Creation: Hebrew Bible Back Row 1

Many readers will remember my Back Row series on the Doctrine and Covenants.  I wanted to continue writing about the scriptures connected with Sunday School, but the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is far more complex than the Doctrine and Covenants, and I’m just an interested amateur.  So I’m calling in reinforcements.  This week, I’m joined by Seraphine and Kiskilili from Zelophehad’s Daughters.  (Because the documents are all complicated and in some ways different, this series will focus on Hebrew Bible texts discussed in Sunday School, with Pearl of Great Price and JST texts referred to when they are of interest for the Hebrew Bible but not placed at the center of attention.)

JNS: The Old Testament begins with a slight surplus of creation narratives.  Chapter 1 and the first three verses of Chapter 2 tell one complete story of the creation of the world and all life.  Chapter 2 begins a basically different story that continues into Chapter 3 (and therefore beyond the confines of this Sunday School lesson).  So let’s quickly acknowledge two familiar explanations for the excess of creation.  First is the Documentary Hypothesis, which I think convincingly argues that the two Hebrew Bible creation stories were drawn from different texts and then placed side by side in the Book of Genesis.  Note, among other classic evidences for this argument, that God in Chapter 1 is named God, whereas in Chapter 2 he’s named the LORD/YHWH.

There’s also the more Mormon explanation that the account in Chapter 1 is a story of spiritual creation, while the account in Chapter 2 tells of physical creation, an explanation that is an extrapolation from part of Moses 3:5 — “For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.”  Using this sentence, the assumption is made that the earlier text somehow narrates the spiritual creation and the later text natural creation.  But this goes far beyond what the text says; the Moses account doesn’t claim that either narration is a story of spiritual creation.  Nor does it explain what spiritual creation is.  Is it like drafting the blueprint for material creation, or does it involve making a preliminary layer of reality?  In the latter case, we are forced to suppose that everything in the world, whether alive or not, has a spirit.  This is possible, I suppose, but it’s also a lot to draw from a rogue sentence without a great deal of further elaboration and systematization.

In my view, it’s better to regard the two Moses narratives as both relating material creation, just as seems to be the case in Genesis.  After all, there is nothing about the Chapter 1 account that is especially spiritual or somehow incompatible with physical creation.  Instead, whatever spiritual creation entails, it seems to be a process not narrated in scripture.  Unless, I suppose, the somewhat different Abraham 4-5 account of creation is regarded as providing insight regarding what spiritual creation is.  If that’s the case, then it seems that spiritual creation is really material creation minus rainfall.

There is obviously a great deal to say about the two Genesis creation stories.  I’ve read a bit recently on the parallels and divergences between the Genesis 1 account and the Enuma Elish creation story.  To a large extent, the Genesis 1 story may be a polemical revision of the probably-older Enuma Elish account: the sequence of creation is basically the same, and there are even moments where different Babylonian gods’ names appear by allusion in the text.  The “face of the deep” in Genesis 1:2, for example, in Hebrew sounds substantially like the name of Tiamat, the water goddess of the Enuma Elish.  But in the Genesis 1 version of the story, Tiamat is totally depersonified and inert.  The deep doesn’t act or collaborate in creation, but is instead acted upon.  So the story might be seen as a monotheist’s polemic against Mesopotamian polytheism.

Another of the probably uncountable threads in these two chapters is the point that the kind of creation involved here seems to be somewhat limited in comparison with contemporary expectations.  We don’t really have God making the universe in a 21st-century cosmological sense, or even making the Earth in the sense of actually forming our planet.  In particular, on my reading, neither the Genesis 1 nor the Genesis 2 account seems to really give us a God who is — as many modern believers expect — the ground of all being.  Instead, God seems to find the planet sitting there more or less half-baked, and the act of creation seems to involve the biggest, most miraculous act of redecoration ever.  God takes a sort of confused planet that’s all watery and dark, and gives it light, dry land, and life.  Clearly an upgrade, from a human-centric point of view, but quite a lot different from, for example, bringing about the Big Bang by an act of will.

What stands out to you all about the creation stories?

Kiskilili: I’m not sure I have anything original or non-obvious to add to the discussion, although I could ramble at length! But here goes.

I think Tiamat is absolutely the cognate of Hebrew tǝhôm, the “Deep,” which occurs in this text with no definite article, perhaps indicating it was understood effectively as a proper noun. (Tiamat seems to represent the saltwaters specifically where her consort Apsû represents the freshwaters–these two primordial gods are the ultimate progenitors of the rest of the pantheon in Enuma Eliš, and Tiamat also apparently parthenogenetically produces her brood of monsters. So Tiamat participates in creation in that a male and female principle unite primevally to engender the generations of gods, and then the known universe is also later fashioned from her dead body.) It’s true in the P account in Genesis 1 the Deep precedes Creation, but the cosmos isn’t fashioned from it as in Enuma Eliš. There are of course scholars who consider the Deep a dead cliché in Hebrew with no resonance with other sources. It’s hard to assess on the basis of evidence this slender.

But if the Deep is in fact all we have left in this reworked account of an older story of a “monster” that was defeated preceding Creation, the analogue to the Deep in the Hebrew Bible itself can be seen hinted at in a smattering of passages (Psalm 74:12-17; 77:16-20; Proverbs 8:22-29; Job 38:1-11; Isaiah 27:1; 51:9-11; Habbakuk 3; Psalm 8; Ezekiel 28:2-19), in which God slays a sea-(monster), often Leviathan or Rahab, at Creation (and this is of course the cosmic template for understanding God’s attack in Exodus on the Yam Suf, the body of water traditionally translated “Red Sea”). Which brings us to the old question of whether evil is endemic to the cosmos, which was born in violence and fashioned out of the body of a “monster” of chaos, or whether evil is introduced by human agents following Creation.

The question of how monotheistic the text is is an interesting one. On the one hand it’s been suggested the circumlocutions for “sun” and “moon” here may be efforts to avoid terms construed as deities in related languages–so there could be a demythologizing process at work. On the other hand, whom is God addressing in 1:26 (the “us”)? Himself? Or is this evidence for a Divine Council on a par with the Ugaritic council presided over by El (“God”), or the heavenly council we see evidence for in Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82?

I absolutely agree with you that the idea of reading Moses as indicating the P (1st) account corresponds to spiritual creation and J (2nd) to physical creation makes little sense. In this vein it’s interesting to note that the temple has collapsed the two accounts in Genesis to avoid the repetitions.

Another fun way (I think) of solving the problems of repetition that the DH accounts for smoothly is to suppose it was Adam’s first wife, Lilith, and not Eve who was created in Genesis 1:26!

The issue of sacred time is fun here. The traditional view holds that the Sabbath became prominent during the Exile in the absence of the Temple, and dates the P account to this period. Enuma Eliš was recited as part of the New Year’s festival in Babylon and probably had incantatory power (we hear lines like “may Tiamat recede forever”); the new year, as in many cultures, was likely a dangerous liminal period in which the triumph of the forces of creation over chaos had to be reasserted. Perhaps P functioned somewhat (but not exactly) similarly but on the scale of the 7-day week, which the story effectively legitimizes? Does the observance of the Sabbath sustain the created order?

The fact that God creates merely by his word in P is the basis for the development of the Logos theology by Philo, a hellenized Jewish thinker who was an older contemporary of Jesus. The Logos (“word”/”speech”/”reason”) is the hypostatized means whereby the incorruptible transcendent Creator God is able to interact with the corrupt cosmos. This is of course picked up in the fourth gospel and identified by Christians as Christ. (In Mormonism, in contrast, it’s less clear to me why it’s necessary for Christ to be the one specifically to undertake Creation.)

Each day of Creation is rounded out by the mention of “evening” and “morning,” which to my mind militates against the reading that these are creative periods and not literal days.  Incidentally, the rationale in Judaism for starting the day at evening is based on the order in which evening and morning occur in this text.

In J God shows a considerably less steady hand in creation than in P, accidentally chancing on animals in a bumbling effort to come up with Adam’s complement!

An oddity of the J account is that God never directly tells Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil–Adam hears that piece of information before her creation.

At the end of Genesis 2 we get a charming attempt to connect the words “man” and “woman” in Hebrew (“she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man”), but in fact historically the two words come from completely different Proto-Semitic roots; the similarity in sound is coincidental.

Another association the author of the J account is probably making is that between “human” (‘adam) and “ground” (‘adamah). There are perhaps adumbrations of Adam’s eventual mortality found already in the fact that he’s formed of “dust,” the substance to which the next chapter has him returning . . .

JNS:  The last email may not count as original or non-obvious in some global sense, but in the proverbial Gospel Doctrine back row, you’ve got my full attention!  For anyone who’s curious, here’s a bare-bones  English text of the Enuma Elish.  Much of the meaning is tricky because I don’t know the Babylonian gods and have to constantly look them up to see who/what they are.  But, here’s my rough, internet-enabled reconstruction of the Babylonian sequence of creation as given by the birth of gods who represent/control/etc. different aspects of the world:

1) Fresh and salt water just exist, kind of wildly mixed together.
2) Mud and silt are born from the waters.
3) The sky and the earth are born from the mud and silt.
4) The heavenly lights are born to the sky and the earth.
5) Water and creation (connected with sea creatures such as fish, as well as land creatures like goats) is born to the earth and sky.
6) The maker of humanity is born to the creation god.

I may well not have that all right, and I hope I’ll get some fine-tuning from people who know what they’re talking about.  But here, for comparison, is the P sequence of creation:

1) Water just kind of exists.
2) Day and night are made.
3) The sky and the earth are separated.
4) Plants are made.
5) Heavenly lights are made.
6) Lower creatures are made.
7) Higher creatures, including people, are created.

So, from my rough reconstruction, the two accounts differ in that the Babylonian account cares more about mud as a very early step in the creation sequence, while the P account pays more attention to the creation of day and night and to plants.  But the parallel in sequence is close enough that it’s hard to not see the texts as speaking to each other, and the Genesis 1 version then becomes a specific subversion of what would have been the dominant cultural narrative of creation in Babylon at the time.

Just for kicks, what if I throw out some questions from the Gospel Doctrine manual?  Some of them even come with conveniently supplied correct answers.  The first one raises issues we’ve already discussed regarding multiple creation accounts.  It’s nice to know that the differences arise because Moses and Abraham wrote down “slightly different details.”  The second also parallels our discussion of how the Genesis accounts don’t seem to be ex nihilo creation; I’d love anyone’s insights on Joseph Smith’s translation of baurau.

  • 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.)
  • Was the earth created out of nothing? (See Abraham 3:24; 4:1. The Prophet Joseph Smith said: “The word create came from the [Hebrew] word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 350–51).

But here are the questions I’m dying to have answered:

  • Which of God’s creations are especially beautiful to you? Why would we be benefited by noticing the beauties of creation more carefully each day?
  • How does the account of the Creation affect your feelings toward Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ?  How can we show gratitude for the gift of the Creation?

As far as I can tell, these questions really boil down to: is it a good thing that there is something rather than nothing?  How do you feel about the fact that there is anything at all?  I can’t really even decide how to think about this.  How would I feel if there weren’t a cosmos?

Seraphine: So, I’ll just come out and say that I don’t have anything to add about the Documentary Hypothesis or Babylonian creation myths (I think I just learned about the Documentary Hypothesis this year). I do have one preliminary response, though, to the manual questions :

I find those questions in the manual you pointed out about the beauty of God’s creations, etc., incredibly fascinating. Christians (of all stripes) seem to like to base their “proof” of the existence of a God on their (i.e. human) existence and on the existence of the world around them: “the world is so wonderful, and we all exist together–how can there not be a God?” Do people really base their testimony of a divine power in the world on their own existence and on the existence of a world with beautiful things in it? If so, why? Also, if so, what do they do with all the evil things in the world? I think if they followed their logic to it’s natural conclusion, this would give them some serious angst about God (like in Blake’s “The Tyger”).
Kiskilili: Yeah, the thousands of Babylonian gods are horribly confusing, especially since they all have multiple names and their relationships change from text to text.

I’m unpersuaded by Joseph Smith’s argument about “bārā(‘)” because it never occurs in the Bible with any subject other than God, so in establishing the semantic range we have no such examples speaking of people organizing materials for ships, or doing anything else for that matter! I’m not sure where that idea comes from—perhaps JS was aware of information I’m not?

The question scholars have about “bārā(‘)” (I’m pulling this out of the air because I’m still in Utah without access to my books) hinges on the previous word, “bǝrē(‘)šît,” which many consider to be a construct form, meaning it’s syntactically bound to the following word. If so, then the Masoretes mispointed “bārā(‘),” since in Hebrew nouns can’t be bound to finite verbs, and the form should actually be “bǝrō(‘),” an infinitive construct, in which case the verse should be translated something like “when God began to create the heavens and the earth, then the earth was without form and void.” (I’m pretty sure the NRSV renders it along these lines?) I’m just thinking out loud here, but this rereading creates somewhat awkward syntax, since we now have an infinitive governing both a subject and an object; I don’t know another example of that in Hebrew—Akkadian syntax permits such constructions (there’s one in Hammurabi’s Code), but they’re extremely rare. Also the use of the particle “’eṯ” with an infinitive construct is interesting; I’d like to see other examples of that. I’ll look this all up when I get back to Boston because I’m curious.

(This might be either obvious, but I’ll say it anyway in the hope that we’re all still on the same page: The Masoretes were groups of medieval Jews who supplied diacritical marks, including vowels and punctuation/cantilation marks, to the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible. It’s clear from reconstructive comparative evidence and fragments of early Hebrew transliterated into Greek that the vowels they were supplying were not the vowels the text would have been read with in the biblical period; also their morphology isn’t totally reliable—one entire verb conjugation seems to have been forgotten and its forms reinterpreted by this period, for example.)

Enuma Eliš

The basic sequence of the engendering of the primeval pantheon in Enuma Eliš:

A.   Apsû and Tiamat (some association to fresh water and saltwater, respectively)

B.   Laḫmu and Laḫamu (hairy creatures? sea creatures? mud?)

C.   Anshar and Kishar (their names have some relationship to heaven and earth, at least etymologically)

D.   Anu (remote presiding deity of pantheon; etymologically “heaven” in Sumerian)

E.    Ea (Nudimmud/Enki) (god of the ancient city Eridu, trickster, aid to humankind, associated with magic and cunning)

F.    Marduk (god of Babylon whose rise to prominence in the pantheon reflects Babylon’s political rise; assimilated here to Ea’s son Asarluhi from earlier mythology)

Unfortunately our ideas about the deities before Anu are fairly vague. The Sumerian word abzu, Akkadian apsû, refers not just to fresh water but especially to the underground water associated in Mesopotamian thought with knowledge, magic, and the god Ea, who slays him in this text; incidentally this might be the ultimate source of our words “abyss” in English, through Greek.

Laḫmu and Laḫamu are tricky to get a fix on; the most common root “laḫāmum” in Akkadian means “to be hairy,” and there are classes of laḫmu-creatures specifically associated with the apsû as well as laḫmu-demons portrayed in visual art usually naked with three curls on either side of their heads, apparently in Ea’s coterie. Tiamat also in this very text has a laḫmu-creature in her train. How all of these fit together, and what exactly their relationship to “mud” and “silt” is, is an open question, hinging partly on the degree to which we find it helpful to read myth as the personification of natural phenomena which can be decoded as lying beneath the surface of the story about various personalities.

Similar problems cloud our understanding of Anshar and Kishar—although the elements “an” and “ki” certainly refer in Sumerian to “heaven” and “earth” respectively. But these aren’t the good Akkadian terms for heaven and earth that we learn in lines 1-2 have not yet been named as the poem opens. And Anu’s name is the Akkadianization of the Sumerian for “heaven,” although even in Sumerian his name is written differently when it refers to the god and when it refers to the actual heavens; he’s usually the high god of the pantheon who’s so remote as to be virtually inaccessible and probably never had a cult of his own.

The creation of the cosmos proper I don’t think occurs until the end of Tablet IV and into Tablet V, where we hear about the establishment of the sky, constellations, the moon, the Tigris, the Euphrates, mountains, springs, etc. And finally in Tablet VI humankind is created from the blood of the slain god Qingu, who fought for the opposition (there’s a clear parallel to this in the Akkadian text Atraḫasis—to some degree Enuma Eliš is a compendium of earlier Akkadian literature).


It’s true the P account ends “these are the generations of heaven and earth,” almost as if these various creations had engendered each other?

Scholars have noted the way the P account can be folded in half: the first and fourth days deal with light and darkness, the second and fifth days with the firmament apparently dividing upper and lower waters and then with aquatic life in the waters, and flying creatures on the face of the firmament, and the third and sixth days with dry land and life thereon.

In Enuma Eliš naming is of primary significance—it’s not that the cosmos doesn’t exist, but specifically that it hasn’t been named—organized, brought into a comprehensible system—as the poem opens. And of course the climax of the poem is the awarding of “50” names to Marduk (names and epithets of other earlier gods, and 50 being the sacred number of Enlil, the god Marduk has supplanted).  Is this something on the order of the non-ex-nihilo-creation in Genesis? Is it parallel to Adam’s naming of the animals and of Eve?

JNS: Regarding the Enuma Elish, then, it seems the correct conclusion to draw is perhaps that the P material in Genesis 1 is a subversive response to the first part of the document itself, and not to Babylonian creation mythology — which more directly involves the battle between Marduk and Tiamat and comes later in the account.  I’m sad that the apparently bumbling, self-discovering God of Genesis 2 hasn’t gotten as much attention in our discussion, but such is life, I suppose.  Kiskilili, if you had to recommend one text for a careful discussion of the relation between the P material and the Enuma Elish, what would it be?

Following up on Seraphine’s comment, I agree that discussions of creation like what the lesson manual encourages raise all kinds of questions.  They also seem to push us toward temporarily regarding the entire world as if it were all a national park or even a nature-centered theme park.  We’re encouraged to see beauty and disregard ugliness and danger.  This is just exactly the peril of such natural theology: it only works if our attention to the natural world is highly selective.  When we see more broadly, the view that makes God the author of nature for our benefit immediately generates the problem of evil.  The flip-side of testifying about how butterfly wings and three-month-old babies make us feel about God is something like this call to boycott God in response to the 2004 Asian tsunami.  If God made the cosmos for us, then he also made that tsunami for us and is therefore probably malicious.  This is a problem that Job sees more clearly than most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, so I’ll try to withhold further comment until then.

So the reading for next time is Genesis 2-3; I suppose we’re intended to revisit Genesis 2 seeing it this time as part of the Adam and Eve story rather than as a creation account in it own right.  Will the serpent beguile us, and will we eat?

Kiskilili: To be honest, I’m not totally convinced P is a direct response to Enuma Elish; many of the alleged parallels on the issue of the order of creation suffer from what I think of as the “ram in the thicket” problem: There’s a famous figurine found at Ur whose modern title is the “Ram in the Thicket.” Trouble is, it’s not a ram, and it’s not a thicket—it’s a goat eating a leaf off a tree. Such are the perils of studying ancient Iraq from a very Bible-centric perspective! So, for example, an Akkadian word whose semantic range is not clear might freely be rendered “firmament” on the assumption that the text has a relationship with Genesis (although it’s not etymologically related to the corresponding Hebrew word). Also, besides some dubious translations, a pretty broad swath of material has to be excluded from the analysis, gods understood purely as natural phenomena, and thus the theogony at the beginning of EE collapsed with the cosmogony later on.

(Aside from the difficulties in establishing relationships between texts themselves, there’s a separate problem in determining how belletristic texts like Enuma Elish were and thus the degree to which they were accessed by ordinary people. Enuma Elish is in an  extremely highfalutin artificial literary dialect of  Akkadian and at the time of the Exile—the traditional but by no means certain date for P—even colloquial Akkadian was probably moribund at best; Aramaic was the new vernacular. It’s an open question how or the degree to which ideas behind texts like Enuma Elish were transmitted to the populace.)

At the same time, I think you’re perfectly safe taking a conservative position that texts like Enuma Elish and Genesis, in spite of clear and significant differences, undeniably belong to the same broad cultural ambit and points of connection can be observed that are illuminating to both texts, without attempting to establish exactly how, when, and why such observable parallels developed (a more difficult task for which there’s little in the way of scholarly consensus, as far as I can discern). In particular: “Deep” (the term never appears with an article in the Hebrew Bible) is cognate linguistically to Tiamat, which in turn echoes Leviathan/Rahab/the Sea in other biblical passages (and there are also Ugaritic parallels in which the god Yamm, “Sea,” is conquered); there are hints that God is presiding over a council (as in EE and Ugaritic literature and other biblical passages); near the end of Tablet III, Tiamat is split in half and stretched out apparently in a similar manner to how the waters are divided in P; “generations” of heaven and earth are referred to, “generation” in Hebrew deriving from the root “to beget/give birth,” perhaps a faint echo of the situation in Enuma Elish in which there are literal generations of heaven and earth engendering one another; other potential connections?
If I had to recommend one text on creation accounts in the Bible and in the Near East (ha! not that I’ve read so widely), it would be Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. It’s not an attempt to reconstruct the historical basis for the apparent relationship between the creation stories in Genesis (P among them) and other Near Eastern accounts per se, so much as it is a theological treatment comparing those various accounts—which is, to my mind, a more interesting project in any event.

Regarding the problem of evil, as Lucretius said, “Not for us and not by the gods was the world made; there’s too much wrong with it.”


  1. I like that “water just kind of exists” line …

    A book I read, “Creation and the Persistence of Evil” had some kind of comment on the fact that water (in the Creation process) was primordial – which at the time was a new idea to me.

    But there is so much more going on in that book.

    Jon D. Levenson is quite a writer. I don’t know if I’ve ever read any other who packs as much meaning and nuance in his word choices and sentences. It’s challenging but very rewarding reading.

  2. Thanks for this. Very enlightening.

    I wonder whether Kiskilili’s “same broad cultural ambit” argument would go over less poorly than JNS’ “subversive response” theory were one to introduce the Enuma Elish-Genesis connection in Sunday School. And I suspect I’ll keep wondering, as discussions about butterfly wings and toddlers are more likely to occur in GD, for a host of reasons. :)

  3. Perhaps this is a naive question but how do you square the documentary hypothesis with fact that both accounts are being directly revealed to Moses (according the the JST)?

  4. Rob Osborn says:

    If we take the account found in “Moses” as being most correct then Genesis ch. 1 is indeed a planning phase or spiritual creation phase or both whereas ch. 2 deals with the actual physical creation of life and placement of it on the earth. Adam was the first creation to have physical life on the planet earth besides plants themselves. Up until the seventh day God has been busy finishing the “hosts”. But we are told that he created them all in heaven and there was not yet any flesh (physical life) on the earth. So, God causes it to rain for the first time which caused the plants to grow, Then he created man’s physcial body and placed the spirit inside of him that he previously had created.

  5. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Ganzo, it’s not a naive question. Nor is it an easy one to resolve. Throwing out the documentary hypothesis seems like a good idea for preserving other Mormon texts, but it really isn’t. The evidence for some version of the documentary hypothesis comes from basically throughout the first four books of the Bible; textual patterns established in the first two chapters of Genesis are consistent throughout those later books, and — as with the first two chapters — material in different textual strands is often theologically and factually incompatible. So throwing out the documentary hypothesis to save an interpretation of the first two chapters just creates lots of trouble later on.

    Another option is to ask about the Moses material in the JST. What kind of revelation to Joseph Smith is this? Is it history, allegory, myth, prophetic expansion? Certainly there are other options as well, and many of the options are compatible with the current best evidence that the Hebrew Bible had a complex, multi-authored textual history.

    This is a hard issue, I think, but worth wrestling with.

  6. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Rob, no, the Moses account doesn’t characterize Genesis Ch. 1 as a spiritual creation. This is an interpretive expansion of the text. What the text says is simply that there was a spiritual creation before the material creation; it doesn’t say that either creation narrative corresponds with that spiritual creation. The reader ads that interpretation to the text.

  7. Moses doesn’t portray the first creation account as just planning – merely as spiritual. Some have taken that to imply planning. Others have taken it as a literal creation of spirits.

  8. Regarding the JST – I think it interesting to see that even afterwards he continued to modify the text. (Compare his comments in the KFD with Moses 2 for instance – as FPR recently discussed) I think we err if we take the JST as the completion of some original text. Rather I think it inspired modifications of the KJV Bible. As such I think we should take the changes as inspired but not assume that just because something wasn’t changed that it is correct in terms of texts. Put an other way, if we believe Joseph that the creation account was revealed to Moses we shouldn’t assume it had the exact form it does now (or in the JST).

  9. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Clark, Moses doesn’t clearly portray the first creation account as spiritual, either — it just says there was a spiritual creation. There’s nothing in the Genesis 1 account that makes it seem particularly spiritual as opposed to material.

  10. JNS (5),

    I personally don’t have a problem wrestling with these issues but I am a GD teacher and I am looking at this from a teacher’s perspective (not to imply that you meant this post as a lesson aid). I don’t know that I am deft enough to bring up the documentary hypothesis without seeming to contradict church teachings, especially given that most of my audience has not studied or even thought much about these issues. This is a problem because I do want to openly address the difference in the creation accounts in my lesson.

  11. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Ganzo, in terms of teaching approaches, how you deal with this will really have a lot to do with what you’re comfortable with. My approach to the documentary hypothesis in the Hebrew Bible in Sunday School has long been as follows. I don’t mention the DH when it isn’t important, i.e., when the narratives differ in ways that don’t really affect the major topics for the class. When the DH is important, I talk about it as an idea that a lot of scholars, including faithful Mormons, think helps us understand the text. Regarding conflicts among texts or between the DH and texts, I am happy to have these noted in class and I won’t take a position. Class members are usually great at finding resolutions that they can live with.

  12. “But this goes far beyond what the text says;”

    Indeed. Interesting to me is that both BRM and JFieldingS explicitly say we have no account of “spiritual creation.” I would have expected them to use the opposite interpretation to account for the discrepancies between the 2 accounts in Genesis, but they don’t. Also, when I’ve asked in my classes, few Mormons read Gen 1 as the spiritual creation. (Now to finish reading the post and comments.)

  13. Ganzo, check out the recent posts on the JSt (=Book of Moses) at

  14. J Nelson (9), yes. He does say they aren’t on earth though (3:5). But the physical creation is a reasonable interpretation. When I said spiritual I was thinking of the physical creation of spirit bodies. (Which is how many GAs took it) But I should have been more explicit. Of course an other interpretation is that Moses 2 is about the creation of the planet and Moses 3 is the creation of the garden. Of course one then has to deal with the use of “earth” as opposed to “heaven” in 3:5.

  15. Nitsav, I think the tendency to not see Moses 2 as a spiritual creation indeed goes to BRM and JFS. I’ve never been quite sure why they want that – I think it goes more to their more Protestant Young Earth Creationism influences. Although the structure of the endowment may also have been a big influence on them. However other GAs were much more positive to the spirit creation approach. I think relative to Abr 3-4 that this view makes the most sense although I admit I haven’t a clue how to take it.

  16. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Clark, regarding 3:5, this isn’t a problem. Note that the second creation narrative begins in 3:4. So 3:5 is just telling us that spiritual creation, whatever that is, happens before physical creation. The text doesn’t have to be read as somehow referring back to the very different creation narrative of the previous chapter.

  17. JNS,

    You make the statement about the Genesis accounts that “God seems to find the planet sitting there more or less half-baked, and the act of creation seems to involve the biggest, most miraculous act of redecoration ever.”

    Somehow, I find this particularly Mormon. Regardless of Joseph Smith’s understanding of Hebrew, he really seems to be pointing to a creation that involved panning and organizing using existing materials. Perhaps I’m overly influenced by Sterling McMurrin, but the concept of a God who has perfect understanding of natural laws (perhaps Eternal is a better word) and has become such by obedience to them, is thus limited to doing what he can do with the existing materials, seems to be a better fit with our theology than the creedal Christians and their ex nihilo extrapolations.

    Lots of stuff to chew on in this post and the comments so far. Thanks.

  18. #17 “panning” should read “planning”.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    My article “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1.” BYU Studies 39/3 (2000): 107-24 talks about JS’s lexical argument regarding bara’. You can read it here:

  20. Prior to this post, everything I knew about Akkadian Gods came from Ghostbusters. Nicely done.

  21. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Kevin, it seems to me that the discussion in the post broadly agrees with you regarding the non-ex-nihilo creation in the Genesis accounts. Indeed, I don’t think special attention to bārā(‘) is necessary for this point, which really seems to also emerge from the rhythm and content of the rest of the story. That said, I continue to be unsure of Joseph Smith’s detailed treatment of the bārā(‘) word itself; Kiskilili offers what seem to be good reason for being unsure exactly what this word means: some kind of creative action, certainly, but a lack of non-divine usages may make the specific content hard to pin down? In other words, it seems possible — although obviously not certain, and I can’t make a sensible decision — that Joseph Smith was right about the creation in Genesis 1 involving structuring raw materials but wrong about the translation point he uses to push the argument. Does that seem plausible to you?

  22. JNS, if you mean that Joseph Smith was explaining what had been revealed to him about the creation, and then tried to find support for it in his study of ancient Hebrew, then I would agree with you, that does seem plausible. The distinctions that Kiskilili and Kevin Barney make about the etymology and grammar of the Hebrew words are beyond me at this point, and if I recall, Joseph and his fellow students of Hebrew in Kirtland and Nauvoo were not remotely aware of modern Hebrew usage versus the Hebrew Bible texts. Joseph was certain about what he knew about the creation, and found something in Hebrew that seemed to support it.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    I wasn’t disagreeing with the OP, just offering further discussion of the topic. I think I mentioned in a footnote or something that Claus Westermann actually took exactly Joseph’s position concerning the meaning of bara’. But yes, my article takes an agnostic stance on the lexical question while affirmatively arguing against creatio ex nihilo on other grounds.

  24. Rob Osborn says:


    I think it would be helpful to realize what was modified from the Genesis text now found in the Moses account regarding Genesis ch. 2 versus Moses ch. 3

    If we are to regard the Moses account as the more truthful account, or more perfect account then it stands to reason that there really is no discrepency with Moses ch.2 and Moses ch. 3.

    Moses Ch 3 adds these words in verse 5 to what is found otherwise in Genesis ch. 2-

    ….” For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth. For I, the Lord God, had not caused it to rain upon the face of the earth. And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the eground; for in heaven created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air;”

    (Pearl of Great Price | Moses 3:5)

    This added text shows to us that the creation previously spoken of was done in the heavens and that as of yet there was no physical life on the earth. He also explains that he had not caused it to rain and it is at this point the seventh day. He concludes by affirming the reader that as of yet there is no life in the air (birds or flying insects), water (fish, whales and all other 97%of all life forms) or on land (people, cattle etc).

    Then in verse 7 he adds-

    7 And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also; nevertheless, all things were before created; but spiritually were they created and made according to my word.

    (Pearl of Great Price | Moses 3:7)

    It is at this point that the Lord forms Adams physical body and places his spirit in him and man becomes a “soul” (both spirit and physical body). As to not confuse there is a further explanation that the previous creation was a “spiritual creation”. The Lord also explains here that Adam is the first flesh of all animals on the earth. There is no dispute here that Moses 3:7 is speaking of the literal formation of Adam’s physical body for his spirit to dwell in. And what day is this happening? The seventh day, not the sixth. So, what then was happening on the sixth day as referenced in verse 27 of Moses ch. 2?-

    27 And I, God, created man in mine own image, in the image of mine Only Begotten created I him; male and female created I them.

    (Pearl of Great Price | Moses 2:27)

    Further on we read-

    31 And I, God, saw everything that I had made, and, behold, all things which I had made were very good; and the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
    1 THUS the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

    (Pearl of Great Price | Moses 2:31 – 3:1)

    These verse tell us that it wasn’t Adam and Eve they created “physically”, rather it speaks of “all the hosts” of men. This can only refer to a spiritual creation. Remeber that later on it states this fact-

    And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men (refer back to the previous verses); and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them (this is again refering to the “all the hosts of them” in heaven); and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air;

    (Pearl of Great Price | Moses 3:5)

    It is easily reasoned then that whatever was happening on the sixth day, we can be assured it weasn’t any physical formation of Adam and Eve’s bodies.

  25. kevinf,

    “the concept of a God who has perfect understanding of natural laws (perhaps Eternal is a better word) and has become such by obedience to them”

    You are describing not the Christian God but Wagner’s Wotan, and we know what happened to him. Contrary to popular saying, it is not absolute power that creates tyranny, but near absolute power that creates lawyers looking for a loophole. The essence of evil is merely the unwillingness to be told what to do.

    I would have thought this concept of God a better fit with Judaeism rather than Mormonism. Maybe you can explain your comment more fully?

  26. For good English translations of Akkadian texts use:

  27. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    This added text shows to us that the creation previously spoken of was done in the heavens and that as of yet there was no physical life on the earth. Rob, that’s just what it doesn’t do — it says that spiritual creation happened before physical creation, but the text doesn’t identify any account of spiritual creation. The identification is the reader’s, not the text’s. The text also doesn’t call the second creation narrative the seventh day — the last reference to the seventh day is in the end of the first creation narrative, in Moses 3:3. But the next verse, Moses 3:4, tells us that a new creation narrative has started. Then Moses 3:4-5 lists what God created spiritually (heaven, earth, plants, herbs, etc.), and tells us that the spiritual creation was done before the action in Moses 3:6 and forward — but it doesn’t say that the spiritual creation corresponds with days 1-6 of the first creation account. Obviously, it could have done this explicitly if it wanted to, but it doesn’t; neither account is labeled by the text as describing spiritual creation. Your reading begins from the assumption that the two accounts happen in sequence, rather than simply being two parallel accounts — but that’s the question to decide, so assuming it in advance is dirty pool

    Ronan, thanks for the link — a neat site.

  28. Rob Osborn says:


    Explain then D&C 77:12 stating Adam’s physical formation on the seventh day not the sixth.

  29. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Rob, who knows? D&C section 77 certainly isn’t about creation. When you have to jump to a wildly different text to make your argument, you are showing a weak hand. I’d note that D&C 77 is an odd text in some ways in its own right. Is it a revelation? The header suggests it is. But it’s clearly spoken in Joseph Smith’s voice, not God’s — notice its usage of “God” and “we.” The model seems to be that Joseph gets insight and expresses this in his own language and ideas. So maybe Joseph thought the Adam and Eve story happened on day 7. It’s important to differentiate between his ideas and scriptural text, or so my FAIR friends insist.

  30. Thanks for the discussion.

    Because I am short of Sundays for the lessons this year, I combined 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. Therefore, I already taught the creation (last week).

    One question I asked my class is:
    Is the creation story science? History? Is the temple endowment science or history?
    How does the creation story help us to grapple with levels of reality not otherwise accessible to man’s reason (science) and experience (history)?

    Regarding the creation story and ANE mythology, we read D&C 1:24 and 2 Ne. 31:3. Why did God speak to Moses/Israel using the vocabulary of ANE mythology? How does God speak to us? Does God speak to us through the Creation story?

    Also, re: the sacrifices made by Adam (I didn’t have much time to develop this but I will later) . . . whatever the sacrifices meant before, the sacrifice now points to Christ (Moses 5:7, 2 Ne. 11:4). What are other events/symbols that are transformed into something else? (Dare I mention Masonic symbols?)

    Just some questions from about 5 pages of notes, which I think relevant to this discussion.

  31. Rob Osborn,
    The explanation is that sometimes scripture contradicts itself. Give me a foolproof theological explanation for why’s Christ’s death takes place on different days in different gospels and I’ll take what you say on this seriously. In the meantime, I think we all approach it in an ad-hoc manner and attempts to argue otherwise have the burden of proof.

    JNS, K, and S,
    Good stuff. I think the P and J creations are united by a sense of order. I think that this explains the bumbling appearance of a God who seems to be guessing what sort of companion would be appropriate for Adam. By going through the animals first, the author is creating a hierarchy of creation similar to the hierarchy created by the P version. Human companionship is superior to other possibilities.

  32. Dan, # 25, what I am referring to is the Mormon concept of a “finite” God. I don’t have McMurrin’s “Theological Foundations” here at work with me, but perhaps this quote from Eugene England’s essay may help:

    “Some Mormon thinkers have used similar approaches, but the theodicy revealed to Enoch and foundational to Mormonism orthodoxy, I believe, questions the other pole of the paradox, God’s omnipotence. It suggests that God allows evil because there is much of it he cant prevent or do away with.”

    England was primarily talking about a uniquely Mormon theodicy, but it grows from the same principle, what I would call for lack of a better term, conditional omnipotence. There are also allusions to this in the King Follett Discourse. I’m not sure I understand the “absolute tyranny” or “lawyers looking for a loophole” part of your comment.

  33. Rob Osborn says:


    Perhaps we can disagree on exactly what was happening on days one through six, but the evidence in favor of Adam and Eves formation on the seventh day is quite overwhelming. One must reject both the two accounts in the PoGP and D&C 77.

    Personally I have always used D&C 77:12 as the final nail in the coffin. Either D&C 77:12 is correct or Joseph Smith is a fraud! Let’s examine the text again-

    12 Q. What are we to understand by the sounding of the trumpets, mentioned in the 8th chapter of Revelation?
    A. We are to understand that as God made the world in six days, and on the seventh day he finished his work, and sanctified it, and also formed man out of the dust of the earth, even so, in the beginning of the seventh thousand years will the Lord God sanctify the earth, and complete the salvation of man, and judge all things, and shall redeem all things, except that which he hath not put into his power, when he shall have sealed all things, unto the end of all things; and the sounding of the trumpets of the seven angels are the preparing and finishing of his work, in the beginning of the seventh thousand years—the preparing of the way before the time of his coming.

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 77:12)

    The pattern here given is quite clear-

    In the six days of creation God “made the world”. Then, on the seventh day he “sanctified it”. To sanctify means to set apart for holy use. When we sanctify something we set it apart from the ordinary and make it special, usually in the sense of pertaining something to do with man and his salvation. The interesting point here is that the world was sanctified (set apart for holy use) so that life could then be placed upon the barren earth. The text then states – “and also formed man from the dust of the earth”. So we have three statements of facts God did on the beginning of the seventh day of creation. They are-

    1. Finished his work (creating the earth)
    2. Sanctified that work (the earth)
    3. Formed man from the dust of the earth.

    This is all done to explain the pattern of this earth in it’s 7000 year continuance where the seventh day is the sabbath. God then explains according to the pattern that even as he made the earth and finished it and sanctified it on the seventh day and also formed man on that day, he will according to that pattern sanctify the earth and complete the salvation of man on the morning of the seventh day (7000th year; millennium).

    The way I see it-

    One could reject D&C 77 and in so doing also have to reinterpret Moses chapter 3 and Abraham ch. 4-5 in favor of making the claim that Adam and Eve and all animals were created and finished at the end of day six and that Moses 3 and Genesis 2 and Abraham 5 are just some strange explanation yet to be truly deciphered.

  34. If you ever find yourself saying:
    “Either x is correct or Joseph Smith is a fraud!”
    and you are not a General Authority (or quoting one), you are being silly.

    Crawford’s Mormon Internet Law #1.

  35. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Rob, those other chapters are not some strange explanation yet to be deciphered; they are coherent parts of relatively easily identifiable bodies of text found woven throughout the first four books of the Hebrew Bible. It’s called the Documentary Hypothesis, it works, it’s not anti-Mormon, and it solves the mystery, such as it is.

  36. JNS “Which of God’s creations are especially beautiful to you?”
    I guess this question is especially poignant at the moment with the aftermath of Haiti,

    There have been some horrific natural disasters throughout the years, for me the experience of life on earth it’s self is the most beautiful creation if God.

    Plants, Animals, Humanity can be destroyed in a moment, Love Life because you never know when your time might be over.

  37. MrQandA — yeah, I agree. Also remember that death and earthquakes come with life.

  38. Rob, it’s interesting that BY accepted the formation of Adam out of the earth but just didn’t think it was this earth.

    The big problem with taking Moses 2 / Genesis 1 as the creation of spirits is in the expansion in Abraham a big chunk of chapter 3 appears to be an expansion of Genesis 1:1 (and reasonably similar to Joseph’s exegesis of 1:1 as “the head God brought forth the gods”). So there we have the already formed spirits having the divine council, then the war in heaven and then the events of the spiritual creation of Moses 2. It’s an important text and its unfortunate that the relationship of Abr 3 and 4 doesn’t get commented on more.

    Regarding the DH making the transition between Gen 1 & 2 moot, I’m skeptical of that. After all if texts that had themselves complex histories can be revealed to Joseph Smith (think the small plates and large plates) why couldn’t Moses have had such a revelation? The assumption that the difference in Genesis 1 & 2 dates so late is perhaps a wee bit problematic and often reflects the structure of other texts. However one should note that you can accept the DH hypothesis but not view the strains purely as writing the texts but rather as transmitting the texts. That is they themselves had multiple texts they were working with.

    The other alternative is to say that Joseph had revealed to him that Moses had that encounter and a revelation but that the actual text of the revelation wasn’t revealed so we simply have the KJV text with some minor modifications. There is no reason to assume the JST restored some pure text from the time of Moses and considerable reason to think the opposite.

  39. Just to be clear, I don’t buy a lot of Brigham Young’s views on creation in the least. And obviously on some important points the Church has rejected his views. I just bring it up as an example of how one could read the text literalistly and still come to a different reading than Rob.

  40. Clark, I’m not sure that it matters exactly when the texts date to, although there are obviously several good reasons to put them long after the time of Moses. Which really isn’t a problem if we adopt the suggestion in the last paragraph of your #38.

    Regarding the other points about the documentary hypothesis, I don’t entirely see your complaints — it’s just not clear what you’re skeptical about and why. I agree that the hypothesis need not imply, say, four individual authors. In fact, at this point, a lot of scholars think there are at least dozens of different authors, editors, redactors, etc., involved in the creation of the texts as we have them today, probably over hundreds of years or more. The composition history was probably wildly complex, far beyond that described in the Book of Mormon for large and small plates.

  41. I’m not skeptical about the DH in the least. I just think it erroneous to assume that say the Priestly source all contains texts written around the same time. However I don’t think most advocates of the DH claim that. However I’ve noticed that those who might have trouble with God combining two sources to Moses often are implicitly making that assumption (and often dating the texts very late).

  42. I’m in the “man created on the 7th day” group as well, for a couple of reasons other than D&C 77:12, which I’m not sure should be easily cast aside.

    1. The seventh day (period) never ends. There is no “evening and the morning were the 7th day”. I find this odd.

    2. Abraham 5:13. Adam’s time is still being kept according to Kolob and not the earthly sun.

    Thus, it is my belief, that the seventh day ended when both man and the earth entered into mortality–with The Fall.

    Thanks for the excellent post and discussion. Much to think about and consider.

  43. My opinion about the DH is that it is more helpful when viewed at a distance than when deeply examined. Also, it is much, much more helpful to keep the sources at the level of the original four (with only a couple of exceptions). Attempts to argue for deeper sources hinge on minutiae so trivial that it is likely that scholars are getting a lot of false positives, especially when one considers that very few of these scholars attempt to create a historical context for their proposed Deuteronomic Priest or Jahwistic Deuteronomist. There isn’t enough in most further proposals to make them truly convincing to anyone but their proponent.

    The situation in Biblical Studies reminds of the situation in Linguistics. Everyone hates the major theory (DH in Biblical Studies; Chomsky in Linguistics) but no-one has yet come up with anything better. So people spend their time picking at the major theory without proposing either the overhaul or the new theory necessary to get rid of it. And I’m not sure if the old theory is being refined so much at this point as that scholarship is getting lazy and potshots at the old theory are easier than creating something new. The last real attempt to reform the system (the Minimalist movement) is currently having to undergo some major adjustments as David’s kingdom now appears to have been much more extensive and centralized than was previously thought. Why spend all your time coming up with a beautiful theory if some archaeologist is going to dig up something to disprove it within a few years?

  44. To add to John C.’s comment: While it’s true practically every consensus in biblical studies has recently broken down and there’s discontent over the Documentary Hypothesis as (a) the most useful scholarly construct for approaching the text of the Bible as a whole as we’ve inherited it and as it was no doubt artfully put together, as well as over (b) our ability methodologically to tease out each individual redactor and their historical circumstances (there’s a paradox in supposing we can identify redactors by their skill in smoothing over seams, since we’re allegedly identifying them by those very seams), nevertheless, in its broadest outlines, the Documentary Hypothesis remains the most convincing accounting not just for differences in the divine name, but differences in theological outlook, location, phraseology, etc. But I agree with John that the DH is most useful on a macro-level for reaching crude general conclusions, and quickly becomes difficult to substantiate on a micro-level.

    Regarding the question of whether Moses could have received different sources through revelation: On historical grounds it’s very difficult to push Moses much later than the end of the Late Bronze Age, and on linguistic grounds it’s difficult to date more than a couple of passages in the Bible that early. Not to mention the textual problems this leaves conspicuously unresolved, such as apparent disagreement over the name of Sinai, Jethro, and perhaps most importantly, God (before and after the theophany at Sinai/Horeb). Surely alternative traditions about Moses’s experience weren’t being revealed to Moses himself.

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