Translating Genesis 2:19

Recently, I attended a seminary on the Bible and evolution. During the presentation the teacher tried to explain Genesis 2:19 and the creation of the animals after the creation of man. One student in the class asked a very important question: “how do you explain that in Genesis 1 the animals were created before man?”

The teacher tried to explain how the creation of man and animals in Genesis 2 fits into the creation of animal and man in Genesis 1. In the process, the teacher gave the student the most unconvincing answer that I ever heard.

This kind of approach to Genesis 1 and 2 leaves students perplexed because the explanation creates more questions than answers. In addition, superficial explanations create doubts in the minds of educated believers who are confronted with the claims of science and the teachings of the Bible.

But I cannot blame the teacher alone for the unconvincing answer. Genesis 2:19 has caused problems to translators and scholars alike and the answer of the teacher was based on a mistranslation of Genesis 2:19 found in the NIV.

Below are two translations of Genesis 2:19 (I have italicized the problem section of the text):

This is the translation of Genesis 2:19 in the New Revised Standard Bible (NRSV):

“So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”

The reading of the NRSV is also found in the following English translations of the Bible: ASV, HCSB, JPS, KJV, NAB, NAS, NJB, NET, LB, RSV, and the TNK.

This is the translation of Genesis 2:19 in the New International Version (NIV):

“Now the LORD God 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.”

The reading of the NIV is also found in the following English translations of the Bible: ESV, GWN, NIV 2011, and TNIV.

The problem with the two translations is evident. The NRSV’s translation indicates that the animals were created after the creation of man in 2:7. The NIV’s translation implies that the animals were already created (“Now the LORD God had formed”) before the creation of man in Genesis 2:7.

The problem with the NIV is that according to Hebrew grammar, the translation of Genesis 2:19 in the NIV is unacceptable. This translation of the NIV was adopted in order to harmonize the conflict between Genesis 1 and 2.

This is the order of creation:

Genesis 1: Order of creation:    Genesis 2: Order of creation:

light                            man created from the dust

heavens                         the garden

earth, seas                     trees and vegetation

vegetation, trees               animals

sun, moon, and stars            birds

sea monsters, fish, birds       woman created from man

animals

man and woman (created together)

The order of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 is different. How then can the problem be solved? H. C. Leupold, in his book Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965), p. 130, wrote:

“It would not, in our estimation, be wrong to translate yatsar as a pluperfect in this instance: ‘he had molded.’ The insistence of the critics upon a plain past is partly the result of the attempt to make chapters one and two clash at as many points as possible.”

Victor P. Hamilton, in his book The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 176, wrote: “Many commentators have maintained that in this verse one finds a classic illustration of a major conflict between the sequence of creation in 1:1-2:4a and that in 2:4bff. In one (1:24-25) animals precede man. In the other (2:19) animals come after man. It is possible to translate formed as ‘had formed’ (so NIV).”

As I mentioned above, the translation of the NIV is unacceptable. John Sailhamer, in his commentary on “Genesis,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 48, wrote:

“The NIV has offered an untenable solution in its rendering the waw consecutive in wayyiser by a pluperfect: ‘Now the LORD God had formed.’ Not only is such a translation for the waw consecutive hardly possible, . . . but it misses the very point of the narrative, namely, that the animals were created in response to God’s declaration that it was not good that man should be alone (2:18).”

Franz Delitzsch, in his book A New Commentary on Genesis (Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1888), p. 67, made a similar argument. Delitzsch wrote: “The meaning cannot be that the animals had already been created, and are now brought to be named: such a sense is excluded by grammar and misses the point of the passage.”

Thus, as Sailhamer (and Delitzsch) points out, the translation of the NIV is wrong, and it misses the point the author is trying to make about man’s loneliness. And it is out of this wrong translation that many pastors and commentators err in their interpretation of Genesis 2:19.

A better explanation of Genesis 2:19 has been proposed by U. Cassuto. In his book A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1961), p. 128-129, Cassuto said that the translation “had formed” “cannot be considered seriously.” Cassuto proposes that Genesis 2:19 only mentions the creation of two kinds of animals: the animal of the field and the birds of the air.

Since in Genesis 2:20 Adam names three kinds of animals, cattle, the birdss of the air, and the animal of the field, Cassuto proposes that the cattle were already in the garden with the man. According to Cassuto, the animals of the field and the birds of the air had already been dispersed over all the earth. So, God formed a particular specimen of the animals of the field and the birds of the air so that man could name them. Cassuto (p. 129) wrote:

“Of all the species of beasts and flying creatures that had already been created and had spread over the face of the earth and the firmament of the heavens, the LORD God now formed particular specimens for the purpose of presenting them all before man in the midst of the Garden.”

Cassuto’s view has been adopted by both Hamilton and Sailhamer and by many other commentators. This interpretation of Genesis 2:19 solves the contradiction of the accounts of the creation of the animals in Genesis 1 and 2. It also provides a way of integrating Genesis 2 into Genesis 1. However, I am not convinced.

Cassuto’s interpretation is only a supposition. He supposes that the animals of the field and the birds of the air had already been dispersed over all the earth, but there is no evidence of this in the text. His view is just another attempt at harmonizing Genesis 1 and 2.

It is evident that the order of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 is different and cannot be easily reconciled. The text of Genesis 1 and 2 points to two different stories of creation and no harmonizing of the text will solve the problem. To my view, the NIV’s translation violates the rules of Hebrew grammar in order to present an ideological interpretation of the text.

The Bible is still the Word of God. As Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III wrote in their book, Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origin, one can believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and still believe that Genesis 1 and 2 are two different creation stories presenting different theological perspectives of what God did when he created the world.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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18 Responses to Translating Genesis 2:19

  1. Joel says:

    Excellent! I appreciate the work here, especially in noting that one can still believe in inspiration without forcing the Text to say something it doesn’t.

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    • Joel,

      Thank you for your comment. What you wrote is what people need to learn: that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We do not have to force the text in order to maintain inspiration. The Bible is already inspired.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

      • Kerberos says:

        Genesis is so full of doublets, all of which have something to contribute to its meaning, that trying to suppress one here makes no sense. An inspired Genesis is one thing – a Genesis that is inspired but requires forcing of the text to be given a meaning which is excluded, not by the text, but by a (much later) tradition which requires it to be read as internally self-consistent & free of contradiction at all levels, is something else.

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      • Kerberos,

        I believe the reading of Genesis 2:19 is clear. It is the rereading of the text that is problematic. Anytime a text is re-interpreted to fit a theological presupposition, the re-interpretation of the text must be rejected.

        Claude Mariottini

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  2. Pingback: Getting Genesis 2:19 Right | Unsettled Christianity

  3. Craig Benno says:

    Thanks for this…From this then we need to be careful of context when ever we read the Scriptures… One passage or chapter doesn’t have to flow on from the other. I would propose that chapter 1 is like an introduction about God creating all things.
    Chapter 2 is dealing primarily with the story of man / woman / relationship / sin.

    Each chapter contains within its self a theological driven narrative story of its own.

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    • Craig,

      The approach you suggest to Genesis 1 and 2 is a good way of understanding these two chapters. Unless we emphasize the theological teachings of chapters 1 and 2 we will miss the point of what the writers were trying to communicate to their readers.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini

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  4. Tim Locke says:

    The ESV (2001) on BibleGateway.com has ‘had formed’ with ‘formed’ as a footnote. My printed edition of the ESV (2001) has ‘formed’ with ‘had formed’ as a footnote. Hmm.

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    • Tim,

      Thank you for this interesting information. What do you think of this change? I have a 2007 printed edition of the ESV and it has “had formed” with”formed” as a footnote. Isn’t this amazing how a version can change so often?

      Claude Mariottini

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  5. william Bryant says:

    Would it be within reason to consider the 6 day period in chapter 1 to be God creating the temporal parts and the history of the elements of creation. For example when God created the stars He created all the phases of a star from gaseous cloud to supernova. He also determined the time period in which they would exist such as mentioned in Acts 17:26. This would be similar to God writing, producing and directing a play. God writes the scripts, builds the sets, hires the and hires the actors. Chapter 2 is the beginning of the play. Adam was formed at a time before the earth had vegetation placed in Eden and fell. After the fall he was placed in time roughly 6000 years before the present. The animals in the Garden were also placed in their predestined time which could be up to many millions of years before the present. This concept if it is reasonable allows for an old earth and still keep the 6 days of creation and the recent history of man.

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  6. Kevin says:

    I do not see the problem, God created the animals first as stated in chapter one and also chapter two. God brought the created animals to the created Adam and asked him to name them. Chapter two does not say that God created Man then created the animals and then brought them to Adam. Could chapter one be written by Moses/Joshua and chapter written by Adam himself ?

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    • Kevin,

      Thank you for your comment. The way the NIV translates Genesis 2;19 is problematic. If you read Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, you will see that the order of creation in each chapter is different. It is doubtful that Adam could write, since writing was not used until the 4th millennium B.C.

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  7. Rev. Chance KK Mwangomba says:

    I meet questions over this verse which make me stuck in bible study. I like your aproach to Gen 2:19; but now how can you explain the creation process of those beasts as it shows that God used soil instead of His usual process of let there be………… Does man still remain a special creation here (Gen 2:19)?

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    • Dear Rev. Mwangomba,

      Man is a special creation of God even though Genesis 2 does not say so specifically. As I mentioned in the article, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 have different theological purposes, however, there is no doubt that man was a special creation of God in the same way the woman was a special creation of God in Genesis 2:21-22.

      Claude Mariottini

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  8. Pingback: Does Genesis 1 and 2 Contradict One Another? | Veracity

  9. Ivon says:

    Dear Claude Mariottini, I really love how firm you are in your stance in only inferring information solely from the bible itself, instead of doing what the mainstream are doing, speculating different scenarios which the bible did not mention. Nevertheless, may I know what will be your conclusion for this ‘disharmony’? Will you still prefer to have it “hanging” or considering buying a speculation that is of highest possibility based on your perception. Regards, Ivon.

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    • Ivon,

      In interpreting the Bible, I believe it is necessary to remain faithful to the biblical text. It is true that at times, the text is difficult to understand, but we have to try to understand how the first readers understood what was written. I am against allowing ideology, doctrines, or faith statement to influence the way we translate the Bible. When we do so, we are betraying the intentions of the original author.

      Thank you fro your comment.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

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