Second Creation by Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

The second account of creation features some of the more well-known images of the Hebrew Bible: God planting the idyllic garden of Eden and then fashioning the first humans from the earth and from a rib. It presents a distinct picture of God, the divine-human relationship, and the origins of human society—one that differs from the first creation account and that has lasting implications for understanding creation, sex, and gender in modern culture.

God in the second creation account has a tactile, intimate relationship with the first being.  God forms the being out of the “dust of the ground” and animates it by breathing into its nostrils “the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). In this anthropomorphic description, God has breath and, like a potter, the capacity to shape a figure; God is the master gardener who places the first human in Eden to oversee it (Gen 2:8Gen 2:15); and God worries that the first being is alone, creates animals, and, in a moment of curiosity, “brought them to the man to see what he would call them” (Gen 2:18-19).

Are we starting all over again?

Throughout history, thoughtful readers have noted that the two accounts of creation differ in ways that make it hard to read them as a continuous narrative. Both begin from the same point, when God was beginning to create. They then diverge in their order of creation, so that in the first account, animals are created and then all humanity simultaneously, “male and female” (Gen 1:27), while, in the second account, the first human is created, then animals, then the woman.

Notably, the stage set for the first creation account is a watery chaos (Gen 1:2), whereas in the second account the earth is arid, so YHWH irrigates and cultivates it, planting the first garden. The first account is focused on the etiology of the week and culminates on the sabbath; the second account offers instead a series of other etiologies—of the origins of human society, marriage, sustenance farming, clothing—that give rise to a world that we recognize.

Moreover, different vocabularies (for example, “to make” and “to form” in Gen 2, instead of Gen 1’s “to create”) and depictions of and names for God (“YHWH God” or as most translations render it, “the LORD God” in Gen 2, instead of Gen 1’s “God”), help us to distinguish two distinct accounts. The first creation account reflects the ancient myths and realities of Babylon, whose annual flooding in the spring resembles the watery chaos of Gen 1. It emphasizes the sabbath, which accords with the rising importance of that practice in the Babylonian exile. The second creation account fits the arid circumstance of an author in Israel. Each account gives us different information based on the author’s setting and concerns.

There is a subtle narrative artistry in placing the second creation account in sequence with the first, even if an easy chronological reading is not possible. As the rabbis recognized, the variations suggest a different vantage point: the second creation account speaks from a more human perspective, rather than the cosmic “God’s eye-view” of Gen 1, and provides different views of the relationships of humans, earth, and deity that are a part of human experience.

Is the woman created to be second to the man?

While humanity is created simultaneously in the first creation account, “male and female” (Gen 1:27), the woman is created second in the second creation account. But both the content and the significance of this order in creation is still hotly contested.

Second or Secondary? That the woman is formed second does not, on its own, signify that she is secondary; after all, in the first creation story, humanity was created last in God’s creative acts and its late creation marked it as special, the penultimate event before the Sabbath. In the context of the second creation account, the woman is an answer to a problem: God muses, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18), and then creates animals; but when those vast and varied animals still do not answer the need for “a helper as [the man’s] partner” (Gen 2:20), God creates the woman. Her arrival, far from being a lesser event, leads the man to exult, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen 2:23)

Woman from Man? Related to this is a more complex ambiguity about the gender of the first being, who is referred to by the Hebrew generic noun for “humankind,” ‘adam, a noun that refers to all people—as opposed to the gender specific noun for “man,” ‘ish, that we see later. But it has also suggested, to early rabbinic and modern interpreters alike, that the first being was sexually undifferentiated, androgynous, or male and female; only later when the woman was created—disambiguated from the first being, really—was there a distinctly male being; this is noted in the man’s first words: “… this one shall be called Woman [‘ishah], for out of Man [‘ish] this one was taken” (Gen 2:23).

Partners? There is another route into understanding the relationship between the first created beings: the first being is described as not having “a helper as a partner” (‘ezer kenegdo) (Gen 2:18). The creation of the woman is the creation of the man’s counterpart; they are complements of one another, even if later religious, legal, and social structures did not accord them equal status.

The second creation account has had a lasting hold on the theological imagination of early and modern interpreters in their view not only of creation, but of gender, sex, and human relations. All of which makes the interpretation of these key points particularly meaningful not only to Jews and Christian but also in wider culture.

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor, "Second Creation", n.p. [cited 13 Dec 2019]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/second-creation

Contributors

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor
Associate Professor, University of Virginia

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor is an associate professor and an award-winning teacher at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible (Brill, 2011) and is currently working on a book on the Song of Songs.

The second account of creation, which begins in Genesis 2:4, includes the familiar depiction of the planting of the garden of Eden and the forming of the first humans.

Did you know…?

  • The second creation account focuses on agriculture—including references to irrigation, arable land, gardens, trees, plants, animals, and the first farmers.
  • The second creation account focuses on the first humans as farmers; before they are created “there was no one to till the ground.” Indeed, humankind (‘adam) is inextricably connected to the earth (‘adamah) from which it was created (and for this reason some think “earthling” might be a better translation of ‘adam.)
  • The biblical account of Eden often differs from later Jewish and Christian interpretations of it. The words “fall” and “temptation” never appear in the second creation account, nor does “original sin,” terms that are developed later, particularly in early Christianity.
  • The identity of the “forbidden fruit” of Eden is not specified in Genesis but has been variously imagined as fig, pomegranate, grapes, and, most popularly, an apple (which perhaps derives from the much later Latin Vulgate translation of the Hebrew Bible).
  • The proper names “Eve” and “Adam” are not used of the first beings until they leave the garden (Gen 3:20 and Gen 4:1, Gen 5:1), which suggests something generic or archetypal of the first beings at the outset of the second creation account.
  • The second creation account continues through Gen 3 and, with some interruptions, through Gen 11, meaning many of the ensuing narratives—the transgression of God’s first command, the episode of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel—are also part of an extended narrative about the creation of the world as we know it.
  • Different translations of the Bible will navigate the interpretative issues differently—signaled by their rendering of such terms as “humankind” and “helper as a partner”—and thus present different conceptions of creation, sex, and gender.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Gen 2:7

7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Gen 2:8

8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

Gen 2:15

15The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Gen 2:18-19

18Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”19So out of the ground the Lord God formed ever ... View more

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Absence of order. In the ancient Near East, chaos was believed to precede and surround the order of the known world.

A story that explains the origins or cause of an object, belief, or event.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Gen 1:27

27So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Gen 1:2

2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

partly male and partly female in appearance; of indeterminate sex.

Not specific; not connected to a particular version.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Gen 1:27

27So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Gen 2:18

18Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

Gen 2:20

20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

Gen 2:23

23Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.”

Gen 2:23

23Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.”

Gen 2:18

18Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

A typical or representative model; the essence or embodiment of a standard or type.

The Christian idea that humanity is inherently sinful because of Adam and Eve's transgression in the garden of Eden, found in the very first chapters of the Bible.

The Latin-language translation of the Christian Bible (mostly from Hebrew and Greek) created primarily by Jerome.

Gen 3:20

20The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

Gen 4:1

Cain Murders Abel
1Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.”

Gen 5:1

Adam's Descendants to Noah and His Sons
1This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God.

Gen 3

The First Sin and Its Punishment
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘Yo ... View more

Gen 11

The Tower of Babel
1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar an ... View more

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