Bereishit – The Creation Stories and the Documentary Hypothesis

With something as big and complex and beautiful as the Bible, it’s difficult to know where to start talking about it. Just jumping in “In the beginning” hardly seems suitable because there is so much that goes into those works, into even the first several verses, that it’s awe-inspiring. And yet to talk about it, to digest it and dissect it in a way does it a disservice. And yet, I sit here with keyboard in hand and try to wrap my head around the best way to begin.

Of the books of the Torah, Genesis may be the most complex. One of the ways that Genesis is complex is through its pattern of repeating stories, or parts of stories, in different ways. This is evident immediately as we are presented with two separate creation stories: one from Genesis 1:1 to the middle of 2:4 and a second one from Genesis 2:4 to 2:24. The first story is the one that we are most familiar: “In the beginning…” (Though of course this is translated in a dozen different ways. The JPS offers the, probably more accurate but less poetic “When God began to create heaven and earth…”) In this story, God creates the universe in six days and rests on the seventh. In verse 1:27, on the sixth day, he created man: “And God created man in His image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In the second story, God creates man again and this is the story that we are familiar: He creates Adam first, Adam needs a companion, Even is created from Adam’s rib, etc. This second story differs from the first not only that man and woman were not created at the same time, but also in other details. For example, man here was created “when no shrub of the field was yet on earth” because “God had not sent rain upon the earth” but in the preceding story that was on the third day, not the sixth.

This is not to nit-pick the Bible, that is not my intention. But I find this duality fascinating and it happens over and over in Genesis: a bit in the Noah story, in the Abraham story, etc.

The traditional belief is that Genesis, like the other four books that make up the Hebrew Torah, the Five Books of Moses, was written by Moses, divinely inspired. Whether the work was given in written form at Sinai, or recounted to Moses and written down later, depends on who you ask. From this perspective, the conclusion that can be drawn is itself a profound one: that the Torah is not written in chronological order. This seems obvious, but it’s a profound statement. The second story is simply an elaboration of the first. (How this explains the shrubs I’m not sure, but I’ll probably find some commentary about it soon.)

A less conservative answer to this question is found in the Documentary Hypothesis, the belief that the Torah is made up of multiple separate sources that were merged together by one or more redactors hundreds of years ago, to give us the volume that we know today. The Documentary Hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis, and I don’t particularly advance it. (If anything, it over-simplifies what may have been a much more dynamic process. Divinely inspired or not, I don’t believe in humanity’s ability to refrain from making edits here and there…) But, for the purpose of looking at Genesis, it offers an interesting lens.

The Bible, both Jewish and Christian, are filled with repeated stories or stories told from different viewpoints. Often, these stories have little details different here and there that bear some careful analysis. For example, Chronicles and Kings retell many of the same stories; Deuteronomy reiterates many details of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; and in the Christian New Testament the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) all provide alternative but similar stories of the life of Jesus. These alternative stories are products of how and when they were written and who they were written for. Instead of consolidating these related stories into a single narrative, the Bible retains the original structure.

The Documentary Hypothesis, in short, is the idea that there were other – now lost – books which were NOT kept, but rather merged or edited into a single consolidated narrative. How we can tell this is a complicated affair and cannot be reliably proven. (And I tend to think this model over-simplifies, but it is a fine model.) The hypothesis is that Genesis was originally created from two separate Genesis books, called “J” and “E”. How are these books told apart? It is difficult to see in translation, but these hypothetical books used different names for God: Yahweh (which begins with “J” in German, sometimes incorrectly called “Jehova”) and Elohim. Both sources showed a very human-like God, with J primarily writing about the Kingdom of Judah and E writing about the Kingdom of Israel. These two versions of Genesis were eventually merged, perhaps by exiles when Judah was conquered by Babylon in the 500s BCE. Much later, they were merged again with a “Priestly” version of Genesis. That source text described a distant, unknowable God, and was concerned with genealogies and more dry material. It reflects a deeper theology, but also one more removed from the people.

How does this affect this material? The hypothesis goes that Chapter 1 is the Priestly version of the creation story. God is distant. He creates with words. Chapter 2 is the J/E version of the story. He creates man with his hands and with his breath. He walks in the garden. Regardless of whether you believe in this hypothesis, this model of thinking is a great way to see the contrasts between the ways in which God is depicted in the Bible. (Christians looking at these chapters certainly see the contrast here as between God-the-Father and God-the-Son prefigured in Genesis, and I can’t say I could argue with that reading.)

And look, I’ve written too much already. But my “in the beginning” is done. The onus of a first article is gone! And there is so much more to write about. It’s going to be a great year.

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