Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The “Two Creations” Myth

I keep reading that there are two different creation stories in Genesis. More importantly, the argument is made that the stories are not just different but mutually contradictory.

This was news to me when I first heard Jordan Peterson say it, and I have been reading Genesis regularly over the course of my entire life. At first I wondered if the problem was that I hadn’t been reading carefully. Yet, even poring over the text repeatedly, I find I simply don’t see the issues that prompt the higher critics to assign Genesis 1 to the Babylonian captivity and most of Genesis 2 to a different author at a different historical period.

So why do the critics insist the narrative from Genesis 2:4 on forms “a second account”?

Decently and in Order

David Bokovoy has an idea:
“[T]hough the stories describe some of the same events, they order them differently. In Gen 1, God creates plants, then animals, and then simultaneously creates man and woman. In Gen 2, God creates a human, plants, then animals, and later he divides the human into female and male.”
This is either untrue or at very least remains to be demonstrated. I agree that Genesis 2 mentions humans, plants and animals in that order, but the narrative does not imply any particular creation sequence.

Let’s do the trees first. Genesis 1 says:
“ ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.”
Contrary to Bokovoy’s reading, there is no claim in these verses that the fruit-bearing trees of Genesis 1:12 grew to maturity on the third day of creation. In fact, the opposite is suggested. The Hebrew verb God uses is dasha, meaning to “sprout”. All these verses tell us is that trees with the potential in them to bear fruit according to their kind began to grow on the third day. It does not tell us how long they took to reach their mature size.

Getting More Specific

Then in chapter 2, the story gets more specific:
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground —then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground …”
Though vegetation had begun to sprout on the third day, its maturity awaited the creation of man: “No small plant of the field had yet sprung up.” The word for “sprung up” in chapter 2 is tsamach, meaning “grown to maturity”, not dasha, meaning “sprout” as in chapter 1. The writer of 1 Chronicles uses tsamach to describe the growth of the beards of the men Hanun humiliated. When David told them, “Remain at Jericho until your beards have grown,” he probably did not mean until later that afternoon when they would show five o’clock shadow, but days or weeks until they could return to Israel in a more dignified manner.

Thus, Genesis 2 is not saying vegetation was completely absent when man was created, only that it was not yet in its mature state. Nothing is said of moss or grass, which were present when Adam was formed from the dust of the ground, not to mention a spate of nascent fruit-bearing trees on their way out of the ground.

Grass and Bushes

In fact, we know there was grass from the Hebrew wording of chapter 1. When God says, “Let the earth sprout vegetation,” the word used is deshe', which elsewhere in the Old Testament is translated “grass” and “green pastures”. It is consistently used of low, wild growth. In chapter 2, where the writer mentions which plants had not yet grown, different Hebrew words are used, the first of which describes a plant big enough to hide a child under.

In summary, chapter 1 does not say that the vegetation God created on the third day grew to maturity in 24 hours, and chapter 2 does not contradict it. What it does say is that after creating Adam, God did some gardening in Eden, tailoring the existing physical surroundings to the man:
“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
This is where the maturing of the trees occurs. It was an act of God accelerated for Adam’s benefit.

Animals in Order

How about Bokovoy’s second assertion, that the animals were created after man? It depends on reading verse 19 of Genesis 2, “And out of the ground the Lord God formed [Hebrew: yatsar] every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air,” as if it necessarily follows the creation of man chronologically.

In order to harmonize the apparent difficulty, some versions of the English Bible translate yatsar with the English words “had formed” or “having formed”. This may or may not be legitimate. Some say it is. Some say it is not.

I would argue that forcing the text to say one thing or the other is unnecessary. The compulsion to read every word in either chapter 1 or chapter 2 as if it must in every case be precisely consecutive is a relatively modern problem. These texts, carefully copied and read and heard by generations of Hebrew scholars over millennia, have survived at least 2,500 years in something very close their current form without being dismissed. You and I are not the first to notice this apparent contradiction in the timing of the two great acts of creation within the sixth day. To dream we are is the height of arrogance. If these words were written by a single writer, he was surely conscious of the “difficulty” he was creating, and yet chose to let his wording stand. Even if we argue that they are, as the higher critics claim, two separate accounts, well, that scenario requires an editor: an editor who chose to let the wording stand as well. Was he an idiot? I highly doubt it.

The translators of the Greek Septuagint proposed a different way of harmonizing the two passages by adding the words “yet farther”, implying a secondary animal creation specifically to allow Adam to name the animals. This is not wildly dissimilar to a solution proposed by Cassuto in his 1961 book A Commentary on the Book of Genesis.

Tempests and Teapots

But all of this seems a bit like straining at a gnat to me. The writer (or writers) of Genesis has already demonstrated that he (or they) is not working precisely chronologically. Exact linear order has already been broken by the fourth verse of chapter 2. Genesis 2 begins with the seventh day, God’s Sabbath of rest, then promptly takes us back to Day 6 in verse 4 to flesh out the account with further detail. That is not linear or consecutive, but it is also not self-contradictory. It’s just a way of telling the story in the order the author wants to tell it with the emphasis of each section of his narrative precisely where he wants it. So when I read “Now out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them,” I am not bothered by yet another restatement for emphasis of something we already know, regardless of whatever disputes may exist about the order of events.

A couple of thoughts:

One: Genesis is written in Hebrew, not English, and comes from an ancient culture with its own literary conventions and tics. Some of these we may recognize from their frequency in scripture, and some we may recognize from other contemporary writings. We may analyze ancient Hebrew literature all we like, but there are bound to be things about both their language and the way they wrote it down that we are not going to understand perfectly. That assumption should be a given when we approach the Old Testament. Therefore, benefit of the doubt should be the order of the day, not nit-picking — unless our agenda is something other than getting at truth.

Two: A couple of thousand years closer to the writing of the book of Genesis than either you or me, Jesus Christ stood before thousands and referenced the events it describes on at least ten separate occasions. If both he and his Hebrew audience, many of whom were experts in the Law, considered the book of Genesis reliable enough to teach and receive point after theological point without either side once questioning the text itself, then however it came to us, the text of Genesis is certainly reliable enough for me.

No tempest in a teapot over a verb tense will change that.

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