Which Genesis Creation Account Should We Take Literally?

Genesis ContradictionDuring last week’s creation debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, a Facebook friend asked me this question, “if we are to take Genesis literally as regards creation, which story?” Interestingly, I had been contemplating that very question and studying through the creation story (stories). The following is my attempt at an answer.

The challenge goes something like this:

Genesis 1 and 2 tell two contradictory accounts about creation. In chapter 1, the animals are created first, then God creates Adam and Eve at the same time. In chapter 2, the animals are created after God made Adam, and then He creates Eve later.

Let’s look at the text. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Later, in Genesis 2:4, it seems that there is different version of the story that is being told. I used to explain this difference like my Jewish Study Bible does:

Source critics attribute the two accounts to different documents (P and J, respectively) later combined into the Torah we now have. The classical Jewish tradition tends to harmonize the discrepancies by intertwining the stories, using the details of one to fill in the details of the other. Even on the source-critical reading, however, the contrast and interaction of the two creation accounts offer a richer understanding of the relationship of God to humankind than we would have if the accounts were read in isolation from each other.

Upon further study and thought, I have changed my position. My short answer to the question of which account should we take literally is: both of them. I no longer accept the premise of a contradiction existing between Genesis 1 and 2.

There are two specific supposed contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2. The first concerns the creation of plant life. Genesis 1:11 tells us that God created vegetation on Day 3 of creation. While Genesis 2:4b-8 says:

…in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed (NKJV).

The supposed contradiction is that Genesis 1 states that God created the plants before He created man, while it appears that the passage above states that God made man before creating plant life.

The problem is a misunderstanding of the vegetation that is being spoken of in Genesis 2. In Genesis 2:5 it mentions plants and herbs “of the field” (emphasis mine). The difference can easily be seen in the English, but in the Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint it is even more apparent. The word for “of the field” in the Hebrew is שָׂדֶה (sadeh), which is defined as: a field or land, or a cultivated field. In the Greek Septuagint, “of the field” is translated from the word ἀγροῦ (agros), from which we derive our English word “agronomy”. Thus the vegetation that is mentioned in Genesis 2 are plants and herbs that require agriculture, or someone to tend it, like a gardener.

The context also supports this. Further along in verse 5 it says that “there was no man to till the ground.” It also states that there was a “mist [that] went up and watered the whole face of the ground.” Thus it seems that there were plants and that God provided a method for those plants to be watered, but there was no one to tend to the plants that might have required more laborious attention.

As seen in this light, the passages about the origin of plant life do not contradict. Genesis 1:11 is a general creation of vegetation and Genesis 2:5 is a specific agricultural vegetation that required a man to tend to it. We will see this even more clearly when we address the creation of Eden.

Another plausible way of translating Genesis 2:4b-6 would e somewhat as follows:

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens there was as yet no field plant in the earth and no field shrub growing, since the Lord God had not yet established rainfall on the earth and since there was as yet no man to cultivate the ground. but there were water vapors arising from the earth, which kept watering the whole face of the ground.

The 2nd supposed contradiction concerns animal life. Genesis 1:24-25 tells us that God created animal life on Day 6 of creation, prior to His creating man. While Genesis 2:18-20 says:

And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him (NKJV).

It seems here that God is creating the animals after He created man. However, let’s look at verse 19 in another translation to see if there is a more clear understanding to be had. The English Standard Version reads:

Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.

Even without the clarification by saying, “the Lord God had formed” the word formed is in the past tense. Thus the text is not saying that God created man, then created the animals, and then brought the animals to the man. It is saying that God had already created the animals, then he created man, and then he brought the animals to the man.

As the animals paraded by it is likely that Adam took notice of his own uniqueness — not only in intelligence and spirituality, but also in aloneness. Each animal had a mate, “but for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him.” The purpose of this exercise was at least three fold: 1) It demonstrated to Adam his dominion over the animals (Genesis 1:26); 2) It showed Adam that he needed a companion that was of like nature to himself and; 3) It showed Adam that God would provide for his need.

In the middle of these two supposed contradictions is some information that really sheds some light on these events. In Genesis 2:8 it says, “The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.”

It appears as though the planting of Eden’s Garden was in addition to the Day-3 creation of the plant life and that Adam was created somewhere outside of Eden, and perhaps observed God as He prepared this beautiful garden. Upon its completion, God placed Adam in the garden and gave him the responsibility to care for the garden.

I therefore conclude that Genesis 2 is not a contradictory account of the creation week told in Genesis 1. Rather, it is a more detailed account of Day 6 of the creation week. With that I offer a possible chronology of Day 6:

  1. God creates the land animals (Genesis 1:24-25)
  2. God creates Adam (Genesis 1:26; 2:7)
  3. God plants the garden of Eden, including the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:8a, 2:9)
  4. God places Adam in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8b, 2:15a)
  5. God charged Adam to tend and keep the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15b)
  6. God commands Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17)
  7. God declares that it is not good for Adam to be alone and sets to create a helper/companion for him (Genesis 2:18a)
  8. God brings the animals before Adam so he can name them (Genesis 2:18b-19a)
  9. Adam names the animals (Genesis 2:19b-20a)
  10. Adam realizes his need for a helper/companion (Genesis 2:20b)
  11. God creates Eve (Genesis 2:21-22)
  12. Adam falls in love at first sight (Genesis 2:23-24)
  13. God blesses Adam and Eve, tells them to multiply, and gives them dominion (Genesis 1:28)
  14. God sees everything that He had made and declares that it is very good (Genesis 1:31)

Having considered the two creation accounts and reconciling them, we can see that there really is no contradiction and there really is just one creation account contained in the first 2 chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1, we see the broader sequence of creation. Then, in Genesis 2, we see specific details of Day 6 of creation.

This really highlights that man is the crowning achievement of God’s creation. When one understands that human beings are the central focus of God’s vast creation, we begin to see that we have value to the Almighty Creator-God. We “were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16, NKJV).