Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve

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by Neil Godfrey

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What does one make of the two opposing accounts of the creation of humans in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2?

In Genesis 1 God manages to fit in the making of the first man and woman — “in his own image”! — just at the close of the last day of creation. Gary Greenberg suggests that this concept of a male and female being made in the image of a single God is borrowed from Egypt’s hermaphroditic deities.

But the very next chapter (i.e. 2!) presents a quite different view of the creation of our species. Dr McGrath has posted a quite nice chart highlighting both the similarities and the contrasts of the two creations. But let me draw attention to a point that is not so immediately clear in this quite nice chart. In Genesis 1 all the animals are created before the man and the man (and woman) is created as an afterthought at the end of the day. In Genesis 2 Adam is created before all other animals.

What is going on here? I would like to go on beyond Dr McGrath’s interests in these conflicting accounts, however, and ask how we might account for them appearing as they do as the first two chapters of our Bible. (Dr McGrath in his blog post only addresses grist for his anti-creationist mill. But creationists can come and go and it is nothing notable to expose the flaws of one who has never learned to question his or her faith. I am more interested in explaining what we do have as our religious and cultural heritage.)

I’ll introduce my post by pasting here the comment I left on Dr McGrath’s blog (slightly edited).

Jan-Wim Wesselius’s “The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible” discusses such adjacent accounts that give variant explanations for events from the perspective of comparison with “Histories” by Herodotus. The most obvious difference between the two works (Histories and Primary History –  i.e. Genesis to 2 Kings) is that the Greek work is structured around an intrusive narrator (who is himself a character in the work, and not the real author — I have discussed some of the scholarship about this on my own blog over the years) while the Primary History of the Hebrews is an exercise in studied anonymity. Bernard Levinson in “Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation” offers us a plausible explanation for this contrasting anonymity.

But the point is that two contrasting accounts are often found side by side in the Primary History and that this is consistent with Hellenistic historiographical practices — with the only difference being the intrusion/absence of a narrator’s voice.

In this case, given the parallelisms, we are also faced with the strong likelihood that we are not looking at independent traditions that somehow were forced together, but at a single authorial creator behind them both. This is consistent with more recent studies (albeit admittedly minority ones at this point) that do argue that Primary History is, after all and just as Spinoza himself originally opined, the work of a single author. That it is also the product of Hellenistic times is the solutions Mr Ockham would like best, too.

Let’s look at Dr Wesselius’s treatment of the conflicting creation-of-humans accounts:

Having noted the agreement between the subjects of the two works, it is appropriate to scrutinize their beginnings, in order to see whether the way in which they introduce this subject may have elements in common. Herodotus starts his work with a half-mythological story about the first strife between Greeks and Asians. He tells about the beautiful Io from Argos, who was abducted by a group of Phoenicians, and continues with the tit-for-tat abduction of Princess Europa from Tyre, Medea from Colchis and finally of Helen, which was the cause of the Trojan war, the first armed conflict between Europe and Asia, generally regarded as analogous to the wars between Persians and Greeks, both by the Greeks and by the Persians and their allies, and to later conflicts. Herodotus concludes this introduction with a small but significant variant of the story which, he says, the Phoenicians tell: Io would really have fallen in love with a Phoenician captain and become pregnant by him, sufficient reason for her to join the Phoenicians and to decline a return to her land of origin. Directly afterwards, Herodotus starts his account of the real history with the figure of Croesus, who ‘was the first foreigner so far as we know to come into direct contact with the Greeks, both in the way of conquest and alliance, forcing tribute from Ionians, Aeolians, and Asiatic Dorians, and forming a pact of friendship with the Lacedaemonians’ (Her. I. 6); in this account he treats the string of historical events which finally led to the great conflicts that form the main subject of his work. (p. 41, my emphasis)

I won’t repeat here the two Genesis accounts of humanoid creation. They are in Genesis 1:26-27 — in which man is created (as an afterthought?) after everything else — and Genesis 2: 4-7 — in which man is created before all other living beings.

The two variant narratives are most significant. One of their consequences is clear:

This dual account of creation is very remarkable, and historically served as one of the first reasons for assuming various sources in the Pentateuch.

Now yes it is true that one can think that with a little effort the two accounts can be harmonized or conjure another explanation.

[B]ut the basic fact remains that they have been left one beside the other in more or less the most conspicuous place of the entire work, which virtually precludes anything but intentional  juxtaposition as an explanation of the way in which they are found now, irrespective of the question what their origins may have been. (p. 42)

Both Herodotus’s work and the Primary History contain numerous contradictory accounts of events. There appears to be no attempt at any sort of harmonization by a redactor in the case of the Primary History, while Herodotus quite openly admits he is reporting contradictory accounts of many events such as:

  • the annual rising and falling of the Nile (Histories II, 19-34)
  • the youth of Cyrus (Histories I, 122)
  • the story of Io (Histories I, 6)

Compare the contradictory accounts set side by side in our Primary History:

  • the death of Saul (2 Samuel 21:12 / 1 Samuel 31 or 2 Samuel 2)
  • how David came to know King Saul (I Samuel 16 or 1 Samuel 17)
  • who killed Goliath (1 Samuel 17 or 2 Samuel 21:19)
  • the two accounts of creation (Genesis 1 or Genesis 2)

Are we to suppose, if the accounts really are contradictory as they certainly appear to be, “a hopelessly incapable redactor”?

One therefore wonders whether the author may not have intended his work to look as if at various places different sources had been incorporated, and whether he may have consciously presented multiple versions of a story next to one another. It may be noted in this connection that such contradictions were often noticed and recognized as such by the author of the books of Chronicles and by the makers of the Septuagint, who in various clever ways removed many of them. It seems at least possible that we are dealing in such cases with the phenomenon of deliberately putting certain conflicting accounts one beside the other, probably with the purpose of achieving more or less the same literary effect aimed at by Herodotus’s method of presenting various versions of the same event or explanation. (pp. 83-84)

Jan-Wim Wesselius has more to say about this phenomenon of clearly contradictory accounts placed side by side in Primary History, and in particular throughout the first eight books of Primary History (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth) that is too complex for me to address here. In brief, what he addresses is the phenomenon of seeing two contradictory accounts placed side by side, with the ensuing narrative usually picking up on and following the logic of the second account, only to suddenly find at the end that that second narrative is explicitly denied in, say, a list of persons, or the opposing original account is explicitly affirmed!

How to explain all of this apparently willful set of contradictory tales? Wesselius has already indicated an interest in imitating Herodotus? (There is clearly much more to the Herodotus comparison than I have alluded to here in this brief post.)

This is a subject that is too complex to explore here. But it is sufficient for open-minded people who are always interested in learning new things to note that these various contradictory accounts we read about in the Bible, impose upon us the need to

seriously consider the possibility that this variety really served as a conscious programme, pointing out that the ancestral God was called by several different names throughout history (apart from their function of distinguishing the two accounts of Creation in Gen. 1-2), and that there were also variant traditions about the place of his revelation . . . . [etc].

The considerations of this section . . . should make us wary of attempting to reconstruct the prehistory of the text of Primary History, as the text as we now have it was probably intended to be that way, with all its variations. Although such variation may originate in many cases from differences of provenance, it is probably not feasible to distinguish in individual instances  whether variety is a result of different origins or of the design of the author. (p. 85)

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17 thoughts on “Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve”

  1. I think the Documentary Hypothesis explains well enough why there are contradictory accounts of certain events in Gen-2 Kings. There is good evidence that each version supports the people, places and agendas of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Whoever later redacted these different accounts had a difficult job to do, and while it may not have been perfect, it was good enough to satisfy a lot of people for thousands of years.

    i’m keeping an open mind on the idea of a Hellenistic origin of the OT. I already aknowledge that “later” parts exhibit signs of this, such as Job and Daniel, and there is obviously a lot of noncanonical literature from this time, such as the Maccabee books, and heck, lets add Philo and Josephus. And let’s also add that the canonical Jewish version of the OT has 24 books (or is it 22? My memory is hazy), like the Homeric epics. But it seems like “overkill” to insist that nothing of the OT predates Hellenism, especially given the Northern/Southern Kingdom evidence in the Torah and the fact that Hebrew is an older written language than Greek (or so it is said). It’s going to take quite a bit to change this point of view for me, but I’m not shutting my mind to the possibilty and its implications.

  2. Lord God did the creating in Genesis 2-4, as Yaldabaoth, Before that, “God” is just “God” not Creator YHWH. The “image” in 1 is the reflection of God on etheric planes. The bodies aren’t formed until 2:7 with “dust of the ground”. This is mystic, or gnostic, wisdom. Read Nag HAmmadi. Or better, Sant Mat: www,RSSB.org

  3. Yes the authors of the Genesis story, of the story of Joseph, and of the primary history (who all certainly wrote their versions in a time when the kingdoms of Samaria and of Jerusalem were but a memory to be played with) did use fragments of stories from different sources (Bethel and Benjamin,Shechem and Samaria,Jerusalem and Judah) with different axes to grind and different ways of addresing God. But they decided, and they did not have to, to weave the contradictions into their story. Do the prophets meet God himself, or Yahweh Gods name and messenger to Israel, or an angel, a messenger from Jahweh who is the name of Elohim. All at once – a quantum superposition- or an attempt to suggest that the meaning of the story told is too deep to be found in a literal understanding as history? Damned if I know!

  4. Just some (not quite so) random points:

    The earliest Old Testament Bible of which we have evidence was in Greek and the Hebrew Bible did not emerge until well into the Christian/rabbinic era.

    The archaeological evidence contradicts the OT account of rival kingdoms, northern (Samaria) and southern (Jerusalem). The southern kingdom did not emerge as a viable political entity until after the destruction of both Samaria and Lachish by the Assyrians.

    The first chapter of Genesis — not only the later books — is loaded with Hellenistic concepts, and the narrative of the antediluvian era and the emergence of the new generation after the great flood could be taken straight from Plato’s various accounts of origins.

    There are things in the OT that predate Hellenism, such as some of the details of the Flood story and names of some of the kings. But a work should be dated by its latest components, not its earliest.

    The story of the rivalry between the northern and southern kingdoms is best explained as a theological tale that had relevance for a much later audience.

    But I can see I am going to have to try to argue the case for a Hellenistic origin of the OT in much more detail in coming posts to show that there is yet much more to the argument 🙂

    1. Neil, you wrote “The archaeological evidence contradicts the OT account of rival kingdoms, northern (Samaria) and southern (Jerusalem). The southern kingdom did not emerge as a viable political entity until after the destruction of both Samaria and Lachish by the Assyrians.”

      This is a claim that I have not come across in my reading of the standard historical texts. Could you please provide a few references?

      1. Philip R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel — I have outlined much of this book at http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/index.htm

        Niels Peter Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition

        Thomas L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People

        Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past (also published as The Bible in History)

        Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives

        There are many others I could list but the above are probably the most comprehensive introductions.

        One overview is by Lester Grabbe, “Ancient Israel: what do we know and how do we know it”. But this might be considered a bit too thin with the detail you would like.

        I have posted a few times on some aspects of this. See, for example, http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/religion/ot-archaeology-literature/jerusalem-and-samaria/

        Check some of the above authors in my Categories in the left margin of this blog; also scroll down to the category headed “old testament literature and archaeology”.

  5. Here is another view of these apparent problems. Yes, the two Genesis accounts were probably written separately and possibly by different people originally, and they provide different time periods and perspectives of the creation account. When Moses wrote Genesis, he used these older sources. Here is a brief chronological listing of the creation account.

    1. God created the universe, including the earth, stars etc.

    2. God created vegetation on the earth, trees and grass etc.

    3. God created the ancient animal life. The dinosaurs and other extinct life forms that we find in fossils. This creation of these animals goes on for thousands of years. Then jumping way into the future, it mentions the creation of man.

    4. Chapter 2 starts over again, but focusing only on the earth. From the point of no vegetation on the earth, number 2 above. Then it skips the creation of the ancient animal life and focuses on the man and woman along with modern animals that were created almost simultaneously with them. One key to this is at Gen 2:19 where the Hebrew verb “form” is in the imperfect and denotes continued, progressive action. See LXX Gen 2:19 “And God formed yet farther out of the earth all the wild beasts of the field.” So this was another lot of newly created animals that lived contemporaneously with man. It is not talking about the first lot of animal life.

    1. This is similar to what a church I once belonged to taught. In the beginning God created the heavens and earth. Full stop. Imagine here a few hundreds of millions of years of evolution, dinosaurs, eventually hominids, etc, perhaps even a number of wars between Lucifer’s angels and God’s armies — with heaven and earth being the setting such that meteor crashed into the earth and occasionally wiped out most life. Then the final destruction when the earth “became/fell into” “tohu an bohu — chaos and confusion” as a result of a massive conflict and destruction. Then we start all over again with the gentle music as God begins to re-create everything for us from verse 3. . . .

      I have seen a book claiming to dispute all of this by a detailed discussion of the Hebrew words in question but unable to recall it now.

  6. Sorry, I am being too elliptical. I do belief the books of the Bible were written in Hellenistic times. They use old Babylonian stories availible to any story teller then as now. They use opposing stories too -reflecting not the rivalry of the byegone kingdoms but rivalries of the Persian period, when for a time Judah was ruled by a Persian governor in Benjamin assasinated by supporters of the house of David.I see layers of polemic in the stories of Benjamin, Gibeon, Saul,Bethel. Later dissident priests from Jerusalem left to join with the probably older temple of Shechem. And there is pro and anti Shechem stuff as well. So the Hellenistic story teller did gather somewhat older tradtions. It is not clear what his purpose is or if the later books all had one purpose.

  7. I do look forward to seeing more details about seeing the Torah/OT through the lens of a Hellenistic origin. Until then, it is more difficult for me to “imagine” that someone created the apparent political and religious rivalries in the Gen- 2 Kings to imitate Greek literature, rather than these “contradictions” being products of rival kingdoms and priesthoods, as R.E. Friedman points out so well for lay people like me.

    Consider that the prophets show evidence of having knowledge of some form of the Torah. For example, Friedman points out that the language of the book of Jeremiah is strikingly similar to Deuteronomy-2 Kings, and that it is even expressed in rabbinical literature that Jeremiah wrote Kings. Are all the prophetic writings products of Hellenistic times, too, then? So not only is the political and religious rivalry evident in Gen-2 Kings made up, so are the prophetic books? This seems like a grand enterprise. Too grand. Again, it’s just more difficult to “imagine” this.

    There is a well known idea that there may have been at least three “Isaiahs” that make up the present book, each living in a different time and place. Did somebody make up all three, with distinct voices and backgrounds, to create one work for the purpose of emmulating Greek literature? This is how the idea of a Hellenistic origin of the different sources of the Torah strikes me. I mean, maybe so, and I’ll wait for further details, but it’s harder for me to imagine this than thinking that older, different and sometimes rival sources were simply redacted by someone.

  8. Thompson, Lemche and others argue that the biblical literature was a Hellenistic product. Davies places it earlier in the Persian period.

    I have sometimes referred to arguments that the Primary History (Gen to Kings) had a single author, but not all who place the literature so late argue this. Single auhorship is a separate debate.

    As for the prophets, the evidence can be seen as pointing to them originating in rival schools and in dialogue with one another — a model I have sometimes carried over to accounting for Gospel creations. Most scholars, I think, would accept that Matthew and Luke are in some sort of dialogue with Mark, for example.

    The religious rivalries are real — but their immediate relevance is to the situations existing in Persian and Hellenistic periods. David’s conquests, for example, mirror those of the Hasmoneans.

    The fundamental arguments against an earlier setting for the narratives have to do with their being a complete lack of the sorts of administrative and economic and logistical infrastructure to support a literate class of historians — and the absene of a political setting that we read about in the literature — according to archaeological finds. The conditions for such narratives — and the background settings of those narratives — don’t emerge until the Persian and Hellenistic eras.

    Moreover, how do we account for the specific themes of the literature — exile, wandering, return; people of the land versus people of God inhabiting the same land; etc. All of these themes mirror the realities of the Persian and Hellenistic eras.

    But obviously this synopsis does not answer your questions. It probably only strengthens them. I do plan to write more about all of this as I get time and opportunity.

  9. Another question concerns the dating of the Greek vs. Hebrew OT. In refreshing my memory of the issue (spurred by one of your comments above), I’m seeing that while the earliest fragments of the LXX date to the 2nd century BC (I’ll say “BC” in nod to a recent Carrier blog post), so does some of the Dead Sea Scrolls biblical literature, and there is an earlier Hebrew fragment of the priestly blessing in Numbers that is dated even earlier than this. I’m speaking in ignorance of the details of the Hellenistic origins argument, but on the question of dating it looks like the Hebrew “bible” is older.

    And I wonder to what extent the story of David in the OT mirrors Hasmonean history recorded in 1 and 2 Mac. The latter works seem to have different points of view. I never thought to see a connection between the story of David and the Hasmoneans before. It’s an interesting idea, if hard to swallow at first, and it creates a lot of questions.

      1. I agree. Everyone has their point of view when writing “history.” I look forward to learning more from you and researching this interesting topic more.

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