When Nature Rebels: Insights from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith

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Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 present two parallel accounts of the creation of the world and, specifically, mankind. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik addresses this issue in his seminal work, The Lonely Man of Faith, which was originally published as an essay in the journal Tradition in 1965.[i] In contrast to many modern scholars, who posit that these distinct accounts of creation can be attributed to multiple authorship of the Bible, Rabbi Soloveitchik does not turn to Biblical Criticism to explain the incongruity.[ii] Rather, Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that “the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition, but in dual man.”[iii] According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the Bible contains two accounts of the creation of humanity in order to reflect the fact that there is “a real contradiction in the nature of man. The two accounts deal with two Adams. Two men, two fathers of mankind, two types, two representatives of humanity.”[iv]

Genesis Chapter 1 details the creation of the first representation of humanity, whom Rabbi Soloveitchik refers to as Adam the first. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the fact that this account states that man was fashioned “in the image of God”[v] indicates that Adam the first is an inherently creative being: just as God created the world, man likewise has a drive to create, to innovate.[vi] In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s estimation, God’s commandment to Adam the first—to “fill the earth and subdue it”, to take control of nature—is reflective of his innate creativity, of his desire to emulate his Creator by gaining mastery over his environment.[vii] However, Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that Adam the first’s mission to “harness and dominate the elemental natural forces and put them at his disposal” is not easily fulfilled.[viii] Challenged by an inhospitable environment, Adam the first cannot take control of nature on his own and is thus compelled to collaborate with his fellow man. Indeed, in order to accomplish his mission, Adam the first must unite with others to form a community of shared interests—they are bound together by their mutual desire to achieve dignity through their mastery over nature.

According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, Genesis Chapter 2 describes a wholly different version of humanity. While Genesis Chapter 1 notes that man was fashioned in the image of God, Chapter 2 teaches that God formed man out of “dust from the ground”, as a humble, contemplative being.[ix] Moreover, while Adam the first is tasked with subduing the earth, God’s instructions to Adam the second are far less ambitious: he is to simply “work” and “safeguard” the Garden of Eden.[x] In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s assessment, the differences between these accounts reflect two fundamentally distinct representations of humanity: unlike Adam the first, who is driven to create and innovate, Adam the second is charged with stewardship in order to protect the Garden of Eden and “the living, ‘given’ world into which he has been cast.”[xi] As such, Adam the second does not join in a community of shared interests, of likeminded individuals who wish to gain mastery over nature. Instead, Adam the second endeavours to form a covenantal faith community, a community of shared experience comprised of three partners: I, thou, and He—man, his fellow man, and God Himself[xii] Indeed, Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that God is an essential partner in Adam the second’s covenantal faith community, as He is “a comrade and fellow member.”[xiii] Ultimately, God’s central role in this community is what distinguishes the covenantal collective from Adam the first’s community of shared interests.

Rabbi Soloveitchik attributes the Bible’s parallel accounts of the creation of man not to a dual tradition, but to the duality of mankind.  The Biblical narrative is reflective of the complexity of the human enterprise—Adam the first is a creative being who is charged with filling the earth and subduing it, whereas the contemplative Adam the second is tasked with working and safeguarding the Garden of Eden. A close reading of the first two chapters of Genesis furthers Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thesis, as it yields not only two descriptions of the character of mankind, but also two distinct representations of the natural world itself. Indeed, these two different versions of nature reflect a duality that ultimately shapes man’s relationship with his environment.

The first characterization of nature, found in Genesis Chapter 1, is that of a rebellious, unyielding force. While God commands the earth to sprout “fruit trees yielding fruit after its kind”,[xiv] the following verse states that the earth only brought forth “trees yielding fruit”[xv]—not fruit trees yielding fruit. Rashi acknowledges the discrepancy between these two verses and resolves it by asserting that God had originally intended that trees should not only bear fruit, but that the tree itself should also taste like fruit.[xvi] The earth, however, ignored God’s commandment by sprouting trees that simply bore fruit. Rashi notes that the earth’s insubordination resulted in its inclusion in Adam’s punishment after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis Chapter 3, as God says to Adam: “accursed is the ground because of you.”[xvii] Though there is nothing in the verses immediately preceding this statement to indicate that the earth was involved in Adam’s transgression, Rashi asserts that God’s punishment of the earth was certainly justified: nature rebelled against God when it ignored His decree to produce trees that tasted like fruit and that bore fruit—and so when man was punished for his sin, the earth was also cursed for its earlier disobedience. Rashi’s description of nature in Genesis Chapter 1—as a rebellious, revolting force—certainly complements Rabbi Soloveitchik’s characterization of Adam the first and the manner in which he interacts with his environment. God, in His infinite wisdom, fashioned Adam the first as a creative being and tasked him with filling and subduing the earth, with taking control of nature, because it is unyielding and in need of a strong hand.

In contradistinction to nature as rebellious force, Genesis Chapter 2 describes it as being in harmony with God and mankind. The same trees characterized in Chapter 1 as being disobedient, were, in Chapter 2, said to coexist in a symbiotic relationship with God and man: “now all of the trees of the field were not yet on the earth…for Hashem God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.”[xviii]  Genesis Chapter 2 subsequently outlines how nature came into being with the help of God and humanity: first God sends rain,[xix] then God plants the Garden of Eden and places man in it,[xx] and finally the trees appear.[xxi] This peaceful, ordered depiction of nature complements Rabbi Soloveitchik’s portrayal of Adam the second, the humble and contemplative man. Indeed, Adam the second not is tasked with subduing the earth because nature, as it is portrayed in Chapter 2, does not seek to disobey the will of its Creator. Rather, Adam the second is charged with stewardship, with working the land and safeguarding it, because the nature that he encounters is peaceful and harmonious. In fact, it could very well be argued that the natural world is itself an integral element of Adam the second’s covenantal faith community—I being man, He being God, and Thou being nature itself.

A close examination of the Biblical text reveals two accounts of creation, which reflect not only the duality of mankind, but also the contradiction inherent in the natural world itself. Nature, as it is depicted in Genesis Chapter 1, is rebellious and unyielding, and so God charges the creative, innovative Adam the first with filling and subduing the earth. In contrast, the contemplative Adam the second is tasked with working and safeguarding the Garden of Eden because nature, as it is portrayed in Chapter 2, seeks to form a harmonious partnership with God and mankind. This contradiction inherent in the natural world ultimately influences our relationship with our environment. On the one hand, we attempt to use our God-given abilities to subdue those elements of nature that threaten our existence, be they disease, natural disasters, or the scarcity of resources. On the other hand, we engage in environmental stewardship, protecting nature from harmful influences and coming to appreciate the world in which we live. These two prevailing attitudes towards the natural world—control versus preservation—are not mutually exclusive, nor are they are necessarily in conflict with one another. Rather, they stem from the reality that humankind has the capacity to be both creative and contemplative, and are rooted in the fact that the natural world can be both rebellious and harmonious. Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 provide us with a glimpse into this ongoing dialectic, thereby empowering us to embrace the duality of both ourselves and the world in which we live.

Elianne Neuman is a senior at Stern College for Women, double majoring in History and Jewish Studies.

[i] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Lonely Man of Faith (New York, NY: Three Leaves Press, 2006), xvii.

[ii] Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View Into the Five Books of Moses (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 33-37.

[iii] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Lonely Man of Faith, 10.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Genesis 1:27.

[vi] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Lonely Man of Faith, 12.

[vii] Genesis 1:28.

[viii] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Lonely Man of Faith, 13.

[ix] Ibid. 2:7.

[x] Ibid. 2:15.

[xi] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Lonely Man of Faith, 21.

[xii] Ibid. 41.

[xiii] Ibid. 43.

[xiv] Genesis 1:11.

[xv] Ibid. 1:12.

[xvi] Rashi to Gen. 11:11, s.v. Fruit Tree, translation mine.

[xvii] Genesis 3:17.

[xviii] Ibid. 2:5.

[xix] Ibid. 2:6.

[xx] Ibid. 2:8.

[xxi] Ibid. 2:9.