Genesis 2:4b-25 in Its Historical and Literary Context


OK, now let’s start looking at Genesis 2. Here are my introductory remarks.

From the opening verses of the second creation account, or if my reader prefers right at Genesis 2:4b, we notice stark differences in the text’s tone, style, vocabulary, message, presentation, and thematic and theological emphases and even beliefs. These will be brought out in the forthcoming textual analysis.

These differences should not be ignored or disingenuously interpreted away by imposing an exterior theological framework created centuries after these texts were written and by a readership that knew nothing about the authors of these texts, when they were written, why, and for whom. Rather these textual differences should be seen as a product of the text’s historical and literary context, and even embraced for what they are—the mark of a different scribal hand, a different textual tradition, a variant version of the same story.

Stories in the ancient world enjoyed a long oral tradition before they were finally written down, and many of these same stories have their origins in older stories that were borrowed and modified from other or earlier peoples. Many of the stories now preserved in Genesis and Exodus are modified versions of stories that existed in the cultures and traditions of Israel’s older contemporaries.

Stories about the creation of the world, a cataclysmic universal flood, digging wells as land markers, the naming of important cultic sites, establishing sanctuaries and temples for one’s god, gods giving laws to their people, and even stories about gods decreeing the possession of land to their people were all part of the cultural and literary matrix of the ancient Near East.1 In many cases alternative versions of these stories existed. A people living at one place and time might tell the story that they inherited from their forefathers differently in order to suit the needs of their community, or to better represent its changing views and beliefs.

The ancient Israelites were no exception. They told stories, retold stories, modified their stories, recited them at festivals, and eventually wrote them down, collected them, and codified them as scripture.

The Bible as it has come down to us preserves numerous stories, and many of them are duplicates—that is, a traditional story that was told in one manner at one place and time, and told in a variant manner at another place and time. In the end, these different versions were written down by scribes and thenceforth became unalterable. Later, editors who collected Israel’s various stories preserved both versions of the story, even when they contradicted one another, or a later story was written to replace an earlier version! In fact, doublets—two versions of the same story—have always been good indicators for identifying the Bible’s different textual traditions or sources. This website is, dare I say, the primary source for looking at the Bible’s variant stories. All of the contradictions on this website—and we’ve only gotten to the book of Numbers—were the result of an editorial decision made by later scribes who deemed it important to preserve (all) the different versions of ancient Israel’s stories.2

The two creation stories that open the book of Genesis are just that—variations on the same story. And these two variant versions of the creation story were written to address different historical and/or religious concerns and perspectives, for two distinct historical audiences, and most likely influenced by two different versions of the creation story as it had already been told throughout the ancient Near East! We have already seen (Gen 1:1-2) how the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3 borrowed themes and perspectives shared throughout the cultures of the ancient Near Eastern world, and modified them to suit his own beliefs and agenda. It is only due to scribes living centuries later that these variant versions were preserved side-by-side in the biblical text as it now stands.

Perhaps the most immediately noticeable difference between these two versions of the creation story can be seen in the second creation account’s depiction of the creator deity—here specified by name, Yahweh—and the contradictory manner and order in which it presents the creation of man, plants, the animals, and lastly woman.

We should additionally observe that the story that starts at Genesis 2:4b proceeds as if the first creation account never occurred. That is to say, this story never acknowledges, alludes to, shares, or builds upon any of the narrative, thematic, or theological elements found in the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3. To the contrary, as we will see this second creation account actually negates many of the themes and claims found in the first creation account, and frankly this is because it was written separately, by a different scribe, and centuries before the creation account now occupying Genesis 1:1-2:3 was written. It was only due to a later editorial endeavor that sought to preserve Israel’s sacred traditions that these two creation myths—together with the originally separate textual traditions to which they belong (the Yahwist and the Priestly sources)—were assembled together in their current positions. How do we know this? Because the biblical text tells us so; it reveals its composite nature to us when studiously examined. And Because our knowledge about how ancient scrolls were produced, who wrote them, and why informs us that ancient texts were often works in progress, where successive generations of scribes added to the traditions they themselves inherited. The scrolls that later became the Bible bear witness to this.

These differences have long been recognized by scholars, laymen, and clergy alike, from antiquity to the modern era. But it wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century that we realized that these differences, this collection of conflicting textual data which emerged from a careful study of these two passages, was the result of an editorial endeavor initiated by scribes living in 5th and 4th centuries BCE who sought to preserve the various textual traditions of ancient Israel by combining them together onto a single scroll. In other words, this knowledge about the composite nature of the biblical text was all but unknown to readers of the Bible until the emergence of biblical scholarship in the Enlightenment.

The emergence of the source hypothesis in the early 18th century was initially prompted by the work of three scholars who each individually drew the same conclusion from the textual data that the book of Genesis reveals. The German Lutheran minister Henning Bernhard Witter, the French physician for Louis vx, Jean Astruc, and a professor of Göttingen University by the name of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn each separately came to the conclusion that the Pentatuech is a composite of, at least, two once independent sources. It was Witter, who in the early century (1711) postulated a two-source hypothesis initially based on the distinction of two different appellations for Israel’s god in the opening creation accounts of the book of Genesis, elohim and Yahweh.

However, it wasn’t until the 1753 study by Astruc3 that the impact of this discovery was felt. Astruc not only labeled these two sources the Elohistic (from the Hebrew elohim) and the Jehovistic (from the mistaken medieval pronunciation of the tetragrammaton, yhwh), but he also noticed that these two sources exhibited other differences besides the two distinct appellations of Israel’s deity, and furthermore that these differences extended throughout the entire book of Genesis. Most impressively, this two source hypothesis was able to explain successfully the book of Genesis’ duplicate narratives, discordant chronologies, narrative inconsistencies, differing portraits of Israel’s god, and its numerous contradictions! Today, although much has changed in our understanding of the Bible’s composite nature since the 18th century, the view that the Pentateuch was composed from different and competing textual traditions, which has since been continuously tested, verified, and reconfirmed over the past 300 years, is accepted by all serious biblical scholars.

Today, although scholars may debate about the dates of composition of these sources, who specifically wrote them and to whom, and why they were redacted together, all critics agree that the Bible as we now possess it is a composite literary work, formed over a thousand year period and representing the views and beliefs of diverse scribes, priests, and theologians living in drastically different historical circumstances and influenced by ever-changing religious and political needs, agendas, and convictions.4 The placement of this second creation account immediately after the first one is just one example of where and how these conflating traditions were preserved and brought together. There are literally thousands and thousands of other places in the Bible where two or more once separate and different textual traditions were stitched together—leaving behind as it were duplicate stories, narrative inconsistencies, contradictions, and competing ideologies and theological tenets. Here we are interested in only the first two creation accounts….


  1. See, for example: Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation (1951); Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East: Volume I. An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (1958); Brandon, Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East (1963); Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (1973); Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (1978); Lance, The Old Testament and the Archaeologist (1981); Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (1990); Lemche, Prelude to Israel’s Past: Background and Beginnings of Israelite History and Identity (1996); Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (1999); Doorly, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (2002); Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (2003); Wright, Inventing God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi (2009); and Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (2010).
  2. Stay tuned for my forthcoming Understanding Bible Contradictions: Why They’re There and What They Tell Us about the Bible and the Men Who Wrote It.
  3. Conjectures sur les mémoires originauz dont il paroit que Moyse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Génèse (Conjectures on the original sources which Moses apparently used in composing the book of Genesis).
  4. See these works for example: Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (1987); De Pury, Romer, ed., Le Pentateuque en question: Les origines et la composition des cinq livres de la Torah (1991);.Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible (1992); Campbell & O’Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch (1993); Knohl, The Sanctuary off Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School (1995); Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (1996); Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (1997); Campbell & O’Brien, Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History: Origins, Upgrades, Present Text (2000); Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, and King (2001); Doorly, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (2002); Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View into the Five Books of Moses (2003); Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices (2003); Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (2004); Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (2007); Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (2011); and Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (2012).

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