The Thunder and Wind of Yahweh’s Judgment: The True Meaning of Genesis 3:8

John C. Rankin

So much theological folly can come to pass due to poor translation of the biblical text. What is your image of Genesis 3:8, of God “walking in the garden in the cool of the day”? Of an anthropomorphized deity out for his morning or evening stroll, who happens to casually call out to the man to see where he is, and then happens to discover that the whole created order has just been turned upside down?

This is the sense of virtually all English translations of the text, here as we read vv. 8-10 in the NIV: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’

No, the Hebrew text tells a very different story. The word for “sound” is qol, and it can mean anything from a whisper to a thunderclap, depending on context, and often translated as “voice.”

The word for “walking” is from halak, an act of going that can mean anything from a tiptoe to a military march, depending on context.

There is no word “cool” in the Hebrew text, and much speculation as to how it got there. The word for “breeze” is ruach, it is the term for wind or spirit (including the Holy Spirit), and can range in meaning from breeze to a hurricane or tornado. Perhaps some translator, many centuries past, first had in mind a pristine Garden of Eden, and took the ruach as a “cool breeze.”

Finally, the word for “day” is yom, a word marking time that can range in meaning from a moment to eons, but most commonly as a “day.”

Thus, a wooden and sterile translation could be, “And they heard the sound of Yahweh Elohim as he was going in the garden in the wind of the time.” In Hebrew, context determines how best to translate a given word.

So what is the context here? Yahweh Elohim promises in Genesis 2:17 that in the yom (the very moment) Adam eats of the forbidden fruit, death will enter the creation. This is the largest possible disruption, as the ancient serpent lies about the very language.

So Yahweh Elohim is not caught off guard, rather he is completely aware of what has just happened. Nor is Adam caught off guard – he and Eve are hiding from the approach of Yahweh who promised immediate judgment on what they know they had just done. And as evidenced in how they are now ashamed of their prior naked freedom, and seek to cover it up. And yet still, Yahweh uses the power to ask a hard question of Adam, as questions produce ownership of the answers.

Here is a faithful translation of Genesis 3:8: “And the man and his wife heard the thunder of Yahweh Elohim marching into the garden in the Spirit driven storm of the moment.” Translation matters, and thus we grasp why Adam and Eve are hiding, why Adam was afraid. The wrath of God is upon them like a freight train of enormous proportion. They are no longer free in their nakedness in the sight of God and one another. The ancient serpent succeeds in causing the great rift, the great divorce.

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Have you ever been under the gun of a literal tornado? I experienced a number of tornado warnings in Ohio during my college years, in the northeast section of “tornado alley.” And I saw first hand the devastation of the tornado that tore apart Xenia, Ohio in the spring of 1974. I was on a retreat with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship not far from there a week or two later.

But the closest I have come was in the spring of 1979, on the Atlantic coast in Rockport, Massachusetts, during my seminary years. And it was my wife and firstborn infant son who came within perhaps 100 feet of the tornado.

We lived in a second floor apartment of a house in the Pigeon Cove section of Rockport, overlooking the ocean. Nancy and Chad were at home in the middle of the afternoon, and I was about one mile south on a business appointment. As I stepped outside to get in my car and head home, I watched a dramatic weather front move through. As I recall, it had been about fifty degrees, and as the thunderheads and thick darkness came through, heavy rain, then hail began to fall, and the temperature dropped so dramatically that it also began to snow. As I looked to the north, I saw a green color to the clouds I had never witnessed before. This front moved through in a matter of minutes, with all the varying phenomena.

When I got home, Nancy gave me the first hand report. She was in the kitchen, and Chad was playing on the floor. She became aware of the approaching thunderstorm, but then was roused by the green color, and moments later by a sound like a freight train barreling down upon her at 100 mph and only seconds away. Nancy grabbed Chad and dove to the floor as the whole house shook violently. It passed in moments, and the storm headed out to sea.

Whereas this had all the hallmarks of a tornado in the atmosphere just above our home, neither Nancy nor I had a sighting. But our elderly landlady, immediately afterward, told Nancy, “A tornado just passed overhead” – speaking from experience.

The next day the Gloucester Daily Times reported a possible tornado having skipped down in the interior Lanesville section at the same time in the afternoon. It glanced against a barn, and shifted it off its foundation. Rockport occupies the northeast section of Cape Ann, and because of a canal built in the 1600s, Cape Ann is technically an island. The Lanesville section of Gloucester is due west of Pigeon Cove. Its population is concentrated toward the west facing coast of Ipswich Bay, and Pigeon Cove’s population is concentrated toward the east facing Atlantic coast. Some modest hills and several miles of forest separate Lanesville and Pigeon Cove, and Route 127 connects them at the north end of the Cape at Folly Cove. The largest hills do not rise much over 200 feet.

A plausible scenario is that a tornado skipped down in Lanesville. The hills caused the tornado to be thrown a little higher in the air, so that despite any downward draft within the storm, it stayed in the air as it traveled another several miles across Pigeon Cove and out over the ocean. Whatever the exact distance between the tornado and our home, my wife experienced a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a wind so powerful and loud that it shook the whole house.

Many people know the reality of a tornado with far greater intensity and damage than my wife experienced, and as I observed from a distance, and many people know the power of hurricanes far more than I do, though I have been through a few. But I have enough proximity in experience with windstorms to know that the thunder of Yahweh’s stormy march of judgment in Genesis 3:8 must be the standard by which all other windstorms pale in comparison. Yahweh’s stormy march must have been an incredible roaring wind, and that is why Adam and Eve hid. They knew they had invited the thunder and wind of Yahweh’s Judgment

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