Bible as Literature: A Second Creation Story?

As I mentioned in my Genesis 1 post, most scholars would argue there are two creation stories. One scholarly explanation for the existence of two creation stories is the Documentary Hypothesis, which speculates that multiple authors with different theological and political concerns from different time periods were behind the creation of the Torah, each writing different sections of the book. So Genesis 1 would be the creation story of one set of authors, which scholars generally believe to be the Priestly Author, while Genesis 2 would be the creation story of the Yahwist.

The two creation stories make up two theological views of God, which is evident from a close-reading of the text. We have the cosmological celestial sky God of the first creation story who speaks the world into existence and is aloof from it, while in the second creation story of Genesis 2 and 3 we have a more earthly physical God who interacts with the world by walking around upon it and giving it shape and characteristics by actively molding it like a potter manipulates clay. The verbs of each narrative assist us in noticing the differences of God in the two narratives; in Genesis 1, God creates, speaks, and sees always from a distance, while in Genesis 2, God gets down and dirty. He not only creates, but forms, plants, causes, places, commands, casts, fashions, etc. In Genesis 3, which directly continues Genesis 2’s narrative, God physically roams about the garden. The verbs of Genesis 2 describe physical and tangible actions, and are much less abstract than the verbs of Genesis 1.

One reason people think this is a second creation story is that the order of creation in this narrative appears to be different. No longer do we have the orderly symmetrical creation narrative of Genesis 1 in which man is an afterthought/culmination of the entire divine plan, but rather human beings come first in this narrative, reflecting its more “earthly” nature and the centrality of humanity (notice by the way how placing man first or last can emphasize humanity’s importance in different ways). This narrative doesn’t spend too much time describing creation as an abstract phenomenon, but instead God creates specific objects. We don’t just get trees, but specific trees (the tree of knowledge of good and bad). God not only creates waters, but specific rivers. The specific is emphasized more in this tale.

However, as I continue to think about this issue more I begin to wonder if we really do have two narratives. Having studied a few languages other than English, unsuccessfully, at least taught me that verbs have different tenses. I wonder if these supposed acts of creation in Genesis 2 are written in the Hebrew equivalent of a preterit. Consider this translation from the NIV:

“ Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them;”

This might be read as a new version of creation of animals as part of a second creation story, but the tense of “had formed” might also be read as referring to the previous creation from Genesis 1. Kind of like, “Now, we all know in the past [Genesis 1] the Lord God had formed . . .” Unfortunately I don’t know Hebrew grammar well enough to evaluate this idea.

In continuation of this earthly theme we have the introduction of Adam who technically has no name. In the JPS translation he is simply called the man because Ha Adam simply means “the man” in Hebrew. Adam comes from the “adamah,” which in Hebrew means earth, thus his creation from dust is wordplay.

We have this mysterious Garden of Eden, the prototypical paradise. The question must be asked: whose paradise? The Garden of Eden makes the most sense in a desert culture. The Garden of Eden is the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy of a farmer struggling to produce a meager crop in a hot desert environment. Myths, especially Creation Myths, are always a reflection of the concerns and values of the cultures that wrote them. What can be a greater paradise to a group of people with that background than a luscious garden wedged between four ample rivers with plants and fruits that grow with ease?

The man spends a small chunk of the narrative naming all the animals, but none of them end up being fit for companionship. It also reiterates humanity’s special position in Genesis 2 as the first and most important part of Creation; the man has dominion and authority to name all the other creatures. Yet now we start moving to what is often considered a more troubling part of the Bible since we only have man thus far representing humanity. From the perspective of the narrative, how far does that dominion extend?

In this story, God creates woman from man’s rib in order to give the man a helper. Many have abused this part of the story to justify their misogynistic belief that women are inferior to men. However, let’s also not pretend that this story is the reason misogyny exists. The ancient Greeks probably had very little exposure to Genesis 2, and certainly managed to develop quite a sexist culture themselves. Feminist theologians have questioned the rendering of the Hebrew Tzala as “rib,” suggesting “side” might be a better translation and would thus denote a more equal relationship. We also cannot make much of the English word, “helper.” In English this may sound inferior, but the same exact Hebrew word is used to describe God in numerous passages throughout the Bible, and it’s a safe bet that the Israelite authors weren’t suggesting that God is inferior to humans.

Many critics point to the fact that the woman is coming from the man to imply inferiority, that women are being presented as second-rate because they came second, while men came first. We shouldn’t dismiss this interpretation either as it leads to a deeper understanding of the text. In this type of interpretation, it fits into the male fantasy of appropriating women’s reproductive abilities, a familiar theme from ancient Greek mythology as I’ve pointed out before (see Hesiod’s Theogony). The idea here is that women might be unique in that they can produce babies, but as the story hints women were ultimately created from men.

After the woman’s creation the man says:

“This one shall be called Woman,
For from man was she taken. – Genesis 2:23″

This is not only wordplay in English, but also in Hebrew as the word for woman is “Ishshah,” and another word for man besides adam is “Ish.” The final bit of evidence from the text hints that the man seems to view the woman as his equal, we might even say, a mirror image of himself for he says,

“This one at last
is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.”

If read in context with the fact that he was previously looking for a companion among the animals, who weren’t of the same nature, the text implies here that he has finally found one he recognizes as his equal.

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2 thoughts on “Bible as Literature: A Second Creation Story?

  1. Well written!

    From the perspective of the narrative, how far does that dominion extend?

    I know I already mentioned this before, and maybe you are making your way there eventually, but the author implies in Genesis 3:16 that there was no patriarchy in the Edenic state. That’s my interpretation anyway. 🙂

    I was wondering what you think about “dominion” because in the US this has been abused as a sort of human superiority complex, whereas I think it should (or at least could) be read as a stewardship. Like humans were given more responsibility because they were endowed with the image of G-d. The modern application is clear: it’s our job to take of the earth, not to abuse it.

    • I definitely think you can understand dominion in terms of stewardship. It is easy to see how it can be interpreted both ways really. Read a certain way it implies humanity has rulership over nature, and therefore justification of exploitation of our world for profit. But I think it is also possible to interpret the words as implying stewardship; we have a responsibility to take care of the earth, not abuse it for profit and gratification.

      Other than real world consequences on behavior, I’m personally fine with multiple interpretations and in many ways feel they’re inevitable. I think some people get focused on the one true interpretation to rule them all!

      These are actually old posts from my old blog. I made it to the end of the Abraham Cycle of stories and am slowly transferring them over. Once I catch up I will continue writing posts on the bible in sequential order. So my Genesis 3 post is already written. I’ll probably post it by next weekend latest.

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