The Genesis Creation Accounts and Hebrew Time

We must interpret with an intelligent understanding of genre, how literature and language work, and the Hebrew mind.

Michelangelo, “Creation of Adam” (detail), Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-1512
Michelangelo, “Creation of Adam” (detail), Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-1512 (photo: Public Domain)

Genesis, chapters one and two, present two accounts of creation. Many critics of the Bible (often, atheists) assume that they are contradictory. But there are many factors involved in interpreting Genesis (having to do with Hebrew thinking, culture, and language) that most of these critics know nothing of.

First of all, most of these biblical critics and skeptics assume that the two Genesis accounts are:

1) absolutely literal in all respects,


2) chronological.

Neither is necessarily the case at all. Almost all serious Bible commentators (Protestant or Catholic) have held that the nature of the Genesis literature has strong poetic elements, while at bottom preserving actual historical events, too.

For example, most commentators have not thought that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and its fruit, were to be taken literally. They pictorially represent an idea. The rebellion of the human race was quite real and literal, but the images with which it was portrayed are not.

As for chronology, a book such as Hebrew for Theologians: A Textbook for the Study of Biblical Hebrew in Relation to Hebrew Thinking (Jacques Doukhan, University Press of America, 1993) notes that in the Hebrew mind, “the content of time prevails over chronology. Events which are distant in time can, if their content is similar, be regarded as simultaneous.” (p. 206)

Likewise, Thorleif Boman, in his book, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1960), devotes 61 pages to the topic of “Time and Space.” He noted that for the Hebrews, “time is determined by its content, and since light is authoritative and decisive, the light was called day and the darkness night even before the creation of the heavenly luminaries (Gen. 1.5).” (p. 131)

He notes also:

[W]e, too, characterize time by its content. We speak of wartime, peacetime, hard times, time of mourning, feast time, favourable time, office hours, bad year, etc. . . .

Thus, in part, the chronological times were named and characterized in accordance with their content in the Old Testament; day is the time of light and night is darkness (Gen. 1.5; Ps. 104.20). (p. 140)

Boman analyzes also how the Greeks and Hebrews variously pondered the planets and stars:

The Greeks, therefore, first consider the form of the heavenly bodies; they observe where they are in the heavens and in that way they (and the other Indo-Europeans) determine time. . . . The Hebrews call the heavenly bodies lamps, me'oroth (Gen. 1.14 ff.), or lights, 'orim (Ps. 136.7); both names refer to their function. Lamps and lights help us to see; they illuminate and warm. (p. 131)

Ironically, Boman notes that Plato, in his Timaeus, gives an account of creation that is also non-chronological, just as in Genesis 1 and 2, and even provides two different accounts, with different emphases, as in Genesis:

[T]he chronology and the sequence of the act of creation play no role in the Timaeus. Thus he sees himself compelled to report the creation of the celestial bodies before the world-soul, although he knows that this sequence is quite incorrect, and later he begins anew to describe the origin of the world in order to be able to express new ideas and qualities. (p. 175)

I just happened to recently write a review of a book dealing with silly alleged Bible contradictions. The author, Phillip Campbell, commented on the alleged “contradiction” of Genesis 1 and 2 (a great favorite of atheists; as evidenced above):

[T]he events in chapter 2 are not meant to happen after the events in chapter 1. Rather, chapter 1 presents a broad picture, followed by a kind of “zoomed in” perspective in chapter 2, which re-presents certain events from chapter 1 but in greater detail. This method is common throughout Genesis; for example, Genesis 11 tells of the various families descended from Shem and then Genesis 12 goes on to “zoom in” on a specific family – that of Abram.

(The Book of Non-Contradiction: Harmonizing the Scriptures [Grass Lake, Michigan: Cruachan Hill Press, 2017], p. 17)

We’re told that the accounts of the creation of Adam and Eve contradict. There is no necessary logical contradiction:

Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created men and women.

Genesis 2:7 says that “God formed man of dust from the ground”.

Genesis 2:21-23 says that Eve was created from one of Adam's ribs.

How in the world is this contradictory? The point is that God did this. He created. Genesis 1:27 makes the general statement, without delving into particulars (the “how” or process involved). Genesis 2 provides some of those, but in a way that is completely consistent, logically, with Genesis 1:27. Adam being created from the dust of the ground (2:7) is logically consistent with his having been created by God (1:27). Eve being made from a rib (2:21-23) is also completely consistent with her having been created by God (1:27), and from dust, for that matter, because Adam was from dust, and he is where she came from.

We also don't necessarily know how long any of this took, or what processes were involved, since “day” in Genesis [Heb., yom] need not be literally a 24-hour day.

Consider this analogy:

1) Dave the potter created two pots.

2) Dave formed Pot A from a big lump of clay.

3) Dave formed Pot B by taking some of the clay from Pot A and forming a second pot.

It's clear that 1) all of these statements are logically consistent with each other, and 2) that Dave created both Pot A and Pot B. #2 does not contradict either #1 or #3. #3 does not contradict either #1 or #2.

We must interpret with an intelligent understanding of genre, how literature and language work, and the Hebrew mind (i.e., the intent of the writer), just as in any other literature. Skeptics are unwilling to grant that “courtesy” to the Bible, just because it's the Bible.