CNA - Saint of the Day

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Essay 3 - Submitted Essay - The Priestly and Yawhist Accounts of Creation

Thomas Brodie OP states that ‘Genesis is two things: a museum of the external world and a meditation.’[1] This wonderful definition explains that through inspired, yet limited human means, the authors, in exploring the origin and meaning of life reveal much about ancient culture and literature and perhaps, most importantly, harmonise these elements with great consideration so that they reflect a message not about history, but about present day existence. In the opening chapters, we are presented with two accounts of the story of creation, which do not exist in order to provide a scientific account or analysis of the great event but to ‘point the way to morality, righteousness, and salvation.’[2]  It is important to remember that they are inspired spiritual writings and that ‘the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this Word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources.’[3]

Both of the creation accounts given in Genesis draw on some of the influential near eastern writings that existed at that time. Perhaps the greatest parallels can be seen with the ancient Mesopotamian text the ‘Enuma Elish’[4], which relates the story of the birth of the gods through the primeval water names Apsu (male) and the abyss of chaos that is named Tiamat (female). Tiamat is killed and her corpse is ‘split… like a flat fish into two halves[5], one of which is turned into the firmament and the other into the heavens. Where the mythical and biblical texts diverge is on their use of the thought process. According to Etienne Charpentier, the near eastern myths were very influential but their aim was to endorse created gods and then through ritual ‘gain control over this deity, to enlist his service.’[6] Biblical thinking turns this ancient model on its head by beginning with Gods address to humankind and leading through to the response to God through ritual.

The Yahwist Author

This author is the earlier of the two authors of the creation story and it is thought that this localised account of creation was written between 1000 – 950 BC at the time of either King David or Solomon. At this point in history the king was an all important figure since ‘he is the one who gives the faith unity’[7]. Agriculture was the most important activity and so many of the stories presented by this author use earthy images and detail humankinds relationship with the soil. The narrative is given in almost like a folk story, showing the strong influence of the near eastern mythology writings. Of immense importance and distinction to the Yahwist description is the role of water, especially rainfall in the role of cultivation. It is the rainfall that gives power to the soil to bring forth various types of vegetation and indeed, it is from the arable soil – adamah, that the first man – adam, is fashioned. Having all life forms linked to the soil is a way in which the ecological ideal of mutuality is enforced. Recalling Thomas Brodie’s image of Genesis as a museum, it is proper that the Yawhist author is ‘regarded as a witness to a primitive stage… in which nature played a major and formative role.’[8]

Yahweh, the name given to God in this account, is portrayed as an immanent, anthromorphological figure who is closely bound up with the ‘moral and psychological dilemmas’[9] of his created beings. This bind sets a redemptive tone and is used to show God as one who not only punishes a contravention but, as we see in Gen3:21, is also one who is moved to provide post-transgressional solicitude. Both man and woman are disciplined with ‘labour’: woman in childbirth, and man on ‘unfruitful ground’, they are banished from Eden and the human condition of yearning for paradise results. Pope Leo XIII summed this up when he stated that ‘God has not created us for the perishable and transitory things of earth, but for things heavenly and everlasting. He has given us this world as a place of exile, and not as our abiding place.’[10]

The Priestly Author

The first verses of Genesis, placed as a pretext to the Yawhist account, were written sometime in the 6th century B.C., by an author of what is called the Priestly tradition. According to the document hypothesis[11], this source is the most recent of the four original sources of the Pentateuch and it concerns itself with emphasising ‘the priestly tradition or interest, giving detailed explanations and descriptions of ritual laws and procedures.’[12] Of course central to the priestly source are the experience of the Babylonian exile and a deep consideration of why it occurred and how to prevent a reoccurrence. Most likely these first verses were written in response to the much more human centred Yawhist creation story and strive to put a transcendental yet distant God back into the centre. The priests of the time wrote primarily for the Babylonian exiles who were ‘completely disheartened people’[13] in order to keep up their hope and faith. The religious rituals, dates, measurements, chronologies, genealogies, worship and laws presented in the priestly writings had a tri-fold purpose: to remove those elements which were contradictory or unnecessary to the ‘final stage of the Israelite religion’[14], to make the exiles hungry for their own land and promote obedience to and right relationship with God as a way to make reparation for past wrongs.

The structure of the priestly account of the creation story is strictly chronological and almost generational with day following day with the fruit of each day almost setting the scene for the next. Inside this ‘vision of cosmic perfection’[15] also exist themes of separation designed to give a certain authority to each act. Along with this concern for order is the reference to God’s blessing over the animals and humankind and their mission to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen1:28) and on the Sabbath. The order in which these are created and blessed gave rise to the mistaken notion that man was created for the Sabbath, which in turn gave undue eminence to rules and regulations over human need and reason. Together, order and blessing were used not only as an expression of favour, but to show that Israel’s history was indeed ‘progressing according to a plan predetermined by God.’[16]


There are many other differences that exist between the two accounts of creation, yet, as already stated, they do not exist to provide a scientific analysis of how things came to be but together indicate a profound mystery. The thrust of research today is always towards solid scientific fact which at times moves so quickly looking for an undisputable answer, that is fails to stop and appreciate the question and indeed its essence. Biblical questions are spiritual questions and one who attempts to come to them with only a scientific methodology is in danger of missing the mystery. As John Metcalfe points out ‘spiritual things should be conveyed’[17] in a mystery. The creation accounts are mystical writings and once this is acknowledged, we begin to understand that although we are contemplating the spiritual wrapped in mystery, nonetheless they rest together on factual foundations. These foundations are summed up in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it states:

‘The significance is that creation is the foundation of all God’s saving plans. It shows forth the almighty and wise love of God, and it is the first step toward the covenant of the one God with his people. It is the beginning of the history of salvation which culminates in Christ; and it is the first answer to our fundamental questions regarding our very origin and destiny.[18]

[1] Thomas Brodie, ‘How Genesis Portrays the Human Heart.’ Spirituality July-Aug. 1995.Catholic (2008) [accessed 26 October 2010]
[2] B.A. Robinson, ‘Comparing Genesis with the theory of evolution’, (2009) [accessed 25 Oct. 2010]
[3] Commission, Pontifical Biblical. ‘Interpretation of the Bible in the Church: Methods and Approaches.’ Catholic Resources - Felix Just, S.J. Ed. Felix Just. Catholic Resources, 01 Aug. 2005. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. .
[4] The poem Enuma Elish is an ancient Mesopotamian religious poem that was written about 1100BC. It begins with sexual principals and leads to the creation ‘of the firmament’ as a result of violence. See
[5] Ibid n.4 This reference is found at the end of the fourth tablet.
[6] Etienne Charpantier, How to read the Old Testament p 20.
[7] Charpentier ‘How to Read the Old Testament’ p27
[8] Theodore Hibert ‘The Yawhist’s Landscape’ p27.
[9] The Harper Collins Study Bible p7 provides a commentary on the Yahwist story.
[10] Rerum Novarum, n.21
[11] Meaning the documentary hypothesis on the identity of the Pentateuch’s authors. The four original sources have been named as the Yawhist, the Priestly, the Elohist and the Deuteronomical sources.
[12] See
[13] Virginia Gilbert, ‘The Priestly Writers of Exodus’
[14] Hibert ‘The Yawhist’s Landscape’ p27.
[15] Eco-justice Ministries, ‘Comparing the two Creation stories in genesis’
[16] See the ‘Priestly Document’ published at
[17] John Metcalfe ‘Creation’ p64
[18] Response given in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to Q51


Múlier, ecce fílius tuus, Totus Tuus! Fergal

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog

Liturgical Calendar

St. Xavier & St. Neri - Patrons

St. Xavier & St. Neri - Patrons