Thinking About Genesis 1-2, Part 2

Thinking About Genesis 1-2, Part 2

Part 2: When Genesis 1 is read as a literal, historical sequence of events, then it contradicts Genesis 2.

In my last post, I argued that it is not necessary to understand “day” as a literal, 24-hour day. I showed that it is possible to understand the “days” of Genesis 1 in a non-literal way. As we saw, the Hebrew word yom could be understood in a number of ways: as a 24-hour day, as a reference to daylight hours, as an unspecified amount of time, or in a literary and proverbial way.

What I want to show in the next two posts is that a non-literal reading of Gen 1 is not only possible, but actually better than a literal reading. Before we proceed, we need to define some important terms.

When adherents of young-earth creationism (YEC) say they believe in the days of Gen 1 as “literal,” they mean at least three things: the “days” are (1) historical days; (2) twenty-four hour days; and (3) literal in sequence. Essentially, they mean the following:

1. Historical days. The days are real, historical days. This means the events within those days were not myth or literary; they were actual days filled with actual events that occurred in actual history.

2. Twenty-four hour days. Because these were real, historical days, it follows that they were 24-hour days.

3. Literal in sequence. YEC advocates also argue the sequence of days should be read literally. That is, the events on Day 1 are followed by the events on Day 2. This second day is, likewise, followed by the events said to occur on Day 3. This goes on in a literal, straightforward sequential manner up until day 7. Because the days are taken as historical days, the events on one day could not have preceded the events on a day prior to it.

These points are important for what is to come below, so keep them tucked away in the back of your mind.

To begin, I want to point out something that, perhaps, you haven’t noticed before: Genesis gives not just one but two creation accounts.[1]

The first creation account begins in Gen 1:1 and ends in Gen 2:3. If you look closely, you will notice that the first account is beautifully book-ended by Gen 1:1 and Gen 2:1-3.[2] For example, in Gen 1:1 we read, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is followed by a creation account. And then we come to Gen 2:1-3:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”

But then Gen 2:4 begins a second creation story: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.”[3] This, too, is then followed by an account of creation.

When we look at both creation accounts, we observe that there are similarities between them.[4] However, there are also clear differences.[5] The first obvious difference concerns the amount of time it took God to create. In the first account (Gen 1-2:3), creation is said to have taken six days. In the second account, we read that it took a mere one “day” (Gen 2:4). So which is it? Did it take God six days or one day? Both can’t be literally true. The fact that both can’t be taken as literal offers us a strong clue, I think, that Genesis is not always interested in providing a literalistic account of creation.

There are other hints in the text that lead us to believe that this is, in fact, the case. As we will see, when we take a close look at the two creation accounts together, there are contradictions between them.

Yes, you read that right. Contradictions. Fairly big ones, even.

But here’s the deal. They are contradictions only when we insist on reading both creation accounts literally. As we will see in this post and the next, these “contradictions” are easily accounted for when we stop seeing, at the very least, Gen 1 as if it was conveying a literal, historical, and sequential account of creation.

Daniel C. Harlow, a biblical theologian, makes several observations regarding the differences between the two accounts. Among the ones he mentions, these four are significant:

(1) The first account lasted six days; the second account lasted for one day.

(2) The first account depicts earth’s first state as a watery, chaotic mess; the second account depicts the earth as being a parched desert, lacking water.

(3) The sequence of events in the first creation account is different than the sequence of events in the second (this is significant; more will be said on this below).

(4) The first account tells that “an unspecified number of males and females [were] created simultaneously”; the second account says that two humans were created at separate times. [6]

Harlow concludes that such differences within the text should lead us to read them non-literally. Specifically, he says that we can “appreciate the distinctive theological message” of both accounts when we come to the realization that they are not “historical in our modern sense of the term.”[7]

Indeed, it is hard to appreciate these creation accounts when we press them to the extreme of a literal reading such that contradictions are the final result. As an example, let’s take the sequence of events regarding the creation of humans and the animals. In Genesis 1, we read that God creates animals then people (vv. 24-27). But in Gen 2:18-19, this sequence is different – Adam is created first, then the animals, then Eve.[8] In Gen 2:19, the Hebrew is straightforward about the sequence of events.[9]

Furthermore, when we insist on a literal reading of the creation accounts, the problem of sequence becomes most troubling when we compare what Gen 1 says about vegetation with what Gen 2:5-7 says about it.

For instance, on Day 3 of the first creation account, the waters were gathered together and the dry land appeared. By the end of that day, vegetation was flourishing. It is not until Day 4 that the Sun was created. And on Day 6, humanity was created. These observations are important because the process of creation during those days could not have depended upon natural causes.

For example, the statement that there was vegetation growing on Day 3 runs contrary to what we know about the natural growth of vegetation – namely, that it depends on rain, a working atmosphere, and of course, a functional sun to make rain, weather, and photosynthesis possible in the first place. Truly, God can make vegetation however he pleases, and it is assumed by many that on Day 3 God simply by-passed natural laws for vegetation growth. After all, the sun (and hence, weather and photosynthesis) was not created until Day 4. Thus, vegetation in Gen 1 is often depicted as growing supernaturally.

But here’s the big problem: The biblical text will not let us read Gen 1 in this way. Meredith Kline’s article, “Because It Had Not Rained,” was instrumental in helping me come to see this.[10] For example, in Genesis 2:5 (the second creation account), vegetation is said to be dependent on the very natural laws that the first creation account precludes. Let’s take a look at this very closely.

In Gen 2:5, we read that there was a time when there was no vegetation. This accords well with Gen 1, which also reports a time when there was no vegetation. So far, so good. However, these two accounts part ways when we look at the reasons for why there was no vegetation in Gen 2. We are told that the lack of vegetation was due to how “the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground” (v.5). Thus, a naturalistic explanation is given as the reason for the lack of vegetation.[11]

Furthermore, these two creation accounts continue to part ways for how God solves the problem of the lack of vegetation in Gen 2. Again, Gen 2:5 states clearly that the lack of vegetation is due to two things: (1) there being no rain and (2) there not being in existence any human being to cultivate the ground. To answer these problems, Gen 2:6-7 tells us that God brings two solutions, namely, by causing it to rain and by forming man from the ground so that he can cultivate the vegetation.[12]

Before we continue, something important must be said here. We often think of “creation” as always being a supernatural event, that is, as creation-out-of-nothing that by-passes the ordinary, natural means of cause-and-effect. And to be sure, God can—and did at some unspecified point, I believe—create all things out of nothing (for all you philosophers out there, I’m a classical theist!).

But I must admit that, in order to keep in step with the biblical text, this is simply not the way in which God is said to be creating in this instance. As Kline has shown, Gen 2:5-7 shows that God created vegetation without by-passing what theologians often call “secondary causes” (e.g. cause-and-effect, the laws of physics, bio-chemistry, etc). He says that a “principle” is to be gleaned from Gen 2:5-7, namely, that we can speak of God’s creative activity in terms of God’s “providence.”[13] He states,

“The Creator did not originate plant life on earth before he had prepared an environment in which he might preserve it without by-passing secondary means… The unguarded presupposition of Gen. 2:5 is clearly that the divine providence was operating during the creation period through processes which any reader would recognize as normal in the natural world of his day.”[14]

And here we reach an important observation: The author of Genesis assumes that God’s creative activity and natural explanations for that creative process are not mutually exclusive.

This makes perfect sense, by the way. After all, it was not until the Enlightenment that we began to emphasize a stark difference between God’s activity and the activity of natural order. Ancient Jews simply did not share our modern assumptions about a so-called division between grace and nature, “faith” on the one hand and “science” on the other. Since an ancient Jew is responsible for giving us the whole of Genesis, perhaps we modern readers would do well to approach these texts with the acknowledgement that some of our enlightenment prejudgments may not be, in the end, all that helpful. Lots to be said here, but I think this is an important point to consider.

Kline goes on to say that, “Gen. 2:5 takes for granted ordinary botanical procedure.”[15] He is right, for the text is clear that the creation of the vegetation is dependent upon real, literal rain from the sky and a human to cultivate it. And since no rain was falling, and because there was no man to work the ground, there could be no vegetation. But because God did cause it to rain, and because God did make Adam, vegetation came to be.

Thus, Gen 2:5-7 shows us that, on some level, creation follows a natural process. All of this is important because in the first creation account (Gen 1-2:3) the unfolding sequence of creation does not follow any “natural order” of ecological or agricultural processes.[16] The days of creation in Gen 1 are far from naturally sequential. Thus, Tim Keller can say,

“Although God did not have to follow what we would call a ‘natural order’ in creation, Genesis 2:5 teaches that he did. It is stated categorically: God did not put vegetation on the earth before there was an atmosphere and rain. But in Genesis 1 we do have vegetation before there is any rain possible or any man to till the earth. In Genesis 1 natural order means nothing – there are three ‘evenings and mornings’ before there is a sun to set! But in Genesis 2 natural order is the norm.”[17]

What all of this suggests (quite convincingly, I think) is that a literal reading of the days in the first creation account is probably not the best reading. When we read Gen 1 as a literal sequence of events, then it throws off the sequence of events that unfold in Gen 2:5-7. The first account has vegetation flourishing without either rain or man to cultivate it; the second account states vegetation did not—indeed, was not able to—appear until after it rained and man was created.

The tension between the two accounts is eased when we stop interpreting Gen 1 as a literal account of creation.[18] And if we were to do this, then we will begin to see how the two creation accounts do not conflict with each other but, as Harlow says, are actually “complementary.”[19] Leaving behind the idea that the days in Genesis 1 are literal, historical, and sequential is, in my mind, required given the textual evidence.

I will have much more to say about Gen 2 in future posts (specifically about the creation of Adam and Eve). In the next post, I offer arguments as to why a literary reading – as opposed to a literal reading – of the first creation account is a far more suitable one given the layout of Genesis 1-2:3.


*This is a slight revision of an article I posted originally at Trinityhaus.

[1] On this, see e.g. Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III, Science, Creation, and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010), 107ff.

[2] See Mark D. Futato, “Because It Had Rained: A Study of Gen 2:5-7 with Implications for Gen 2:4-25 and Gen 1:1-2:3,” WTJ 60 (1998): 1-21, pp. 13-14.

[3] On Gen 2:4 being the start of a new section in Genesis (and hence a second creation story), see Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, eds. David A. Hubbard and Glenn, vol. 1a (WBC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), xxii, 55-56; and Carlson and Longman, Science, Creation, and the Bible, 110.

[4] See the helpful discussion in Carlson and Longman, Science, Creation, and the Bible, 115-118.

[5] See again Carlson and Longman, Science, Creation, and the Bible, 118-121.

[6] For the full list, see Daniel C. Harlow, “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science,” PSCF 62 (2010): 186.

[7] Harlow, “After Adam,” 185.

[8] Harlow, “After Adam,” 185.

[9] On problems with the NIV’s translation of Gen 2:19, see: John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 217, n. 217; and Harlow, “After Adam,” 185. The same is true of the ESV. There is much more to be said here. In my initial draft of this post, I included all the exegetical details, but decided to omit them because of how lengthy the technical side of things was getting. Of course, I would be glad to respond to any questions you have about the grammar of this passage.

[10] Meredith G. Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained,” WTJ 20 (1958): 146-157.

[11] Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained,” 149-150.

[12] In his article, “Because It Had Rained,” Futato has convincingly argued that the Gen 2:5-7 presents a two-fold problem: there was no (1) wild vegetation or (2) cultivated grain; the reason there was not any wild vegetation was because there was no rain. The reason there was not any grain was because there was no one yet to cultivate it. Futato argues that this two fold problem was answered in a two-fold solution: (1) the sending of rain; and (2) the making of the man to be a cultivator. Futato argues coherently that “the mist” that is said to have arisen from the ground (2:6) should be rendered “rain cloud” (see esp. pp. 2-10).

[13] Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained,” 151.

[14] Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained,” 149-150.

[15] Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained,” 153.

[16] Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” BioLogos White Paper (Jan 2009), 4. Accessed April 12, 2018 at 12:22pm.

[17] Keller, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” 4. Emphasis original.

[18] Meredith Kline has helped me come to terms with this. See Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained.” See also Futato, “Because It Had Rained.”

[19] So Harlow, “After Adam,” 185.

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