The most common, almost instinctual, reaction of people who read the first two chapters of Genesis has to do with the nature of the creation account. Did God create all things in six literal twenty-four-hour days, or are the days to be understood as epochs of indeterminable length?
In fact some would ask whether the Bible is to be taken as a scientific-historical account of beginnings at all or merely as a mythological explanation. Such discussion, though interesting and important, is likely to overlook the more important question, namely, what is the theological meaning of the creation narratives? Rather than concentrating on the “how” of creation it may be more appropriate to address the “why.”
The Literary Structure of Genesis 1–2
Bible students have long noted that there are two records of creation, one in Genesis 1:1–2:3 and the other in 2:4–25. Historical-critical analysis has typically viewed these as coming from two originally independent sources, one preferring the divine name Elohim (the “P” document) and the other the name Yahweh (the “J” document). Such analysis is insensitive to the theological emphases of the two records, however. And furthermore it is being seriously challenged by recent literary-rhetorical approaches that make a case for unity of composition by a common author. The two creation texts are thus to be seen not as competing, but as complementary—viewing the event from two different angles.
The first narrative provides the “cosmological” account of creation and the second the “anthropological” account. The focus in 1:1–2:3 is on the universe as a whole, with special attention to the earth and all its creatures. The emphasis in 2:4–25 is on humankind and its role in the design of God. The very names of God used to differentiate the so-called sources turn out to be theological keys that unlock the mystery of the existence of two narratives and how they combine to provide a full panorama of the divine design. Elohim, the name used exclusively in 1:1–2:3, conveys the meaning “power.” It is fitting that it occurs in a creation story that describes the limitless expanse of the universe and at the same time almost casually mentions that it was created by the mere speaking of words. We mortals can hardly imagine that God could speak into existence the entire universe.
Yahweh, the name of God in 2:4–25, is the title that occurs throughout the Old Testament to speak of God as the immanent one, He who deigns to have fellowship with humanity. When Israel was in need of deliverance from Egyptian bondage, Moses learned that it was by the name Yahweh that God would bring about that mighty redemption (Exod. 3:13–16). And in the act of creating all things God showed His special concern for humankind by employing that same name, which means “He is.” This is God’s covenant name, the term used when He undertakes some purpose in partnership with those whom He calls to Himself.
Such a purpose is clearly evident in the creation narrative of 2:4–25. The title Yahweh Elohim occurs no fewer than eleven times in twenty-two verses. The combination declares that the powerful God of the cosmos who created by only a word is also the condescending God who created the human race tenderly and carefully as a potter might shape a vessel from a lump of clay. In fact the verb used in the narrative to describe man’s creation (Heb. ysr) is related to the noun meaning “potter” (yôser). God as Elohim elicits awe and wonder—God as Yahweh instills a sense of comfort and joy. Both facets were celebrated by the poet-king David (Pss. 8, 19, 139).
The Theological Structure of Genesis 1–2
A central theme of the creation narratives is the sovereignty of God as exercised through His image bearer, the human race. The pivotal text, Genesis 1:26–28, climaxes the stages of creation leading up to it, and from it flows the fundamental expression of what it means to be the servant of God at work in accomplishing His will. The first narrative (1:1–2:3) describes the arena of divine sovereignty and the second (2:4–25) speaks of its agent. In the former case the place of its exercise is presented in universal terms—the heavens and the earth (v. 1). But the focus narrows quickly to the earth, and by a series of separations the structures of divine sovereignty are delineated. On day one light is separated from darkness (vv. 2–5), on day two the waters are separated from each other (vv. 6–8), on day three the land is separated from the waters (vv. 9–13), on day four night is separated from day (vv. 14–19), on day five marine creatures are separated from those in the air (vv. 20–23), and on day six man is separated from all other creatures (vv. 24–31). Finally, the Sabbath Day is separated from all other days (2:1–3). This series of separations reaches its culmination with man firmly in place and with the stage fully set for his role in implementing the dominion task for which he was created.
The second narrative recapitulates the creation story from an entirely different viewpoint. The circumstances that prevailed before his creation (2:4–6) not only clarify why man must come into being, but they also spell out his qualifications. He must be a creature unlike all others, a truth seen in the fact that only he would be the recipient of divine inbreathing (v. 7). This qualified him to undertake the awesome responsibilities of servanthood. He was placed in a garden, a microcosm of the whole earth (vv. 8–14), and there he received instruction as to what it means to be God’s image bearer—to work and supervise the garden (v. 15). There were limits to his dominion (vv. 16–17), and it was the violation of those limits that brought about the downfall of the entire human race (3:1–21). But there was also partnership in the person of the woman, the only creature that complemented and corresponded to him (2:18–25). Thus the divine plan was in place. Its failure because of human sin was grievous, indeed, but what God proposes He also brings to pass. Through the “second Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45, 47) He has provided a way for all His creation purposes to be fulfilled, a way seen now darkly but someday in the full light of God’s perfect redemption (Rom. 8:18–23).
Dr. Eugene H. Merrill is interim department chair and distinguished professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Seminary. He earned his PhD at Columbia University and has authored and coauthored numerous books and articles about the Old Testament.