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Genesis: The Second Creation Tradition

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

I need to come clean. I don't believe the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Torah meaning "law or "teaching", or sometimes by the Greek name Pentateuch, were written by Moses. I don't even believe that they were written by one person. I subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, which holds that they were written by several authors in different periods.

Adherents of the Documentary Hypothesis generally identify three distinct traditions:

  1. The J or Yahwistic tradition (initial J is used because Yahweh, the word for God that is used in this tradition begins in German with a J. and the primary scholarship on the Documentary Hypothesis was done by Germans: It's thought to date to the 10th cent. BCE and to have originated in the southern kingdom of Israel, known as Judea.

  2. The E or Elohistic tradition. It, too, is named for the word for God in this tradition, namely Elohim. It's thought to date to the 9th century BCE and to have been produced in northern Israel.

  3. The P or Priestly tradition, thought to date to the 6th or 5th cent. BCE.

I want to emphasise, however, that the Documentary Hypothesis is by no means signed and sealed, and many controversies surrounding it remain. What is indisputable, however, is that Genesis as a whole is an accretion of different traditions, assembled over hundreds of years, notwithstanding the fact that it manifests overall a striking unity of thought.

The part of Genesis that we've looked at so far, Genesis chapter 1 verse 1 to chapter 2 halfway through verse 4 is ascribed to the Priestly Tradition. The Priestly Tradition has an elevated, hymn-like quality.

What immediately follows, however, is very different. It, too, is a story about creation. But it doesn't continue from what we have read thus far. Instead it presents a very different version of creation. It's also written in a very different style. Whereas the P version contains lot of repetition and parallels, the sentences in the J version tend to be longer and more complex.

Its author is conventionally identified as J. The American literary critic Harold Bloom thinks J was a woman, in part because "she" creates some very lively portraits of women, beginning with Eve. But whoever she or he is, she or he is a profound religious thinker.

J begins thus: "In the day that the Lord God made the Earth and the Heavens, there were no bushes, no plants: for the Lord God had not caused rain to fall upon the Earth, and there was no human to till the ground."

This seems to mean that God – or rather the Lord God, i.e. YHWH 'Elohim as he's identified in this version, instead of merely 'Elohim as in the first version – initially creates the Earth as a barren wasteland. Nothing is actually alive because there isn't any water. I'm reminded of the 6th-century Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who declared that water is the principle or beginning of everything. No living thing can exist without water.

Then suddenly, and for no given reason, a change occurs, prompted merely by an adversative conjunction: "But a mist or a flow welled up from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground."

So where did this mist or flow derive from? We're not explicitly told that it was at the prompting of the Lord God. We're not told that the Lord God does anything until verse 7, when J says, He "formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living human being." Man is created from dust, like pottery. That's a very homely image, especially in a society where most people probably tried their hand at making pottery.

The author is playing with words. The Hebrew for dust is 'adamah and the Hebrew for man is 'adam. It's as if the similarity of the two words is explaining the creation of man.

The Lord God now plants a garden and that garden becomes the garden of Eden. Adam is told he can eat of every tree except of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is no mention of meat. In the J version the human race is to be strictly vegetarian.

J's primary concern, however, is with the creation of man and woman, and the consequences of that creation. In this version of creation a single human being is formed and it is the isolation of this creature that causes the Lord God to reflect and show concern for his well-being.

"It isn't good for the human to be alone," the Lord God says. I love those words. They show a thoughtful, considerate God. So He decides to create a helper or sustainer or companion. J's God, in other words, is a God who is learning. He's a God who acknowledges that he doesn't know everything, which means he isn't omniscient. That's a very important point, and it'll become a leading theme, especially in the first half of Genesis.

Perhaps to distract Adam, the Lord God initially creates animals and birds, which He asks Adam to name. But after Adam had named all the birds and the animals "there wasn't any helper for him," J remarks. It's an immensely sad moment. Picture poor Adam, surrounded by all those exotic birds and animals, living in Eden, with all the food he could want, but ultimately unfulfilled because of the lack of human fellowship.

This hasn't worked, so the Lord God does something more radical. He caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep – He anaesthetized him, in other words – and removed one of his ribs and created woman.

This story, too, is an aetiology: it explains why men and women become one flesh through the production of offspring. But that's not what they do to begin with. They know nothing about sex and are entirely innocent. Chapter 2 ends: "And they were both naked, the human and his wife" – note the word "wife" – and were not ashamed."

And of course that's when all the trouble begins…

The Second Creation account contradicts in many particulars what we read previously. The conclusion is inescapable that whoever compiled the Book of Genesis did so in the knowledge that the opening chapters contain major inconsistencies but decided this didn't matter because both accounts contain truths about existence.

In the next lesson we'll talk about the consequences of the discovery of shame, which lead first to the temptation of the woman and then to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden.

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Written by

Robert Garland