Genesis Creation Narrative

The Genesis creation narrative is the creation myth of both Judaism and Christianity. The narrative is made up of two stories, roughly equivalent to the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. In the first, Elohim (the Hebrew generic word for God) creates the heavens and the Earth in six days, then rests on, blesses and sanctifies the seventh. In the second story, God, now referred to by the personal name Yahweh, creates Adam, the first man, from dust and places him in the Garden of Eden, where he is given dominion over the animals. Eve, the first woman, is created from Adam and as his companion.

Borrowing themes from Mesopotamian mythology, but adapting them to the Israelite people’s belief in one God, the first major comprehensive draft of the Pentateuch (the series of five books which begins with Genesis and ends with Deuteronomy) was composed in the late 7th or the 6th century BCE (the Jahwist source) and was later expanded by other authors (the Priestly source) into a work very like the one we have today. The two sources can be identified in the creation narrative: Priestly and Jahwistic. The combined narrative is a critique of the Mesopotamian theology of creation: Genesis affirms monotheism and denies polytheism. Robert Alter described the combined narrative as “compelling in its archetypal character, its adaptation of myth to monotheistic ends”.

Misunderstanding the genre of the Genesis creation narrative, meaning the intention of the author(s) and the culture within which they wrote, can result in a misreading; misreading the story as history rather than theology leads to Creationism and the denial of evolution. As scholar of Jewish studies, Jon D. Levenson, puts it:

How much history lies behind the story of Genesis? Because the action of the primeval story is not represented as taking place on the plane of ordinary human history and has so many affinities with ancient mythology, it is very far-fetched to speak of its narratives as historical at all.”

Composition

Sources

See also: Documentary hypothesis

Cuneiform tablet with the Atra-Hasis Epic in the British Museum

Although tradition attributes Genesis to Moses, biblical scholars hold that it, together with the following four books (making up what Jews call the Torah and biblical scholars call the Pentateuch), is “a composite work, the product of many hands and periods.” A common hypothesis among biblical scholars today is that the first major comprehensive draft of the Pentateuch was composed in the late 7th or the 6th century BCE (the Jahwist source), and that this was later expanded by the addition of various narratives and laws (the Priestly source) into a work very like the one existing today.

As for the historical background which led to the creation of the narrative itself, a theory which has gained considerable interest, although still controversial, is “Persian imperial authorisation”. This proposes that the Persians, after their conquest of Babylon in 538 BCE, agreed to grant Jerusalem a large measure of local autonomy within the empire, but required the local authorities to produce a single law code accepted by the entire community. It further proposes that there were two powerful groups in the community – the priestly families who controlled the Temple, and the landowning families who made up the “elders” – and that these two groups were in conflict over many issues, and that each had its own “history of origins”, but the Persian promise of greatly increased local autonomy for all provided a powerful incentive to cooperate in producing a single text.

Structure

The creation narrative is made up of two stories, roughly equivalent to the two first chapters of the Book of Genesis. (There are no chapter divisions in the original Hebrew text, see Chapters and verses of the Bible.) The first account (1:1 through 2:3) employs a repetitious structure of divine fiat and fulfillment, then the statement “And there was evening and there was morning, the [xth] day,” for each of the six days of creation. In each of the first three days there is an act of division: day one divides the darkness from light, day two the “waters above” from the “waters below”, and day three the sea from the land. In each of the next three days these divisions are populated: day four populates the darkness and light with Sun, Moon and stars; day five populates seas and skies with fish and fowl; and finally land-based creatures and mankind populate the land.

Consistency was evidently not seen as essential to storytelling in ancient Near Eastern literature. The overlapping stories of Genesis 1 and 2 are contradictory but also complementary, with the first (the Priestly story) concerned with the creation of the entire cosmos while the second (the Yahwist story) focuses on man as moral agent and cultivator of his environment. The highly regimented seven-day narrative of Genesis 1 features an omnipotent God who creates a god-like humanity, while the one-day creation of Genesis 2 uses a simple linear narrative, a God who can fail as well as succeed, and a humanity which is not god-like but is punished for acts which would lead to their becoming god-like. Even the order and method of creation differs. “Together, this combination of parallel character and contrasting profile point to the different origin of materials in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, however elegantly they have now been combined.”

The primary accounts in each chapter are joined by a literary bridge at Genesis 2:4|, “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created.” This echoes the first line of Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, and is reversed in the next phrase, “…in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens”. This verse is one of ten “generations” (Hebrew: תולדות‎ toledot) phrases used throughout Genesis, which provide a literary structure to the book. They normally function as headings to what comes after, but the position of this, the first of the series, has been the subject of much debate.

Mesopotamian influence

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