The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) contains two separate, distinct stories of the creation of the world. It’s up to you whether you believe they were written by two separate authors or two separate aspects of God, who has many aspects in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition. With each story, let’s look at what was there before Creation began, the order and method of Creation, and the culmination or result of Creation.
In the first story (Genesis 1-2:3), the Creator is Elohim; in the second (Gen. 2:4-4:26), it’s Yahweh. The stories have different beginnings and endings, with different methods of creation in between. There are also linguistic differences. Many scholars, who believe in separate authors, refer to the Elohim story as “E,” and the Yahweh story as “J.” Jews and Christians who believe God is the single author of both stories, are often offended by those initials. In this analysis, J and E are simply convenient shorthand, not a judgment on the authorship.
Six Days of Creation
In E, Creation takes six days. On the seventh day, God creates the Sabbath and rests, so the world and the Sabbath are the culmination of Creation.
Before Creation in E, most translations (interpretations) say the world was “without form and void, with the wind or spirit (same word ruach in Hebrew) on the face of the deep, void, or waters (translations differ). In the original Hebrew, “without form and void” is tohu va’vohu, and God’s ruach is on the face of t’hom (same root as tohu).
T’hom – what existed before Creation — is a strange, very unusual Hebrew noun, which is why translators can’t agree on an English equivalent. Dr. Joseph Baumgarten of the Baltimore Hebrew University said it’s similar to the word for what existed before Creation in Babylonian mythology – Tiamat, a dragon-goddess of watery chaos. Babylonia, like Egypt, was a river civilization with an annual flood that first destroyed, then fertilized, everything, and deposited fresh topsoil. In the Babylonian creation story, the chief god Marduk kills the dragon and creates the world from her carcass. It happens the same way every spring. People pray and sacrifice to the gods for the world to renew itself, and rejoice and sacrifice to the gods when it does.
E’s method of creation was to say “Let there be….,” then differentiate what was new from what was already there, then look it over and see it was good. That constituted a day in Creation. Since the sun, moon, and stars were not created until the fourth day, we have no idea how long each day was.
First, God differentiated light from darkness, then the waters above from the waters below, with a sky in between. Then, God gathered the waters below and differentiated them from dry land, and filled it all, including the sky, with different kinds of living creatures, with two genders.
Then God says, let’s make people in our image and give them dominion over everything, man and woman, at the same time through the same decree.
E sounds like it came from a river environment, Egypt or Mesopotamia, with man and woman created equal at the same time. J might have come from a dry environment like Ancient Israel. The Jews who wrote the Bible lived in all three places for long periods. In J, Man was created before anything else, and woman was created last, out of the man’s body.
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve, Adam’s rib, the serpent and forbidden fruit, Cain and Abel are all part of the J story that begins at Genesis 2, verse 4. This God is anthropomorphic, like a person.
Before Creation, “on the day God made Heaven and Earth.” the world was dry, barren, without vegetation, “because God had not made it rain on the earth, and there were no people to till the soil.” So a mist went up from the earth, and watered everything.
Then God formed man from the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath or soul (same Hebrew word) of life. Then, God created a garden, with everything pleasant to look at, and good to eat, and placed the man in it. God also put into the garden the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God told the man to eat anything in the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Next, God decided man should not be alone, and created all other living things out of the ground. Man became an assistant creator by giving all of them names.
Last, God put the man under anesthesia – into a deep sleep – took out one of his ribs, and created a woman, and brought her to him. He named her Eve, Life, Chava, in Hebrew. God placed them in the Garden, and they were naked and not ashamed, until they ate the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, realized they were naked, hid from God because they were ashamed, and got kicked out of Paradise. They had to start working for a living, and the rest is history.
In Jews, God, and History, Max I Dimont says history itself is a Jewish invention, in the sense that the older religions of the river civilizations, Egypt and Mesopotamia, are cyclical. Nothing changes from year to year. In Judaism, history moves from Point A to Point B.
Though Dimont’s history is completely secular, not at all theistic, much of the Bible can be interpreted as God working through history to achieve goals. My favorite example is the story of Joseph, The ancient rabbis say God knew, when Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him into slavery, that Joseph would go to Egypt, and become powerful enough to save his family from a famine many years later. In fact, the rabbis say, that was God’s intention all along.
I do not take Genesis literally — don’t need to — because its stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the Patriarchs are great, instructive, metaphorical, (inspired?) literature, whether things really happened that way or not.