The Adam and Animate Life (Genesis 1-2)


(Hideo Yamamoto)

More well known is that Adam has the same root as earth or dirt (adama). God breathes breath-soul of life (nishmat chayyim) into the Adam, turning this thing into a “nefesh chaya.” The 1985 JPS translation translates this term as “living being” (2:7). In contrast, it reserves the term “living creatures” for fish, bird, and beast. No doubt, the difference between “being” and “creature” was meant by the translators to distinguish in a hard way the Adam from the other animals (1:21, 24). In fact, the Bible uses the exact same term, “nefesh chaya,” for one and the other. This identity in the original Hebrew might seem to soften the distinction between the human and other animals creatures since all categories of creature are supposed to bear fruit and multiply, the human no more than the other animals. The “only” difference between them is “dominion,” as per the language that immediately follows upon in order to clarify the notion that God creates the Adam in God’s “image,” male and female. “Living soul” might be a more orthodox translation of “nefesh chaya” insofar as the Jewish philosophical-mystical tradition maintains a tripartite model of soul (composed of nefesh, ruach, neshama).  “Animate life” might make more sense of the biblical text.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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