The Two Creation Stories of Genesis: Spiritual and Physical
The Two Creation Stories of Genesis: Spiritual and Physical
Creation from Unorganized Matter
Genesis does not teach ex nihilo creation, as observed by Rutgers professor Gary Rendsburg, author of The Redaction of Genesis. He states: “Instead, the earth begins as a mass of preexistent matter with five key elements that are present at the beginning of creation.” He cites the primordial elements used as substrates in the creation as listed in Genesis 1:2: (1) the “unformed and void” or “empty and desolate” earth, (2) “the darkness,” (3) “the deep,” (4) “the water,” and (5) “the wind” or “spirit.” Both wind and spirit are are represented by the same word in Hebrew, with most recent translations preferring “wind” where the KJV uses “spirit.”
The light was then separated from darkness and the mass was organized into the primeval earth. Rendsburg observes that the Genesis author demythologized the creation account by avoiding naming of the sun, moon, and the Sabbath day, as the names of these celestial bodies were synonymous with the names of pagan deities. The word for sun, Hebrew Shemesh/Akkadian Shamash, also was the name of the pagan sun-god. The name of the moon also referred to the moon-god, and the seventh day was eponymous with the god for the planet Saturn, like “Saturday” or “Saturn’s day” in modern English. To avoid invoking words understood as representing pagan deities, the Genesis author engages in unambiguous circumlocution in describing “the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night” (Genesis 1:16) and the “seventh day” (Genesis 2:2).
The recognition of competent Biblical scholars that the earth was created through the organization of unformed matter is a significant vindication of teachings of Joseph Smith, in contrast to the ex nihilo (“from nothing”) creation which is demanded without textual basis by fundamentalist Christians.
The Two Creations
The Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price, revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the mid-nineteenth century, recounts the story of a spiritual creation preceding the physical creation of living creatures. The Lord declared: “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). At the time, the doctrine of two creations – one spiritual and one physical – was regarded as a uniquely LDS teaching. The text of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 has traditionally been read as constituting a single physical creation story.
However, Biblical scholars now widely recognize that there are in fact two creation stories told in Genesis, although explanations vary. The two creation stories of Genesis appear to be consistent with the account in the Book of Moses:
1. A heavenly or cosmocentric creation story, detailing the organization of celestial bodies and the inorganic features of the earth, accompanied by the spiritual creation of living creatures (Genesis 1:1 through Genesis 2:4a).
2. An earthly or anthropocentric creation story, recounting the physical creation of living organisms (Genesis 2:4b through Genesis 3).
The tasks which refer to the organization of inorganic matter – the separation of light from darkness, the making of lights to rule the day and night, and the separation of water from dry land and waters above from waters below – are found only in the first creation account. Because inorganic matter has no spirit, we would expect its organization to appear in only one of the two creation stories, unlike living creatures which appear twice through the creation of spirit and the creation of physical form. Elements of the first creation account can be divided into two distinct themes: the organization of inorganic matter and the spiritual creation of living organisms.
The first creation story is introduced as the story of how “God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The second creation story reverses the order, recounting how “the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” (Genesis 2:4). When taken together, these two accounts complete a circle by beginning and ending with the spiritual or heavenly. The Apostle Paul noted the duality of the spiritual and physical world: “Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:46-47). Paul was obviously aware from scripture that the Lord in heaven preceded the creation of earthly man. He reversed the order of the earthly and heavenly in this passage in discussing the state of fallen, carnal man in need of the holy spirit, as well as the resurrection, which reverses the order of creation.
Creation by Word vs. Creation by Physical Action
In the first creation account (Genesis 1-2:3), God brings the world into being by uttering the command:
“Let there be light.”
“Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”
“Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.”
“Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth.”
“Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years; And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.”
“Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.”
“Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind.”
Most of these lines are followed by the statement: “and it was so.” In contrast, the second creation account is the result of physical work in manipulating tangible objects, and centers around verbs which reflect constructive human activities: to form, to build, to plant, to fashion.
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
“The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed”
” And Jehovah God buildeth up the rib which He hath taken out of the man into a woman, and bringeth her in unto the man” (Genesis 2:22 YLT)
“The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man.” (Genesis 2:22 NASB )
These tangible activities of organizing and fashioning living creatures, contrast to the “creation by fiat” (“let there be light”) of the first creation account, is consistent with LDS teachings of an initial cosmic and spiritual creation followed by a second, physical creation of living beings.
Creation by Elohim vs. Creation by Jehovah
In the first creation account (Genesis 1-2:3), the creation is done by Eloheim or Elohim, typically rendered as “God,” although -heim is typically a plural ending in Hebrew. Joseph Smith observed: “I once asked a learned Jew, ‘If the Hebrew language compels us to render all words ending in heim in the plural, why not render the first Eloheim plural?’ He replied, ‘That is the rule with few exceptions; but in this case it would ruin the Bible.’” Eloheim or Elohim are understood by Latter-day Saints to refer to God the Father.
In the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-22), the creation is performed by “Yahweh Elohim” or Jehovah, rendered in the King James Version as “The Lord God.” The designation in Genesis that the second creation was performed by “Yahweh Elohim” or Jehovah, understood by Latter-day Saints to represent Jesus Christ, is consistent with other scriptural passages that teach that Christ organized the physical world under the direction of God the Father (Hebrews 1:2, Mosiah 3:8). This matches Christ’s identification of himself as “I AM” (John 8:58) which corresponds to the God who spoke to Moses (Exodus 3:14) and the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Jehovah’s role in organizing the physical world is also implied in passages such as D&C 88:7.
The Genesis account is consistent with the LDS belief that the spiritual creation, at least of mankind, was done by Eloheim (God the Father), and that men and women are spirit children of God. These verses suggest that other elements of the spiritual creation may have been supervised by God the Father also.
The First or Spiritual Creation
On close reading, the principle of spiritual creation preceding physical creation as expounded in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Moses is also present in the Genesis creation narrative, yet is overlooked by other Christians because they lack the theological foundation to understand it.
The sequence of events in the first creation story suggests that its refers to a spiritual rather than a physical creation of living creatures. Genesis recounts that on the second day, God said: “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth” (Genesis 1:11). The account then states that the great light (the sun) and the lesser light (the moon) were placed in the sky only on the fourth day (Genesis 1:16). Without the sun to provide light and heat for photosynthesis, grasses, herbs, and trees could not grow, nor could higher life be supported. The ancient authors were well aware of dependence of earthly life on the radiance of the sun. A physical creation in this context is a logical impossibility, as plants could not grow on the earth before the sun was formed. Only a spiritual creation makes sense in this context, and that is precisely what we find when we correlate the first Genesis account to the longer creation narrative in the Book of Moses.
Additional evidence that the first creation was spiritual is found in Genesis 2:5, which prefaces the second creation account by noting that God created “every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground” (Genesis 2:5). A creation of plants before they could grow upon the earth could only refer to a spiritual creation. This verse uses the term “Yahweh Elohim” rather than the “Elohim;” this can be explained by noting that the passage represents an introduction to the second creation account even while ostensibly referring to events in the first. This verse echoes closely the language of Moses 3:5, which explicitly references the 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.”
Many supposed difficulties in reconciling the Genesis creation with modern scientific evidence can be resolved by noting that clues within the first creation story – the lengthier and more detailed of the two creation narratives – suggest that it refers not to the physical creation, but to a spiritual creation which preceded it. Some fundamentalist Christian groups without the advantage of additional scripture clarifying the Genesis account have taken the first Genesis creation account as a scientific document describing the earth’s physical creation, yet internal clues within the text demonstrate that scripture itself does not support such a view. The additional clarification provided in the Book of Moses suggests that ancient authors of scripture knew well that the first Genesis narrative was a spiritual creation story rather than a literal physical account, and may have held more enlightened views about the cosmos than many attribute to them.
The Second or Physical Creation
The second or physical creation account in Genesis has very little to say about the formation of the cosmos. The order of the second or spiritual creation is different than the first. The earth is watered; Man is created, plants grow; animals and animals grow; and the woman is created last of all:
“There went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground” (Genesis 2:5).
“The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
” And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9).
“Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:19).
“And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man” (Genesis 2:22).
These passages of the second or physical creation are vague and should be read cautiously. They say almost nothing about the cosmos, although the cosmos is addressed in greater detail in the Book of Moses. Yet plants, animals, and man had already been created – in a different order – in the first creation account. The difference is the life-giving waters that “watered the whole face of the ground” before which there was no growth, and the “breath of life” which was put into the physically formed creatures. No mention is made of the time frame in this account.
The stated mechanism of the coming into being of trees and plant life described here is that God made them grow out of the ground after the earth was watered, much in the same way that seeds sprout when planted in fertile soil and watered. It appears that the hard work of creating the seeds from which the plants sprout had already been done and only watering and nourishment was needed.
The reference to animal life demonstrates a more active role. Instead of merely being “cause[d] to grow,” the account states that “out of the ground the Lord God formed” them. This phrase can be understood variously as either a direct physical creation, as many Christian fundamentalists maintain, or as natural processes of reproduction, development, and selection. No mention is made in the second creation story of the time frame or process by which such activity may have occurred. Nor does the account preclude the development of plant and animal life long before Adam. This second narrative is centered on events in “a garden eastward in Eden” (Genesis 2:8), and makes no mention of the development of plants and animals elsewhere on the earth which are universally understood in both Jewish and Christian tradition to have been encountered by Adam and Eve after they left the garden. It is implied but not explicitly stated that similar processes regarding vegetation and plant life occurred elsewhere on the earth.
According to the story, Adam’s immortality in the garden was due to the fruit of the tree of life (Genesis 2:9); there is no mention of this fruit being consumed by the garden’s diverse fauna. Therefore, nothing in Genesis precludes plants and animals from living and dying in the Garden of Eden long before Adam’s fall, to say nothing of the larger world beyond the garden.
Genesis contains two creation stories, the first of which appears to refer to the spiritual creation of life and the organization of the cosmos, and the second of which centers on the physical creation of flora, fauna, and mankind in the Garden of Eden. Because the first account focuses on a spiritual creation rather than a literal physical creation, we should not expect the details of this account to substitute for scientific evidence of the physical universe. The second account provides limited, vague details regarding a physical creation, although the passages can be understood in different ways, and important questions remain unanswered. Much remains to be learned both from science and from study of scripture,
Critical analysis of the Genesis text by competent contemporary Biblical scholarship corroborates principles taught by Joseph Smith in the early nineteenth century: that the earth was organized out of unformed matter rather than being created ex nihilo, and that Genesis provides not one but two creation stories, corresponding to a heavenly or spiritual creation and an earthly or physical creation.
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