The Breath of Life

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POSTED 02 JUNE, 2009

By now, many of you have heard of the vicious murder of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion specialist from Wichita, Kansas. He was a specialist in late-term abortions, and was shot by an extremist Christian who belonged to a fringe group that thinks it is Biblically acceptable to target abortion doctors for assassination. Quite tragically, Tiller was functioning as an usher at his church when he was shot to death.

Thankfully, there has been a great deal of outrage expressed by the conservative Christian community here in America against this kind of violence. While many rightfully believe that abortion is a great sin against God, there are non-violent and much more constructive ways to combat it. The most significant way to stop abortion is to educate young people about proper sexuality, and stop many of the causes that will often lead a young girl to seek an abortion. Many children who are aborted are the result of irresponsible sex between young people who are too unprepared and too immature to have children, who if married failed to use proper contraception, but in too many cases were unmarried and fell into sin.

There may be medical exceptions to abortion from time to time, such as to save the life of a mother, but that is something that is few and far between. Abortion on demand is the problem here.

I recently read with interest a blog by a Rabbi Arthur Waskow, entitled “Murder is Murder—Abortion is NOT,” from the provocatively-named website Jewcy.com. This blog rightly discussed the outrage that each of us should have when a person like Dr. Tiller is murdered in cold blood (when his business enterprise should have instead been confronted by legal means). Yet where we should have expected this Jewish gentleman to express continuity with a large number of his fellow Jews and a large evangelical Christian community—which both denounce abortion—Waskow did no such thing. Instead, this is what he had to say:

The Torah’s only comment on abortion makes utterly clear that it is not murder. (In Exodus 21:22-23 we read that if someone causes an abortion but does no other harm to the mother, the agent owes a monetary recompense to the father for the loss of his potential offspring. If the mother is killed, however, a life has been killed. This passage makes clear that while the fetus is a potential person, not just tissue, it is not considered to be a human being.)

I disagree in the strongest way with his casual discussion of the abortion issue, and would emphasize that it is by no means as simplistic as he has portrayed it.

Reading this got me to think about the original creation of Adam in the Garden of Eden. It is well known that evolutionary science only argues that a human being is simply advanced, animated chemicals and tissues, and that whatever we call a “consciousness,” or quite possibly even a “soul,” is just something that results from the reaction of various electrical processes within the brain. Similarly from the perspective of Waskow, and various theological liberals, a potential person or a fetus, is just a pile of chemicals until the time of birth.

What does the Genesis 2 Creation account say about Adam, the first human being?

“Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).

From one perspective, it could be argued that Adam is a creature entirely of Planet Earth and this dimension. A physical body is created, a physical breath is given, and then a life is formed. Those who argue that the Bible does not speak against abortion could be right: until a potential human takes his or her first breath, it is just a lump of chemicals and tissue.

Yet I, and many others who have preceded me, would argue something a bit different. The first human had his body formed out of the dust, or the clay, of the Earth. At this moment, he was nothing more than a lifeless corpse. This lifeless corpse, though, had nishmat chayim implanted into him by God—and at that point there was a heartbeat and brain activity. A living being or a living person was formed. Adam was no longer just a corpse, but an actual person.

The question that has dogged many teachers, Rabbis, and theologians who have examined the Creation account is what to make of this “breath of life.” Adam, being the first human being, is a unique case. Now, does a human life begin when a fetus takes its first physical breath? According to some—it does. If you keep a fetus from taking a physical breath, it is only a potential human being—but until then it is a pile of chemicals and tissue that can be aborted. I think we can all agree that this is a very loose way of reading Genesis 2:7.

It is difficult to argue against the fact that the “breath of life” which God implants into Adam is what finally animates him and makes him who he is. But is this “breath” or neshamah—which originates from God—just a physical breath? I would submit to you that it is not. Biblical Hebrew (especially in the early chapters of the Bible) can be a rather imprecise language with limited vocabulary, and as such it lacks any specific word for “mind” or “consciousness.” Genesis 2:7, in a very poetic way quite consistent with how the formation of the universe is described, details how God implanted a special part of Himself within Adam.

God made man in His image (Genesis 1:27), and so it is right for us to assume that a piece of the human being does, in fact, originate from the realm of God. Psalm 8 describes how humanity was made “a little lower than God” (v. 5), and the Apostle Paul further details how humanity’s dominion is not only over Planet Earth, but that we have been “seated in the heavenly places in Messiah Yeshua” (Ephesians 2:6).

Being the first human, Adam is a unique exception. Only with the “breath of life” implanted into him—his consciousness—could he be all of the things that his Creator intended. He was different than the animals God had made, and as a result had the ability to speak and to think rationally.

Consider the fetus that is conceived in a mother’s womb. When does a fetus demonstrate to possess a heartbeat or brain activity or any kind of electrical activity? If the “breath of life” is what gave these things to Adam, does a fetus have to be born as a “potential person” to have them? Or, does medical science show us that a fetus does, in fact, possess them while growing to maturity in the mother’s womb?

If the latter can be assumed true, then not only does the “breath of life” represent an immaterial part of the human being—something unique to people that originates from their Creator in Heaven—but it also should make us consider the great value of people long before their birth into the world. A fetus is not just a potential person—it is a person! It possesses the same, animating, “breath of life” consciousness that Adam originally possessed.

Let us never be so dense so as to think people are only animated chemicals and tissue, and that “potential people” can be evacuated from a mother because having a child might be inconvenient. Let us, rather, recognize the uniqueness of a person—one part being of Planet Earth, and other part being of the realm of God.

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