I am teaching an undergraduate course on the book of Genesis this semester and have been reflecting on how to best read the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. Many of my students have been brought up to read them literalistically as depictions of what actually happened some 6,000 years ago. While I don’t want to get into the question of how these accounts are best understood today in this post, what I do want to question is the tendency to read these accounts in such a way that harmonizes (or at least tries to) the apparent differences between the two accounts, rather than respecting the integrity of each as different yet complementary accounts of creation.
There are many differences in vocabulary, style, and theology that distinguish the two accounts. What I want to focus on is more basic: the order of the creation of the animals in relation to the human(s), as well as the order of the creation (or “building”) of the woman in relation to the human.
In Genesis 1 the living creatures in the sea and the birds of the air are created on day five, while the “living creatures” (נפש חיה) of the land are created on the sixth day. Only after the creation of the myriad of animals is humanity created in Genesis 1:26-27. In the first creation account the creation of humanity is the pinnacle of all of the creative acts of God:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Gen 1:26-27).
While much ink has been spilled on the interpretation of these two verses, I only want to point out that according to verse 27, humanity was created “male and female” at this time. The clear and straightforward way of reading this is that Elohim created humans (plural) on day six, after the various types of animals. (This, by the way, accords well with many of the ancient Near Eastern accounts where the gods create a plurality of humans at a time, not just one or a pair; see my posts on ANE Creation accounts).
When we come to Genesis 2 we see a drastically different picture. In Genesis 2:7, “ha’adam” is formed from the dust of the earth by Yahweh Elohim first. Then Yahweh Elohim plants a garden and then puts the human in the garden. Then after a brief description of the garden (2:10-14), the action picks up again with Yahweh Elohim forming the land animals and birds (referred to as נפש חיה “living creatures” in 2:19) and brought them to the human to be named. It’s only after a suitable companion wasn’t found among the animals that Yahweh Elohim “builds” (בנה) the woman out of the side of the human.
One way some ideologically motivated translations attempt to reconcile the differences between the accounts is to translate some of the vayyiqtol verbs in chapter two as pluperfect (i.e., as describing an action completed before another past action). Look for example at how the NIV translates this passage:
The LORD God formed [vayyiqtol] the man from the dust of the ground and breathed [vayyiqtol] into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became [vayyiqtol] a living being.
Now the LORD God had planted [vayyiqtol] a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put [vayyiqtol] the man he had formed. And the LORD God made [vayyiqtol] all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.…
The LORD God took [vayyiqtol] the man and put him [vayyiqtol] in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded [vayyiqtol] the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
The LORD God said [vayyiqtol], “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Now the LORD God had formed [vayyiqtol] out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought [vayyiqtol] them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave [vayyiqtol] names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.
But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall [vayyiqtol] into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping [vayyiqtol], he took [vayyiqtol] one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made [vayyiqtol] a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought [vayyiqtol] her to the man.
The problem with this translation involves the two pluperfects (which I bolded and italicized) found in the NIV translation. In both of those cases the translators of the NIV ignored the normal use of the vayyiqtol verb form (which is to narrate a sequence of events) and render them as pluperfects (“had planted” and “had formed”). I assume their motivation was to harmonize the account with Genesis 1 where the plants and animals were created before the humans. But from a syntactical point of view to translate the verb forms as pluperfects is very problematic. Virtually all grammars agree that it is very rare for the vayyiqtol verb form to have pluperfect value (see Jouon-Muraoka 118d, BHRG 21.2; but WO’C 33.2.3 and others do note a pluperfect sense is possible in certain circumstances, although it is rare), and there is nothing in this passage that supports a pluperfect sense. If anything, the sense of the passage requires a normal sequential meaning of the verb forms since the animals were formed (2:19) in direct response to Yahweh Elohim’s declaration that “it is not good for the human to be alone” (2:18).
Of course, perhaps the more basic question is that how can Elohim create humans male and female by divine fiat (as in Gen 1:27) and also form the human from the dust of the ground and then build a woman from the side of a human (as in Genesis 2), and say these two accounts are referring to the same events? What, if anything, is recorded as happening in 1:27, 2:7, 2:18, 2:22?
I recognize that hamonizing these accounts has a long history. I also recognize and agree with the need to read these accounts in tandem as part of the canonical book of Genesis, no matter what their independent histories may have been. That being said, I don’t think we should blur the distinctions between the accounts and engage in hermeneutical gymnastics in order to harmonize their details. Instead, we should revel in their theological depth and the different ways they teach the unique place and significance of humanity — male and female — in God’s creation.