And Man Became a נפש חיה: John Murray on Genesis 2:7

ויצר יהוה אלהים את-האדם עפר מן-האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה

Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (NASB)

-Genesis 2:7

In an effort to correlate the data of Genesis 1-4 with macro-evolution, some have suggested that Adam was initially created as a broad kind of intelligent hominid and that the inbreathing of God simply constituted or commissioned him with a federal task.  Not only is this thought to square with the current scientific consensus about human origins, it is also thought to be exegetically defensible, thus allowing Christians to comfortably hold to a high view of scripture as well as a acceptance of the tenets of macro-evolution.

In reading for a counseling class I am currently taking, I reread John Murray’s study, “The Origin of Man,” in vol. 2 of The Collected Writings of John Murray, Select Lectures in Systematic Theology.  He examines Genesis 2:7 and suggests that such a position is not warranted on exegetical grounds.

Murray first considers the use of the terms נפש חיה (living creature) and אדם (man) in Genesis 2:7:

(ii) Living Creature. ‘And man became a living creature.’  The term rendered ‘living creature’ means animate being, creature with the breath of life.  In itself this predicate does not express anything distinctive of man as compared with other animate beings.  The designation is generic and is applied to other creatures (cf. Gen. 1:21, 24, 30).  It is all-important to observe this fact.  For it means that it was by the act of impartation, the act of communication from God denoted by inbreathing, that the entity formed from the dust of the ground came to belong to the category of animate being.  To state the matter negatively, man did not become animate by any process short of the action specified as inbreathing.  If ‘man’ were previously animate, and the inbreathing constituted him man as distinct from and superior to other animate creatures, then it could not be said that by the inbreathing he became ‘living creature’.  The inbreathing was not an action superimposed upon an already existing animate being.

(iii) Man. We have just noted that it was the inbreathing that constituted this being animate creature.  But we must with comparable emphasis assert that by this same action Adam was constituted specifically man.  Genesis 2:7 does not refer to any supposed animate progenitor of man.  This conclusion is derived from two considerations:

(a) The definition of man is already provided in the preceding context (Gen 1:26).  Hence no other than man thus identified can be in view when we read in Genesis 2:7: ‘And the Lord God formed the man’.  It is the formation of man, measuring up to the character and status of Genesis 1:26, that is contemplated, not of some animate progenitor of man, not of savage man, but of man whose denotation and connotation are determined for us by the preceding context.

(b) Any lower form of animate life would not only be incompatible with the definition of Genesis 1:26 but also with the role accorded to man in the more immediate context (Gen. 2:4-25).  The man of Genesis 2:7 is the man to whom God speaks, who receives commandments tha are to be intelligently obeyed, and who finds no counterpart among other creatures.  It would be exegetical violence to introduce a concept of man alien to every note found in the context.

“The Origin of Man,” Pg. 8.

In light of this exegesis, Murray then summarizes as follows:

It was the divine inbreathing that constituted man animate creature…. Man’s animation in any form or at any time cannot be differentiated from the animation that belongs to him in his specific identity as man made in the image of God.  Man did not appear in two states of animate development ….

“The Origin of Man,” Pg. 9.

If this exegesis is correct (and I certainly find it compelling), it would seem that anyone wishing to hold to the view the divine inbreathing in Adam not as an animation of Adam, but rather a commissioning of him must base this on different hermeneutical assumptions concerning Gen 1-4, not exegesis.  For those who do believe that Genesis 1-4 is essentially historical, even while possessing literary artistry, such a view seems to be untenable.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA


3 comments on “And Man Became a נפש חיה: John Murray on Genesis 2:7

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    I know lots of evolution-friendly Christians, and they would all say that, of course, Gen 2.7 is teaching an instantaneous creation. What else would you expect? Why does it matter now? Is that the intended communication from God in the text? Is that the take-away? And who determines the “essential” in “essentially historical”? How literal are we to take “the dust” and the “inbreathing”? (both of which sound rather “literary” and significant as such)

    As for myself, I straddle the fence on this issue, but I certainly see their point. Also, I admit to a great hesitancy when evangelicals (myself included) hide behind a comfortable exegesis, without so much as once seriously engaging what scientists are handling on a day to day basis. (And I am especially thinking of Al Mohler’s blithe dismissals of the “fallible” work of scientists, apparently as distinct from the infallible work of exegetes!) If evangelicals were truly confident in their exegesis, they would equally be confident in doing the scientific work that challenges our readings. Conveniently, the latter has not transpired yet.

  2. […] Compton is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church, Anaheim, CA. This article first appeared at The Reformed Reader and is used with […]

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