Genesis creation narrative

Genesis creation narrative
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The Genesis creation narrative (the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis) describes the divine creation of the world including the first man and woman. The creation myth produced by the authors of Genesis was both a product of the cultural world of the ancient Near East and distinctively different, "borrow[ing] some Mesopotamian themes but adapt[ing] them to the unique conception of their one God,"[1] establishing a monotheistic creation in opposition to the Babylonian polytheistic one.[2]

"Genesis opens with a narrative of origins—Creation and the Garden Story—that is compelling in its archetypal character, its adaptation of myth to monotheistic ends."[3] Chapter one describes the creation of the world by Elohim (the Hebrew word meaning "God") in six days by means of divine speech, and the designation of the seventh day as Sabbath, a holy day of rest. Man and woman are created on the sixth day to be God's agents over his creation. Chapter two tells of Yahweh (the personal name of the God of Israel) creating the first man from dust, breathing life into his nostrils, placing him in the Garden of Eden, and forming the first woman Eve, from his side. The creation account ends with a statement instituting marriage.



God creating the land animals (Vittskövle Church fresco, 1480s).

The creation narrative is made up of two parts, roughly equivalent to the two first chapters of the Book of Genesis. Genesis 1-2:4 concerns the creation of the world by Elohim, the generic Hebrew word for God; Genesis 2:4–2:25 tells how Yahweh Elohim ("Yahweh-God") forms the first man (Adam) from dust, then plants a garden and forms animals and birds for Adam to name, and finally, creates the first woman to be his wife. The two are linked by a short bridge and form part of a wider unit in Genesis which scholars call the primeval history.[4][5]

First narrative: creation week

Genesis 1:3–2:4

The creation week consists of eight divine commands executed over six days, followed by a seventh day of rest.

  • First day: Light is created ("Let there be light!")[Gen 1:3]—the first divine command. The light is divided from the darkness, and they are named "day" and "night".
  • Second day: God makes a firmament ("Let a firmament be...!")—the second command—to divide the waters above from the waters below. The firmament is named "skies".[Gen 1:6–7]
  • Third day: God commands the waters below to be gathered together in one place, and dry land to appear (the third command)."earth" and "sea" are named. God commands the earth to bring forth grass, plants, and fruit-bearing trees (the fourth command).[Gen 1:9–10]
  • Fourth day: God puts lights in the firmament (the fifth command) to separate light from darkness and to mark days, seasons and years. Two great lights are made to appear (most likely the Sun and Moon, but not named), and the stars.[Gen 1:14–15]
  • Fifth day: God commands the sea to "teem with living creatures", and birds to fly across the heavens (sixth command) He creates birds and sea creatures, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply.[Gen 1:20–21]
  • Sixth day: God commands the land to bring forth living creatures (seventh command);[Gen 1:24–25] He makes wild beasts, livestock and reptiles. He then creates humanity in His "image" and "likeness" (eighth command). They are commanded to "be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it." The totality of creation is described by God as "very good."[Gen 1:26–28]
  • Seventh day: "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them." God, having completed the heavens and the earth, rests from His work, and blesses and sanctifies the seventh day.[Gen 2:1–3]

Literary bridge

Genesis 2:4 (first half) "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created."

Genesis 2:4a (i.e., the first half of Genesis 2:4) provides a "bridge" connecting the two creation accounts. This verse between the creation week account and the Eden account which follows is the first of ten tôledôt ("generations") phrases used throughout Genesis, and which provide a literary structure to the book.[6] Since the phrase always precedes the "generation" to which it belongs, the position taken by most commentators is that the "generations of the heavens and the earth" can logically be taken to refer to Genesis 2.[7]

Second narrative: Eden

Genesis 2:4–25
Painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The Creation stained glass window at St. Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina
  • Genesis 2:4 Genesis 2:4b—the second half of the bridge formed by the "generations" formula, and the beginning of the Eden narrative—places the events of the narrative "in the day when YHWH Elohim made the earth and the heavens...." (The lack of punctuation in the Hebrew creates ambiguity over where sentence-endings should be placed in this passage. This is reflected in differing modern translations, some of which attach this clause to Genesis 2:4a and place a full stop at the end of 4b, while others place the full stop after 4a and make 4b the beginning of a new sentence, while yet others combine all verses from 4a onwards into a single sentence culminating in Genesis 2:7).
  • Before any plant had appeared, before any rain had fallen, while a mist[8] watered the earth, Yahweh formed the man (Heb. ha-adam הָאָדָם) out of dust from the ground (Heb. ha-adamah הָאֲדָמָה), and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. And the man became a "living being" (Heb. nephesh).
  • Yahweh planted a garden in Eden and he set the man in it. He caused pleasant trees to sprout from the ground, and trees necessary for food, also the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Some modern translations alter the tense-sequence so that the garden is prepared before the man is set in it, but the Hebrew has the man created before the garden is planted). An unnamed river is described: it goes out from Eden to water the garden, after which it parts into four named streams. He takes the man who is to tend His garden and tells him he may eat of the fruit of all the trees except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "for in that day thou shalt surely die."
  • Yahweh resolved to make a "helper" for the man. He made domestic animals and birds, and the man gave them their names, but none of them was a fitting helper. Therefore Yahweh caused the man to sleep, and he took a rib,[9] and from it formed a woman. The man then named her "Woman" (Heb. ishshah), saying "for from a man (Heb. ish) has this been taken." A statement instituting marriage follows: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."
  • The man and his wife were naked, and felt no shame.

Biblical creation narratives outside of Genesis

The narrative in Genesis 1 was not the only creation-myth in ancient Israel, and the complete biblical evidence seems to indicate two contrasting models. The first is the "logos" (meaning speech) model, where a supreme God "speaks" dormant matter into existence. The second is the "agon" (meaning struggle or combat) model, in which it is God's victory in battle over the monsters of the sea that mark his sovereignty and might.[10] Genesis 1 is the supreme example of the "logos" mythology; an example of the "agon" myth can be seen in Isaiah 51:9-10, which has the following passage calling on Yahweh, the god of Israel, to lead his people out of exile in Babylon: "Awake, awake! ... It was you that hacked Rahab in pieces, that pierced the Dragon! It was you that dried up the Sea, the waters of the great Deep, that made the abysses of the Sea a road that the redeemed might walk..." Here, the author is recalling the ancient Israelite myth in which Yahweh (God) creates the world by vanquishing the water deities.[11]

For some further examples see: Job 38-41; Psalms 18, 19, 24; 24; 33; 68; 93; 95; 104; Proverbs 8:22-33; Isaiah 40-42. In the New Testament, see, John 1; Colossians 1; Hebrews 3; 8.

Structure and composition

Michelangelo's painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel shows the creation of the sun, moon and earth as described in the first chapter of Genesis.

Two stories or one?

Until the latter half of the 19th century, Genesis 1 and 2 were seen as one continuous, uniform story with Genesis 1:1–2:6 outlining the world's origin, and 2:7–2:25[12] carefully painting a more detailed picture of the creation of humanity. Modern scholarship, citing (1) the use of two different names for God, (2) two different emphases (physical vs. moral issues), and (3) a different order of creation (plants before humans vs. plants after humans), believes that these are two distinct scriptures written many years apart by two different sources, chapter 1 by the Priestly source and chapter 2 by the Jahwist, with the bridge the work of a "redactor", or editor.[13][14]


Genesis 1 consists of eight acts of creation within a six day framework followed by a day of rest. In each of the first three days there is an act of division: Day one divides the darkness from light; day two, the waters from the skies; and day three, the sea from the land. In each of the next three days these divisions are populated: day four populates what was created on day one, and heavenly bodies are placed in the darkness and light; day five populates what was created on day two, and fish and birds are placed in the seas and skies; finally, day six populates what was created on day three, and animals and man are place on the land. This six-day structure is symmetrically bracketed: On day zero primeval chaos reigns, and on day seven there is cosmic order.[15]

Genesis 2 is a simple linear narrative, with the exception of the parenthesis about the four rivers at 2:10–14. This interrupts the forward movement of the narrative and is possibly a later insertion.[16]

The two are joined by Genesis 2:4a, "These are the tôledôt (תוֹלְדוֹת in Hebrew) of the heavens and the earth when they were created." This echoes the first line of Genesis 1, "In the beginning Elohim created both the heavens and the earth," and is reversed in the next line of Genesis 2, "In the day when Yahweh Elohim made the earth and the heavens...." The significance of this, if any, is unclear, but it does reflect the preoccupation of each chapter, Genesis 1 looking down from heaven, Genesis 2 looking up from the earth.[17]


Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam (1512) is the most famous Fresco in the Sistine Chapel

Traditionally attributed to Moses, today most scholars believe that the Pentateuch is "a composite work, the product of many hands and periods."[18]

Scholars have identified three literary traditions in Genesis, as in Deuteronomy, usually identified as the Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly strains. These strains are considered by most modern theologians as accounting for what some have seen as contradictions in the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2.

  • The Yahwist literary tradition, also known as the J source because it used the name Yahweh (Jehovah) for God. It is a Judaean rendition of the sacred story, perhaps written as early as 950 BC.[19]
  • The Elohist literary tradition designates God as Elohim. It is traceable to the northern kingdom of Israel and was written 900–700 BC.[19]
  • The Priestly (P) strain expresses cultic interests and regulations for priests, is usually dated in the 5th century BC, and is regarded as the law upon which Ezra and Nehemiah based their reform. Because each of these strains preserves materials much older than the time of their incorporation into a written work, Genesis contains extremely old oral and written traditions.[19] it is generally agreed that the J account (Genesis 2) is older than P (Genesis 1), that both were written during the 1st millennium BC, and that they reached the combined form in which we know them today about 450 BC.

Exegetical points

"In the beginning..."

The first word of Genesis 1 in Hebrew, "in beginning" (Heb. berēšît בְּרֵאשִׁית), provides the traditional Hebrew title for the book. The inherent ambiguity of the Hebrew grammar in this verse gives rise to two alternative translations, the first implying that God's initial act of creation was before time was created[20] and ex nihilo (out of nothing),[21][22] the second that "the heavens and the earth" (i.e., everything) already existed in a "formless and empty" state, to which God brings form and order:[23]

  1. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void.... God said, Let there be light!" (King James Version).
  2. "At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth, when the earth was (or the earth being) unformed and void.... God said, Let there be light!" (Rashi, and with variations Ibn Ezra and Bereshith Rabba).

The names of God

Two names of God are used, Elohim in the first account and Yahweh Elohim in the second account. In Jewish tradition, dating back to at least the medieval Rashi, the different names indicate different attributes of God.[24][25] In modern times the two names, plus differences in the styles of the two chapters and a number of discrepancies between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, were instrumental in the development of source criticism and the documentary hypothesis.

"Without form and void"

The phrase traditionally translated in English "without form and void" is tōhû wābōhû (Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ‎). The Greek Septuagint (LXX) rendered this term as "unseen and unformed" (Greek: ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος), the equivalent of the Greek concept of Chaos. In the Hebrew Bible, the phrase is a dis legomenon, being used only in one other place, Jeremiah 4:23,[Jer. 4:23] where Jeremiah is telling Israel that sin and rebellion against God will lead to "darkness and chaos," or to "de-creation," "as if the earth had been ‘uncreated.’".[26]

The "rûach" of God

The Hebrew rûach (רוּחַ) has the meanings "wind, spirit, breath," but the traditional Jewish interpretation here is "wind," as "spirit" would imply a living supernatural presence co-extent with yet separate from God at creation. This, however, is the sense in which rûach was understood by the early Christian church in developing the doctrine of the Trinity, in which this passage plays a central role.[23]

The "deep"

The "deep" (Heb. תְהוֹם tehôm) is the formless body of primeval water surrounding the habitable world. These waters are later released during the great flood, when "all the fountains of the great deep burst forth" from under the earth and from the "windows" of the sky.[Gen. 7:11] [21] The word itself parallels the Babylonian Tiawath and Assyrian Tamtu (ocean of chaos).[27]

The "firmament"

The "firmament" (Heb. רָקִיעַ rāqîa) of heaven, created on the second day of creation and populated by luminaries on the fourth day, denotes a solid ceiling[28] which separated the earth below from the heavens and their waters above. The term is etymologically derived from the verb rāqa (רֹקַע ), used for the act of beating metal into thin plates.[21][29]

"Great sea monsters"

Heb. hatanninim hagedolim (הַתַּנִּינִם הַגְּדֹלִים) is the classification of creatures to which the chaos-monsters Leviathan and Rahab belong.[30] In Genesis 1:21, the proper noun Leviathan is missing and only the class noun great tannînim appears. The great tannînim are associated with mythological sea creatures such as Lotan (the Ugaritic counterpart of the biblical Leviathan) which were considered deities by other ancient near eastern cultures; the author of Genesis 1 asserts the sovereignty of Elohim over such entities.[31]


The use of numbers in ancient texts was often numerological rather than factual - that is, the numbers were used because they held some symbolic value to the author.[32] To take one example, the number seven denoted divine completion. It is embedded in the text of Genesis 1 (but not in Genesis 2) in a number of ways, besides the obvious seven-day framework: the word "God" occurs 35 times (7 × 5) and "earth" 21 times (7 × 3). The phrases "and it was so" and "God saw that it was good" occur 7 times each. The first sentence of Genesis 1:1 contains 7 Hebrew words composed of 28 Hebrew letters (7 × 4), and the second sentence contains 14 words (7 × 2), while the verses about the seventh day[Gen. 2:1–3] contain 35 words (7 × 5) in total.[33]

Man in "the image of God"

The meaning of the "image of God" has been debated since Hellenistic times. The medieval Jewish scholar Rashi believed it referred to "a sort of conceptual archetype, model, or blueprint that God had previously made for man," while his colleague Maimonides believed that it referred to man's intellect and free will,[34] and Jewish mysticism took it to mean a form of parallelism between the physical human body and the divine order.[35]


Questions of genre

In academic circles the Genesis creation narrative is often described as a creation or cosmogonic myth. The word myth comes from the Greek root for "story" or "legend", and describes a culturally significant or sacred account explaining the origins of existence by using metaphorical language and symbolism to express ideas. The text has also been variously described as historical narrative[36] (i.e., a literal account); as mythic history (i.e., a symbolic representation of historical time); as ancient science (in that, for the original authors, the narrative represented the current state of knowledge about the cosmos and its origin and purpose); and as theology (as it describes the origin of the earth and humanity in terms of God).[37]

Ancient Near East context

Cuneiform tablet with the Atra-Hasis Epic in the British Museum

The two Genesis creation stories—Genesis 1:1–2:3 and Genesis 2:4-2:25—are both comparable with other Near Eastern creation stories—notably Narrative I has close parallels with the Enûma Eliš[38][39] and Narrative II has parallels with the Atra-Hasis.[40]

According to the Enûma Eliš the original state of the universe was a chaos formed by the mingling of two primeval waters, the female saltwater Tiamat and the male freshwater Apsu.[41] The opening six lines read:

When skies above were not yet named
Nor earth below pronounced by name
Apsu, the first one, their begetter
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all
Had mixed their waters together,
But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds.[42]

Scholars have compared this with Genesis 1:1–2, suggesting that the Enûma Eliš is at least one of the sources for this passage and pointing out similarities and differences.[43][44]

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty,
darkness was over the surface of the deep,
and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.


Jewish and Christian theology both define God as unchangeable since he created time and therefore transcends time and is not affected by it.[45]

Traditional Jewish scholarship has viewed it as expressing spiritual concepts (see Nachmanides, commentary on Genesis). The Mishnah in Tractate Chagigah states that the actual meaning of the creation account, mystical in nature and hinted at in the text of Genesis, was to be taught only to advanced students one-on-one. Tractate Sanhedrin states that Genesis describes all mankind as being descended from a single individual in order to teach certain lessons. Among these are:

  • Taking one life is tantamount to destroying the entire world, and saving one life is tantamount to saving the entire world.
  • A person should not say to another that he comes from better stock because we all come from the same ancestor.
  • To teach the greatness of God, for when human beings create a mold every thing that comes out of that mold is identical, while mankind, which comes out of a single mold, is different in that every person is unique.[46]

Among the many views of modern scholars on Genesis and creation one of the most influential is that which links it to the emergence of Hebrew monotheism from the common Mesopotamian/Levantine background of polytheistic religion and myth around the middle of the 1st millennium BC.[47] The "creation week" narrative forms a monotheistic polemic on creation-theology directed against gentile creation myths, the sequence of events building to the establishment of Biblical Sabbath (in Hebrew: שַׁבָּת, Shabbat) commandment as its climax.[48]

Where the Babylonian myths saw man as nothing more than a "lackey of the gods to keep them supplied with food,"[49] Genesis starts out with God approving the world as "very good" and with mankind at the apex of created order.[Gen. 1:31] Things then fall away from this initial state of goodness: Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree in disobedience of the divine command. Ten generations later in the time of Noah, the earth has become so corrupted that God resolves to return it to the waters of chaos sparing only one family who is righteous and from whom a new creation can begin.


Since the 18th and 19th centuries literalist interpretations of Genesis have been in conflict with the growing scientific consensus that the age of the earth is around 4.6 billion years.[50] There still remains some movements of Biblical literalism who are committed to interpreting the Bible by adhering closely to the explicit words given in the text.[51] Strict literalists view Genesis creation as a historical event that transpired exactly as written,[52] but do not all agree on how literally to interpret the creation account in Genesis. Young earth creationists, maintain that the Genesis creation took place between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, and that the seven days of Genesis 1 correspond to normal 24-hour days.

See also


  1. ^ Gordon & Sarna 1997, p. 50 - "In order to develop their beliefs, the Hebrews borrowed some Mesopotamian themes but adapted them to the unique conception of their one God."
  2. ^ Leeming 2004 - "To the extent that this myth was influenced by Mesopotamian concepts, it can be said that it purposely establishes a monotheistic creation as opposed to the Babylonian polytheistic one."
  3. ^ Alter 2008, p. xii - "Genesis opens with a narrative of origins—Creation and the Garden Story—that is compelling in its archetypal character, its adaptation of myth to monotheistic ends ..."
  4. ^ Alter 1997, p. 7
  5. ^ Rendtorff 2009, p. 41
  6. ^ Cross 1997 pp.301 ff
  7. ^ Wenham (1987)
  8. ^ in some translations, a stream
  9. ^ Some scholars have questioned the traditional "rib" on the grounds that it denigrates the equality of the sexes, suggesting it should read "side".(Reisenberger 1993) Others note: "Eve was created from a rib taken from the side of Adam, signifying that she was not to control him as the head, nor to be trampled under his feet as an inferior, but to stand by his side as an equal, to be loved and protected by him."(White 1958, p. 46)
  10. ^ Michael Fishbane, "Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking", pp.34-35
  11. ^ Brettler, pp.203-204
  12. ^ Stagg 1962, p. 297
  13. ^ Metzger & Murphy 1991
  14. ^ Metzger & Coogan 1993, pp. 140–141
  15. ^ Bandstra 1999
  16. ^ Carr 1993, pp. 577–595
  17. ^ Friedman 2005, p. 35
  18. ^ Speiser, E. A. (1964). Genesis. The Anchor Bible. Doubleday. p. XXI. ISBN 0-385-00854-6. 
  19. ^ a b c Genesis." Encyclopædia Britannica
  20. ^ Yonge 1854
  21. ^ a b c Wenham 1987
  22. ^ Schaff 1995
  23. ^ a b Orlinsky 2001 page number needed.
  24. ^ Kaplan 2002, p. 93
  25. ^ Wylen 2005, p. 108
  26. ^ Thompson, 1980, p. 230
  27. ^ Spence 1995, p. 72
  28. ^ Seeley 1991, pp. 227–240 and Seeley 1997, pp. 231–55
  29. ^ Hamilton 1990, p. 122
  30. ^ Vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew, Texas A&M University.
  31. ^ Hamilton 1990, p. 123
  32. ^ Hyers 1984, p. 74
  33. ^ Wenham 1987, p. 6
  34. ^ Footnotes to Genesis translation at
  35. ^ See for instance Moshe Haim Luzzato, קנאת ה' צבאות, introduction
  36. ^ Feinberg 2006
  37. ^ Sparks 2008
  38. ^ Heidel, Alexander. Babylonian Genesis Chicago University Press; 2nd edition edition (1 Sep 1963) ISBN 0226323994 (See especially Ch3 on Old Testament Parallels)
  39. ^ Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts Oxford University Press USA (30 Aug 2001) ISBN 019513480X (See especially Ch 9.1)
  40. ^ Dalley, Stephanie (2000). "Introduction on 'Creation of Man'". Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and others. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 4. ISBN 0192835890. 
  41. ^ Bandstra, Barry L. (1999), "Enûma Eliš", Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Wadsworth Publishing Company, archived from the original on 12 December 2006, .
  42. ^ Dalley, Stephanie (2000). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and others. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 233 The Epic of Creation. Tablet 1.. ISBN 0192835890. 
  43. ^ Levenson, Jǒn Douglas (Reprint edition (29 Nov 1994)). Creation and the persistence of evil: the Jewish drama of divine omnipotence. Princeton University Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0691029504. 
  44. ^ Davies, Philip R.; John WIlliam Rogerson (2005). The Old Testament world. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 112. ISBN 978-0664230258. 
  45. ^ Clontz 2008
  46. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.
  47. ^ For a discussion of the roots of biblical monotheism in Canaanite polytheism, see Mark S. Smith, "The Origins of Biblical Monotheism"; See also the review of David Penchansky, "Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible", which describes some of the nuances underlying the subject. See the Bibliography section at the foot of this article for further reading on this subject.
  48. ^ Meredith G. Kline, "Because It Had Not Rained", (Westminster Theological Journal, 20 (2), May 1958), pp. 146–57
  49. ^ T. Jacobson, "The Eridu Genesis", JBL 100, 1981, pp.529, quoted in Gordon Wenham, "Exploring the Old Testament: The Pentateuch", 2003, p.17. See also Wenham 1987
  50. ^ Stenhouse 2000, p. 76
  51. ^ Lindbeck 2001, p. 295
  52. ^ Scott 2005, pp. 227–8



External links

Sources for the biblical text

Sources for earlier related Mesopotamian texts

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