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 2:7 NASB
Formed – You don’t know what you are supposed to do until you know who you are made to be. That’s why the opening passages of the Bible are so important. That is also why we must not rush through them, assuming we know what they say simply because we have heard the story before. We must proceed very slowly and with great consideration of each of the words and their implications.
So far we’ve learned there are two verbs in play in the creation account. The first is bara’, a verb that describes initial creative activity, almost exclusively relegated to God’s handiwork (cf. Genesis 1:1 and 1:21). Bara’ signals a uniquely creative action that brings into being something that did not exist before. This is obvious in Genesis 1:1, but not so obvious (and therefore all the more important) in Genesis 1:21. We discovered that animate life is of a different order than the rest of the created world. That’s why bara’ is used in Genesis 1:21. In the biblical account, all original “stuff” is created, not formed. Then everything is formed, not created, until we get to living things. These are created (something brand new is added).* Two verbs. Two actions. But there is still another division in the creation story.
The statements of Genesis 1:26-27 use both of these verbs. Genesis 1:26 says that God made (‘asah) Man. Does this mean that Man is no different than the animals (look at verse 25 and you will see that the same verb, ‘asah, is used to describe the construction of the “beasts of the earth”)? We might think so except for the next verse. Genesis 1:27 uses bara’ when it describes the creation of Man in God’s own image. Just as God creates animate life in Genesis 1:21, and then forms the living creatures from this new “stuff” called animate life, so God creates human life, formed from the same stuff as other animate life – but with a significant change. This difference is marked by two changes in the Hebrew text. The first change is the use of a new verb, the first time the verb is used in the story. That verb is yatsar. It means, “to form, to fashion, to shape,” implying intentional and purposeful design. It comes from the idea of cutting and framing. In ordinary life, this is the verb used to describe the actions of a potter or an artist. Yatsar describes fashioning something for a purpose. What God does He does deliberately, with intentional forethought. Nothing about this is haphazard or accidental.
In ordinary life, the activity of yatsar not only describes the familiar role of the potter, it also announces purpose. Ten occurrences of the noun yetser in the Tanakh all should be translated “purpose.” When God forms Man, it is the mark of exquisite craftsmanship. When God forms Man, a special verb is used, a verb that is not applied to any other part of creation. The NASB tries to capture this nuance by translating the word “formed” rather than “made,” but I suspect that an English reader would not recognize the significant difference.
In order to grasp the implications of the use of yatsar, we must recognize its etymological connections to other ancient languages. In Phoenician and Akkadian, the verb is associated with competing cosmological stories about the creation (e.g. the Babylonian Emunah Elish). These parallels show us that this verb would have been connected to the actions of pagan gods in their creation of men. If you read this story in the 16th century BC, you would realize that using this verb, yatsar, deliberately confronts the other creation myths found in the surrounding cultures. This verb acts like a communications line, telling you that what God does replaces your prior information about the roles of the gods. The same action is given a new context. Men do not arise from a war between the gods or from sexual activity among the gods or from some other pagan explanation. Men are the deliberate, purposeful result of God’s own design. Yatsar makes it so.
The second important distinction is the introduction of the word adamah, translated “dust.” Once again, this is the first occurrence of the word. No other part of creation is formed (yatsar) from the dust of the ground (adamah). It is true that adamah is used in other places in the Tanakh to signify earth, clay, dirt and ground, but in the elaboration of this action in Genesis 2:7, the word adamah in combination with apar (dust) plays a particular role not found in its other occurrences. This will be the next point of examination.
Are you wondering why we are taking so much time to inspect these details? Let’s draw out some implications. First, the Hebrew text is written within the context of other ancient mythological explanations of the origin of everything. In that context, the words chosen to describe the acts of God act in opposition to these myths. The meanings of the terms come from this background, not from a physics textbook. Secondly, the Scriptures make hard and fast distinctions between life and non-life and between human life and all other life. These distinctions are fundamental for understanding the purpose of Man and his relationship to the rest of creation. Dogs might be best friends, but they do not share the same “life” status as human beings. Nor is the planet on the same plane as human life. This difference has enormous ethical implications. Today’s culture completely blurs these distinctions with resulting ethical confusion. And finally, for now, something entirely unique and absolutely new is happening in the fashioning of human life. Understanding what this difference is becomes crucial for fulfilling the purposes God has in mind. As we shall see.
Topical Index: ‘asah, make, yatsar, form, fashion, potter, adamah, dust, dirt, Genesis 1:27, Genesis 2:7
* This does not ignore the fact that Genesis 1:25 uses the verb ‘asah instead of bara’ in the same context. There are many passages where ‘asah and bara are used indiscriminately to describe God’s actions (cf. Isaiah 41:20; 43:7 and 45:7 or Psalm 33:6). The context of the passages determines if the act is initial and unique rather than formation of something already present. In the case of Genesis 1:25, the initial creation of animated life is now formed into all the beasts of the earth.