Did God Come to Eden “In the Cool of the Day”?

an image of the garden of eden to represent the cool of the day

Genesis 3:8 is a familiar verse in a familiar story: Adam and Eve have sinned, and now, in the cool of the day, they hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the Garden. Afraid, they hide among the trees.

However, there’s a serious translation difficulty in this verse, namely, the meaning of the phrase often rendered “in the cool of the day.” In this article I call into question translations that take the phrase to refer to evening time, presenting alternative renderings and offering readers a window into how translators evaluate competing translation options.

The translation tradition

There is a long tradition of translations that find in Genesis 3:8 a reference to the time of day. The Vulgate has God coming to judge ad auram post meridiem: “at the afternoon breeze,” translated by Wycliffe as, “at the wind after midday.” And in fact, this understanding of the Hebrew phrase goes back at least as far as the Septuagint, which also translates the expression with a time reference: τὸ δειλινόν (to deilinon), the late afternoon (but with no reference to a breeze).

The Hebrew phrase in question is לְרוּחַ הַיּוֹם (lǝrûaḥ hayyôm). A literal translation of these two words might be something like “in the wind of the day.” Modern English translations can be divided into three groups in their rendering of the phrase:

1. Simple time designations

“that evening” (GNB), “late in the afternoon” (CEB, cf. LXX).1

2. Time-plus-weather expressions

“at the time of the evening breeze” (NRSV, CSB, REB), “at the breezy time of the day” (NET, NABRE, similarly JPS1985 and Everett Fox, cf. the Greek translation of Theodotion).2

3. Weather designations that suggest a time of day

“in the cool of the day” (Tyndale, KJV, NASB, RSV, ESV, NIV, similarly JPS1917).3

Despite the variations, all the above translations understand the phrase to situate the Lord’s coming at a particular time of day (usually late afternoon or evening) characterized by particular weather conditions (breezy or cool).

So then, what might be wrong with translations that adopt one of these renderings?

What time of day?

The first problem with translating lǝrûaḥ hayyôm to mean a time of day is that the phrase is used nowhere else in the Old Testament. If this were a standard expression for a particular time of day, one might expect it to show up more than just this once.

Further, this Hebrew phrase is an odd way to talk about a time of day, which is why even translations marketed as “literal” or “faithful” don’t offer a literal translation of the phrase. I am aware of only one translation that gives a direct rendering of lǝrûaḥ hayyôm into English, that of Bray and Hobbins, and even they supply a clarifying gloss: “at the time of the wind of the day” (italics added).4

One reason lǝrûaḥ hayyôm is a strange way to talk about a time of day is that it is not clear what time of day it refers to. For the expression to work, it should clearly pick out a particular part of the day—as do בֹּקֶר (bōqer) “morning,” צָהֳרַ֫יִם (ṣohŏrayim) “noon,” and חֹם הַיּוֹם (ḥōm hayyôm) “the heat of the day.”

Wind in the Old Testament

By far, the greatest difficulty with the translation tradition is posed by the word rûaḥ. Against the rendering of Genesis 3:8 in English translations like the ESV and NIV, the word is nowhere else translated “cool.” When the word doesn’t mean “spirit” or “breath,” it is typically translated “wind”; but never once in the Old Testament does the rûaḥ bring cold or coolness, though it often brings heat.

Furthermore, rûaḥ in the Old Testament is never a refreshing breeze. It is frequently powerful and regularly accompanies a storm, but rûaḥ never depicts a gentle blowing. The point, of course, isn’t that winds in the ancient Near East couldn’t be cool or gentle, nor that such a breeze wouldn’t be called a rûaḥ by an ancient Hebrew. The point is that there is no positive evidence that rûaḥ would be interpreted as either cool or gentle (a “breeze”) by an early reader of the Hebrew Old Testament without strong contextual clues, none of which exist in Genesis 3:8.

Indeed, in subsequent Scripture, when God reveals himself in the context of a rûaḥ, it is a stormy or powerful wind, not a gentle breeze blowing over someone’s late afternoon quiet time (e.g., the poetic recounting of the Red Sea crossing in Exodus 15, the storm theophany of Psalm 18, and God’s appearance to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 1–2, discussed further below).5

But if lǝrûaḥ hayyôm does not mean “in the cool of the day” or “the breezy time of day,” how should it be translated?

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Alternative 1: “the breath of the day”

The first alternative translation for lǝrûaḥ hayyôm is suggested by a parallel expression in Song of Solomon, in which both the bride and the beloved use the phrase עַד שֶׁיָּפוּחַ הַיֹּום (ʿad šeyyāpûaḥ hayyôm) “until the day breathes” (NRSVue) to designate a time of day (2:17; 4:6). Instead of the noun rûaḥ, we read in this phrase the rhyming verb yāpûaḥ, “to breathe, blow.” A common meaning for rûaḥ, besides “wind,” is “breath,” a meaning it bears in Genesis 6:17 (“breath of life”). The resulting rendering in Genesis 3:8 would then be the breath of the day.

If we understand rûaḥ hayyôm to mean roughly the same thing as yāpûaḥ hayyôm, then instead of taking the expression in Genesis 3:8 to be a straightforward time designation, we should read it as an intentionally figurative, poetic expression. Further, observe that translating lǝrûaḥ hayyôm as “in the breath of the day” suggests not afternoon or evening but instead morning time, when the day comes to life.6

This rendering would lead us to consider other connections between the opening chapters of Genesis and the Song of Solomon. Note, for example, that the rare term תְּשׁוּקָה (tǝšûqâ), often translated “longing” or “desire,” occurs only in Genesis 3:16, 4:7, and Song of Solomon 7:11. Broader conceptual parallels are also worth exploring: in particular, Song of Solomon’s depiction of the love of the beloved and his bride is fruitfully, not to say traditionally, read as a poem about the love of Israel’s King/king for his people, a love expressed and enacted in garden-like environs. Solomon’s cycle of love poems reverses the tragedy of Genesis 3, in which the lover-king comes to the garden to find his people-bride unfaithful.

Alternative 2: “the Spirit of the day”

A second alternative rendering comes from Meredith G. Kline’s Images of the Spirit. Noting the serious difficulties with the traditional rendering, Kline suggests that rûaḥ should be rendered in Genesis 3:8 just as it is in Genesis 1:2 by most versions, as “Spirit.” This gives a radically different meaning to the phrase: Adam and Eve hear the sound of the Lord going to and fro in the garden “as the Spirit of the day.” This rendering is not so opaque as it my seem on a first reading. The first creative act of God’s Spirit after his introduction in Genesis 1:2 was to bring God’s illuminating glory to earth by creating light, which God named “Day” (Gen 1:3–5). Now in Genesis 3:8, the Spirit of the day brings the searching daylight of God’s judgment to sin-darkened mankind.

This proposal has two advantages. First, it offers a consistent translation of rûaḥ as “Spirit” in its only two occurrences in Genesis 1–3, and also of yôm, as “day,” in its twenty occurrences. The second advantage is found in the very strangeness of the phrase: it invites readers to slow down and ponder the relationship between this verse and Genesis 1:2-5, as well as subsequent Scripture. Later scriptural developments of imagery connected to light and day naturally find their source here; in particular, “the day of the Lord” in the rest of Scripture speaks of God’s arrival to inspect and judge.

Alternative 3: “the wind of the storm”

The third alternative is also strikingly different from traditional renderings. In a 1994 article, Jeffrey Niehaus observes that the Hebrew word translated “day,” yôm, is cognate with the Akkadian word ūmu, also meaning “day.”7

The Akkadian word, however, has a homonym (i.e., ūmu II) which means “storm.” Niehaus shows that in Akkadian texts, ūmu II “is often used with theophanic overtones.” If Hebrew yôm, like Akkadian ūmu, has a homonym meaning “storm,” then perhaps the Lord God comes to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:8 “in the wind of the storm.”

This proposal is admittedly somewhat conjectural, but note that it makes good sense of both the immediate and the larger scriptural context. In spite of our familiarity with the idea that God shows up “in the cool of the day,” an evening garden walk is not God’s standard mode of coming to speak with his people, especially when he is coming to judge. Compare Ezekiel 1 and 2, a passage full of parallels with Genesis 1–3: “the heavens” at the start of both passages, “living creatures,” “cherubim,” “the firmament,” the importance of “the voice,” Ezekiel as a “son of ʾādām” who is raised up from the ground—and crucially, the approach of the Lord in Ezekiel 1:4 preceded by a rûaḥ‬ sǝʿārâ, a storm-wind.

Returning to Genesis 3, there is little reason to expect a notice about the time of day when the Lord shows up, but it makes perfect sense that his approach is in “the wind of the storm”; and we understand immediately why Adam and Eve were “afraid,” not “ashamed,” as we often think.

Working toward a decision

It’s easy for Bible readers to nit-pick at translations. It’s another thing altogether to be a translator and try to make the right decisions, one after another after another, all the way through. In a hard case like this, there are a number of important factors to consider. Here are a few that I have had to think through in working with a team of Jarai translators in Cambodia.

1. Accuracy

This is always at the top of the list of “qualities of a good translation.” But to be accurate, you have to know what the original means, and that’s just the problem here: we’re not sure of the meaning in the first place. Even if accuracy meant something like “word-for-word” or “essentially literal” (which it does not), we are still left with several options: “the wind of the day,” “the breath of the day,” “the Spirit of the day,” or (if we accept the conjectural connection to Akkadian ūmu II) “the wind of the storm.” If accuracy is also concerned with equivalent meanings, and not just equivalent words, then something like at the windy time of day is also a possibility. The cool of the day is less likely for translations prioritizing accuracy, given the problems outlined above.

2. Immediate context

An important factor in determining the meaning is the immediate context. Here the translator has to judge what is more likely at this point in Genesis 3:8: a notice about the time of day, or a description of God’s mode of approach. Either seems possible. However, if we decide that the phrase designates a time of day, there’s nothing in the immediate context that seems to justify a poetic descriptor for the time of day (the breath of the day), and a notice of pleasant weather conditions (the cool of the day, the breezy time of day) is quite out of place in the context, particularly since what follows is fleeing and fear.

3. Surrounding context

I note here, as I did earlier, that the only other use of rûaḥ before the flood story is used for God’s Spirit, and in Genesis 1 and 2, yôm designates ordinary periods of daylight. This does not make it impossible that the words might be used differently in 3:8, but we ought not put forward different senses in close proximity without good reason.

4. Biblical context

It is here that we recall that the Lord’s approach, particularly in judgment, is characteristically with storm and fire and a terrifying sound. A passage like Ezekiel 1–2, which echoes Genesis 1–3, suggests that in Genesis 3:8, Adam and Eve are not thinking, “In the rustling grass, we hear him pass,” as an old hymn puts it. They are terrified by the sound, like Israel at Mount Sinai. This consideration favors “the wind of the storm” or “the Spirit of the day.”

5. Translation tradition

As a translator, I have to remember that wisdom will not die with me. It is dangerous, if sometimes necessary, to depart from the tradition of Jewish and Christian translations and interpretation. If no previous version has made a particular translation move, I should be very reluctant to be the first to do so. This consideration, of course, favors a reference to late afternoon or evening time, and perhaps to a breeze.8

6. Audience expectations

When the proper rendering is in serious doubt—when the translator honestly does not know which option is correct—it is sometimes best to adopt a rendering that is least likely to offend or surprise one’s intended Christian readers. If readers are offended or confused too often, they are likely to abandon a translation.

Deciding

To reach a final decision, translators have to balance factors such as those listed above—not to mention many others, from considerations of lexical semantics, style, culture, and clarity, to some judgment of audience capacity. The differences between any two translations cannot be reduced merely, or even primarily, to the categories of “literal/formal” versus “dynamic/functional.” We should instead think of translators differing from one another in terms of how they sort the importance of each of many factors in relation to the others.

In my work as a translator, I rank biblical context quite highly in my sorting. I assume coherence and interdependence between whatever passage I am working on and the rest of the Bible. For that reason, I find the traditional translation of Genesis 3:8 particularly unlikely, while “the wind of the storm” commends itself to me as quite plausible. But every option has serious drawbacks, so I do not have a definitive answer.

In fact, the translation I work on in the Jarai language currently has what I think is the least plausible option: a softly blowing wind. It is not definitely wrong, but I have my doubts. Why would our translation adopt what seems to me such an unlikely rendering? First, I’m a team member, not a solo translator, and other team members find this rendering quite plausible. Second, local translations in our area render the Hebrew phrase with a reference to a breeze. Third, while the Akkadian cognate “storm” strikes me as highly plausible contextually, I’m reluctant to adopt a conjectural meaning for such a well-attested Hebrew word. Finally, the time pressures of translation make it impossible to give every detail the attention it deserves. I’ve thought much more about this issue since the time our Genesis was published than I did while I was working on Genesis 3. Someday we’ll revise Genesis, and I hope we can do better then.

Even if we cannot arrive at a final solution, the act of weighing the options is valuable in itself, because it leads us to linger over the text, listen to it again, and reconsider its relation to the rest of Scripture. If we cannot be perfect translators, at least we can be better readers.

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  1. A simple time designation is also found in the 1910 Louis Segond French version (“vers le soir”) and Biblica’s Het Boek Dutch version (“Die avond”).
  2. A time-plus-weather expression can also be found in Biblica’s Hoffnung für alle German version (“Am Abend, als ein frischer Wind aufkam”), Biblica’s du Semeur French version (“Au moment de la brise du soir”), in the revised Statenvertaling Dutch version (“bij de wind in de namiddag”), as well as in the Dutch NBG (“in de avondkoelte”).
  3. Weather designations suggesting a time of day can also be found in La Biblia de las Américas Spanish version (“al fresco del día”), the Nueva Versión Internacional Spanish version (“Cuando el día comenzó a refrescar”), and Luther’s German version (“als der Tag kühl geworden war”).
  4. We find a bit more willingness to give a literal translation in the languages of Europe: the Reina-Valera Antigua Spanish version has “al aire del día”; the always literal German translators Buber and Rosenzweig have “beim Tageswind,” La Sainte Bible (David Martin version) in French has “au vent du jour,” and the original Statenvertaling Dutch version has “aan den wind des daags.” See, too, the literal renderings into Greek by Aquila and Symmachus, highlighted by Christopher Grundke, “A Tempest in a Teapot? Genesis III 8 Again,” Vetus Testamentum 51.4 (2001): 548–51. (I also owe my information about Theodotion to Grundke.)
  5. One may think of 1 Kings 19:11, 12, when Elijah goes up on a mountain, and the Lord passes by, preceded by a strong wind, an earthquake, and a fire; but the Lord is in “a still small voice.” Note, however, that this is not a gentle breeze; the only wind in this theophany is “a great and strong” one. (The translation of “a still small voice” is disputed, but that is not immediately relevant for this article.)
  6. There is scholarly discussion about whether yāpûaḥ hayyôm in Song of Solomon indicates morning or evening time; the NABRE translates “Until the day grows cool” with the note, “in the evening when the sun is going down. Cf. Gen 3:8”; but most commentators take it to mean morning time.
  7.  Jeffrey Niehaus, “In the Wind of the Storm: Another Look at Genesis III 8,” Vetus Testamentum 44.2 (April 1994): 263–67. Douglas Stuart discusses Niehaus’s argument about half an hour into this talk given at DTS in 2013. Thanks to fellow translator Andrew Carson for pointing me to this fascinating lecture.
  8. Grundke’s remark on this point in “A Tempest in a Teapot?” (referenced in a previous note) is worth noting: “No one journeys far by blindly trusting to the reliability of exegetical tradition. Nevertheless, the history of interpretation does count for something: when a proposal is novel, the burden of proof weighs heavily indeed on the shoulders of the proposing party.”
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Joshua Jensen

Joshua Jensen is a Bible translator working in northeast Cambodia, where he lives with his wife and seven kids. Joshua’s writing has appeared in Bible Study Magazine, The Bible Translator, Themelios, Mere Orthodoxy, and the Theopolis blog.

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