Why are there two different accounts of Creation? I typed the question into Google and got sixty-two million links! And no wonder—it’s been puzzling people for thousands of years. Why are there two, especially two that seem to contradict each other?
In particular, mankind is created after the animals and plants in chapter one, but before them in chapter two. Scholars tell us the two accounts were written at very different times by different people—but that hardly answers the nagging doubts the contradiction raises. “How can they both be right?” we wonder. How can both be true? And if they’re not—is the Bible really inspired?
Those questions are too big to answer fully in a single post, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Genre matters.
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) states:
“To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to ‘literary forms.’ For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.”DV 12
Genesis wasn’t written by a scientist or a modern historian. Chapter one is pure poetry.
We read news differently from editorials and poems; we must do the same when we read the Bible, and adjust our reading lens to the literary form.
However, just because Scripture is written in poetic form does not mean it isn’t literal. The Catechism states:
According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.CCC 115
It goes on to say, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae:
“All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”CCC 116
In other words, the literary form does not cancel out any of the four senses of Scripture. They are still always there, especially the literal sense (unless, of course, it’s made clear that it’s simply allegorical, like with Jesus’ parables, for instance). While the literary form helps us categorize different parts of Scripture, the four senses of Scripture are like layers that apply to all of Scripture. For more details on interpreting Scripture, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 109-119.
2. The author’s intent matters.
The questions of our age are scientific: HOW did the world begin? WHEN did it come into being, and by WHAT exact process? WHICH came first and how did the next being evolve?
The questions of the ancient world were different: WHO created? WHO’s in charge? WHY am I here, and HOW do I relate to other beings? WHY is there evil and can anything be done about it?
OK, we have those questions too—and those are the ones we should ask of Genesis, because those are the questions it sets out to answer. In Dei Verbum, the Church tells us that the Bible teaches “solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (emphasis added). It teaches not scientific truth; but spiritual truth.
3. Context matters.
Genesis 1 and 2 are both parts of a larger story—revealed in Scripture and Tradition—and can’t be fully understood apart from it.
Taking these things into account, I offer a few thoughts:
Genesis 1 is about God’s action and purpose, not the science or calendar of Creation.
God is named thirty-two times in thirty-one verses and every time he’s the subject of the sentence, acting, intentionally building something “good.”
Genesis 1 is poetic, and poetic structure has meaning. Sequential days are not there for themselves, to show time sequence, but rather to show order and hierarchy.
Notice that all begins in darkness, formlessness, and emptiness. On “days” one through three God banishes the darkness and brings order to the chaos: heaven and sky, earth and land. On “days” four through six God fills the void, populating each realm in the same order. God makes man only after everything is ready for them to live in and rule. They are the “end” as in purpose, not necessarily sequence, of the created universe.
The march of days also forms a sort of literary “arrow” pointing to chapter two and the seventh day. It reveals the grand purpose of creation: that everything is ordered to the Sabbath and worship of God (See CCC, 345-348, 2169, and 2171).
Genesis 1 is a prologue to the rest.
How fitting that this poetic tribute, which was probably written much later than chapter two, is placed at the start of Genesis. It functions like an “Entrance Hymn” to the great drama of salvation. While it is sung, God fills the stage and the other players take their place around him as created things and beings, each with its own dignity within its own sphere. Everything is in order and very good.
There’s a perspective shift between chapters.
In Genesis 1, the reader’s a distant observer of the creation of the universe. Genesis 2 zooms in for a close-up on the “man” God created everything for.
Sequence shows relationship in chapter two.
Once again, the sequence is not necessarily about time. Events are arranged to show the truth about humanity in relationship to God, the animals, and the world. Chapter 1 told us man was created in God’s image, given dominion over the earth, and told to be fruitful and multiply. What does that mean, and how are we to understand it? By starting—not ending—with the creation of man, the author is able to show many things, among them:
- Man is made from dust. He does not evolve from something else and no other being is used to create him; there is nothing else.
- Vegetation is for man’s food and pleasure and to teach obedience—he is creature, not creator, and must learn to relate to God.
- The animals are created so man will know his special status—that he’s made for more. He doesn’t come from them, they are brought to him and he names and rules them.
- Man is only complete when God brings from his body another, the woman. Side by side, they will not only rule, but fill the earth. Together they are in God’s image: male and female; ruling the earth; fruitful. They live in harmony with creation, with each other, and with God.
The first creation makes sense only in light of the new creation in Christ.
So Genesis 1 and 2 give us two complementary accounts of creation that together help us begin to understand the who and why of our existence. But they are part of a larger story and we can’t fully understand them without knowing the end and purpose of the whole.
Perhaps that’s why John started his Gospel with another creation account. “In the beginning was the Word,” he wrote. “All things were made through him […] The light shines in the darkness […] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
John’s deliberate use of language from Genesis helps us see the coming of Christ as a new creation. It also helps us understand God’s purpose in Creation from the start.
Why did God create? Pope Benedict XVI brings it all together:
“God created the universe in order to be able to become a human being and pour out his love upon us and to invite us to love him in return.”Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “‘In the Beginning…’” 1995, pg. 30
Only when we read all of God’s word in light of his Word (Jesus), can we truly understand.
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Sarah Christmyer is co-developer with Jeff Cavins of The Great Adventure Catholic Bible study system. She is author or co-author of a number of the studies. Sarah has thirty years of experience leading and teaching Bible studies. She helped launch Catholic Scripture Study and is co-author of “Genesis Part I: God and His Creation” and “Genesis Part II: God and His Family,” published by Emmaus Road. Raised in a strong evangelical family, she was received into the Catholic Church in 1992. Sarah also writes at comeintotheword.com.
This article was first published on The Great Adventure Blog, the Ascension Blog’s former home, on January 12, 2015. The Great Adventure Blog has been discontinued, but you can still learn about The Great Adventure Bible studies here.
Featured painting, The Creation of Adam (c. 1511) by Michelangelo sourced from Wikimedia Commons