The young-earth creationist’s worldview is built on the supposition that the book of Genesis is meant to be read as perfectly preserved, literal history, in much the same way one might read “Seabiscuit” or “The Devil in the White City.”
Unfortunately for YECs, they do not have to go very far into scripture to run into problems with this approach. That’s because the first couple chapters of Genesis contains not one, but two creation accounts, and — if read entirely literally — they are completely contradictory and irreconcilable. Let’s have a look. (I’ll be jumping around a lot, so here’s a link to the New International Version’s translation of the passage you can refer to.)
If Genesis 1 is nothing more than a historical narrative, then God made plants and trees appear across the land on the third day (verses 11-13). He then made fish and birds, concurrently, on the fifth day (20-23), followed on the sixth by land animals (24-25) and, last of all, humans. All indications within this text are that men and women were made simultaneously: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Now, turn the page. The second creation story opens with an introduction (Genesis 2:4) that closely mirrors Genesis 1:1: “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” The verse in no way indicates that what follows is simply a more detailed look at creation from a different perspective, as YECs claim; it says, “This is the account.”
Moving on, an individual man (the same Hebrew word is used as in 1:26, but it’s now translated singularly rather than as “mankind”) is the first thing God is described as making in Genesis 2. And this creative act occurs explicitly at a time when “no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up” (2:5), even though the plants and trees were supposed to have been made three days prior. Trees appear after this, when God plants the garden of Eden in verses 8 and 9.
This is the first major contradiction in the literalist view. Genesis 2:9 says, “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground — trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food,” after he made man (we haven’t even gotten to woman yet). But Genesis 1:24-31 provides no hint that additional plants or trees were made on the sixth day; all that had already been said and done, as it were.
Skipping down to Genesis 2:18-19, God remarks that it’s not good for man to be alone, and so he then, at that point, proceeds to form “every beast of the field, and every bird of the heavens,” even though these also were supposed to have already been made, and on different days — not at the same time. And finally, after all the birds and beasts are named (sorry, no fish in this creation account), God gets around to making woman (she’s not named Eve till after the fall).
Unlike in Genesis 1, Genesis 2 contains no mention of days, mornings or evenings that separate out the various creative periods. And, as you can surely see, the order of the two is completely different. Genesis 1: Plants and trees, fish and birds, land animals, men and women. Genesis 2: Man, trees, land animals and birds, woman.
YEC proponents have, of course, attempted to explain away these apparent contradictions. It’s in their best interests, after all: If they can’t even get to the third chapter of Genesis without their literalist exegesis falling apart, then they’re in serious trouble.
So, for example, Creation Ministries International author Don Batten (who has a Ph.D. in horticultural science, for crying out loud!) uses the fact that Genesis 2:5 mentions there being no one to “work the ground” as evidence that the passage refers only to “cultivated” plants, not plants in general.
But in Batten’s effort to “take God at his word,” he has to omit part of it. He fails to note the more important reason Genesis 2:5 gives for why plants hadn’t yet appeared: because “the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land.” Cultivated plants may need someone to work the ground, but all plants need water, Dr. Batten. With your Ph.D., I would have guessed you already knew that.
The second way YECs try to ignore these contradictions is just as dishonest to the text, if not more so. As Answers in Genesis author Paul Taylor explains, they believe the verb used in 2:19, which the King James Version renders as “formed” could just as easily be translated “had formed.” (Presumably, this is also true of the verb used in verse 2:7, when God “formed” Adam, and the story would be all mucked up if we translated that instance has “had formed,” but I won’t go there.)
Indeed, this is how more modern translations like the NIV and the English Standard Version render 2:19, in an effort to skate around the contradiction. But this is obviously not faithful to the overall story. Read 2:18 again: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.'” He’s not saying he “has made” a suitable helper already, he’s saying he’s got some makin’ yet to do. And so, in the next verse, he proceeds to make land animals and birds.
Adam also takes the opportunity to name the various creatures as God produces them, but verse 20 (“But for Adam no suitable helper was found”) reiterates the main purpose for God’s bringing forth of all these new critters: To find a helper for man.
The YEC’s interpretation would, instead, make the story as follows:
1. God knows Adam needs a wife, and that it’s something he has yet to make (verse 18).
2. Instead of making the wife God knows is missing from creation, he brings before Adam a whole bunch of other things he’s already made, perhaps just to show off (verse 19).
3. Adam politely explains that he is not interested in his wife being an ostrich or a buffalo (verse 20).
4. And so (verse 21 being clearly tied to verse 20 by the conjunction “so”), God finally makes the thing he apparently knew needed to be made way back in verse 18.
As a recent blog post by Slacktivist’s Fred Clark so wonderfully points out, the literalists’ main problem is that they are trying to harmonize two accounts that weren’t meant to be harmonized. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 tell two different and separate stories, which contain very different (but equally important and true) teachings about God, humanity and the relationship between the two. The danger in YECs’ modern efforts to puree the two narratives into one is that they risk distorting these lessons such that the real, eternal value intended by the original authors (and ultimately, by God) is lost.
In other words, the key to understanding Genesis 1 and 2 is not finding some secret way to harmonize them together; the key is accepting that they were never meant to be “harmonized” at all. Let them be separate. Let them be different. As long as they aren’t both read as straightforward history lessons, there are no contradictions between them.
I believe that there is truth in the first two chapters of Genesis that goes far beyond the superficial questions of the order in which life appeared and the number of days it took God to make everything. In my view, these two snippets of ancient literature contain the essence of God’s reason for making mankind, and the relationship he desires with every man and woman who now lives.
To me, this is truth that is beautiful and irreplaceable — life-changing, even. To me, this is truth that is much too important and too precious to risk cheapening by insisting a sacred myth be read literally or to risk diluting by harmonizing the Bible’s many disparate voices into meaninglessness.