The Origin and Transmission of Human Life
Genesis 2:7 is a key verse for understanding the creation of man and the foundation for understanding many things about the nature of man, the origin of the soul and the transmission of human life. This gets into some very important, very technical questions, laying the foundation for many ethical situations which face people today. We always have to remember that the Word of God is the final authority in any area that we study, so we have to be sure to understand what the Scriptures teach, exegete the Word clearly, and then use the Word to evaluate other areas.
“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Here we see that God forms the human body from the chemicals of the soil. It is very important to distinguish the fact that there are two acts of creation in this verse. There is the first act by God [Yahweh Elohim] where the emphasis is on God as the God of Israel. In Genesis chapter one we find only the term Elohim, but in Genesis chapter two we are introduced to Yahweh for the first time, and this always would bring to mind to the Jews the fact that this is a reference to the covenant God of Israel who is an ethical God, who is the God who gave not only the ten commandments at Sinai but He is the God who gives the singular commandment in the garden of Eden.
“ … the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground…” This is clear from Scripture. Again and again this same principle is reiterated. For example, in Isaiah 43:1, “But now thus saith the LORD that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed [yatsar] thee, O Israel.” Yatsar is a word that portrays God as a potter. It has to do with forming or shaping a physical object, something that is already created. “ … Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.” So the Jews would identify the creation of Genesis 2:7 with the God who created them as a unique nation. This verb yatsar is an important verb because, as noted, it portrays God as a potter with clay. It indicates several things about His creative activity. He is precise, deliberate, has a predetermined plan as to what the physical body of man should look like. In fact, God is thinking about the fact that, to anthropomorphize, as He is working the clay, that this is the body my Son will incarnate Himself in. This is also the body the Holy Spirit will indwell and make a temple for the indwelling presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. So He is going to be designing the human body in such a way that it will allow the second person of the Trinity, who is infinite and eternal, to become finite and localized in one body and to express all the nature of deity in this finite body. So that the physical body itself is best designed to be that instrument through which the immaterial image of God is expressed.
Too often we so emphasize the soul that we tend to deemphasize the body, and that goes back to the old Platonic heritage that we have that the immaterial is more important than the material. What this is showing us is that we can’t make that bifurcation or stress it too much, because if you do that you end up saying the body is insignificant and irrelevant. The Gnostics and the Docetists pushed that so far that they said that anything material was inherently evil and that which was spiritual or immaterial was inherently good. That led them to denying the physical incarnation of Christ in a body because that would mean God would be tainted by that which is inherently sinful. We have to maintain each in its proper perspective, and that the physical body is important.
In this first phrase, “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground,” the dust of the ground indicates the basic chemicals of the soil, that man is made from this soil, and this is used in many passages in the Old Testament described as clay. This concept of clay or earthenware vessels is also carried over into the New Testament. Some of these passages are Job 4:19, “How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust.” Job 10:9, “Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me into dust again?” Isaiah 45:9, “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?” This is in complete contrast to what evolution teaches. If someone does introduces God at some point it is the idea that God uses evolution, and the accommodationists try to develop some sort of metaphor for meaning here that from the dust of the ground is really just a figure of speech for saying that man started off in the primordial ooze and then gradually developed his way up until there was a full human being. But that has several problems. First of all, dust is used again in this immediate context at the end of chapter three, verse 19, where we are told that Adam was dust and to dust he would return. So whatever the process of coming up from the dust is, it is the same process in reverse. The implication within the text, if we are going to be consistent, is that the text means that God uses the physical components of the soil to mould and shape the human body. The literal meaning is made even more clear when we get down into the later section where we have the creation of the woman, and there she is taken literally from the side of the man. This is not something that is just thrown in there, because what that does technically in a theological sense is show that the human race is organically connected to the one original human created. God creates the man; He doesn’t create the male and the female separately. He creates the male and from the man He creates the woman, so that every person in the human race is organically connected to Adam. This is why Jesus Christ can then come and die as a substitute for the entire race—because He is organically related in His humanity to every other member of the human race. If you have two distinct origins for the male and the female then you would not have that kind of organic unity in the human race. This is one reason that there is no salvation, no savior, for the angels, because each angel was an individual creation. You don’t have father and mother angels producing baby angels.
“ … and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life …” This is a very important word that is used throughout the Old Testament to describe the nature and characteristic of life. Today we come up with all kinds of definitions. How do we know someone is alive? When someone goes into a coma, when someone has debilitating disease and they reach that final stage, how do we measure when life is no longer there? The description that is used in the Bible for life and the presence of life is the word neshemah, which is translated “the breath of life” or “the spark of life.” First, what God does is create the biological home, the physical, material home for the soul, the immaterial part of man. When God forms man from the dust of the ground He is building that earthly tent, that earthenware home, for the immaterial part of man. The question to be asked: Between the time that God forms the physical body and the time that God breathes into the body, which is when He would impart the soul, the immaterial part of man to that human body, if someone was to walk up in between that process and decapitate the body, is that murder? What we have at this point is the formation of the body, which is biological life, and then God breathes into the body soul life, and it isn’t until the two are united that you have full human life. Some questions we are going to have to answer: a) Does God continue the same pattern? b) When and how does God impart the soul? c) How has this been understood by theologians throughout the ages? d) How can we know when the immaterial soul is really present? That is the root question. e) What is the importance of the fetus in developing physical life in the womb? The Bible never minimizes the importance of the body.
So God breathes the breath of life into the biological life, the clay, and then man becomes a living being. Biological life plus soul life then equals full human life. What we see here in terms of an observation is that breathing seems to be a biblical definition of the presence of life. Genesis 7:22, “All in whose nostrils was the breath of life [neshamah], of all that was in the dry land, died.” Deuteronomy 20:16, “But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth [neshamah].” Joshua 10:40, “So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed [neshamah], as the LORD God of Israel commanded.” These are just some representative passages of the definition of life. One who breathes is alive and one who doesn’t breath is dead.
The second thing that we see is that breath or neshamah is the basis for life; it is God breathing a spark of His own life into the biological life of man. Isaiah 2:22, “Cease ye from man, whose breath [neshamah] is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be esteemed?” Once again, man is defined in terms of neshamah. Isaiah 42:5, “Thus saith God the LORD, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath [neshamah] unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein.” Notice that breath and spirit, in the last part of this verse, is called synonymous parallelism. Breath and spirit are synonymous. The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, which often stands for the immaterial part of man. It is a generic term; it doesn’t refer to the human spirit in most places. In some places it refers to the Holy Spirit, as it does in Genesis 1:2. It is a word that refers to wind or breath and in many cases it has a generic use for the immaterial part of man. Here we have a statement that it is the LORD God who gives, and this is a qal stem verb, which means that God actively gives—it indicates that He is directly responsible for giving breath to the people, and that is life. Isaiah 57:16, “For I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wroth: for the spirit [ruach] should fail before me, and the souls [breath: neshamah] which I have made.”
From these passages we make certain crucial observations.
1) It is clear that God created the biological life from the chemicals of the soil.
2) He is the one who imparted soul life to biological life.
3) Full human life is not present until biological life and soul life are united.
4) Conclusion: The sign of full human life is the presence of breath, neshamah.
What we see is that at the original creation God immediately and directly created both the human body and the human soul. It is immediate and God directly creates both biological life and soul life. But after that He gives a command to Adam and Isha that they are to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. So God delegates the responsibility for generating biological life through the natural process of procreation. However, as we have seen in Isaiah 42:5, God is directly providing soul life through neshamah. The question is: how do we know this? How do we know that God is still directly giving physical life? One line of argument is that biological life is material and therefore it is dependent on a physical or material process of generation. That only makes sense. But the soul or spiritual life is immaterial and cannot be transmitted physically. Therefore soul life or spirit life is dependent upon God, both for its creation and for transmission.
Ecclesiastes 12:7, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [ruach] shall return unto God who gave it.” The dust returns to the earth. The physical body is generated physically through procreation and the spirit is produced immaterially because God gives it, and so it returns to God who gave it. God is the one who gives to each individual soul life. Question: Does God continue this same pattern of life? By this is meant, does God have one process for generating the material part of man and another process for generating and transmitting the immaterial part of man? To understand this we have to understand that there has been a division in church history. There are two views. The first is called Traducianism. This is from the Latin traducerio, which means to transfer. This view teaches that both the material body and the immaterial soul are transmitted through physical procreation. This view was first articulated in the early church by Tertullian. Tertullian is famous for one other thing, and that is, that he is the one who coined the term trinitos from which we get our word Trinity. He was a very profound thinker but, like many of the early church fathers, he had some gaping holes in his theology. One of the gaping holes was that he was a Montanist, those who were followers of a man named Montanus who claimed that he was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Montanists were the early church form of modern Charismatics. They weren’t necessarily speaking in tongues but they were certainly emotional and ecstatic and they had some problems. But Tertullian had another problem and this is more germane to understanding his position of Traducianism. That is, Tertullian held the position that the soul was material. He holds to a material transmission of the soul, but the reason he can do that is because the soul itself is physical and material. He doesn’t believe in an immaterial soul. So the foundation of Traducianism goes back to a man who did not believe the soul was immaterial but was material. There have been many others down through church history that have held to this position. Martin Luther, W.G. T. Schedde. Schedde has an interesting comment in his Dogmatic Theology that was published in the middle 19th century, and that is that he recognizes that up to his point the position that he holds, Traducianism, is the minority position in church history. L. S. Chafer very carefully goes through the arguments for both Traducianism and creationism in his Systematic Theology and he comes to the conclusion that the evidence can go either way, but he falls out slightly on the side of Traducianism. He really had a difficult time of coming to a conclusion and he lacked any real certainty or dogmatism on the point.
The second view is creationism. This is the position that the body is generated through physical generation but the soul is directly created by God in each individual. Historically, this position has always been that the soul is simultaneously created and imparted by God at the first breath. Advocates of creationism: Among Roman Catholics, Jerome who was the translator of the Vulgate [Common] held to this position. It was the position that was dominant before Tertullian developed Traducianism. Furthermore, Thomas Aquinas also held to creationism at birth. He has a statement in which he says it is heresy to think that a soul can be transmitted through the semen. John Calvin rejected Traducianism, as did Charles Hodge. So there have been many different theologians on different sides of this issue.
When does God impart the soul? Some believe that God creates the soul and imparts it at conception. Another group says that it is not at conception because, they say, you could have an ovum fertilized by the sperm and there is development until the cell splits, in the case of identical twins; but does the soul split? So this second view is that it is sometime during gestation. Then at the other end there are those who believe that the soul is simultaneously created and imparted at birth.
Birth. The word “birth” can function as a noun or a verb. The noun for birth does not exist in Hebrew. What you find in the Hebrew is a circumlocution or an idiom to express the concept of birth, and that is the word mibeten. Birth as a noun is usually used with a preposition. There is no noun for birth in Hebrew, thus when you have to express the prepositional phrase “from birth,” you use the phrase mibeten. The mi is a shortened form of a Hebrew preposition, min, which means from. Beten is the noun for womb. Mibeten means “from the womb.” Sometimes there is the phrase bebeten, and the be is the Hebrew preposition “in”—“in the womb.” There is a crucial difference between in the womb and from the womb, and this is based on the meaning on the meaning of the preposition min which has the idea—especially when it is used for words of action, or coming or going—of what takes place outside of the womb. If you are talking about what is going in the womb then you have the preposition be. If you are going to talk about something that has happened since birth you use the phrase mibeten. Some verses which use this phraseology: Job 1:21, “And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” He is talking about death: I come with nothing; I go with nothing. He is talking about coming from the mother’s womb, outside the womb, but notice the parameters for life here are from the womb and to death. Job 3:11, “Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?” He is saying, Why didn’t I come forth and then die, because the soul is not present in the womb. If the soul had been present in the womb he would ask why he didn’t just die in the womb, but there wasn’t an “I” to die in the womb, there was just physical life; he recognizes he had to be born before he was fully there.
Psalm 22:9, “But thou art he that took me out of [from] the womb.” The prepositions EK in the Greek and MIN in the Hebrew indicate separation. Psalm 58:3; Isaiah 44:2. The point is that every time you have a starting point in the Scriptures the writers have to use this term in the Hebrew, mibeten. The other word that is used for birth as a verb is yalad. It is used 388 times in the Old Testament and it is used of giving birth. Genesis 4:1, “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare [yalad] Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.” Yalad indicates the end of the process. The word “conceived” must be looked at the same way. For conception there is a verb. To conceive is the verb harah and it is used 52 times in the Old Testament. In the vast majority of those there is the same construction as in Genesis 4:1. This is a standard phrase but it doesn’t tell us anything about whether conception brings soul life, it is just talking about physical life when the ovum is fertilized and conception takes place. There is also a noun for conception and you have a verb to conceive. So you have a verb to conceive and a perfectly good noun that is used numerous times in the Old Testament for conception. Why is the noun important? Because if you are going to set up parameters for life and you are going to say life is from conception to death, you have a perfectly sound and used Hebrew word for conception but it is never used in that kind of a context. It is only used in the context of “she conceived and gave birth.” But as we are going to see, when the Bible talks about the parameters of life it is always from the womb (from birth) to death. They have a legitimate word for conception. If life begins at conception, why don’t the inspired writers of Scripture ever use that terminology. They never, ever do. Job 38:21, “Knowest thou it, because thou wast then born? or because the number of thy days is great?” No verse anywhere gives the parameters of life as conception to death.
In the New Testament we have as a parallel to this we have the phrase, EK KOILIA—KOILIA is the word for womb—“out from the womb.” There is also the phrase EK GASTROS, and also the use of the phrase EN GASTROS. EN GASTROS is talking about the biological life that is in the womb. This phrase is only used one time but it is clear that is is talking about what is taking place inside the womb in the development of biological life.