I have been meaning to write this piece for some time, but other topics keep coming in the way. And cultural events like the Barbenheimer movies, movies which frame a mood in America, a taking stock of the ebbing era of American power. In their own way, both Barbie and Oppenheimer deal with the loss of innocence, happily so in Barbie and tragically in Oppenheimer. Both are in that sense biblical, and both illustrate what has long been true: the most interesting biblical conversations often occur outside the official boundaries of the church.
The church in contrast often seems intent on narrowing biblical truth, in trying to bring the Bible under control. But the Bible refuses to be confined. The conversations in the Bible are broader and more various than our theologies permit. One such case is the J story of the creation of human beings in Genesis 2:4b-25 (and on through the Genesis prologue up to and including the Tower of Babel story in 11:1-9). The brilliance of this story has frequently been obscured by readings imposed on it by later theologies.
BREATH AND BLOOD
The story is about who we are as human beings and where we fit in the scheme of things. What’s stunning to me is that it can still instructively serve this purpose in a world in which we take for granted such things as the decipherment of the human genome, the evolutionary account of human origins (that for years the church fought unsuccessfully to quash), and lately a kind of machine intelligence that is able to write better essays that most college freshmen. Even in such a world, this story has a remarkably contemporary feel and relevance.
Perhaps, this is true in part because the story was written in conversation with the best of the culture of its own time. The first mistake many people make in reading these stories is to take them as naïve accounts of history. Folk accounts, as it were. Indeed, when I first came into the ministry, the church was insisting on reading these stories as if they were reports of what happened at the beginning of time. In insisting on that sort of reading, the church made it all but impossible to understand what the stories are really saying. Piety sometimes gets in the way of the biblical truth.
The stories at the beginning of Genesis are exile stories, probably written from Babylon. Babylon comes up in ways that lead toward that conclusion: there’s the little riff on the legend of Nimrod in Genesis 10:8-12, for example, or the cheeky satire on the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. And exile is everywhere: Adam and Eve driven from the Garden (3:23), Cain forced to wander the earth (4:12), and at the end of the Babel story, the scattering of the human race (11:8). Throughout, the stories reflect earlier Mesopotamian stories, in, for example, the names of the ancients in the genealogical lists in chapters 4 and 5 or the flood story which contains details otherwise found only in the 11th tablet of Gilgamesh. These are stories written in conversation with other stories. They are not naïve little folktales; they should not be read as such.
The Genesis 2 story seems quite clearly to be in conversation with the Mesopotamian creation stories. In the Mesopotamian intellectual tradition, humans are said to be two things: mud of the earth and blood of a god (see especially Atraḫasīs, lines 208-14). As an account of human nature, this works pretty well. Like other animals we are dirt: biology and chemistry, DNA and protein molecules. But we are also something else, something that distinguishes our species from other species. Every origin story tries to puzzle out what this might be. In the Mesopotamian accounts, the difference is blood.
Humans are created to do the work the gods do not want to do. The Atraḫasīs story begins, “When the gods like men/Bore the work and suffered the toil—/The toil of the gods was great,/The work was heavy, the distress was much” (Lambert and Millard 1970:43). Faced with the burden of work, the younger gods rebel against the older gods. When the rebels are vanquished, the god Ea proposes a solution: kill one of the rebels, mix the flesh and blood of that god into clay, and from that mixture make creatures who will do the work the gods are loath to do: humans.
This story explains much. It explains how we differ from the other animals. We have divine intelligence. Of the god who was killed to create humans, it is said that he had ṭēmu, “foresight,” the ability to plan ahead. It also explains the rebelliousness of the human race. We are, as we know far too well, creatures who are smart enough to create divine-like technologies and foolish enough to use them to destroy the earth and ourselves along with it. As a metaphor for human life, you could do worse than the Mesopotamian myths.
In part, the biblical story follows out this tradition. We are dust. Mud. Which is to say that we are bodies. Not that we have bodies, as if at death we can sluff them off like an old winter coat. We are bodies. “Dust you are,” says Yahweh God in Genesis 3:19, “and to the dust you will return.”
This, of course, challenges what we have long been taught: that bodies are temporary. We have them for a while, but then they wear out. We discard them. We may get new bodies at the resurrection, but in much of popular Christianity little attention is given to getting bodies. The common idea is that on dying we go immediately to heaven or hell, to everlasting bliss or everlasting suffering. The “we” in that theological idea is the soul. We are souls, so goes this theology, we have bodies for a time.
This is not what the Genesis 2 creation story suggests. No souls here, although if you read the story in the King James (KJV), you would be led to think otherwise. The KJV translates Genesis 2:7: “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 soul.” There it is: soul. But it isn’t there.
The phrase the KJV renders as “living soul” in Hebrew is nepeš ḥayyâ. The same phrase occurs in verse 19 with reference to the animals. There the KJV doesn’t use “soul” but translates the phrase as “living creature”—a parade example of theological commitments determining translation decisions. Humans have souls—so the KJV translators thought; animals don’t. Who’s to notice that the Hebrew says the same thing about both of them. To its credit, the NIV, along with most other modern translations, takes nepeš ḥayyâ as “living being” in both places.
So, no souls here. The Genesis story starts with science. I realize that “science” in that claim is wildly anachronistic. It would be a long time before science as we know it would be developed. But our science—the sort of science we implicitly trust from Monday through Saturday—begins in the same place as the Genesis story: with bodies. Whatever minds are, they require brains. Brains are marvels of wiring and connections, but they are just that. If brains are damaged, minds are damaged. And if brains are healed, minds are healed. Drugs change the way we think. And so forth. This connection would not surprise the biblical writer. It’s all part of our being mud.
There is something more very much in view in the Genesis story. If we are bodies, then we are finite. We die. Death may have changed its meaning and power because of sin; but death is part of what we are as humans. By introducing the idea of an eternal soul into this account, traditional theology denies what the story clearly tells us: we die. If after the death of the body the soul goes either to heaven or to hell, then humans cannot die.
Up to this point, the Mesopotamian stories, our own science, and the biblical story agree: we are bodies. Mud. Dust. But what of that other—whatever it is—that separates us from the rest of creation? What is that? The Mesopotamian stories say blood: the blood of a rebel god. Our science mostly brackets this question off, believing it to be outside of the purview of science. Some scientists speak of emergent consciousness, the idea that from the complexity of our brain something new emerges: mind, spirit. There are other answers. But for the biblical writer in Genesis 2 the answer is breath.
The story itself is simple and intimate. Yahweh God leans over the human shape and breathes into its nostrils the breath of life. Breathes it alive. It’s tempting to think that this breath of God is an additional constituent of human life. We are dust and breath. But that is not what the story seems to say. The divine breath does not become part of us in the same way that air does not become part of us. We absorb from the air the oxygen we need to live, but the air itself we breathe in and breathe out. I suspect it’s to this point that the writer of Genesis 2:7 avoids the obvious word here, Hebrew rūăḥ, “wind,” “breath,” “spirit,” and uses instead the less common nəšāmâ.
So what is the breath? It’s relationship. Two things are going on in this story. One is the idea that God brings us to life—biological life. It’s this idea that we find, for example, in another creation text, Psalm 104:29-30, where the language of breath is used for “all creatures” (vss. 27-30). But here, in the Genesis story, it’s not just biological life the writer seems to have in mind, but a relationship with God. What defines human beings? We are those creatures who have come to a consciousness of God. We, unlike all other creatures as far as we can tell, breathe God.
Take this as an event in human history. When did humans first become, well, human? Perhaps, at the moment we first breathed God. Before that moment, we knew only earth; then we knew something beyond earth, something for which we have no other name but God.
The event was surely linguistic. This, too, is breath. Breath is what supports speech. Our words float out on the air we breathe. In the story, God immediately begins speaking to this new creature. And the creature speaks back. One of the first responsibilities for the human is naming the animals.
I should give due credit here. I didn’t come to this idea simply from the text of Genesis 2:7, although I fully believe that it is there. I came to it first in conversation with the late Henry Stob, perhaps the best teacher I ever had. We—a gaggle of seminarians—had asked Henry when humans became human, a topic of much concern at the time when many in the church thought that all theology rose and fell on the historicity of the Garden of Eden story. Henry replied to our question with characteristic economy. He said, that our ape-like forebears first became human when they became aware of God. And so we asked the follow-up question: And when did they fall? He replied, “In the next moment.” That seems right, I thought at the time; I still do.
The breath in the story is a metaphor for that first relationship with God. What defines us as humans? It’s not some biological or extra-biological constituent. Not divine blood or eternal souls or whatever else has been proposed to distinguish us from our animal friends. It’s something as ephemeral as breath—breathing, as it were, eternity, breath of God. But here is where it gets complicated. Breath of God is not merely breath. Nothing divine is merely anything. Let me with all the brevity and clarity I can summon suggest where this story leads.
Begin with the oddest of the resurrection stories in the New Testament. Tucked between the stories of the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene and the story of doubting Thomas is another story, five verses long (John 20:19-23). Jesus suddenly appears to his beleaguered disciples who are holed up in a locked room in Jerusalem. He comes suddenly into the room, greets them with “Peace be with you” (see John 14:27), and shows them his wounds. And then, in a rather formal way, he says a second time, “Peace be with you!” And he adds, “As my Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And then, in a direct reference to the Genesis story, we are told, “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
At its simplest level, this story is about what it means to be Christian: Christians breathe the breath of Jesus. His teaching, his person, comes to reside in us. This idea is developed at some length in John 14-16. Take John 14:18-20:
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
It’s the last part of that saying of Jesus from John 14 that suggests the complications. God in the Christian way of thinking is inherently relational. To use the language of the Nicene Creed, the Father and the Son are eternally in the relationship of begottenness. Without the Son there is no Father; without the Father, there is no Son. And between them and among them is Breath, Spirit. It’s as if the Genesis creation story were a window not only into human life but into divine life.
And if, now, as the creed goes on to say, that divine relational reality is manifested to us in Jesus, then for Jesus to breathe on his disciples is for them to enter the relational reality of God—to share in the divine life. As Jesus says only a few verses later in John 14: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (vs. 23). Which brings me once again to resurrection.
In the post that preceded this one (Perversity of Perfection), I said that whatever resurrection is, it must include not just some idealized idea of you or me but our entire history. Who you are and who I am is deeply connected with the experiences of my life, as Jesus demonstrates when he shows his disciples his wounds. The experience of the cross is part of who Jesus is. The risen Jesus is the crucified Jesus.
This has may applications, as I suggested in the previous post. But one of the implications that I did not mention in the previous post is that our resurrected selves must in some sense be finite. Bounded. What’s resurrected is not another life but this life. It’s this life, my years on earth that God raises up. It’s this life that God redeems.
And how does God do that? Here’s where the metaphor of breath comes back into play. My life, my days and years, my accomplishments and failures, my joys and my suffering, those are the dust. The dust is not only biology but history. Not only DNA but my love of art and my love of Adria and my love for all things biblical. And into that particular dust God breathes and brings me alive. Resurrection is not biology; resurrection is relationship, the same relationship that is modeled metaphorically in Genesis 2. Resurrection is the promise that God still breathes the breath of life.
I realize that all of this is much too sketchy. Suggestive but not well-defined. But perhaps that is how it should be, for we are in the realm of mystery. We can walk up to the edge of it, but that’s as far as we can go.
As far, at least, as I can go. For now.