Telling it Twice
Genesis 1-3 does not offer one cohesive creation account. Though a handful of scholars and many professional ministers attempt to argue otherwise, it is generally accepted (and somewhat obvious) that Genesis 1-3 contains 2 creation narratives that are far from identical. Brueggemann suggests that we err greatly if we separate the “garden narrative of chapter 2” from the “disobedience narrative of chapter 3,” due to the coherence of those texts. He further asserts that it is incorrect to view that passage as a parallel to, what he calls, “the creation liturgy of Gen. 1:1-2:4a.”7 Indeed, it is actually quite a difficult task to merge the two narratives as they claim different details, order, and time-frames. Von Rad suggests that the two narratives come from different sources/traditions. He proposes a Priestly source for the first narrative and a Yahwist source for the second.8 However, I do not believe one needs to hold strongly to the document hypothesis theory to accept that these are different tellings of a narrative that conveys truth regarding creation, while also, as Ellis proposes, containing “paradigmatic value,” and “comunicat[ing] some things about the spirituality of everyday life.” 9
The First Narrative
The first Biblical Creation narrative is found in Genesis 1:1-2:3. The opening 2 verses are a bit ambiguous in that verse one states that God created the heavens and the earth while verse 2 explains that the earth was dark and chaotic. The dominant understanding treats verse 1 as a complete sentence while reading verse 2 as depicting God giving order to the thing he has just created out of nothing (creation ex nihilo).. However, according to Jewish scholar Jon Levinson, there have historically been other interpretations. According to Levinson, the great Jewish commentator Rashi argued that verse 1 “could function as a temporal clause,” which would be resonant with the beginnings of some other Near-Eastern creation narratives. Levinson explains that while to modern people the opposite of the created order is “nothing,” to ancient peoples it was “chaos,” which they considered to be “much worse than nothing.”10 The Jewish TANAKH Translation thus renders the text:
When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—
My intent in mentioning this is not to “take a side” in the debate over creation ex-nihilo. Rather, I would simply suggest that this is not a point that the text is actually concerned with. The point is that God is the Creator and Order-er of the Cosmos. The text is ambiguous about whether or not God used pre-existing material in his work of creation, because it is unconcerned with such an issue.
Genesis 1:3-27 depicts God as creating, ordering, naming and empowering almost everything imaginable, generally speaking. Verses 4-5 introduce 2 phrases that form almost a cadence throughout the remainder of this narrative: “and God saw that [it] was good,” and “…and there was evening…and there was morning—the ____ day.” Besides giving the text an artistic, poetic, and/or liturgical quality, these phrases also infuse the entire narrative with another level of meaning. First of all, God believes that virtually everything he creates is “good.” Secondly, the narrative is oriented within the framework of time, though this is far from problematic. God’s act of creation is ordered in days. However, these days are denoted by periods of darkness and light, before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, which takes place on the 4th day! The implication would seem to be that God gives and sustains the order, and these heavenly bodies are only given as markers or signs. ( I will speak more on this below, as this claim provided dissonance with competing Near-Eastern creation narratives.)
God’s action in this narrative is not simply direct creation. In some places, God separates (vs. 4, 6-7, 14, 18) and gathers (vs. 9). Further, God apparently acts as a catalyst for creative action by his creation. Verse 11 depicts God as calling for the land to produce vegetation (rather than God creating it directly), and verse 12 depicts the land as actually producing it. It is apparently this process that God refers to as “good” in verse 12. Additionally, while verses 21 and 25 depict God as creating sea-life, birds, and animals, verses 20 and 24 depict God as calling for the sea and land to actually produce them.
Verses 26-27 portray God as creating human beings on the same day as the other animals. Interestingly, in this telling male and female are apparently created simultaneously and no definite number of them is given.. Significantly, we are also told the purpose they are to serve: they are created in the image of God to rule/govern. It is also interesting to note that verse 27 seems to act as a sort of parallelism. We are told that God created human beings in his image, then in the second line, that statement is reflected back (“in the image of God he created them”), then the third line tells us that God created them male and female. This odd grouping seems to indicate that the author understands the third line as at least relating to the first two.
Verses 28-30 record God as giving the human beings a charge. They are to “be fruitful and multiply,” and to “rule the earth and subdue it”. Verse 27 then provides us with the connection necessary to understand both the charge given to us and what it means to bear the image of God. By creating human beings both male and female, God has given them the power to create life as he does. It is thus only in community and relationship that human beings can in any sense bear the image of God creatively. They are also told to rule and govern the rest of creation, and they are to do this while bearing the image of God. They are given the preceding verses as an example of how God rules, orders and governs. It would seem that this can also only be done in community/relationship, and it would also seem that God rules by empowering what he has authority over rather than hoarding power and ruling by force.
Verses 2:1-2:3 unambiguously conclude the narrative by stating that God’s work of creation was “completed” (or “finished”) no less than 3 times in 3 verses. Verses 2:2-3 also depict God as resting after the work was completed, thus instituting the Sabbath. This is a fitting end for such a story. Brueggemann asserts that this Sabbath, as it is kept by the faithful, is “a disciplined reminder of how creation is intended.”11
The Second Narrative
The second creation narrative is found in Genesis 2:4-3:24. Just as verses 2:1-3 made it clear that the first narrative was concluding, verse 2:4 makes it quite clear that a new narrative is beginning, and that this is also an account of creation.
This narrative is much less interested with time than the first narrative was. However, it could be persuasively argued that at least 2:4-25 takes place over the course of a single day, as there seems to be no break in the action. Further, whereas in the first narrative the creation of vegetation preceded the creation of human beings, the second narrative goes to great pains to explain that vegetation had not been created yet because a) there was no rain12, and b) there was “no one to work the ground.” When human beings are created in this telling, God creates a single male. This man is not said to be created in the image of God, but rather is created by God from the dust of the ground. In the first narrative, God charges human beings with the care of the whole earth. In this second telling, God plants a garden called “Eden” and places the man within it to care for it. God then tells this man that he is free to eat of any tree in the garden, but that he “must not” eat of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” for to do so will lead to his death. While it is certainly possible for God to create such a tree, it seems to function symbolically here as well. Further, I would like to suggest the possibility that this is not stated as a legal prohibition with an implied punishment, but rather as a parental warning about danger and consequences/trajectories.
At this point, God declares that it is “not good” for the man to be alone, so God parades all of the animals in front of him a) to see what he would name them and b) presumably to see if one is an appropriate helper, though it is unclear in the text if this is a genuine search on God’s part or an enacted object lesson to make a point to the man. The text tells us that “no suitable helper was found.” God then creates a woman from a piece of the man (rib). Again, this stands in contrast to the first narrative where male and female were created simultaneously by God’s direct action. Here the male is created from the dust of the ground and the woman is created from a piece of the man (both created from pre-existing material). The man recognizes and appreciates the goodness of the partner God has created for him. While this telling is substantially different from the first one, it makes a similar point…We are only complete in relationship. In verse 24, the narrator adds a bit of commentary about how a man will leave his father and mother for the sake of his marriage…which is something of an anachronism since marriage has not been instituted and no one has ever had a father or mother at this point in the text. Verse 25 gives us a clue about the complete harmony of their relationship by explaining that they were naked and not ashamed.
Chapter 3 continues the second narrative by introducing the character of a shrewd serpent. Though the Christian tradition commonly interprets this to be Satan, the text makes no such connection. This serpent deceives the man and the woman into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil by convincing them that God does not have their best interests at heart, but is in fact, threatened by them. Christians tend to place the blame for this squarely on the woman, though this is a bit unfair and tends to serve as a justification for sexist attitudes. The serpent chooses to engage the woman, who did not exist when the warning about the tree was given (though she has apparently been told of it.) Additionally, verse 6 tells us that the man was with her, presumably for the entire interaction, yet uttered not a single word of protest.
Realization comes crashing down on them as they realize they are naked and become ashamed. When God comes and calls for them, they hide. Both the man and the woman place the blame everywhere on but themselves when confronted by God about their disobedience. In response, God pronounces curses on everyone involved and banishes them from the garden and effectively revokes their access to the “tree of life” which presumably would enable them to live forever. Here, I’d like to repeat my suggestion that these curses are not punitive, but rather are consequential trajectories. I would further contend that such a reading is implied by the opening clause in each curse: “Because you have done this…” It should also be noted that God provides coverings made of animal skins for the man and the woman to replace the shabby ones they crafted for themselves from leaves.