Saturday, June 8, 2013

Naming the Animals

I have been rereading through Searching for God Knows What, a wonderful book by Donald Miller (I recommend it, along with anything else he's written). It contains several chapters of musings on Genesis 1-3: God's creation of the cosmos, the Garden of Eden, and the Fall. During one such chapter he wonders about how God had Adam name the animals all while lonely, because Eve hadn't been created yet:
And if it took John Muir the better portion of his life to realize his theory about the landscape in small Yosemite, I wondered, then, how much longer it must have taken Adam to name all the animals in the earth. I wondered how long it must have taken him to journey to the ocean to name the sea life, and whether he had to make a boat and go out on a boat or whether God had them swim up close to the shore, so Adam only had to go in about waist-deep. I looked up how many animals there are in the world, and it turns out there are between ten million and one hundred million different species. So even if you believe in evolution, that means there were between one million and fifty million species around in the time of the Garden, and Adam, apparently, had to name all of them. And the entire time he was lonely.
The source text, Genesis 2:18-20, reads:
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens 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 man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.
Like I said, I really enjoy Miller's writing and have for years, but after the thinking I've done recently on God's manner of creation and the Fall, this part struck me a bit oddly. Miller reads that Adam named all the animals and assumes that this process was similar to the creation of our modern taxonomic system, meaning Adam was probably the smartest man who ever lived (which is ridiculous if you think about it; I highly doubt Adam, or any ancient peoples, would have distinguished between twenty-two thousand different varieties of ants). When my church's lead pastor touches on Genesis 2 (which is often, because of our strong focus on the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration narrative), he jokes about Adam naming all the animals: "Big grey thing with big ears and a trunk? Hm...I'll call you, 'elephant.' Or, because he wasn't naming them in English, um... elephiantium." At most, we imagine Adam's "job" of naming the animals as simply deciding how to refer to them in whatever language they (actually, just Adam) spoke in the Garden. (Which, unfortunately, means all his "work" has since been lost along with this proto-language)

After reading up on the Ancient Near East (ANE) background of creation stories like Genesis, I have learned how names had much more significance in these stories than they do for us. John H. Walton, an Old Testament professor at Wheaton, writes in his book The Lost World of Genesis One that far more than simply being concise ways of referring to something,
Names in the ancient world were associated with identity, role, and function. Consequently, naming is a typical part of the creation narratives. The Egyptian Memphite Theology identifies the Creator as the one who pronounced the name of everything. Enuma Elish begins with neither the heavens and earth nor the gods having been named. In this is is clear that naming is a significant part of something's existence, and therefore of its creation.
This ancient understanding of name as identity makes more sense of other phrases relating to names in the Old Testament, like naming a child as "calling his name" (Genesis 4:25, Matthew 1:21), which just sounds redundant to us, or describing worship as "calling upon the name of the Lord" (Genesis 4:26, 1 Corinthians 1:2), or David giving thanks to God's name (Psalm 138:2) or Jesus receiving "the name that is above every name" (Philippians 2:9). It also helps explain why the Jews refused to speak the true name of God and abbreviated it in writing as YHWH, which used to seem like silly superstition to me.

And so Adam's task of naming the animals takes on much more significance than we normally think; it means assigning them their identity, role, and function in the world. So Adam's naming the elephant wasn't just deciding what to call it, it was bestowing its very identity of "elephant-ness" (possibly including its physical characteristics) on the beast. Genesis 2 is, then, the ultimate "how the leopard got its spots" story, or rather, "how all the animals became what they are".

And there's more. Adam's naming work can be seen as a direct continuation of God's creative work in Genesis 1:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (1:3-10)
God's naming the Day, Night, Earth, Heavens and Sea is an integral part of His creating these things (which, additionally, was more defined by bestowing them with a role and function in the cosmos than giving them material being as we think of creation). But God's naming stops with the Sea. He doesn't name any of the plants or animals (except humans) He creates (doesn't give them defined roles or "identities"). He leaves this task to humans, His appointed image-bearers (1:26-27). It's a cool image of how we are appointed to be co-creators, God continuing through us His ongoing work of creation and re-creation.

This understanding of naming is difficult to handle if you try to read Genesis in a way that concords with modern science. It means that animals have their characteristics not simply because God created them that way, but also because they were named as they are by humans. The work of humans, God's appointed image-bearers, is an integral part of the creation of the animals in Genesis. This is difficult to reconcile with animals that lived and died before humans existed (e.g. the dinosaurs). It's also difficult because it doesn't resemble any theory we have about animal origins, or indeed accord with any theory somehow explaining how naming something can change its characteristics.

The solution is to stop reading Genesis in a culturally imperialistic way that assumes that the ancient Hebrew author of Genesis (be it Moses or whoever) must have had the same perspective of the world that we do today, only perhaps missing a few of the finer points from the fossil record. This is an absurd assumption to make, as the radically different ancient understanding of names shows. If we try to force Genesis to fit into a modern worldview, we not only run into many hermeneutical roadblocks (and the need to poeticize away all that stuff about the "vault of the sky", "waters under the earth", and so on), we risk missing out on the theological knowledge it's supposed to convey, like humanity's role as "little creators". If we let Genesis be Genesis, an ancient book written by an ancient culture very different from our own, we begin to understand its original significance and how this significance can be transferred to today.

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