Israel’s Two Creation Stories
Pete Enns looks at the discrepancies between the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 and argues that there are four good reasons to carefully consider these differences.
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.
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.
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).
Next 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.
Different literary styles
Genesis 1 and 2 are not written in the same literary style. Some label Genesis 1 as “poetry” and Genesis 2 as “narrative.” These labels are fine as a starting point of discussion, although most scholars feel that they need to be fine-tuned a bit, especially with regard to Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is certainly more like poetry than Genesis 2. For example, the rhythmic repetition found in this passage is more poetic-like: God sees, speaks, declares as good, and blesses the day. The same holds for the parallel structure of the six days: the cosmos is “formless and void” in 1:2, and so days 1-3 yield the form and days 4-6 fill it, with day 1 corresponding to day 4, 2 to 5,and 3 to 6. Genesis 1 emphasizes patterns rather than plot.
In contrast, most readers understand Genesis 2 as a different kind of text. It begins to tell a story that will later include dialogue, conflict, and a plot. In fact, it reads more like the narratives that will occupy the rest of Genesis. Still, the “poetry or narrative” distinction is not an absolute.
First, the Hebrew Bible exhibits not just two literary styles, but a spectrum of styles. Some texts are more clearly one or the other, but many others blur generic distinctions (a “rhetorical no-man’s land” as James Kugel puts it in his classic book The Idea of Biblical Poetry) Second, Genesis 1 doesn’t have some of the properties of poetry that we know from elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g., terseness and parallel line structure). Even though the styles of Genesis 1 and 2 are clearly and significantly different, it is best not to be too stuck on labels. More importantly, insisting on rigid labels can lead to problems. For example, some think that since Genesis 1 is poetry, it can be relieved of the burden of historicity—while Genesis 2, because it is narrative, is intended as a literal description of historical events.
Whatever one might think about the historical foundation of either creation story, the literary style has absolutely nothing to do with it. A narrative style does not imply greater historical value. Even in the Bible a narrative can be non-historical. For example, Job 1-2 is the narrative introduction to the poetic book of Job, but few scholars conclude that it provides a historical description of a heavenly court scene. Outside of the Bible, the history of humanity is filled with narratives that tell fictional stories, not history.
Likewise, if we accept that Genesis 1 is poetry, that alone does not mean that it is less historical. Historical events are routinely recounted through poetry. Here one need only think of various so-called “historical psalms” that recount Israel’s historical memory (e.g., Psalms 105 and 106) or the Song at the Sea in Exodus 15 that recounts the Red Sea incident. Sometimes the styles of Genesis 1 and 2 are mislabeled rigidly as “poetry” vs. “narrative.” Other times wrong implications are drawn from the differences in style, such as one is more historical than the other. Still, Genesis 1 and 2 are widely recognized as clearly being different types of literature. This, along with other factors, supports the view that they are two distinct stories.
Different views of God
A more important difference between the two creation stories is how God is presented. In Genesis 1, God is transcendent: he is hovering over the waters; he is above it all, declaring things to be so. He is sovereign over creation, like a high king giving orders. He creates, but from a distance. In Genesis 2 we get a different picture. God is not aloof or distant. He is an active character in the unfolding drama. He is more “down to earth,” almost human-like. He participates in the affairs of man.
As above, how God is presented does not in and of itself allow us to draw a thick line between Genesis 1 and 2. God is spoken of in human terms (anthropomorphism) in both stories. In fact, it is impossible to talk about God apart from describing him in human language (which includes referring to him as “him” as I have been doing here).
But most scholars see a definite difference in degree between the two stories about how God is presented. This is clearer if we read Genesis 2 with what follows. There we see a God who has conversations with Adam, Eve, and a serpent; who takes a stroll in the Garden; who interrogates Adam and Eve to gain information about what happened; who reacts to what the first humans have done by punishing them.
In Genesis 1, the narrator refers to God as Elohim, translated “God” in English Bibles. In Genesis 2, the narrator refers to him as Yahweh Elohim, translated “LORD God.” Elohim is the generic word for God in the Old Testament. It can also refer to a non-Hebrew god or gods, angels, or even human judges. Outside of the Bible some form of that word is found throughout the ancient Near Eastern world. It was a generic and universal word for the divine, much like how we use “God” today.
Yahweh is the famous “tetragrammaton,” the four letter name of the Hebrew God YHWH. It is usually translated LORD (small caps) because scholars are not sure how the name would have been pronounced. The vowels are added in order to pronounce it as “Yahweh.” Translating YHWH as LORD is also one way of showing respect for the divine name in Judaism.
When “LORD” appears in an English Bible, it is neither a title like “sovereign” nor an impersonal name like Elohim. Yahweh is the personal name of Israel’s God, like other nations have their personal gods: for example, Molech, Chemosh, and Baal, among others. In the second creation story, Eve and the serpent (Genesis 3:1-5) refer to God as Elohim only, not Yahweh Elohim. This suggests their disconnection from Yahweh.
Different methods of creating
In Genesis 1, God creates as a sovereign monarch giving orders from on high. God speaks “let there be” and things come into existence. He separates and divides, places the lights in the heavens, names, and blesses his activity. He then rests, observing from above a job well done.
In Genesis 2 he creates in a more down-to-earth hands-on fashion. Yahweh does not speak life into existence from on high. Rather he forms the man from the earth like a potter (he also forms the animals). To animate this former lump of earth, God breathes life into him. He plants a garden. In order to give the man a suitable companion, he induces sleep on the man and (literally) builds a woman from part of the man’s side. The two creation stories describe God’s methods of creating in two different ways.
Different views of humanity
In Genesis 1:27 humans (Hebrew adam) are created on the sixth day. These humans are both male (zakhar) and female (neqeyvah) and they are created en masse and simultaneously. In Genesis 2 one male (adam) is formed from the ground (adamah). Then later, in a separate creative act, one woman (ishah) is formed from the man (ish). Genesis 1 speaks of the mass creation of humans (male and female) at one time. Genesis 2 begins with one man, then one woman from the man in a separate act. The difference in vocabulary reflects the difference in perspective.
One thing that these two stories have in common, though, is their high view of humanity. This distinguishes the biblical creation stories from other stories of the ancient world. We will look at this more in following posts. Here, we will note how the two biblical creation stories depict differently this high view of humanity.
Genesis 1 presents humans as royal figures: they are created in God’s image. For some scholars this reflects the ancient practice of kings placing statues of themselves in distant parts of their kingdoms. That way the kings can be “present” by means of their image even when absent. As the images of God, humans are placed on earth to represent God and rule for him by being given dominion over what God has made. Humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation and, as such, are mediators between God and creation.
Genesis 2 presents humans not as royal figures but as servants in the garden. The Atrahasis Epic has humans as slaves of the gods, but this is not at all what Genesis 2 is getting at. Genesis 2:15 says that Adam is to “work” and “take care” of the garden. John Walton has pointed out that the Hebrew terms underlying these words are priestly language for tending to temple duties.1
The garden, in other words, is God’s sanctuary, his temple, where the man-priest is placed to care for it. As a sanctuary, the garden is God’s dwelling place. When he takes a stroll in the garden (3:8), he was not beaming down from on high to make a guest appearance. It is his garden, his sanctuary. He dwells there. Adam is allowed to share that space with Yahweh.
The difference in how humanity is depicted is one of the more significant differences between the two stories, which is why I left it for last. It is very clear that these two stories are not saying the same thing. But why are they placed side-by-side as they are? There is purpose to this arrangement.
Genesis 1 deals with universal creation whereas Genesis 2 and what follows is more limited in scope. But even though these two stories are clearly different, they are to be read in concert. Genesis 2 presumes Genesis 1, and Genesis 1 is not complete until the creation of adam in Genesis 2. Genesis 1 and 2 were originally two distinct ancient creation stories. But they were brought together into a meaningful whole, to tell one story: the creation of God’s people (Genesis 2) within the universal story of the cosmos and all peoples (Genesis 1).
I am jumping the gun a bit. Some of this must be fleshed out more in subsequent posts. But for now, here is the bottom line: holding the distinctiveness of the two stories before us will actually help us see why the final editors of the Old Testament put them next to each other. If we minimize the differences, we simply will not be able to appreciate why the Old Testament begins with two such distinct stories.
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