Last week I discussed how Genesis 1 and 2 are two different creation stories—they are not meant to be harmonized or read sequentially. I gave three reasons why this is the case: the number of days differ (six as opposed to one), they begin differently (watery chaos as opposed to arid land), and they have an entirely different sequence of events. Here are two more reasons.
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.
These are some of the issues we will be getting to in the coming weeks. Laying out the differences between Genesis 1 and 2 is the first step these larger—and more interesting—questions.
Enns' series continues here.