A Controversial Verse – 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”. 

Due possibly in part to the King James Version’s rendering of this verse, there exists the idea, (in spite of Darwin), that humans differ radically and categorically from all other living creatures. Into us has entered the divine breath, so that humans alone not only have a soul, but area living soul”. I‘m reminded of the ‘father’ of modern philosophy, René Descartes. I don’t know if he was a fan of the KJV, but he certainly believed that all non-human living creatures were nothing more than mechanical contraptions, having no equivalent of thought, or experience of pain or distress. He presumably didn’t own a dog. 

Let’s do a word-for-word translation of Gen.2:7. “And he formed, Yahweh, God, the man, dust, from the ground, and he breathed, in his nostrils, breath of, life, and he became, the man, a breathing-being, living” (Hebrew נֶ֫פֶשׁ חַיָּה nephesh chayah). Let’s cut to the chase. Along with practically all other Bible translations, I don’t regard “the man became a living soul” as an appropriate rendering. But even if it were, those who claim it makes humans different from all other living creatures, would be “hoist with their own petard”, for one simple reason. All living creatures are nephesh chayah according to Genesis 1: 20, 21, 24, and 30. So, if humans are “living souls”, so are all other living creatures, and heaven will be a jam-packed and extremely noisy place!

Genesis 1 to 3 contains stories which (à la Ludwig Wittgenstein) share ‘family resemblances’ with other stories. In Babylonian myth, the first humans were also made from clay but mixed, not with divine breath, but with the blood of a slain god – a different detail, but the same idea. Human beings are mental, emotional and spiritual, as well as physical, beings. But as for our fellow creatures, now that we‘re at last beginning to properly value and study them, we’re discovering that there’s more to them, from the biggest whale to the tiniest ant, than we had previously imagined (if we ever gave this a second thought, that is). Fortunately, Genesis 2 is but a story, so we don’t have to imagine God doing a ‘mouth to nose’ with all the other creatures, as each became a ‘nephesh chayah’ as well.

Yes, humans have the most complex brains, and language skills enabling abstract thought, but there are other skills that fellow creatures possess to a far greater degree than our own, including sight, smell, hearing, speed and inborn navigation, even in pitch darkness. We’re inclined to forget that we owe our ‘dominance’ to chance and evolutionary randomness. The dinosaurs reigned for up to 250,000,000 years, and might still have been doing so, were it not for earth’s chance encounter with a climate destroying asteroid. Our version eventually emerged out of at least eight other species of humans, any of which, depending on natural selection, might have come out ‘on top’. To round things off, the Pandemic has shown us our vulnerability to no more than invasive, aggressive, non-cellular micro-organisms.

I think the philosophy of buddhism has something to offer, in reminding us, in despite of any hubristic ‘superiority’, that we have neither permanence nor self-sufficiency but are, of necessity, contingent (not autonomous) parts of the one great web of totally interrelated life and being, every member of which has been, is, and will continue to be, entirely dependent on every other. And as well as a personal, there is a trans-personal karma, which can exact a heavy price for self-centred and presumptuous ideas, attitudes and behaviours.

Jesus said, “take no thought for tomorrow” because he believed that ‘tomorrow’ would see the end of the present world order, and the arrival of the Kingdom of God. That having not happened, we need to give ‘tomorrow’, collectively, all the thought that we possibly can, lest it be, on our account, a day of self-inflicted individual distress, collective irresponsibility and world-wide despoliation.

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