Can We Believe the Creation Accounts?

Genesis chapters 1 and 2 give the story of the creation of the world—except they actually give two accounts. In addition, Latter-day Saints have versions of those same two creation accounts in Moses chapters 2 and 3 and Abraham chapters 4 and 5. Each of them offers a different view of the creation story with unique attributes and information. Are these creation accounts something we should take literally or do we toss them out like myths, as many advocate? I believe there is an appropriate and healthy middle ground. But to find it, we have to look at the creation accounts in their own context.

The accounts of the creation and the Fall are among the most symbolic and figurative scriptures we possess. They are meant to teach a variety of lessons about God, Satan, man, sin, the Atonement, and more. This is surely why these same accounts are part of the temple endowment ceremony—our most symbolic ordinance.

We don’t know who the author was of the creation accounts in Genesis; there are no names attached to the documents, like so much else in scripture. The books are traditionally attributed to Moses, and while it is possible that he authored something anciently that eventually came down to us as Genesis 1-2, there are many indications that the texts that we have were certainly not written by Moses, in their current form. For example, the rich symbolism of the texts as we have them today aligns more closely with post-exilic Jewish thinking. This should not surprise anyone who reads scripture carefully and who has thought about scriptural origins and transmission.

Let’s take a look at the Genesis creation accounts first, then we’ll compare the Moses and Abraham’s versions.

Genesis Creation Accounts

There are two creation stories in Genesis, one immediately following the other. The first one is Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 and the second one Genesis 2:4-25.

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First account

The first creation is divided into seven days. These days reflect parallelism and the worldview of the people of that time. The creation periods can be aligned as follows:

1: Light     4: Lights (sun, moon, stars)

2: Sky and firmament separating waters     5: Birds and water creatures

3: Land and plants     6: Animals and humans

7: Sabbath and rest

It says that in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. But the story of that actual creation is missing, because in the next verse our attention is directed to an empty earth, “without form, and void” (Genesis 1:2, which is tohu va bohu in Hebrew, meaning ’empty and desolate’). Darkness is everywhere on this watery planet, which receives the proper name “Deep,” Hebrew tehom, meaning the ‘abyss.’ These are the primeval waters, grammatically related to the Akkadian name Tiamat, the monster-god of the waters below. But the Spirit of God moved across the waters. The Hebrew for “moved” is merahepet, which has the sense of a brooding chicken sitting on her eggs, patiently waiting for something to happen.

The first thing that happens is that God brings light, but not the light we might think. The source of the light is unknown; it’s not the sun, moon, or stars because those come later. But God declares the light good and calls it Day, and the darkness is called Night.

These actions constitute the first of seven “days” mentioned in the text. The Hebrew word translated “day,” yom, can mean the daytime period, a 24-hour day, a year, a lifetime, or even a longer period of time. From the text, though, we’re left with the impression that it is a 24-hour day, because it’s made up of “the evening and the morning.” When we describe a day, we might say ‘morning and evening,’ because our days start in the morning. But ancient days started and ended at sunset, making the order of evening and then morning the right one.

In the second day, the waters are divided by a firmament, so there are waters above and waters below. The word “firmament” (Hebrew raqiya) portrays a dome with a hard flat surface. The ancient conception of the heavens was that over the (flat) earth was a great solid dome—a shell, as it were—held up by the pillars of heaven. The waters below were the seas, rivers, springs, and underground water sources for wells. The waters above the firmament are held back from the earth by this hard dome. When God blesses man with rain so that his crops can grow and the rivers are replenished, it is because the “windows of heaven” have opened, letting some of that water in the sky fall to the earth.

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The third day has the coming of dry land out of the deep and the first plants. That might seem like two events to us, but they are related: the land is prepared so the plants can grow.

The fourth day is the creation of the lights in the firmament. The earth already had light from the first day from an unknown source (presumably God himself). Now God places stars and two specific lights, the sun and moon, for the benefit of the earth. By virtue of their placement, years, seasons, and days came into existence: in other words, time began.

On the fifth day, which parallels the second, animals are created in the sea and air, matching the separation of the waters. These animals are commanded to multiply and fill their respective spaces.

In the sixth day of creation, God created wild and domestic land animals, and then man. Both male and female beings are formed “in the image of God.” “Image” (Hebrew tselem) means a representation or likeness (demuwth) and has the sense of a comparison or similarity of appearance. In other words, man and woman look like God. Humans and animals are together instructed to be fruitful and multiply, but man is given dominion over the other creatures—meaning to subdue, master, govern, and dominate. The fruit and plants of the earth are given them for food, and the whole of creation is pronounced “very good.”

Finally, on the seventh day, God ceased to create and “rested.” To “rest” is Hebrew shabat, from which comes the word Sabbath and which means to stop or cease. It has nothing to do with napping but reflects a change of activity: God stopped doing what he had been doing for six days and did something else.

Second Account

The second creation account tells a very different story. The focus is on man’s creation, an event described in the first account but only in general terms. If the first account is written from heaven’s perspective, the second is written from man’s. We get significant details about the event, a description of man’s first home, and a clear explanation of the terms of their inhabiting it, all of which prepares us for the events of the Fall in the next chapters. This second account breezes through the early steps of creation that were so detailed in the first account, with no mention of days. The heavens, earth, and plants are created first. Next, man is formed from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7) with life breathed into him by God (neshamah means wind or breath but also intellect). To benefit this man, God provides a garden in the land of Eden that includes trees for beauty and for food. One of those trees was the “tree of life” which he could eat, and the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The man was told not to eat of this particular tree, and the penalty for doing so was death.

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After an unknown period of time, the Lord God decided that the man needed “an help meet” (Genesis 2:18), so beasts were created and paraded before the man, who gave them names. But he saw no help meet among them. The Hebrew term translated “help meet” has the meaning of ‘a helper worthy of and compatible to him,’ someone who is fully his equal and partner. In other words, the man sees no compatible companion among the animals—surely a lesson to him and not a surprise to God, as some modern commentaries portray. So God symbolically caused the man to sleep (or put him in a trance) and took a rib, from which he created a new creature who was presented to the man. He immediately recognized that she was his compatible helper, and named her ish-shah (woman), because she was taken from ish (man). He declared that such a helper would cause a man to leave father and mother—an obvious editorial comment in a text with many of them—and “cleave” unto her. To “cleave” (dabaq) is to pursue and also be joined together; the man will both work hard to get her and stay very close once that happens.

The two creation accounts differ in the name of God used. In the first one, the Hebrew is elohim, which is the plural word ‘gods’ but it used with singular verbs, thus making it a name for God himself. In the second account, a name is added (seen for the first time in Genesis 2:5): yhwh (often transcribed as Yahweh today and written as “Jehovah” in the King James Version), known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for four letters), which is the proper name of the God of Israel. In the King James Version, elohim is usually written as “God” and yahweh as Lord. In this creation account, both are used together in several verses.

Another major distinction is the method of creation in the two accounts. In the first, God speaks and it happens; in the second account, God performs physical actions—he forms, he breathes, he makes. Scholars attribute these and other differences to there being two distinct creation traditions among the Jews that an editor at a later date combined.

Names of the Man and Woman

One final note about the names of the man and woman created in the second account. Here is a translation of Genesis 2:22-24 which the Hebrew words behind what they are called:

And Yahweh Elohim made with the rib which had been taken from the man (h’adham) a woman (ishshah) and they came to the man (h’adham). And the man (h’adham) said, This footstep [I hear] is bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh, and she will be called woman (ishshah), for she was taken out of man (ish). So because of this shall a man (ish) depart from father and mother to pursue a woman (ishshah), that they become a family.

AdamEveGarden

The creation accounts in the early chapters of Genesis say things like, “God created man in his own image.” The word “man” is almost always written h’adham, meaning “the man” but in a universal sense (‘the human race’). It is related to the word for earth, ‘adamah, tying it back to the dust from which the man was created. Though the same term is used all through the early Genesis chapters, in Genesis 2:19 the KJV translators (following the lead of the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and William Tyndale) started transliterating it—creating the name “Adam.” But the Hebrew is the same there as it is other places—h’adham, “the man.” For example, Gen 3:9 reads, “And YWHW Elohim called unto the man [h’adham], and said unto him, Where are you?”

So when Genesis reads “Adam” and when it says “the man” in English seems somewhat arbitrary. For example, Genesis 1:26-27 could validly be read: ‘And Elohim said, Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness. . . So Elohim created Adam.’ Or the same scripture could apply to all men and all women (compare Moses 1:34).

By contrast, the woman will later have a definite name—Eve. She appears on the scene in Genesis 2:22 but is not given that name until 3:20, after the Fall: “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.” ‘Eve’ in Hebrew is chavah (Tyndale translated it “Heva” which became Eve in subsequent translations). Chavah means ‘life giver.’ The KJV in that verse could also be rendered, “And the man [adham] called the female human [‘ishshah] the life-giver [chavah], because she would now be the mother [the origin] of all life.”

At least two things are worth noting. First, “she would now be.” Lehi teaches, of course, that Adam and Eve could not have children before the fall (2 Ne 2:23; also Moses 5:11). Before the fall, she was simply ‘woman.’ In declaring her name as “life giver” after the fall, Adam is emphasizing that fact—now she will take on this new role, not before.

Second, she is “the mother of all living.” ‘Living’ is chay, which means more than just having children; it means to have life, sustain life, to live prosperously, to live forever, to revive from sickness, discouragement, and even from death. It is health, prosperity, and vitality—body, mind, and spirit in a unified whole.

In Genesis 2:23 “the man” makes a pun when he says (in the KJV), “. . . she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Man here is not adham but ‘ish, meaning a male human. The word woman here is ‘ish-shah, the opposite of ‘ish and thus a female human. Verse 24 is widely used to teach something about sex between a husband and wife being proper—a true doctrine, but perhaps not really the point here. One meaning behind the text, “they shall be one flesh,” is that they shall create a new family unit, separate and distinct from the ones they came from. Thus a better translation of the verse might be, ‘So because of this shall a man depart from father and mother to pursue and unite with a woman, that they become a family.’

So the man pursued his opposite, the woman, that they might unite to form a new family unit, and thus they and their children could live well and live forever. It is only through the family that we have health, prosperity, happiness, and life in every sense of the word—now and in eternity.

Moses and Abraham Accounts

The same two creation stories with variant readings are also contained in Moses 2:1 – 3:3 / 3:4-25 (which is a version of the Joseph Smith Translation of those chapters) and Abraham 4:1 – 5:3 / 5:4-21 (the second Abraham creation account is incomplete as the publication of Abraham ended in the middle of the section). A study of these accounts shows interesting differences in the narration of the events. While a detailed study of them is beyond the scope of this blog, they are worth comparing verse by verse. If you’re interested in additional commentary, try this. I’ll make a few notes below.

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In Genesis, the narrator is man, portraying God in the third person (“he”). In Moses, it is the first-person voice of God (God = “I”) speaking directly to Moses. But in Abraham, the narrator is again man, relating to us what “the Gods” did and said during creation.

In the Moses version of first account, the power of the spoken word of God is further emphasized with multiple added phrases such as, “. . . and it was so, even as I spake” (Moses 2:6) and that things were “made even according to my word” (Moses 2:16). God proclaims that he creates “by the word of my power, and it was done as I spake” (Moses 2:5). The first verse of Moses 2 explains that “by mine Only Begotten I created these things.” Moses 1 previously declared that “the word of my power” is “mine Only Begotten Son” (Moses 1:32). The Doctrine and Covenants, in a revelation given shortly after Moses 2 was revealed, expands that and also equates “the word of my power” with “the power of my Spirit” (D&C 29:30). Abraham tells the same story but uses different words: the Gods “organized and formed” (Abraham 4:1) rather than created; they did not just see the light but “comprehended” it (Abraham 4:4); and the firmament of water becomes “an expanse” (Abraham 4:6-8). Many of these changes in Abraham likely reflect Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew in 1835-1836, as we know he did a detailed study of the early chapters of Genesis.

The individual periods of creation are not called days in Abraham as they are in Genesis and Moses, but “the second time,” “the third time,” etc. (Abraham 4:8, 13), though the language still implies a day and a night. The Gods did not just say things but they “ordered” things to be and “saw that they were obeyed” (e.g., Abraham 4:9). For acts that take longer, such as the sun, moon, and stars, “the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed” (Abraham 4:18, italics added) or with animals that were to multiply into the future, “the Gods saw that they would be obeyed” (Abraham 4:21, italics added). Finally, the Abraham version portrays this first account as a planning activity: “And thus were their decisions at the time that they counseled among themselves to form the heavens and the earth” (Abraham 5:3).

In Genesis, God sees that his acts of creation are “good,” while in Moses, God sees “that all things which I had created were good” (Moses 2:21). In other words, he is not just pleased with the incremental improvement but surveys it all and declares the totality good. In both accounts, when the work of creation is concluded, the work is called “very good” (Genesis 1:31; Moses 2:31).

In the second creation account in Genesis, man was told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but in Moses he was instructed, “nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself” (Moses 3:17). This is a significant addition to his instructions, emphasizing the agency of man in that decision. Abraham hints that the time the man spent in the garden may have been long: “it was after the Lord’s time, which was after the time of Kolob” (Abraham 5:13).

There is also a clear indication in these second creation accounts in Moses and to a lesser extent in Abraham of a spiritual creation: “I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth” (Moses 3:5), and “all things were before created; but spiritually were they created and made” (Moses 3:7). This spiritual creation is an actual, physical creation but the final result is not yet mortal or natural. That state comes later after the Fall.

One final note: Latter-day Saints have another creation account that can be seen in the temple. While I will not comment on the details of it here, this version is the most unique of them all. It merges the two accounts in Genesis, leverages content from Moses and Abraham, and while no more scientific than the scriptural versions, still produces a modern creation story that more closely fits our current conceptions of how creation may have come about. It is design to teach additional lessons not in our scriptures, that fit the circumstances of the temple. It is worth studying that account in relation to these six to make your own insights about the differences and appropriate symbolic lessons.

Can We Believe the Accounts?

earthrise

Hopefully you’ve seen my point if you’ve made it this far: Of course we can believe the creation accounts, if we embrace them as ancient texts that symbolically and with great literary beauty teach us something about God, man, and our eternal relationship. They are not and were never intended to be a handbook for creating worlds or a literal account of the coming of mankind to the earth. They are rich and meaningful texts that convey eternal truths and which we can apply to ourselves with great reward as we consider our own place in the universe. We have only explored a small portion of the symbolism of these chapters.

Just as the fundamental lesson from Moses 1 is about the infinite worth of humans to God, so Genesis 1-2 and the corresponding accounts in Moses and Abraham are about how God is an active participant in our existence and in everything about our world. He personally created it, organized matter, and brought it about for one purpose: to give us a place to experience mortality, learn and grow, and rely completely on Christ to achieve our destiny. The creation accounts confirm that the Father and the Son were there in the beginning and will be there in the end.

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Images from lds.org, NASA, and freebibleimages.org.

3 thoughts on “Can We Believe the Creation Accounts?

  1. Let’s not be shy in pointing out the astonishing accuracy of Moses’s vision of the creation of the earth.
    As my geologist father explained to us, you can match point by point a planetary scientist’s timeline with Moses’s (if that’s who wrote it).

    If Moses saw a vision of the Earth’s history (on super fast forward), Science says that he would see precisely this:

    Period 1
    • Matter coalesces Gen.1:2
    • The sun ignites v3
    Period 2
    • Water accumulates and condenses v6-10
    Period 3
    • Plant life appears v11-12
    Period 4
    • Oxygen clears the atmosphere of CO2 & methane, causing the sun, moon, stars to appear v14-18
    Period 5
    • Sea animals appear v20-22
    Period 6
    • Land animals appear v24-25
    • Man appears v26-30

    Like

  2. I enjoyed this very much and appreciate your insights. I also see and appreciate greatly the emphasis the scriptures place on God’s creation of other life besides ourselves; that he cares about them, they are part of His covenant, and watched over too. This point is clear in the temple, but often overlooked by us self centered humans.

    Like

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