...the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.
The first two chapters of the Book of Genesis combine two narratives about the creation of the human being. The first is a song of creation, summarizing the six days of creation and God's rest on the seventh. On the sixth day God "created man in his own image, male and female he created them." In the second narrative we hear of God's forming man out of the clay of the ground and blowing breath into his nostrils. This second story stresses the unique status of the human creature; God created Adam with his own hands out of the mud of the riverbed.
The human being is neither basic elements like dirt, water, light and fire; nor are we plants or animals. Though Adam is made of dirt -- the name means dirt -- we are not complex mechanical/chemical machines. Our biological functions may resemble those of the great apes, but we cannot be easily classed among animals. We enjoy a superior status above all other creatures.
Perhaps because we need special care and must assume a particular responsibility in His world, Genesis says God placed us in a customized incubator, the Garden of Eden. There's a danger: the privilege of being created in the very image and likeness of God may go to one's head. Adam might be "born on third base and think he hit a triple."
What does it mean to be human? That's not the first question we ask but it must appear sooner or later. It's the question great literature always addresses, and is fundamental to our study of scripture.
At least part of the answer involves intentionality. Aware like no other creature of the past (of history and tradition) and the future (consequences, both intended and unintended) the human creature must sort out innumerable options, make deliberate choices, and continually assess those choices. An act, once done, cannot be undone but it can be evaluated as we decide where to go from there. Other animals may have feelings and fears but they have little capacity for considering consequences, and no sense of history or tradition.
That particular burden -- the awareness that acts cannot be undone -- appears in Genesis as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the prohibition around it. It seems inevitable that Adam must eat from it, even before Eve is created; and, in retrospect, we cannot imagine their not eating from the forbidden tree.
It's over and done with now, deal with it. We may be tempted to blame, shame, guilt and remorse but they do not add up to atonement.
But I'm getting ahead of the text. Today's selection from the Book of Genesis recalls that bucolic moment before the Fall when Adam found himself in his place (the Garden) and learned of his restricted freedom. How will this poor, bare, forked animal, set apart from other creatures with so much power and so little self-awareness, respond to a universe of endless possibilities and irrevocable decisions?