Genesis 2:4-15: God Original Plan for Mankind

These are the generations of the heaven and the earth when they were created, in the day when ʏʜᴡʜ God made earth and heaven. Now, every shrub of the field was not yet in the earth, and every herb of the field had [not] yet sprouted because ʏʜᴡʜ God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.

Verses 5 is somewhat difficult to understand in both classic and modern English translations. At first glance, it seems to be describing a time when there is no vegetation on the earth, because man has not yet been created, which seems contradictory to the previous chapter, which stated that plant life was created two days before mankind.

It would be difficult to try to address all the translation questions here[1]. But it is helpful to give a general understanding of this verse to guide us. I believe this verse is clarifying what we had learned in the previous chapter while providing background information for the narrative to follow.

Reading chapter one you might get the impression that, by the end of day six, God had filled up the entire planet with plants, animals, and people. But chapter two explains how God initially created only one man and one woman, placed them in a garden, and so arranged things that the human race could grow, expand outwards, and flourish.

It was also God's plan that man should rule over the plants and animals (Genesis 1:28, 2:15). Consequently, the plants and animals had to be limited in geography at this point, to follow the expansion of the human race.

So, I think that verse 5 is best understood not in absolute sense, that God had not created any plants before he created man. Rather, since God had not yet caused it to rain on the earth[2], plants were not wildly growing everywhere around the earth, but were limited to certain geographic areas:

And a stream of fresh water went up from the earth, and it irrigated all the face of the earth (or, "the arable ground").

The Hebrew word אֵד (˒ēd) can be translated "mist" but it better understood here to be referring to a (great) spring of water coming out of the ground[3], which is the source of the rivers which will be described shortly. So, at this time, the growth of the plant kingdom was limited to the areas irrigated by the rivers.

ʏʜᴡʜ God formed the man [from] the soil of the earth.

The Hebrew word here for "formed" is יָצַר (yā-ṢA), which is similar to the word for "to create" (בָּרָא, bā-RĀ) but is less abstract. It is very similar to the noun יֹצֵר (yō-ṢĒR), which is the word for one who makes pottery or who casts works of metal. God, as it were, sculpted Adam with his own fingers.

This should remind us that every man or woman is, in a sense, specially and uniquely formed by God. The Psalmist says that "thy hands [God] have made me and fashioned me" (Psalm 119:73, KJV), and also that each of us were "knit" or "woven" together in our mother's womb (Psalm 139:13).

He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

The body of man, his material part, was made from humble soil[4] but his principle of life was transmitted through the breath of God. This was more than simply air moving into his nostrils, but God in a mysterious way transmitting that which made him into a "living being" (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּֽה, ne-FESH ḥay-YĀH).

ʏʜᴡʜ God planted a garden in Eden, towards the east. He set there the man whom he had formed. ʏʜᴡʜ God caused to sprout from the ground every tree lovely to behold and good for food.

Though it will be man's task to develop the rest of the earth, it is God who plants the first garden, to give man a wonderful starting point for his spreading out. The garden is placed in the eastern part of the region of Eden. The name Eden most likely means "land of bliss" or "happy land".[5] Since the garden was specially planted by God, and contained "every tree lovely to behold and good for food" we can hardly imagine the beauty, wonder, and delight of such a place. The hanging gardens of Babylon, and the personal gardens of Solomon, would have been a little thing compared to the original paradise.

And the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

While I admittedly have more questions than answers about these two trees in the middle of the garden, it is evident from Genesis 3:22 that mankind's immortality was some how tied into or preserved by the fruit of the tree of life. It seems likely that the tree was meant also to be a symbol or reminder of mankind's dependence on God, as the tree was planted by God and not by man's efforts. It should be noted that Adam had free access to eat of that tree, like he did all others, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

It is likely that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was called so, not because its fruits actually transmitted factual knowledge, but because eating of the forbidden fruit would bring an experiential knowledge of the difference between good and evil. The tree represented the reality that there were some limits to man, to what he could know and what he could be. And therefore, man would have to choose to trust God concerning those limitations, or choose to rebel.

And a river went out from Eden to irrigate the garden and from there it diverged and it became four headwaters. The name of the one was Pị-shōn — it flows around all the land of Hā-vị-lāh, where there was gold. And the gold of that land was good: bdellium and the onyx stone are there. And the name of the second river was Gị-ḥōn, that flows around all the land of Kūsh. And the name of the third river was Ḥi-de-qel. That was the one which flows to the east of (or, opposite to) ˒Ash-shūr. And the fourth river, the same was Phᵉ-rāt.

Four major rivers were flowing outward from Eden, splitting out from the one river, which must have had its source in the great spring mentioned in verse 5. I believe that attempts to equate these rivers with modern rivers are misguided, since both Eden and the rivers would have been destroyed by the Noahic global flood. It is, however, plausible that some of the post-flood rivers and regions were named after the originals, and that Moses intended his readers to see that connection. I do not believe, though, that the language used here requires us to believe that the same rivers have continued into the present time.[6]

I believe the main purposes of these descriptions is (1) to help us to see how God had planned for the growth of mankind and nature outward from Eden, and (2) to show how God had provided mankind with what was needed (such as metals) to develop a beautiful, burgeoning civilization, perfectly in harmony with nature.

ʏʜᴡʜ God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and to oversee it.

From the beginning, God gave to man an outlet for his energy and creativity, in the work that was required to maintain and manage the garden. This work would spread outward from Eden across the earth, as the human race grew, and they fulfilled their God-ordained role of caring for and managing the plants and animals of creation.

End Notes

[1] The explanation in the Net Bible notes gives a helpful grammatical explanation, which I think generally represents the modern approach to translating verse 5:

The verb forms, although appearing to be imperfects, are technically preterites coming after the adverb טֶרֶם (terem). The word order (conjunction + subject + predicate) indicates a disjunctive clause, which provides background information for the following narrative (as in 1:2). Two negative clauses are given ("before any sprig...", and "before any cultivated grain" existed), followed by two causal clauses explaining them, and then a positive circumstantial clause is given—again dealing with water as in 1:2 (water would well up).

[2] Sometimes this verse has been used to justify the conclusion that mankind had never seen rain up until the time of Noah's flood. But that is missing the point of this verse, which is that God could not allow rain to come before mankind had begun spreading across the earth.

[3] See HALOT.

[4] HALOT gives "loose earth, soil" for this instance, although under another sense category gives "fine dry top-soil, dust".

[5] HALOT indicates that Eden is homophonic with, and probably derived from, עֵדֶן (˓ē-DEN) which means "bliss".

[6] Our understanding of theses verses should be controlled by the ancient historical context of the narrative, and more especially verse 10, which is clearly a situation that existed only in the past. So, I think that any wording which appears to be present should be understood as referring to the continuing state of things in the pre-flood world. And so participles such as הַֽהֹלֵךְ (ha-ho-LĒKH, to run or to flow) should be understood as a continuous action (Williams §213) but continuous only in the pre-flood world. Likewise, the imperfect verb יִפָּרֵ֔ד (yi-pā-RĒD, to diverge) in verse 10 "describes the event without the end in view" (Williams 167) as the writer is concerned only with describing the pre-flood world at this point. Perhaps it is significant also that all the words translated "is" in English translations are only implied in the original text.

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