by Roger Wyatt | 9th June 2021 | more posts on 'Chronology and the Bible'
Photograph: Roger Wyatt - The mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna.
‘This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground.’ (Genesis 2:4-5 NIV)
It is often argued that there are two conflicting accounts of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1, after the heavens and earth are created, a seven day process begins in which the created order is fashioned and filled with life. However, the account in Genesis 2, ostensibly, reads very differently. In the second chapter, verse five declares that the plants had not yet grown and human beings had not yet been formed, whilst the text of verse six explains that although there was no rain, the land was still watered: ‘but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground’ (Genesis 2:6). After the description of the watering of the barren earth, the creation of the first man then follows: ‘Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Genesis 2:7).
It is understandable why most reading this passage would conclude that God created the first human before any shrubs or trees had sprung up, and therefore contrary to the account of Genesis 1, which clearly places the creation of plants before the creation of the first humans: ‘The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day’ (Genesis 1:12-13). However, this is an unsupportable assumption.
First, the text of Genesis 2 goes on to recount, ‘Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed’ (Genesis 2:8). The planting of the garden is described in the past tense, and as such, verse seven (the creation of Adam) cannot, in a chronological sense, immediately follow on from verse six (the watering of a barren earth) – if this were the case verse six would also contradict verse eight (the planting of the garden). Second, just because verse seven follows verse six, it is wrong to assume that they are immediately chronologically related; throughout scripture time periods are commonly skipped over between verses, or even within verses. Moreover, if the focus of the narrative found in Genesis 2 is the human story, as is confirmed in the account that follows, it is understandable that the writer would record the events of creation in relation to how they impacted the human narrative. It also understandable that he does not concern himself with the intervening creation events, already described in the previous chapter.
And so, in-between verse six and seven, days three, four and five have passed. Moreover, after verse eight describes Yahweh creating and placing Adam in the garden he had planted, the writer proceeds to describe the growing of the trees, an event belonging to day three of Genesis 1: ‘The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2:9). Again, the placing of the description of the events of day three after the planting of the garden and the creation of Adam is designed to explain the presence of the two special trees in the centre of the garden of Eden, key elements of the unfolding human story. Indeed, towards the end of chapter 2, the author describes another event prior to the creation of Adam, as if it were something taking place after the fashioning of the first human: ‘Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name’ (Genesis 2:19) – the purpose of the inclusion clearly to elucidate the narrative behind the creation of Eve. Finally, the fact that God places the man he had created in the Garden of Eden twice, once in verse eight and once in verse fifteen re-emphasises the fact that the main aim of the passage was to tell the story of what happened to the first humans, without particular reference to order.
And so, the reason for the difference between the two creation accounts is, quite simply, that they were written with different purposes in mind. The first creation story records the creation events in chronological order, whilst the second takes the reader on a textual journey into the human story that is understandably far from linear or strictly chronological.