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These two words are variably translated as ground, earth, land etc. How should we understand the difference between the words in this passage?

Genesis 2:6

And a mist was going up from the land (eretz) and was watering the whole face of the ground (adamah) (ESV)

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Depending on its context, אֶרֶץ can be translated as ground, earth, land, piece of ground, territory, country, region, earth, or underworld.1 It's a very common word. This is not to say it can be translated as any of these in any context, the context (esp. specific phrases in which it's used) guides how it should be understood.

Below is a visual representation of the various 'senses' carried by אֶרֶץ‎:2

Senses of "erets" in the Bible

The sense chart shows the various senses along with their frequency of use in the Hebrew Bible. It is clear that the senses of 'land' (whether in the 'sense' of being a nation or territory) and 'earth' are the most frequent senses implied by this word throughout the Hebrew Bible.

אֲדָמָה is a near-synonym (plesionym) of אֶרֶץ. It can be translated as earth, arable ground, soil, territory, world, or underworld, depending on its context. Another sense visualization makes this clearer:2

Senses of "adamah" in the Bible

The evidence for synonymy comes from early translations as well. The Septuagint translated both terms as γῆς in this passage, which has a similar meaning in Greek.3

Given that these are synonyms yet different words, many translators use two separate words to prevent redundancy and to show this distinction. Even so, it could easily be translated,

... and a stream/mist would go up from the earth/ground and water the whole face/surface of the earth/ground....

Given that separate words were used by the original author of the text, it is likely that the slight difference in nuance expressed by most English translators is justified, for instance:

... but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground... (NRSV).

But the best explanation is wordplay. In Genesis 2:7, the word for man/mankind is אָדָם (adam), and the connection between אָדָם and אֲדָמָה (adamah) is likely plain even for someone who doesn't read Hebrew. The sense is that 'man' (אָדָם) is formed by God from the soil/dust (אֲדָמָה), human life thus being described as a combination of a body formed from soil from the ground and breath given by Yahweh God (יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים), becoming a נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh), a living being.

So we see that in this creation account (beginning in 2:4), Yahweh God (יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים) made the earth (אֶרֶץ) and the heavens. However, a stream of some sort would rise from the earth (אֶרֶץ) and water the entire surface of the ground (אֲדָמָה, adamah). And then Yahweh God (יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים) formed 'man' (אָדָם, adam) from the soil/dust of the ground (אֲדָמָה, adamah).4 This wordplay seems most likely.


1 Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999), 90–91.

2 Generated using Logos Bible Software v6.0a.

3 "πηγὴ δὲ ἀνέβαινεν ἐκ τῆς γῆς καὶ ἐπότιζεν πᾶν τὸ πρόσωπον τῆς γῆς." Septuaginta: With Morphology, electronic ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979), Ge 2:6.

4 A creation account found in Nippur begins by observing that such a stream was not yet flowing. The Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninhursag also mentions such a watering system. Also, this idea of man being formed from the soil/dust of the earth is found elsewhere in Near Eastern mythology (e.g. the Atrahasis Epic explains the creation of man as a mixture of blood from a slain deity with clay).

  • Interesting post! "Info-graphics" really can add value - I wouldn't have suspected that the distributions had those weightings in your two pie charts. (I wonder how many of those אֲדָמָה = "land (territory)" occurrences are in Ezekiel; my guess would be most.) Thanks! – Dɑvïd Dec 11 '14 at 8:42
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The semantic range of אֶרֶצ ('eretz') revolves around the idea of "land" (cf. BDB). It can mean "land" vs. sea & air, "country", or "ground".

The semantic range of אֲדָמָה ('adamah') revolves around the idea of "soil" (cf. BDB). It can mean the soil that you till, a piece of [tillable] property, earth as material substance, the visible surface of the earth, or even "country" or the entire "inhabited earth".

There is some overlap, but in general, where you see 'eretz' you can think "land" and where you see 'adamah' you can think "soil". One easy way to remember this is that 'adam' (man) was made from the 'adamah' (dust). In general, the 'adamah' is closely connected with life; man came from the 'adamah', the animals were made from the 'adamah', a person's 'adamah' was (functionally speaking) their source of sustenance, etc.

The significance of this for the interpretation of Genesis 2:6 may be that "a mist was going up from the land (eretz) and was watering the whole face of the soil (adamah)", indicating that the fertile soil (functional source of life) was being watered via this mist from the land.

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Both אֶרֶץ and אֲדָמָה are to be understood as synonymous terms.

In this particular context, the exact parallel arrangement of disjunctive accents and cantillation marks suggests to the reader/listener that the second half of the verse is the amplification of the first half of the verse. That is, in this verse there are four disjunctive accents (highlighted in red), which are in exact musical and logical symmetry.

Genesis 2:6

To view the idea in the visual sense, please click the hyperlinks in the following paragraphs.

The first disjunctive accent provides the listener/reader the first logical chunk of information that ends in what will be the SECOND disjunctive accent.

The second disjunctive accent provides the listener/reader the second logical chunk of information, which completes what was started by the first disjunctive accent. The second disjunctive accent happens to be the Atnach, which is the second most powerful disjunctive accent in Biblical Hebrew. Therefore anything that follows from this point forward will provide more information to modify or amplify until the appearance of the most powerful disjunctive accent in Biblical Hebrew, which is the Silluq (marked by the Sof Pasuq).

The third disjunctive accent provides the listener/reader the third logical chunk of information, which is in exact parallel to the first disjunctive accent. Like the first chunk of information, this third chunk of information "captures" anything that follows in both musical and logical subordination until a more powerful disjunctive accent appears.

The next disjunctive accent is the Silluq, which is the most powerful disjunctive accent in Biblical Hebrew and therefore closes both the logical thought and musical rhythm for the entire verse. This disjunctive accent is followed by the Sof Pasuq, which resembles the colon mark.

In summary, this verse is a perfect example of parallelism, which the musical and logical symmetry of the accents and cantillation marks highlight. The listener/reader of this verse therefore was to understand that the second half of the verse was the symmetrical amplification of the first half of the verse. In this context therefore אֶרֶץ and אֲדָמָה were to be understood as synonymous terms.

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    Glad you're enjoying the exploration of the cantillation! But here, the diagram is out: the "athnach" box should stop with הָאָ֑רֶץ. Compare the TanakhML layout. Hope that helps. – Dɑvïd Dec 10 '14 at 22:09
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    @David -- thank you for the comments. Your citation is correct regarding the "Musical Flow" which is backward-looking. As I cited Dr. Wickes here, the cantillation also provides the "Logical Flow," which is forward-looking. Please click here, which provides a picture of the difference between both. The Masoretes created a complementary system of musical cantillation with logic markers to enable both the memorization and clarification of the text. V/R, – Joseph Dec 11 '14 at 2:45
  • @ Joseph Great! Though I don't now much about music. Eretz 1-200-90 can also be explained as one with ratz I read, ratz is walking fast. And adama 1-4-40-5 has the word value of 50, like Yoshua sun of Nun, son of Fifty, entering the Holy Land. – Hank Jun 30 at 15:44
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The difference between the two words is that ha'aretz refers to the earth generally, B'rashith (Genesis) 1.1, 2; whereas ha'adamah specifies "the place" Adam was formed and the place of sacrifice - B'rashith (Genesis) 2.7, 8.21, or Bikkurim (First Fruit) Offering Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26.2.

The J.H. Hertz (Soncino) Commentary (B’rashith [Genesis] 2.7, page 7) says “the dust of the ground” was taken from the future place of the Holy Temple where the Altar of Atonement was located.

NOTE: “An altar of adamah thou shalt make unto Me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt-offerings, and thy peace-offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto thee and bless thee.” (Shmoth – [Exodus] 20.20)

  • This is interesting but not self evident. Can you cite any additional sources that discuss this further? – Dan Oct 12 '18 at 2:02
  • The J.H. Hertz (Soncino) Commentary (B’rashith [Genesis] 2.7, page 7) says “the dust of the ground” was taken from the future place of the Holy Temple where the Altar of Atonement was located. NOTE: “An altar of adamah thou shalt make unto Me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt-offerings, and thy peace-offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto thee and bless thee.” (Shmoth – [Exodus] 20.20) – Yochanan Mauritz Hummasti Oct 14 '18 at 10:01
  • thanks! It would be best to edit that into the original answer. – Dan Oct 14 '18 at 12:03

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