Are there two creation stories in the book of Genesis? This has long been a viewpoint espoused by many Old Testament scholars, but is finding increasing popularity among non-scholars as well. Moreover, it is increasingly believed that the alleged two stories are mutually contradictory, that they cannot both be true. While there are some other parts of the Bible that I cannot explain, I do think the “two creations” interpretation of the beginning of Genesis is clearly false.
The form of this view I have most frequently encountered is that Genesis 1:1-2:3 (or perhaps through Genesis 2:4a) is the story of the six-day creation, but that Genesis 2:4-25 (or perhaps starting at Genesis 2:4b with “When the Lord God…”) is a separate story about the creation of all things, including Adam and Eve. These two stories are alleged to be contradictory. For example, the former has humans (1:26) created after birds and fish (1:20) and after livestock (1:24), while the latter mentions creating Adam (2:7) and only later making animals for him to name (2:19). Another alleged contradiction is that the first story reports humanity being made male and female from the beginning (1:27), while the second mentions the making of Adam (2:7) quite a bit before the making of Eve (2:22). One friend of mine even told me that she challenges her students: they cannot both believe in a seven-day creation (a common interpretation of Genesis 1) and in the created inferiority of women to men (a common interpretation of Genesis 2), because the stories supporting those views are contradictory.
A few technical points should be made. Some people place the first part of 2:4 with what precedes it and some people place it with what follows. Remember that the ancient text did not originally have chapter or verse divisions! My very literal translation of 2:4 from the Hebrew would say, “These are the generations of the skies and the land when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the land and skies.” There were also no sentence divisions in the original text, and so the comma could be a period, and the second part could start a sentence. But if the second part of 2:4 started a sentence, where is the rest of it? The next verse begins with “and,” which makes no sense immediately after an introductory clause. Whoever introduced the verse divisions (and OT verse divisions are older than NT verse divisions) thought that these two parts go together, and unless the “and” is a later insertion (a speculation with no evidence), then it seems likely that the verse division was right.
But we can go further. The phrase “These are the generations of X” is a formula which occurs (with minor variations, sometimes “This is…”, sometimes inserting “the book of”) ten other times in the book of Genesis (5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). It is clearly some kind of division. The question arises whether this is a header, preparing the reading for what follows, or a footer, summarizing what has gone before. At some places in the Old Testament there are headers, such as Proverbs 1:1; 10:1; and Ecclesiastes 1:1. At other places there are footers, such as Leviticus 14:57 and 27:34.
So is the formula “These are the generations of X” a header or a footer? In each use of this formula, whatever “X” is has already been mentioned earlier, so it may seem to be a footer. But there are some surprises: Genesis 11:10 says, “These are the generations of Shem,” but what preceded was the table of peoples from all of Noah’s sons and the story of the Tower of Babel. This interval is much better characterized by Genesis 10:1 (“These are the generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth”) than by Shem alone, unlike the genealogy in Genesis 11:11-26, which really is just a single line coming from Shem. Similarly, Genesis 25:19 (“These are the generations of Isaac”) clearly introduces the birth of Isaac’s sons which follow, rather than referring back to the descendants of Ishmael which preceded this verse (and which are better introduced by Genesis 25:12). The same point can be made with regard to Genesis 37:2 introducing the Joseph story, rather than summarizing Esau’s offspring in Genesis 36. In other words, in every case there the division could not “go either way,” it clearly introduces what follows rather than summarizing what precedes. Therefore the first half of Genesis 2:4 must almost certainly go with what follows. On the other hand, since the formula always refers to something earlier in the text, which the reader has already met, this means that the beginning of the second story presumes that the reader has already read about the creation of the skies and the land. Genesis 2:4-25 is a second story, but not an independent story of the creation, because the text presumes that that already took place.
Another observation: the two chapters use different verbs for God’s activity. Genesis 1:1-2:3 uses the verb “create” (Hebrew bara’) six times, whereas Genesis 2:4-25 uses it only once, only in the header which points back to what preceded (Genesis 2:4, “in the day when they were created”). The former portion uses the verb “make” (Hebrew `asah) for something that God did on eight occasions, while the latter story does so only twice, and once is again in the backward looking part of Genesis 2:4 (the other is Genesis 2:18: “I will make him a helper”). By contrast to these verbs, Genesis 2:7, 8, 19 all report God “forming” humanity and animals from the ground (yatsar), a verb that does not occur in Genesis 1:1-2:3, and (unexpectedly) the verb for forming Eve from Adam’s rib is “build” (banah). I can’t really explain the use of that last verb, but it seems that the two stories have nearly completely distinct verbs being used, verbs that are not necessarily synonyms: “forming” implies a previous state of things, whereas “creating” does not. Thus the animals in Genesis 2:19 were not necessarily the first animals of their kind, but are simply some animals. (Alternately, the NIV translates 2:19 as a narrative step back, a zoom outward to provide the context, and renders the verb as a pluperfect. This is possible in Hebrew, but not grammatically necessary.)
Finally, the final form of this text has these two stories right next to each other, one often read right after the other. If these two stories are so obviously contradictory, what scribe would have thought throwing both in was a good idea? Perhaps (but for God’s inspiration) some contradictions might have crept in between two stories in two different books, but right next to each other? Ancient people were no less aware of contradictions than modern people; indeed, my experience reading ancient and medieval texts is that they were typically more acutely aware of contradictions, and more creative in resolving them. Any theory that posits two separate origin stories needs to explain the psychological possibility for some individual including both stories, one right after the other.
In summary, it seems that Genesis 2:4 is the crux, providing what must be a header for what follows, but presuming the reader has already read what precedes. The story that follows is not in any way presented as a story of creation, but rather a story of formation. And it is hard to imagine any scribe who interpreted these texts the way modern Old Testament scholars do being willing to put them both together side-by-side. For all of these reasons, it seems the most logical conclusion is that there are not two independent and contradictory creation stories in Genesis.
Then What are They?
If these are not two contradictory creation stories, what do we have here? They are two different stories, which make different points. The first story focused on what Moses may have thought was most important for his audience to understand first: God created it all, and he is powerful without rival (a major point of contention in the ancient Near East!). Having demonstrated that most important first point, the second story presumes the first, as we have seen.
What is the specific purpose of the second story? Perhaps it provides more detail. Yes, God created humans male and female, but in a particular way and order. Yes, God created animals and humans, but humans named animals in the search for a domesticated “helper.” Or perhaps the second story is not so much for the purpose of providing greater detail, but instead it was explaining how death was not a creation of God, nor was it necessary. Genesis 2 lays the groundwork for Genesis 3 (Adam, garden, trees, command, Eve, nakedness), which is a major crux in the story of humanity. Alternately, perhaps while the creation of humanity in Genesis 1:26-30 focuses on humanity in God’s image and human survival, the story in Genesis 2 focuses on what humans do: they work, they name things, and they marry. There are several possibilities, and each makes sense in its own way, and each is more faithful to the evidence than the assertion of two mutually contradictory stories of creation. Are there two creation stories in Genesis? There are not.