What follows are three final thoughts on the differences between the two creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2.
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 wais 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 Elohimonly, not Yahweh Elohim. This suggests their disconnection from Yahweh.
Last week we saw that Genesis 1 is more universal in its scope and appeal, whereas Genesis 2 is more earthy. The names of God used in these chapters further supports this distinction.
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.
I mentioned this in a previous post and it will come up again: 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 ofadam 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.
In my next post, I will illustrate how other ancient Near Eastern creation stories help us see the distinctive purposes between the two biblical stories more clearly.
1. John H. Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), volume 1 (Genesis), p. 31.