Genesis 2:7 is rightly famous for revealing that the human was created from the dust of the earth. But, there is so much more that I never realized until I was rereading the text in preparation for next week’s class. Specifically, I noticed what I initially thought was a “misspelling” (which I’ll get to shortly) of a key word which, as it turns out, is a very clever literary device. Who knew?
In checking the various commentaries I learned that the “misspelling” was a deliberate act by the author and it is fascinating on all kinds of levels. Basically, the author uses the “misspelling” of the verb meaning “to form” (vayyitzer, as in “form from the dust of the ground”) in order to convey a fundamental difference between mankind and animals. To this end, he spells vayyitzer differently depending on whether the human is being formed or animals are being formed. Note the two spellings below – the one on the left is used in verse 2:19 when God “formed” the animals. The one on the right is used in this verse, 2:7, when God “formed” the human:
Both words are transcribed identically as vayyitzer. Now, the word on the left is the spelling used in verse 2:19 when God “forms” the animals from the ground. The word on the right is the spelling used when God “forms” the human from the ground. Look closely. Do you see the difference between the two? The one on the left is spelled with a single yod (י) whereas the one on the right is spelled with two yods (יי).
What’s going on here?
Biblical era scholars postulated that the two yods were used by the author to symbolize the ancient Hebraic view that mankind possessed a dual nature. In this understanding, the human is endowed with two opposing inclinations (symbolized by יי ); the first is the tendency to do good (called the yetzer ha’tov) and the second is the tendency to do evil (called the yetzer ha’ra). Animals, by contrast are possessed of a single nature (symbolized by י) – a nature that is neither good nor bad and so are unable to make moral distinctions and therefore to experience moral conflict. The animal nature is to behave … naturally. Animals surely make choices, but those choices are ordered to the exigencies of life – breeding, eating, seeking shelter, and so forth. And like the animals we also possess the animalistic yod but also are in possession of the divine yod, the yetzer ha’tov. Put in more modern terms, both animals and man are possessed of an atavistic impulse. The Bible acknowledges this, but then advances the idea that only the human possesses the divinely imposed inclination to do good.
Why did the ancient author use this device? A number of scholars (including the ancient Rabbis) point to the double yod (יי) as the ineffable name of God. By incorporating the double yod into the verb creating the human, the author is making the connection between the nature of man with that aspect of God that enables making distinctions. The second creation story, then, is about becoming fully human by choosing between two or more competing alternatives. Humanity is making distinctions above that of the next meal and where will we lay our heads tonight. Were the Tree of Knowledge absent from Eden, mankind could never achieve its full humanity.
Because the author juxtaposed the Tree of Knowledge with the Tree of Life, the story becomes one of choosing between the benign immortality of Eden and the roller-coaster ride of triumph and tragedy that is the mortal life. In this verse, the author, by using the double yod, foreshadows what is to come.
Now, for some background.
To fully appreciate the nature of man as depicted in the Bible, we need to take a look at the Greek culture that surrounded the ancient Hebrews (and other Semitic cultures of those days). The Greeks, unlike the cultures of the Ancient Near East, viewed the essence of man to be based on a single unitary principle – the principle of reason. In the Greek view, the power of reason reigned supreme. Man is human because he is able to reason. Reason, the Greek philosophers argue, is what makes us human.
This assumption permeates the Western view of mankind. It is the basis of our penchant for scientific exploration and explanation. It was the genesis of the enlightenment movement in the 1800s. Rationale man is the bedrock of our view of government and law, economic policy and our desire for worldwide agreement. But it is not the biblical point-of-view expressed by God.
In the Hebraic world, reason is a means to an end – a tool to be used to control choice. Reason is an instrument for, not the source of man’s humanity. In the second creation account, we learn that the source of man’s humanity is the ability to choose between two different outcomes – one symbolized by eating from the Tree of Life the other symbolized by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. In the biblical view, the fundamental constituent of the human person is the duality expressed by the yetzer ha’ra and the yetzer ha’tov. In other words, our humanity is manifested by the choices we make.
As stated earlier, the double yod (יי) associated with the creation of the human is meant to symbolize this duality. Mankind was created with both inclinations. Not so the animals. In the absence of both inclinations, we would cease to be human. We would be as animals unencumbered by moral conflict.
What does this tell us about our day-to-day life?
One implication is that it places a boundary on what we ought to pray for. Specifically, efforts to remove the yetzer ha’ra are doomed to failure. A being without yetzer ha’ra is no longer human, but rather a lobotomized creature subject only to its native, atavistic impulses. A creature without these two natures is an animal and prayers asking God to remove one’s tendency toward evil is to misunderstand human nature. We are not to pray for the removal of the evil inclination within us for that would dehumanize us. Rather, we are to pray for the strength to choose rightly.To do otherwise is to ask God to rescue us from our humanity.
Our choices are who we are! What we pray for is the strength to make the right choice. Praying for reason alone is insufficient because knowing what is right is not enough to resist the temptation. Reasonable men can still make evil choices. Contra the Greek philosophers, reason will not save us. Once we know what is right, we need the strength to make, and to live by, that choice.