It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read the Bible that it contains two creation stories. Religious fundamentalist types tend to smooth this away by combining the two accounts and claiming one story is a microcosm of the other. The skeptical atheist assumption tends to be that the stories are just contradictions, as if the Bible author(s) in their small-minded stupidity failed to realize there were two creation stories, committing a major Homer Simpson style blunder (doh!). The scholarly explanation is the Documentary Hypothesis, which speculates the existence of multiple authors for the Torah, each writing different sections of the book. So Genesis 1 would be the creation story of one set of authors, which scholars generally believe to be the Priestly Author, while Genesis 2 would be the creation story of the Yahwist. The Documentary Hypothesis is interesting as an underlying theory for understanding contradictions and disagreements in the Bible, as well as trying to parse out different perspectives unique to each group, but for my purposes of actual interpretation of the different parts of the Bible it will have limited value–a mere reference point when necessary.
The two creation stories make up two theological views of God, which is evident from a close-reading of the text. We have the cosmological celestial sky God of the first creation story who speaks the world into existence and is aloof from it, while in the second creation story of Genesis 2 we have the earthly God who interacts with the world by walking around upon it and giving it shape and characteristics by actively shaping it like a potter molds clay with his hands. In other words, the two stories don’t contradict each other so much as thematically compliment each other to encompass the larger view of the ancient Israelite author(s) who wrote them.
The verbs of each narrative assist us in noticing the differences of God in the two narratives; in Genesis 1, God creates, speaks, and sees always from a distance, while in Genesis 2, God gets down and dirty. He not only creates, but forms, plants, causes, places, commands, casts, fashions, etc. In Genesis 3, which directly continues Genesis 2′s narrative, God physically roams about the garden. The verbs of Genesis 2 describe physical and tangible actions, and are much less abstract than the verbs of Genesis 1.
The order of creation in this narrative is different, no longer do we have the orderly symmetrical creation narrative of Genesis 1 in which man in is an afterthought of the entire divine plan, even if made in the image of God, but rather human beings come first. Human beings come first in this narrative because as already suggested this is is the down-to-earth version of creation (and I mean that literally). Now that we have an earthly creation, humans are no longer an afterthought–not some grandiose final act of creation who is part of a larger orderly universe and made in the image of the divine–but rather it’s their story now. This narrative doesn’t spend too much time describing creation as an abstract phenomenon, but instead God creates specific objects. We don’t just get trees, but specific trees (the tree of knowledge of good and bad). We don’t have God creating all the waters, but rather creating specific rivers.
In continuation of this earthly theme we have the introduction of Adam who technically has no name. In the JPS translation he is simply called the man. The reason is that Adam’s name is one the words for “man” in Hebrew. Adam comes from the “adamah,” which in Hebrew mean earth, thus his creation from dust must be seen as wordplay. This creation also highlights humanity’s connection with the land, foreshadowing the Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish covenant and connection with the land of Israel; human beings are literally connected to the earth from which they were born. We have this mysterious Garden of Eden, the prototypical paradise. The question must be asked: whose paradise? The Garden of Eden makes the most sense in a desert culture. The Garden of Eden is the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy of a farmer struggling to produce a meager crop in a hot desert environment. Myths, especially Creation Myths, are always a reflection of the concerns and values of the cultures that wrote them. What can be a greater paradise to a group of people with that background than a luscious garden wedged between four ample rivers with plants and fruits that grow with ease?
As if alluding to the idea in Genesis 1 of humanity’s creativity being the inheritance we gain from being in the image of God, the man spends a small chunk of the narrative naming all the animals, but none of them end up being fit for companionship. It also reiterates humanity’s special position in Genesis 2 as the first and most important part of Creation; the man has dominion and authority to name all the other creatures. Yet now we start moving to what is often considered a more troubling part of the Bible since we only have man thus far representing humanity; how far does that dominion extend?
In this story, God creates woman from man’s rib in order to give the man a helper. Many have abused this part of the story to justify the misogynistic belief that women are inferior to men. However, let’s also not pretend that this story is the reason misogyny exists. The ancient Greeks probably had very little exposure to Genesis 2, and certainly managed to develop quite a sexist culture themselves. Feminist theologians have questioned the rendering of the Hebrew Tzala as rib, suggesting side might be a better translation and would thus denote a more equal relationship. We also cannot make much of the English word, “helper.” In english this may sound inferior, but the same exact Hebrew word is used to describe God in numerous passages throughout the Bible, and it’s a safe bet that the Israelite authors weren’t suggesting that God is inferior to humans. Many critics consider the fact that the woman is coming from the man to imply inferiority, that women are a second-rate creatures because they came second, while men came first; I think also it would be fair to read a kind of male fantasy of appropriating women’s reproductive abilities, a familiar theme from ancient Greek mythology (see Hesiod’s Theogony). The idea here is that women might be unique in that they can produce babies, but as the story hints women were ultimately created from men. I think this is a valid interpretation, even if I think other interpretation of these events also exist. After all, man comes from dust, while women comes from another human being, thus making women purer and less corrupted than men.
The creation of woman seems like a good excuse for more wordplay. After the woman’s creation the man says:
“This one shall be called Woman,
For from man was she taken. – Genesis 2:23″
This is not only wordplay in English, but also in Hebrew as the word for woman is “Ishshah,” and another word for man besides Adam is “Ish.” The man seems to view the woman as his equal, we might even say, a mirror image of himself for he says,
“This one at last
is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.”
If read in context with the fact that he was previously looking for a companion among the animals, the text implies here that he has finally found one he recognizes as his equal.