October 25, 2002

A note on

Genesis 2 vs. 3 and the Concept of Nature

by David Steinberg




This verse is familiar being recited just before the Friday night kiddush.  In fact, it is so familiar that we probably do not consider its implications.


My interest in this issue was sparked by a spectacularly anachronistic rendering of this verse in the well known Orthodox siddur - The Traditional Prayer book for Sabbaths and Festivals edited and translated by David de Sola Pool authorized by: The Rabbinical council of America; J B Soloveitchik; C B Chavel  (see below).


The last three words of Genesis 2 vs. 3 are rather obscure and thus leave the way open for eisegesis i.e. the interpretation of a text by reading into it one's own ideas.  The last 4 words Hebrew words of our verse are asher bara’ elohim la’asot which would mean, in very literal English

“… which God had done or made in a fashioned-by-God way”


Some modern translations screw things up by literally translating idiomatic Hebrew into bad English (see Art Scroll below).  However, most current translations (see below) get it right.  A good example is the NJV, used in the Plaut and Etz Hayim Humashim


“And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done”*


We are so used to the concept of an order of nature, governed by immutable natural laws that we are apt to forget that such a concept did not exist until the Ancient Greek philosopher-scientists discovered/invented it[i].  In the pre-Hellenistic age, the age of the composition and redaction of the Torah, people thought that e.g. rain fell because YHWH (if you were an Israelite), Baal (if you were a Canaanite) etc. wanted it to fall.  He might withhold rain to punish people for ritual or moral failures and might be propitiated by prayers, repentance or sacrifice.  But the responsible god could not be limited by “natural laws” the concept of which simply did not exist in pre-Hellenistic cultures. 


To us, and generally the Jewish, Muslim and Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages, it is a problem to square the Israelite concept of an all-powerful God performing miracles (e.g. making the sun stand still) with a universe governed by immutable natural laws.  Pool helps us out a bit by “establishing” a link between a pre-natural order creation period and a natural order post creation period.  (Of course this is not of much help in rationalizing miracles).  Pool provides a translation that is grammatically possible but was culturally impossible in pre-Hellenistic Israel.  His translation is –


“Then God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it He rested from all His work which God had created to function thenceforth”.


It is interesting to note that, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica (vol. 12 col. 889)


“Philo (c. 20 BCE-50 CE) held that the world was governed by laws which were instituted by God at the time of creation.”


David Steinberg

October 25, 2002



* Not to get too technical, this grammatical construction (a finite verb followed by another verb in the infinitive) would normally be translated into English by an English adverb (equivalent to the finite verb) governing an English verb (equivalent to the infinitive).  To make things more difficult, the first (finite) verb bara’ is normally translated as “create” whatever that means in English.  In fact, in Biblical Hebrew it means to fashion or shape i.e. the same meaning as the verb yatzar except that yatzar can be used with either God or man as the subject whereas the subject of bara’ is always God.


**It is interesting to me that Harry Orlinsky the chief translator of the JPS New Jewish Versions (NJV) does not deal with this verse in the book Notes on the New Translation of the Torah but Sarna (Sarna, Nahum M. Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary, The Jewish Publication Society, 1989) writes

"... (The NJV's) smooth English conceals a difficulty in the Hebrew, which literally translates "all His work that God created to do." Ibn Ezra and Radak understood the final verb as connoting "[for man] to [continue to] do [thenceforth]." Ibn JanaH and Ramban connected the final verb with the preceding "ceased," thereby taking it to mean: "He ceased to perform all His creative work."



Various Translations


The Old Jewish Version Torah translation, used e.g. in Hertz, translates it as:


“And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made”



The New Revised Standard Version and the Jerusalem Bible translate the last words “(that) He had done in creation”


Sim Shalom for Sabbaths and Festivals translates the verse as

“Then God blessed the seventh day and called it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation”


Art Scroll “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it He abstained from all His work which God created to make”


P Birnbaum (Orthodox Machzor Shalem)  “because on it he rested from all his work which he had created”


Kol Hanmeshamah (Reconstructionist Machzor”

“For on it God had ceased from all the work that had been done in carrying out creation”


[i] Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Religion & the order of nature,

New York : Oxford University Press, 1996; Zakovitch, Yair. The concept of the miracle in the Bible (English translation), Shmuel Himelstein.

Tel Aviv : MOD Books, c1991.


“…the definition of the miracle by the philosopher Hume: ‘A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature…’


This view does not coincide with that of biblical literature, which does not know of the concept of nature…(to the scriptures) miracles…are an integral component of God’s rule in his world”