Why Are There Two Different Accounts of Creation?

Why are there two different accounts of Creation? I typed the question into Google and got sixty-two million links!  And no wonder—it’s been puzzling people for thousands of years.  Why are there two, especially two that seem to contradict each other?

1024px-Creation_of_Adam_Michelangelo

In particular, mankind is created after the animals and plants in chapter 1, but before them in chapter two. Scholars tell us the two accounts were written at very different times by different people —but that hardly answers the nagging doubts the contradiction raises.  “How can they both be right?” we wonder.  How can both be true?  And if they’re not—is the Bible really inspired?

Those questions are too big to answer fully in a single post, but here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Genre matters.

Genesis wasn’t written by a scientist or a modern historian.  Chapter one is pure poetry.  Genesis 1-11, “pre-history,” is couched in figurative language. We read news differently from editorials and poems; we must do the same when we read the Bible, and adjust our expectations and reading “lens” to the literary form.

For more details on interpreting Scripture, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 109-119.

2.  The author’s intent matters.

The questions of our age are scientific:  HOW did the world begin? WHEN did it come into being, and by WHAT exact process?  WHICH came first and how did the next being evolve?

The questions of the ancient world were different: WHO created? WHO’s in charge? WHY am I here, and HOW do I relate to other beings? WHY is there evil and can anything be done about it?

OK, we have those questions too—and those are the ones we should ask of Genesis, because those are the questions it sets out to answer.  In Dei Verbum, the Church tells us that the Bible teaches “solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (emphasis added). It teaches not scientific truth; but spiritual truth.

3.  Context matters.

Genesis 1 and 2 are both parts of a larger story—revealed in Scripture and Tradition—and can’t be fully understood apart from it.

Taking these things into account, I offer a few thoughts:

Genesis 1 is about God’s action and purpose, not the science or calendar of creation.

God is named thirty-two times in thirty-one verses and every time he’s the subject of the sentence, acting, intentionally building something “good.”

The “days” of creation are symbolic.

Genesis 1 is poetic, and poetic structure has meaning. Sequential days are not there for themselves, to show time sequence, but rather to show order and hierarchy.  (If the goal had been sequence, the sun would come before the light!).

Notice that all begins in darkness, formlessness, and emptiness. On “days” one through three God banishes the darkness and brings order to the chaos: heaven and sky, earth and land. On “days” four through six God fills the void, populating each realm in the same order. God makes people only after everything is ready for them to live in and rule. They are the “end” as in purpose, not sequence, of the created universe.

The march of days also forms a sort of literary “arrow” pointing to chapter two and the seventh day. It reveals the grand purpose of creation: that everything is ordered to the Sabbath and worship of God (See CCC, 345-348, 2169, and 2171).

Genesis 1 is a prologue to the rest.

How fitting that this poetic tribute, which was probably written much later than chapter two, is placed at the start of Genesis. It functions like an “Entrance Hymn” to the great drama of salvation. While it is sung, God fills the stage and the other players take their place around him as created things and beings, each with its own dignity within its own sphere. All is in order and very good.

There’s a perspective shift between chapters.

In Genesis 1, the reader’s a distant observer of the creation of the universe.  Genesis 2 zooms in for a close-up on the “man” God created everything for.

Sequence shows relationship in chapter two.

Once again, sequence is not about time.  Events are arranged to show truth about humanity in relationship to God, the animals, and the world. Chapter 1 told us man was created in God’s image, given dominion over the earth, and told to be fruitful and multiply. What does that mean, and how are we to understand it? By starting—not ending—with the creation of man, the author is able to show many things, among them:

  • Man is made from dust. He does not evolve from something else and no other being is used to create him; there is nothing else.
  • Vegetation is for man’s food and pleasure and to teach obedience—he is creature, not creator, and must learn to relate to God.
  • The animals are created so man will know his special status—that he’s made for more. He doesn’t come from them, they are brought to him and he names and rules them.
  • Man is only complete when God brings from his body another, the woman. Side by side, they will not only rule, but fill the earth. Together they are in God’s image: male and female; ruling the earth; fruitful. They live in harmony with creation, with each other, and with God.

The first creation makes sense only in light of the new creation in Christ.

So Genesis 1 and 2 give us two complementary accounts of creation that together help us begin to understand the “whos” and “whys” of our existence.  But they are part of a larger story and we can’t fully understand them without knowing the end and purpose of the whole.

Perhaps that’s why John started his Gospel with another creation account. “In the beginning was the Word,” he wrote.  “All things were made through him […] The light shines in the darkness […] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

John’s deliberate use of language from Genesis helps us see the coming of Christ as a new creation.  It also helps us understand God’s purpose in Creation from the start.

Why did God create? Pope Benedict XVI brings it all together:

“God created the universe in order to be able to become a human being and pour out his love upon us and to invite us to love him in return.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “‘In the Beginning…’”  1995, pg. 30) 

Only when we read all of God’s word in light of his Word (Jesus), can we truly understand.

 


You May Also Like …

Laudato Si, Creation & Humanism

God’s Plan for a Joy-filled Marriage

YOU: Life, Love, and The Theology of the Body

Sarah Christmyer

Sarah Christmyer is co-developer with Jeff Cavins of The Great Adventure Catholic Bible study program. She serves as Strategic Consultant of The Great Adventure and is author or co-author of a number of the studies. Sarah has thirty years of experience leading and teaching Bible studies. She helped launch Catholic Scripture Study and is co-author of "Genesis Part I: God and His Creation" and "Genesis Part II: God and His Family," published by Emmaus Road. Sarah has a BA in English literature from Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and is working toward a Masters of Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. Raised in a strong evangelical family, she was received into the Catholic Church in 1992. Sarah also writes at comeintotheword.com/.

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  • James

    Genesis 1 is without a shadow of a doubt the earlier of the two creation accounts. It doesn’t point to Genesis 2. It is complete and recounts ages of creation roughly coinciding with how life is said to have evolved on earth. Notice how the word for god changes from “God” to “Lord God”. In the original language “God” goes from the plural to the singular.

  • el-sig

    A good explanation. However, I do think that all will be much simpler if you also considered the old “Yahwist and Elohist” explanations of the two chapters.

  • Hozi Sukura

    Why am I still confused…so ur saying I’m supposed believe the first past of Genesis was poem the strays from the actual timeline God does his creation? Then further ahead in the chapters we read the actual order of creation?

  • Egon Rothschild

    Simply put, the bible is a marriage of two traditions. there’s also 2 stories of the flood, etc. at some point in time someone thought it a good idea to conflate the two into one. simple. not need to spin paragraphs and paragraphs to explain it.

  • C. Robert Follett

    Sarah Christmyer

    After reading your 1,123 word article
    of January 12, 2015, on why there are two different accounts of
    creation, I really knew little more than I did before reading it.
    First, I must object to your classifying Genesis 1 as pure poetry,
    and it is certainly not “couched in figurative language”.

    The fact is, there are two accounts of
    creation in Genesis, because there were two separate creations
    performed by God. There should be no controversy in this issue at
    all.

    Genesis 1:27 refers to the creation of
    early humans in the “cradle of civilization” in northern Africa,
    which paleontologists have carbon dated to roughly 250,000 years ago.
    Since everyone on the planet carries DNA from these early humans, it
    is really foolish to try and deny this. This is, as you noted, after
    the creation of plants.

    The second creation was that of Adam, a
    mere 6,020 years ago. This is covered at Genesis 2:7. God could not
    have been more clear. He wasn’t creating plants “after creating
    man”. He was planting a Garden in which Adam and Eve were to live.
    Plants had already existed for millions of years.

    But Adam wasn’t the first man. Adam was
    the first Hebrew! To prove this, if you start from Jesus, whom we
    know was definitely Hebrew, and going back through his family tree…
    David was Hebrew, Moses was Hebrew, Abraham was Hebrew, Noah was
    Hebrew. And so was Adam. In fact, every generation between these
    named patriarchs were Hebrew as well. No poetry to it. God has only
    two names for humans, Hebrews and non-Hebrews, He named the
    non-Hebrews Gentiles.

    Christianity’s error was to believe
    that Gentiles, which the early Christian church largely was, were
    descendants of Abraham just like the Jews were. But they weren’t. The
    Hebrews were a unique race of people that God created with
    extraordinary lifespans, and with His Spirit as well. But that ended
    with Noah.

    I could go on but I won’t. If you can
    find anything above that you disagree with, and can back it up with
    facts instead of figurative language, I’d like to hear from you.

    Sarah, my intention is not to ruin your
    day. So I hope I haven’t. My frustration lies with Christianity’s
    unwillingness to change their false doctrine of 1700 years ago, and
    adopt one that is true.

    Sincerely,

    C Robert Follett

    http://www.thegodanomaly.com

    • Cory Schneider

      So you are saying that Hebrews are a separate creation: You say that carbon dating supports the ancient 1st creation story and that we (gentiles?) are all proven to from that ancient population. Are there any scientific studies that support the thought that Hebrews (descendants of Abraham) are from a different pool (second creation story)? Honestly curious about this as I am just starting to study the Catholic faith and have hit the first bump in the road in the two creation versions. Your explanation is most satisfying to me, but still has a few holes…
      Sincerely,
      Cory

      • C. Robert Follett

        Hi Cory,

        In answer to your question, ” Are there any scientific studies that support the thought that Hebrews
        (descendants of Abraham) are from a different pool (second creation story)?
        The answer is no. Unfortunately, you would need DNA from a known Hebrew cadaver from Abraham’s genetic predecessors to prove anything, and there is no way for science to determine that.
        For further clarification of my point, I would recommend you referring to

        http://thegodanomaly.com/the-god-anomaly-book/

  • Marie Rose

    Sleepy, I think you need a nap.

  • Frank M

    When will the Genesis study series be available? Could go 24 weeks easily. I’d also like to see a Judges study. Such fascinating characters like Gideon, Deborah and Samson.
    Keep up the good work guys! Thanks!

  • Marty esho

    If god did not create water as it says he separated the water from the sky and earth it’s confusing to me. Thanks

  • Louise

    In Genesis, God saw that His creation was good. Life is beautiful.
    In reading these comments, what comes to mind is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him, might not perish but have eternal life.” (John 4:16) So that primordial force is love, Who desires our return of love.

  • Bob Jann

    ” It teaches not scientific truth; but spiritual truth.” What is the difference between scientific truth and spiritual truth? Are there two truths?

    • sleepy

      in reality, no – but to those scientists who have to put their names on it, there is doubt… and spiritual truth speaks to us all, while scientific truth speaks to those who believe it to be all…

      • Bob Jann

        Thank you for your reply. No to put too fine a point on it, but I would like to make an observation. To wit: there is one truth. Moreover, there can be no disagreement between true science and true religion. There is, however, a difference between scientific conjecture (or scientific theory) and actual fact.Science is, itself, the process of discovery. Scientific theory changes as facts are discovered. In contrast, our religion deals with that which has already been revealed through God. That which God has revealed is truth. By no means are my comments intended to advocate for a literal interpretation of Genesis. Rather, they are intended to point out the potential logical pitfalls of using the word “truth” to describe scientific theory. To further this point, consider that the body of scientific theory reflects the thought of an imperfect humankind and hence must always be imperfect. Divine revelation (truth) comes from a perfect source and hence is perfect.

        Finally, even considering the two descriptions of creation in Genesis, the point to all of it is that the God of Israel created everything “visible and invisible” by an act of His will and that it did not come into being in any other way. Genesis stresses that creation was/is an orderly process requiring Divine intelligence and power. The end of both creation stories show that the pinnacle of creation is the human which starts to prepare us for the Incarnation — even before the description of the fall in Genesis.

        • sleepy

          very good sir – but I think they got the drift from my – admittedly shorter and less verbose – point… :-D … to wit: that there is no difference to us

        • sleepy

          also would like to point out: since science, by its very nature, is always changing, it is always truth – as far as it goes, lol… as a matter of fact, in spite of it being called scientific truth, why don’t we call it historical truth? there is no difference – the archeologists and the astronomers and the other -ologists can tell us most of the things about the world as we understand it, but the historians tell it all to us… if you want to meet God over a game of who knows what, I can assure you, He will win, time after time after time… He is the Creator – and none, I repeat none of His Creations will ever be strong enough, fast enough, knowledgeable enough to ever even come close to Him… :-)

        • C. Robert Follett

          You are probably closer to the truth than you know.
          Please check out this article.
          http://www.thegodanomaly.com/could-science-and-religion-both-be-right/

    • Micha_Elyi

      First, a Catholic Christian need not be afraid of empirical material science (what English speakers call “science”) because it was invented by our own medieval churchmen* in order to better understand God through God’s creation.

      Second, as the medieval churchmen would say “Truth cannot contradict truth.” However, not all truth comes to us by a single means and truths do fall into categories. Hence, “scientific truth and spiritual truth”. The former deals with material things only and only what can be discovered about material things by empirical methods, the latter concerns the spiritual and moral truths usually categorized as wisdom.

      * Christ has blessed His Church with many great thinkers, discoverers, and seers.

  • Beverly Hagar-Schmerse

    Thank you, Sarah and Sleepy for your posts…You put into words I have felt about all these readings and about the theory of evolution.

  • sleepy

    God bless you, Sarah Christmyer! :-)
    .
    ummm, I hate to disagree with you on even little things, Sarah, but I do… I will attempt to say my view – can you help me by clarifying yours? :-)
    .
    1) “(If the goal had been sequence, the sun would come before the light!).”
    .
    not so, Sarah, not so… if you look at it like science does, you will come to the point – as many of our scientists have – that the sun, indeed all stars, are but balls of light, thermonucleically developed, but – well, light. And it wasn’t the first such out there.
    .
    in the big bang theory, it is postulated (not a given, as there are no written records scientists trust) that some time, somewhere, two diametrically opposite charges came together to form a hydrogen atom. (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I put it to you – have you ever seen a hydrogen atom? if you haven’t, then there’s little hope of seeing those things smaller, lol!)
    .
    notice the point of origin for the big bang? its a point, one tiny point, when everything suddenly exploded… and what was the first thing God said? the very first thing? “And God said: Be… light… made.” (Gen 1:3)
    .
    that’s right – God said, God spoke the Word, God through Jesus, the Word, actually uttered these words: Be light made.
    .
    then wham! bam! thank you, ma’am! the big bang happened!!
    .
    you see, even the scientists don’t necessarily agree that there was Something before the big bang, but we Christians do: it was – is – God.
    .
    Some thing had to have happened at precisely the right moment in all of time/space to put it – us – into being, and for some thing to happen, some One must have decided to move independently of His own volition, and we know it was God… He said so, through the largely illiterate folk that penned His Words; His secretaries, so to speak…
    .
    but… what came first? not the sun, which wouldn’t exist for 9+/- billion more years… nor the earth, which the secretary of God was kind enough to say was “void and empty”… no, it was the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God, later decided to be a wind, God’s wind, which “moved over the waters.” (Gen 1:2)
    .
    light gives life – to the plants, the animals, even us… but what did the light give 13+ billion years ago, when the big bang occurred? that’s right … life to the still unborn bits of humanity in the primordial sludge, which was water…
    .

    2) ” On “days” 1-3 God banishes the darkness and brings order to the chaos: heaven and sky, earth and land.” … no. just no… God didn’t get rid of the darkness; instead He created light, where one could see the darkness… why would He create something to get rid of something else? He is the Creator!
    .
    “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…” (the Apostles Creed) and “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.” (Nicene Creed, ca 325) and “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” (Nicene Creed, ca 381)
    .
    there is not one thing He created only to get rid of it with another creation! He is the Creator! Nothing exists but by His everlasting mercy… not even earthquakes and tornadoes and hurricanes merely exist to bring torture upon us… without the earth (which we are made from) or the water (which He called forth to water us all) or the wind (His Breath, as you may remember, is often called such) – without one of these things, we would cease to be – totally, completely, finally…
    .
    no, He didn’t create us to rule the earth – who could? He created us to live with the earth, with the rain, and with the wind until we could finally say – “Thank You, O Lord for having made me, and for keeping my feet going in their wandering way back to You!”
    .
    there’s more, much more, but I disagreed with your statement that “If the goal had been sequence, the sun would come before the light!.” … no, the secretary, bless him, got it right… first there was nothing more than watery sludge with God breathing on it, then God spoke, then things started to happen! … just like it says in the Bible…
    .
    and last…
    .
    3) “In particular, mankind is created after the animals and plants in chapter 1, but before them in chapter 2.” … this isn’t so hard to do, Sarah… you need to think back to your science classes… and remember man’s findings since then… the animals that pre-existed us humans were largely those we call dinosaurs, and the plants that grew then were shorter and stouter than our own, more leafy, more bug-addicty, more poisonous than those we know today…
    .
    note in particular that God isn’t said to have created plants and animals after man…
    .
    “These are the generations of the heaven and the earth, when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the heaven and the earth:
    .
    “And every plant of the field before it sprung up in the earth, and every herb of the ground before it grew: for the Lord God had not rained upon the earth; and there was not a man to till the earth.
    .
    “But a spring rose out of the earth, watering all the surface of the earth.
    .
    “And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul.
    .
    “And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he placed man whom he had formed.” (Gen 2:4-8)
    .
    plants of the field and herb of the ground – these had yet to grow, but they were there, waiting on God’s water… and then a spring sprung sprightly forward – in other words, no rain just yet, but God made the water come… and while the plants of the field and the herbs of the ground gestated inside the earth, God made man…
    .
    it’s easy enough to tell that this particular secretary of God was no husbandry man… he believed man had to till it to make it come up… but that’s okay… the real husbandry men, working and tilling and plowing the fields, didn’t necessarily have the time to “learn their letters”, and most likely didn’t know…
    .
    notice verse 8: “And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning…” – no, God created by speaking, and He created even order amongst the illiterate souls He had to count upon to spread His Word… He created the plants of the Garden of Eden from the beginning: with trees and plants so that all His creatures could eat of it… He would not let us starve, would He? then why, oh why, do you say that the plants and animals weren’t created before us? why would you think it?’
    .
    of course He created the plants before the animals! and of course He created the animals before He created us! pshaw on anyone thinking we could live on water alone – even if it was clear, and not the runoff He called forth to fill the earth with plants and animals and man…
    .
    He created us – according to the theories of evolution – in cycles, the same as He apparently did with the plants and animals… but He didn’t want just men and animals living so freely, not a care in the world… He wanted Man, who lived freely by choice rather than by nature… therefore, He breathed the Breath of Life into his face!
    .
    imagine! He breathed on Man! the one being he called into the earth had of his agility in reaching the top branches, and the adaptability to descend upon the earth, reaching so far with his heart and mind, yet his body would remain, largely, in his control… Man!
    .
    thank you, Sarah, for writing this, and the Bible Study I am reading right now… God bless you, Sarah! :-)