Genesis 1 and 2: "Earth" doesn't necessarily mean "the Whole Earth"
CADRE member Rich Deem, webmaster for one of the best Christianity and Science sites on the Internet, Evidence for God from Science (if you have never visited, it is a must), does not limit his apologetics to only issues where science and faith meet. In a recent essay entitled "Doesn't Genesis One Contradict Genesis Two?", Rich takes a closer look at the common claim that there are two creation stories in Genesis -- the first in Genesis 1 and the second in Genesis 2.
When I was in College, I remember being told that there were two creation stories, and I remember that that was one of the reasons that early on in my Christian walk I did not accept the Doctrine of Biblical inerrancy -- at least in so far as it extended to the Book of Genesis. After all, if there are two competing stories about creation in Genesis, then they cannot be inerrant, can they? Consider the following from an essay entitled "The Creation Stories of Genesis":
Major biblical scholars agree that there are two creation accounts found in the first two chapters of Genesis. One of the indicators that there indeed are two stories is the fact that both accounts describe similar events but in a different order. Additionally, in the first account the creator is always referred to as Elohim. In the second version, the creator is referred to by his personal name, Yahweh. The first version is very cosmic in scope, whereas the second is much more "down to earth." The first version is a self-contained narrative that begins with Genesis 1:1 and ends at Genesis 2:4a. The second version is also completely self-contained and begins at Genesis 2:4b. As this article continues, we will elaborate on the evidence that supports the hypothesis that two stories by two different authors are found in these opening chapters of Genesis.
This is the type of stuff I read when I was in College, and from it I reached a conclusion that there were two completely different and independent creation stories that precluded the possibility that the book of Genesis could be inerrant.
But is the "contradiction" understanding warranted by the Biblical text itself? Reading the Bible, it becomes apparent that the claim of two completely independent and irreconcilable creation stories is overstated. Genesis 1 gives a broad overview of the creation from the creation of light through the creation of the heavens, plants, animals and culminates with the creation of man. The Genesis 2, however, says nothing about the creation of light or the heavens, but focuses on the creation of man and woman. Thus, it does not seem that there is too much of an inconsistency between the two accounts.
Yet there is a problem. Genesis 2:4-7 reads:
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven. Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground. Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
The problem is that it appears that in Chapter 2 God made man before He created the plants in the ground since it says "no shrub of the field was yet on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprouted." In Chapter 1, God creates plants on the third day (Genesis 1:11-13), but man is created on the sixth day (Genesis 1:26-30). Rich Deem points out the apparent contradiction very clearly:
Chapter one describes the creation of plants followed by the creation of animals then humans. Chapter two seems to describe the creation of humans followed by the creation of plants then animals. If this assessment is true, it would seem that there is a contradiction between the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.
How do we resolve this contradiction? Rich Deem gives a good answer. First, he points out the fact that claims that the two creation accounts are simply retellings of each other is clearly overstated from any reading of the text. The first is a telling of the creation of the universe and the earth, including the placement of plants, animals and men on the planet. The second is a localized story telling about the creation and placement of humans in a particular location on the planet -- the Garden of Eden. And the context of the account in Genesis 2 explains the confusion. Rich Deem point out:
Part of the problem understanding this passage is because of the poor choice of English words in the common translations. The Hebrew word erets can be translated as "earth" (meaning global) or "land" (referring to a local geographical area). In the Old Testament, erets almost always refers to local geography and not the planet as a whole. We need to examine the context to determine whether erets refers to the entire earth or only a portion of it.
In other words, the word "erets" has multiple meanings. The Blue Letter Bible backs Rich Deem up because it gives many definitions for the word "erets" including: "whole earth (as opposed to a part)" as well as "1) country, territory; 2) district, region; 3) tribal territory; 4) piece of ground . . . ." Thus, since the term "erets" can mean either the entire planet or a particular area, then the definition of the word in a particular context must be based on its context.
In Genesis 1, the term is obviously intended to mean the whole earth, but in Genesis 2, the context indicates a much more localized use of the term. Consider Rich Deems' essay:
In contrast to Genesis one, there are no indications that the text is referring to global creation. In fact, Genesis 2 begins with God planting a garden in a place called Eden, whose location is described in the text that follows. In all, there are three other place names mentioned along with four rivers (verses 10-14). The second place name is Havilah, which is thought to be near the Caspian Sea. The third is Cush, which is thought to be a location in Southern Egypt or Ethiopia. The fourth is Assyria, which constitutes modern Iraq and Iran. Of the four rivers described in the text, only two are definitively identifiable. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers run though Iraq and Iran. All the events of Genesis 2 occur in Eden, which is bounded by the three other locations, putting it within the Mesopotamian flood plain.
The narrative continues with descriptions of creation events. Adam was placed in the garden to cultivate it. God brought to Adam the animals He had already created for him to name. Since a suitable companion was not found for Adam, God created Eve. The narrative concludes with the initiation of the first marriage. All the creation descriptions in Genesis two can be attributed to the preparation of a place in which the first humans will live. (footnotes omitted)
Thus, it is apparent from the context that when Genesis speaks in Genesis 2 of the fact that "no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground" in Genesis 2:5, it is referring to a localized area -- not the whole world. The localized area being referenced is the "land" where God was about to plant the Garden of Eden.
In light of the text, I feel that this is a very reasonable reconciliation of the alleged contradiction. Once again, a "contradiction" is shown to be merely an inconsistency which a careful reading of the text resolves. Good job, Rich.