Question about Genesis 1-2

So far I’ve considered the fact that Genesis 1 and 2 give very different accounts of creation the key evidence that they’re not meant to be taken as literal history (in the sense of detailed, physically true account). After all, if the author intended it as a literally, physically true historical account, why would he write two very different, contradicting narratives? Obviously he wrote those two different accounts because he wasn’t indending to reconstruct events in detail, but to convey a theological message through narratives. That made perfect sense to me.
But now I’ve got this thought in my head that makes my brain race. An alternative explanation to the contradictory nature of Genesis 1 and 2 could be that the second creation account was written by someone else who didn’t have access to the first creation narrative, so he wrote a similar, but different account, not being aware that it contradicts the original one. In this scenario, it’s still possible that the creation accounts were meant to be detailed reconstructions by the original authors, since neither of the writers knew of the contradiction, and they were simply later compiled and put next to each other as chapters 1 and 2. However, since I know very little about the history of ancient Israelites, the pentateuch or the writers of the Old Testament, I don’t know if according to the evidence, this alternative explanation is plausible, or even possible. Can anyone with more knowledge in the topic help me out?

There are those here more scholarly who can step in and correct here as necessary.

Bringing in a “second author” to help sort out or explain apparent contradictions doesn’t really get one too far, if by doing so they are eager to address some perceived loss of scriptural integrity because the later Hebrew scribes or redactors who compiled it all around the time of exile still selected and compiled these to both be present to the narrative. They obviously were not bothered by the same sorts of things that we in our own literary age tend to notice, which perhaps ought to lead us to ask why such things catch our attention now. That is what makes the study of all this so valuable to us now, when scholars like Walton can perhaps help us get a little more into their minds then, and see what sorts of questions they lived with in contrast to what concerns us today.

So, if I understand your comment correctly, I should change my argument that “Genesis isn’t meant to be taken literalistically as physically true history because the author wrote/put them right next to each other” to “Genesis isn’t meant to be taken literalistically as physically true history because ancient israelites compiled them to both be present in their holy text despite their differences”? Would that be a better argument?

If I can butt in here. I would say, “while aware of their differences”. Why they did so we will probably never know. And FWIW, this isn’t the only example of what appears to be multiple sources combined into one text. The global flood for example.

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What I’m saying is that the whole “literal physical explanations” obsession is our obsession today, not theirs then (or even later during the time of Christ). It would be like somebody becoming obsessed with finding “factual evidence” about the account of the prodigal son - wanting to know what city he traveled to, how long was he away? Is there any historical/archaelogical evidence for any part of that account? …And to all of that we would rightly respond: “Dude! Get over yourself! You’re missing the entire point!” If that stuff had been important to them, Jesus would have had immediate pushback from eager Pharisees challenging him on the factuality of his teachings. Was there really a man robbed by bandits near Jericho? What day did that happen, Jesus? What was his name?

No. We see none of that because they knew something that YECs today still haven’t managed to get into their heads: That people can use story to teach very real, very deep Truth. But the obsession with flat, low-level factuality seems to be a peculiarly modern hangup that has no (or very little) continuity even back to the New Testament, much less the centuries before that. It is true that Jesus’ disciples were sometimes in the habit of taking his words quite literally - and we know what usually followed from Jesus when they did. Variations on: “Just grow up, guys!”


I understand better now, Mervin, thank you. However, I would like to ask what exactly makes people believe that the original audience/writers of Genesis (or the OT in general) were not concerned with biblical narratives being literally, physically true? What’s the evidence for that? I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just looking to learn.

Fair enough. But you’re helping illustrate my point for me with the very question. I’m not insisting that such things (like what we would call ‘factuality’) weren’t in their minds either. They just didn’t seem stuck on it like we are, which seems to me to be evidenced in the two distinct creation accounts you brought up. I’ve probably already spoken beyond the warrant of what little expertise I’ve absorbed from hanging out among my many scholarly superiors here. But as a student of scriptures (without having myself delved into the Hebrew or Greek), it seems to me that neither testament lacks for examples of discrepancies failing to register as concerns among those contemporaries and near-contemporaries who certainly would have been aware of them.

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I think this is a key part…and I’d contend they were not compiled simply (perhaps you didn’t mean it the way it comes across). If we assume (based on good reasoning and some of the evidence we have of the redaction process) there was quite a bit of care & intentionality in the process, we are sort of left with a couple options (there may be more): (1) the redactors intentionally brought together competing perspectives (ideological and theological, and perhaps historical), as in the JEDP source-critical model; or (2) the texts were seen as complementary, emphasizing different things (e.g., divine transcendence vs. immanence). If #2 is close to correct, then one entailment would seem to be that literalistic precision was not intentional.

Another note: if one is coming at this from a biblical inspiration/authority perspective, then it’s about the intent of the final form of the text, not the sources or stories or even the authors that composed the “originals” (whatever that means). As I see it, then, is that the textual intent of what we now have (and was received into the faith community) strongly suggests less than a literalistic account of God’s creation.

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if one is coming at this from a biblical inspiration/authority perspective, then it’s about the intent of the final form of the text, not the sources or stories or even the authors that composed the “originals” (whatever that means).

I would be very interested in your reasoning behind that viewpoint. Why would the intent of the “final edit” be more important than the intent behind the original writing? After all, weren’t the compilers/editors doing well, just that, without adding new stuff to the stories? Like with Mervin, I’m not expressing disagreement, only curiousity.


Traditionally, authority (even inerrancy) is assumed for the “text,” not the pre-history of how we arrived at the text. Our statements often talk of the “original autographs,” but this is much trickier in OT than NT. But it seems the spirit of it is the text as it was received (considered canon). We don’t know the details of this for OT texts, but there is a lot of evidence that there was a long process (for at least some of the OT texts) to arrive at their final form–the received/canonized text. Therefore, I’m assuming is in the final form. Thus, I’m less interested in Gen 1 or Gen 2 as they may have been used and read independently, but as they ought to be understood standing side by side.

I’m not trying to pit an original author vs. a later editor. But neither do I want to assume there’s an exact one-to-one correspondence.

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It’s an assumption that the text we have and know as Genesis was written by one individual who just sat down and “authored” it in the way we imagine authors write texts today. More likely the texts existed first in some oral form, were compiled and embellished at some point and were redacted at other points. Since you are in an investigation mode, you might want to check out Walton and Sandy’s Lost World of Scripture, which deals with orality and literacy and how authorship and authority functioned differently in the ancient world.

Texts and the meanings of texts are not something static. Texts are produced in contexts for audiences. So the Genesis we have to day served a specific communicative purpose for the community who received it, a purpose that might be expanded or divergent from the purposes of the various source texts (and people use text to refer to memorized oral texts passed on in community or written texts, both of which can be compiled, shaped, and redacted as they are recontextualized for new audiences)

Exactly. Our faith claims about inspiration apply to the text we have in our canon and Bible scholars investigate its meaning in the context it was produced and received. When the canon was set letters in the New Testament were ascribed authority to some degree from their authorship and the identity of the author mattered. But many of the texts in the Old Testament got their authority from their history of acceptance and use in the Jewish community, and speaking of them as written by Moses was more a convention to say they were authoritative than it was a definitive statement about who created the text.


I think it’s impossible to know who wrote genesis 1 or 2, or how much editing changed the story. I don’t think genesis 1 and 2 are that different really but they are obviously somewhat different. Regardless if the authors and editors believed in a cosmology like that they at least was aware the accounts were not being written in a autobiographical or historical way.

My first principle of Biblical hermeneutics is to maximize the meaning of scripture, which requires us to discard interpretations which trivialize it or disconnect it from reality as we experience it. If we take the story as literally about talking animals, magical fruit, and golems of dust and flesh made by necromancy, then the closest comparison in our experience of reality is that of Walt Disney’s productions of “Robin Hood” and “Sword in the Stone” or various fantasy novels and comic books. Anything contrary to the findings of science majorly disconnects the content from reality as we experience it. Should we close our eyes to all God is telling us in everything He sends us from the earth and sky in order to insist on a literal understanding of the text which is not even self-consistent? What possible reason can we have to force the text to fit an understanding contrary to all the evidence of science?

Not having been raised Christian and reading the Bible as a scientist to see if this text has any value for real life, such an anti-science meaning was never a consideration. So when I read that God formed Adam from the dust of the ground and breathed into Him the breath of life, the meaning which jumped out at me was that God made man of the stuff of the earth and then communicated inspiration which brought the human mind to life. And when I read “tree of life” and “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” these hardly sounded like species of angiosperm (flower bearing plants), but rather referred to essential abstract aspects of human existence. And when Cain speaks of an earth filled with people who he fears will kill him, I don’t have to make up weird excuses to make this fit a story of necromancy and fantasy, because of course we know from all the evidence that the earth was always filled with people and the genetic evidence shows there was never any population bottleneck of less than thousands.

For all that and regardless of how I was raised, I am a fairly orthodox Christian, taking most of the stories in the Bible as historical even if they are not always to be taken literally. Turning too much of the text into metaphors unnecessarily also detracts from the meaningfulness of the text. The whole point of Christianity is that this is a message of God not just a piece of literature from some ancient middle eastern culture. But the findings of science can give us good reason for caution and a second look. For example when reading the story of the flood, we should remember that the earth is never described as a globe in the Bible but as a table which would only be the case if it means a rather small section of the planet. This just shows the meaning of the word has changed and we can believe the evidence which refutes that there was ever a global flood.

As for parallel creation accounts in Genesis there are even more than two (there are also the beginnings of chapters 5 and 6) – all talking about different aspects of the same creation. It is far from an unusual literary device to explain different aspects of the same story. In fact I am reminded of a novel by Steven Donaldson called “The Real Story” which does this over and over again to show how taking a closer look at things changes your understanding of what is happening each time.

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But I don’t understand, if all that is true. how can one claim that the Bible is divinely inspired, or even inerrant (as John Walton does, to my knowledge)? If these narratives have “oral” origins and have probably been changed many times before the Pentateuch was compiled and “edited”, how is the Old Testament any different from other ancient orally spread narratives, like greek mythology? If we accept that the creation narratives, the fall, the flood, etc. don’t have a definite, written origin, then who exactly are we claiming inspiration for? The person who came up with the original version? The person who edited and compiled it? Everyone who ever made a change to it when it was in its oral form? Who exactly is inspired and how? I don’t understand how what you and others in this thread are saying is even remotely compatible with the idea that the Bible is more than just a collection of old myths that an ancient group came up with for some reason. I appreciate you providing a source in Walton and Sandy’s book, but unfortunately my current financial situation doesn’t allow me to purchase it, and no library in my area has it.

I appreciate your comment, however I personally feel that adjusting your interpretation of the Bible based on scientific evidence alone seems a bit like a coping mechanism. Creating new interpretations when the previous one is disproven by science doesn’t help us understand what the original authors tried to convey, it’s just simply assuming that the ancients couldn’t have been wrong and twisting the text in a way that’s compatible with modern science. I understand if you disagree, but I still believe that what the science says isn’t as relevant in finding out the correct interpretation as textual and cultural-historical evidence.

LOL Coping??? Coping with WHAT? As I explained I wasn’t raised Christian. I didn’t start with the Bible and adjust to evolution. I started with evolution and read the Bible to see if it had anything of value in it. What is it you imagine I was coping with??? Science was and is simply the filter through which I have and always will understand everything including the Bible.

I think you are the one who is coping, though with what, I am not sure. It is sensible and rational to read something like the Bible to fit what we see in reality. It is indulgent fantasy to reinvent reality to fit something you read in some old book of one ancient culture in the world. It is the objective evidence of science which is always and supremely relevant and it is the relevance of the flimsy ad-hoc excuses under the dubious name of “textual and cultural evidence” which is highly questionable.

Short answer, by faith. It is conflicting, I agree, when you realize that Genesis was probably written in its present form in 600 BC or so. However, the text really does not try to say it is not, when it includes phrases like “until this day” .
The real answer is that that you have to accept that God has his hand in preserving his word and the message he has for mankind and that continued sustaining power is what makes the Bible authoritative and purposeful. He has sustained it despite the unfaithfulness of Israel, leading to Josiah being thrilled to find a copy of the book of Deuteronomy in the ruins of the Temple (that’s probably the first time anyone was thrilled to find that book!), he sustained it despite exile, he sustained it into translation into Greek, he sustained it in the many translations and many source documents they are translated from, he sustained it in the changes of language through the ages, and he will sustain it in binary code electronically or however information is transmitted as we go forth.
So, the power is not in the ink and paper, or the clay tablets and stylus, or the 0’s and 1’s but in the God.

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I apologize if I offended you, however I still stand by my statement. If I were to adjust my biblical interpretation (as in what I believe the original authors intended to convey) to what current science says, then I could twist and turn it in any way to fit current science. I’m sorry but I have to disagree with you, what is the most relevant in interpreting biblical authors’ intentions IS the text and the culture they existed in, not the scientific discoveries that we have made since, as they had no way of knowing about those. Reading Genesis and going “well this and this obviously can’t happen according to current science, so it is obviously meant as not concrete/physically true” to me seems like assuming that the author knew of current science and therefore obviously intended what they wrote as a metaphor/symbolic/fiction. If they believed in a flat-disk Earth and the stars/Sun/Moon being below a solid firmament above the Earth then who’s to say they didn’t also believe in talking serpents or magical fruits?

I think you are right in thinking the original context the writers had and their culture is important to meaning, and that is really what scholars like Walton point out. However, we live in a different context and culture, and God;s message is still there for us, teaching us what he would have us learn from it. And in our context, we know the earth is a globe which circles the sun, that the universe and old and vast, and have a better understanding of disease and so forth. Therefore, what the ancients may have understood as physical reality, we are free to see as metaphor or more accurately as divine accomadation, and the message of God for us is still there.

I understand your point, thank you. But my question(s) still apply to inspiration itself. I understand what you say about God preserving the integrity of his Word, but how is divine inspiration compatible with the idea that originally, Genesis and other Old Testament texts were retold, changed, edited, etc. before it was compiled and edited into its final/current form circa 600 BC? Was the person who compiled it and made the final edit the inspired one? If so, then how could the people who came up with and formed the narratives/oral texts that were God’s revalations over centuries do so without divine inspiration?

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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