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”((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


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