The first chapter of the book of Genesis tells the story of creation as a grand hymn, a great liturgy, a song of doxology, praising the majesty and wisdom and power of God. The second chapter tells the story much differently. From a high view of creation, almost a view from outer space, we move to a close-up view that’s firmly planted on the ground, literally in the dirt.
Yes, there are two creation stories, and, they don’t come close to agreeing on details of how it came about. I could run through the differences with you, but you are certainly capable of doing that for yourself if you think it’s necessary. I don’t think the differences should matter much to us, because they clearly didn’t matter to the people who put Genesis together.
I’ve seen many efforts to reconcile the differences, and they all involve either dangerous mental gymnastics or serious violence to the text. Best we should accept the attitude of the Genesis narrator, who essentially says: “Wow, Genesis 1 was a great story. Here’s another great story.”
The stories are complementary. Placed side by side, they silently comment on each other and complete each other. We shouldn’t focus on the differences, but on the similarities. We should listen for the echoes – and of those there are many.
You can tell that the two stories have different authors, though, because they refer to God differently. The creation hymn of Genesis chapter 1 refers to God as Elohim. It’s used as a name for the God of Israel, but it’s actually a generic name for deity, the way our English word “God” with a lowercase “g” is a generic name for deity. But God has a personal name, too, that’s used here for the first time.
We don’t know how to pronounce it. Many centuries ago – so many centuries that we really don’t know exactly when it was – Jews deliberately forgot how to say the name. That way, they could never inadvertently misuse God’s name. All we know are the consonants: YHWH. No one knows the vowels.
One attempt to reconstruct the name in English is Jehovah. Much more likely is Yahweh, which in Hebrew means “the one who is.” That’s one meaning of the name that God gives to Moses at the burning bush, so any use of the name before that time actually is an anachronism, something that is out of place in time. It’s used here to reinforce the assertion that the God of Israel is the creator of all that is.
When they’re reading the scriptures aloud, Jews don’t pronounce the personal name of God. Instead, since at least the time of Jesus, they substitute the word Adonai, meaning “Lord.” That’s why, in printed Bibles, you’ll find the word “Lord” printed in small capital letters more than 6,000 times. Whenever you see that, know that the personal name for God is being used.
Anachronism or not, the personal name for God is used here in the second creation story because this is a much more personal story than the one told in Genesis 1. This story demands a more personal name for God. Where Genesis 1 takes a cosmic view of creation. Genesis 2 literally gets down in the dirt.
In Genesis 1, God creates by verbal command: “Let there be…” In Genesis 2, God gets dirty hands. God forms new life by playing in the dirt. God creates the human from humus, from organic dirt, by molding him into shape and breathing life into his nostrils.
I say “he,” and the text says “he,” if only because Hebrew lacks a way to refer to someone as an “it.” This clay doll that God molds may be an “it” rather than a “he.” As we saw in Genesis chapter one, the text uses the term “ha adám,” meaning “the human.”
In these days of fierce debate over sexual identity, it may be helpful, or maybe not helpful, to suggest that “the human” may be androgynous, without gender, or combining the characteristics of both genders.
That suggestion is not modern, by the way. It’s at least a thousand years old. In his authoritative commentary on Genesis, the 11th-century French rabbi Rashi says that God created the human with two faces, one male and one female, and later separated them. (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, 14)
Scholar John Goldingay translates the passage this way: “Yahweh God shaped a human person with dirt from the ground and blew into its nostrils living breath, and the human person became a living being.” (John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, 39)
Goldingay’s translation does obscure a fun play on words in the Hebrew. God creates “ha adám” from “adamáh,” meaning fertile dirt. In English we keep the play on words by saying that God creates the human from humus.
God places the human in a garden called Eden. We’ll return to that in a moment. First, let’s jump to the place where, for the first time, it is said that something in God’s creation is “not good.” Remember the litany from chapter 1: Light – good. Earth – good. Plants – good. Sun, moon and stars – good. Birds and sea creatures – good. Land animals – good. Top it all off with human beings – now it’s very good.
Now God says: “It is not good that the human should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.” Only now, according to this version of the creation story, does God create birds and land animals. And God parades them, one by one, before the human, giving the human the authority to name each one. To the ancients, naming something gives you power over it. So in naming the birds and animals, the human claims power over them.
You can’t help but see this as a comic scene. God creates each critter, one after another, and brings it to the human to name and to see whether it’s a fitting companion. “What do want to you call this one? Giraffe. Hey, great name. What do you think about a giraffe as your partner? Too tall, you say? OK, we’ll try again.”
One by one, God creates and the human names, and the verdict is always negative. “No, no, that one will never do. Now that one – eh, close but not quite right.”
Never deterred, God has a plan. Before we talk about the plan, let’s talk about these animals. First, notice that when God creates “every animal of the field and every bird of the air,” God creates them the same way God created the human: “out of the ground.” So humans and animals alike are of the same substance. We all come from the fertile earth.
Here I cannot avoid thinking of the classic depiction by cartoonist Gary Larson. He shows God making snakes by rolling them in his hands out of clay, the way any kid would do it And God marvels, “Boy, these things are a cinch.”
But having rolled a snake out of clay, how does God give life to the snake? By breathing life into it, the same way God breathed life into the human. Genesis 1 tells us what this breath of life is called. It’s called nephesh.
Nephesh is frequently translated as “soul,” but that term is fraught with layers of misunderstanding. For the moment, suffice it to say that both humans and animals were created out of the dirt and animated by God’s breath. All humans and birds and fish and land animals have nephesh, or soul, or life from God. Of all living things, only plants don’t have nephesh.
This nephesh, or soul, is not just a part of you; it’s the whole you. God forms the human out of humus and makes the human a living being by breathing soul into it. Nephesh is a gift from God. As we’ll see in Genesis chapter 3, it does not make you immortal. The notion of an immortal soul comes from Greek philosophy, not from the Hebrew Bible. Immortality also is a gift from God, but it’s a separate gift from nephesh.
The major difference between humans and other creatures is that though we are all made of the same stuff and we are all animated by the same breath from God, only humans are made in the image of God, and only humans are given dominion over all other creatures.
Here’s the way the Genesis 2 talks about dominion: “The Lord God took the human and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” The command is the same one you’ll see on many police vehicles and badges: “to serve and protect.” In Genesis 2, we are given power and authority not to abuse and exploit but to serve and to protect.
We are servants of the earth from which we were created. “Humanity is made to serve the ground,” Goldingay says. “Humanity is both master of creation and servant of creation. Humanity and creation stand in a symbiotic relationship, a relationship of mutual dependence.” (Goldingay, 31)
So also is the relationship of male and female. A couple of weeks ago I said that Genesis 1 talks about the majesty of God’s creation rather than about details such as plumbing. Genesis 2 gets into plumbing, or at least one of the building trades.
Having failed to come up with an appropriate companion for the human, God causes a deep sleep to fall on the human. Then God removes one of the human’s ribs, and from it God fashions woman. In Genesis 1, God is a distant creator. In Genesis 2, God creates with hands-on intimacy.
When God created the human, God acted like a potter, molding the human out of clay. Now God constructs the woman, builds the woman, using material taken from the human. Only now, for the first time, can we properly speak of male and female. The human becomes a “he” only when God makes a “she” from part of the human.
As Goldingay says: “He becomes a male as opposed to female only when there is another person who stands over against him.” That’s the more literal reading of the phrase “suitable for him,” Goldingay says. She is suitable for him because she is so much like him and yet so much not like him. (Goldingay, 41)
The man is delighted. You might imagine him leaping for joy as he shouts: “At last, this one is just like me! She’s made of the same flesh and bone!”
It’s like the moment when you were certain that your spouse was the one for you. Didn’t you want to leap for joy and shout, “At last, she’s the one! At last, he’s the one!”
That’s what the man senses now – and, presumably, the woman, too. They were made for each other!
Hebrew designations for the pair work the same way they do in English. He’s ish and she’s ish-shah. He’s man, and she’s woman. No subordination is implied, though many men have tried to read hierarchy into the story.
God creates woman as “helper” and “partner” to the man. She complements him, making up for any deficiency in him. “Helper” in no way means inferior. If it did, the Bible would not so frequently refer to God as our helper. The biblical “helper-partner” is a strong arm you can rely on to stand with you when you get in a jam.
As Psalm 121 says: “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
In the New Testament, the first letter of Timothy has a very puzzling passage that advances a most curious argument. It implies that women are inferior and men have priority because the man was created first. If you refer to the order of creation from Genesis 1, you could use the same argument to say that all humans are inferior to birds and fish and insects and mice because they were created first, at least, by that account.
A lot of commentators, and not just feminists, see a different meaning in the creation order here. They say that if the woman is created after the man, that makes her, not him, the culmination of creation, the highest expression of what it means to be human. (Terrence Fretheim, God and the World in the OT, 60)
All such arguments are specious at best. There is a wide strand of patriarchal prejudice throughout the Bible, but from beginning to end, the strongest witness is egalitarian. As Galatians 3.28 attests, in Christ there is no male and female; we are all one in Christ. That’s not a statement about biology. It’s a statement of our standing before God and one another.
As people of God, we have yet to take that to heart. In many churches, for example, women pastors are routinely subjected to verbal harassment and worse by women as well as men – and the #MeToo movement has only begun to ferret out offenders in the secular world.
A couple of loose ends: The author of Genesis 2 uses the creation of woman to explain marriage customs. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Well, that’s usually not the way it works, is it? In most traditional societies, the woman leaves her family, and she and her husband live with his extended family working the family business, whether it’s farming or carpentry or whatever.
The point must be that the man and the woman are so committed to each other that they are like one flesh, perhaps as the human that God first created was male and female in one flesh. And yes, they’re naked and not ashamed. They’re innocent. They’re lovers. They have no secrets from each other.
Lastly, there’s this business with two special trees that are smack dab in the middle of the garden. We’ll learn more about them in the next two weeks. God tells the human not to eat from one of the trees. Because the human only later is separated into man and woman, we must assume that they both hear the command. Soon we’ll see them standing side by side while they eat the fruit of the one forbidden tree.
In other words, the creation story we’ve just heard is a setup for tragedy.
“Paradise” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Sept.29, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 100.1-5, Psalm 95:4-6, Genesis 2:4-9, 15-25