Hebrew Corner 2: "deep sleep"
by John H. Walton
In the last Hebrew Corner I talked about the fact that there are still Hebrew words that we are learning more about--words that seem at one level straightforward enough, but when the right questions are asked and more probing is done, more nuancing can be done.
It is often in students' papers or in class discussion that these questions get a chance to surface. One student raised the question about the "deep sleep" that falls on individuals in certain situations and wrote a paper drawing out some of the implications. What can we say about this "deep sleep?" Stimulated by that student's research, I have continued to analyze the information to see what can be learned. As always, the place to start is to look at all the occurrences.
The Hebrew noun, tardemah, occurs a handful of times: Gen 2:21; Gen 15:12; 1 Sam 26:12; Job 4:13; Job 33:15; Pr 19:15; Isa 29:10. Its related verbal root, rdm is also attested in Judg 4:21; Ps 76:6 (poetic for death); Pr 10:5; Dan 8:18; 10:9; Jon 1:5-6. It is not always wise to combine noun and verb occurrences in a single study because sometimes they develop in independent directions of meaning despite their common root. It is therefore essential that noun and verb forms initially be studied independently to discover whether they have retained similar semantic ranges. If this is so, as it is here, the database can be built including both forms.
We can see from analyzing these references that the data can be divided a couple of different ways. The first way is by what or who brings on the condition. In Gen 2:21 and 1 Sam 26:12 it is explicitly brought on by the Lord (see also Isa 29:10). In other contexts one could infer it is brought on by the Lord (Gen 15:12). In others it could plausibly be argued that it is brought on by fatigue or stress (Judg 4:21; Jon 1:5-6), or even by laziness (Pr 10:5; 19:15). The second way the data can be divided is according to what the deep sleep represents. In some cases it renders the person oblivious to what is going on in the human world (Judg 4:21; 1 Sam 26:12; Jon 1:5-6). In others the result is that the person is responding to or is made sensitive to something in the spiritual realm (Gen 15:12; Job 4:13; 33:15; Dan 8:18; 10:9).
This analysis leads us to return with a new set of questions to Gen 2:21.
Here it is the Lord who causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep. The question is whether we should consider this a deep sleep to render Adam oblivious to what is going on the human world (like Saul in 1 Sam 26)--thus a type of anesthetic so the surgery can be performedóor whether it should be interpreted as a sleep that is intended to allow him to see a vision of significance (like Abram in Gen 15). If it is the latter, which can at least be presented as a possibility, the incident in Genesis 2 can be seen in a very different light. The resulting interpretation would be that what is described in vv. 21-22 is what Adam saw in a dream while asleep. It would be presented as something that God wanted him to understand about the inherent nature of woman.
Against this interpretation is the apparently surgical language ("closed up the place with flesh"). Favoring this interpretation is that Adam's response is a knowing one ("bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh"), suggesting that he is aware of what took place. Also favoring the dream view is that the word often translated ìribî everywhere else refers to one of two sides, suggesting that God took one of Adam's "sides" to build Eve. This obviously would be more than a surgical procedure.
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).
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