Historical and Literary Background of Genesis Chapters 1 and 2



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Historical and Literary Background of Genesis Chapters 1 and 2
The following information is reprinted, from The Access Bible: an ecumenical learning resource for people of faith. This NRSV Bible provides brief commentary on the most important biblical texts. In this instance, this paragraph precedes Genesis 1: 1- 2: 25.


Two Different Creation Stories:

The Bible begins with two different versions of the story of the beginning of the world. The two versions arose at different periods Israel's history. Most scholars would date the creation story in Genesis 2: 4-25 earlier than 1:1 to 2:3. The former was probably written during the time Israel had kings reigning in Jerusalem and before the exile to Babylon in 587 BCE. The usual scholarly designation for the earlier tradition, which extends intermittently throughout the Pentateuch* (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is the Yahwist or J. tradition. Most scholars would date the later creation story in Genesis 1:1 2:3 to a time after 587 BCE. and the exile to Babylon. It may have been written even later, after the return to Judah in 539 BCE during the Persian period. Scholars call this later tradition the Priestly or P tradition. The Priestly tradition also extends into other parts of Genesis as well as the Pentateuch, especially the books of Leviticus and Numbers. There are a number of differences between the Priestly (P) creation story and the Yahwist (J) creation story:


the divine names (P-- uses “God”; J-- uses “Lord God”);

the condition of the world before creation (P—watery chaos-1:2; J--dry desert);

the sequence of creation (P--six days with both man and woman created at the same time; J—

man created first, than animals, than woman);


the manner of creation (P--the word of God—1:3, 6, 9; J--God “formed,” “planted,” “made,”; the depiction of the deity (P--more majestic and transcendent; J--more intimate and hands-on);

and the recurring literary structure and refrains in P versus the absence of such repetitions in J.


Allowing two different versions of the creation story to stand side-by-side suggests that the ancient writers were not interested in defining precisely how the world began in a scientific sense. Rather, they were interested in exploring larger questions of meaning and purpose through multiple perspectives on the same event of creation.




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