Read the Whole Bible as a Whole Bible: Rejecting Critical Source Theory and Reconciling Genesis 1 and 2

alexander-michl-724529-unsplashOne of the great questions about the opening chapters of Genesis is the relationship of the two creation accounts. Are Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 two different accounts? From two different sources? Or is there a rhyme and reason for the repetition and ostensible differences between the six days of creation in Genesis 1 and the formation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2?

Since Julius Wellhausen—a pioneering German scholar in the 19th C who advocated a source theory to the Pentateuch and who fabricated a competition between priests and Levites behind the Bible—there has grown a small cottage industry arguing that the books of Moses and the opening chapters of Genesis have multiple authors. While various “documentary hypotheses” have been put forward, four sources have often been posited. Labeled by the letters E, J, P, D, these four sources are various traditions in Israel—respectively, Elohim, Jehovah, Priestly, and Deuteronomist.

I first encountered this higher-critical approach to the Bible in my liberal arts college—stress on the word liberal. Though I had no way of knowing how to counteract this teaching at the time, I have since seen how reductionistic and unfaithful this approach is to the Bible. In particular, it short-circuits any theological intentions of the original author. In other words, whenever a tension or apparent contradiction is observed, the solution is to attribute contrasts to various sources behind the Bible. Consequently, it denies the need to wrestle with the text and understand the author’s original text.

In this way, it actually diminishes scholarship and the theological glory of the biblical text. That is, it reduces the weight of the full revelation of God. And thus, I happily and unswervingly repudiate the source theory of the Bible. Likewise, I give praise to God for Old Testament scholars who stand against the critical consensus and write for the upbuilding of the church.

Ken Mathews Theological Commentary: A Model of Faithful Exposition

One such Old Testament scholar is Ken Mathews. In his two volumes on Genesis, he pays careful attention to the literary structures of Moses’s words. As a result, his commentary is richly theological. And in many places, he shows how supposed contradictions can be resolved by reading more of the Bible and not by chasing sources behind the text.

For instance, in his comments on Genesis 2, he explains how the apparent contradiction between the landscape of Genesis 1 and 2 is best understood by contrasting Genesis 2:5–6 with Genesis 3:8–24. In other words, because we must read all of these chapters together, he finds great help by appealing to Moses later words. In this way, we find a model of scholarship that pays careful to the text and one who gives a better explanation than the critical scholars who posit two creation accounts from two different sources.

To get a sense of how he reads these verses, consider his commentary, quoted in extenso:

How 2:5–6 relates to the cosmological account of chap. 1 is perplexing for commentators. Some, assuming two distinct accounts, consider vv. 5–6 a second attempt (J source) to describe the chaos of 1:2. Other scholars see vv. 5–6 as a reference to overall vegetation created on day three (1:11–12); consequently this means the order of creation differs with chap. 1 according to which vegetation antedates the creation of human life on day six. If it is to be harmonized with chap. 1, it is better to relate vv. 5–6 to the formation of the dry land (1:9–10), which preceded both the appearance of vegetation and man. Alternatively, the “not yet” description of v. 5 may describe only what is not living in order to prepare for the goal of the narrative, namely, the creation of the living. The purpose of v. 5 would be to show that the world as we know it did not yet exist when man was created. We will show, however, that 2:5–6 is best related to the judgment oracles of 3:8–24, indicating what the world was like before and after sin.

There is a certain ambiguity in the passage whether it speaks of the entire earth or a portion, since the terms “field” (śādeh), “earth/land” (ʾereṣ), and “ground” (ʾădāmâ) are interchangeable in Old Testament usage. “Field” can refer to the open fields as a wilderness home for the beasts (2:19–20; 3:1, 14; 25:29), pasture land (29:2; 30:16), or cultivated ground (37:7; 47:24). Hebrew ʾereṣ may be rendered “earth” in its universal sense or “land” in the sense of a tract of land or country, as it commonly is in Genesis. Here it is best taken as “land” since the habitat of the first man is in view. “Ground” often has to do with the soil, which is cultivated by human enterprise, and it is the same material substance of which both man and beast are made (2:7, 19). Verse 5 plays on the words “ground” and “man,” indicating that the ʾădāmâ (“ground”) needs ʾādām (“man”) to produce a robust harvest (also v. 7). Yet ultimately it is God, not man, who provides the garden (2:8) and brings life from the ground (2:9).

The purpose of this tōlĕdōt section is its depiction of human life before and after the garden sin; the condition of the “land” after Adam’s sin is contrasted with its state before the creation of the man. Genesis 2:5–7 is best understood in light of 3:8–24, which describes the consequences of sin. This is shown by the language of 2:5–6, which anticipates what happens to the land because of Adam’s sin (3:18, 23). When viewed in this way, we find that the “shrub” and “plant” of 2:5 are not the same as the vegetation of 1:11–12. “Plant (ʿēśeb) of the field” describes the diet of man which he eats only after the sweat of his labor (3:18–19) after his garden sin, whereas “seed-bearing plants” (ʿēśeb mazrîaʿ zeraʿ), as they are found in the creation narrative, were provided by God for human and animal consumption (1:11–12, 29–30; 9:3). These plants reproduce themselves by seed alone, but “plant,” spoken of in 2:5, requires human cultivation to produce the grains necessary for edible food; it is by such cultivation that fallen man will eat his “food” (3:19).

The “shrub [śîaḥ] of the field” is a desert shrub large enough to shield Hagar’s teenage son (Gen 21:15) and those seeking its protection (Job 30:4, 7). Since “plant” is best defined by its recurrence in the judgment oracle (Gen 3:18), “shrub” probably parallels Adam’s “thorns and thistles,” which are the by-product of God’s curse on the ground (3:17–18). Thus 2:5–6 does not speak to the creation of overall vegetation but to specific sorts of herbage in the world to follow. The language of cultivation, “work the ground” (2:5), anticipates the labor of Adam, first positively as the caretaker of Eden (2:15) but also negatively in 3:23, which describes the expulsion of the man and woman from the garden. God prepared a land for the man, but in telling of his creation and the land in which he is placed, the text anticipates how the land will suffer from the effects of Adam’s sin. Also required for the spreading of such plant life is rainfall. “The Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth” likewise anticipates God’s judgment against corrupt man in Noah’s day: “I will send rain on the earth” (7:4). Whereas in 2:5–6 rain is perceived as the welcomed welfare of God whereby herbage may survive, in the flood account the rains are the means of divine reparations for a morally depraved earth.

Despite the sin of the garden and the subsequent moral decadence of Noah’s age, the grace of God in both accounts is evidenced by his providing the possibility of food and continued life (3:18–19; 9:2). In the later Mosaic community the growth or ruin of cultivated “plants” corresponded to covenant blessing or curse upon the land (e.g., Deut 11:15; 29:22). The Song of Moses draws on this imagery by speaking of God’s beneficent teaching as “abundant rain on tender plants” (Deut 32:2d). Although Israel faced a sin-stained world, God blessed Israel with a productive land when it chose to live in covenant faithfulness. Israel also, however, as demonstrated by the author of Kings, will experience expulsion from its good land because of its prolonged apostasy. (Kenneth Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26192–94).

Ken Mathews correctly reads Genesis 1–2 as two complimentary passages about creation. The former focusing on God (Elohim) as creator of things; the latter as the Lord God (Yhwh Elohim) who has made covenant with his people. Thus, as Mathews shows here, there are literary markers and theological reasons for why Moses wrote Genesis the way he did. Though many contradictions may appear at first, further study (sometimes over years) almost always shows that the tensions are intentional. The problem is not found in the written word, but in the reader.

Though many critical scholars continue to appeal to various sources in Moses, such a reading misses the main point of the text and the message God has for his people. It leads the reader to go behind the text instead of seeing what the Spirit has inspired and given to us through Moses. Accordingly, the best way to read Genesis 1–2 (and the rest of the Pentateuch) is to understand it on it own terms. This requires patience, prayer, and persistence, but in the end that is what God desires—a people who meditate on his word day and night.

Read the Whole Bible as a Whole Bible

Therefore, as we read the Scripture, let us not look for ways to dismiss tensions and apparent contradictions. Let us press into the word, trusting that there is a reason for what is written. The more we do that the more our understanding will grow and the more our faith will too.

For more on a defense of the Bible against the errors of higher-critical thought and source theory, see

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Vladimir Kramer on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Read the Whole Bible as a Whole Bible: Rejecting Critical Source Theory and Reconciling Genesis 1 and 2

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