One day a minister said to me, "There seems to be a contradiction between chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. Chapter 1 tells us that God created the animals first and then created man, but chapter 2 says that God created man before the animals. How do you ex plain this difficult problem?"
I was studying biblical Hebrew at the time, and so as soon as I got home I took out my Hebrew Bible and looked at the problematic passage, Genesis 2:18-20. I was relieved to find that the seeming contradiction was in reality only a mistake in translation.
Biblical Hebrew verb tenses are very simple and yet sometimes very confusing. As the book Biblical Hebrew Step-by-Step indicates: "Strictly speaking, biblical (i.e., classical) Hebrew has no tense similar to those used in English, French, or German. The action is regarded as either complete or incomplete. ... The perfect tense, in Hebrew, expresses a completed action. Thus lamadti means I studied, I have studied, I had studied, I had been studying, or I did study. The imperfect tense expresses an incomplete action: 'emor, I shall shut, I shall be shutting. . . .
"Thus, many different types of past action are expressed by the Hebrew perfect tense. This reductionism is largely true of the Hebrew imperfect tense in expressing various types of future (and sometimes also present) action."1
The context, then, must determine the tense used to translate the verb.
Genesis 2:19 reads: "And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them."
The verb "formed" in this verse comes from the Hebrew wayyiser. This is a waw consecutive Qal verb of the third person singular masculine. It is in the perfect tense and so could be translated "and He formed," "and He has formed," "and He had formed," etc. In this case, the con text points to the translation "and He had formed." Similarly, the verb "brought" of verse 19 (wayyabe) should be translated "and He had brought."
Genesis 2:18-22 then reads: "And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And [or "Now" 2] out of the ground the Lord God [had formed] every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and [had brought] them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man."
The context implies a link between verse 18 and verses 21 and 22: "And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him" (verse 18), and "Then the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, . . . [and the Lord] made ... a woman and brought her unto the man" (verses 21, 22).
Evidently verses 19 and 20 serve as a kind of parenthetical explanation. They indicate that among all the animals that existed at that time (and the search had been thorough; God had formed every animal and Adam had named them all), there was none fitting to be Adam's mate. The realization of this lack, then, helps to set the stage for God's creation of Eve. So even though the Hebrew verbs of verses 18 and 19 are in the same tense (perfect), translating them with differing English tenses is justifiable.
1 Menahem Mansoor, Biblical Hebrew Step-by-Step:
A Significant Breakthrough for Learning Biblical
Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978),
2 The waw consecutive translated "and" offers a
broad range of meaning, including also, but, yet, so,
then, when, now, and in that time.