UPDATE: My interest in the Priestly and Yahwist creation accounts—Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 respectively—has resulted in a book, Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, which is NOW available! So if you’re interested in Genesis 1 and 2; in the textual data that convincingly—yes I’m sure of it; the text is quite convincing—demonstrate that Genesis’ two creation accounts were penned by two different authors who held contradictory worldviews, beliefs, and messages; in learning why Creationists’ claims about creation are not supported by Genesis 1 and/or 2; or in the Priestly source in general, its author, and his beliefs and message, then this is the book you’ve been waiting for! On sale now at publishers website. . . coming soon to amazon.
Ancient and modern readers alike have long recognized the stark differences between the seven-day creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the latter garden of Eden account of Genesis 2:4b-3:24. Even on stylistic grounds noticeable in an English translation, the first creation account, penned by the Priestly writer, is lofty, formulaic, structured, heaven-centered, and awe-inspiring with its image of an utterly transcendent and impersonal creator deity who brings creation and order into existence by the mere force of his word. The second creation account, from the pen of the Yahwist, on the other hand, is informal and fable-like in its presentation, is earth-centered, is presented as a narrative dialogue, and is theologically more poignant with its etiological tale describing how man, crafted from the clay of the earth by a very personal and “human” deity, 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 perhaps the most obvious differences, indeed contradictions, lie in their presentation of the order of creation and the manner in which the created world comes into existence. For instance, after the creation of the heavens and the earth, the first account then proceeds to describe how God creates—the Hebrew word used is bara’—plants on the third day (1:11), then animals on the fifth and sixth days (1:20, 1:24), and lastly male and female together in his own image (1:27). The repeated emphasis is on a god who creates (bara’) by pronouncing the thing into existence and then claiming the goodness in the created thing and by extension in the created order of the cosmos. In the second creation account, however, we are informed that now Yahweh (here the deity’s name is specified) first forms—the Hebrew word is yeser—man from the dust of the earth (2:7), then plants (2:9), and then, so that the man should not be alone and that he should have a corresponding aid, Yahweh forms (yeser) animals from the earth (2:18-19), and finally since man is unable to find a satisfactory companion which corresponds to him 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 in the image of the god(s), but in the latter account man is formed (yeser) from the ground first, then plants and animals, and then, woman is built from the man’s rib.
Wordplay and puns are also particular 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 man (’adam), but no other beast formed from the ground (’adamah) has a name, that is an essence, which corresponds to man, only woman (’ishah) corresponds to man (’ish): “This, now, 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 Priestly 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 Yahwist account, the origin of both man and woman is presented through the use of wordplay which accentuates the created stuff from which the essence of man and woman were made: 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 of its thirty-five occurrences. The second account, Genesis 2:4b-3:24, always refers to the deity as Yahweh1 in all of its eleven occurrences, and as we have already seen is the Yahwist’s hallmark. The addition of the word “god” (elohim) after the name Yahweh in all of the eleven occurrences in the second creation story, yielding “god Yahweh” in the text’s current form (2:4, 5,7, 8, etc.), is the result of an editorial process that apparently attempted to soften the transition from the first account’s elohim to the second account’s Yahweh by inserting into the text of the second creation account the word elohim after Yahweh.2 In support of this view, it should be mentioned that this double identification, “god Yahweh,” is only found in these eleven occurrences, and nowhere else in the Pentateuch.3 This is significant considering that the name Yahweh appears roughly 1,800 times throughout the Pentateuch alone.
Along with the different terms for the creator god in each account, both texts also portray their deity in strikingly different manners. In the Priestly account, for example, God speaks things into existence. He is presented as utterly transcendent; he never interacts with his creation and stands completely outside of the cosmos. By contrast, in the Yahwist account 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).4 Such anthropomorphism, that is presenting a deity in human terms, is readily visible throughout Genesis 2:4b-3:24. Yahweh forms man from the dust of the earth, presumably with his hands (2:7),5 breaths 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, nor in the Priestly source in general. It is unique to the Yahwist.
In addition to the varying portraits of the creator deity, the god’s lofty and grandiose transcendence or his stark and churlish anthropomorphism, there are other differences that set these two accounts apart. Although the subject matter is roughly parallel, 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, within which there are repeated refrains where the god pronounces the created thing’s goodness and, finally, blesses humanity—a humanity, moreover, 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 and his placement in a fertile and fecund garden to, finally, his expulsion from that 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 watery chaos, the latter’s original state of creation is depicted as a waterless waste with no rain nor vegetation (Gen 2:5); it represents the dry, arid land of the geography of Palestine, which is mostly irrigated through its various underground springs that swell up from the ground to make the soil fertile, like the one mentioned in Genesis 2:6. The toil required for man (’adam) to work this hard, dry soil (’adamah) is a prominent theme in this story. It is an etiological tale which provides a rationale for man’s current lot—how it came to be that ’adam must procure his livelihood by working the ’adamah, and at that a cursed ground. As we will see in numerous future entries, this anthropological theology of man toiling the cursed ground from which he was formed is part and parcel to retrojecting the author’s geography onto these archaic narratives. That is to say, the author’s own perspective and experience of life as defined by his social and political world is retrojected into the past in the formation of a creation myth that then explains how and why man, as perceived from within the cultural perspective of our author, must toil the cursed ground for his livelihood. Thus contrary to the first creation’s account of celebration, affirmed goodness, and blessing, the latter account is a dramatic narrative with crisis and resolution in the form of punishment and curse.
In fact, in the redacted PJE text as it now stands, the Yahwist account completely negates the main theological message of the Priestly account—that God made both male and female in his likeness and that this is inherently good. As professor David Carr has astutely observed, in the former, humanity is created in the image and likeness of God and this is “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).”6 The implication that Carr deduces from this, as well as other strongly supportive data, is that the P creation text with its emphasis on order and goodness was written to replace and correct the image of man given in the Yahwist version. But because of the redactional process that eventually brought these two contradictory statements together, in an irony of sorts it is the Yahwist text that has now subverted the message of the Priestly writer. And this happens on numerous other occasions as well.
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 between ritual observances and the ordered creation of the cosmos in this creation account. The second creation account displays no concern for these priestly matters, while on the other hand, emphasizing 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 man’s lot in life. Indeed, 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, toward the fact that these two creation accounts were penned by two different authors. In other words, what accounts for these differences and contradictions is the very fact that these two creation accounts were penned by two different authors, and most likely in two different time periods and for two different purposes and two different audiences.
The first creation account is from the Priestly source and it readily displays this writer’s beliefs and worldview. The most obvious is the Sabbath observance. This is not only built into the cosmic order, but it is an expression of God’s presence in the weekly revolutions of this cosmic order. It is also an expression of God’s sanctity and blessing: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen 2:3). Gen 1:14 seems to push this idea further by suggesting that the regulation of the cosmic order serves to establish a ritual calendar whose sole purpose is to provide “signs for appointed times”—that is days for the observance of cultic festivals and holy days such as the Sabbath. In other words, it is a cosmos created for ritual observances! The act of separation that occurs repeatedly throughout this creation account (Gen 1:4, 6, 7, 14, 18) also expresses Priestly ritual concerns and practices. In the book of Leviticus for example, also written by the Priestly writer, separating the clean from the unclean, whether in diet, the cult, or ethical matters, is part of keeping ritual purity, sanctification, and cosmic order. Everything was prescribed at creation to have its own place. This focus on ritual and order is even inherent in the rhetorical form of the Priestly creation account with its repetitive and formulaic structure.
That the opening chapter of the Pentateuch is from the Priestly source is not a coincidence. Rather it is a carefully implemented interpretive decision on the part of the Priestly redactor. It not only sets the interpretive framework for the next four books, but it introduces the central conviction inherent in the Priestly writer’s worldview, namely that the cultic system is woven directly into the fabric of creation itself. Ideas of ritual, order, blessing, the presence of God, and the observance of holy days are among the most visible aspects of the Priestly writer’s craft in this opening creation account. Thus the Priestly creation account establishes the importance of ritual as part of that which was inherent in the cosmos’ creation itself. In fact, the rituals of the cult themselves reestablish cosmic order; that is to say, officiating the cult and festival observances is part and parcel to maintaining cosmic order. It might further be concluded that in the Priestly creation account God is cast in the role of a priest who bestows blessings, ordains the ritual observance of the Sabbath, and in general safeguards the sanctification of the created world. Both the deity’s presence and sanctification is reestablished and reenacted through cultic and ritual observances. This is no coincidence. That God is imagined and presented in the role of its author, a priest, should not surprise us. Texts are the expressions of their authors. We will see more of this as we proceed through the Priestly writer’s composition. The role of the cult, its sacrifices, its rituals for separating the pure and the impure, its observances of the Sabbath and other festivals all function to reestablish the original sanctity inherent in the creation of the cosmos. It also functions to highlight the role of the cult and the priests for the audience to whom this was written. It subtly legitimates a worldview where priests are at the apex, and like the deity himself they too re-create the goodness of the established order through officiating ritual and cultic observances and bestowing blessings. These connections will become more pronounced in the book Exodus, where the establishment of the cult on the New Year’s day is presented, and in the book of Leviticus, where cultic and ritual legislation are set forth.
Many biblical scholars and attentive readers have noticed that the Priestly account of creation is not a creatio ex nihilo (a creation out of nothing). Before creation commences we are told that the earth was formless and void (tohu wabohu). We are also informed that the waters and the deep were present (1:2). Careful attention to these narrative details allows us to see more clearly the Priestly writer’s worldview and what exactly he hoped to convey through his creation account, and to whom!
That the Priestly writer has God create an ordered and habitable world from an unformed void or waste (tohu wabohu) is significant:7 the image conveys that God can create a good and blessed cosmos from an initial condition of darkness, void, and waste. It is at core a message of hope, that even in the most dire of circumstances and conditions, goodness, order, and even holiness can be created. But we can learn more about this initial pre-creation state of tohu wabohu from other biblical passages that also speak of this. For example, foreseeing the imminent doom of Judah by the Babylonians and the coming desolation of the lands and the turning of fruitful fields into wildernesses, Jeremiah professes: “I looked on the earth and behold, it was void and waste (tohu wabohu), and to the heavens, and they had no light (Jer 4:23). The prophet uses the image of the reversal of creation to depict the harsh realities of the Babylonian destruction of the land of Judah and its people in 587 BC. In fact, references to Judah specifically, and the earth in general, as a tohu wabohu, a wasteland, a barren and sterile wilderness, are typical exilic descriptions of the aftermath of the Babylonian destruction as they laid siege to the land and utterly destroyed and burnt everything they encountered, from cities to fields. Yet also particular to this 6th century BC exilic literature is the theme of return and recreation, that Yahweh will bring his people back to their land and once again turn it from a wasteland (tohu wabohu) into a fertile and habitable land. Isaiah 45:18, for example, states that Yahweh has “formed the earth and made it; he established it. He created it not a wasteland (tohu), but he formed it to be habited.” In its historical context, tohu refers to the desolation of the land of Judah in the aftermath of the Babylonian destruction and exile of 587 BC. Yet the allusion to (re)creation is also apparent here. It is a message of hope to the exilic community that Yahweh will turn Judah in the aftermath of this Babylonian destruction back into a habitable land. As in Genesis 1:2, an initial condition of a wasteland (tohu) is created into a habitable world. The passage continues: “I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness. I did not say to the children of Jacob, ‘Seek me in desolation (tohu)’” (45:19). Here the reference is to the Israelites in their exiled captivity in Babylon. In other words, these 6th century BC texts use tohu to speak of the wasteland, desolation, and darkness of the exilic condition, and the aftermath of the Babylonian destruction of Judah. What was brought about was tohu, a state of decreation. But these prophetic passages also express hope that this was not Yahweh’s intention—to have the exiles sitting in tohu. They express hope that Yahweh will (re)create a habitable world from this current condition of tohu, and bring his people out of tohu. They are in short, narratives of (re)creation designed to address the specific historical catastrophe brought about by the Babylonian destruction of 587 BC. The point I’m trying to make is that this specific vocabulary and imagery is unique to the exilic literature of the 6th century BC and reflects these authors’ reality, or at least how they perceived their reality—as a desolation, a wasteland. Since this word (tohu) and what it conveys is only found in the exilic literature of the 6th century BC, could the Priestly writer also be expressing the same idea in his creation account and to the same audience for the same purpose as these exilic texts? The tohu wabohu of the Priestly creation account would seem to serve two purposes then: it describes the state of desolation and waste wrought by the Babylonian aftermath of 587 BC, and on the cosmic level the waste and void that existed prior to creation. If this is so, then the Priestly creation account, like the Isaiah passage above, is a message of hope for the exiles. It is an expression of the very hopes and reality of an exilic community and how this community perceived its own condition. In other words, the Priestly creation account is very much representative of its 6th century BC date of composition and the worldview shared by the exilic community. It is an expression of hope, and faith, that God has created, and will recreate, the world a habitable place from an original state of void and wilderness. It reaffirms to this exilic community, the goodness and holiness in the created order of the world despite their current plight living in tohu!
The Yahwist creation account, on the other hand, expresses the very opposite, and portrays a dismal portrait of man and his precarious relationship to his creator. Furthermore, without even taking notice of the Priestly writer’s themes and message, the Yahwist’s creation account serves to explain the current lot of mankind, cursed to work the field. In fact this dismal picture gets increasingly worse as the Yahwist text continues with the murder of Abel by his own brother. Since the Priestly text was written after the Yahwist, many critics see the Priestly source and its strategically placed passages as an attempt to correct, readjust, or impose a new interpretive framework onto the JE narrative. By placing P’s creation account before J’s, the redactor makes a theological assertion that God created a good cosmos and a morally upright and divine-like humanity. It is only later that J’s less-than-perfect image of the human race with its disobedient and violent nature emerges. A further case can be made. There are good grounds for arguing that P’s creation account with its optimistic view of a godlike humanity, blessed and good, was intended as a refutation of or correction to J’s dismal portrait of a increasingly violent humanity. In this case, the Priestly writer would be involved in a program of reconceptualizing Israel’s prehistory in response to the concerns, ideas, and beliefs of a particular elite priestly guild in a specified socio-historical setting. Indeed, contrary to the redactor that brought these two creation myths together, the Priestly writer, since he is later than the Yahwist, might correctly be seen as writing a new creation of humanity that was meant to subvert, correct, and even replace the older tradition preserved in what we now call the Yahwist source (Gen 2:4b-25). Why? So that the primeval creation narrative offered up a poignant message to the exilic community it was drafted for, and answered their needs and concerns, while nevertheless expressing the views and beliefs of the Priestly guild that penned the account. Finally, what ever unique intentions, meanings, and purposes the J and P authors individually had in creating their creation accounts, they are gone. The combined PJ creation narrative now introduces unforeseen interpretive questions and meanings that neither the author of J nor P intended, one of which is the tendency among modern uninformed readers to harmonize these two accounts. This actually does disservice to both the J and P authors and their individual texts with their different meanings and purposes. It places the reader’s importance above those of the authors.
Appendix: Genesis’ creation accounts and their Near Eastern predecessors
It needs to be mentioned that not only is the biblical text as it has come down to us a composite of older, and divergent, oral and textual traditions, but even the Priestly (P) and the Yawhist (J) accounts of creation display the influences of older Near Eastern literary traditions. For example, scholars have long noted the similarities between P’s seven-day creation account and the Babylonian creation account Enuma elish. For example, both Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Enuma elish share a similar order in the creation of the cosmos. Like P’s creation myth, its Mesopotamian predecessor also speaks of: first the separation of the primeval watery chaos, then the creation of light, the creation of a firmament, the dry land, the luminaries, man, and then the rest and celebration of the god(s). Like P (1:26) there is also the presence of a divine counsel. There can be little doubt that the author of P used and reshaped the Mesopotamian sources that were available to him in creating the creation myth of Genesis 1:1-2:3. It should be recalled that the Priestly writers were influenced by Babylonian cultural ideas since they were presently living in captivity in Babylon when these texts were being drafted.
J’s creation account exhibits Canaanite literary influences as well. Largely thanks to the discovery of a vast Canaanite literary corpus at Urgarit in modern-day Syria, we know quite a lot about Israel’s ethnic predecessors, the Canaanites. This corpus of literature also speaks about a mythic Eden-like paradise free from toil, disease, and warfare. We are also informed of other mythic accounts where a creator deity creates man from clay. Both the Babylonian god Marduk creates man from a mixture of clay and Tiamat’s divine blood, perhaps to be compared to Yahweh’s molding of man from a mixture of clay and his divine breath, and the Egyptian god Khnum fashions man out of clay on his potter’s wheel. The idea of a tree of life is also central to many Sumerian myths, and a late Persian creation myth recounts the story of Mashyoi and Mashya, the first human pair fashioned by the god Ahura Mazada out of a plant and his divine breath, who were also commanded to obey the god’s laws under consequence of divine penalty. There can be little doubt that both our biblical authors were influenced by earlier sources from which they, or an already existing Israelite tradition, borrowed and reshaped in composing their individual creation accounts. Lastly, since the theme of exile—being cast out of the garden of Eden for disobedience—is so central to J’s creation account, many commentators have sought a date of composition, or a date for this myth’s final redaction, in the exilic period, when the survivors of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem were resettled in Babylon in 587–539 BC. In this scenario, then, the Yahwist creation account also serves as an ominous prognosis for the exiles current state of existence: banned from Eden/Jerusalem,8 landless and exiled. In support of this late date, commentators have noted how the story of the Garden of Eden is silently absent from pre-exilic literature, and only surfaces in other exilic texts.9
The P account has another potential similarity with its earlier Mesopotamian counterpart, namely its function as a liturgical text. The Enuma elsih recounts Marduk’s rise to his position as supreme god among the other gods. In fact the text is more political than it first seems: it legitimates, explaining how and why, Marduk, the god of Babylon, and by extension the Babylonian empire itself, has come to have sovereignty over all the created world. It was a text that was recited, possibly even performing the re-enactment of Marduk’s victory over the primeval chaotic waters, at the great New Year Festival which was celebrated throughout the Babylonian empire, and whose prominent purpose was to celebrate, and legitimate through such propagandistic texts, the enthronement of the king as Marduk’s divine representative on earth. It was a seven day celebration. This Mesopotamian background together with the strophic arrangement with repeated refrain, “and God saw that it was good,” of P’s six-day creation account has led some commentators to speculate that the P creation account was likewise used for liturgical purposes at the New Year festival celebrating the enthronement of Yahweh as king. This political celebration would have therefore been a celebration of order out of chaos, or annually as the celebration of the re-establishment of order. Like the Enuma elish, the Priestly creation account might have also served a political legitimating role in pronouncing Israel’s god as sovereign ruler over the created world. Furthermore, as mentioned above, there may even have been a cultic element to this festival, namely the re-enactment of the act of separation which shares affinities with both the ordering of the cosmos and the re-establishment of cultic boundaries of pure and impure.10 Some commentators have sought a historical setting for the composition of P’s creation account in the post-exilic period, where issues of re-establishing and preserving political and religious order, proclaiming the god of Israel as sovereign, and ritual observances of the cult and Sabbath would have been concerns for the post-exilic community returning to the land of Judah. The different occasions for the Priestly and the Yahwist creation accounts would certainly provide a reason for why both these creation myths were preserved: one had a liturgical purpose celebrating the sovereignty of the creator god’s viceregent on earth, man, who was created in his image and likeness. The other expressed the staples of Israelite theology—torah, sin, exile—and the relationship between Israel and their god, Yahweh.
- 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 practice 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.↵
- Richard Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, 35.↵
- The one exception is Ex 9:30. But Friedman (ibid) is suspicious of this occurrence since in the Septuagint the Greek equivalent of elohim (theos) is absent.↵
- 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).↵
- David Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis, 64.↵
- This expands on the observations of Mark Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis, 57-59.↵
- E.g., Ezek 28.↵
- See for example: Isa 51:3; Ezek 28:13, 31:16-18, 36:35; Joel 2:3.↵
- See the many cases of breached ritual boundaries and the reestablishment of pure and impure demarcations throughout Leviticus, the central P text.↵