Differing Conceptions of the Divine Creator
The very beginning of the Bible presents one of the clearest pieces of evidence that the Torah is composed of various sources, more or less complete, written documents that have been woven together to comprise the text that we now have. Some readers know this theory well, and may have accepted it, perhaps incorporating one of the many models that this site has outlined about how such ideas might be integrated into Judaism. For others, this theory is more novel, or its basis is unclear.
To address these different audiences, this week’s devar torah has two parts. The first outlines why I, as a biblical scholar, believe that the beginning of Genesis contains two different creation stories. But for me, outlining these sources is just the beginning, a prerequisite for understanding each source on its own terms. Thus, the second part will explore the different God depicted in each section. My focus in this devar torah is part of our hope at TheTorah.com—Project TABS that this year we will be able to focus more on how modern biblical studies might help elucidate our understanding of God—both how our ancestors understood God, and how we might.
The Sources of the Creation Stories
I begin with a simple question: According to Genesis, in what order were the land animals, man, and women created? This “simple” question has two different answers. According to Genesis 1:24-27, God creates the land animals (vv. 24-25), and then man and woman (vv. 26-27). However, in Genesis 2:7, God creates man, and then in v. 19 creates animals, and in v. 22 creates woman. Thus, the commonly heard idea that Genesis 2 is an elaboration upon Genesis 1, filling in various details, does not work—the two accounts tell different stories.
This initial observation raises two other questions: Where is the dividing line between the two stories, and are there other pieces of evidence that suggest that these initial chapters are composed of two separate accounts? I will deal with these questions in order.
Literary studies uses the term “closure” to express the feeling that readers get when they are done with a piece of literature; writers attempt to offer a sense of closure at the end of a book or a unit, such as a chapter or a poem. Some simple ways to express closure are by writing “the end,” by using lots of white space (already found in the Dead Sea Scrolls), or by killing off a main character (see e.g. the end of Genesis or of the Torah or Joshua).
Another way is to enclose the unit through an inclusio (also called an inclusion or envelope structure), where the beginning and end repeat or mirror each other. In traditional parshanut, this is called chatimah me’ein petichah. For example, Psalm 8 (after the superscription of title) opens י-הוה אדנינו מה אדיר שמך בכל הארץ “O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Your name throughout the earth,” and closes with identical words, framing the composition and marking it is a unit. The tower of Babel story is similar: It opens with the words ויהי כל הארץ,”the whole land was” and closes (v. 9) with על פני כל הארץ,“upon [on the face of]the whole land was.” delimiting a literary unit; this is confirmed by the content of vv. 1-9.
Similarly, the first half of Genesis 2:4 (what scholars call 2:4a) reads
אלה תולדות השמים והארץ בהבראם
“Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created”
This hearkens back to Genesis 1:1,
בראשית ברא א-להים את השמים ואת הארץ
“When God began to create heaven and earth.”
The boundaries of the story are marked through the verbal repletion, the inclusio.
Once this is established, several significant differences between the stories emerge. God in the first story is consistently called e-lohim, while in the second God is called Yhwh e-lohim. The first story is highly structured, full of repeated phrases (e.g. God saw that this was good; there was evening there was morning day x) while the second has a more meandering structure. Indeed, the second story does not even recognize “days” of creation.
The word bara’, usually translated “to create,” characterizes the first story, but is absent from the second. For example, in 1:27, the first human couple (or perhaps humanity as a whole, depending on how ’adam should be translated (see David Frankel’s article on this subject) is bara’ed, while in 2:7 the first male is yatzared. The first story assumes that people are ready to procreate as soon as they were created (1:28, “be fruitful and multiply”), while in the second story, they only gain sexual knowledge after eating of the tree. The first story is really about the creation of the world; the second about the creation of humanity.
If you look further, you will see other vocabulary and stylistic differences between the stories, and will understand better why scholars refer to Genesis 1:1-2:4a as “the first creation story,” and to the account that begins in 2:4b as “the second creation story.” Once these stories have been separated and delimited, it is possible to examine each story on its own terms. (Of course, such an examination does not preclude the possibility of also looking at the text as we now have it, with both stories edited, redacted or compiled together.)
Two Different Conceptions of the Divine Creator
The nature of the God of the first creation story is well-expressed in Psalm 148:5; וכי הוא צוה ונבראו, “for it was He who commanded that they be created.” God is extremely powerful, and His (yes—this God is masculine) words cause the primordial chaos (see 1:1-2) to restructure itself into the well-organized world that we know, where everything occupies its proper place. Although powerful, He has a divine council with whom He sometimes deliberates, as made clear in the plural נעשה, “let us make” in 1:26. (see Rashi and the sources he cites from b. Sanhedrin 38b and Tanhuma). This suggests that God is king—it is kings who have such advisors, and engage in massive building projects.
Tov, “good,” is a theme word of this account—a good God creates a good world; the story, for example, narrates how God first creates foodstuffs, and then the animals who will eat them (vv. 29-30). Creation is highly symmetrical and well organized. This God also looks far ahead and thinks about Israel, creating the Shabbat already as part of creation, even though its full meaning will not become evident until it is assigned as an ’ot (sign) and berit(covenant) between God and Israel in Exodus.
Genesis 2:4b depicts a very different God. He is not king, but much more parent-like and personal. He walks the garden (3:8) and talks to people (3:9-19)—this is unimaginable for the royal, distant, powerful God of the first story. He makes mistakes. First He thinks that land animals or birds might be suitable mates for the man (2:19). Then He makes the same error of all young-parents—He does not know how to define limits, and says “You can do everything but this,” not realizing that all children will of course gravitate to “this,” here, eating of the tree. But God remains parental, for example, replacing the primordial couple’s fig-leaf with a more permanent, leather garment, dressing them Himself (3:21). Kings never do that to their subjects!
Focus on the term tzelem e-lohim brings out an irony and a further difference between the two stories. Although there is much debate in parshanut about the meaning of this term, in the Bible, tzelem is always used to mean a physical, three-dimensional, “plastic” representation. Thus, this phrase in Genesis 1 suggests that people look like God, a notion also found in Ezekiel’s heavenly vision in 1:26. Nevertheless, the rest of the Genesis 1 depicts God as most un-human like.
This is clearest in the use of the verb bara’ for divine creation. The second creation story uses verbs like ‘asah and yatzar, which are also used of humans, suggesting that in some way God’s creation is analogous to, or contiguous with, human acts of creation and building and forming and making. In contrast, the verb bara’ only has God as its subject, and is a way of expressing that the creation by God is completely different than any human building endeavor (and that is why many parshanim understand the term as referring to creation ex nihilo, יש מאין, which humans can certainly not do—this is possible, but not certain).
This presents a wonderful irony concerning the first creation story, which depicts a God who has a human form, but acts in a way that is most unlike humans—an image which strongly contrasts with the anthropomorphic God of the second creation story.
Where from Here?
The two creation stories that introduce the Bible introduce two long narratives that continue throughout much of the Torah. The different conceptions developed in the initial story continue—a rather human-like God versus a majestic and distant deity. Still other sources introduce other depictions of the divine, making the Torah, and the Bible as a whole, a polyphonic text—a work that speaks in many voices. (For more on this see my devar Torah for Shavuot.)
I think that this is the strength of the Bible rather than a weakness. Different people relate to one or another of these divine portraits—some of us are drawn to an approachable God, and being that is more be like us, while for others, a majestic, distant deity is more “Godlike.” Sometimes this can even shift with time and need—the very same person may sometimes need to connect to a God who walks about the Garden at the breezy time of the day (Gen 3:8), while at other times they may need to connect to a God who insists that all is ordered and in its place, good, indeed very good.
Post-biblical Judaism used interpretation to discover different images for God in the Bible—no two parshanim or philosophers shared identical images of what God was like. But this inability to pin God down, to create one single, uniform, univocal image of God already has strong roots in the biblical text itself.
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September 22, 2013
July 23, 2020
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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