The Accounts of Creation

I have written many times on the need for Christians to embrace science and on how Christian faith and scientific understanding are reconcilable.  Links to related sermons on those topics are below.

But some Christians might ask: how does one dismiss the Biblical Creation account and still consider oneself Christian? That’s a good question and would be even better if it were, in fact, true that I was “dismissing” the Biblical Creation account. I do not; I take them quite seriously. I simply do not believe, however, that the Creation account is intended to be received as scientific truth; it is theological truth.  In fact, the text shows us as much.

So, in order to understand how one might be a believer in both Creation and Evolution, in both Christianity and the Big Bang, let’s take a look at the creation narratives themselves.

It is important to understand that there are two creation narratives in the Book of Genesis.  The first is from Genesis 1:1-2:4a and is generally referred to as the “Priestly Account” by virtue of having been shaped by the Israelite priestly tradition.   The second account begins at Genesis 2:4b and continues through the rest of the chapter.  This account is usually referred to as the “Yahwist Account” from the “J” tradition and is shaped by the more folkloric Israelite tradition.  Each of these creation accounts is distinctive and each has something very important to tell us.  All translations from the Hebrew are my own unless otherwise indicated.

The Priestly Account

The account beginning the Book of Genesis begins with God creating over a watery chaos.  The narrative begins:

In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth—the earth was formless and void and darkness was upon the face of the Deep—and a wind of God hovered over the face of the waters.

The setting of the creation story begins over formless, limitless, boundless waters, a watery abyss that were understood in the Ancient Near East as representing the forces of chaos.  It is in this setting, over the watery chaos, that God begins God’s creative work:

And God said, “Let there be light”—and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.

God creates light by fiat, by simple declaration. The image is a powerful one: God is sovereign, king, master of all.  By mere utterance of the divine Word, light is brought into being.  In the Babylonian creation myth of the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk also creates the world by subduing the watery chaos, by slaying his mother, the sea serpent Tiamat.  Scholars have long suspected a linguistic link between Tiamat and the Hebrew tehom “the Deep.” Whether or not the terms are related, the concepts certainly are, but here in the Israelite story, God subdues chaos not through violence, but through God’s own sovereign, creative power.

On the second day, God creates the dome of sky:

And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

The ancient Hebrew conception of the universe. (Found at

This is one of the most overlooked verses in the narrative, precisely because it just does not jibe with how we normally think of the world.  The word that is here translated as “expanse” (traditionally, “firmament”) is the Hebrew word raqiya‘, which means an extended surface or something beaten out. The ancients conceived of the sky as a dome that separated the waters over the earth from the waters under the earth. The waters above the dome were responsible for rains, which came down through windows in the dome (see, “and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11 NRSV)). The lakes and the seas were the result of the waters under the earth that welled up as a result of the “fountains of the deep.”  Thus, right here in the beginning of the narrative, we are given a glimpse of a very different cosmology: the earth is a flat disk covered by a dome of sky that separates waters above and below the world.  It is striking precisely because we tend to read the creation account as if it were describing the world that we are familiar with: a globe surrounded by an atmosphere, orbiting a star.  But this is not what the Ancient Israelites believed and it is not what we encounter in the Biblical text. There we encounter a much different world than the one we know. And despite a few flat-earthers, no Christians believe that the world takes this shape today.

In addition, the Babylonian narrative has Marduk creating the dome of sky and the earth beneath out of the carcass of his slain mother Tiamat.  The repeated Hebrew chorus that everything is “good” is a direct challenge to the idea that the material world is merely the by-product of carnage between the gods. No, it is the good Creation of the One True God.

The narrative continues on the Third Day with the gathering of the waters under the sky into one place to create seas and to allow dry land to appear.  Vegetation and plants also appear on the Third Day.

On the Fourth Day, God creates “lamps” to hang inside the dome of sky: a greater lamp to rule the day, and a lesser lamp to rule the night.  And the stars. Now, two things are curious about this day. The first is: why are the lamps not identified by their more obvious names “sun” and “moon”?  These words certainly existed in Ancient Hebrew, but their names shemesh and yoreah were also the names of Canaanite deities and the objects of idolatrous worship.  So, here the Hebrew creation story puts them in their rightful place: they’re not gods, they’re lamps to light the day and night and help us to tell time and seasons.

In addition, it is curious that the sun, moon, and stars should be created on the Fourth Day since we’ve had light since the First Day.  This is intentional: it is not the sun, moon, and stars that are the source of the Light.  The source of the Light is God. Now, realistically, other than that kindled by fires, the only light the ancients would have known would have come from the sun, moon, and stars.  But the text is not attempting to explain the origins of photons produced in the nuclear furnace of a star, it is attempting to make a theological point. So, whether you were inclined to view the sun, moon, and stars as deities or as lamps or as fiery stellar furnaces, the point being made here is theological: God is the source of the light.

On the Fifth Day, birds, fish, and sea monsters are created, followed by the creation on the Sixth Day of animals, insects, and human beings.  Human beings are made “in the image of God”, a very different understanding of human origins from competing creation stories, particularly the Babylonian one, where human are made from the blood of a slain god to be the “slaves” to the gods so that the gods might be “at ease.” And the creation of humanity bears some examination:

And God created Humanity in his image,
In the image of God he created it,
Male and female he created them.

This last portion of verse 27 is really important: the creation of humanity in the Priestly Account is plural: males and females are made at the same time, and both are made in the image of God. The text goes on to tell us that God blessed them and told them to be fruitful and multiply. Now, some may wonder because the second clause of the verse is traditionally translated as “in the image of God he created him” as if there were only one human created. But the text is referring to ha-adam, to “man” as in “humanity” or “humankind” not to “a man.” The concluding portion of the verse and the subsequent verses make that clear.  On the Sixth Day, humans were created.

The Priestly Account concludes with the establishment of the Sabbath and concludes: These are the generations of the heavens and the earth in their creation.

Now, there are many features to this account that are important to note: the use of Elohim (“God” or “gods”) to refer to God, the repetition of motifs (“and it was evening and it was morning: Day ___), the highly liturgical nature of the structure (appropriate for a priestly work), and a beautiful structure that helps us to understand what’s going on in this text.  See, there are critics of Christianity who point out the absurdity of the sun, moon, and stars on Day Four with light having been created on Day 1.  And there are those who point out that the order of creation—plants, fish, birds, animals, humans—mirrors the generally accepted evolutionary process.  But both approaches are missing the basic point of this narrative.  It is not trying to be a scientific account and that is clear when we really look at what’s going on in the structure:

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It is clear that what is going on here is not a simple cataloguing of events or developments: it is a highly structured, ordered account full of parallelism, refrain, and rhythm.  It is, in short, a poem.  A beautiful, masterfully constructed poem of great theological depth and power, but it is not what so many take it to be: a science textbook.

And all of that comes in to stark relief when we continue into the second chapter.

The Yahwist Account

Beginning in the middle of the fourth verse of the second chapter of Genesis, we encounter another creation narrative that is starkly different from that relayed in the first chapter. The first thing we notice is that God is called something different:

In the day Yhwh God made the land and sky

In the Hebrew text, God is now referred to as YHWH Elohim, which is usually translated “The Lord God”, “the Lord” being a standard English convention for translating the Tetragrammaton, the Four-Letter Name of God that most scholars believe was something like “Yahweh.” Throughout this text and a good portion of the material in Genesis, God is referred to in this way (I render it as Yhwh) and for that reason, those portions of Genesis that do so are called “Yahwist” and those that use the ordinary word for God are referred to as “Elohist.” The use of a different term for God is a clue that we’re dealing with a different tradition.

The next thing we notice is the time frame.

In the “day” of Creation.  Now, “day” can here mean “time period” as when we say “Back in my grandfather’s day…” and is no more tied to a 24-hour period than the days of the Priestly Account are, but it is striking that there is no seven-day period here.  Creation is not an event that takes place in stages, but all at once.

Now, most people assume that what we encounter in Chapter 2 is simply an expansion of Day 6 from the previous chapter.  But immediately, we are disabused of that notion by both the location of the creation and the chronology:

—all the plants of the field did not exist yet on the land and all the grasses of the field had not yet sprung up since Yhwh God had not caused it to rain on the land and there was no human being to work the earth…—Yhwh God formed the human from the dust of the earth and breathed into its lungs the breath of life. 

The location of the creation is in a barren, trackless waste. A desert.  It is not at all like the limitless watery abyss described in the Priestly Account.  Furthermore, if this were somehow an expansion of Day 6, where are all the plants, birds, fish, and animals that should already exist?  Instead, nothing exists, we are told, because it hasn’t rained yet and there is no one to till the soil.  And so to remedy this problem, the human being is made to till the earth. First. The human being in the Yahwist Account is the first thing made.

The next thing to note is the manner of God’s creating.  In the Priestly Account, God summons humanity into existence; in this account Yhwh God forms the human being from the dust of the earth.  The verb that is used here meaning ‘to form’—yatzar–is the same verb that is used to describe what potters do and is at the root of the word for potter: yotzer. It is a far more intimate, hands-on account of the creation of humanity. The transcendent God of Chapter 1 is here replaced with an immanent God.

In addition, there is considerable wordplay going on here.  The human being—ha-adam–is made out of the earth–ha-adamah.  The human is made from the humus, or better still, the earthling is made from the earth. The connectedness of humanity to the soil is profound: we are made out of the soil.

The next thing to be created are the plants, placed in the Garden of Eden, where the human being is placed to till and keep it. It is determined by God that the human being is alone and that this is not right, and so a “helper as counterpart” is deemed necessary. And so God forms the animals out of the earth, in exactly the same way that the human being is formed, and each animal and bird is brought to the human to see if it’s a good helper and counterpart.  None of them is, and so God causes a deep sleep to come upon the human being and out of the human’s side forms a woman to be the helper and counterpart. (There are even some who argue that prior to this point the human being was undifferentiated, neither male nor female, until God separated the two.)

What we have encountered in this second chapter cannot be a simple expansion of Day 6 of the Priestly Account; it is simply far too different.

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The Conclusions We Draw

We would be foolish to conclude that we were the first to notice these distinctions. Indeed, St. Augustine noticed them 1600 years ago and suggested that the creation accounts might be allegorical.  Nor can we assume that the compilers of scripture failed to notice that they had two accounts that did not agree on major details and yet somehow put them together in spite of that.

No, it is clear: we have two creation stories side by side in spite of their differences and their inclusion in spite of their differences is intentional.  And so what do we learn from this?

The first thing that we learn is that we cannot possibly take either creation account as purporting to be a chronicle of detailed events in the creation of the world.  That is, the compilers of scripture are not attempting to give us a science book or an event-by-event accounting of the actual mechanics of the world’s origins.  They are attempting to give us a theological reflection on the origins of the world given the God we know.  And the differences between the two accounts make that point all the more beautifully.

For what these two accounts tell us is something powerful.  God is sovereign and transcendent and God is intimate and hands on with the creation.  The creation is good, not the product of violence and destruction.  And humanity is made in the image of God and is made out of the dust of the earth in kinship with all living things.

All of these things are true.

And all of them remain true even if we all descended from a common ancestor with chimpanzees or if the universe came into being through a cataclysmic destruction of Planck-length singularity.  Because the truths of Genesis are enduring; the truths of the nature of God and the nature of the Creation and humanity are still true. The details are not. These narratives were given to us with contradictory and difficult to reconcile details so that we would understand that the stories were about something more than the details.  And when Christians resist teachings of science because they disagree with the details of these narratives, they miss the point of these narratives altogether.

And that is why you can believe in the Biblical accounts of the Creation and accept the findings of science concerning human evolution and the cosmos.  The Bible is not trying to definitively give us an accounting of human origins in terms of biology, or of the earth in terms of geology.  In the same way, the Origin of Species is not attempting to say anything about the nature of God or of the Creation. Nor is quantum physics attempting to say something about whether or not we are the image of God. It cannot.

The creation stories in Genesis are wonderful and powerful and profoundly true. But their truths do not lie in whether they contradict the fossil record or whether they contradict the age of the universe observed through astronomical data.  Their truths instead speak to the profound meaning that undergirds all existence.  And it is in those truths–not in questions of biology or geology or cosmology–that we find our meaning, we find our purpose, and we find our hope.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
United Methodist Chaplain
American University

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not necessarily the opinions of the AU United Methodist Community or The United Methodist Church.


Additional reflections on the intersection of science and religion: