shared from and with BibleTexts.com users
#39 - Man in Gen 2:7 - dust? or soil?
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Question/insight #39: "The one question I have is about the TEV [Today's English Version]. Often the origin of man is referred to as dust. Is this [TEV's rendering of "soil" instead of "dust" in Gen 2:7] an interpretive translation or is this completely accurate?"
Since most translations (ASV, Goodspeed, KJV, Moffatt, Moulton, NASB, NIV, REB, NRSV, Rotherham, RSV, RV, and others) do use the term "dust," you ask a very reasonable question. Only a few use other terms ("clay" - NAB; "clods" - Anchor Bible; "soil" - CEV, NJB, TEV). In this and in most cases, the TEV provides a completely sound and accurate translation.
Footnote from BibleTexts: Of all of the available English translations of the Bible, I believe that the TEV consistently gives in English the best sense of what the original texts were saying. Translating literally word-for-word (one or two words in the original language translated to one or two corresponding words in English) does not accurately convey the meaning of any language. It especially does not accurately convey the known nuances of that language. Instead the TEV basically translates phrase-by-phrase (one phrase from the original language to one phrase in English). This is the way diplomatic interpreters and professional document-translators do their translations, the accuracy for which they are held accountable -- politically, legally, and/or academically. The TEV simply follows the more demanding, meticulously research-intensive standards of modern translation methodologies -- representing in the reader's language (and the culture it represents) what was intended by the original writer's language (and the culture it represented). If speeches in the United Nations were translated word-for-word as many biblical translations do, the insulting (or even disgusting) figures of speech that would be conveyed to the listeners would result in far more misunderstandings and conflict between nations. Unfortunately in "Christian" dialog, ignorant literalism often attempts to overrule genuine understanding.
The Hebrew word for dust is apar <Strong's Hebrew word #6083>. One of the more thorough Hebrew dictionary discussions of this word is found in the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, Volume 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997, pages 939-941), which states in part:
3. The basic meaning of apar "loose earth, dust" relates closely to the semantic realm of dama "cultivatable" (cf. Gen 2:7; 3:19) and eres "earth" (Gen 13:16; 28:14, etc.), so that the words are occasionally interchangeable...
The broader use of the word is governed by an emphasis on various facets of the basic meaning so that, on the one hand, apar can mean "mortar, plaster" (Lev 14:41f., 45), and on the other, the residue of destruction, like the "dust" of destroyed cultic apparatus (Deu 9:21; 2 Kgs 23:4,6,12,15), "the "debris" of a destroyed city (1Kgs 20:10; Psa 102:15; Neh 3:34; 4:4), and the "ashes" of a burnt sin offering (Num 19:17...)...
4... The OT [Old Testament] equates the dead with dust (Psa 30:10), calls the dead "those who dwell in dust," (Isa 26:19), "those who sleep in the land of dust" (Dan 12:2), and describes the dying as "those who lied down in the dust" (Job 7:21; 20:11; 21:26)... From this perspective, apar could also be understood as a designation for the underworld (Isa 26:19; Job 17:16...; Dan 12:2...)...
In A Handbook on Genesis (New York: United Bible Societies, 1997, pages 61-63), William D. Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry write:
RSV - when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up -- for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground;TEV - there were no plants on the earth and no seeds had sprouted, because he had not sent any rain, and there was no one to cultivate the land;
...The second reason for the absence of plants is that there was no man to till the ground. Man in Hebrew is 'adam, a masculine singular noun, and ground is 'adamah, a related feminine singular noun. This is a play on words somewhat similar to "earthling" and "earth" in English and cannot often be reproduced in translation...
RSV - then the Lord God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
TEV - The the Lord God took some soil from the ground (g) and formed man (g) out of it; he breathed lifegiving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live.
(g) GROUND... MAN: The Hebrew words for "man" and "ground" have similar sounds.
Man and ground are the same as used in verse 5... TEV and many others provide a footnote on verse 7 to show the play on words between 'adam and 'adamah.
...Dust from the ground: dust translates a word that is more appropriately rendered "clods, lumps of earth, soil, or dirt." [In contrast with the correct Hebrew meaning of apar:] Dust in English refers to dirt that has become like fine powder, easily carried by the wind or floating in the air.
In the Anchor Bible's commentary on Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1964, pages 14 and 16), E.A. Speiser maybe puts the issue most succinctly:
[Gen 2:7] God Yahweh formed man from clods in the soil and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. thus man became a living being.
[Gen 2:7] clods. The traditional "dust" is hard to part with, yet it is inappropriate. Heb. apar stands for "lumps of earth, soil, dirt" as well as the resulting particules of "dust." For the former, cf., for example xxvi 15 [Gen 26:15]; note also vs. 19 [Gen 2:19], where the animals are said to have been formed "out of the soil." On the other hand, "dust" is preferable in iii 19 [Gen 3:19].
Copyright 1996-2005 Robert Nguyen Cramer