Q. My last set of questions after reading your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage is about what to do with Genesis chapter 2. It is quite clear to me from your book that reading Genesis chapter 1 the way Young Earth Creationists do is unfair to the text and hermeneutically irresponsible. It is obviously written in a very poetic literary style and immediately conflicts with chapter two in terms of the alleged order of creation and so on. On coming to chapter two, though, it isn’t written in such a poetic literary style and does assume a natural order in its account of creation, which leads to a couple questions.
First off, would you say that Genesis 2:4 is something of a header introducing the section as Genesis 1:1 does following Hebrew writing conventions?
This statement is a header not just to the story of the creation of the man and the woman, but also to the stories of the fall and of Cain and Abel. It’s one of eleven instances in Genesis of the same formula, translated “This is the account of” in the NIV. These formulas divide Genesis into twelve parts that each discuss what came from the figure named in the formula, e.g. Adam, Noah, Noah’s sons, etc. The first one is the most elaborately stated. It’s actually a chiasm:
A This is the account of the heavens and the earth
B when they were created
B when the Lord God made
A the earth and the heavens.
This formula introduces what “came from” the heavens and the earth, what they “brought forth.” In the account that follows, God “forms from the ground” all the wild animals and birds, and God also forms the man from the “dust of the ground.”
Secondly, since Genesis 2 isn’t written in a poetic style, would you say that it is trying to be more of a literal description of how and in what order creation occurred?
The account of the creation of the man and the woman belongs to a particular literary genre known as an “etiology,” which tells the story of how some contemporary phenomenon first originated. Most of the stories early in Genesis belong to this genre. They explain, for example, why there is a rainbow in the sky after it rains, or why people speak different languages. The story of the man and the woman flows into the story of the fall and together these stories explain why weeds come up when you only plant good seeds, why women have pain in childbirth, and why the snake crawls on its belly. So we need to take these stories for what they are and understand the meaning and message behind them, without regarding them as a literal, journalistic description of exactly what happened at the beginning of the human race.
Thirdly, in verses 8 and 19 it says, “Now the Lord God (had) formed…”. Depending on the translation, the word “had” isn’t always there, which kind of messes with the order of creation. If it is there, evolution is pretty easily accounted for within the text. But if it isn’t, then the text more or less says that man came before plants and animals, which contradicts the claims of the scientific theory of evolution.
Hebrew verbs are not marked for tense, indicating time. They are only marked for aspect, indicating either continuing or completed action. The verbs in this account all indicate completed action. So they could be translated either “formed,” “made,” “took,” etc. or “had planted,” “had formed,” etc. I personally see no reason, linguistically or grammatically within the account, why any of them need to be translated with “had.” I think we have a simple progressing narrative without review statements referring to earlier actions. I think “had” is only introduced in some translations as a means of harmonizing the chronology with the earlier account. I don’t think we need to do this. The original author of Genesis was comfortable with the two accounts side-by-side even though their chronology doesn’t seem to line up, and we need to work out how we can be, too.
Finally, if evolution does account for the rise of all animals and eventually people, it seems strange that God would have had to make Eve because there was no suitable helper for Adam. If during the evolutionary process God granted consciousness, etc. upon early humans, there should have already been women present who would have been suitable for Adam. Of course, all these questions may simply arise from me trying to fit the story of Genesis 2 to actual history and not taking it from the observational perspective and so on. However, since Genesis 2 isn’t written in a literary style like Genesis 1, how exactly should it be taken?
I think you’ve identified where the problem comes from when we ask why a helper was needed for Adam if people had been around for so long. It comes from trying to line up the details in these stories one-to-one with the events of natural history. I don’t think we can or should do that. As I say in response to your second question above, this account of the creation of the man and the woman should be taken as an “etiology.” It answers the question of how some contemporary phenomena came to be by relating a story from the past that ultimately has a moral message.
Thanks very much for your thoughtful questions after reading our book. I hope it continues to be helpful to you in your reflections! (The entire text of the book is now available free online.)