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We Are Adam

We Are Adam by Alan Gilman

This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female, he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. (Bereshit/Genesis 5:1-2)

The early chapters of Torah establish foundational concepts of God and life, including anthropology: What does it mean to be human? What is our origin? What is our essence? What is our purpose? The language used in the two verses I just quoted reflect the profound nature of our being created in God’s image as male and female. Tragically, in my opinion, many English translations, in their attempt to represent what they believe to be the intent of the Hebrew, distract from an extraordinary interplay found in the original wording.

An essential dynamic in any language is the relationship between form and meaning. While language is used to convey meaning, it does so through its forms. Every language uses series of sounds (or symbols when written) as the forms to express meaning. The forms of various languages used to convey the same or similar meaning of something are often very different from each other.

The most obvious difference between languages are the words themselves. For example, in French, the word for “dog” is “chien.” Same meaning, different form. But word difference is just the beginning. The French for “the brown dog” is “le chien brun.” Not only are each of the three words different, so is the word order. It is common in French to put adjectives (words that describe nouns) after the noun instead of before as in English. French, also unlike English, has three words, le, la, or les, for the definite article, “the,” depending on the gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural) of the word it is relating to.

That’s nothing compared to Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, where the form of the definite article is dependent on three possible genders (masculine, feminine, or neuter), number (singular or plural), and something called case, which has to do with what we call in English, subject, object, etc. There are four cases in Koine Greek. The only reason there are only sixteen and not twenty-four different words for “the,” is because some of them are repeated.

A serious challenge occurs in translation when form may affect meaning. In the example of “the brown dog” vs. “le chien brun,” meaning is not affected in any way by the difference of form. But sometimes translators can be too quick to dismiss form.

Both biblical Hebrew and Greek in contrast to English at times emphasize words or phrases by placing them at the beginning of a sentence. Preserving this form in English can often sound strange, and so translators will often opt to use conventional English word order and fail to carry over intentional emphasis.

In Jonah 1:9, Jonah says to the men of the overwhelmed ship, “A Hebrew I am, and the LORD God of heaven I fear, who made the sea and dry land.” Most English translations understandably prefer something along the lines of the English Standard Version’s: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” This is much better English but misses the emphasis in expressing the relationship between God and Jonah’s identity in this story.

Ignoring form also plays a part in the two verses I quoted at the beginning. The Hebrew word adam', appears three times. The word can be used to mean the personal name “Adam,” the singular word for man as opposed to woman, or human beings as a category of creature.

In our verses, it is fairly clear that as far as meaning goes, adam' is being used in the first and third ways. Verse one is setting up the story of the descendants who arose from the individual person Adam. This is similar to introductions of other individuals in Genesis such as Noah, Terah, and Isaac. Then it goes on to say, “When God created adam', he made him in the likeness of God.” Is this a reference to Adam the individual or the creation of human beings in general? But note how it continues: “Male and female he created them.” This suggests that adam' here is a reference to human beings in general.

Interestingly the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures reads this way: “This is the book of the origin of human beings. On the day that God made Adam, he made him according to divine image; male and female he made them, and he blessed them. And he named their name “Adam” on the day that he made them” (A New English Translation of the Septuagint). Here the Greek word for the more generic “human beings” is used in the first occurrence, while a Greek version of the proper name “Adam” is used for the other two.

Because Hebrew uses adam' for the first human being’s proper name as well as males and human beings in general, it is difficult to determine which usage is intended in each occurrence. One might think that this is a weakness of biblical Hebrew but given that it is the language that God chose to reveal the basics of mankind (now often called “humankind”), perhaps the ambiguity is not to be easily dismissed.

What might seem confusing to us may actually draw our attention to the special place the first human has in history. The individual person, “Adam,” was given a unique representative role as the first human being. We all, male and female included, find our origins in him. It is in Adam, we discover our fundamental identity as beings made in God’s image, our primary calling as caretakers of Planet Earth, and the roots of our brokenness through his rebellion against God.

It is also here that we can discover the answer to our ever-increasingly polarized world. For, it is in Adam that we discover we are all in this together. We are Adam.


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