Do the Creation Stories in Genesis Contradict One Another?
One of the hallmarks of evangelical faith is that the Bible is true in all that it claims. As the National Association of Evangelicals states it, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.”
A necessary inference from this belief is that we believe the Bible does not contradict itself. The law of noncontradiction means if something is true, then the opposite of it is false. If the Bible says that Jacob had twelve sons, it cannot then say that Jacob never had children. That would be a contradiction, and thus make at least one of these claims untrue. Which would then make the claim that the Bible is “infallible” suspect.
This claim that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself is often questioned. The discrepancies between the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 cause some to call foul. Do these contradict each other? Can we resolve this?
What Are the “Contradictions” in Genesis 1 and 2?
We know that the beginning pages of Genesis outline for us the creation of the universe and the creation of humanity. We also know Genesis 3 gives us an explanation for why God’s good creation is now in the shape it is in. Genesis is all about beginnings, and the first three chapters tell us where we come from, why things are messed up, and it gives us a hint to where we are going. But as these chapters tell the story, there are a few places that seem to contradict each other.
The first problem area concerns the timing of plant life being created. In Genesis 1 vegetation sprouts on the third day (Genesis 1:11-13). But in the second chapter (2:5) it sounds like vegetation hasn’t sprouted until he created mankind? But in Genesis 1 humanity isn’t created until day 6 it seems. Which is it?
The second problem area involves the creation of the animals. In Genesis 1 they are created on the fifth day — one day before Adam. But in Genesis 2:19 it sounds like they aren’t created until after man was created. This also creates some complexity with the creation of woman. Genesis 1 sounds like both male and female were created at the same time after all the other animals had been created. But Genesis 2 sounds like Adam was created, then all the animals, then Eve. Is this a contradiction?
The First Principle
Before digging into the text itself, there is a general principle that I try to use when looking at supposed contradictions like these. It’s a simple principle, really. You ready for it? It’s that the people who wrote the Bible weren’t complete idiots.
Consider Proverbs 26:4-5. Verse 5 says to answer a fool according to his folly. Verse 4 says don’t answer a fool according to his folly. Is the writer (or even compiler) of these Proverbs so dense that he couldn’t see the obvious “contradiction” between the two? Might it be that he’s intending to make a point by placing these verses by each other? Rather than a contradiction, these proverbs help us see the complexity of the world in which we live.
Likewise, I doubt that Moses (or even if you want to give credit to a later compiler) was so dense that he couldn’t see the discrepancies here. Rather than thinking that the Bible is weak and full of contradictions, perhaps we should pause and humbly ask, “Moses, what are you doing here”? When we do that, we’ll begin to see beauty instead of blunders. Our first help is to ask why Moses bothered placing two accounts?
Why Two Accounts?
One of the most common missteps that people make when spotting these “contradictions” is a failure to give due honor to different genres. That is partially the issue with Genesis 1 and 2. Moses is doing something different in these chapters. The first chapter is a big picture overview. At the end of the chapter (or at least up to 2:3) you’re supposed to come away with the conclusion that everything was good and was created by God. And there is a little shout-out to Sabbath rest in there as well.
In chapter 2 the author is centering in on the creation of humanity. But he’s also taking us somewhere. Notice the wording of Genesis 2:4. “These are the generations…” Now pick up your Bible and look up Genesis 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 25:12, 36:1, 37:2. Notice anything?
This isn’t only the story of humanity. It’s the story of redemption. God is tracing – even in these beginning stages – the line through which Jesus will come about. Moses is telling the story here not only of humanity in general, but the story of his people. That’s why you have two accounts. And he’s telling the story more poetically in the second chapter.
By the end of chapter 2, we understand the purpose for God’s special creation. We see that humanity was placed in a garden to work and to keep it. We see humanity relating to their Creator. In sum: we see humanity with the purpose of having rest, rule, and relationship. If you were hearing Moses tell this story — the story of your people — for the first time you’d walk away from this chapter saying, “Oh, this is why we’re here.”
What about Those Plants?
Earlier, we noted the seeming contradiction with the creation of the plants. Genesis 1 tells us that they were all created on day three — and then Genesis 2 seems to have them not there until after he created man and woman. What might Moses be doing in Genesis 2?
Let’s forget chronology for just a moment. Pretend like Genesis 1 isn’t there. What story would emerge from Genesis 2:5? You would have a picture of barren land. “There was no man to work the ground” is a significant statement. It’s telling us why humanity was necessary. It points to our purpose. But it will also connect us with the story of Genesis 3. Notice what happens in Genesis 3:18 and 23. It impacts the ground. Kenneth Mathews fills out the thought here:
“When viewed in this way, we find that the ‘shrub’ and ‘plant’ of 2:5 are not the same as the vegetation of 1:11–12. ‘Plant (ʿēśeb) of the field’ describes the diet of man which he eats only after the sweat of his labor (3:18–19) after his garden sin, whereas ‘seed-bearing plants’ (ʿēśeb mazrîaʿ zeraʿ), as they are found in the creation narrative, were provided by God for human and animal consumption (1:11–12, 29–30; 9:3). These plants reproduce themselves by seed alone, but ‘plant,’ spoken of in 2:5, requires human cultivation to produce the grains necessary for edible food; it is by such cultivation that fallen man will eat his ‘food’ (3:19).”
We’re meant to look at 2:5 and see the chaos and unkempt garden. The word “then” in verse 7 is meant to have just as much thump as the “let there be light” of Genesis 1. Genesis 2:7-9 is all about God “out of the ground” creating life. And it’s beautiful and wonderful. But we’re supposed to keep this wonderful scene in our pocket as we enter the wreckage of Genesis 3. The land now produces a curse instead of a blessing.
It's not a contradiction anymore than Proverbs 26:4-5 is a contradiction. It’s talking about two different things. In Genesis 2, Moses has a different point and intention than he does in Genesis 1. He’s not attempting to give us a chronology in Genesis 2, but rather poetically giving us a description of a barren land that will help us answer the fundamental question — what happened between the beauty of Genesis 1 and the wreckage in which we live in today?
When Was Eve Created?
Sometimes we accuse the Bible of a contradiction because we are reading more into the text than what is there. We carry our assumptions into both verses and don’t let the text speak for itself. Such is the case with the supposed contradiction of Eve’s creation (as well as the timing of the animals).
Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created Adam and Eve at the same time. But does it? This only tells us that God created humanity — male or female, they like everything else in God’s good creation came about through His action and not ours. That’s all that it is saying to us.
Personally, I think Adam and Eve were created on Day Six. I think it is implied from Genesis 1 that both were created after the sixth day (whatever the author means by this). But you can see here that there are other options than a definite contradiction. The text doesn’t have to contradict.
Remember by the time we get to Genesis 2:4, the author is shifting his purpose. This isn’t two creation stories jumbled up together. No, this is a creative author telling us one big story from two different angles and with two different purposes. When he centers in on the creation of Eve as a suitable helper, the author isn’t trying to tell us how she got here but why.
Genesis 2 isn’t meant to be a chronology. And we can see this in the language. I’ll admit that I’m not very good at Hebrew. But those who are good at Hebrew tell me that the word in Genesis 2:19 for “formed” can be a pluperfect. That’s a nerdy way of saying that you can translate the passage as “The Lord God had formed.” It’s not saying that on day 6 God at that moment created an animal and then brought it to Adam. No, it is telling us that of the animals God had already made, he brought them to Adam.
Though this gives us a pretty busy day six, there isn’t a contradiction here.
I realize that for a skeptic, some of these answers might seem less than satisfactory. We want to read the Bible like a scientific textbook — outlining the specifics in a very literal fashion. But the reality is that Moses is doing something different here. We do honor to the Bible, not when we try to make it fit into the categories we’ve created, but when we let the text speak for itself.
And the reality is that Moses is telling us two different, though not contradictory, things in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. As mentioned earlier, it is similar to what we see in Proverbs 26. Sometimes you answer a fool. Sometimes you don’t. Your situation determines which verse you employ.
The big picture is that in Genesis 1, we are to walk away from this saying, “God created everything. He did it orderly. It was beautiful. It was good. And he rested.” In Genesis 2, we continue the theme of the goodness of creation, but here we center on the creation of humanity and we see our special purpose. In order to tell us this, and to paint the picture, the author needs some narrative tension. He’s not going to tell a chronological story here, but rather answer the question of why humanity is here. And all of this to move us into Genesis 3 and explain why the world today seems different than the good world God created.
K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 193.
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