CORRESPONDENCE : ON ADAM NAMING THE ANIMALS

NOTE: Correspondence is welcome and may be published. Please follow CONTACT details. The letter below is on the post before last. If the last post on the KINDNESS OF STRANGERS suggests any examples-personal or historical-that you would like to communicate please get in touch.

Hello Alan,

Another interesting blog, much of which I have no quarrel with. As I’ve said elsewhere, the last few decades have seen consciousness being taken far more seriously, as opposed to being taken for granted. The rediscovery of panpsychism is particularly noteworthy, with its giving consciousness, or perhaps better “mind”, priority as that out of which “matter” emerges, rather than the other way around. We ourselves have minds, which links us to the primordial “Mind” and out of minds, the matter of painting, poetry, prose, music, drama emerge. So I share your interest in the Coleridge quotation. But enough of boring agreement-let’s get down to where I take issue with sopme of what you’ve written.

In what you write, in keeping with a number of elements in the early chapters of Genesis, I pick up a sense of “exceptionalism” in relation to human beings, and that’s an idea I regard as needing careful definition, lest it “get a bit above itself”, despite the best efforts of Charles Darwin. I notice you appear to say that humans are “living souls” unlike “the other animals”. This is, perhaps where I have an advantage due to my erstwhile training in Hebrew.

In Genesis 1.24, God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures. Transliterated, the Hebrew for “living creatures” is nephesh chayah(Scottish ch sound). Nephesh is rooted in the idea of “that which breathes” and is given the meanings of “living being, perso, self, soul” etc. A nephesh chayah is therefore a living breathin being. So what? Just this-in Genesis 2.7, after God “blew breath of life(sic) into his nostrils, the man became a living bein- a nephesh -exactly the same as all the other living, breathing creatures in Genesis 1.24 creatures. So there’s no exceptionalism there-in my view at any rate. If humans are “living souls ” so are all other living creatures.

To share another bit of agreement, I can go along with what you write about the way in which language facilitates creative imagination, on an individual and shared basis, and you make a valid link with the man’s naming of various creatures. Incidentally, since in mythology, names are sometimes linked to the “essence” of the named, I’m reminded of the Catholic hell fire preacher, whose name was Father Furniss!

But to get back to issue taking- in mythology , naming can be associated with exerting power. Isis tricked the Sun God into revealing his name, so that he could force him to get her son Horus elevated in the divine pantheon. In Genesis 1.26 the intention in proposing to make humans in the image of the gods is immediately, and therefore primarily associated with their “ruling over” all other living creatures, as the gods did. The verb “radah” means “to have dominion, to dominate over”. In 1.28 the act itself is at once followed by a “blessing” is designed to encourage and facilitate reproduction and “subjugation” of the earth. The verb “kabash” is rooted in the idea of “treading underfoot”, and means “to bring into bondage or subdue”, and is used of rape in the book of Esther. And in Genesis 3.16, the woman is told regarding her husband that “he shall rule over you”. Here the verb “mashal” means to have dominion, to reign as a monarch over his subjects.

It might be said I’m nit-picking. But you’re writing, after all, about the importance of words and language. The editors of Genesis did not have to use these verbs. They could have used others, but these are the ones they chose, and must have had their reasons. And whereas you, Alan, rightly counter-balance them with counter-examples, there have been plenty others who have not. The centuries long history of misogyny, and the current ongoing rape of the planet’s fossil fuel resources, despite the the rapidly increasing instances of drought and forest fires, melting ice-caps and thawing permafrosts etc etc bear witness to some of the unhelpful words we find in Genesis, and elsewhere.

As we both know, the Hebrew Bible is not a book, but a library, compiled , edited and re-edited over hundreds of years, by lots of different people, employing different genres, with different agendas, and for different audiences. This means that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t have “a message” for us. It has a multiplicity of “”messages” many of which are inconsistent, contradictory and some even morally repugnant. The reverse is of course true. There are individual verses, whole sections, and even themes, which are fascinating, colourful, dramatically moving, inspirational, thought- provoking or just provoking.. We have to read with critical care and attention, which will have its own personal reward.

Anyway it’s time to stop. please understand that though I’ve “nitpicked”, I do appreciate and enjoy the quality of your blogs, especially when they provoke pen to paper, or fingers to key board. You and I sometimes have “meetings of minds” and sometimes “separations of minds”. This is splendid as far as I am concerned. Through aagreement comes encouragement, and through disagreementcomes challenge, both of which we all have need of. More power to your writing elbow.

Reply :

Hello Ray,

Many thanks for your carefully developed response to my discussion. Perhaps your answer betrays rather too much a personal need to balance your well focused appreciation of the Hebrew Bible with too much of a large scale focus on what you see as its effects in our times. There seems too much of a gap between what you are considering in close detail in the discussion of the overall meaning of the creation narratives of Genesis Ch. 1 and 2 with disastrous effects of climate change centuries later et al. I would say too much else requires to be considered before this idea is entertained. A blog post on another topic can hardly allow for this.

Your points on the negative possibilities and dangerous potentials of various terms used, seems at variance with the more obvious contextual meanings. It is not gods ( though there is one reference to “we” in 1. 26, presumably , a relic from an earlier edition) who are being discussed -either in the first creation story (the priestly version God) or the second (Yahweh). The sun , moon , stars are indeed worshipped by other tribes but the acclaimed God who is shown to create man in his image is creator of these. This God sees his creation as good-and after the culmination of creation-humankind very good. He is not likely then in giving humans dominion over creation, encouraging irresponsibility towards what should be seen as a blessing The creation is clearly cumulative, with mankind created as the climax, rather than in assortment with the other creatures. The second story, while very different in isolating the creation of man confirms this emphasis.

On your interesting discussion of the Hebrew term “nephesh cheya”, you point to meanings of ” a living being, person, self, soul”. This allows, as indicated, for “living being” which is the New International Version translation , but also for ” living soul” as in the King James Version. The exceptionalism is suggested to me by the context in both first and second creation stories. The second version distinguishes the creation of mankind above and beyond the creation of “living creatures, cattle, and creeping thing and beast of the earth after his kind.” (1.24) and only then “let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. The second story as the blog post makes clear, distinguishes in Adam the ability to name (hence reflecting the image of God, the initial namer) thus again putting human kind in a higher category.

So while you are correct in claiming that I see the Biblical argument as emphasising the “exceptionalism ” of humankind over other creatures (despite the qualifications you make) I would still argue I am justified by the context in making this distinction. However one defines ” soul,” the link between mankind, created in the image of God in terms of consciousness and in being speech makers, capable of developing a complex language (beyond any natural language of communication animals use) makes human beings exceptional as bearers of consciousness, beyond other animals.

This brings me to ” dominion” or “rule”which you tend to see in negative terms. In the post I mentioned the example of Noah saving the animals- an early act of conservation Humankind did develop agriculture, beyond the hunter-gatherer phase and this inevitably led to degrees of control or “rule”. The Hebrew law, however, was remakable in making allowance for animals and for crop growth making rest a constituent part of the agricultural process. “Dominion” enables David Attenborough to stand before us urging us to make the fight against climate change a priority. What other species is capable of doing that? “Dominion” means accepting the responsibility of stewardship, not its denial.

Dealing with an implied charge of “nit-picking” you indicate the focus in my blog on the importance of words and language. Yes, but the emphasis is -or seeks to be- on words and language in the context of the first two chapters of Genesis. Perhaps in your very interesting focus on Hebrew words you are nevertheless straining the context of what is surely first and foremost presented as “good”, “very good”, a blessing. This seems to me to be especially the case when you associate Genesis with “centuries long history of misogyny and the ongoing rape of the planet’s fuel resources” etc. The permanent difficulties of male-female relations in all cultures is certainly at odds with the emphasis on the ending of Ch2 with male and female together “naked and unashamed”. And greed, lust for power, misogyny -the evils of a what is to be seen in Biblical terms, as a fallen world are linked rather more widely to the human condition (about which the Bible is never other than realistic) than simply a sacred text, as you would see it being misread.

Or not misread, for you seem to want to dandle two possibilities: the Bible as a force for good and the Bible as a force for evil. In arguing that in the Bible there is a muliplicity of messages, some of which are contradictory, some ” morally repugnant” you are surely denying the coherence of theme, within a long-term historical development which followers of the Torah and later Christians (the latter seeing a continuity between the Old and New Testaments) have long understood. The Biblical writers and editors, whatever their genre, were writing not just as individuals but as writers within a tradition promoting a sense of their peoples’ understanding of their connectedness with a providential God which, in seeking to celebrate, they were also seeking to correct and modify, as well as develop. The important part the prophets were allowed to play by including their work in scripture is worth contemplating. For the prophets represented a critical understanding of what was going wrong with people’s faith and their understanding of God. The recognition of the contradictions you point to are bound up with the developing understanding of a people of the need to find a way, as the prophet Micah puts it “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly” with the God who has created them in his image.

Good once again to discuss such matters with you,

With best wishes,

Alan

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: