Friday, May 15, 2009

Two Creation Stories

Just as there are two flood stories, there are two different creation stories. While Bible contradictions will be part of the argument, keep in mind that I'm not countering inerrancy directly – I'm taking another step in making a positive case for the Documentary Hypothesis that the Torah consists of several conflicting documents woven together. My arguments are not “... therefore the Bible contradicts itself” but “... therefore there are two different creation accounts.” Establishing the existence of a reconciliation between the two versions would not alone answer my arguments. Differences can be less than a contradiction but still evidence that there are two different creation accounts contained in Genesis 1-2 and that neither account shows any signs of having been written to go with the other account.

Understanding the distinction between contra-inerrancy arguments, and arguments that lead to a positive conclusion (in the context of the Gospels) was quite possibly the final “aha” moment for me on the way out of Christianity. With the second approach, to goal is not to find contradictions but to find clues that help us figure out the history of the writing of the Bible. Once dozens of these clues are harnessed together by all supporting the same point, they cannot be belittled one piece at a time as trivial details or something for which an explanation will present itself at a later time.

I would like to begin my argument by pointing out that the prima facie case is mine. Read Genesis 1:1-2:3 by itself and you have a complete story of the creation of the world and everything in it. Read Genesis 2:4-2:25 and you have a complete story of the creation of the world and everything in it. Both stories are begun with verses that would make perfect sense as the first verse in a book.

If these really are different stories, what we should expect to find is differences in the details that must be explained away to maintain that it's really all the same story. If this really is the same story, we should expect the halves of the story to refer to each other in ways that just don't make sense when viewing the stories as individuals – especially because the second half is claimed to cover a time interval contained within the first half. These are the criteria by which I will be making the case for two different stories.

(Don't think that I think I'm some scholar who knows the official criteria by which this is normally judged. I'm merely spelling out precisely what I consider to be common sense so that if anyone disagrees with my overall approach, it's clear what they are arguing against.)

Man Before Plants?

Plants are created on the third day, which is certainly before the creation of people on the sixth day.

However, Genesis 2:5 lets us know that plants are not created yet. “Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground.” Before plants are created in 2:8-9, Adam is created in 2:7. The prima facie case is mine again: Adam is created before plants in the second creation account.

Looking closer at the logic of the story makes the point even more clear. In 2:5, we are given two reasons for a lack of plants: no water, and no man. 2:6 solves the first problem as a mist comes. 2:7 solves the second problem as man is created. Both problem are now solved. So God is now ready to plant a garden and make plants grow, which he does in 2:8-9. It's not just the order in which event are recorded that suggest Adam was created before plants, but the logical flow of the account as well.

Creationists' rebuttal is that Genesis 2:5 refers only to specific kinds of plants, namely cultivated plants. Thus, most of the plants were created on the third day, while the cultivated plants of Eden were created after Adam on the sixth day. I'm no Hebrew scholar, but just looking up all the different words used for shrub and plant in Strong's Concordance offers absolutely no support for this position. I see no reason to think Genesis 1:11-12 excludes some kinds of plants and I see no reason to think Genesis 2:5 includes only the kinds of plants not created on the third day. Without either of these arguments, the YEC position fails without even looking outside the Bible.

The only reason I see for even speculating about either is simply that it is needed to make Genesis 1-2 flow as a single story. Another way of saying this is that the creationist position is to begin with a certain conclusion and then look for an interpretation of the words to make it work. But that's not how you're supposed to read things when the goal is a truth search and not merely the affirmation of preconceived ideas. The intellectually honest approach is to let Genesis tell you what Genesis is saying. The way young-earth creationists cannot do this is precisely the kind of bending over backward that should be expected if there really are two creation stories.

Also, this doesn't make sense of the logic of 2:5-9. The reason for no plants of some kind is a lack of rain and a lack of man. Now, what kind of plants either need rain or need man? Pretty much all of them, at least according to non-technical ideas of what a plant is. If there's a distinction between wild and cultivated plants, then I would guess that no rain is why there are no wild plants and no man is why there are no cultivated plants in 2:5.

Animals Before Eve?

On the sixth day, God first creates the animals, and then he creates people. However, in the second creation account, the order is Adam, animals, Eve. Creationists generally agree with the first part, so I won't belabor that point.

The order in which the events are recorded is the creation of Adam (2:7), animals (2:19), and finally Eve (2:22), so the prima facie case is mine again. But the case is much stronger than the mere order in which the facts are recorded – this is the order that is implied by the logic of 2:18-2:22. In 2:18a, God observes a problem: man is alone. In 2:18b, God suggests a solution: Adam needs a helper. The next thing that happens is God creates the animals in 2:19 as an attempt to find Adam a helper. My claim that the creation of the animals was an attempt to find a helper for Adam is all but explicitly stated in 2:20: “but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.” In verse 2:21, God tries a more successful solution: taking one of Adam's ribs and making a woman.

To argue that Genesis 1-2 is a single literal account means that three things that must be explained away. First, the order in which the events are recorded must be overlooked. Second, the awkward insertion of the story of the creation of the animals (2:19-20) into the story of the creation of Adam's helper (2:18 & 2:21-22) must be ignored. And finally, Genesis' own explanation for why the creation of animals fits into the creation of Adam's helper must be ignored. I don't see how this position can be held unless one is taking the approach that Genesis must be true and literal therefore there must be some way of resolving the contradiction.

This is precisely what should be expected if these are two different creation accounts that were not written to go together. The six days of creation have their own logical structure, and the second creation account has a logical account of needs and solutions. Each makes sense alone, but to view them as going together prevents the reader from seeing what the second author is saying.

Two Creation Stories/Two Flood Stories/Two Authors

The case for two authors gets even better when compared with the two flood stories. In one of the flood stories, God was known as Elohim, while in the other, he was known as Yahweh. In all 38 instances, the God of 1:1-2:3 is Elohim. In all 11 instances, the God of 2:4-2:25 is Yahweh.

Also, in the flood stories, it was the Elohim author that spoke of the opening of the windows of heaven and fountains of the deep, while the Yahweh author says the flood comes because it starts raining. One is giving more of God's perspective while the other is giving more of man's perspective. We see the same thing with the creation accounts. The Elohim author doesn't even mention people until the end, and then man fades into the background again as Elohim rests. The Yahweh author describes the creation of plants and animals in the contexts of plants needing man and man needing a helper.

Furthermore, on the second day of creation, Elohim creates an expanse and calls it heaven. Water is created that is above this expanse. It was Elohim who opens the windows of heaven to let this water out to flood the earth. This suggests that not only are there two authors of the creation and flood stories, but they are in fact the same two authors.

If Genesis 1-2 is a single narrative, it is quite curious that we find internal references and similarities between certain halves of the creation and flood accounts, but we don't find internal references between the two halves of the creation account, in spite of the fact that the time interval of the second half is completely inside the time interval of the first half.

I encourage you to read creationists' rebuttal to these arguments, because it so clearly shows that the arguments I am presenting have been noted and answered poorly. Both sides have reasonable positions if you are just reading an overview of the positions. Where creationists lose is when you compare each position to the specifics of the details in how Genesis 1-2 is written.


  1. As a long time fan of the Documentary Hypothesis, I have to say that it may be passe'. It tells the story of how the Hebrew Bible was supposedly written, but that's the point -- it tells a story that the redactors want us to believe. What if the timing is completely off? What if the scribal culture necessary to develop literature beyond financial and court transactions could not have developed until several hundred years later?

    I have come to believe that the Hebrew Bible tells a master myth, which is structured around what the redactors wanted us to believe. the Documentary Hypothesis is just another master myth, concocted by early critical analysts, but nevertheless a story they wanted to believe made sense of everything.

    What if neither master myths were true as presented?

  2. I don't actually know enough about the Documentary Hypothesis and the debate surrounding it to know just how much of it someone would have to disagree with to "not accept the Documentary Hypothesis." Which particular claims do you disagree with?

    Do you at least agree with the very small portion I have presented, namely that Genesis 1-2 & 6-8 is the splicing together of two different sources?

    The story the redactors are telling is very different in nature to the story DH scholars are telling us. All of the stories the redactors are telling us depend on us taking their word for it to know what happened - and they don't even tell us if they were eyewitnesses or how they know.

    By contrast, DH scholars tell us a story that has been reasoned to from evidence available to all of us. Of course, I can't judge what century a Hebrew document came from based on the evolution of the Hebrew language, but in principle, it's something I could learn, and in practice, it's something that rival scholars can contest.

    Perhaps rival scholars are contesting it effectively, but in any case, it's not just a story. It's a theory which to some degree is either verifiably true or verifiably false.

  3. There is no question about some things: In addition to the creation stories, there are 2 - and sometimes 3 - versions of many stories. Frequently these versions conflict. There is a lot written about this.

    THese differing versions have to reflect divergent streams of tradition, whether these are priestly familoies competing for power or some other explanation is not yet provable.

    The problem is dating. The DH maintains that J was written just after Solomon and that E was compiled before, during, or just after the Assyrian invasion of the "northern kingdom". These 2 products were then merged after the refugees from the north migrated to Judah.

    Problem: The scribal infrastructure and resource necessary to produce literature is greater than tha necessary to produce financial records or kong's lists, and almost certainly did NOT exist during the 11th-8th centuries. This support structure might have started to evolve in the time of Hezekiah or the time of Josiah, but this is not certain. The only time when we can be sure that the infrastructure existed was by the time of the Greeks, possibly the Persians in the 5th century, but certainly the Hellenistic period in the 4th century.

    So if J and E (as well as D and P) were oral traditions that might not have been compiled in written form until approx. 300 BCE, what does that do to the internal myth of the DH? This is not proven either, but it does fit with the evidence known about scribal traditions.

    If -- if! - the various strands of the Hebrew Bible were not written down until approx. 300 BCE, what does that tell us about the thematic organization of the HB itself (Genesis to Deuteronomy and the various histories)? If you read these books from this perspdectiv, you begin to see signs that perhaps the stories of the Hebrew Bible are retrojections into the past concerning present day events. Not actuall rememberings of the earlier times.

    Same for the organization of the DH. If the streams of J, E, D, P traditions were written down later, what does that say about the story that the DH says about the history of the Hebrew Bible?

    I loved reading (many times) Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible. Balance that with some Philip R. Davies. And have fun with the resulting puzzles.

  4. I'll have to check out Davies' books.

    I don't think we disagree on anything, except that I'm using the term "Documentary Hypothesis" far too loosely. As far as I've been convinced is that the Torah is several different sources weaved together, and that these sources disagree with each other on some pretty crucial points. I guess this means I haven't been convinced of the DH yet.

  5. No, I think you are on the right track. The DH includes both the notion that different competing voices found expression in the final version AND the supposed timing of those traditions. But it started as a concept based on documentary evidence and its timing needs to be adjusted based on other evidentiary sources, such as archaeology. This may also cause a reassessment of the groups that are represented in the J, E, D, and P traditions, as well as when they developed.

    That there are different voices is clear. When and how they developed is the current mystery.

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  7. A friend pointed this out to me so I looked it up in a few different places. (I now remember having studied this a bit at university.) After reading a few different sources, as well as reading Genesis 1 and 2 a few times, I am not convinced that there is anything much amiss.

    I hope to continue to be open to the truth, whatever it may be. IF one can conclude that there is a God and that God is good, the rest turns out alright, for a good God would in all likelihood reveal himself to one who is genuinely searching for the truth: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Mat. 7:7-11)

    Keep searching out the truth man, whatever it may be! :) Blessings.

  8. “One of the foundational assumptions of this so-called “higher critical” viewpoint is that the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was not authored by Moses.”

    This is an all-too-common apologetic tactic. This isn't a foundational assumption. It's a conclusion that is explicitly argued for. Just assuming that a position is true is more of a Christian thing.

    “In any event, we must stress this point: whenever there is the possibility of legitimate reconciliation between passages that superficially appear to conflict, no contradiction can be charged!”

    As I put it, “the creationist position is to begin with a certain conclusion and then look for an interpretation of the words to make it work.”

    Whichever side is making a positive claim has a burden of proof. In this case, both sides are making positive claims. The approach Jackson is taking is to start with the assumption that the Bible is true unless absolute proof is provided to the contrary.

    Whenever the most plausible reading is that the Bible is wrong but a possible reading is consistent with reality, Jackson is saying we should take the less plausible reading. (Jackson doesn't concede that Genesis 1-2 is in fact, one of those times. But he is directly making the case for the acceptance of a position even if it turns out to be very unlikely.) The fact that feels the need to say things like this reflects poorly on the plausibility of his case.

    If the goal is to find a way to make the evidence consistent with your preconceived conclusion, you will find a way, whether you are an atheist, UFO believer, holocaust denier, or inerrantist. The fact that he can find a “possible” reading of Genesis 1-2 that is internally consistent means nothing.

    The academically honest question to ask is if the reconciliation is supported by the evidence more than two authors is supported by the evidence.

    What Jackson considers to be the “real explanation” for the different sequences of creation is that “Genesis 1 is chronological, revealing the sequential events of the creation week, whereas Genesis 2 is topical, with special concern for man and his environment.” This simply does not answer my arguments. The creation of plants is a logical progression, and the logic only works if some certain events occurred before other events. Jackson mentioned some other rationalizations, but I'm not going to answer the answers that he himself does not seem to stand by.

    As far as Adam before/after the animals, I wrote: “To argue that Genesis 1-2 is a single literal account means that three things that must be explained away. First, the order in which the events are recorded must be overlooked. Second, the awkward insertion of the story of the creation of the animals (2:19-20) into the story of the creation of Adam's helper (2:18 & 2:21-22) must be ignored. And finally, Genesis' own explanation for why the creation of animals fits into the creation of Adam's helper must be ignored.”

    Jackson deals with only the first. The flow of 2:18-22 is especially problematic to his claim that Genesis 2 is topical. Actually, Jackson doesn't even deal with the first, because the “topicality” of Genesis 2 is a bare assertion. Why should we think Genesis 2 is not chronological? He doesn't say why, while I do say why it has some degree of chronology.

    I simply don't see any of Jackson's points when I open the Bible and read what it says.

    With Matthew 7, I'd take the argument in the other direction. I have sought and didn't find God. Therefore a God who wants to be found doesn't exist. All of the arguments I've heard in support of God being good are at best ivory tower niceties compared to the very personal reality of knowing what it's like to want to believe and proactively try for an extended period of time while being unable to.

    (But looking back on it, it's hard for me to understand why I wished for the existence of a deity who eternally tortures all dissenters. That's not the kind of being that I'd want to hang out with.)