2023-01-03

The Second Creation Story in Genesis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 6]

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by Neil Godfrey

The stately narrative of the creation of the cosmos in six days crowned by a sabbath rest comes to an abrupt end as the reader is swept into a totally different dimension: an announcement of the “generations of heaven and earth”, a world of animals being created after the man, a garden with mythical geography and two forbidden trees, a talking serpent, and a god walking in the cool breeze wondering where his newly created man and woman are. If the first creation account draws on Plato and other Greek scientific thought, what are we to make of these following chapters?

For Russell Gmirkin, this Genesis second creation account is also inspired by Plato’s “second creation account” in Timaeus:

It is striking that both Plato’s Timaeus and the book of Genesis divide their account of the creation of the world into two parts, the first narrating the creation of the present universe as a whole . . . 

. . . and with the second part introducing the popular anthropomorphic gods of the Greeks, offering an explanation for mortality and how human wickedness came about without being the responsibility of the supreme creator god.

Thank God for Plato – or rather, Plato for God

It was Plato alone who postulated a truly eternal god that dwelled beyond the plane of sensible existence, beyond time, in the world of Being. This essentially monotheistic conception of a supreme transcendent god existing beyond the sensible universe was a major Platonic innovation, found neither in popular Greek myth nor in the writings of the pre-Socratics, though a commonplace belief today in the religions that are Plato’s intellectual heirs. Earlier natural philosophers who postulated a monotheistic deity, such as Xenophanes of Colophon, Heraclitus of Ephesus and Anaxagoras of Clazomene, did not localize the supreme god outside the realm of sensible existence, but rather as an intelligence pervading the physical universe. Plato’s view of this god as one, eternal and without bodily form, appears to most closely echo the views of Xenophanes. But Plato, by postulating a separate eternal realm of Being distinct from the temporal realm of Becoming, gave a novel ontological basis for the existence of a divine realm where both Forms and the Demiurge could have an abiding existence separated from the sensible physical kosmos. (Gmirkin, 159)

Plato wrote of the supreme deity commissioning his lesser gods to create mortals and Genesis 2 is consistent with this pattern:

  • in the first chapter Elohim creates the cosmos;
  • Elohim then appears to address a divine assembly, “Let us create humans…”;
  • in the second chapter a deity called Yahweh Elohim is depicted creating man and woman, walking in the cool of the day in the garden and engaging in conversation with earthly mortals.

The traditional view among scholars is that Genesis contains two quite different accounts, each composed many years apart, each depicting a different god, and being clumsily combined (certain contradictions between the two were allowed to stand) into a single narrative. Gmirkin argues that both of these different accounts were composed under the influence of Plato’s two-stage creation narrative.

The serious reader will want to investigate the details: what textual variants do we find in the various Hebrew and Greek manuscripts? Gmirkin discusses these questions, engaging with various inconsistencies, and concludes:

it seems reasonable to posit that the original text of Genesis 1-3 was consistent in its use of Elohim and Yahweh Elohim in the First and Second Creation Accounts respectively. (p. 163)

I have to admit that I have some slight reservation over the similarity of the names of the deities: Elohim and Yahweh Elohim. Is it possible that in the original text Yahweh Elohim was stressing a particular attribute of Elohim rather than being meant to be a second god? (Compare the many epithets associated with Zeus and Dionysus.) Another option proposed has been that the original text was referencing two different “hypostases” of the supreme god but I’ll save that discussion for another time when I post on some of Bernard Barc’s ideas. My question at this point does not at all overturn the basic principle of Gmirkin’s thesis, but I wonder if it does open up doors to further explorations of the details of how Hellenistic influence was embedded in Judean/Samaritan thought before the split between the two peoples and reactions against Hellenism.

Here are the generations of heaven and earth

A Roman mosaic depicting the Greek primordial gods Uranus and Gaia

Another curiosity in Genesis that has surely caused many readers at some stage to wonder is “here are the generations of the heaven and earth”:

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth — Genesis 2:4

That’s one of the many curiosities that I asked about as a child. At the time I was assured that since this was holy writ the meaning had to be whatever followed, however unsatisfying the proposed answers were. One had to wait to reach adulthood to find the same questions are permitted and freely discussed by the scholars. The most likely explanation (uncomfortable for the innocent believer) is that we are reading a passage that had its origins in a view that Heaven and Earth were themselves gods. That’s exactly what we find in Greek mythology. Plato’s highest craftsman god was the father of numerous other deities, beginning with Ge, earth, and Ouranos, heaven.

Plato claimed that the traditional visible Greek gods, starting with Ouranos and Ge, were the offspring of the invisible Demiurge or Creator, and that these semi-mortal, corporeal gods in turn created mortal life, which exonerated the eternal Demiurge from having created mortals with their potential for evil. Likewise, in Gen 2:4 Ouranos and Ge appear as the first two offspring of the Creator of Genesis 1, and an account of their descendants is projected. In Genesis 2-3 the narration shifts from the Creator to the creation of mortal Efe by Yahweh Elohim, a visible god who is one of the descendants of the Creator of Genesis 1, alongside the other terrestrial gods alluded to in Genesis. Yahweh Elohim in turn created mortal life, like the lesser gods in Timaeus. (p. 165)

Contradictions

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