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The Two Creations in Genesis

The two creation stories in Genesis can be read as separate but complementary literary units that deal with heavenly and then earthly creation.

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The Bible opens with two different creation stories. The accounts are similar in that they both describe the creation of animals, plants, and humans. But they are distinct in several ways and even contradict each other on key issues.

For example, though the stories describe some of the same events, they order them differently. InGen 1, God creates plants, then animals, and then simultaneously creates man and woman. In Gen 2, God creates a human, plants, then animals, and later he divides the human into female and male. Additionally, the two stories employ different names for the deity. The first account uses the Hebrew word Elohim, meaning “God,” whereas the second uses the tetragrammaton, YHWH (often represented by “Lord”).

The stories are also very different in literary style. The first account appears neatly organized into three days of preparation followed by three days of actual formation. Each day concludes with the formulaic expression “and there was X.” By the seventh day, all creation exists in its proper sphere, and God rests. This orderly pattern suggests an orderly universe. The second story (beginning in the second half of Gen 2:4 and continuing through the end of chapter 3) lacks both the structure and the focus of the first creation account. It is much less formulaic; rather, it is a dramatic narrative in a series of seven scenes.

Because of these and other divergences, it is likely that separate authors with distinct theological views and agendas wrote these myths. The differences in the accounts reflect the unique way each author conceptualizes the deity. In Gen 1, God is distant, creating through speech according to a master plan. This image contrasts with Gen 2, where the author depicts God as a human-like figure who walks in the garden and, like a potter working with clay, has a hands-on, trial-and-error approach to creation. God in this version seems more accessible than the transcendent creator of Gen 1.

Yet despite these differences, the two stories have been redacted (edited and combined) in Genesis to read as a literary unit. The first account begins with a superscription introducing the narrative as the time “when God began to create heaven and earth” (Gen 1:1). It concludes with a summary statement that brackets the account: “this is the story of heaven and earth when they were created” (Gen 2:4). The second story begins in the same verse, with a similar clause, “When the Lord God made earth and heaven.” Though both narratives commence with the same word pair, they place the terms in the opposite order.

Perhaps an editor who wanted the first account to depict a “heavenly” creation and the second an “earthly” creation reversed the superscription in Gen 1 to read “heaven and earth.” Such a switch works because the first story is much more cosmic in its orientation than the second. Genesis 1, for example, depicts the creation of an expanse separating the heavenly from the earthly waters, as well as celestial objects such as the sun, moon, and stars. In contrast, the second story depicts not the creation of the sky or heavenly sphere but the formation of shrubs, fields, earth, and a garden. This difference allowed the stories to be reconciled as a literary unit, since the first text ends where the second begins—the earth. In its present form, the first creation account provides a prologue to the subsequent stories in Genesis describing humankind in the primordial era.

  • bokovoy-david

    David Bokovoy holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East and an MA in Jewish Studies both from Brandeis University. He is currently the online professor in Bible and Jewish Studies at Utah State University. David has published articles on the Hebrew Bible in a variety of academic venues, including the Journal of Biblical Literature, Vetus Testamentum, and Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. His academic focus is on source criticism, historical Jesus studies, the divine council, and sexual imagery connected with divinities in Near Eastern and biblical traditions.