The Creation Accounts — Unharmonized

Bored in Vernaldoctrine, Mormon, scripture, theology 25 Comments

Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #3
Several years ago I did a study of Joseph Smith’s different accounts of the First Vision. It was fascinating to see how the accounts changed over time and according to his audience. I reflected that I had told my own conversion story many different ways and with different emphases over the years. It was reasonable to me that Joseph would make different points when he recounted his vision to a Jew than to a Christian minister. And it seemed natural that his story would change over time, as he gained life experience and greater depth of knowledge on the nature of God and man. I thus determined that the best use I could make of the accounts was to take each on its own merits and embrace the idiosyncrasies, rather than to try to harmonize them.

I think the same is true of the many scriptural accounts we have of the Creation. It is not always evident from our lesson materials that we have so many scriptural and authorized accounts, because the goal seems to be to present one harmonized depiction. But what can we learn by looking at all of them separately?

Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

It is not my intention here to get into a discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis, but suffice it to say that there are two separate Creation accounts here in Genesis. The first account focuses upon heaven-centered activity. It emphasizes the power of Deity in each step of creation. God speaks a word, it is done, and he pronounces it “good.” A straightforward, six-pronged plan is presented, in chronological order. The purpose of each creative act is also explained. For example, the firmament of Heaven is to divide the waters above and the waters below, the seas are to gather together so that dry land can appear, the vegetation is to yield seed and fruit. “Lights” are to provide lumination in the day and the night and to make possible the seasons, days and years. The fish, fowl and animals are to be fruitful and multiply after their own kind. Mankind is presented as being in the very image of God. Humans are to replenish and subdue the earth and have dominion over the other creatures. Also at the time of creation mankind was to subsist off the plants, herbs, fruit and seeds, as were the animals.

Genesis 2: 4-25

In this Creation story, humanity is the center of interest. Man is formed of the dust of the earth, pointing at his earthy, rather than heavenly origins. The Garden is described, as well as other features of the earth such as rivers, minerals, and gemstones. The separate nature of man and woman is discussed. Also in this story, Adam is given more specific instructions than in Genesis 1. He is told to care for the garden, and to stay away from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Adam names the creatures and discusses his relationship with Woman.

There are essentially five supposed discrepancies between chapter one and two of the Genesis’ account of creation (the following was arranged and succinctly worded by Isidor Kalisch ).

  1. In chapter one vegetation is immediately produced by the will of God, in the second “account” its existence is made dependent on rain and mists;
  2. In the first the earth emerges from the waters and therefore, contains necessary moisture, in the second it appears dry and sandy;
  3. In the first man and his wife are created together, in the second the wife is formed later and from a part of man;
  4. In the former man bears the image of God and is made ruler of the whole earth, in the latter his earth-formed body is only animated by the breath of life and he is placed in Eden to cultivate and to guard it;
  5. In the former the birds and beasts are created before man, in the latter man before birds and beasts.

These five comparisons constitute the so-called insoluble contradictions between chapters one and two. There have been many attempts to reconcile the contradictions, but I enjoy savoring the principles each separate story can teach. For example, Genesis 1 teaches of the unity of mankind (male and female together) and their creation in the express image of Deity. The human is the culmination in the formation of life. Genesis 2 presents geologic, atmospheric and biological dependencies and interconnections. It hints that there is more to the creation process than the figurative and lyrical story told in the first account.

Moses 2-3

This account is presented as a recitation by God, telling Moses how the Creation took place. Its framework is the same as the combined Genesis accounts, with some important differences. In the Moses account there is a clarification that there was a planned or spirit creation of all living things in heaven before they were created physically upon the earth. Its personal nature (“And I, God, said…”) highlights the Father’s close involvement in each aspect of the work. Interestingly, the “Only Begotten” joins God on the sixth day and is referenced as the pattern in whose image man was created. The lights in the firmament are specifically called sun, moon, and stars. Trees and animals are presented as having “living souls.” Into the commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge a disclaimer is placed: “nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it…”

I see this account as somewhat gnostic. Moses is given specialized, personal knowledge of the Creation, passed on to him by God himself. It makes me wonder what I might see, what small details I might notice, what symbolic items would be present, if I were given an individual revelatory view of the Creation.

Abraham 4-5

Abraham’s account is similar to Moses’, but is given in the third person. Abraham describes what the Lord has shown him concerning the Creation. The most obvious difference here is that instead of One God creating the earth, the Gods act in Council to create the earth. (“And the Gods organized the earth…and the Gods saw that they were obeyed.”) the six days of creation are presented as decisions that the Gods made as they counseled together. This same hierarchical arrangement is noted in other aspects of the account. For example, Abraham describes many stars, one above another, with their different periods and orders of government. He also tells of eternally existing spirits, one above the other in intelligence.

Several key words are changed in the Abraham account. The words “organized” and “formed” are used, perhaps to contradict the notion of creation ex nihilo. The firmament is renamed “expanse” (which is a better translation of the Hebrew word raqiya). The days are called “times,” which supports the theory that each Biblical day could have been much longer than 24 hours, perhaps even thousands of years, and allows for a belief in evolution and an “old earth.” Time in the Garden of Eden before the Fall is reckoned according to the time of Kolob (1 day = 1000 years).

An interesting phrase is found in Chapter 4:18 “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.” This is one of the verses which gave rise to Cleon Skousen’s interesting speculations on the Atonement.

The formation of mankind is seen as a committee decision. Humans are created and blessed in the image of the Gods, “and behold, they shall be very obedient.”

Although this account is presented as being more compatible with a scientific view of creation, it is also the most objectionable to mainstream Christian theology.

The Temple Account

The endowment ceremony in the LDS temples presents another authorized version of the creation. It provides yet another view of how the Gods were involved in the creation process. Here Elohim (God the Father) directs Jehovah and Michael to go down to complete the work of each of the six creative periods, then return and report that these things have been done. In the temple account, the events which occur on each day are greatly changed from how they are presented in the scriptural accounts, and are as follows:

  • Day 1: The world is organized.
  • Day 2: The waters are gathered together and the dry land appears.
  • Day 3: The light and darkness are divided as described in Day 1 of the scriptural accounts, and the lights in the firmament appear, as described in Day 4 of the scriptural accounts.
  • Day 4: Seeds are placed in the earth, and vegetation grows.
  • Day 5: All manner of animal life is formed–fowl, fish, creeping things, and other animals.
  • Day 6: Adam and Eve are formed.

I find it interesting to contemplate the order of the creative events as found in the Temple account.

Just as in the Joseph Smith accounts of the First Vision, I don’t believe it is possible to completely harmonize the Creation passages. The Sunday School manual does make an attempt to do so as follows:

“How do the accounts of the Creation found in Genesis, Moses, and Abraham differ from each other? (Abraham and Moses saw in vision the organizing of this earth and then recorded their visions. Each included slightly different details. The account in Genesis was originally written by Moses, but some of the fulness of his account was lost. This fulness is restored in the book of Moses.)”

I believe there are many things to be learned from the other accounts that are contained neither in the “fulness” of the chapters in Moses, nor even in the Temple presentation. I hope I have convinced you that there is much to be gained by the study of each account as it stands, without a futile attempt at harmonization.

Comments 25

  1. The scriptures are very much a mystery to behold. I have heard many times the phrase, “How great are the mysteries of God”, and “Endless are His mysteries.” I have taught myself not to analyze the semantics of events in the past. History has a way of rearing its discrepancy. The scriptures are not immune to this vulnerability. I think it’s interesting what you have done here though and I applaud your work!

  2. Post

    Celestial, I am very sorry to read this type of comment. Isn’t that the exact OPPOSITE of what we are taught in the Church? Indeed, one of the “Sunday School answers” is that we must study the scriptures! Sure, they contain mysteries and discrepancies and mistranslations, but to me that’s what makes them rich with life and spirit and humanness. I look at them as being written by people trying to make sense of God.

    Paul writes about this when he says in Ephesians:
    “How that by revelation he [God] made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words,
    Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)”
    Paul says that grace is given to him so that his words will contain the unsearchable riches of Christ “and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God.”

    Throughout the Book of Mormon it is taught that the plates have been preserved so that people could “read and understand the mysteries of God.”

    The D&C teaches us that if we will inquire, we will know the mysteries, and encourages us to do so in several places.

  3. Thanks BIV- this is helping me get a handle on this lesson coming up, if I get to teach it…. Ward and Stake conferences are interfering with my schedule 🙂

  4. Thank you for this post. It was interesting to see all of these together like that.

    Perhaps the most interesting part to me in all of this is how some people try to make definitive statements as to scientific truths from these few accounts, ignoring thousands and millions of points of data in order to fit their preconceived interpretation as to how things “should be”. The scriptures are meant as a religious text primarily, and as you pointed out, have several internal discrepencies.

    I too agree that the point is not to just throw up our hands and saw “it’s just a mystery”, but that they all provide clues to help us find the Truth.

  5. Your right, I don’t search for the mysteries of God. I find this site interesting though and maybe it will spark the interest to begin. I read the scriptures daily but I honestly do not study them as I should. The creation has always fascinated me though and that’s why I clicked on your article.

  6. Oh man, a great post. You beat me to it. It demonstrates that things are told differently at different times for different reasons. It is way too simplistic to just say that details are lost.

    If you examine the Hebrew, it also distinguishes in an interesting way, the different members of the creation committee, if I may use that term. Differentiating between Elohim (God) and Jehovah Elohim (Lord God).

  7. I left a post here last evening indicating that I did not see any disharmony between the different accounts, leaving an analogy comparing the architect to the contractor. Apparently something in that post was offensive to the board administrators, as I see those comments have been pulled down and censored. I wonder why?

  8. fascinating post biv. these are the kinds of sunday school lessons I love (though I admit I love the documentary hypothesis and always love to look at that angle too.)

    no comments were censored last night. a technical glitch erased a few-sorry. we would all love to hear what you had to say if you don’t mind posting it again.

  9. Post

    Kim, our server recently changed IP addresses and the site was down for a few hours. I remember your comment, and there was no reason for it to be censored. Let me search around and see if I can find it. I am certainly sorry to see this.

  10. I agree with the idea that caution should be exercised in the project of harmonizing these differring accounts. They do have different purposes, different origions, and so on. For example it seems that the accounts we get from Joseph Smith have the emphasis of making agency and Christian themes more central to the stories; and the OT versions of the creation have very different origins and purposes, but the concept of a text having a purpose was very diferent thousands of years ago compared to how we understand a text having a purpose today. In the OT earlier stories from different cultures are re-told in a way that they become part of the theological, ideological and imaginative claims of what would become the Hebrew people. But I think this reimagining of older stories has less to do with humanity trying to figure out God than it does humanity trying to figure out humanity. All the accounts of the creation are structured as types of answers to the question concerning what it means to be human. The fact that being dependent upon God, knowledge, and disobedience (among other things such as the fact that the creation is is repeatedly praised as good and that evil is included in that goodness. . .) are all inscribed as at the origion of humanity gives us a lot to work with.

    The thing that makes me uncomfortable about much of what is written in the OP is that it seems to read very early texts under some post-enlightenment, rationalist assumptions, and that it shys away from reading these texts theologically.

  11. Nice review BiV. I like your comparison of your own different recollections of your conversion experience. Certainly the longer I live, the more my own versions of events get seen in different hues. With something as clearly complex and monumental as the creation, it seems to me not the least bit odd that there are different accounts that look at it from different angles. I’m not sure about putting up the temple version like that, seems to straddle a line on what should and shouldn’t be discussed publicly, but in any case your points are valid and I trust you thought about that and decided what you felt was ok and not. I for one wish there were something like a Sunday School class held in the Temple where we could have long discussions delving into the possible meaning of the ordinances there, could be a very enriching experience.

  12. Great article. I’ve been reading a lot on this subject lately (evolution and creation) and just attended ward temple night last night, and so the creation was fresh on my mind. I noticed something that differs from the temple account and the other accounts not covered in your article but seems significant, there is no 7th day in the Temple Account. It got me thinking that perhaps we are actually still in the 6th day of the actual creation. Would love to hear your thoughts regarding this?

  13. BIV, this is the first post of yours that I have read (relatively new to MM). It was well thought out and well written! I appreciate the depth and amount of effort you put into this.

    You mentioned the Documentary Hypothesis. I am a big believer in it after reading Freidman’s “Who Wrote the Bible.” I hope you don’t mind if I bring it up here and ask you a question in relation to it.

    I think you would agree that the most obvious of obvious points is that Moses did not write the first five books of the OT, unless he was narcisisstic (and anachronistic) enough to say things like, “And Moses was the greatest prophet in all of Israel… even unto this day.” As for me, it’s clear that multiple authors of varying ecclesiastical and politcal persuasions, writing after the kingdom of Israel and Judah split (J,E,P, etc.), recorded their own unique versions of everything from the Creation to the Flood to the smiting of the rock at Horeb to the Golden Calf, etc., and that sometime after the Jews returned from Babylon, someone carefully wove them all together to create the Torah.

    So here’s my question, and it may be a little controversial. What do you think about the fact that the Sunday School manual you just quoted says that Moses originally wrote the Genesis account of creation? Do you think this really represents the belief of the church hierarchy?

  14. Douglas, #12 – “In the OT earlier stories from different cultures are re-told in a way that they become part of the theological, ideological and imaginative claims of what would become the Hebrew people.”

    I agree completely, and would add that these Mesopotamian and Egyptian myths weren’t just modified, monotheized, and grafted into a single Hebrew culture and its scriptures, but into multiple Hebrew subcultures with all their politics, biases, and agendas. Realizing this and having scholarly help to see the evidence for it makes the Old Testament so much more fascinating and human.

  15. Post

    I hesitate to get into the Documentary Hypothesis too much in a comment because current scholarship varies widely, and I don’t always agree on all the tiny little pieces that the theorists say belong to this author and that author. But I do agree that there are several different sources from which we derive our Genesis account. It seems likely to me that even the account of the Creation found in Genesis 1 and 2 come from different sources. This puts me in disagreement with the manual where it teaches that “the account in Genesis was originally written by Moses, but some of the fulness of his account was lost. This fulness is restored in the book of Moses.”

    Raymond, although I have no idea about the beliefs of the church “hierarchy,” I think we can see that some of the authorship ideas are being increasingly presented to church members, if not as doctrine, then at least as not inconsistent with our doctrine. A case in point is a book recently published by Deseret Book and written by TB Spackman. It is called “Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament,” and was approvingly reviewed on the FAIR blog here. The reviewer wrote,

    In between chapters on particular sections of scripture are chapters focused on particular themes instead of passages, on such topics the Abrahamic covenant, the social and physical world of the ancient Near East, and the five books of Moses, with half a page on the Documentary Hypothesis…One issue constantly just below the surface throughout this book is the interaction of different sources of knowledge, namely, modern-day revelation and scripture, and our understanding of the Old Testament achieved through scholarly means. This topic alone could easily fill a lengthy book of its own, and LDS scholars will continue to discuss (and disagree over) this complex topic in its various applications. For some readers, this may be the elephant in the room….Regardless of one’s views of such theories, it is gratifying to see an introduction, however brief, in a mainstream “popular” LDS book. Prior treatments have not received broad circulation. This topic is but one example of our authors introducing mainstream scholarly theories into the broader LDS consciousness, but in a non-dogmatic way and within a context of faith.”

    Carey, the omission of the seventh day in the temple account is indeed fascinating and can be interpreted several different ways. What you have postulated makes sense; so does the observation that this is one of the problems with trying to seamlessly combine two accounts that come from different sources.

  16. “the account in Genesis was originally written by Moses, but some of the fulness of his account was lost. This fulness is restored in the book of Moses.”

    I think this statement will most likely be changed in future manuals. I know I certainly didn’t teach it in my Sunday School class.

  17. Pingback: 080.1: The Creation; OT Lesson 3 (Core)

  18. Pingback: 080.1: The Creation; OT Lesson 3 (Study Notes)

  19. Your original comments on this topic have been very helpful to me. Thank you. For years, it has bothered me that the order of the daily achievements during the ‘days’ of the Creation as presented in the temple endowment differed so fundamentally from the scriptural accounts. I asked myself: Why would the Lord want so much precious scriptural space and so much precious personal temple time taken up with day-by-day lists of what was achieved during the Creation, if the lists and daily order in one or the other (or all of them!) were not strictly accurate? The inspired translations of Moses and Abraham in The Pearl of Great Price, and the revelation of the endowment, provided the Lord and Joseph Smith with ideal opportunities to achieve latter-day harmonization in all three accounts, if that was considered to be important, and if it had previously been lacking. Obviously, complete harmonization of the various accounts was not considered to be important by the Lord or by Joseph Smith, and it is futile to attempt to ‘force’ it somehow, as you point out. I suspect that our modern, literalistic approach to the accounts of the Creation, as heavily informed by ‘Western’ science as it tends to be, is not the best way to appreciate what the Lord wants to convey to us in these various accounts. It would be good if this could be communicated more effectively in church lessons and talks.

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