The two creation stories.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 February 2021

I was raised to be a young-earth creationist, as are many conservative Evangelicals in the United States: We’re taught God created the universe only 6 millennia ago, precisely 4 millennia before Jesus was born, so 4004BC. And if a scientist or historian tells us otherwise, it’s either because they’ve been duped by nontheists, or because they’re nontheist themselves.

Young-earth creationists (YEC for short) claim their views are based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. It says God created the cosmos in 6 days, and if we truly believe bible, we gotta likewise believe God created the cosmos in 6 days. There’s no room for any other interpretation.

The universe… if we take Genesis literally. NIV Faithlife Study Bible

Problem is, when we do take the creation stories of Genesis literally, we might notice it’s not describing the cosmos as we know it. It’s describing the cosmos as ancient middle easterners knew it, meaning a flat earth, with a solid-wall dome above it, and the sky in between; Ge 1.6-8 and the sun and moon and stars and planets inside this dome. Ge 1.16-19 If you truly wanna be literal, you’re gonna be a flat-earther. (And no surprise, some YEC adherents are flat-earthers.)

Of course if you’re truly trying to be literal, you’re gonna notice Genesis doesn’t just have one creation story in it. It has two.

Yeah, a lot of you knew this already, ’cause you’ve read Genesis dozens of times, and duh, of course there are two creation stories in it. But you’d be surprised how many conservative Evangelicals, no matter how many times they’ve read Genesis, have been totally oblivious to the fact it starts with two creation stories. It’s simply never occurred to them. They’ve been taught, since they first became Christian, that the bible only tells one unified consistent story throughout, and any “bible difficulties” are easily explained away. These beliefs function as some mighty effective blinders.

Creation story #1.

Okay, so let’s start with the first creation story. I’m guessing you know it already, or at least its rough outline. I’ll use the Good News Translation today.

Genesis 1.1 – 2.1 GNT
1 In the beginning, when God created the universe, 2 the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water. 3 Then God commanded, “Let there be light”—and light appeared. 4 God was pleased with what he saw. Then he separated the light from the darkness, 5 and he named the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.” Evening passed and morning came—that was the first day.
6 Then God commanded, “Let there be a dome to divide the water and to keep it in two separate places” 7 —and it was done. So God made a dome, and it separated the water under it from the water above it. 8 He named the dome “Sky.” Evening passed and morning came—that was the second day.
9 Then God commanded, “Let the water below the sky come together in one place, so that the land will appear”—and it was done. 10 He named the land “Earth,” and the water which had come together he named “Sea.” And God was pleased with what he saw. 11 Then he commanded, “Let the earth produce all kinds of plants, those that bear grain and those that bear fruit”—and it was done. 12 So the earth produced all kinds of plants, and God was pleased with what he saw. 13 Evening passed and morning came—that was the third day.
14 Then God commanded, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate day from night and to show the time when days, years, and religious festivals begin; 15 they will shine in the sky to give light to the earth”—and it was done. 16 So God made the two larger lights, the sun to rule over the day and the moon to rule over the night; he also made the stars. 17 He placed the lights in the sky to shine on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God was pleased with what he saw. 19 Evening passed and morning came—that was the fourth day.
20 Then God commanded, “Let the water be filled with many kinds of living beings, and let the air be filled with birds.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters, all kinds of creatures that live in the water, and all kinds of birds. And God was pleased with what he saw. 22 He blessed them all and told the creatures that live in the water to reproduce and to fill the sea, and he told the birds to increase in number. 23 Evening passed and morning came—that was the fifth day.
24 Then God commanded, “Let the earth produce all kinds of animal life: domestic and wild, large and small”—and it was done. 25 So God made them all, and he was pleased with what he saw.
26 Then God said, “And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us. They will have power over the fish, the birds, and all animals, domestic and wild, large and small.” 27 So God created human beings, making them to be like himself. He created them male and female, 28 blessed them, and said, “Have many children, so that your descendants will live all over the earth and bring it under their control. I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds, and all the wild animals. 29 I have provided all kinds of grain and all kinds of fruit for you to eat; 30 but for all the wild animals and for all the birds I have provided grass and leafy plants for food”—and it was done. 31 God looked at everything he had made, and he was very pleased. Evening passed and morning came—that was the sixth day.
2.1 And so the whole universe was completed. 2 By the seventh day God finished what he had been doing and stopped working. 3 He blessed the seventh day and set it apart as a special day, because by that day he had completed his creation and stopped working. 4A And that is how the universe was created.

So there’s the first week of creation:

  1. Sunday, God made the heavens and earth; he lit the dome of the sky, so there’d be day and night even though there was no sun yet. (Wednesday he made the sun.)
  2. Monday, God put a bubble in all the water of the earth, which he called שָׁמָ֑יִם/šamáyim, “skies” or “heavens” or “air.”
  3. Tuesday, God sorted out the earth below so there’d be wet and dry spots. Then created life: Plants and trees in the dry spots.
  4. Wednesday, the sun, moon, and stars—which went into the bubble.
  5. Thursday, ocean and air life: Fish and birds.
  6. Friday, animal life—including humans, the one animal uniquely made in God’s image, uniquely meant to rule the world and live forever.
  7. Saturday, rest.

Like I said, you probably know its rough outline. People like to refer to it. What you may not realize is it’s a counterargument to other creation stories in the ancient middle east. In the myths of the Sumerians, Egyptians, and other ancient peoples, their gods didn’t create the universe; the universe created them. First there was the universe, then gods spontaneously emerged from it. Then the gods started fighting over creation, won the right to rule it, and made humans—not to rule the world, but so they could rule us.

No I’m not saying the Genesis 1 story is just another middle eastern myth. It’s clearly not. It resembles the others only in that they’re all trying to explain where the cosmos came from, and they all focused on the same elements—chaos and order, light and darkness, land and water, plants and animals and humans. But unlike them, we read of an almighty God who isn’t endlessly fighting his foes and the elements to make ’em behave; he effortlessly speaks things into being. Nothing stops him. Nothing can.

And he’s made nothing as an afterthought: He’s pleased with how he made it. It’s all good.

Creation story #2.

On to the next story, which the person who put Genesis together didn’t try to combine with the first story, and create some perfectly harmonized single story. He felt they could both stand alone. So they do.

This one now refers to God as “the LORD God,” which is how we know it’s got a different origin than the first story. Still inspired scripture though; relax.

Genesis 2.4-25 GNT
4B When the LORD God made the universe, 5 there were no plants on the earth and no seeds had sprouted, because he had not sent any rain, and there was no one to cultivate the land; 6 but water would come up from beneath the surface and water the ground.
7 Then the LORD God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it; he breathed life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live.
8 Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, and there he put the man he had formed. 9 He made all kinds of beautiful trees grow there and produce good fruit. In the middle of the garden stood the tree that gives life and the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad.
10 A stream flowed in Eden and watered the garden; beyond Eden it divided into four rivers. 11 The first river is the Pishon; it flows around the country of Havilah. 12 (Pure gold is found there and also rare perfume and precious stones.) 13 The second river is the Gihon; it flows around the country of Cush. 14 The third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria, and the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 Then the LORD God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and guard it. 16 He told him, “You may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, 17 except the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad. You must not eat the fruit of that tree; if you do, you will die the same day.”
18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to live alone. I will make a suitable companion to help him.” 19 So he took some soil from the ground and formed all the animals and all the birds. Then he brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and that is how they all got their names. 20 So the man named all the birds and all the animals; but not one of them was a suitable companion to help him.
21 Then the LORD God made the man fall into a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, he took out one of the man's ribs and closed up the flesh. 22 He formed a woman out of the rib and brought her to him. 23 Then the man said,
“At last, here is one of my own kind—
Bone taken from my bone, and flesh from my flesh.
‘Woman’ is her name because she was taken out of man.”
24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united with his wife, and they become one.
25 The man and the woman were both naked, but they were not embarrassed.

Chapter 3 continues this story, ’cause it explains why humans don’t live in Eden anymore. The second creation story is less about creation, and more about humanity’s fall—how sin entered the world, and broke God’s creation. But today I’m just focusing on the creation part.

And here’s the order of creation as Genesis 2 presents it. Don’t know how many days it took; for all we can tell, it all happened in the space of a few hours. (’Cause God could create everything instantaneously, but naming all the animals had to take the man some time.)

  • The LORD made the earth—but no plants yet, ’cause no rain and no gardeners.
  • The LORD made a man.
  • The LORD made a garden. Now he made plants and trees, for the man to tend.
  • The LORD made animals, which the man named—and realized they were unsuitable helpers.
  • The LORD made a woman.

Yep, it’s a much different order than we have in Genesis 1. And it should strike you as kinda obvious that if the bible didn’t include Genesis 1, young-earth creationists would absolutely insist this is the proper order of creation: The first human was the first living creature on earth, and then God made plants and animals—again, contrary to everything evolutionary scientists might insist.

Dealing with the difficulties.

As I already said, many conservative Evangelicals have no idea these are two creation stories. They think of it as one creation story: The six days of creation, as spelled out in Genesis 1. The “second creation story” of Genesis 2 is not an independent creation story: It’s about God establishing the first humans in Eden, and it fills in some of the details which the larger sweeping story of Genesis 1 skimmed over.

So to their minds, Genesis 2 isn’t about the creation of the universe, but of Eden. Which probably happened, they figure, on the sixth day, ’cause God made animals and humans on that day. First God made the man. Then he put him in Eden and had him name the animals. Then he made the woman out of the man. There y’go: “He created them male and female.” Ge 1.27

What about Genesis 2 describing how God created the man, then plants? Here’s where the literalists point out Genesis 2 doesn’t literally say God created the man, then plants. It starts by saying God hadn’t yet created plants, but was kinda watering the earth in preparation for them. Ge 2.6 It then arguably skips the creation of plants, gets to the creation of the man, and when it next refers to plants it really just says God planted fruit trees in Eden. But we already know from chapter 1 he made all the rest of the plants of the world three days ago.

You see how this works. No matter what Genesis 2 might describe, your average Evangelical is gonna insist the real chronology of creation is found in Genesis 1, and always adjust Genesis 2 to fit that timeline. When chapter 2 says God created animals and brought ’em to the man, they’ll respond, “Well of course God created animals—earlier that day! The text doesn’t mean God created them right then. ’Cause Genesis 1 says…” Yeah yeah, we know what Genesis 1 says.

They’re gonna claim they’re just reading the bible literally. In fact they’re not. They’re reading Genesis 1 literally. But that same rigorous literalism is not applied to Genesis 2: They’ll get literal when they talk about trying to trace where on earth Eden might be, based on the four rivers:

  • פִּישׁ֑וֹן/Pišón, KJV “Pison,” NIV “Pishon.” It’s only ever mentioned in Genesis 2.11, and we’ve no idea what we call it nowadays. It “flows around the country of Havilah,” and we’ve not sure where Havilah Ge 25.18 is either; maybe northeast Arabia. Some claim it’s the Indus, but that’s too far away.
  • גִּיח֑וֹן/Gikhón, KJV/NIV “Gihon.” Since it surrounds Cush (KJV “Ethiopia”), i.e. southern Egypt, people speculate it’s the Nile… which is also too far away. “Cush” likely refers to a different land in Mesopotamia.
  • חִדֶּ֔קֶל/Khiddeqel, KJV “Hiddekel,” NIV “Tigris.” Yep, it’s the Hebrew word for the Tigris. Da 10.4
  • פְרָֽת/Ferát, KJV/NIV “Euphrates.” Likewise the Hebrew word for the Euphrates.

Two of those rivers are known, and are in Iraq. So, probably Iraq. Thing is, the Tigris and the Euphrates don’t originate from the same source, whereas Genesis 2 says they split form the Eden river. So is this a problem scripture? Not for young-earth creationists, who claim these rivers used to split from the Eden, but after the great flood, the rivers must’ve been rerouted or rearranged or something. Eden’s gone now. (Or, according to the Mormons, it was in Missouri all along.)

Yep, Evangelicals have been conditioned to think it’s all one continual story of creation. That is, till you drop ’em in any college course about the Pentateuch, and their professor casually points out there are two creation stories, and they respond, “Wait—there are two creation stories?” and they double-check their bible… and their minds are blown. Was it hiding in plain sight all this time? What else might be hiding in plain sight?

Well, lots. Gotta read those bibles, folks.