At the beginning of last month I did a brief series exploring how, expanding an existing modern account of biblical theology, there is really no conflict with the general outline of human history uncovered by the sciences. I particularly suggested how the writer of Genesis might have fully intended 1:1-2:4 to speak of creation, and Genesis 2:5ff to move the subject on to a new initiative of God towards man.
Possibly for related reasons (since he asked my opinion on it) Joshua Swamidass on his Peaceful Science blog pointed to a discussion on whether Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are to be taken as parallel creation accounts, or as covering different events.
Clearly my own suggestion, above, would regard them as separate accounts. The first would be the creation account (which I have long regarded as a temple inauguration narrative, after John Walton and others, based on a phenomenological understanding of the world that is remarkably free of “ancient science” theory (contra Walton and many others). The second chapter would be about how a particular member of the human race created in God’s image in Genesis 1 was set apart for a new relationship of intimacy with God, at a time not necessarily related in any close way with the chronology of ch1.
In fact, I would suggest that there is no historical chronology in ch1, except for the ritual seven days derived from its subject matter of temple inauguration. Instead in essence, the creation account describes the world as it is as the temple God has built for himself. In New Testament terms it is the temple he has built in, through and for his Son (Col 1:15ff).
Historically, as I posted on Joshua’s thread, second temple Jewish and Christian interpreters were culturally and historically far removed from the thought-world of the accounts, no less than we are. Taking Adam, for various good, but in my view insufficient, reasons to be the very first man, it followed that he and Eve were the “male and female” created on Day 6 in ch1, though that account more naturally reads as “creation in the mass”, just like the plants and animals in the rest of the chapter. Ergo, on this view chapter 2 is a parallel creation account with a different emphasis.
The critical scholars assumed this too, but in their characteristic reductive and destructive way, they also assumed the two “creation accounts” were from independent literary sources, and contradictory rather than complementary. How speculative both their source criticism and their historical reconstruction is has become clearer over the decades.
This column is to suggest that one might be able to show from the text that Genesis 2 works far better as a commissioning account, which I have suggested it is, than as a creation account, as both tradition and mainstream critical theology have held.
Another passage in Genesis is, unquestionably, a covenant commissioning narrative: the call of Abram in Genesis 12. You will remember that this begins:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”
It goes on to describe God’s promise to Abram to bless him and make him a great nation, and also to become a blessing to all peoples on earth.
Now, what is interesting to me is that, if one were to delete everything in Genesis from God’s appointment of the sabbath at the end of his work of creation in 2:4, right up until the passage I have just quoted, it still makes perfect sense as a narrative. God is shown in ch 1 as the sole Creator, and to be at the end the owner and ruler of a world full of all that we see today, including humanity. And then, in chapter 12, one man is called out from that race for a new and special role in relationship to God – now described using his covenant name of “Yahweh”. The sense of God doing new business with the human race he has created is perfectly logical and clear, even without chapters 2-11.
In fact, the transition between the two accounts, so coherent and logical, is pretty much identical to that between the creation and account and what is actually next in the Genesis text, the Eden account. There are significant differences, of course, but the narrative flows just as it did in my expurgated version: God makes the world, and calls a man from it to special relationship – even the change to the covenant name Yahweh is the same.
That’s not to suggest that the intervening text is irrelevant, or still less that it’s been inserted at some later stage in the text’s history. What my exercise does achieve is to concentrate our minds onthe similarity of function of Genesis 2 and genesis 12.
It also enables us to see better just what would be lost if Genesis jumped straight from 2:4 to 12:1 – and that’s the story of a failed commission and the progressive unravelling of human society and religion. And that makes Abraham’s call not simply God’s attempt to relate to man (as in Adam’s story), but such an attempt with the added problem of dealing with human sin and its effects. Cue the rest of the Bible.
Suppose, on the other hand, that we regard the story of Eden in the traditional way, as an “alternative creation account”. I suggest that if we test that by expunging the ch1 creation account from the text, together with the story of Adam’s descendants (which, in the real text, creates a genealogical bridge between Adam and Abraham), we end up with a pretty nonsensical and disjointed story. So if Genesis started at 2:5, and then after the exile of 3:24 jumped straight to the call of Abraham, it would be extremely difficult to work out how, if at all, they are connected, what is going on and why.
Even if we allowed the ensuing chapters to remain in place, we’d find out that Adam had lots of descendants of which Abraham was one, but it would still (I suggest) be pretty hard to make sense of why Abram is called, and how he might be a help to anyone by his wanderings into Canaan. We end up with no clear picture of what the world means, or how God relates to it. The Eden account on its own makes a pretty poor introduction to Genesis.
It is only Genesis 1, setting up the background for the very specific events of Eden, that turns the book into such a powerful narrative. A narrative of one divine calling, that of Adam, which failed and brought disaster, and one calling, that of the Patriarchs, which succeeded and holds promise (as we reach the end in ch50) for the future.
My conclusion: there is only one creation account in Genesis. But it paves the way wonderfully for something new, within history, in the account of the garden.