I love the book of Genesis. Since my conversion to Christianity I have appreciated aspects of the image of God portrayed there. The Christian creation stories display the magnificence of a god that I enthusiastically claimed; It’s quite the feeling to recognize that god as “my God”, as if you are now on the winning team.
I read the words creation with vigor, desperately attempting to mine all the truth that I could find. Coming from a secular background I found some of the tales hard to believe but I had experienced God so I was determined to take His word seriously. Beyond the tall-tales, I wondered why God had so many names and, more dangerously, why there were so many contradictions, even within the first few chapters of Genesis. But, I was excited about my new faith and assumed there must be a good explanation because smarter people must have already solved any problems I could possibly think of. As it turns out, I was right, there is a great explanation for it. All it took was a bit of deconstruction, an erosion of fundamentalism, and a nod toward critical scholarship.
The Names of God
God is known by many names, even within the Christian religion. In my particular stream of Christianity, a lot of effort went into explaining the meaning behind God’s names. I was taught that His names were used to describe His various good attributes; El Shaddai meant God Almighty so if he was displaying his power one might use that name as a way of highlighting that attribute. Similarly El Tsaddik could be used when God was acting particularly righteous and Jehovah Jireh could be used in a prayer when God was providing what we wanted. The list goes on.
That understanding of God’s names worked for a while, but it didn’t explain why Lord was used sometimes and other times the name God was used. It didn’t explain why the El variants sounded Arabic while Yahweh was clearly Hebrew. It was an easy answer to a complicated question.
There actually is a good reason why Christians aren’t given a robust explanation to the question of God’s names. *A good answer involves questioning our fundamental conception of God and that is a hard thing to do.
National Gods and Melting Pots
The compiler of Genesis doesn’t waste any time getting right into the creation story. Genesis 1:1-2:3 beautifully describes an ephemeral God creating everything in existence. One after another, day after day until he rests on the seventh day.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
That’s beautiful, but there is more to this story. Verses 2:4-3:24 then seem to recount the same story in a different way. A reader might assume that it is repeated for impact or clarity but a closer inspection reveals some key differences.
First we can notice that the name used for God is now known as LORD or LORD God instead of God as used in the preceding verses. Why does the biblical writer make this distinction?
Furthermore, there are more glaring inconsistencies between the two accounts:
Genesis 1:1-2:3 account is a daily progression:
Day 1: Creation of light
Day 2: Separation of sky and water
Day 3: Plants are made and the land is separated from the sea
Day 4: Construction of Sun, moon, and stars
Day 5: Fish and birds are created
Day 6: Land animals, including humans, are finally produced
Day 7: Rest
Genesis 2:4-3:24, doesn’t give us a day-by-day run-down but it still gives us the order of creation
First, God creates man
He plants the garden of Eden and other vegetation
He makes the Rivers out of Eden
Animals are created
Finally, a woman is formed
Some apologists have tried to reconcile these passages but I think they are letting their confirmation bias dictate the answers they want to hear. These two accounts are in direct conflict on a fundamental level. The order of creation is differenta nd that can’t be easily explained while holding to a literalist reading.
These are two distinct accounts of creation.
I’ll repeat that because it is important.
The genesis creation narratives, although similar, are different in unreconcilable ways. They represent the creation accounts of two or more separate people groups.
The first account describes a disembodied God creating everything ex nihilo and the second account describes a human-like God planting gardens. These two stories use different names for God because they refer to two different gods.
What is translated as God in Genesis 1 is the word El, which is the base word of the El variant names of God and which Elohim is the plural. El is sometimes a generic word for God, much like the word “god”, but, El was also the supreme god in the Canaanite religion. Perhaps the assumption of his divinity was ubiquitous and thus became the universal term for God.
Reza Aslan describes El in *God: A Human History".
“A mild, distant, fatherly deity traditionally depicted either as a bearded king or in the form of a bull or calf, El was the High God of Canaan. Known as the Creator of Created Things and the Ancient of Days, El also functioned as one of Canaan’s chief fertility gods. But El’s primary role was as the celestial king who served as father and preserver of the earthly kings of Canaan. Seated on his heavenly throne, El presided over a divine council of Canaanite gods that included Asherah, the Mother Goddess and El’s consort; Baal, the young storm god known as the Rider of the Clouds; Anat, the warrior deity; Astarte, also called Ishtar; and a host of other, lower deities.9
El was also unquestionably the original god of Israel. Indeed, the very word Israel means “‘El perseveres.'”
Some have made the claim that the use of “El” is generic and not referring to the Canaanite deity. That may be the case but, to me, if the creation stories are meant to be literal then the inconsistencies themselves are enough to distinguish each narrative as a distinct god. The same god could not have created everything in two different ways.
In the biblical accout “LORD God” refers to Yahweh as revealed to Moses although it’s origins might trace back to the Midianites (Moses’ wife Zipporah was a Midianite and the daughter of a Midianite priest). To the Israelites, Yahweh became the supreme god in a sea of others. Yahweh was the monalatrous recipient of the Israelite’s devotion until their faith eventually evolved into what we know today as the montheistic faiths of the Abrahamic religions. For more information on the monolatry of the Israelite’s see The Bible for Normal People, episode 10. Pete Enns explains why it is believed that the Israelites of the Old Testament were not monotheists.
The genesis creation account isn’t the only occurance of a dual narrative. We commonly think that Noah brought two of every kind of animal on the ark, right? After all, it’s right there in the Bible.
You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. Genesis 6:19-20
But consider this, in the very next chapter:
The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. *Genesis 7:1-3
Yes, you guessed it. The first account is from the priestly source and the second is Jahwist. Again, if this material was meant to be literal then these are accounts of different gods.
Or, it’s the same God expressed trough the lens of cultural experience and tradition. The story isn’t even confined to Judeo-Christian literature as evinced by the Babylonian story Atrahasis, written in the mid-17th century. In this epic, Atrahasis, is warned by Ea, a god of the Babylonian pantheon, of a coming flood. Ea instructs Atrahasis to build an ark and bring two of every animal on boards. Sounds familiar.
It gets worse for the Biblical account. Atrahasis is itself an adaptation (or evoution) of an oral Sumerian flood story called Eridu Genesis and also the earlier writing of Epic of Gilgamesh (although the Sumerian myth may be older). Our exclusive claim to this story is becoming more tenuous with every new piece of knowledge.
That is, unless we recognize, and embrace, the inter-connectedness of our theologies.
As devout monotheists we have a need to cleanly trace our God back to the creation event. It gives our religion the legitimacy it needs to endure critisicm. It can be problematic for us to realize that what we worship as God is oftentimes an amalgamation of different gods, beliefs, and cultures. Quite often it is assumed that recognizing a syncretistic creation story denies us a lineage that connects us to the divine. That isn’t the truth and our faith can be more than the box we put it into. By recognizing our shared histories in the grand meta-narrative of creation stories we can help usher in higher levels or trust, love and understanding.