Israel’s Two Creation Stories, Part 1

| By Pete Enns

The book of Genesis includes two very different creation stories. The first, “Genesis 1” runs from verse 1:1 to the middle of 2:4 (2:4a). The second, “Genesis 2,” runs from verse 2:4b to 2:25.

Beginning in the 18th century, European Old Testament scholars discussed this point in earnest. The next two centuries brought the discovery of numerous creation stories from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan. With the discovery of these creation stories, scholars could now see clear evidence to support a nonliteral reading of the Genesis texts, since each biblical story shares characteristics of different Near Eastern stories. (We will look at this issue in future posts.)

Some modern scholars have relished in simply “dividing” the two stories as a way of undermining the Bible. That attitude has turned some people off to exploring the dual nature of the creation stories. But seeing two creation stories in Genesis is not the invention of modern biblical scholars.

For example, the ancient Jewish interpreter Philo of Alexandria (20 BC to AD 50) understood Genesis 1 and 2 to be contradictory. This was not a problem for Philo, however. Rather, it signaled to him that the two stories were not meant to be understood historically. God meant them to be understood as pointing to realities deeper than the merely historical.

For readers today, there are four very good reasons to focus on the differences between the creation stories in Genesis.

First, if this is what Scripture presents, as many alert readers have indicated, it is reason enough for us to look at it carefully.

Second, two different perspectives on creation in Genesis suggest (as it did to Philo) that “recording history” is not the point. That is clearly a very important point to ponder in the discussion between Christianity and evolution.

Third, outlining the distinctives of the two creation stories encourages respect for what is actually written, rather than obscuring those elements in order to achieve some artificial unity. Genesis 1 and 2 is not the only place in the Bible where two different versions of the same story are placed side-by-side. (For example, there are two genealogies in Genesis 4 and 5 and two accounts of the spread of humanity in Genesis 10 and 11. There are also two distinct histories of Israel, one in Samuel/Kings and the other Chronicles, and four distinct tellings of the story of Jesus.) So, when we see the “two-ness” of the creation story, we should pay close attention to what we can learn from this.

Fourth, perhaps ironically, seeing how Genesis 1 and 2 differ will help us appreciate what role they play togetherat the beginning of the Bible.

With that in mind, here are some of the differences between the two creation stories. We will continue this in next week’s post.

How Long Did It Take God?

Genesis 1 describes creation as a six-day event followed by rest. Some readers take these days literally, and others figuratively. Whichever way we take it, the story is told as a sequence of six acts of creation each occurring on separate days.

Genesis 2, however, does not have a multi-day sequence. Genesis 2:4b begins with the Hebrew phrase be-yom. This signals that the second creation account happened either in one day or a continuous series of events not marked by the passing of days. (Lay the two translations side-by-side to see the difference this makes.)

The NIV translates this Hebrew phrase “when.” This is possible in principle, but it obscures the distinctiveness of Genesis 2. The NRSV preserves the better translation “in the day.”

Different Depictions of the Beginning

The two stories depict two different primordial scenes.

Genesis 1 begins with pre-existent chaotic matter—darkness and a watery deep—that is about to be “tamed” by God during the six-day sequence. The spirit of God hovers over the deep, and begins the creation sequence by first making light (1:3-5) and then dividing the waters (1:6-10). Genesis 1 shows how God makes habitable what is uninhabitable.

Genesis 2 depicts a similar transition from inhabitable to habitable, but it does not describe the primordial state in the same way. Instead, we find ourselves in a land that is not yet fully habitable. There are streams watering the earth. The presenting problem is not chaos but absence of plant life because there was neither rain nor anyone to work the land.

The setting of the scene for creation is different in these two accounts.

Different Order of Events

Genesis 1 and 2 not only begin with a different primordial scene. They also have distinct descriptions of what happens next, both in order and content.

Genesis 1 describes the ordering of primordial chaos in the following sequence:

First, God creates the habitable space: light, separation of waters, dry land (days 1-3).

Second, he fills the space: plants, heavenly lights, sea and sky creatures, land animals, and humans (male and female) together at the end (days 4-6).

Genesis 2 follows a different order.

God creates ha-`adam (the man, or Adam) out of dust and before there is any plant life (Genesis 1 says plant life preceded humanity).

Next1 he creates a garden and puts the man there to work it.

After placing the man in the garden, God creates animals for him as helpers.

Then, finding no suitable helper for man among the animals, God forms the woman out of the man’s side (rather than forming humans together on the sixth day as in Genesis 1).

The two creation stories are not saying the “same thing,” nor does Genesis 2 follow chronologically from Genesis 1. They are two distinct stories of creation, both in terms of content and order. They cannot be harmonized—they were never intended to be.

Enns' series continues here.

1. At this point (v. 8), the NIV translates the simple Hebrew past “The Lord God planted a garden” as an English pluperfect “The Lord God had planted a garden.” Throughout this story the NIV handles the simple past as a simple past, but not here. Why? The NIV opts for the pluperfect in order to push the creation of the garden backbefore the creation of the manto preserve the sequence of Genesis 1. The NRSV is better here by preserving the simple past, therefore reading Genesis 2 sequentially. The same point holds for v. 19 and the creation of the animals. Genesis 2 has them created after the man, but the NIV again uses the pluperfect to push the creation of animals back before humanity to harmonize the sequences of the two creation stories. Here too the NRSV preserves the simple past.


About the Author

Pete Enns

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.