Recently, a reader emailed me and suggested a book called Living the Question: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. With Progressive Christianity (PC) being my main topic of research, I was excited to learn that it's the first and only comprehensive survey on PC—and it was written by Progressive Christians. I downloaded it to my kindle immediately and dove right in.
I was not the least bit surprised that the book began with the idea that spiritual maturity requires one to embrace one of the iron-clad PC dogmas: questions are way more important than answers. Then, ironically, an entire chapter was devoted to giving the definitive answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether or not the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other. This is an old skeptical claim that Progressive Christians have latched on to, but it's worth discussing because it could be a stumbling block to some Christians who haven't thought about it before.
The book puts it like this:
It goes on to claim that the two accounts were written by different authors, and that the order of events don't line up. I'll discuss each of these ideas in turn.
1. Different stories with different authors?
Early Jewish and Christian traditions held that the majority of the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) were associated with Moses. But in the early 1800's, European Old Testament scholars began to seriously challenge this accepted paradigm.
Near the end of the 1800's, a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis was introduced. This basically taught that the Pentateuch was written by four or more authors/editors who lived long after Moses, and that the supernatural events it records are not historical. Other than an obvious anti-supernatural bias, there were two main reasons for these conclusions. First, there are some stylistic differences in the text, and second, God is called by different names in various portions.
For example, in Genesis chapter 1, God is referred to as Elohim, and in chapter 2, He is called YHWH. Skeptical scholars saw this as evidence that the two chapters were written by two different people, leading them to conclude these must be two separate creation accounts.
However, conservative scholars believe that Genesis 1 and 2 are two sections of the same cohesive whole, and that Moses used these two different names to make a point. Genesis 1 provides a more broad and chronological description of the creation days, using the more general term for the powerful creator God, Elohim. Genesis 2 is a more focused look at the sixth day of creation, and expounds more upon what happened as humans were created, placed in the garden, and began relationship with God. This may be why Moses used God's personal name here, Yahweh.
Regarding stylistic differences, it's not unusual for an author to vary their style depending on the content of what they're writing. As a writer, I know from personal experience how true this is. In my blog writing, I try and stay as condensed and succinct as I possibly can. I don't tend to tell a lot of detailed personal stories, or get too deep in the weeds of different objections and counter-objections. For example, entire books have been written on the differences between the creation accounts, and I'm trying to cover the basics in under 1,500 words.
However, currently I'm writing a couple of chapters for an upcoming apologetics book, and I've had to totally re-think the way I write. For the book, my writing style is not aimed at a general audience like my blog, but is written directly to Christian moms. Thus, it is much more personal and I write in the casual voice I use when I talk to my mom friends in real life. Because the chapters are about 3 times as long as a blog post, I can include a lot more humor, stories, and details. I can see how someone might even wonder if my blogs and book chapters were written by two different people.
In the same way, the first five books of the Old Testament cover all kinds of different material. It would be natural for an author to use one style for writing history, one for writing about different laws and penalties, and another when describing the intricate details of the sacrificial system.
But the post powerful evidence for Mosaic authorship, in my opinion, is the evidence within the Bible itself. The Pentateuch claims this in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, along with other Old Testament authors such as Joshua, Ezra, and Daniel. (1) In the New Testament, Peter and Paul refer to Moses as the author of the Pentateuch, as well as Jesus Himself—in all four gospels. (2)
2. Contradicting stories?
The only way these two accounts can be seen as contradictory is to assume they're both meant to be understood as a chronological treatment of the creation narrative. But as I stated above, a cursory reading will show that Genesis 1 is a broad, chronological, helicopter-style fly-over of the creation account (even listing the actual creation days in numerical order), and Genesis 2 zooms in for a closer look at day six. (Please don't take my word for it. Take a moment and read it for yourself!)
Even with this in mind, people still get tripped up on some details. (The book I mentioned at the beginning even lists these "contradictions" in a handy chart.) Here is one of the most common and most difficult ones:
Upon first glance, Genesis 1 seems to be saying that vegetation was created on day 3 (before man) and Genesis 2 seems to be saying that vegetation didn't exist before man. Which is it?
Due to the word order and structure of the sentence in Genesis 2, it's evident that the reason no "shrub of the field and plant of the field" had grown was because there had been no rain or man to till the ground. So these particular types of plants required both. I say "these particular types" because Genesis 2 mentions two types of plants that aren't mentioned in Genesis 1, suggesting that whatever these were, they were different types of plants that were designed specifically for man to tend. Biblical scholar Michael J. Kruger wrote:
Another common misunderstanding occurs because Genesis 1 says that animals were created on day six, before man. However, Genesis 2:19 states:
So did man already exist when God made the animals? The short answer: no.
In Hebrew, there is no separate pluperfect verb tense. This means that distinguishing chronology isn't quite as simple in Hebrew as it is in English. Here is an example John Lennox gives in his book, Seven Days That Divide the World:
There is good reason to translate these verses in the pluperfect tense, as the NIV and ESV have: “God had formed the animals and brought them to man,” instead of “God formed.” There is no chronological disagreement here.
When we hear a skeptical claim about the Bible, sometimes it's easy to simply "go with the flow," throw up our hands, and say it just doesn't matter. Investigation takes hard work. But in my years of study I've learned that if we will put in the effort and energy, we will find that the one who needs correcting is always us—not the Bible.
(1) Exodus 24:4; Exodus 34:27; Numbers 33:2; Deuteronomy 31:9; Joshua 1:7-8; 8:30-35; 1 Kings 2:3; Ezra 7:6; Daniel 9:13
(2) Peter: Acts 3:22, Paul: Romans 10:5, Jesus: Matthew 8:4; 19:8, Mark 1:44; 7:10; 10:5; 12:26, Luke 5:14; 16:31; 20:37; 24:27, 44, John 5:46-47; 7:19, 23