OT SS Lesson #3 -- originally posted at Mormon Matters
Several years ago I did a study of Joseph Smith’s different accounts of the First Vision. It was fascinating to see how the accounts changed over time and according to his audience. I reflected that I had told my own conversion story many different ways and with different emphases over the years. It was reasonable to me that Joseph would make different points when he recounted his vision to a Jew than to a Christian minister. And it seemed natural that his story would change over time, as he gained life experience and greater depth of knowledge on the nature of God and man. I thus determined that the best use I could make of the accounts was to take each on its own merits and embrace the idiosyncrasies, rather than to try to harmonize them.
I think the same is true of the many scriptural accounts we have of the Creation. It is not always evident from our lesson materials that we have so many scriptural and authorized accounts, because the goal seems to be to present one harmonized depiction. But what can we learn by looking at all of them separately?
It is not my intention here to get into a discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis, but suffice it to say that there are two separate Creation accounts here in Genesis. The first account focuses upon heaven-centered activity. It emphasizes the power of Deity in each step of creation. God speaks a word, it is done, and he pronounces it “good.” A straightforward, six-pronged plan is presented, in chronological order. The purpose of each creative act is also explained. For example, the firmament of Heaven is to divide the waters above and the waters below, the seas are to gather together so that dry land can appear, the vegetation is to yield seed and fruit. “Lights” are to provide lumination in the day and the night and to make possible the seasons, days and years. The fish, fowl and animals are to be fruitful and multiply after their own kind. Mankind is presented as being in the very image of God. Humans are to replenish and subdue the earth and have dominion over the other creatures. Also at the time of creation mankind was to subsist off the plants, herbs, fruit and seeds, as were the animals.
In this Creation story, humanity is the center of interest. Man is formed of the dust of the earth, pointing at his earthy, rather than heavenly origins. The Garden is described, as well as other features of the earth such as rivers, minerals, and gemstones. The separate nature of man and woman is discussed. Also in this story, Adam is given more specific instructions than in Genesis 1. He is told to care for the garden, and to stay away from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Adam names the creatures and discusses his relationship with Woman.
There are essentially five supposed discrepancies between chapter one and two of the Genesis’ account of creation (the following was arranged and succinctly worded by Isidor Kalisch ).
- In chapter one vegetation is immediately produced by the will of God, in the second “account” its existence is made dependent on rain and mists;
- In the first the earth emerges from the waters and therefore, contains necessary moisture, in the second it appears dry and sandy;
- In the first man and his wife are created together, in the second the wife is formed later and from a part of man;
- In the former man bears the image of God and is made ruler of the whole earth, in the latter his earth-formed body is only animated by the breath of life and he is placed in Eden to cultivate and to guard it;
- In the former the birds and beasts are created before man, in the latter man before birds and beasts.
These five comparisons constitute the so-called insoluble contradictions between chapters one and two. There have been many attempts to reconcile the contradictions, but I enjoy savoring the principles each separate story can teach. For example, Genesis 1 teaches of the unity of mankind (male and female together) and their creation in the express image of Deity. The human is the culmination in the formation of life. Genesis 2 presents geologic, atmospheric and biological dependencies and interconnections. It hints that there is more to the creation process than the figurative and lyrical story told in the first account.
This account is presented as a recitation by God, telling Moses how the Creation took place. Its framework is the same as the combined Genesis accounts, with some important differences. In the Moses account there is a clarification that there was a planned or spirit creation of all living things in heaven before they were created physically upon the earth. Its personal nature (“And I, God, said…”) highlights the Father’s close involvement in each aspect of the work. Interestingly, the “Only Begotten” joins God on the sixth day and is referenced as the pattern in whose image man was created. The lights in the firmament are specifically called sun, moon, and stars. Trees and animals are presented as having “living souls.” Into the commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge a disclaimer is placed: “nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it…”
I see this account as somewhat gnostic. Moses is given specialized, personal knowledge of the Creation, passed on to him by God himself. It makes me wonder what I might see, what small details I might notice, what symbolic items would be present, if I were given an individual revelatory view of the Creation.
Abraham’s account is similar to Moses’, but is given in the third person. Abraham describes what the Lord has shown him concerning the Creation. The most obvious difference here is that instead of One God creating the earth, the Gods act in Council to create the earth. (“And the Gods organized the earth…and the Gods saw that they were obeyed.”) the six days of creation are presented as decisions that the Gods made as they counseled together. This same hierarchical arrangement is noted in other aspects of the account. For example, Abraham describes many stars, one above another, with their different periods and orders of government. He also tells of eternally existing spirits, one above the other in intelligence.
Several key words are changed in the Abraham account. The words “organized” and “formed” are used, perhaps to contradict the notion of creation ex nihilo. The firmament is renamed “expanse” (which is a better translation of the Hebrew word raqiya). The days are called “times,” which supports the theory that each Biblical day could have been much longer than 24 hours, perhaps even thousands of years, and allows for a belief in evolution and an “old earth.” Time in the Garden of Eden before the Fall is reckoned according to the time of Kolob (1 day = 1000 years).
An interesting phrase is found in Chapter 4:18 “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.” This is one of the verses which gave rise to Cleon Skousen’s interesting speculations on the Atonement.
The formation of mankind is seen as a committee decision. Humans are created and blessed in the image of the Gods, “and behold, they shall be very obedient.”
Although this account is presented as being more compatible with a scientific view of creation, it is also the most objectionable to mainstream Christian theology.
The Temple Account
The endowment ceremony in the LDS temples presents another authorized version of the creation. It provides yet another view of how the Gods were involved in the creation process. Here Elohim (God the Father) directs Jehovah and Michael to go down to complete the work of each of the six creative periods, then return and report that these things have been done. In the temple account, the events which occur on each day are greatly changed from how they are presented in the scriptural accounts, and are as follows:
- Day 1: The world is organized.
- Day 2: The waters are gathered together and the dry land appears.
- Day 3: The light and darkness are divided as described in Day 1 of the scriptural accounts, and the lights in the firmament appear, as described in Day 4 of the scriptural accounts.
- Day 4: Seeds are placed in the earth, and vegetation grows.
- Day 5: All manner of animal life is formed–fowl, fish, creeping things, and other animals.
- Day 6: Adam and Eve are formed.
I find it interesting to contemplate the order of the creative events as found in the Temple account.
Just as in the Joseph Smith accounts of the First Vision, I don’t believe it is possible to completely harmonize the Creation passages. The Sunday School manual does make an attempt to do so as follows:
“How do the accounts of the Creation found in Genesis, Moses, and Abraham differ from each other? (Abraham and Moses saw in vision the organizing of this earth and then recorded their visions. Each included slightly different details. The account in Genesis was originally written by Moses, but some of the fulness of his account was lost. This fulness is restored in the book of Moses.)”
I believe there are many things to be learned from the other accounts that are contained neither in the “fulness” of the chapters in Moses, nor even in the Temple presentation. I hope I have convinced you that there is much to be gained by the study of each account as it stands, without a futile attempt at harmonization.