First Words

We all attach significance to the first thing a baby says.

Culturally speaking, it’s a very fun and lighthearted thing to do. Whether it is “mama” or “dada” or “My favorite uncle is Seth”, we all remember who said what first, when it happened, why it happened, so on, so forth.

From a 30,000 foot perspective, humanity’s first words must have also been important. Now, I’m sure there’s plenty of debate about who said what first and why they said it, but from a biblical perspective we have a relatively clear picture of the situation.

For the sake of blog-post length brevity, I will simply observe that humanity’s first words occurred in verse 23 of chapter 2 in Genesis. There’s plenty to discuss surrounding this, but again, for the sake of brevity let us observe that according to the text of the Bible, Adam does not verbalize words until verse 23.

To a Western mind, this could easily be dismissed as a silly observation. “Well of course Adam named the animals, so duh he said something then, right?” Sure, but the Bible makes an explicit effort to ensure that Adam’s first words come at a particular moment. At the very least, a reader, or hearer for that matter (these early stories in Genesis would have existed as oral stories before being written down), would “hear” Adam’s first words as occurring in Genesis 2:23.

Allow me to also observe before continuing that this post will be more philosophical in nature, drawing from Descartes’ famous formulation of the self: “I think, therefore I am.” Hold on to that idea, we will return to it soon.

Why do we get so excited when a baby says its first words? I would suggest that we are beginning to see the baby recognize itself in light of other things. In other words, the baby is beginning to identify itself by identifying other things. When Adam speaks out, it is in a direct response to something. His own formulation and exposition of the self begins when he sees someone else, an “other.”

What is it that he encounters? Well, it’s Eve, another human being who is like him but not him. None of the animals produced in Adam the response that Eve did, because they were not like him. Upon encountering Eve, Adam both saw himself in a new light and saw Eve in a “new light.” He says: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man she was taken.”

In Hebrew, the word for Man used in this sentence is the first occurrence of the word. Adam calls himself “Man” (the word here is pronounced phonetically in Hebrew as “eesh”), which is a different word than what we have seen. “Man” so far has been “a’dam” (which consequently is where we get Adam’s name). Adam basically identifies both himself and Eve as unique things, each receiving a name that is connected (‘eesh and eesh’ha, man and woman respectively). He sees himself and he sees Eve. These are both new experiences and new terms, neither of which has literary precedence.

Of course, there’s plenty more that could be said in regards to this verse, but I would like to compare Adam’s first words and what caused them with Descartes’ famous words. Descartes believed that the fundamental human identity was built out of a logical system of individual thought. “I think, therefore I am.” Who you are as a human being is centered in many ways on what you think, what you believe, etc, according to Descartes.

Much of the modern Christian church has been affected by this notion. For example, evangelicals emphasize that the primary way of being saved is based off what you think/believe. Essentially, do you assent to these truths? If so, boom, you are saved. Churches have a whole section on their websites dedicated to a statement of beliefs, or as I might call it, a statement of thinks.

However, Adam’s first verbal sentence might lead us in quite a separate direction as to what exactly it means to be human. He forms part of his identity out of encountering an “other,” where an “other” is defined more or less as someone like me but not me.

Now why why why am I going into such length about words, statements, philosophy, all that boring stuff? It’s because I am driving to a simple point that much smarter people than I have already tried to make (if you are interested, look up Emmanuel Levinas).

Basically, what I think Genesis is trying to communicate in this beautiful passage is that part of who we are as human beings can only be truly understood when we encounter an “other.”

This is huge, because ever since Descartes, lots of western minded people (read: Americans) have begun to believe that who we are as human beings is based solely on what one thinks, as mentioned earlier. I think this about politics, therefore I am a Libertarian. Or I think this about Jesus, therefore I am a Christian.

In the end, the author of Genesis is trying to get us to see that human beings need each other, that we have a responsibility to the “other” who is like me but not me, and that most importantly, we find identity in the context of the “other.” It is not chiefly through internal meditation that I know myself, as Descartes might argue, but rather it is in the physical finding and the physical presence of the “other” that I know myself.

Some questions to end the blog:

How do you treat those who are like you but not you? What does that say about who you are as a person?

How might ethics and morals change if the focus is no longer on thinking or believing the right thing, but rather on the effect it has on the “other?”

What is our responsibility to the other? And might it take precedence over what we think or believe is “right?”

When face to face with an “other,” who are you becoming?

The featured image is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan, which I have actually already used in a blog before. But it’s so good – how could I not use it again? Van Gogh painted it based on Delacroix’s version, which is shown below. The Good Samaritan story has crossed into mainstream language, often when someone does a kind act with no expectation for return. This story, which can be found in Luke 10, is a radical example of what it might look like to care for the “other” who is like me, but not me.

The Good Samaritan by Eugene Delacroix

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