Barry Newman's Blog

March 31, 2011

Science and Genesis 2: 4b – 3: 24 (part XX)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 8:45 pm

Genesis 2: 18 – 25 – the man, the animals and birds and the woman

“The Lord God (Yahweh Elohim) said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the Lord God (Yahweh Elohim) had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air.  He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.  But for Adam no suitable helper was found.  So the Lord God (Yahweh Elohim) caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh.  Then the Lord God (Yahweh Elohim) made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.  The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh.  The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (NIV)

The creatures

The reference to the birds of the air (heavens) is fairly clear, similar phrases occurring in Gen 1: 28 and 30. However while Gen 1: 25 refers to God making the beasts of the earth the reference in Gen 2: 19 is to the beasts of the field.  Then in 2: 20 in addition to the beasts of the field reference is made to cattle, a term used in Gen 1: 24, which Walton suggests is to be understood as “domesticated animals” (p. 127).  It is not clear how the terms, “field” or “earth” in these contexts relate though it may be the case, as McCabe (2006) states, that “field” can refer to open fields, where wild animals and plants reside as well as to cultivated fields.  Perhaps what is being suggested in this part of the text is that the animals brought to the man are both domesticated and wild – the wild animals however are those that are manageable. They are not those wild animals who range beyond the “fields”.  The term “beasts of the field” could cover “livestock” but additionally have a more limited reference – wild beasts that are manageable.

Just as man had been formed out of the ground (using the “dust”) so the animals and birds are also formed from the ground.  It would appear that the writer wants to point out some similarities between both man on the one hand and animals and birds on the other.   Certainly they both return to the ground upon death but there is no reference to death at this point in the text.  Perhaps the similarity that we should recognise is that they are all living creatures (2: 7 [man]; 2: 19 [the animals and the birds]).  Certainly both are formed by that personal sovereign God – Yahweh Elohim.

One could read the text as in the NIV which uses the pluperfect tense to mean that God had made these animals and birds in the past.  However the sense could be that God formed them at this point in time. For instance, the New American Standard Bible simply states, “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast …” If it is argued that 2: 5 ff is providing additional information on what happened on Day 6, then “had formed” would be a better translation.  If the position adopted is that in 2: 5 ff we have a different though complementary perspective to the six day creation account then “formed” would be considered the appropriate translation.  This writer, as already indicated, opts for the latter understanding.  However in partial agreement with McCabe (2006), I think that the reference to the creation of the animals and the birds in 2: 19, 20 is with the man in the garden in Eden in mind.  Thus the writer does not have to refer to the creation of all living creatures and so makes no reference, for example, to water creatures or (if the suggestion above is correct) wild animals that are unmanageable.

The giving of names to the creatures could be understood as signifying a number of things.  God was giving the man freedom to name. They were being identified as different one from the other. That he named them and not the other way around indicated that some sense of priority applied – he was more significant and in some sense superior – he had authority over them, he ruled over them. (It might be worth noting at this point that the syntax and vocabulary used in the man referring to the woman being called “woman” in Gen 2: 23 is not the same as that used here.) 

Whatever we might think of some of these suggestions, and the last may be the most important, the naming of the creatures is introduced within the context of God declaring that it was not good for man to be alone.  Fundamentally, they are mentioned in this passage in this context and in no other.  Consequently in the naming of them, in the man’s authority being exercised over them, and it being declared that no “suitable helper” for the man was found from among them, we are probably being informed that the man recognised that none of the creatures, birds of the heavens, beasts of the field or livestock were suitable helpers. Though in the ancient world, the naming of an object could be conceived of as giving it its role, perhaps in this case there is a focus on the awareness that no creature has a role suitable for satisfying the aloneness of the man.  The text could be understood as indicating that the man himself recognised this.

The Genesis account of the relationship between the man and other creatures is vaguely parallel with a Mesopotamian text.  In the Gilgamesh Epic, Enkidu keeps the company of animals but presumably this is so because he is half animal himself.  Later however he is seduced by a prostitute (Walton, p. 175).  Though the Genesis text might be judged to be a type of reflection of the Mesopotamian account it is an extremely pale reflection at the best.  One further point – the man in this part of the Genesis record is relative passive – certainly no words escape his lips.  It is Yahweh who is the active one – he knows it is not good for man to be alone and he initiates proceedings to deal with the issue.



  1. Hello Barry,

    It is worth noting that naming, at its core, is not about authority nor about “giving a role,” but about the recognition of character (although I would not want to exclude the authority aspect in some contexts). This can be seen clearly, for example, in Hagar’s naming of Yhwh in Gen 16:13 (an instance of naming which clearly cannot be construed as an exercise of authority). For more, see G. W. Ramsey, “Is Name-Giving an Act of Dominion in Genesis 2–3 and Elsewhere?” CBQ 50.1 (Jan., 1988) 24–35.

    Once this aspect of naming is recognised the role of this portion of Gen 2 becomes far clearer. God identifies a lack in creation (“not good…”) and sets about rectifying it. He brings to the man animals which he names, indicating that he examines them and discerns their character to determine whether they could be the suitable helper that’s missing. The primary function is not to enact dominion but to discern the character of each animal to determine whether it is suitable.

    This, in turn, has at least two functions. First, the failure of the search highlights the unique status of the man and the inadequacy of any animal to act as man’s helper. Second, it heightens the satisfaction in the ultimate arrival of the woman (note the man’s exclamation in verse 23: “this one, at last…”). As Alan Hauser writes “[t]he fact that a suitable companion is not found immediately, but only after prolonged effort by God, helps to emphasise the closeness to man of the ultimate companion, woman.” (See A. J. Hauser, “Genesis 2–3: The Theme of Intimacy and Alienation,” in D. J. A. Clines et al. (eds.), Art and Meaning: Rhetoric in Biblical Literature [JSOTS 19, Sheffield, JSOT, 1982] 20–36. By the way, if you haven’t read this short article by Hauser I recommend it strongly, it is one of the best things I’ve read on Gen 2–3!).

    Then, in turn, the name given to the woman highlights her suitability, for in her the man identifies the missing element in creation. (I have a chapter on this in my MTh [hons] dissertation, available here.)

    Comment by Martin Shields — April 1, 2011 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

    • Hi Martin,

      Many thanks. Although I gave some prominence to the authority notion I became convinced myself that in the context, the problem was indeed one of finding a suitable helper, although my understanding of the text is that it is the man who recognises that there is no “suitable helper” and that this was God’s intention. I may not have made this clear in the blog.

      Thanks again for your comments


      Comment by barrynewman — April 1, 2011 @ 10:30 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Barry,
    1. It is also worthy of noting that just as God named the constituent parts of the world in chapter 1, God asks the man to name the animals, maybe this also includes part of being formed in his image.
    2. The argument you mention concerning 2:5f simply adding information about what happened on Day 6 also falters as 2:5 sets the time frame as somewhere on Day 3 (when no plant of the field etc). So even though the animals in 2:19-20 may be the ones the man could manage, other factors push us to acknowledge that this is no mere expounding of Day 6.

    Comment by Robert Denham — April 2, 2011 @ 6:44 am | Reply

    • Hi Robert again and thanks again

      Comment by barrynewman — April 2, 2011 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

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