If Genesis 1 and 2 are meant to be literal descriptions of reality where all their details are factually true, then yes, Genesis 1 and 2 contradict one another in several spots. If both are not read as if they intend to provide us with a scientifically accurate account of creation, but instead are interpreted as speaking theological truths about God, creation and human beings, then these difficulties dissapear. Considering that a careful reading of Genesis 1-2 reveals two different creation accounts edited together renders this latter view preferable to me. The first account depicts a more transcendent God and occurs in verses 1:1-2:3. Genesis 2:4a serves as a concluding summary for the first narrative and the second account, depicting a more anthropomorphic God, picks up there through the end of the second chapter (Genesis 2:4-25). The evidence for two distinct creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 is delineated below.
[A] Who is the Creator?
1st Account: God is referred to as Elohim throughout.
2nd Account: God is referred to as Yahweh-Elohim throughout.
Throughout the text of Genesis we see the alternating names Elohim and Yahweh. Alone this would prove very little but coincidentally the two divine names often occur in places where we seem to have different versions of the same story or where one part of a text creates friction with another. A pattern emerges indicating the usage of these names is not random. The first creation story uses Elohim for God and the second a combination of Yahweh-Elohim.
[B] What is the order of creation?
1st Account: Light (not the sun), a dome, dry land and seas, plants and fruit trees, sun and moon, sea creatures and birds, land animals, human beings.
2nd Account: A stream/water rises from the ground, Adam, the Garden with many trees, land animals and birds, Eve after Adam names the animals.
The first creation account depicts animals being created before humans while the second depicts God creating land animals and birds after he creates Adam but before he creates Eve. Some interpreters have sought to get around this difficulty by using a different translation of the underlying Hebrew text. It is claimed the text could read God "had formed" these creatures as the NIV and ESV have it. Thus in Genesis 2:19, Adam would be naming pre-formed animals. Of course this interpretation is not the one most experts prefer as God has just said, "It is not good for man to be alone." That God is now making a helper for Adam and creating these animals is the simplest interpretation of the text itself.
[C] How Long Was God's Creative Activity?
1st Account: God creates everything in 6 days and rests on the seventh.
2nd Account: "In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens" (Gen 2:4b).
[D] How Does God Create?
1st Account: God creates by his divine word. He speaks and it comes to pass (bar'a).
2nd Account: God fashions and forms things more intimately (yatsar).
Regarding the second account Robert Alter writes:
"In this more vividly anthropomorphic account, God, now called YHWH 'Elohim instead of 'Elohim as in the first version, does not summon things into being from a lofty distance through the mere agency of divine speech, but works as a craftsman, fashioning (yatsar instead of bar'a, "create"), blowing life breath into nostrils, building a woman from a rib." [Genesis Translation and Commentary p. 7]
[E] What did the Primordial Earth Look Like??
Dark, deep, formless void with waters (chaotic to ordered).
Dry land turned into a garden paradise (desert to oasis).
It appears that the first creation account uses the primeval ocean where God is hovering over the waters and draws parallels with Babylonian creation mythology in the Enuma Elish
. The second creation account is more entuned with the mythology in Atrahasis
and appeals to the motif of a barren desert that God transforms and cultivates into a lush and fertile garden. God must deal with too much water in the first account and too little in the second. In fact, in the second creation account in Genesis the humans were meant to tend to God's garden just as in the story of Atrahasis they were servants, expected to work the land for the gods. The second creation account is embedded in an agricultural time period. People lived off of what they grew. The ground is what sustained them and where humans come from. Once kicked from Eden, Adam's problem is partly with the ground ("cursed is the ground because of you") as he turns from a gardener into a farmer. The story behind the creation of Eve herself might reflect the humor of ancient agricultural perspective as well. After failing to find a suitable mate for Adam in attempt after attempt with new creations, "God's Yahweh then tries a second way, the way of the gardener, and performs the world's first clone. If you really want a second plant in every way comparable to the first, the best way is to use part of the one you have, It works the same with humans: like from like!" [Thomas Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel, p. 84]
[F] The Purpose of Human Beings?
In God's image, rulers of the earth (given dominion).
Adam and Eve were servants or caretakers in God's garden.
[G] Anthropomorphic Features?
God is transcendent and resembles later, classicical and philosophical conceptions of the Divine.
God is portrayed with anthropomorphic features and appears much more primitive.
In the second account, God decides Adam needs a mate (it doesn't look preplanned at all) and He doesn't realize none of the animals will be a suitable match for Adam before He tries to woo him with each one. The scene is troubling as a whole since God's behavior is comically naive and perplexing if the account is not figurative. Karen Armstrong writes:
"When God had finished creating the animal kingdom, he paraded them all before Adam. . . . God's purpose was . . . to find a mate for Adam from among "all cattle," "the birds of the air," and "every animal of the field" (2:20). It is a comic picture. Like an eager matchmaker, God presented the inexperienced Adam with one animal after another. Bison? Elephant? Kangaroo? We are not surprised to hear that at the end of the day, "for the man there was not found a helper as his partner" (2:20). How could God have imagined for one moment that Adam would find a mate in this way? The God who appeared to be so omnipotent and omniscient in Chapter 1 was now unable to fathom the desires and needs of his creature." [In the Beginning]
God seems to be fashioned more in our image in the second account.
It does appear we have two completely distinct creation accounts kicking off Genesis that don't agree on all details when taken literally. Some of these differences could be explained away by alternate theories of composition but this view makes the most sense of all of the evidence. God's name is different (Elohim vs YAHWEH-Elohim), the order of creation is different (e.g. animals before or after humans), the duration of creation is described differently (six days and one of rest vs "the day"), how God creates is different (by divine word: bar'a
, or by fashioning: yatsar
), the purpose of humans is different (rulers/stweards of the earth or caretakers of a garden), the primordial earth is different (watery-formless chaos that is ordered vs a desert turned into an oasis), and the image of God is different (transcendent in the first account but anthropomorphic and primitive in the second where we must ask, does he not know none of the animals will be a suitable helper for Adam?).
In order for the accounts to make sense as part of our Sacred Scripture, we should not understand them as in competition with science, history or each other. The Bible reflects the cosmology of its time and offers us a theological hierarchy and understanding of God and humanity in the midst of a pantheon of other deities and ancient near east mythologies. These are theological narratives meant to teach us truths about God and ourselves, not specifics in how exactly He created the world. If we get the genre wrong then we do a disservice to our Sacred Scripture as we are surely misinterpreting it. Thomas Thompson writes:
The garden story is an aetiology. It is a fictional tale that evokes a perspective of reality that helps us understand the truth of things, and here, the truth about being human. The garden story isn't a story about a romantic place of paradise where no one is hungry, no one suffers and no one dies. Quite the contrary, its story's goal is the real world we live in, where hunger, pain and death are commonplace, and where each, unfortunately, does a thorough job of defining us as human. The story does not talk about history. It talks about the realities of human life, and how we are defined through our hunger, our pain and our deaths.
The full garden story would have taken on a very distinct meaning during the Baylonian exile where Israel would have identified itself with Adam and Eve. To steal the format of famous saying from a historical Jesus scholar: The Garden of Eden never happened. The garden of Eden always happens. In Genesis 1 the thrust is clearly towards estsblishing the primacy of God in a polytheistic culture. When we read it in light of other Ancient Mesopotamian creation stories, it plainly tells us God has no rivals, no prior lineage, there is a monopoly on power and only one true God. Unlike in the Atrahasis epic, God doesn't need a discussion amongst peers or the approval of anyone to create human beings. Humans weren't an afterthought! Unlike in the Enuma Elish, we weren't created after he proved himself defeating Tiamat the sea goddess in some cosmic struggle and gained the renown of the other gods. The sea monsters in Genesis 1:22 are just big fish--another part of God's good creation. Many people worshopped astral deities but the author of Genesis 1 simply tells that they are lights created by God to demarcate the seasons. There is no conflict mythology in Genesis because the author is plainly telling us God cannot gain what he never lacked and there has never been a challenger worthy of Him. A rise in power is not possible for one who has never not been in power. Bill Arnold writes of Genesis:
"Israel's God has no rivals.There can be no struggle with forces opposed to his actions or corresponding to his power. There can be no victory enthronement motif because God's victory was never in doubt; rather, God has never not been enthroned. There can be no enthronement portrait here because God has not become sovereign; he has simply never been less than sovereign."
In its original context, the audience of Genesis 1 would have been aware of many features of Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. The absence of conflict mythology or an origin story for God would have clearly stood out to ancient readers and hearers of this story. They would wonder what "god" is this and where did he come from? How did he rise to power? Genesis tells us a great deal simply by not including these elements and comparing how it differs from other creation stories. It is in this context that Genesis 1 should be read and understood. From within this interpretive matrix, a clear statement of Jewish monotheism and the sovereignty of the Biblical God is given. That is the primary purpose of the first creation story bar none. I absolutely affirm Genesis is 100% correct on all the theological points it makes.
On another level I think the two creation accounts also serve as a mirror for our understanding of God. Genesis 1 presents a transcendent God, a maximal being well beyond our reach. Yet Genesis 2 depicts an immanent God, one who is accessible and reachable by us. The one we pray to and rely on for strength. The two stories starting offthe Bible side-by-side wonderfully encapsulate how we view God as Christians. He is all powerful and transcendent yet also forms a relationship with humans and is immanent in all things. We see both of the images of God all throughout the Bible.