Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Creation and Evolution 1: Gen. 2:4b-25

Well, it’s Sunday night in my part of the world, so it’s time for some serious Bible study.  I need to say a few introductory things about my approach to the biblical texts:  I accept the basic outline of the “Documentary Hypothesis” on the formation of the Pentateuch.  That is, Genesis-Deuteronomy were NOT dictated verbally by God to Moses.  The books are unsigned and only were called “The Five Books of Moses” in post-Exilic Israelite religion (early Judaism)–a tradition that had, nonetheless, been settled for some time by Jesus’ day.  (No, I do not think that Jesus’ ref. to biblical citation in the Pentateuch or Torah as “Moses says” means that Jesus was giving omniscient or supernaturally-informed confirmation of Mosaic authorship!) The Torah or Pentateuch as we know it was compiled of various written sources (scholars have traditionally called these the J, E, D, & P sources or the Yahwist/Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly sources) from different strands of Israelite tradition.  Those sources themselves were often based on oral tradition, stories that circulated by word of mouth for generations before being written down. (Note: The latter does not make a purportedly historical account necessarily unreliable.  It has been shown that oral cultures can accurately transmit whole libraries of data for centuries.  Changes can and do creep in slowly, but oral cultures are conservative and audiences will correct even one word being out of place in a traditional story. )

Scholars identified these sources in the Pentateuch by looking at differences in writing style, repetitions, vocabulary differences, etc.  For instance, the J or Yahwist source, which is the oldest source, consistently uses YHWH for God (reflecting a time before Jewish tradition held that God’s name was too sacred to be spoken aloud–that any mention of it risked breaking the commandment against taking the divine name in vain) whereas the E source prefers to use the term El or Elohim.  Those who reconstruct the history of transmission believe the P or Priestly writers had the final editing–after the Exile, led by Ezra and his scribes.  There may have been a core of the Torah that was written by Moses (perhaps with input from those around him like Aaron, Miriam, and Joshua), but there is also much older and much later material in the “Books of Moses” as we have them in our Bibles.

I mention all this as background to saying that there is not one but two “creation stories” in Genesis.  My summary above will be old hat to those with seminary education–and even to many laity–but it will be new to some readers of this blog as is clear from a few comments on the previous post.   There will some critics who reject the above and will therefore reject my interpretation of the Genesis texts.  Please do not misunderstand me: I am NOT claiming that they are uninspired or not God’s Word, etc. Nothing of the sort.  But to interpret the creation stories in Genesis rightly, we need to see them against their historical background–to see what the biblical writers were arguing for and against. They were NOT arguing for or against any scientific explanations of human origins.

As I said, there are 2 creation stories in Genesis:  The first is Gen. 1:1-2:4a and the second is 2:4b-25.  The second account is the older account.  It is from the J document and is, in fact, based on much older oral tradition. The story, which is part of the larger Adam and Eve saga, represents some of the oldest material in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and probably was written down in the early monarchical period–sometime around 950 B.C.E.  I am examining it first because I think it will help to see what the P writers did in placing the E creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) first in the Torah ( a move that was reinforced when the Torah was placed first in the canon–so that Scripture for both Jews and Christians BEGINS with the P creation story).

Initial observations:  This story has a flowing writing style appropriate to that of a saga.  There is a different order to creation–first man, then the plants and animals, then woman–from the first story.  We begin not with a watery chaos, but with a barren wasteland.  This creation story probably has its infancy in the days when Israel’s Hebrew ancestors were desert nomads–thus, creation is a garden very like an oasis. 

“Man,” adam (not yet a proper name) is pun on “earth,” adamah.  This is our first clue that we are not dealing with anything purporting to be an eyewitness-type historical account: The symbolic names. “Adam” for the earth-creature that becomes “man,” and “Eve” meaning “mother of all living.” These are obviously representative figures rather than simple individuals.

There are many mythic elements–by which I mean “magical” elements that recur in similar narratives in different cultures around the globe:  magical trees with great prizes (in this case, eternal life and the knowledge of good and evil), talking animals, etc. 

The larger story is what anthropologists call etiological–i.e., it explains how things commonly done “now” (the time of the storyteller or the writer) began–why women leave their households to become part of new households with their husbands; why snakes crawl on their bellies and apparently eat dust; why people and snakes don’t get along; how the wearing of clothing began, etc. 

All this is clearly to say that those who told this story and those who wrote it down and included it in our Bibles were NOT asking scientific questions.  They were asking about God and humanity and our relation to each other and the world (as they knew it).  By the time of the early monarchy when this was written, Israel was in conflict with surrounding nations who all had their own gods and goddesses.  The constant question was “Who is this YHWH of yours anyway!” since Yahwism was relatively new to Canaan.  The initial Hebrew answer, of course, was that YHWH was the liberating God of exodus who brought them out of Egypt! But the Yahwistic writer of Gen. 2 is claiming more: That the Liberator God is not just the tribal god of Israel, but the Creator of the world and Humanity!  This is quite a claim to make against Canaan’s fertility gods–a claim of former desert nomads who, now that they are settled agrarians, could be tempted to adopt the gods and customs of those who have been farmers for much longer than Israel has.

Boldly this story from J says that YHWH the Liberator is the Creator of ALL–and portrays that act of Creation as an act of love and intimate care.  Adam is formed of the ground, the dust–a humble substance, but some creation myths have humans formed from much worse–from excrement or (as we’ll see in the next installment) from the body of a slain goddess, etc.  Adam is lovingly created and given a fertile and hospitable home, given animals to name (an act of authority–in contrast to many creation myths in which humans must name themselves after more powerful creatures). Then woman is made from man in an act of love–affirming the essential unity and partnership of the sexes.  And since this story is part of the larger Adam, Eve, Cain and Able story, etc., the J writer is also boldly affirming that God created humans good–not evil. The origin of evil is not given (the idea that the serpent was Satan is from later tradition), but it is clear that it is not God’s fault, but humanity’s–from our misuse of our freedom.

Thus, this early creation story also links Creation to Salvation History. 

This is narrative theology–it is theological truth in mythic form.  It is neither a scientific account nor meant to rival any scientific account.  This will become even clearer when we turn to the other creation account in Genesis–before looking at creation passages from elsewhere in Scripture.

November 5, 2007 - Posted by | Biblical exegesis, progressive faith, science & faith


  1. Great informative piece, Michael. Would you like for me to link to it or would that be doing you a disservice…?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | November 5, 2007

  2. Okay, here is a question. You say that Adam and Eve were not literal people but representative figures. But you then say that Genesis 2 is an etiology, an attempt to explain how things began. But if Genesis 2 were written as an etiology, doesn’t that imply that its author believed he was writing what really happened, since his goal was to show how things began?

    Comment by James Pate | November 5, 2007

  3. Great post! I like your approach. Some people have trouble imagining their own sacred stories are “myths” as if “myth” is a dirty word. We should realize that ancient people never have had a bias against mythological language. A myth is the best vehicle to hold and transport truth through time.

    I think we may overlook how the garden of eden was saying more about how Israel remembered the promised land after it lost the land. If it is true that these stories were not “finished” in this form until AFTER the exhile then it makes sense that the poets of Israel may have woven older oral traditions into written poetry about the their ancestor’s once wonderful community before the exhile(fall). It wasn’t until after the return from exhile that the stories were refined and combined.

    Comment by Mike L. | November 5, 2007

  4. Dan, please feel free to link to anything here–and thanks.

    James, I am sure the author believed that Adam and Eve were actual individuals–but that is NOT the emphasis. Mythical language doesn’t really work that way.

    Mike, this story is much earlier than the Exile. It is the other Gen. creation account that comes from the Exile and the Priestly tradition. I rather think that descriptions of Eden are more informed by the way former desert nomads remember oases in the wilderness than by dreams of lost Israel–although it is possible that the Priestly writers who did the final editing of the Torah thought that way some.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 5, 2007

  5. I tend to agree with you on Genesis 2 being pre-exilic, since it resembles ancient Near Eastern creation stories such as Atrahasis, which were composed before Israel’s exile. But I caution you that the documentary hypothesis is not as widely accepted in academic circles as it once was. That doesn’t mean that fundamentalism has triumphed, not by a long shot. But some (like Van Seters) do date J after the exile. Some have dated P before the exile. There are just so many options out there on when to date biblical literature.

    Comment by James Pate | November 5, 2007

  6. All of that aside, the important point is that we definately agree that these stories were not attempts to explain the way the world was created but how these ancient people experienced the world, God and their neighbors.

    Comment by mike l. | November 5, 2007

  7. Greetings. I agree that the creation story is not written scientifically. What puzzles me: if the creation story is purely myth and Adam was not a real man, then why is there a genealogy? Why are years given for his life and for Eve’s? There are years given for all of the first people on the earth. Also, I have heard that there are two different creation accounts. Doesn’t it make just as much sense that the second account in scripture is after the initial creation? God made everything first and then He specifically made a garden and animals for Adam to name? I think it’s important because there are two massively different worldviews colliding in these mixed ideas of what scripture means. You even used B.C.E. instead of B.C. That’s an important difference. This seems too headstrong and doesn’t seem to agree with wisdom.

    Comment by Sean | November 6, 2007

  8. James, I am aware that the composition and dating, etc. of JEDP no longer enjoys the consensus that it once did. But, for our purposes, it was important to rehearse it so that people could see why there are 2 (not 1) creation stories in Genesis and to see the general background against which they are set.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 6, 2007

  9. I have removed a comment here from Herman Cummings not because there was anything wrong with it, but because Mr. Cummings made the identical comment on the previous post. To read the comment, go to the bibliographic post on science, theology and evolution. I suspect that Mr. Cummings is a spammer using a program to submit his comment anywhere this topic is discussed–otherwise why have an identical, word-for-word, comment twice.

    Now, Sean. Welcome to Levellers. You raise some excellent questions. 1)Genealogies served many purposes in Scripture, only a few of which are identical to the reasons we use them. See Darrell Pursifal’s many blog discussions on biblical genealogies, beginning here: http://pursiful.com/?p=71 . 2) There is no doubt in my mind that the J author and the editors who finalized this story believed that Adam and Eve were actual individuals–although that is not the emphasis of the story. Nothing would have caused them to question it. Myth works by moving from literalistic to imaginative modes of thought seamlessly and without notice.

    3) There are too many contradictions between the Gen. 1 and Gen 2 accounts if one takes this as one story. The order of creation is especially different.

    4) B.C.E. or “Before the Common Era” is simply the standard way that scholars date things in a way that Jewish and Christian scholars can use the same dating. It refers to the same period, of course, as B.C. or “Before Christ,” but the latter is a specifically Christian form of dating things. Now, I, as a Christian, see Jesus Christ as the center of history and so have no problem personally with B.C./A.D. dating, but I also have no problem with using an intefaith reference in our pluralistic world. After all, the use of B.C./A.D. itself was only adopted in the late Middle Ages–prior to that “Christian Europe” used numerous different calendars dating to the births of particular rulers. And, when the B.C./A.D. dating WAS adopted, the calculation of when Year 1 (the birth of Jesus) was off, so that Jesus was actually born 4-6 years B.C. in the B.C./A.D. calendar! Given all those problems, I see no reason to avoid use of B.C.E./C.E. references. And my approach to the Genesis texts was set long before I ever heard of such “theological correctness!” 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 6, 2007

  10. Nicely written. A good effort. It explains how the two accounts of creation came. It will help the readers to understand the composition of the biblical texts, the traditions JEPD, the intentionality of the authors.
    Keep it up!

    Comment by Ivo da C.Souza | January 6, 2008

  11. Monotheism hinges on the creation stories and putting them in the league of any of the other myths, eg. the native American creation http://www.crystalinks.com/nativeamcreation.html I am intrigued by the notion that Christianity acknowledges the legitimacy of evolution.

    As the one true scientific theory of how we came to inhabit the earth, there is a punctuated development of life from organic strands to humanity that has been linked by many unrelated scientific disciplines. But then Christianity insists that man was a separate creation, imbued with an immortal soul sometime in the last 6 million years. That is the basis for the salvation stories and underlies much of the doctrine.

    I am curious as to when this ‘soul’ came to be recognized as the unique attribute of humanity.

    Kevin Saldanha

    Comment by Kevin Saldanha | January 7, 2008

  12. Bible does not give any scientific explanation of the origins of the Universe and of Humankind, a theory that has to be held by the believers. It is clothed in symbolic language that may be similar to some myths, but the teaching is that God is the Originator of Everything, through his Word, through his Power.
    The Church accepts today the scientific theory of Evolution. But Evolution is not incompatible with the theological concept of Creation. Bible does not accept Creationism, that is, creation as the scientific hypothesis that excludes Evolution.
    The Church will not decide about when the Universe began, but that it could not begin without the power of God. Science deals with the phenomenal world. What is beyond it, only Religion can tell us. Bible teaches us about the Covenant of God with humankind. The concept of “soul” is there to explain human consciousness, that cannot be exhausted with the physicalist theories of Brain of Neuroscience. It goes beyond. It is difficult to be totally clear about this problem, rather this mystery, but Reason tells us more than Science. Reason should be enlightened by Faith.

    Comment by icsouza | July 9, 2008

  13. Idenity words and phrase that recu in the narrative pairs of repetitions (include chapter and verse) Example And there was evening and there was morning

    Comment by James m | October 9, 2009

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