Excursus: The Variant Accounts of Genesis 1 and 2

Luke Smith asked me how I reconcile the two creation accounts of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25.  While I plan to write a future post justifying my interpretation of Genesis 1, I have decided to go ahead and respond to Luke’s question here so as to deal with this difficulty young earth creationism faces. 

How do I reconcile the two accounts?  First, I argue that Genesis 1:1-2:3 gives a general summary of the creation account, and Genesis 2:4-25 gives a more detailed account of the sixth day.  This does not entail a contradiction.  Parallel accounts do this many times in Scripture.  If you read Luke’s account of the resurrection in Luke 24 by itself, you get the impression that Jesus ascended into heaven on the same day he was raised from the dead.  If you read Acts 1, you find out that he appeared to the disciples over a period of 40 days before the ascension.  One account gives a general summary, and the other provides more details.  Both were written by the same author.  Likewise, I believe one author (Moses) stands behind all of Genesis 1-2.  It has always struck me as odd for scholars to argue that there are contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2 and then to use that as a basis to demonstrate that different authors wrote them.  Apparently, it is too hard to believe that one author could have written both chapters, but it is not too hard to believe that one redactor could have put them together.  If we can posit a redactor who thought these two chapters belonged together, then why is it so hard to imagine a single author who thought they belonged together?  That is a general overview.

Second, I must address some of the specific details that create chronological difficulties between the two passages.  The account in Genesis 2:4-25 (apparently taking place on Day 6) contains the following verses that seem difficult to harmonize with Genesis 1:

(1) Verse 5: “When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up…”  How could this be so if God made plants on Day 3?

(2) The same problem arises in verse 9, where God creates “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.”  Again, didn’t he already do this on Day 3?

(3) Verse 19 says, “So 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.”  Since man and land animals were created on the same day in Genesis 1, the reference to “every beast of the field” does not pose a problem.  But “every bird of the heavens” does, since birds were created on Day 5, not Day 6.  How can this possibly harmonize with Genesis 1?

I do find this a strong argument that Genesis 1 should not be taken literally.  The account in Genesis 1:1-2:3 has poetic elements and a very clear literary structure.  If the details do not harmonize with Genesis 2:4-25, that could simply be an indication that Genesis 1 was not written with a strict, chronological intention in mind.  It could be a literary celebration of the Creator’s work, much like a poem.  If this is the case, we should not press the details of the two accounts in order to harmonize them.  I am open to this possibility, but I ultimately reject it for reasons I will explain in a future post.  But let me point out that even if we understand Genesis 1 according to this “literary framework” view, that does not entail that we treat Genesis 2:4-25 the same way.  The second creation account does not bear the same marks and should be taken literally no matter what one decides with regard to the first chapter of Genesis.  And if this is the case, then one could argue that the Bible does not speak to the issue of the age of the earth, but it does rule out Darwinian evolution, since Genesis 2 clearly indicates that man was created separately from the animals.

But as I have said, I take both chapters literally (assuming, as I argued earlier, that Genesis 1 is a summary account and Genesis 2 provides more details).  How can I fit them together? 

(1) With regard to verse 5, I believe the references to vegetation there have to do with cultivated vegetation.  In other words, the point of Genesis 2:5 is not to say that plants do not yet exist; the point is that agriculture does not yet exist.  And the reason agriculture does not exist is because man does not exist yet to work the ground.  Read the whole verse: “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 yet caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground. . .”  This paves the way for the creation of the man in verse 7, which rectifies the deficiency.  The creation of the woman (vv. 18-23) likewise rectifies a deficiency, particularly the deficiency of the man’s being alone.  This reading not only harmonizes Genesis 1 and 2 on this point, but it also creates a nice parallel between the account of the man’s creation and that of the woman.  If one argues that Genesis 2:5 refers to vegetation in general, then the verse ceases to make any sense in its context.  How could the creation of the man rectify the deficiency that there was no vegetation per se?  The account only makes sense if agriculture is in view.   

(2) With regard to verse 9, it is important to notice that it comes right after verse 8: “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  Following right on the heels of this statement we read verse 9: “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 does not contradict Genesis 1, where God made plants on Day 3, because Genesis 2:9 has reference only to the Garden of Eden.  Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of vegetation in a global sense, but this account (which occurred on Day 6) pertains to the particular environment God created for the man once he had formed him out of the dust of the earth.  Verse 8 clearly singals the reader that the remaining verses of the chapter are set within the garden and not in the world generally.

(3) The same observation, then, applies to verse 19.  Although God had already created birds (and possibly animals) in a general sense, this verse describes his special creation of birds and animals to populate the Garden of Eden, matching what he had done with the trees of the garden in verse 9.  This account immediately precedes the creation of the woman in order to demonstrate that only the woman (and not the animals) corresponds to the man and stands with him before God as his equal. 

As I said, I am open to the possibility that I am wrong about this.  But having considered various viewpoints, right now I am convinced that young earth creationism faces fewer difficulties overall than the other positions.  The “literary framework” view of Genesis 1 may not need these kinds of harmonizations, but I think it faces even greater difficulties than the one treated in this post.  More details on that will come later.

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3 Responses to “Excursus: The Variant Accounts of Genesis 1 and 2”

  1. ali Says:

    Hey Aaron, I’m finding these posts very interesting. I have in recent years just accepted that there are contradictions in Genesis 1 and 2 that I can’t explain. Not that I assumed they were inexplicable, but rather that I didn’t know the explanation. The Genesis 1 as poetry hasn’t sit well with me ever since someone pointed out that God speaks of the seven days of creation in the Law as real days.

    I like your explanations so far.

  2. Brian Says:

    Aaron, thanks for this explanation. I have recently been struggling with this issue of contradictions between Gen. 1 and 2, but you make a lot of sense here. (I had thought, “How could Adam name ALL the animals in ONE DAY? Impossible! But it makes so much more sense in the context that it is a smaller, specically-created group of animals, corresponding the specially-created Garden of Eden.)

  3. гей видео знакомства Says:

    я так считаю: благодарю.

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