Semitic Scholarship Confirms Animal Death Before the Fall in Genesis 1

Digital painting by the author.

The most sophisticated academic study on the Fall and animal death to date 

In my recent book critiquing Answers in Genesis’ Bible interpretation, I summarized a 2013 doctoral dissertation by J. J. Van Ee entitled, “Death and the Garden: An Examination of Original Immortality, Vegetarianism, and Animal Peace in the Hebrew Bible and Mesopotamia.” The PDF of the full dissertation is available free here. As someone who has dumped months of research into the topic, I’m convinced Van Ee’s thesis is by far the most comprehensive and sophisticated exegetical treatment that exists on the issue of death before the Fall in the Hebrew Bible. (Disclaimer: I've never spoken with Van Ee, and my views in this article are my own.)

My friend Mike Jones at Inspiring Philosophy was also so impressed with Van Ee’s dissertation that he included a summary of some of its contents in a video entitled: “TOP TEN Biblical Problems for Young Earth Creationism” which has currently garnered 125,000 views. 

The linguistics of the creation mandate imply military struggle against the animal world 

Jones' video
Although I don't agree with everything in his video, it was exciting to see Jones drawing attention to Van Ee’s landmark discoveries because I figured it would compel organizations like Answers in Genesis to read his thesis and consider that their long-held traditions about the Fall in the Bible are not actually supported by modern scholarship of ancient Hebrew religion.

Most importantly:

When Genesis 1:26-28 has God commanding humanity to “rule and subdue” the earth and its animals, the Hebrew verbs used are distinctly harsh and imply a violent military context. Consequently, animal violence and predation were presumed the original “very good” condition of the created order in Genesis 1 (More on that below).

Responding to Answers in Genesis' lazy response

Well, Answers and Genesis’s "UK executive director" Simon Turpin has finally delivered a response to this research, and the result is...

remarkably disappointing.

Screenshot of the Answers in Genesis article.

Turpin (whom I will mostly refer to as "the author" from here on) couldn’t be bothered to even read Van Ee’s dissertation before writing this article about why he thinks its conclusions are wrong. I don’t know how to make that point politely. Instead, we are presented with the typical theological arguments you would find in most any other article on their website.

I’m going to quote this AiG article below and give my critique. The author starts by objecting that the Hebrew word subdue (kavash) in Genesis 1:28 must not imply humanity’s use of violent force against animals before the Fall:  

“It is true that the Hebrew word kābaš can imply physical danger (Esther 7:8), subjecting someone to slavery (2 Chronicles 28:10; Nehemiah 5:5; Jeremiah 34:11, 16), and conquering people (Numbers 32:22, 29; Joshua 18:1; 2 Samuel 8:11; 1 Chronicles 22:18; Zechariah 9:13). But these things are implied by the context and not by the word itself. For example, the prophet Micah uses a powerful warlike image of God “treading”(kābaš) out our iniquities, which is a compassionate act (see Micah 7:19).” 

Ok, then Micah 7:19 clearly therefore supports the “warlike” meaning of kavash. Doesn’t it? It doesn’t matter that the motive is compassion. God here is violently trampling Israel’s iniquities and hurling them into the sea as a demonstration of his compassion, supporting a violent meaning of this verb. In other words, kavash implies coercive force in every single instance it occurs in the Bible, and this author is unable to produce a single exception to support his non-violent interpretation of its usage in Gen 1:28. 

The 13 contextual uses of kavash. (Click to expand).

For perspective, I’ve compiled all 13 of these biblical instances in a graphic. As in the Bible, CAD (pg 9) likewise assesses the meaning of the Akkadian cognate kabasu as “to crush, defeat an enemy, to bother, to make people do work, to press people.” (Van Ee, 203) 

The article continues by turning to the verb “to rule” in the creation mandate—the term radah etymologically most likely means “to tread.” The author claims: 

 “It is also true that the word rādâ can be used for ruling harshly (Isaiah 14:2, 6, 41:2), but again the context must determine the meaning of rādâ. For example, in Leviticus, rādâ reflects a benevolent, peaceful rule towards a person among the Israelites who has become poor (Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53). Likewise, King Solomon brought about a benevolent rule that resulted in peace and safety with each man under his own fig tree (1 Kings 4:24–26). Solomon even spoke of beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish. (1 Kings 4:33). These are the same categories of animals that mankind was to rule over in Genesis 1 (Genesis 1:26–28).” 

The thought that the author of this article sat at his desk, pulled up radah in a digital accordance and, out of the 26 witnesses, realized these were the best proof texts that could be marshaled for his interpretation is itself an admission of the dismal evidence for his case.

Let’s look at the two passages: 

Leviticus 25:42-3 reads: “Because the Israelites are my slaves, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule [radah] over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.” 

The Israelites are being told not to radah—”to tread over” each other ruthlessly because that form of rule is here linked with slavery. Radah is therefore being used as a coercive, harsh term here just as it is in every other passage in the Hebrew Bible. This also goes for his cited verses 46 and 53 which repeat this same command. 

What about the other exception he claims exists in 1 Kings 4? Again, this passage is about military conquest and Solomon’s domination over foreign kingdoms which the passage specifies were forced to “bring him tribute and were Solomon’s subjects [evedim] all his life” (v.21). Yes, Solomon’s rule resulted in peace, but the point is that peace was upheld here at force of military domination through which the text emphasizes Solomon coerced tributes from these nations. 

Quoting Van Ee’s thesis (pgs 210-11). In texts like Lev 25: 

"[T]he people being ruled were compelled by force or circumstances into their present status. Thus, it is important to note that in all the occurrences of radah the one being ruled is under some form of coercion to submit. 

Some commentators, in reaction to those who argue that [Gen] 1:28 gives humankind the right to plunder the earth, argue that humans have positive duties towards the ones they rule. Note, however, that such duties are not inherent in the terms themselves. Radah never implies benefits for the one being ruled but only for the one ruling."

I double checked Van Ee’s analysis myself with a fine-tooth comb before publishing my book, and I couldn’t refute him on this. Since I don’t expect people to have the patience to go look up every instance of radah in the Bible themselves. I’ve briefly summarized every single use of the verb outside of the creation mandate in the image below to show you I’m not bluffing when I say it's a coercive, harsh, and military associated term.

Click to enlarge

The AiG article continues by quoting some baseless theological niceties about Genesis 1:28 from a three decades old Sarna commentary. 

“Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna reasons why the kingly power bestowed on mankind to ‘subdue’ and ‘rule’ the earth cannot include a license to harmfully exploit creation: 

..[T]he model of kingship here presupposed is Israelite, according to which, the monarch does not possess unrestrained power and authority; the limits of his rule are carefully defined and circumscribed by divine law, so that kingship is to be exercised with responsibility and is subject to accountability.” 

Sarna was wrong.

Radah is never actually used of ruling one’s own people in the Bible (i.e. the Israelite king) except with negative, exploitive connotations. Quoting Van Ee again (pg 210, modified here with transliteration): 

“However, radah is not used for someone ruling over his own people unless that rule involves some sort of oppression or injustice. In two places, Israelites are said “to rule,” radah, over fellow Israelites. In both places, additional qualifications are used to negatively characterize their rule. In Jer 5:31, the priest are condemned for ruling “according to their hand” (al-yedaihem). It is debated what this means, but it is clear from the context that it is improper. In Ezek 34:4, Israel’s leaders are condemned for ruling with “force” (chazkah) and “harshness” (perech). Verbs such as mshl and mlk are normally used for ruling over one’s own people. Radah overlaps semantically with these verbs but is not a close synonym.” 

The AiG article concludes: 

“In Genesis 1, the words kābaš and rādâ must be taken in their benevolent and peaceful context and not in a harsh warlike context.” 

So, there you have it, neither kavash or radah is ever used in a directly peaceful or benevolent context a single time in the entire Hebrew Bible despite a corpus of 39 witnesses outside the creation mandate. (The closest we ever get would be a form of the verb radah being used of Samson scraping honey from a lion’s skull in Jug 14:9, but even there the implication is that he is forcing or coercing the honey out of the skull.) 

However, theologians still insist on totally ignoring the meanings of these terms and redefining them in Genesis 1 (an exilic text!) to uphold their church traditions and modern post-industrial ecological concerns about what they think a “very good” world should look like.

Yes, you can argue for the humane treatment of animals and environmental responsibility from plenty of other biblical passages, but those concerns aren't actually the focus of the conquest mandate in Genesis 1:28. The text is about man's "military" struggle against nature.

Was permission to eat meat only given after the flood? 

Some side notes:

As we’ve seen, kavash and radah most typically occur in military texts. An excellent piece of evidence that the creation mandate was presumed to involve military conquering is that Genesis 9:2 encourages Noah with the oracle that man’s post-Flood dominion over the world will yield the result that: “The fear and dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and on every bird of the air, and on all that move upon the earth, and on all the fish of the sea.”

Where else do we find this language of “fear” and “dread” in the Bible?

Military texts.

For example: Deut 2:25: “...I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven...” The language of the creation mandate in Genesis is framed with associations to the earlier literary legacy of the Canaanite conquests. 

The AiG article, however, claims that God’s address to Noah after the flood in Genesis 9:3 indicates that this was the first time man was given divine permission to eat meat. Again, the author shows his ignorance of Van Ee’s thesis. Van Ee has shown the Hebraic prohibitive formula in that verse is replicated throughout Deuteronomy and Leviticus (see the diagram from my book below) and actually assumes that humanity was previously permitted to eat meat

Put simply, modern readers have long misread Gen 9:3 because it follows a conceptual style of literary formulation we don’t possess in Western languages. Gen 9:3’s affirmation of man’s right to eat meat is part of a formal Hebraic device setting up the immediately following prohibitions regarding consumption of blood (see Lev 17) and the violence described in the next verse, likely because this sort of disrespect for “lifeblood” (9:4) is what motivated God to flood the earth in the first place. 


There is, therefore, no implication that eating meat was previously prohibited. On the contrary, the particular prohibitive formula of this passage assumes that the creation mandate must have originally circumscribed the consumption of meat (in the same way that Israelites were already consuming cattle, birds, or fish before the introduction of the parallel Levitical restrictions). The Hebrew author’s purpose for reiterating this original prerogative is to emphasize the newly introduced exception of consuming blood. 

If the above argument goes over some people's heads, one could more simply note that Turpin's interpretation of Gen 9:3 also doesn’t make sense considering Abel was surviving off of his livestock and sacrificing the fat of the firstborn of them at God’s approval before the flood (4:4), and Noah was commanded already to separate animals into clean and unclean dietary categories before boarding the ark in Genesis 7. These texts imply meat was eaten before the Flood.

Conclusion 

Violence against—and by extension within—the animal kingdom was assumed to be part of the “very good” natural order in Genesis 1:26-28.

Those concerned with the implications of this for Isaiah's eschatological vision of the "wolf laying with the lamb" can go read that portion of Van Ee's thesis or his JBL article on the subject here. Those concerned with New Testament texts typically cited to support an original creation free of animal death should go check out my book. It's full of recent discoveries into the context of Genesis similar to what I've written in this article.

Comments

  1. Hey, what do you think of the "Answers in Genesis" criticism of Genesis 1:1 being a dependent clause?

    https://answersingenesis.org/hermeneutics/have-we-misunderstood-genesis-11/

    And what about John 1:1? Which is clearly referring back to Genesis 1:1? I don't see the point in translating John 1:1 with "when".

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    1. I directly interact with Wilson's AiG article in my book.

      As Holmstedt discusses in the third footnote of the introduction of his Brill article, the Greek phrase en arche can be translated as both anathrous and articular in different contexts, and therefore yields "an ambiguous witness at best." If anything, it favors the anathrous translation presuming the LXX translators had a reason for not resolving this ambiguity by attaching an article.

      https://www.jstor.org/stable/20504316

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