When most people talk about the Biblical narrative of creation they refer to Adam being made from earth, of Eve being made from Adam’s rib, of life in the Garden of Eden, of original sin in which Eve is seduced by a snake into eating the forbidden fruit which she then serves to her mate Adam. Voila! Adam and Eve discover they’re naked and get kicked out of Paradise. Adam, and all men forever, have to start working for a living while Eve and all women get to suffer during childbirth.
Not surprisingly few people take any of this seriously. It simply defies credibility and sounds like a flight of fancy written for children.
Yet, this is not the Torah’s original creation story. This fable is Genesis 2. First comes Genesis 1 which has a lot less fantasy, no melodrama, and is much more interesting – for anyone older than nine.
In the Genesis 1 narrative, man and woman are created in the image of God not out of a clod of dirt or a human rib. They are the culminating creation following an organic natural progression that is pretty much in lockstep with our ideas of evolution. A big bang is followed by the emergence of light, followed by water which then enables the appearance of grass and life-sustaining vegetation. From the oceans there emerge creatures that roam the earth. These evolve into birds and dinosaurs, followed by more sophisticated vegetation, more advanced animals and, finally, our ancestral prototypes who differ from everything that preceded them, and whose minds and creativity more closely reflect the image of God. The entire process requires six epochs called “days”.
Rabbis, scholars, critics, scoffers, saints and heretics have long been obsessed with the presence of the two conflicting creation stories in Parshat Bereishit; the first starting with Genesis 1:1 and ending with Genesis 2:3, and the second starting with Genesis 2:4 and concluding with the ejection from Eden at the end of chapter 3 – although I would argue it ends with the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:16.
The two accounts differ markedly in style, content and chronology. Genesis 1 is a detailed, orderly, virtually scientific synopsis of creation, while Genesis 2 is primarily focused on the human element; the creation of man, of woman, original sin and exile.
The rabbis go through all sorts of contortions to somehow reconcile these two narratives, while the heretics use them as (further) proof that various human hands were engaged in the Bible’s authorship, with a final canonization that fails to airbrush out much of the scar tissue that is evidence of crude editing.
I have no intention here of taking a position in this debate. However, I would like to argue that there is no conflict between the two creation stories, as the first is indeed the Torah’s cosmology while the second is merely a midrash, a legendary sequence that serves a didactic purpose as do most midrashim. It is hardly meant to be taken literally, certainly are not as history.
If we were to treat the two as cosmologies we should wonder why they appear in their designated order. Clearly Genesis 1 is more sophisticated than Genesis 2 which is the stuff of Sunday school Bible stories (and what most ordinary folk think of when they think of Creation) as opposed to the first which does not quite lend itself to comic book distillation or illustration.
Surely the more advanced telling should supersede the first by appearing later in the text. Yet it doesn’t, for the same reason, perhaps, that no one would argue that Midrash preceded the Torah.
The chronology of Genesis 1 – assuming we don’t take the term “day” literally as 24 hours – is not all that different from what science has subsequently established. One can easily see a big bang in verses 1-3. The Torah clearly tells us about dinosaurs (something which science first discovered in 1841), and that all living creatures emerged and evolved from the water in the sequence we pretty much accept to this day (verses 20-21). These, of course, come only after the life-sustaining vegetation had been created (verses 11-12) which in turn only comes after the water and light issues are resolved. The most sophisticated creatures of all – man and woman – first appear on the scene after everything else is already up and running (26-28).
By contrast, Genesis 2 is so memorable precisely because it is allegorical. It was never meant to be taken literally. Rather, its purpose is to verify the human condition and enable us to actually see ourselves reflected and confirmed by way of this legend, much the same way as Greek mythology enabled humans to recognize their weaknesses, temptations, limitations and mortality.
- Adam being crafted out of mud enables us to make peace with our limits and finitude. The idea of going from dust to dust helps us cope with the brevity of life, and empowers us to make peace with inevitable death.
- Eve emerging from Adam’s rib is all about the loneliness of man and the need to mitigate this solitude with a partner however imperfect, oppositional, limited or limiting he or she may be. This partner is both a helper and an adversary (עזר כנגדו). There is comfort in knowing that the challenges of our relationships – all of our relationships – are universal, rather than unique.
- The seduction of Eve by the serpent is the prototype of every seduction known to humankind. Anyone who claims to never having been seduced into doing something he or she should not have done is simply a liar. When we get caught our instinct is to blame someone else. Not that ‘someone else’ is not guilty, but we are ultimately responsible for our actions.
- Is there anything more dangerous than knowledge? And the most dangerous knowledge of all is knowing right from wrong. Because this is the launch pad of rationalization. Most of the time we do wrong because we are able to convince ourselves that it is ok. If we wouldn’t know right from wrong we would be like animals, operating purely on instinct. And, yes, we would probably be better off. But the price of such well-being is the abdication of choice, and losing the pleasures and rewards of having made the right decisions on our own by defying temptation and rationalization.
- Paradise is not a place. It is a moment. A perfect situation is not sustainable. Exile is inevitable. We value our brief moments of paradise precisely because they are so ephemeral. They are vacations from reality. We value our health because it is fleeting. We value or loves because they exist in time not in space. We only value our material possessions if they were not always ours, and can be lost in a moment. This, perhaps, is why music is so consummately important. Because only music has the capacity to elevate us into a state of utter bliss. Yet, because it exists purely in time, it is not only ephemeral but fleeting. Such is the nature of paradise. One cannot freeze that moment, or return to it except as a memory or a hope.
- And finally we have the legend of Cain and Abel, the archetype of two brothers with totally different temperaments, and a parent (in this case God as father) who plays favorites with devastating results. We see this every day. We experience it in our own lives. Knowing the story of these two original brothers and their complicated filial relations makes it easier for us to accept our own parental and fraternal issues, even if we are not happy with how they work out.
Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 – the first is the Torah’s cosmology. The second is its mythology. Both are vital to who we are as Jews and as human beings.
(To better understand my take on Cain and Abel please visit my essay from last year)