My renewed interest in Genesis 1 & 2 is a direct result of my current writing project, Does the Bible Support the Claims of Creationists? Being Honest to the Texts, Their Authors, and Their Beliefs — not Ours. What follows in this and subsequent posts is the material for Chapter 1 of this project.
UPDATE: These posts were an early version of chapter 1 of my book—NOW available !
My goals in the 13 posts that follow are threefold:
- To put forward the textual data that convincingly demonstrate the hand of two different authors for Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4b-3:24. I implore readers to listen to and understand their messages, beliefs, and views of the world—not impose ours or those of later readers onto theirs, or interpret them away when they don’t coincide with our knowledge about the world or the beliefs of later readers. Our goal is to enter into the world of the text, not impose ours or another author’s worldview onto these ancient texts in a vain attempt to explain the text from our perspective! We must let the text speak on its own terms!
- To demonstrate through the texts themselves that the depiction of the creation of the world and of mankind in both these accounts were conditioned and shaped by subjective and culturally formed beliefs and ideas about the nature of the world as perceived by ancient Near Eastern peoples, the Israelites included. They are not, in other words, divinely dictated, divinely inspired, or objective descriptions. This is not my subjective belief. Rather these are the claims that the texts make and reveal when read on their terms and from within their historical and literary contexts. In sum, our author’s culturally-conditioned beliefs, even “truths,” about the nature of the world that he experienced shaped the composition of his creation story so that the god of Genesis 1 is portrayed creating the very world that its author and culture perceived!—a moon that produced its own light, the creation of light separate from the sun, an earth (the Hebrew ‘eretz is never the planet Earth) that was flat and rested upon the waters below, an explanation of how this earth became surrounded by water above and below, and how the waters above were and are continuously kept in place by the sky which the creator deity specifically made for this purpose, an explanation of how sacred time was built right into the creation of the world and why the 7th day after each new moon and each consecutive 7th day became inherently sacred, etc. Again, our goal is to let the text invite us into its world with an aim to understand it, even become fascinated by it, not to impose ours or our understanding and experience of the world on it, and to interpret away his beliefs for the sake of safeguarding ours!
- To expose why Creationists’ and fundamentalists’ claims about Genesis 1 are in fact disingenuous and negligent of the very text they purport to believe in! It will be shown that they feign belief in this ancient text due to their ignorance about what the text actually says and does not say, the beliefs and messages of their authors, the historical and literary contexts of these texts, their audiences, and the larger cultural perspectives, beliefs, and worldviews of the ancient Near East that shaped these texts and the beliefs and views of their authors.
Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4b-3:24: An Overview
Ancient and modern readers alike have long recognized the differences between the seven-day creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the garden of Eden account of Genesis 2:4b-3:24. Even on stylistic grounds noticeable in an English translation, the first creation account is lofty, formulaic, structured, heaven-centered, and awe-inspiring with its image of a transcendent and impersonal creator deity who brings creation and order into existence by the mere force of his word. The second creation account, on the other hand, is informal and fable-like in its presentation, anthropologically oriented, earth-centered, dramatic, and theologically more poignant with its etiological tale describing how man, crafted from the clay of the earth and prompted by a talking serpent, fell from the presence of its creator, and as a result human suffering and toil befell the lot of mankind.
But the most notable differences, indeed contradictions, lie in their presentation of the order of creation and the manner through which man and woman come into existence. For instance, the first account describes how God creates—the Hebrew verb used is bara’—plants on the third day (1:11), then animals on the fifth and sixth days (1:20-24), and lastly male and female together in the image and likeness of the creator god (1:27), thus displaying how mankind is vastly different from the animals. The repeated emphasis is on a god who creates (bara’) by pronouncing the thing into existence, separating it out, and then claiming the goodness in the created thing and by extension in the created order of the world.
We find none of these features in the second creation account. Rather, we are now informed that Yahweh (here the deity’s name is specified) first forms—the Hebrew verb is yatsar—man from the dust of the earth (2:7), then plants (2:9), and then so that the man should not be alone, Yahweh forms (yatsar) animals from the earth that are in essence similar to the man (2:18-19), but since man is unable to find a satisfactory companion among the animals, woman is built (banah) from the man’s rib (2:22). Thus in our first account plants and animals are created (bara’) before both male and female are created together in the image of the god(s), but in the latter account man is formed (yatsar) from the ground first, then plants and animals, and then, woman is built from the man’s rib.
Wordplay and puns are also unique to this second creation account, and help accentuate this account’s anthropological orientation. For instance, we are told that from the ground (’adamah) Yahweh forms the man (’adam), but no other beast formed from the ground (’adamah) has a name, a corresponding essence, similar to the man; only the woman does: “This one at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman (’ishah) because she was taken out of man (’ish)” (2:23). In the first account, male and female are created together in the image of the deity and his divine counsel (“let us make,” “in our image” (1:26)); while in the second account, the creation of man and woman is presented separately and through the use of wordplay their essences, the created stuff from which each one was made, is highlighted: man (’adam) comes from the ground (’adamah), woman (’ishah) from man (’ish).
One of the most prominent and distinguishable differences between these two creation accounts, especially in the Hebrew, is the manner in which each creation account depicts the creator god. Genesis 1:1-2:3 refers to the deity with the Hebrew word for god (elohim) in all 35 of its occurrences. The second account, Genesis 2:4b-3:24, refers to the deity as Yahweh1 in all of its 11 occurrences. This is inline with the larger textual traditions from which these two creation accounts originated. In the first creation account, the name Yahweh is not used nor is it known until it is revealed to Moses at Sinai (Gen 17:1; 28:3; 35:10; 48:3; Ex 6:2-3). Not so for the textual tradition of which this second account was its beginning; it always uses the personal name Yahweh and contradictorily professes that the name Yahweh was known and invoked throughout the whole patriarchal era (Gen 4:26; 12:8; 13:4; 15:7; etc.). See #11.
Along with the different terms for the creator god, both texts also portray their deity in strikingly different manners. In the first creation account God speaks things into existence. He is presented as majestic and utterly transcendent; he never interacts with his creation and stands completely outside of the cosmos. In the second creation account, by contrast, Yahweh is consistently portrayed in anthropomorphic terms and communicates and interacts directly with his creation (and often with himself in the form of interior monologues).2 Such anthropomorphism, that is presenting a deity in human terms, is visible throughout this creation account. Yahweh forms man from the dust of the earth, presumably with his hands (2:7),3 breathes into the man’s nostrils, plants a garden (2:8), takes and puts the man in the garden (2:15), commands the man (2:16), forms animals from the ground (2:19), builds a woman from the man’s rib (2:22), walks in the garden (3:8), calls and speaks to his creation (3:9, 13-14), makes skins of garments for the human pair (2:21), and lastly puts the human pair outside the garden (3:23). This type of anthropomorphism is never found in the first creation account’s portrait of God, and neither throughout the textual tradition of which this creation account is its opening statement. Rather it is a unique feature of the author of the second creation account.
In addition to the varying portraits of the creator deity, there are other differences that set these two accounts apart. Although the subject matter is roughly similar, its treatment by each account is hardly the same and each account’s underlying emphasis, whether theological or otherwise, is scarcely compatible. Where one attempts to give an orderly explanation of the creation of the cosmos via the word of an all-powerful transcendent deity, and in short is heaven-centered, the other attempts to answer questions of an anthropological nature, is earth-centered, and emphasizes man’s creation, relationship, disobedience towards, and finally expulsion from a very personal and “human” deity, Yahweh. It might furthermore be said that the first creation myth, for reasons that will be explored below, moves from chaos to order, darkness to light, formlessness to form, within which there are repeated refrains where the god pronounces the inherit goodness in the created thing and, finally, blesses humanity—a humanity, that is both male and female, created in the image and likeness of its divine creator(s).
The second account, on the other hand, moves from an infertile, barren, and humanless landscape through the formation of man from this ground, his placement in a fertile and fecund garden, the formation of woman from the man’s rib, to finally their expulsion from the garden and (re)placement on a ground that has now become cursed (3:17, 4:11, 5:29). Unlike the former’s original state of creation which is represented as a surging watery mass enveloped in darkness (1:2), the latter’s original state of creation depicts a waterless earth with no rain nor vegetation (Gen 2:5); it represents the dry, arid land of the geography of Palestine. The toil required for man (’adam) to work this hard, dry soil (’adamah) is a prominent theme in this story. In other words, it is an etiological tale which attempts to provide a rationale for man’s current lot, as perceived by its author—namely, how it came to be that ’adam must procure his livelihood by working the ’adamah, and at that a cursed ground. Thus contrary to the majestic and celebatory first creation account with its affirmed goodness and blessing, the latter account is a dramatic narrative with crisis and resolution in the form of punishment and curse. As professor David Carr astutely observes, in the former, humanity is created in the image and likeness of God and this is declared “good,” while in the latter humanity is punished specifically for yearning to be like his god and this is deemed a transgression. “Gen 1:1-2:3 depicts an omnipotent God creating a godlike humanity. In contrast, Gen 2:4b-3:24 depicts a God who can both fail (Gen 2:19-20) and succeed (Gen 2:21-23). Humanity is not godlike but is created out of earth and punished for acts leading to humanity’s being like God (Gen 3:1-24).”4
Noteworthy also is the fact that the first creation account emphasizes themes whose purpose and importance may be labeled as liturgical or cultic in nature, such as the importance of the Sabbath (2:3)—thus linking the cultic observance of the Sabbath to the created order of the cosmos—and in general all festivals and rituals governed by the appointed times as dictated by the movement of the celestial luminaries, which serve as signs for the appointed times of such festivals (1:14). In fact, there is a heightened emphasis on ritual observances and the ordered creation of the cosmos in this creation account.
On the contrary, the second creation account displays no concern for these priestly matters, while on the other hand, emphasizes themes that are important to its own narrative, a sort of anthropological theology interested in such questions as man’s relationship to a personal deity, to the ground, obedience, theodicy, and his lot in life.
All these differences (in theme, style, vocabulary, theology, presentation of the deity, emphasis, and purpose) and specific contradictions in the order and manner of creation point, irrefutably, to the fact that these two creation accounts were penned by two different authors, for two different purposes, and most likely at two different time periods and for two different audiences. It was only due to a later scribal enterprise of preserving Israel’s sacred literature that these two accounts were placed side-by-side as they now appear in their current form.
But let’s take a closer look at each one of these creation accounts individually, our goal being to be as honest as possible to the texts themselves, and that means attempting to faithfully understand the beliefs and views of the authors of these texts, not ours nor what later readers thought or believed about them, or imposed upon these texts.
- The divine name for Israel’s god, Yahweh (transliterated as yhwh), is rendered in the majority of English translations as LORD. This practice, which is misleading as well as misrepresentative of the Hebrew text, follows a late Judaic oral tradition of substituting the Hebrew adonai (lord) for yhwh in the reading of the Torah, since later Judaism—centuries after these texts were actually composed—conceived the name as sacred and unspeakable. Modern translation practices have regrettably chosen to follow this later oral tradition rather than the actual Hebrew text! Here, we will be as honest to the Hebrew texts as possible. Thus everywhere your English translation has LORD in small caps, the Hebrew manuscript has Yahweh, or more precisely yhwh.↵
- See Gen 2:18; 3:22; 6:3; 8:21-22; 11:6-7; 18:17-19, etc.↵
- Cf. image of Yahweh as a potter fashioning man with his hands (Is 64:7). See also Is 29:16 where yatsar is used to describe the act of forming man from clay, like a potter does.↵
- David Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis, 64.↵