One of the most common objections to Christianity is the claim that there are contradictions in the Bible when it is interpreted literally. In many cases, these supposed “contradictions” are not contradictions at all. Differences in details can be harmonized in an acceptable way. However, there are examples where harmonization is not necessary. Such harmonization becomes irrelevant once we have a better appreciation for the intent of the author. We may be too hasty in our judgments about “contradictions” because we fail to understand what the Biblical author is trying to do. Here is a case in point.
In Genesis 1 , one finds the classic expression of God creating the world in six days. There one finds a progression of creative acts, such as the creation of vegetation, starting in verse 11, and then of animals, starting in verse 20, culminating with the creation of humans as the last step, in verse 26.
In Genesis 2, beginning at verse 4, one reads what appears to be a new narrative. It is as though the story of creation is being retold in a different way, focusing on the creation of humanity, with the purpose that humans were created for work, as with the tending of the garden, and the need for humans to have companionship with other humans, most notably described by the institution of marriage. It was not good for Adam to be alone, so God created Eve (verse 18-25).
The problem for many people is that Adam first shows up in Genesis 2 in verse 7, with a garden planted in verse 8, and then animals are fashioned from the ground to bring before Adam as potential companions in verse 19. One thing that jumps out is this question: if in Genesis 1, animals were created before humans, and in Genesis 2, animals came after Adam was created, is this not a contradiction? If this is the case, how can you trust the Bible if it has contradictions like this?
There are many who believe that the early chapters of Genesis in their entirety are intended to give us a play-by-play, chronological account of God’s creative activity from the perspective of a human eyewitness observer writing down these events as they happened. Imagine, if you will, that the writer of Genesis is acting like a modern journalist with a video camera in hand, making written observations as they occur, from a vantage point where they can see all that is going on. This is driven by a principle some call “the literal interpretation of Scripture.” Nevertheless, this “literal” view raises the prospect of a contradiction, between the order of God’s creative activities, between chapters one and two of Genesis. Can such a difficulty be resolved?
While it might be possible to harmonize the narrative details of Genesis 1 and 2 chronologically, I can not help but wonder if there is a better way to look at this. Is this really a type of “contradiction” that needs to be resolved, or is it simply a difference intended by the author for a different purpose?
Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2: Contradiction or Contrast Due to a Different Purpose of Genre?
First, Genesis 2:4 appears to be the beginning of a new section, following the classic passage of the six days of creation in Genesis 1. Starting with “this is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (NIV 2011), it is reasonable to conclude that these are two different creation accounts, one in chapter one and the other in chapter two, beginning here in verse 4.
The problem is illustrated most clearly by focusing on chapter 2, since the sequence of creation events in chapter 1 is typically more familiar. Adam is introduced in Genesis 2:7:
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.
Next comes the planting of the garden in verse 8 in the King James Version:
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
The verb form of the word “planted,” is the same type as “formed,” back in verse 7. It is a type of past tense, that indicates, that the narrator is telling us of the planting of the garden, at this particular point in the narrative.
A little further down, the animals are introduced as potential companions to the man in Genesis 2:19. Note how the traditional King James Version renders the first part of this verse:
And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field…
Here again, the verb form, of the word “formed,” is the same. It indicates an event that happened at this particular point in the narrative, namely the creation of the animals. In all three cases, the tense of the verb is the same. In other words, Adam was created first (v.7), then the garden was planted (v.8), and finally the animals were created (v.19). But all of this is out of order with the events as described Genesis 1!
Resolving the Difficulty?
I have a 1967 copy of the New Scofield Reference Bible with notes that attempt to help explain these verses. It is worth taking a look, at how the editors of this Bible translation, sought to resolve this difficulty:
It is often said that Gen.2:4-25 is a second account of creation differing from that in Gen.1:1-2:3. In point of fact, however, Gen.1 tells of the creation of the whole universe, including man and woman; while Gen.2 specifically describes the origin of man and woman without repeating the story of the creation recorded in Gen.1. Thus Gen.2 says nothing of the creation of light, of the separation of the waters, or of the formation of sun, moon, and stars. Nor does it actually describe the creation of vegetation or of animals.
Genesis 2:8 is sometimes erroneously interpreted as describing the creation of vegetation, but it only mentions the planting of a particular garden. Verse 19, often misinterpreted as another description of the creation of animals coming after rather than before the creation of man, actually refers back to the creation of the animals that were brought before Adam. To think that the planting of the garden described in v.8 was not done until after man had been formed, as stated in v.7, is absurd. In both cases (the “planting” of the garden and the “forming” of the animals) the Hebrew verb could be more correctly translated by the English “had planted” and “had formed.”
Granted, there are positive ideas to be commended in these Scofield notes. However, there are things that trouble me. First, why is it absurd to think that the garden was planted after Adam’s creation? Could not the vegetation been created before Adam was created as in Genesis 1, but merely planted in the garden in Genesis 2? What about the animals? Could not most of the animals have been created before Adam’s creation in Genesis 1, with only those other animals, the “beasts of the field,” selected by God to be brought out before Adam, created in Genesis 2, after Adam’s creation?
So what drives this particular interpretation suggested by the New Scofield notes?
We read earlier in Genesis 2:1 (KJV), which comes at the very end of the first creation narrative begun in Genesis 1:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished…
…Which gives the impression, that God had finished with His acts of creating, once humanity was created. The creation of man and woman is the crowning and final creation moment in Genesis 1. If God’s creative activity is completed with the creation of humanity in Genesis 1, then surely the garden’s vegetation and the animals for Adam’s review in Genesis 2 must have been created before Adam’s creation, in order to make things line up with what is read in the first creation account in Genesis 1. Unfortunately, the translation in Genesis 2, “had planted” and “had formed,” implying previously completed acts, differs from the literal reading of the text, which is “planted” and “formed,” which suggests acts that happened at that exact moment in the narrator’s sequence.
In this a case, a Bible’s footnotes only confuse the reader, instead of providing greater clarity. It is worth pointing out, that for years the Scofield Reference Bible , though some make an interesting distinction, between the original Scofield Reference Bible and the New Scofield Reference Bible, was probably the most popular “study Bible” available to conservative evangelical Christians, for most of the early to mid 20th century.
So, is it appropriate, as the New Scofield editors conclude, that the verb tense of “planted” and “formed” could be “more correctly translated” as “had planted” and “had formed?” Their idea appears to resolve the difficulty, by implying that the garden planting and the forming of the animals, mentioned after Adam’s creation in Genesis 2, actually refer to acts that had been completed prior to the point of the narration. This approach is also advocated by the Young-Earth Creationist ministry Answers In Genesis (see also here,), as well as another defense of this interpretation from Apologetics Press. This view basically argues that it is the wider context, as gained from Genesis 1, that determines the verb tense of these verses in Genesis 2. In other words, because the author understood the events of creation in Genesis 1, it is permissible to translate these verses in Genesis 2, as being events that took place before they appear within the narration.
In recent years, some of the more popular Bible translations actually take the approach proposed by those like the New Scofield editors. If you look at the NIV translation of these verses (the ESV is similar), you get this idea actually translated in the text:
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden… (v.8)
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky… (v.19)
I am no Hebrew expert, but I have found it interesting that what the NIV (and ESV) have done here may not be appropriate. The problem is, whether or not the Hebrew verb tense for “plant” and “form,” really allows for this type of of rendering. Claude Mariottini, Old Testament scholar at Northern Baptist Seminary, argues that this translation is an unacceptable violation of Hebrew grammar rules, in his book Rereading the Biblical Text. Jesus Creed blogger, Scot McKnight concurs with Mariottini’s assessment (read the comments section of the Jesus Creed post, too… very insightful). Houston Baptist University Old Testament scholar, Charles Halton, retells the story of how he eventually changed his mind and concluded that the NIV and ESV, though well intended, got it wrong.
If this criticism is correct, then the NIV and ESV, appear to be more driven by the desire to harmonize Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, instead of allowing the literal interpretations of the verses in question, to stand as they are. This is really ironic, considering that proponents of the harmonization theory, often make the appeal to “the literal interpretation” of Scripture.
In all fairness, there are scholars who find such complaints regarding the NIV and ESV as being a bit overblown, such as this alternative response by John Currid, Old Testament scholar at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. In other words, while the NIV/ESV approach may not be a strictly literal translation of the original Hebrew text, it is still permissible to interpret the verb tenses more broadly.
Does The Desire For Harmonization Sometimes Lead Us Away From the Literal Interpretation of the Bible?
So, if the NIV and ESV translators turn out to be correct, and their method does not violate the strict literal sense of the Hebrew grammar, then Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, could be chronologically harmonized and the difficulty resolved. The case would be closed, and the matter is settled. Right?
Well, I am largely agreeable with that, but I must confess that such a move away from a strictly literal reading of the original text, nevertheless makes me a bit uneasy. Is there not a better solution?
Let us look at it from a different angle: Is it really necessary to try to harmonize these different passages in the first place? It appears that the NIV and ESV translators have neglected another possibility, that is suggested by the more literal rendering in the traditional King James Version (KJV). Perhaps, the differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 serve, not as a contradiction, but rather as a contrast indicating differences in purpose, with respect to literary genre.
Let me put it another way: suppose that the Bible at this point is not giving us an apparent contradiction, that needs to be harmonized, but rather, that it is giving us a clue, as to its truly intended purpose. It is very easy to think the writer of Genesis is simply pasting together conflicting stories, oblivious to their inconsistency, thus leaving it to contemporary Bible translators to clarify and thereby correct. But this leaves us with the sense that the writer of Genesis is rather clumsy or incompetent. Might it not be better to think that the writer of Genesis is intentionally drawing out this contrast, in order to bring out the nuance of what these early chapters of Genesis are trying to do? Could it be that the Bible has a lot more subtlety, as it was originally conceived, than we give it credit?
Perhaps, another way of looking at the problem, is to consider that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, serve different literary purposes. For example, it could be the case that Genesis 2 is not trying to give the reader an exact chronology, that you might expect from a human eyewitness account. Instead, the purpose could be more of a theological, rather than a strictly historical approach to a particular issue. For example, Genesis 1 might actually be more chronological, whereas the Genesis 2 account is not concerned about exact chronology at all! Instead, Genesis 2 could simply have the purpose of trying to explain why Adam needed another human helpmate, namely Eve. In order to demonstrate God’s purposes for marriage, the writer of Genesis pays no attention to chronology, in order to show that the animals are not acceptable companions for man, but rather, that God created a different human creature to fulfill God’s intention for human intimate relationships (UPDATE: June 10, 2015. Jump to this blog post showing a completely different approach to this difficulty).
The same can pretty much be said, regarding the created purpose of man to work, as in the commission by God to have Adam tend the garden. From a literary perspective, it would make perfect theological sense, to mention man first, then to bring in the garden, in order to demonstrate the point of humanity’s responsibility and privilege to work and manage what God has created. Not only does this resolve the chronological problem, by making it non-applicable to the author’s literary purpose, it also potentially removes the supposed conflict with modern science. In other words, trying to line up scientific chronology with biblical chronology is non-sensical, since here we are really talking about comparing apples with oranges!
However, it is important to note at this point what this alternative approach is not suggesting. It is not suggesting that the writer of Genesis is “making something up,” in order to say what he wants to say. It is simply raising the possibility that the writer did not have a strict chronology in mind, when he put together Genesis 2. We should not hold the writer to a standard, that is inappropriate to the literary purpose of the genre. It would be much like trying to insist, that a measuring stick to the sixteenths of an inch, be used in a game of golf, when marking off by shoe lengths is more that sufficient for determining the distance of a ball to the hole. If all you need is to mark off the ball in terms of a rough distance, insisting on a precision to the sixteenths of an inch is really overkill.
As Scott McKnight says in the post linked above, “There can be two accounts of creation and the Bible be inspired. Especially if one is concerned with the intent of the text and not assume it is strict historical chronology.” I find this to be a neglected line of thinking among many “defenders of the Bible” today. To try to force a particular verb tense in order to make things fit together, when there might be a better alternative, is a rather wooden way of trying to make sense of the text. Instead of trying to “fix” the Bible, would it not make better sense to allow the text to speak for itself?
Granted, this does not necessarily mean that there is no history being presented here. There is no indication that this part of Genesis is merely a fable. An approach that pays attention to nuanced literary genre, does not negate the presence and necessity of an historical basis for the text.
In the long run, I do not know for sure the reasoning used by the ESV and NIV translators for what they did. It could be that there is another explanation, or that the rationale offered by scholars like John Currid is sufficient. If so, a strictly historical approach to the text. along the lines of what “the literal interpretation of Scripture” intends, could be preserved. As I said above, that is basically OK with me. But on the other hand, if the main purpose of Genesis 2 is to show us God’s purpose for marriage and for work, is it really necessarily to insist on the strict harmonization of Genesis history, in terms of chronology?