374).

In other words, the “days” of Genesis 1 are analogical and anthropomorphic. God is portrayed as a workman going through his workweek, working during the day and resting for the night. Then on his Sabbath, he enjoys a full and refreshing rest. Our days are like God’s workdays, but not identical to them. How long were God’s workdays? The Bible doesn’t say. But I see no reason to insist that they were only 24 hours long.

Who Else Holds This Position?

Variations of this view were held by Augustine, W.G.T. Shedd, Herman Bavinck (perhaps the greatest systematic theologian), and Franz Delitzsch (perhaps the great Christian Hebraist). It was also the most common view among the late 19th century and early 20th century convservative Dutch theologians. The most articulate and prominent contemporary defender of this view—whose arguments I have followed most closely—is C. John “Jack” Collins, professor of OT at Covenant Seminary and the OT chair of the ESV translation. Collins is the author of the superb book, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (which began with a homeschooling mom calling him for advice on teaching her children about science). See also his more technical article, “How Old Is the Earth? Anthropomorphic Days in Genesis 1.1-2.3,” Presbyterion (Fall, 1994): 109-130.