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Friday, October 20, 1995 | return to: torah


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Beresheet: We need two views of the Creation story

by Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman

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Beresheet

Genesis 1:1-6:8

Isaiah 42:5-43:10

The Bible begins with two different accounts of the origin of the human species. In the first account (Genesis 1:1 to 2:3), the Creator brings forth each species of animal, male and female, finally bringing forth humans. The Creator blesses each species with the ability to reproduce, and the humans with the additional responsibility to "rule" over the others. The process appears impersonal; the humans have no names; so, too, the text identifies the Creator by title.

In the second, (beginning at Gen. 2:4), the human male comes first, assigned by the Creator with the responsibility of caring for a garden; the Creator brings him all the species of animal to name. The Creator forms a woman, and the man gives her a personal name (Gen. 3:19). At that point, he himself gains a name: Ha-adam, the human, turns into Adam (Gen. 3:20). The Creator, too, has a name, along with a title.

Source critics, who believe that it is possible and valuable to separate the Bible into layers of documents, assert that these two stories come from two incompatible sources. While this would explain the existence of two versions, it does not explain why an editor put them together. Didn't the editor notice the contradictions?

In "The Art of Biblical Narrative," Robert Alter, professor of comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley, ironically observes that "biblical critics frequently assume...that the redactors were in the grip of some manic tribal compulsion, driven again and again to include units of traditional material that made no connective sense, for reasons they themselves could not have explained." Alter rather suggests that the text may include contradictory versions "to include mutually complementary implications of the narrated event," thus giving "a complete imaginative account."

Alter's observation makes sense whether one studies the biblical text in secular terms, allowing for the literary skill of the editor, or in religious terms, assuming the divine instruction of the editor. This sort of reading made literary sense for my teacher, the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who unreservedly "accepts the unity and integrity of the Scriptures and their divine character." The secret, for Soloveitchik, lay "not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions, but in a real contradiction in the nature of man" ("The Lonely Man of Faith").

As Soloveitchik understands Genesis, human beings exist on two planes. We live, like Adam in the first story, at home in the world, busy with the task of understanding and mastering the forces of nature, earning recognition as reasonable, dignified, responsible, majestic. We also live, like Adam in the second story, troubled by loneliness, apart from the world, seeking meaning, community and redemption.

The humans in the first story appear as male and female from the start. Male and female, equally and identically, share the task of bending nature to human ends. We work together, and we breed together. The Creator blesses our appropriate tasks from a distance.

The human in the second story appears alone. Not all the animals can help him in his loneliness. Only an "equal and opposite helper," another human, as unique and unknowable as himself, can communicate with him, and so assist him in his quest toward finding meaning. So he meets her, after he has experienced his lonesome isolation, with a cry of joy, for he has found "this time, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2: 23). In the second story, man and woman come together in an effort to overcome existential loneliness, because "it is not good for the man to be alone." Because we need intimacy with each other, we want to know each other by name, and even the Creator whom we seek has a name.

Each of these stories tells one version of the nature of humanity, as Soloveitchik tells us. We need both versions, both true, both good, to understand our conflicted situation.

After reading Soloveitchik's article, I wondered. The second story tells us how Adam feels at the moment that he discovers Eve. She comes after him, from him, of the same essence as he, to meet his needs. But how does that encounter feel to her? Does she feel belated, an actor in Adam's story, or does she feel that Adam plays a part in her story? Is her loneliness the same as his, or different? Look at how Umberto Cassuto understands her cryptic observation, at the birth of Cain: "I have made a man (Adam) with the help of God" (Gen. 4:1). Perhaps in these words Eve shows that she understands Adam to have come after her, from her, to meet her needs.

The writer is rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.


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