Chapters 3 and 4 of the book are organized into one unit discussing Genesis 1–11 and the formation of the Pentateuch as a whole. Genesis may be divided into two parts, with the opening chapters (1–11) centering on the “cosmic origins” of the world and the second half (12–50) focusing on the beginnings of Israel. Genesis 1–11 contains a number of familiar narratives, including the creation, the Garden of Eden, and the Flood. Chapters 3 and 4 demonstrate how these opening chapters of Genesis developed and were influenced by the Middle Eastern environment in which their authors lived.
Genesis 1–3: Some General Observations
The primary aim of Chapter 3 is to examine the creation accounts from Genesis 1–3. Genesis provides two distinct creation myths, with a different vocabulary and order of events, as well as contrasting depictions of the deity. The first creation narrative (1.1–2.4a) features a six-day cycle with humans being God’s last creation. These six days of work are intended to highlight the seventh day, when God rested upon the completion of his work. Thus, the first creation account establishes divine cosmic origins for the sabbath day. It is also important to note that in this account, God does not create the universe out of nothing. Instead, this version clearly indicates that the cosmos was formed out of untamed, though preexisting, matter.
The second creation account (2.4b–3.24) is very different from the first. There is no description of the creation of the earth or the heavens. The only action described in detail is the creation of the first man and the first woman. Moreover, humans do not come into being by God’s words alone in this account; rather, God is a craftsman who forms the first man out of clay and the first woman from his rib. Finally, the second creation myth details the lives of the first humans by including the Garden of Eden narrative.
God’s motives for the creation of humans are also different in each account. In the first myth, humans are created to have dominion over the earth and all of its creatures. In the second, God’s creation of humans is connected to agriculture and the need for someone to “till and keep the garden.” Finally, each narrative presents a very different picture of the creator. In Genesis 1.1–2.4a God is a distant or remote figure who can produce just by speaking. The God of Genesis 2.4b–3.24 is more accessible and anthropomorphic. Also, God is called by different names in the two stories, referred to as “God” in the first narrative and as “the LORD God” in the second. Taken in sum, all of these differences suggest that these accounts were written by two authors and that the second narrative was included as a way of answering some basic questions about human experience and existence.
Influences from the Near East
Although the creation accounts in Genesis highlight beliefs and practices (for example, monotheism and the sabbath) that were particular to ancient Israel, it is important to remember that no text is created in a vacuum; the books of the Bible are no exception. There are several other creation myths from the Near East that bear striking similarities to the Genesis narratives, including the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish, which shares a number of affinities with Genesis 1. These include the creative powers of the deity, the formation of the cosmos out of existing matter (Tiamat’s body), and the creation of humans in the “likenesses” of the god(s).
While Genesis 2.4b–3.24 has a different style and theme from 1.1–2.4a, it too has Near Eastern antecedents. These include the formation of man out of soil and the creation of humans for the purpose of working the earth. More important, there are possible parallels between the Eden account in Genesis and Gilgamesh, such as the attainment of knowledge and the inevitable fear of mortality.
Moreover, although the biblical texts do appear to borrow themes from Near Eastern literature, the Genesis accounts are also innovative since they adapt, transform, and reject many aspects of Near Eastern mythology. A good example of this is the demythologizing of the battle before creation in Genesis 1.
Implications for Our Study
Above all, this chapter on Genesis 1–3 and its parallel literature illustrates that there is a great deal of room for interpretation and critique within both the creation stories and the Bible as a whole. These three chapters of Genesis demonstrate that there were different views or schools of thought present in ancient Israel; in future chapters we will encounter even more examples of this diversity.