Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Consider the first chapters of Genesis in light of a theoretical break after 2:4a (Chapter 2, verse 4, the first half of the sentence). The Norton editors provide an unexplained footnote, claiming that “This is the beginning of a different account of the Creation, which does not agree in all respects with the first” (52). Whether or not you give credence to this assertion, can you detect what supposed evidence the editors and others would be using to make such a claim? Using any literary tools you can summon, examine any differences (not necessarily just absolute contradictions, if there seem to be any) before and after the hypothetical seam. Note both matters of content and style: shifts in characterization, organization, detail, or whatever you can discern.

As an etiological text (one explaining in mythological terms the origins of things), Genesis gives answers to the following humanistic questions:

    • How did the world begin?
    • Who created it?
    • Why do we have a Sabbath?
    • Who was the first human?
    • How come a duck is called a duck?
    • If God created the world and God is good, why are there difficulties:
      • Why is farming a pain in the ass?
      • Why does childbirth hurt like hell?
    • Why don’t we live forever?
    • Why don’t snakes have legs?
    • Why are there different languages?
    • Will God destroy the earth with another flood?
    • Why are there rainbows?

Genesis also contains implicit values (intentional or not) and generates potential problems, depending on how the text is taken:

    • Humankind prioritized yields speciesism.
    • Man prioritized yields sexism.
    • The hierarchy yields a separateness between humans and animals, humans from the natural world.
    • Does life operate according to determinism or free will?
    • What are we supposed to eat? (What was the diet in Paradise?)
    • Does “dominion” (over animals) = domination? (No. See Linzey 28f.)
    • Did God intend the command “Be fruitful and multiply” to apply to everyone from then on despite this choking overpopulation?
    • What about power politics? Is the primary model obedience to authority?

As for those literary shifts at the crux, 2.4a/b:

    • backtracking
    • first lumping together creations of vast generic types, then Adam singly
    • order of man vs. animals in creation
    • abstract vs. anthropomorphic God (one hears him walking in the garden)
    • the verbs used to describe God’s actions (breathed, planted, took and put)
    • poetic anaphora first, then prose
    • weighty, stately, measured effect vs. folklore style (in which animals talk)
    • a cosmic view vs. the close-up with specific names of people, rivers, etc.
    • “God” becomes “the Lord God”

This last might at first be explained felicitously as logical in that once creation has taken place, then God is “lord” over something. But in fact the shift reflects a consistent translation matter. “God” here translates from “Elohim” which means loosely “divine powers” (hence the plural). “The Lord God” is the reverential translation of the sacred tetragrammaton: “YHWH” (Yahweh, related to Jehovah).

If there are two separate accounts here, which one seems earlier and which more developed? Which comes first: the personal name for the deity or the vague title?

Based on textual and historical evidence, the dominant theory about these Genesis chapters is that 1.1 to 2.4a was much later, called the Priestly source (P), from the 4th century bce when Babylonian Jews attempted to purify their religion by ritual and a holiness code. With the nation of Israel destroyed, the cult focus on land and politics has been replaced with a general insistence that obedience to God will prevent further destruction. Ancient texts are gathered and thorough redaction takes place.

Genesis 2.4b onwards (for this segment of Genesis) comes originally from the second half of the 10th century bce, in Solomon’s time. The key is that neighboring nations bear certain names from this period; rivers go by certain names only to certain people at certain times. This is called the Yahwist (J) source, where God is a bit capricious and there’s a rather grim view of mankind.

The name issue (God vs. the Lord God) is a good indication of a typical evolutionary process in religion. To take a parallel New Testament case, we know for certain that whereas early Gospels call Jesus by his actual name (like YHWH), later apocryphal gospels, once the religion is more developed theologically, get standoffish about his name. A fragment of a phony gospel written much later than the first century and purportedly by the illerate fisherman and apostle Peter refers to Jesus exclusively as “the Lord” — and this supposedly from a guy who hung out with Jesus! So the tendency is to grow more reverential about the names of one’s deities as the religion becomes more established. Presumably the apostles didn’t have to bow their heads every time they asked Jesus if he wanted more wine.

The tradition that Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch was literally penned by Moses is difficult to swallow. A culture seldom indulges in the literary arts when it is on the lam from angry charioteers and meandering about in the desert hoping for food. When a nation get established, then it has time to develop its identity through its arts, as the Hebrew nation would have under Solomon. Here’s a sketch of Israel’s early history:

    1. Patriarchs — 18th-13th centuries bce. Exodus under Moses maybe 1250.
    2. Settlement — 12th-11th centuries bce. Subjugation of land and people of Canaan (Palestine) whose principle deity was a goddess (and associated serpent).
    3. Monarchy — 10th century. Saul, David, Solomon. Earliest historical writing.
    4. Divided Kingdom — Noth is Israel proper, 922—722 (falls to Assyria). South is Judah (falls to another Assyrian emperor).
    5. Babylonian Exile — 587 bce. Assyrian capital Nineveh fell 612 bce; Babylon then supreme power in Near East. After revolt, destruction of leaders and Jerusalem, dispersion of people.
    6. Return — 538-539 bce. Babylon fell to Persia; Jews allowed to return, but Persian occupation. Temple rebuilt, canonical version of Torah, Pentateuch.
    7. Hellenistic Period — 332 bce. Alexander the Great conquered. Greek-speaking.
    8. Maccabean Revolt — 168 bce. Self-rule until 63, Roman rule. Revolts 66-73 ce against Emperor Titus. Jersusalem and Temple demolished 70 ce.
    9. Diaspora — Revolt 131-134 against Emperor Hadrian; removal from Palestine and “Diaspora” until creation of the state of Israel.

So the scriptural writing come from various periods with various social contexts and religious needs.

Works Consulted

Genesis. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Vol. I. 7th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999. 51-72.

Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 3rd ed. Toronto: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1992.

Linzey, Andrew. Christianity and the Rights of Animals. NY: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1991.