Making sense of the contradicting creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" is easily the best-known verse of the Bible. Not just because it's the first verse but also because, for many, it is humanity's authentic origin story. 

We are all familiar with the order of creation in Genesis 1; the separation of light and darkness; division of the waters and appearance of dry land; creation of plants; creation of the sun and moon; creation of sea life and bird life; creation of land animals and, finally, the creation of man in God's image. Pretty straightforward. Or is it?

NB: Hovering (desktop) or clicking (mobile) on the Bible verses in this article will pop up the corresponding words without taking you to another page.

If you flip over from Gen 1 to Gen 2:4-5, you may notice that the order appears to be reversed. According to these verses, God didn't create plants before man, because He needed man to till the ground. It isn't until Gen 2:8-9, following man's appearance in verse 7, that God creates plants.

Similarly, Gen 2:18-20 indicates that animals were created AFTER man, specifically for his companionship. A role which they fell short of (Gen 2:20), prompting the creation of woman.

But wait. Doesn't Gen 1: 20-26 say the exact opposite? That animals came BEFORE man, on the 5th and 6th day? What's going on here? And why does Gen 1:27-28 seem to imply than man and woman were created on the same day, when we all know that the woman came after (Gen 2: 21-23)?

The answer lies in Gen 2:4 and the inadequacy of the KJV translation. 

If you compare the KJV, NIV, and RSV (you may also check your favourite) translations of Gen 2:4-5, you will notice major differences.

In the KJV translation, verses 4-5 seem to form one single thought:

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, and every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.

Compare with the RSV translation of the same passage:

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, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground. 

As you can see, the clauses from the KJV translation are, in the RSV case, broken into separate paragraphs and sentences in their own right. What did you notice in your favourite translation? 

It is important to highlight that when the different books of the Bible were originally written, they didn't have verses. The numbering of Bible verses is a barely 800-year old practice. So for the first 800 years of its existence, the Bible didn't have verses or chapters. 

Based on the proper analysis of the grammatic structure in original Hebrew, many scholars today agree that what is now considered Gen 2:4a (This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created. NKJV) is the end of one creation story, while Gen 2:4b (In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens) is the beginning of another. Also, you may have observed the reversed order of "heaven and earth" in Gen 2:4. Up until this verse, the order is "heaven and earth" but things switch up right after. This further proves the existence of dual creation stories.

In light of this, I urge that, before we proceed, you to take a few minutes to re-read Gen chapter 1 and chapter 2 as they were originally intended. I'll wait.

Possible explanations for the contradictions

If you agree that there are indeed two contradicting creation accounts, you probably need answers as to why they are both included in the Bible.

First, some key observations

For the sake of this article, let us call Genesis 1:1-2:4a Creation Account 1 and Gen 2:4b-25 Creation Account 2.
  1. The creator in Creation Account 1 only has to utter a command for creation to happen. However, in Creation Account 2, he takes a more hands-on approach; moulding sand (Gen 2:7, Gen 2:19), breathing into to create life (Gen 2:7), and planting a garden (Gen 2:8).
  2. Throughout Creation Account 1, the creator is simply referred to as "God" (Elohim in Hebrew) but in Creation Account 2, he is referred to as "the Lord God" (Yahweh in Hebrew).
  3. The KJV translates Gen 1:26 as "let us make man..." while the NRSV translates it as "let us make humankind..." How does your favourite translation render this verse?
  4. Creation Account 1 seems more structured and poetic, as if intended to be memorised (most ancient Jews couldn't read. Scribes and Rabbi would read out scripture for them to listen.). If you tabulate the creation days, you will notice that they actually follow a pattern

  5. Creation Account 2 appears to say that the creation of the world happened in one day (Gen 2:4b). While some translations do render "in the day" as "at the time", it's still not clear what it means.
  6. In Creation Account 1, God merely used utterances to create but yet, he needed to rest on the 7th day. In Creation Account 2, he did actual work but did not require rest. Why?

What do all these mean?

The scholarly thinking is that Creation Account 2 was the original creation account of the Israelites. So let's call in Creation Account 0 from here on out.

To summarise the theory, after the Babylonian Captivity of 597 BC, in which a large number of Jews were exiled to Babylon, they (re?)learnt about the Babylonian creation myth, popularly known as the Enuma ElishThis inspired their priests to revise the Jewish creation story. The Enuma Elish might explain why Creation Account 1 goes "heavens and earth" while Creation Account 0 is reversed. You may need to watch the above video to understand. This other video might help too.

But why would the priests feel the need to revise their creation story? I have a theory.

You see, Israelite patriarch Abraham grew up in Mesopotamia, of which Babylon was its capital city. It was there that Yahweh called him to go the Promised Land of Canaan. In Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Abraham is considered the world's first monotheist, having grown up in a polytheistic culture that he vehemently rejected

As a Mesopotamian, Abraham was most likely familiar with the Enuma Elish. However, given its polytheist connotations (I'm coming to this soon), he revised it in Creation Account 0, which was then passed down orally for at least a thousand years until the first Jewish writings appeared.

So by the time of the exile to Babylon, the Jews knew only one creation story. However, on rediscovering the Enuma Elish, they couldn't stand how it portrayed Babylonian god, Marduk as more powerful than Yahweh. Marduk simply uttered words to create but Yahweh had a hands-on approach. This couldn't be right. To the Jews, Yahweh was the ultimate God. How could Marduk seem more powerful? 

However, many scholars argue that Abraham is a mythicalat best legendary, character used as an abstraction or metaphor for Jewish transition from polytheism to monolatry, to monotheism. This perhaps validates Genesis 1:1-2:4a as the original story and Gen 2:4a-25 as a later monotheist revision. So maybe this theory isn't so great, and we are back to the original numbering; Creation Account 1 as Genesis 1:1-2:4a, and Gen 2:4a-25 as Creation Account 2. I know it's somewhat confusing but stick with me.

Before I dump the theory, let's consider observation 6, in which is God resting from doing barely any work. There is a hypothesis that Creation Account 1 and Creation Account 2 come from two different ancient sources. Gen 1:1-2:4a is ascribed to a P (priestly) source and Gen 2:4b-25 to a J (Jahwist) source. 

The argument is that the Babylonian Captivity posed a serious threat to Jewish nationality, as many of them were beginning to forget their customs. This deeply worried the priests, who in a bid to protect their livelihood (and well, Jewish identity) felt the need to provide divine authority to encourage some long-held practices, particularly the keeping of Sabbath. I have not done extensive research about the origins of the Sabbath but my understanding is that it was one of those important traditions that had no prior explanation, until the P creation account provided it. 

Now, consider observation 2 above. So much is lost in the English translation of the Bible. For example, "Elohim" is simply translated as "God", "Yahweh" as "the LORD", "El Elyon" as "The Most High God", and "El Shaddai" as "Lord God Almighty", such that one would miss the different personalities ascribed to these gods. Yes, these are not the names of God, they are the names of gods, and the Bible proves it.

I earlier hinted at Jewish transition from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism (see this article that shows Elohim originally denoted plural form). This theological shift took place gradually over millennia, progression of which is evident all over the Bible. However, English is such an inadequate language that the clues fly over our heads.

Consider Psalm 82:1. The KJV translation reads:
God (Elohim) standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.

We've already established the inadequacy of the KJV translation so let us look at better translations. The NRSV and NIV read respectively:

God (Elohim) has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.

God (Elohim) presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods

What's going on here? Elohim (God) is presiding over a heavenly council with other gods? We need more insight; let's go to Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (NRSV):
When the Most High (El Elyon) apportioned the nations,
When he divided humankind,
He fixed the boundaries of the peoples
According to the number of the gods;
The Lord (Yahweh)’s own portion was his people,
Jacob (Israel) his allotted share.
Hold on, there is a "most high" god apportioning nations to other gods and he gave Israel to Yahweh? Could this passage be referring to the divine council in Psalm 82? 

In case you are wondering, the concept of a most high god was not alien to Israelites. The concept is prevalent in many ancient religions, whether it is Greek mythology (Zeus and other gods), Yoruba mythology (Olódùmarè who instructed Ọ̀rúnmìlà to create the world), or Middle-Eastern mythology, which Israelites were a part of.

Now, in light of this insight, how should we interpret observation 3 (Gen 1:26)?
Let "us" make humankind in "our" image. 
If you are Christian, you might interpret this as God talking to Jesus (In the beginning was the Word...). If you believe in the Trinity, you might say he was also talking to the Holy Spirit, even though a proper translation of Gen 1:2 is "a wind from God" (Enuma Elish, anyone?) and not the KJV's wrongly translated "the spirit of God". But if you are familiar with the Enuma Elish, you might agree that Elohim is more likely talking to a council of gods, one of whom is Yahweh. 

You should read the MSG translation of Gen 1:26-28 for clarification on this...
God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them
    reflecting our nature
So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,
    the birds in the air, the cattle,
And, yes, Earth itself,
    and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”
God created human beings;
    he created them godlike,
Reflecting God’s nature.
    He created them male and female.
...and compare it with the Enuma Elish.

See also the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9) where the LORD (Yahweh) himself comes down, is scared of the progress they're making, and says in verse 7, "let us".

Still on observation 3. The KJV translation of Gen 1:26 popularly reads, "let us create man in our own image." Quick question. Why would Elohim say "let us create man" and then within the same breath say "male and female, he created them" (Gen 1:27)? Was Adam created with both male and female characteristics? Could that explain how Eve could be taken out of his body in Gen 2:21-22?

Let's examine other translations. Compare Gen 1:26 NRSV, Gen 1:26 NIV, Gen 1:26 NLT, and Gen 1:26 MSG. Why do all these translations use a variation of the word "humans"? The answer is in the original Hebrew text.

In observation 4 above, I noted that Creation Account 1 seems more poetic. Almost like a hymn to be memorised and sung. The subtlest clue to this is in the Hebrew word for "man" (adam) and "ground" (adamah). Indeed, Adam is not the name of the first man; it is simply the generic Hebrew word for humans. The authors of Gen 1, it appears, are deliberate in their use of adam, with full knowledge of Creation Account 2, and how it rhymes with adamah. Come to think of it, there's nowhere in the Genesis account where the names "Adam" and "Eve" are specifically used.

What I'm trying to point out though is that the proper translation of the word adam, clarifies that Gen 1:27 is indeed saying that the man and woman were created at the same time. This contradicts the Gen 2:4b-25 account.

There is an alternative theory about the contradicting creation narrative that I find most fascinating. It excludes Babylonian Exile influence and rather focuses on the divided nations. If you know old testament history well, you will know that there were two nations of Israel, Judah in the south and Israel (or Ephraim) in the North, that at some point became one nation (think the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria).

This theory supposes that Creation Account 1 was the origin story of Judah, descended from Abraham (which is why it has Mesopotamian influence) and Creation Account 2 was the origin story of Israel, descended from Moses. They had their own local Gods (Yahweh and Elohim) and customs. When the nations came together, they combined customs and stories into one, without bothering to edit the fine details. This will explain the 40 or so doublets (repeated stories with contradicting variations) in the bible.

I would love to explain in detail but this article is already getting too long, so I'll just link to this video. You should also check out my favourite doublet in the Bible, the census of David, found in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21.

So what now?

At this point, you are probably wondering what my point is or what you should make of all these. It's really simple. It is very clear that neither of the creation accounts are historically accurate. Rather, they are narratives that reflect the cultures and origins of the authors. By extension, most of the Bible is not historical, but many people make the mistake of interpreting it otherwise.

There are two reasons for this in my opinion. First, like the Babylonians, the Israelites were one of the few ancient civilisations that actually documented their culture and traditions. The same cannot be said of older civilisations like the Egyptians whom we don't know enough about because they didn't write (hieroglyphics are an inadequate form of writing). It's same issue for most African civilisations. Imagine is Yoruba forefathers actually wrote down their version of the creation of the universe. They could probably lay claim to having the inspired, authentic story.

Secondly, new testament authors, who were mostly Jewish, had the habit of referencing Jewish scripture to prove the legitimacy of Jesus Christ. Save for Paul who had a different agenda, they did this from within the context of their culture. But because Christianity, which for its first 300 years was merely a sect of Judaism, grew exponentially and became global, the "Old Testament" became to be seen as the inspired and inerrant word of God, because new testament authors referenced it a lot, instead of what it truly was; a legendary documentation of Jewish culture and origins, told from their perspective, and for their own purposes.

This is why I believe that accepting that the Book of Genesis has contradicting creation narratives is pivotal to understanding what the Bible truly is and its role in the modern age. 

I prefer to think of the Bible as a collection of folk wisdom, that borrow elements from different cultures, and employs allegories to teach us life lessons and aid self reflection. However, it doesn't have a monopoly on wisdom, and is very flawed. 

Hopefully, I can expound on these thoughts some other time.


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