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The Hebrew wordplay in the Garden of Eden narrative reveals the complex relationship between humans and the earth or ground.

Edward Burne-Jones
Edward Burne-Jones

Punning, or “paranomasia,” is a common feature of many languages. Deliberate puns can be found in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Mesopotamian texts, and yet modern writers often consider puns to be among the lowest uses of language. In Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, for example, the punster Dr. Cottard is a scoundrel of a dinner guest who simply can’t help himself, always grasping at the lowest-hanging fruit of double meanings for the sake of cheap jokes. For others, however, the pun can be a clever and compelling way to evoke multiple associations without being explicit. But, of course, puns are often “lost in translation” because they depend upon an intimate understanding of language and usage.

The writer of the Garden of Eden story—often identified as the “Yahwist” or “J” source—was something of a punster. Perhaps the most famous wordplay in the story is the association between “Adam” and “adamah” (Hebrew for “ground” or “earth”) in Gen 2:7. Our closest equivalent is probably evoked by the relationship between English “human” and the Latin humus (“ground” or “earth”), or even earthling” and “earth.” Regrettably, most English translations do not attempt to capture this etymological association.

In the Garden of Eden story, the name “Adam” is originally not really a name at all. The Hebrew noun adam means “human,” and throughout the Eden narrative it carries the definite article—“the human” (Hebrew, ha-adam). According to Gen 2:7, God fashioned this human out of the “dust” or “soil of the ground” (Hebrew, afar min ha-adamah). Thus this first human is a dirt creature, made of the very stuff that in turn will sustain human life. Given the respective cognates from Assyrian, Ugaritic, and other ancient sources, it is possible that both words are derived from a root signifying redness—red blood in the case of adam and red earth in the case of adamah. But the etymologies of both words remain uncertain.

The use of language in the Garden of Eden story is elegantly playful. As the story begins, there is “no one” or “no human” (Hebrew, adam ayin) to “till the ground” (Hebrew, la-avod et ha-adamah), so God fashions one from the adamah itself (Gen 2:5-7). Out of the same ground, God causes fruit trees to sprout and grow, along with the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:8-9). Interestingly, God then places the human in the garden (really a typical ancient Near Eastern palatial park, containing only trees) to “till it and keep it”; that is, to watch over it (Gen 2:15).

By the end of the story, after the famous transgression by both the woman and the man, God admonishes the serpent, the woman, and the man, telling the latter, “Cursed is the adamah because of you” (Gen 3:17). This curse includes the hard labor of working the ground until the adam, now mortal, is returned to the adamah from which humanity was taken (Gen 3:18-19). Through this crafty wordplay, the author unfolds one of the story’s central ideas, one that would have had special resonance in an arid, agrarian setting: humans’ mortal existence is finite and toilsome, and the ground both gives us life and swallows us in death.

  • Samuel Thomas

    Samuel Thomas is associate professor of religion at California Lutheran University. He teaches and writes about the Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, and religion and ecology.