What’s In A Name: Adam

In biblical Hebrew, like English, proper nouns almost always appear without a definite article (the). So, for example, when we refer to someone by name we never say “The Sharon” or “The Richard”1)I can think of only one exception – can you name him?. This is not a hard and fast rule in either Hebrew or English. For example, the names of places are sometimes referenced using the definite article such as, “The Yankees are playing tonight.” I suspect, but cannot say with certainty that in biblical Hebrew this is so rare as to be non-existent which leads us to the following translation hint:

All Hebrew names (proper nouns) are seldom, if ever, preceded with a definite article. Therefore, any noun preceded by a definite article is almost certainly not the name of someone or something.

The second creation story (Genesis 2:4b – 3:24) is a case in point. In this narrative, the word אָדָם (adam) occurs twenty-three times. Of these, twenty are associated with a definite article, leaving only three verses in which adam could reasonably be translated as the name Adam – Genesis 2:20, 3:17, and 3:21. Of these three verses, 2:20 is illuminating because adam occurs twice, once as a common, definite noun (having a definite article) and the other as a name (proper noun). Here’s the Hebrew with adam highlighted in red.

וַיִּקְרָא הָאָדָם שֵׁמוֹת לְכָל־הַבְּהֵמָה וּלְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה וּלְאָדָם לֹא־מָצָא עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ

The first adam (the one on the right) is prefixed with a definite article (highlighted in blue). Thus, according to our translation hint above, it’s very, very unlikely that this is the name of the man in the story, Adam. “The man” would be a better, more accurate translation. The second occurrence, however, is not prefixed with the definite article and might well be translated as the name Adam. But only context can tell us. So, let’s examine the English translation from the RSV and see whether we can determine whether this second occurrence is a proper or a common noun:

(2:20) The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.

Had the second occurrence been translated as ‘man’, ‘person’, ‘human’, or something other than the name Adam, the verse would simply not make sense, e.g., “but for man there was not found a helper for him” makes little sense.

So, when you read the second creation story, the name Adam is only used three times. All other occurrences of adam are not proper nouns and should be translated as “the man”.

Most English Bibles get this exactly right. Alas, here’s the KJV:

(2:20) And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

Indeed, by my count the KJV has mistranslated adam 9 times – twice in verse 2:19, and once in verses 2:20, 2:21, 2:23, 3:8, 3:9, 3:20, and 3:21. In fairness, I shouldn’t call this a mistranslation so much as, say, taking undue liberty with the underlying text. In 2:20, for example, using Adam instead of “the man” does not change the meaning of the verse.

However, the biblical author chose to use “the man” over and over again and only in three places did he personalize the story. In fact, by translating “the man” to Adam, the KJV undermines an important aspect of the story, namely the switch from the impersonal to the personal. As Nahum Sarna reminds us,

The Hebrew vocalization of ləadam (i.e., no definite article) makes the word a proper name for the first time, probably because the narrative now speaks of the man as a personality rather than an archetypal human.

Is there theological significance to be found here? Probably not that much. There is, however, much to what Sarna implies and we would do well to consider what is going on here. Up till this point in the story, the man formed by God was undefined. “The man” was a vague sort of tabula rasa to which the reader could impute whatever attributes seemed right. But, by explicitly describing the man as incomplete, Adam becomes human in a mortal sense. A person needing something that only another person – and a female person at that – could supply.

It’s noteworthy, I think, to observe that the author names the man in the verse that begins the description of the creation of the woman. In no other creation story from the Ancient Near East is the creation of the woman given even one line. Nothing is said about the creation of woman in the other pagan creation stories. By contrast, this narrative has six verses devoted to her creation of which one of the verses (2:24) describes biblical marriage in terms of what the man’s obligations are to his wife. Amazing.

Now, go and study


References   [ + ]

1. I can think of only one exception – can you name him?
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The Bible and Male Homosexuality: It’s Not What You Think

My latest As It Is Written column is out titled, Male-Male Homosexuality. It may surprise you, but the interpretation and translation described and discussed in the column is not a surprise to biblical scholars both secular and religious.

Give it shot. It can be tough going, but you should find it interesting.

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Salvation by Allegiance Alone

From a review of Matthew W. Bates’ book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, Scot McKnight writes that among those who would most benefit from this book are…

… the pew sitter who is self-satisfied and wants to be left undisturbed in a thin discipleship, for the Zane Hodges1)Of the Free Grace Theology follower who thinks faith and repentance are largely cognitive, for the unconditional, soft love of God folks who think they are (more or less) entitled to God’s love, and for the grace-ist theologian who thinks he elevates God’s glory by over cooking grace and thereby eliminates faith as allegiance (can I hear an Amen for Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace”?) and who needs to read John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, this book by Matthew Bates is urgently needed.

Now, at long last, someone has come along and pointed the way out of the wilderness of soft grace, a grace untethered to the teachings of Christ. Again, here’s Bates. What happens to allegiance, he asks,

When we say “faith, not works” or “just believe Jesus died for your sins.” He wonders why we then say “genuine faith produces good works” but works don’t save? Why the fumbling around? Why avoid the obvious: genuine faith includes ongoing faith. Why not just translate it with “allegiance”?

Indeed. I have long argued that saving faith is measured by works (see here and here) because works, when ordered to Christ’s teaching, are the right expression of faithfulness or, in the words of Bates and McKnight, allegiance.

References   [ + ]

1. Of the Free Grace Theology
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Obedience Arises From Faith, Not Gratitude

In Jack Kuhatschek’s book, “Applying the Bible“, the author claims that Christian obedience is the means by which we express our thankfulness for what God has done for us. In his understanding, gratitude is the motivation for obedience to God’s will. This idea is appealing and has been widely promulgated and accepted in much of today’s contemporary Christian literature and preached from Christian pulpits of many (most?) traditions.

The problem is that the idea of obedience arising from gratitude is quite simply without biblical warrant! Obedience arises from, and is the direct expression of one’s faith. The concept of obedience to God’s will as a measure of the sincerity of faith is abundantly attested in Holy Scripture. Thus, does Deitrich Bonhoeffer write,

For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”

So, what does the Bible have to say?

Indeed, the Bible instructs us that Bonhoeffer was correct. The “obedience of faith“, as St. Paul wrote1)See Romans 1:5 and 16:26. NOTE: this phrase arises only in these two verses of which the NIV translates the Greek slightly differently, if not more accurately, as “obedience that comes by faith is the right and proper expression of faith, not gratitude. For example, John Piper’s reflection on the issue of obedience arising from gratitude wrote,

Nowhere in the Bible is gratitude connected explicitly with obedience as a motivation. We do not find the phrase ‘out of gratitude’ or ‘in gratitude’ for acts toward God. Christian obedience is called the ‘work of faith,’ never of the ‘work of gratitude’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). We find expressions like ‘live by faith’ (Galatians 2:20) and ‘walk by faith’ (2 Corinthians 5:7), but never any expression like ‘live by gratitude’ or ‘walk by gratitude.’ We find the expression ‘faith working through love’ (Galatians 5:6), but not ‘gratitude working through love.’ We read that ‘the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith’ (1 Timothy 1:5), but not ‘from sincere gratitude.’ We read that sanctification is by ‘faith in the truth’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13), not that it is ‘by gratitude for the truth.’ We read that ‘faith without works is dead’ (Jas. 2:26), but not that ‘gratitude without works is dead.’ And when Jesus deals with the disciples’ hesitancy to seek the kingdom first because they were worried about food and clothing, he did not say, ‘O men of little gratitude,’ he said, ‘O men of little faith’ (Matthew 6:30).”

Obedience follows faith, not gratitude because when we claim to believe in one thing but act otherwise, our belief is false, empty, and meaningless. It is without truth. Can a serial adulterer be judged faithful to his marriage vows yet still express gratitude for his/her marriage? Yes. Is a Sheriff who takes a bribe being faithful to his oath of office and still be grateful to the people he protects for his job! Yes!

If we violate God’s moral and ethical standards yet give thanks for God’s benevolence, are we being faithful to God? The answer is NO because gratitude has nothing whatsoever to do with being faithful to God.

Now, go and study.

References   [ + ]

1. See Romans 1:5 and 16:26. NOTE: this phrase arises only in these two verses of which the NIV translates the Greek slightly differently, if not more accurately, as “obedience that comes by faith
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