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 2:8, Gen 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.
- Smith, Mark S. How Human Is God? Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2014.
- Meyers, Carol. Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Davis, Ellen. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.