My dear readers, I thought we were ready to move on to the third chapter of Genesis – but I’ve realized that there are still many amazing nuances to be gleaned from chapter two that we haven’t discussed yet. Therefore, we will continue today in this incredible chapter (hopefully moving to chapter three next week). Once again, the creation stories show us so many profound things about God’s design and His intention for our lives; just by looking closely at the Hebrew words describing the creation of man and woman, we can be enormously enriched – and therefore, we don’t want to miss these riches! These first chapters are truly bottomless, and of course, we will not be able to discuss everything here, but there are some fascinating details that I have to share with you!
Between Scripture and Etymology
The first words of Adam, spoken right after his wife was created, not only give her a name, but also explain a connection between their names: “This one shall be called Woman (isha) for from Man (ish) she was taken.” These words in Hebrew –ish and isha – sound so related, as if the very word ishah hints at her origins from within the ish— as if they both come from the same root. And for centuries, Jewish commentators did not doubt this connection: it seemed so obvious and so convincing! Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, writes: “The unity of the two is proved by the fact that both have the same name, for she is called ishah (woman), because she was taken out of ish (man)”. According to Rashi, it’s precisely from this verse—from this clear connection between the ish and ishah— that we learn that the world was created in Hebrew.
However, today the scholars’ opinion is entirely different. Almost all modern linguists say that the words “man” אִישׁ (ish) and “woman”אִשָּׁה (ishah) are not in fact etymologically related. Ish comes from the root אוש, connoting “strength,” while the word ishah comes from the root אנש, meaning “weak” or “fragile”. Although we find this difficult to believe, as they sound almost identical, modern etymology claims it to be a false root connection.
False root connection? And yet, in the Scripture, Adam is never called ish until ishah has been separated from him: we know already that the word adam is a neutral term meaning “human” – and in the original Hebrew text, all references to adam are indeed neutral until God makes a woman separate from a man. Only at this point is Adam called ish, a man—as if a man and a woman cannot be defined without the other. This is an excellent example of what can happen in Hebrew, where the meanings of the words might or might not overlap with the etymology. Even though generally we should be careful with “obvious” similarities in Hebrew, sometimes etymologically false root connections might actually express the essential biblical logic.
Adam and Adamah
Another amazing connection that we find in this chapter is the connection between Adam and Adamah – the ground, the land, the soil. We commented previously on this when we spoke about Adam’s name; while this connection is lost completely in translation, in Hebrew it just stands out, we clearly hear the word “adamah” in the word “adam”. You may remember different explanations I shared with you then – and in particular a beautiful midrashic comment: man (Adam) and the land or ground (Adamah ) share the name because they were both created in a basic status requiring cultivation in order to reach their greatest potential—to bring forth fruit. This explanation makes even more sense in the second account: whereas in the first account the connection between these two words is simply phonetic, the second chapter makes this connection semantic. Let’s follow the second account, and we will see that here indeed it becomes absolutely visible, almost tangible.
The Garden of Eden is planted in Genesis 2:8; here, in this account, it is only later that we hear about the creation of the plants and animals. There are only two creations this chapter describes before the Garden is mentioned for the first time: adamah and adam. Here we see clearly that, as the land needs man to take care of it—there were no plants growing from the land because “there was no man (adam) to till the ground (adamah)” —so a man needs God in order to become a living a soul: “And the Lord God formed man (adam) of the dust of the ground (adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being”.
And thus, if we’ve had any doubts regarding this connection before, we don’t have them anymore: both verses – Genesis 2:5 and Genesis 2:7 – put both words in the same sentence! In chapter 3 this connection will be even more evident – but we will discuss that in a future post.
To Work means to Worship
There is one more fascinating detail in this chapter: we are told that Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden for “work” עֲבֹדָה (avodah) and “guarding” שָׁמְרָה (shomrah). The word “avodah” is very interesting here. While there are several different words in Hebrew that communicate the idea of worship, “avodah” is one of the most important terms used in biblical Hebrew (and even today) for the service and worship of God – and here it denotes tilling the soil. As difficult as it is to imagine today, it seems that for Adam, to work and to worship God meant the same thing! Once again, this is completely lost in any translation: to work and to worship are completely different words in English – and in any other language, I suppose. But originally, it was not so – and can you imagine how profound this original plan of God was? Of course, it’s not just the word that differs from our perception today – it was a completely different existence, a completely different dimension of our unity with God! Our love for Him, our connection with Him, our abiding in Him, are all meant to be—and indeed once were—so strong, that as we live our life and do what we are designed to do, we worship God simply by doing it!
 Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, book 2 section 24
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The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) .