Genesis 2:6 wraps up the description of the land that God had prepared as a home for mankind. It had not rained. There were no bushes or trees primarily because there was no one to work the land.” The last part of the description is “…and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground.” Hughes argues that the word “mist” might be better understood as “streams.” Then he says, “The mention of streams watering the earth is likely a reference to recurrent flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates. Without man to irrigate the land, the rising streams were useless. All this—the lack of rain and shrubs and plants—points to the untended condition of the earth.”[1]

There is a more interesting use of the word for “mist” though that makes me think that it’s not “streams” or any kind of flowing water. It’s just ephemeral. You can’t see it yet it makes the ground wet. But its primary use seems to be in contrast to rain which you can see and which is necessary for productive agricultural life. Ryken observes, “Although English translations do not sufficiently acknowledge it, the word translated as ‘vanity’ more than thirty times in the book of Ecclesiastes could more appropriately be translated ‘mist’ or ‘vapor.’ In the book of Proverbs, the fleetingness and emptiness of ill-gotten gain are compared to a mist that dissipates: ‘The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor’ (Prov 21:6). The ephemeral quality of life itself is pictured by James as ‘a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes’ (Jas 4:14).”[2] Another use of the “mist idea” is from the book of Sirach 24:1-3 as recorded in the New Jerusalem Bible. It tells us that Wisdom is compared to the mist that covered the earth. It reads, “Wisdom speaks her own praises, in the midst of her people she glories in herself. She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High, she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One: ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and I covered the earth like mist.’”

Well, what’s right? Is it a cloudy ephemeral mist or a stream? It seems that Hughes is probably right. The word took on a different meaning in the passages that Ryken speaks of above. Dealing with it as a “problem” text, O’Brien explains it thusly, “The picture that emerges from verse 6, then, isn’t of a misty, cloud-shrouded earth, but of an earth where the rivers provided enough water for the sparse wild vegetation common in such semi-arid regions. But the intense cultivation of the land necessary after the fall required rainfall plus the added benefit of irrigation from the streams provided by God for that purpose.”[3]

[1] Hughes, R. Kent. 2004. Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] Ryken, Leland, Jim Wilhoit, Tremper Longman, Colin Duriez, Douglas Penney, and Daniel G. Reid. 2000. In Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, electronic ed., 562. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] O’Brien, David E. 1990. Today’s Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties. Minneapolis, MN: David E. O’Brien.