Genesis 2:4b-25 on Its Own Terms and in Its Own Historical and Literary Context

From the opening verses of the second creation account, or if my reader prefers right at Genesis 2:4b, we notice stark differences in the text’s tone, style, vocabulary, message, presentation, perspective, and thematic and theological emphases. These will be brought out in the forthcoming textual analysis. These differences should not be ignored or disingenuously interpreted away by imposing an exterior theological framework created centuries after these texts were written and by a readership that knew and still knows nothing about the authors of these texts, when they were written, why, and for whom. Rather these textual differences should be seen as a product of the text’s historical and literary context, and even embraced for what they are—the mark of a different scribal hand, a different textual tradition, a variant version of the same story.

Stories were as much a part of the ancient world as the television is for us today. People told and heard stories on a daily basis. It was part of their lifeblood. Stories defined a people’s identity, explained the origins of current political and religious institutions, and preserved traditional beliefs, worldviews, and customs.

Many stories in the ancient world enjoyed a long oral tradition before they were finally written down, and many of these same stories have their origins in older stories that were borrowed and modified from other or earlier peoples. For instance, many of the stories now preserved in Genesis and Exodus are modified versions of stories that existed in the cultures and traditions of Israel’s older contemporaries. Stories about the creation of the world, a cataclysmic universal flood, digging wells as land markers, the naming of important cultic sites, gods giving laws to their people, gods decreeing that their people build them temples and sanctuaries, and even stories about gods decreeing the possession of land to their people were all part of the cultural and literary matrix of the ancient Near East. In many cases alternative versions of these stories existed. A people living at one place and time might tell the story that they inherited from their forefathers or an earlier indigenous culture differently in order to suit the needs of their community, or to better represent its changing views and beliefs.

The ancient Israelites were no exception. They told stories, retold stories, modified their stories, recited them at festivals, and eventually wrote them down, collected them, and codified them as scripture. The Bible as it has come down to us preserves numerous stories, and many of them are duplicates—that is, a traditional story that was told in one manner at one place and time, and told in a variant manner at another place and time. In the end, these different versions were written down by scribes and thenceforth became unalterable. Later, editors who collected Israel’s various stories preserved both versions of the story, even when they contradicted one another, or a later story was written to replace an earlier version! In fact, doublets—two versions of the same story—have always served as good indicators for identifying the Bible’s different textual traditions or sources. Nearly all of the contradictory stories and even competing “histories” found in the Bible were created due to an editorial decision made by later scribes who deemed it important to preserve (all) variant versions of ancient Israel’s stories.

The two creation stories that open the book of Genesis are just that—variations on the same story. And these two versions of the creation story were written by two different scribes or guilds, to address different historical and/or religious concerns and perspectives, for two distinct historical audiences, and most likely influenced by two different versions of the creation story as it had already been told throughout the ancient Near East! We have already seen how the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3 borrowed themes and perspectives shared throughout the cultures of the ancient Near Eastern world, and modified them to suit his own beliefs and agenda.

Furthermore, the story that starts at Genesis 2:4b proceeds as if the first creation account never occurred. This story never acknowledges, alludes to, shares, or builds upon any of the narrative, thematic, or theological elements found in the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3. To the contrary, as we will see, this second creation account actually negates many of the themes and claims found in the first creation account, and frankly this is because it was written separately, by a different scribe, and centuries before the creation account now occupying Genesis 1:1-2:3 was written. Despite these two stories’ thematic and stylistic differences, they were preserved on a single scroll by scribes living centuries after they were written precisely because they represented variant sacred traditions.

Of course, readers of the Bible did not always possess this knowledge, even though the differences in Genesis’ two creation accounts had long been noted, from antiquity to the modern era. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that we realized that these differences were the result of an editorial endeavor initiated by scribes living in the 5th century BCE who sought to preserve the various textual traditions of ancient Israel by combining them together on a single scroll. But these discoveries rest on early ones, representing an accumulative scholarly endeavor that had its origins in the Enlightenment. Said differently, knowledge about the composite nature of the biblical text was all but unknown to readers of the Bible until the emergence of biblical scholarship in the Enlightenment.

The emergence of the source hypothesis in the early 18th century was initially prompted by the work of three scholars who each individually drew the same conclusion that the book of Genesis reveals when studiously read. The German Lutheran minister Henning Bernhard Witter, the French physician for Louis vx, Jean Astruc, and a professor of Göttingen University by the name of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn each separately came to the conclusion that the Pentatuech is a composite of, at least, two once independent sources. It was Witter, who in the early century (1711) postulated a two-source hypothesis initially based on the distinction of two different appellations for Israel’s god in the opening creation accounts of the book of Genesis, elohim and Yahweh. However, it wasn’t until the 1753 study by Astruc, that the impact of this discovery was felt. Astruc not only labeled these two sources the Elohistic (from the Hebrew elohim) and the Jehovistic (from the mistaken medieval pronunciation of the tetragrammaton, yhwh), but he also noticed that these two sources exhibited other differences besides the two distinct appellations of Israel’s deity, and furthermore that these differences extended throughout the entire book of Genesis. Most impressively, this two source hypothesis was able to explain successfully the book of Genesis’ duplicate narratives, discordant chronologies, narrative inconsistencies, differing portraits of Israel’s god, and its numerous contradictions!

Today, although much has changed in our understanding of the Bible’s composite nature since the 18th century, the view that the Pentateuch is composed of different and competing textual traditions, which has been continuously tested, verified, and reconfirmed over the past 300 years, is accepted by all serious biblical scholars. Although scholars may debate about the dates of composition of these sources, who specifically wrote them and to whom, and why they were redacted together, all critics agree that the Bible as we now possess it is a composite literary work, formed over a thousand year period and representing the views and beliefs of diverse scribes, priests, and theologians living in drastically different historical circumstances and influenced by ever-changing religious and political needs, agendas, and convictions. The placement of this second creation account immediately after the first one is just one example of where and how these conflating traditions were preserved and brought together. There are literally thousands and thousands of other places in the Bible where two or more once separate and different textual traditions were stitched together—leaving behind as it were duplicate stories, narrative inconsistencies, contradictions, and competing ideologies and theological tenets. Here we are interested in only the first two creation accounts.

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