The old critical scholars, back in the days when there was a liberal source-critical consensus, used to say that Genesis contains two incompatible creation stories, the first from the “E” source and the second, the Eden narrative, from “J.” Or at least that was the gist, as many scholars seemed to assign odd verses to a different source at a whim. But they had a point: if Moses wrote Genesis, or the bulk of it, and Genesis 2 is a re-focused view of the creation, then he left in some inconsistencies at a rather fundamental level, beyond merely a shift of imagery.
If, for whatever reason, we begin to suspect that Adam was never intended to be represented as the first man, but as the first archetype, or federal head in Reformed terms, of the new creation (foreshadowing Israel in the first instance, and Christ in the ultimate fulfillment), then these differences begin to stand out starkly, and to make sense. Let’s compare and contrast the description of man in both accounts.
Mankind is created on the sixth day, on the same day as all the other animals of the land. This emphasises our animal earthliness – we are creatures of the earth as much as are the cattle and the lions. What sets us apart is our rule over this realm: God commands that we rule and subdue primarily the animal kingdom, but also (almost as an afterthought in v26) “all the earth.” Note, though, the limitations of this rule: we do not rule the whole creation, but only the earth.
The justification for this role of dominion is that mankind is created “in the image and likeness of God.” Much ink has been spilled over the nature of this image, but in context it seems to match the best modern scholarship’s understanding of “representative rule.” Our knowledge of man, however loosely defined, that is including every undisputed member of the genus Homo back to H. erectus, confirms that the ability to reason and, in all likelihood, speak, is universal. This rationality enables human dominion to be true even considering a low population of primitive hunter-gatherers. Man was never biologically constrained like the other animals, but found ways to hunt, control, and even tame animals from the earliest times, as well as to harness the world’s resources at will. Man’s endowments, in the likeness of God, enabled him to act as God’s image, but were not the image itself. The image is rather mankind’s created role on earth, to which I’ll return.
It’s important to note that the creation, and the “imageness,” is of the whole race, encompassing male and female. The number created, as in the case of the other animals, is not specified. Feminist theologians, of course, have majored on this egalitarian description to justify female bishops, Charismatics the priesthood of all believers, and much else. But it’s sufficient to note here that there is a stark contrast between the communal, egalitarian, picture presented in Genesis 1, and the hierarchical and individual treatment of Adam (and secondarily Eve) in Genesis 2.
Another major contrast, on reflection, is the “creation ordinance” given to this pinnacle-race of creation. They are to multiply and fill the earth, presumably the better to rule and subdue it. Note that obedience to this implies rapid dispersal across the whole world (as it happens, clearly represented in human palaeontology).
Let’s set all this in the bigger picture of the creation narrative. God creates the heavens and the earth as his temple, as is now a mainstream view in biblical theology. But many scholars have noted that, unlike the Exodus tabernacle or Solomon’s temple, he does not upon its completion fill it with his glory. Since, as I discuss in Generations of Heaven and Earth, the creation account is designed to mirror the building of the tabernacle in Exodus, this omission can be no mere oversight. Rather, Genesis 1 presents us with a picture of a clearly demarcated temple-cosmos, in which God governs from his “sabbath rest” in the highest heavens, whilst he is represented on earth by the pinnacle of earth’s physical creation, made in and as his image, ruling the animals and other resources by delegation. In fact, as Richard Middleton points out, the filling of the earth with God’s glory is a repeated eschatological hope in Scripture: the original “good” creation was not made to work that way, which is curious, is it not?
In this account there is no entailment of mankind’s intimate communion with God, still less of any life beyond the earthly and the perishable, still less of any dominion over angels or “all things.” But then, neither is there any sin, there being no commandment other than what was built into human nature. There seems no reason to deny that this would include the awareness of God as the benign father-Creator in heaven, and therefore of worship in some natural form. If you like, this would nicely fulfill the common theological idea of the rational component of creation offering praise on behalf of the non-rational creation. Perhaps we might see this reflected in the frequent representations of animals, as in European cave art or the carved monuments of Mesolithic Anatolia. But note this would be the entirely earthly return of praise to the entirely heavenly and distant Father-God.
Turning to Genesis 2, I would argue that it does not contradict the creation account because it is not a creation account at all. Instead it is a commissioning account (with, of course, a nasty sting in the tail in the form of the Fall). It is, however, manifestly highly incongruent with Genesis 1. I’ll leave you to spot the differences of order, such as Adam being created before the plants and animals. But once it no longer has to serve as a restated Genesis 1, we can see the verses leading up to the formation of Adam as having local reference, as the ESV translates, to “the land,” that is the land surrounding the site of the garden, rather than to the planet as a whole.
But the first big difference is that Adam is formed as one individual, with temporal and covenantal priority over the woman formed from his side. Why is this? Because Adam is not a generic human, but the man (ie individual male) chosen by God for a spiritual role not mentioned at all in Genesis 1. This is a close theological parallel to Jesus as the Son of Man, as opposed to the whole human race being “sons of man.”
The “image” of ch1 is not mentioned in the garden account (at least not until the two accounts are reconciled in 5:1-2), but something new is described – the breathing of God’s own breath (spirit) into Adam to make him a living being. This may, however, not be spiritually significant, as in the flood narrative (7:22) all animals are said to have the breath (ruach) of life, and Ecclesiastes 3:19 specifically equates the ruach possessed by both men and animals. So 2:7 may simply be a way of expressing earthly biology, rather than spiritual capacity. If this is true, then Adam is, by nature, “just a man.” Whatever is spiritual is therefore super-added – in a similar way that we do not cease to be biologically “just human” when we are created anew in Christ.
What undoubtedly does distinguish Adam from the mankind of ch1 is that he is categorically not sent out into the world to multiply and subdue the whole earth. Instead, God prepares a specific sacred space to which Adam, and subsequently Eve, are (as it were) restricted, and given the role of tending this garden alone. We cannot emphasise enough that the garden is not the world, nor even the land of Eden. All the geographical pointers in 2:10-14 are outside Adam’s designated domain, by whose bounty alone he is expected to live. In this regard we should note that the provision of plants (2:9) and creatures (v19) is not described as populating the world, but as making a closed space within the world – the garden – especially delightful. It is only when Adam is evicted from the garden, back into the world created in Genesis 1, where Adam actually originated rather than in the garden (Genesis 2:7-8), that he begins to fulfill the creation ordinance of having children and spreading across the world. The garden episode is therefore a quite separate “act” in the drama from the creation of humanity.
The explanation for this is not a mystery. It is just its significance that we customarily overlook. The garden is a sacred space, in which God himself walks, and Adam and Eve’s role within it is priestly (the words used to describe their work are most often used in the Bible of temple service). It is not the ordinary world which contains the tree of knowledge and the tree of life – these are divine provisions within a holy precinct that we might describe as a kind of bridgehead from God’s dwelling in heaven, if that did not imply that the separation of heaven and earth were anything but God’s design. Note that the ability to live forever is deliberately withdrawn by Yahweh as a direct consequence of the expulsion. Much as I admire Aquinas, when he claims that the rational human soul is necessarily eternal I prefer the witness of Scripture that it is God’s special gift.
In other words Adam and Eve’s whole world, for now, is the garden, where they are in special intimate communion with Yahweh, a communion initiated by a unique command designed to test and perfect them… for what? Early in the history of Christianity, Irenaeus, probably drawing on Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2, noted a distinction between the role of man in the creation account, and that in the garden, describing the latter as God’s “secret plan,” subsequent to creation, to make mankind not only lord of the earth, but co-regent with him over the whole of creation. Irenaeus, admittedly, takes Adam to be the humanity created in chapter 1, and his experience in the garden to follow immediately on, but the key thing is that he has noticed that the purpose of the garden is a spiritual goal over and above creation – one in which Satan takes a jealous interest, since it jeopardises his pre-eminence in the angelic realm.
Bearing in mind the clear biblical trajectory from Adam to the new Adam, Jesus Christ, we can therefore see the biblical “Eden project” as the the first act of the new creation later described by the prophets and apostles, whose chief characteristic is the breaking down of the barriers between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and physical. This, originally intended to be through the growth of Adam and Eve in obedient wisdom and eternal life, presumably extending the garden eventually to encompass the whole earth with the glory of God, was of course in the wake of their failure ultimately achieved through the work of Jesus. Meanwhile Adam’s half-baked aspirations and distorted version of wisdom spread throughout the human race, bringing sin to all men, but also putting the knowledge of personal relationship with Yahweh, and the hunger for eternity, into their hearts (Genesis 4:26).
So which would you rather be? A Cro-Magnon or Neanderthaler living without sin, in a natural appreciation of God in heaven as Creator and provider, but without a personal relationship with him, nor any aspirations beyond your earthly life? Or a son of Adam, born into trouble “as the sparks fly upwards,” and sensing your condemnation by God for sin, and yet possessing the hope of, and the gospel message enabling, eternal life in loving relationship with God; an eternal life of reigning over heaven and earth with the risen Christ?
Despite my grand-children’s belief that our deceased labrador is in doggy-heaven, Scripture seems to indicate that dogs neither want, nor benefit from, eternal life. Their gift from God is not to worry about it – or about anything, much. Whilst I am as open as the next man to finding that God might have some unrevealed ace up his sleeve for the theosis of Denisovans, or for those millions since Adam who never heard the gospel, let’s remember that in creation God gives particular blessings to each. To aspire to be a wolf might be a fashionable Woke trend, but it is foolish: we are what we are, both tragic and glorious. Perhaps people outside the garden were content, and specifically blessed, to experience less tragedy, but less glory.