I found myself in a stimulating Twitter conversation last evening with Dr. Joel Baden, who is associate professor of Old Testament at Yale University, about whether the first two chapters of Genesis contradicted each other. Someone I follow on Twitter had re-tweeted a post Dr. Baden had written for Huffington Post, in which he discussed the creation-evolution debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. In this post, Dr. Baden claims that the way to challenge a creationist is on his or her own terms: the Bible itself does not support a literal, recent six-day creation account. And the main bulk of his argument centered around the idea that Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other, thus calling into question the “historicity” of a literal creation story.
After all, if they contradict, which one is correct?
Before delving more deeply into a brief response (which, contrary to my typical direction for this blog, may seem a little more technical and arcane), let me just unequivocally state that Dr. Baden’s pedigree and command of the Old Testament and Hebrew is vastly superior to mine. He’s been trained in three of the most prestigious institutions in the world (Yale, University of Chicago, and Harvard), and teaches at one of them. My four semesters of Biblical Hebrew – though supplemented by a fair amount of personal study since then – pales in comparison to how saturated he’s been in it (especially considering the fact that, according to his bio on the Yale website, he, himself, is Jewish). So I don’t want to come across as someone who thinks I know more than he does – or that I’m presenting an entirely original argument that has never been considered before.
At the same time, the neat thing about looking at data or literature – especially in this day and age – is that everyone has access to it. Furthermore, an argument is not won simply because one person has more education than the other (though, again, I do approach this with a significant amount of deference)!
So with all this said: do Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other, as Dr. Baden proposes (an idea, it should be stated, that is by no means unique to him)? I want to very briefly address one of Dr. Baden’s reasons for claiming they do.
One of the reasons Dr. Baden gives for postulating that they do is that, while Genesis 1-2:3 seems to indicate that all of creation – including plant life – came to completion within seven days, Genesis 2:5 then states that when God set forth to create man, it was “before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown.”
The objection is obvious: how can Genesis 2:5 claim that there were no “plants” or “herbs” when God made man, yet Genesis 1:11 claim that God created plant life on the third day, a few days before man was supposedly created?
It is tempting to be agitated by such an objection, but a close reading of the text reveals there’s more going on than may meet the eye (which is betrayed even by examining various English translations). This is because the Hebrew words and terms that are employed are not the same. In Genesis 2:5, the author introduces a Hebrew word for plant – siyach - that is not previously employed in Genesis. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, siyach means “bush, shrub, plant.” It occurs only three other times in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 21:15; Job 30:4, 7), thus indicating its unique place in the Lexicon of Biblical Hebrew. (It should go without saying that when a word is used only a handful of times in the Bible, we should stop short of definitively saying we know exactly what it means, including all its nuances.)
Coupled with siyach, Genesis 2:5 says that no “herb of the field” had yet grown before man was created. The term “herb of the field” (‘esev ha-sadeh) does contain a Hebrew word (‘esev) that is employed in chapter 1, but the two usages are distinguished in that they are different constructs. In 1:11, the specific herb that has been created is the “herb that yields seed” (‘esev maz-ria’ zera’), while in 2:5 it is an “herb of the field” (‘esev ha-sadeh). Must these two constructs mean the same thing? If they do mean the same thing, why give them different labels?
The easy answer to the latter question that the critical scholar is quick to reach for is that Genesis 1-2:3 was written by a so-called “Priestly” author(s), while Genesis 2:4ff was written by a so-called “Jahwist” author(s). Thus, each author employed his favorite term to describe the same thing.
But isn’t this “begging the question”? In order to demonstrate multiple authorship, critical scholars point to the varied language as proof; but then the explanation for the varied language is that there were multiple authors. Each argument is contingent on the validity of the other variable, thus rendering such proof as circuitous.
There is, in fact, a better explanation for this distinction that moves beyond speculation that two different authors are present. As Randall Younker, professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology at Andrews University (who, for what it’s worth, earned his PhD from the University of Arizona), proposes, Genesis 2:5 introduces four conditions that do not appear before sin, but do show up after Genesis 3. There is not (1) siyach, (2) ‘esev ha-sadeh, (3) rain, or a (4) ground-tilling (literally “serving the ground”) man. All these came as a result of the fall of man.
In fact, the construct, ‘esev ha-sadeh is used only one other time in the Hebrew Bible, and that is in Genesis 3:18, where God informs Adam that because of his sin, the ground would be cursed and he would be forced to eat the ‘esev ha-sadeh. Though the word siyach doesn’t again appear here, it seems likely that, just as it appears in parallel in 2:5 with ‘esev ha-sadeh, the parallel to ‘esev ha-sadeh in this instance (“thorns and thistles”) is a synonym that the author employs.
Thus, this ‘esev ha-sadeh, whatever it exactly is, is a cultivated herb that isn’t around in the perfect world because, as 2:5 says, “there was no man to serve the ground” (that is, it’s not that there wasn’t yet a man, but that there wasn’t a ground-serving man). There is no ground-serving man yet because God had not yet given man this task before sin entered the world (though he was given the task to serve the “garden,” according to 2:15, which is not the same thing as serving the “ground”). It is not until Genesis 3:17, after man has sinned, that God tells Adam he would have to “toil” and “sweat” over the “cursed ground” in order to “eat of it.”
As Younker points out, when Genesis 2:5 is understood in this way (it goes without saying, by the way, that rain doesn’t show up until chapter 7 when man’s wickedness had matured too much for God), it demonstrates that Genesis 2 does not serve as a contradictory account to Genesis 1, but as a bridge between the perfect creation in chapter 1, and the marred and devastated creation that chapter 3 introduces. It’s as if the author(s) is saying, “This is how creation originally was in chapter 1, and this is where it ended up in chapter 3, and this is how it got there in chapter 2.” (The reader should be reminded that our chapter divisions are somewhat arbitrary, modern constructions. That chapter 2 doesn’t end with man sinning does not contradict this overall thrust of this argument.)
Thus, 2:5 is simply setting the table for what the reader anticipates will soon appear in chapter 3. It’s as if the author(s) was saying, “You know this stuff that sinful man now eats as a result of the fall – the ‘herb of the field’? This isn’t yet a part of man’s diet in 2:5, but this is how it became a part of his diet by 3:18.” (It bears mentioning, by the way, that when God instructs Adam about what he can eat in 1:29, there is mention of every “herb that yields seed,” but there is no mention of the “herb of the field.”)
Of course, such arguments could appear to be grasping at straws or exaggerating the significance of different word choices and constructs; but, living at least 2500 years after the material was written, how else are we to make sense of what the author(s) intended to communicate? How are ideas conveyed if not through words? The interpreter of any piece of literature – especially literature that is deemed sacred by a large segment of the world’s population – must approach it with a willingness to hear whatever the author(s) intended to convey.
There is more to say in relation to this subject (including a response to some of the other alleged contradictions, as well as the overarching question as to why it matters and what relevance it has to the average Bible-reader), but that will have to wait for another time! All this is to say is that most critical scholars try to pile up all these alleged contradictions and overwhelm the reader with the idea that the Bible doesn’t really mean what we’ve always thought it meant. Sometimes, they’re right. Sometimes, they’re wrong.
But each “contradiction” needs to be carefully examined based on its own merits, realizing that we all bring to the Bible our own assumptions, preconceptions, and commitments. And, in this case, the plant life that does or doesn’t exist in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis doesn’t really seem to lend support to the theory that the two chapters stand in contradiction to one another – that is, if one pursues a close reading of the text.
Postscript: I was thrilled to discover that, like me, Dr. Baden is a native of Massachusetts, who seems to have a love for all the same Boston sports teams. And, again, I am grateful for the cordial Twitter “conversation” we were able to enjoy.