Why are there two creation stories in the Bible?

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Msgr.  Charles PopeQuestion: In the Bible, why are there two creation stories?

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Question: This is a hotly debated issue among scholars and believers. Some disagree that there are two accounts, but that Genesis 2:4 ff is a commentary focusing particularly on the creation of man and then woman, and the establishment of marriage. But this is only partially true. While Genesis 2 is not about the creation of the celestial kingdoms, it is about the earthly kingdoms and their story, although even that is quite different. Some of the following differences between the two accounts can be noted globally:

1. There are different names for God: The first account uses the generic term ‘elohim (Hebrew for “God”), but the second account uses YHWH ‘elohim ( I am God). The first story (Genesis 1) portrays God as more transcendent, expressing creation through his word. The second account (Genesis 2) depicts God as more imminent (closely present), forming the human from the dust of the ground (like a potter working with clay) and conversing with humans.

2. There are differences in style and scope. As noted, Genesis 1 describes creation by speaking of six days and God’s rest on the seventh day. It does this in a rather formal and organized way of six days where God creates larger categories such as the heavens, the earth, and particular things in the heavens and on the earth. This is followed by the seventh day when God rests. In contrast, Genesis 2 focuses on humanity and the land and does so in a more story-driven or narrative way.

3. There is a different order of events: Genesis 1 begins with the land flooded with water. First there is the water and then the land. Genesis 2 begins with the land as a dry desert (cf. Gen 2:5) until a stream or mist emerges to provide water (Gen 2:6). Also, Genesis 1 has water first, then earth, followed by plants, animals, and finally humans, men and women together. In contrast, Genesis 2 begins with the existence of earth, then water, followed by Adam, then plants, animals, and finally a woman, Eve.

As such, it is difficult to simply view Genesis 2 as a commentary and elaboration on Genesis 1; the differences are very significant and it seems that they are totally separate accounts. Nevertheless, an ancient biblical editor (perhaps Moses himself) was not troubled by this and put them side by side as the opening of the Book of Genesis. He was fully aware of their differences. Further, we confess that this editorial work was inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, it seems reasonable, just looking at the texts, to assume that they probably have different origins. It only leads to a textual conflict if we insist that one of them is an accurate journalistic account of the creation event; then the question becomes, which one? But since neither account claims to be an accurate journalistic account, there is no necessary conflict, and we need not choose one or the other. Perhaps we can view their current relationship as a kind of call and response. In Genesis 1, God calls the cosmos into existence, then Genesis 2 details how mankind responded to God’s call to be his image in the world. Unfortunately, we rebelled against God’s law and much heartache was to follow.

The essential and identical truths, however, are proclaimed in both accounts, and they are:

1. God created everything for free and out of nothing.

2. He did it in an orderly and step-by-step fashion.

3. It was an act of his pure love and perfect wisdom. As such, creation manifests order and logic.

4. He created everything after its kind and was involved in every step of that creation.

5. Adam and Eve were created directly and personally by God, and not simply from a blind evolutionary process.

6. Implicitly, both accounts also affirm what later Scripture attests: that God continues to sustain his creation with an immanent presence and grace (cf. Col 1:17).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church highlights the truths expressed through this account of creation: “its origin and its end in God, his order and his goodness, the vocation of man, finally the drama of sin and the ‘hope of salvation’ (n. 289).

Why are there two creation stories? It’s not clear, but God wills it. Enjoy it both.

Msgr. Charles Pope is pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, DC, and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC in blog.adw.org. Send your questions to [email protected]


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