Sunday, September 28, 2014

Putting The Creation Stories Together

So now covering the basics of the two great creation stories I would like to write one more post on the subject examining how they fit together.

Jehovah Creates the Earth by Walter Rane
The stories in some ways are complete opposites, yet there are some unifying themes. In both stories Deity forms creation from existing materials. There is no concept of true nothingness even though the concept of uncreation is alternately sea and desert. Both stories place man at a special status markedly different than animal creation. Both stories place emphasis on proper naming of things, even though they portray the names as being given by different entities.

How should these stories be understood in context. The scholarly consensus is that they were written by separate authors separated by a significant distance in time and perhaps at different places. The second story, the J story, is often cited as being much older, reflecting a great anthropomorphic view of God. The E story is viewed as having a more abstract idea of God that developed later, with themes that closely parallel myths from Babylon and therefore may be as recent as the captivity.

In his inspired translation Joseph Smith added and interesting verse that segues between the stories:

For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.

Moses 3:5

This idea introduces the important doctrinal concept of a spiritual and physical creation. How the JST should be interpreted is a matter of conjecture. I don't think it invalidates the theory that these stories may have had significantly different origins. It is not at all clear that the JST represents the restoration of original text in every case but may be understood more as inspired commentary or even some have suggested inspired pseudepigrapha. The indisputable part for Latter-day Saints is the doctrinal issue of the two creations. Certainly these two stories could be viewed as providing better symbolic representation for spiritual and physical creations respectively. It is quite believable then that an ancient editor, perhaps even Moses himself strung them together with that very understanding.

However, There are still differences that are not well explained by this understanding. Most notably, why the different name for Deity? This still seems to reflect a different belief system or cultural tradition. Why the differences in sequence? Was it useful to build spiritually in one order then physically in a different order? What about those small things like the celestial bodies and the fish that are only created in the E story? While I think the doctrine of a spiritual and a physical creation is undoubtedly important, there is clearly more going on here.

Personally I think the stories are best understood separately.

From the E story I see a certain intellectual theme, a grandeur at the order of the cosmos, a fascination with the occurrence of order. The E story emphasizes the importance and beauty of reproduction in all the various classes of life.

From the J story I see the close and intimate relationship between God and Man. God acts more of a parental role rather than the cosmic organizer. J also treats specially the role of woman as a crowning achievement and explores the powerful bond of human love.

Neither of these themes are incompatible with each other, nor are they less or more true than one another. The emphasis is different and the teaching objectives are different. It would greatly diminish our understanding to loose either one. Perhaps this why the editor of Genesis found it essential to include both and find a way to harmonize them.

Not discussed here is the finest specimen of the creation account, the one included in the temple ceremonies developed by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and still reenacted in modern LDS temples with little change today. This creation account freely draws from and synthesizes material from both the J and E stories into a fluid single story. It also edits and inserts new material that adds doctrinal ideas and accounts for more modern notions of the cosmological understanding. A discussion of this creation story is not appropriate here but I would invite you to become familiar with the fine details of the Genesis accounts and use it as a guide to compare and contrast with the temple presentation and form conclusions for yourself.

Finally, I must circle back to where I started from and mention that neither account is intended to be a scientific accounting of the process of creation. An attempt at a purely scientific account would simply be too superficial and would loose the literal truths of these accounts. Yes, I wrote that correctly. I am tired of these accounts being dismissed by the educated because they "don't tell the real story" and relegating them to the realm of fantasy literature. The stories tell the real story of creation as it actually occurred. They do so in a far more real and literal way than science is capable of.

Imagine if an account of the creation of the United States was given that focused only on the details of how gunpowder worked and specific troop movements. Now imagine a different accounting that focused on the impassioned ideas of the founders, the sacrifice of the soldiers, the ingenuity of the legislators in finding compromise to hard disagreements, the hope for the future of generations unborn, and the inspiration of God. Suppose this second account never mentioned the specifics of the weaponry or the movement of the troops. To some the story of the creation of the United States was purely a process of military achievement for that was the mechanical aspect that forced the withdrawal of England. Yet to anyone who understands what America is, they understand that such a history, while admittedly interesting, would only tell the story of a military victory and would be similar to the story of any other military victory, but would tell nothing of the creation of the United States. To some the idea that the United States was formed from ideas and sacrifice and faith is purely symbolic and can be dismissed as a fine fairytale and is not "what really happened". But the truth is anyone who would accept that mechanical understanding of its creation as truer has an inadequate understanding of the subject whose creation is being discussed.

So it is with the creation of this world we now live in. The accounts in scripture are far truer than any scientific accounting. The reason they are dismissed as fanciful in favor of an accounting based on experimental evidence and scientific finding is because those making such a value judgment do not understand the purpose or nature of the world around them. They may have a wonderful and even accurate understanding of its mechanics and they may be able to extrapolate that understanding to discover the laws and principles that brought it into its present state. However without understanding its purpose, it's destiny, or appreciating it's grandeur, or our relationship with our Father, God, they cannot construct a true story, only a mechanical rendering, which is admittedly beautiful, but, on its own, inadequate.

So I now bring to a close, at least for now, this first string of posts on the creation accounts in Genesis. It was far more involved than I was expecting. As much as I tried to limit my focus, I still had anxiety over the many topics I would have liked to explore. Perhaps, after a few more worthwhile posts, I might be ready for someone to read this blog.




  1. I believe 2 Nephi 2 is a creation account inspired by these two creation accounts from Genesis. Lehi begins about verse 11 talking about things being created through opposition or division. This is the same idea as God dividing the light from the darkness, sea from the land, etc. If not so, "all things must needs be a compound in one", calling up the same imagery as the chaos of the primordial sea. He continues in detail, explaining how God created everything by dividing it and putting it into its proper order. He speaks of the creation of things such as righteousness and happiness the way that the E account begins with light and darkness.

    As he arrives at the actual creation of beasts and fowls and man, around verse 15, he moves into the J account, even switching the name of deity from God in the preceding verses to Lord God in 16.

    Lehi synthesizes these accounts to teach concepts about agency and redemption and the path back to salvation much the same way we use them to teach in modern day temples. I have read opinions from non-LDS sources that these accounts from Genesis were used anciently by Israel in their temple worship. Do you see evidence of that?

    I believe the main message that God wants to teach us from both the E & J accounts is essential to understanding the atonement and man's path to salvation

    1. Dustin,
      Thank you for your well thought out comment. I just spent some time carefully rereading 2 Nephi 2 after reading your comment. I have to say I think your interpretation is very sound. I had never before considered that Lehi’s understanding of creation reflected the two accounts. I had wanted to explore the understanding of Lehi, as well as Psalms and Job, but the post was already growing quite long.
      I agree with your theory that the accounts seem to change at verse 15. The introduction of the tress and the especially the change in the name of Deity is an impressive detail.
      There is wide support by both LDS and non-LDS scholars that these accounts were used in the temple. Through out the ancient world creation was a powerful theme in temples and was generally reenacted. Egypt’s use is particularly well attested. The creator god is led by priests on a boat carried on their shoulders through a set of columns that are made to resemble papyrus reeds as he goes forth to create the world. Also the Pslams (most scholars agree that a majority of the Psalms are temple liturgy) have strong creation themes. Also of note is the concept of the Even haShatiyah or Foundation Stone. This stone was the first dry land and was the place where God stood as he created the world. It was considered to be at the heart of the temple and was the place where the Ark of the Covenant rested. In current tradition it is associated, perhaps incorrectly, with a large stone in the Dome of the Rock. Also I noted briefly that most would call the E story the “P” story. P stands for “Priestly” as it is believed that the story was composed by temple priests. So the bond between creation and temple is very strong.

      Also just a thank you for not only being the first to comment on my blog but teaching me something new in the process.

    2. I spent some time reading about the foundation stone - fascinating (whether its the same as the stone in the Dome of the Rock or another on the Temple Mount).

      I love how the creation stories are used in temple worship (both modern and ancient). The story is not told as a historical account but an intensely personal journey to God and salvation. I've learned so much from it. You alluded to this in your post.

      Its good to learn more about the scriptures in their ancient hebrew context.