A Reflection on Genesis 1

genesis-1

It has often been pointed out that the opening chapters of Genesis contain two separate creation stories that have been carefully combined by later redactors/editors. The first account (Gen 1:1—2:4a) is assigned to a priestly writer, and the second (Gen 2:4b–25) to an author who knows God as YHWH, rather than Elohim. Furthermore, the understanding many Christians have on divine inspiration results in God being regarded as the ultimate author of Scripture. Consequently, some see it as appropriate to conflate these two accounts of origins. However, the redactor(s) obviously left the two stories intact, rather than try to merge them, so honoring their different traditions. Moreover, their literary styles are distinctly different and we do a disservice to Scripture if we ignore this fact.

A further complication is that many Christians assume these two accounts are both historical and scientific descriptions of origins, as we understand those terms today—which is also why some attempt to combine the accounts. This can result in a desire to read the well-established findings of modern science into scripture in order to harmonize the two. Concerning Genesis 1, one popular approach is to introduce the six days of creation as ages or epochs of time. Consequently the Hebrew word for “day” (yom) is interpreted figuratively in terms of an unspecified period of time which is then linked to the millions of years required for the evolutionary process and the fossil record. However, this is problematic since it disrupts the author’s rhythmic use of “evening and morning” on each of the six days of God’s creative acts.[1] It seems to me that it is exegetically unacceptable to interpret the text in this way. Rather, this approach is an example of eisegesis where one reads into the text the desire to see concord with the timescales required by geology and biology. We need to move beyond seeing Genesis 1–3 as a divinely inspired explanation of origins in a scientific sense, or view it as a factual historical account of events.

Instead, these two pre-scientific accounts need to be appreciated in the context of the stories of origins from the neighboring cultures of Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt. After all, the Genesis that we have today emerged in its final form at the time of the exile (sixth century BCE).[2] As such, there is a contrast between the God of Israel and the Babylonian deities. In other words, the writers and redactors were telling Israel’s own story in a given context, rather than some universal narrative articulated in an abstract manner for the whole of humankind. These early chapters of Genesis, then, describe Israel’s own understandings of themselves and, at a time of dispersion and exile, they become community-defining texts that affirm their God-given identity—one that is covenantal (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David) from the very beginning.

That being the case, it does not matter how the original audience understood these accounts in terms of our modern categories of science and history. But that does not mean that their theological messages are unimportant for today. Indeed, they are foundational, since they reveal God’s redemptive acts. If they are not scientific or historical accounts, how might we view, say, the first chapter of Genesis?

Table 1: A Framework of God’s Creative Activity in Genesis 1

God Creates “Spaces” (or Domains) God Fills “Spaces” (or Domains)

Day 1

Day 4

God separates light from darkness (v4).[3] God fills the sky with lights: the sun, moon and stars—to rule the seasons and maintain the separation between darkness and light (v14–18).

Day 2

Day 5

God separates the sky from the “waters” (v7,8). God fills the waters with living creatures and the sky with birds (v20–22).

Day 3

Day 6

(a) God separates the land from the seas (v9,10).

(b) God fills the land with vegetation.

(a) God fills the land with domestic and wild animals (v24,25).

(b) God makes humankind (v26–30).

In Genesis 1, we see that God is the primary subject of this chapter and whose ultimate origin is unquestioned by this community of faith. The poetic, liturgy-like pattern introduces a seven-day structure ending with a Sabbath—most appropriate if the writer is of a priestly class. While 7 is the number of completeness, unity, and perfection, 8 creative acts are to be found within 6 days (two acts occur on days 3 and 6). Rather than viewing God’s activities on these six days in a literal sense, or one that is meant to correspond to a scientific sequence, it is better to view the days in a literary fashion. Table 1 provides a framework of God’s activity in Genesis 1, in which God first separates spaces or regions (days 1–3) and then fills each of those spaces (days 4–6). This elegant schema is not too rigid, resulting in the text being artificially constrained; rather it mirrors a literary pattern corresponding to the general theme of God bringing order out of disorder (1:2).[4] Viewing Genesis 1 in this way takes so much heat out of the debate, which tries to force science into the text—rather than focus on divine action.

There is a poetic regularity to each day’s activities:[5]

  1. Command: “God said let there be . . . ”
  2. Execution: “And it was so.”
  3. Assessment: “God saw it was good.”
  4. Sequence/Time: “There was evening and morning . . . ”

While this pattern is not perfectly symmetrical throughout all the 6 days, the overall effect is to give a melodic crescendo that peaks at the end of day 6, followed—appropriately—by relaxation and blessing on the 7th (Sabbath) day. Indeed, as theologians remind us, the true climax is on the 7th day with the story beginning and ending with God—not culminating with the creation of humankind! We see in each of the 6 days that God’s speech is actionable and nothing thwarts God’s intentions. Creation is not an accident but a deliberate act of the divine will. Creation is purposeful and dynamic; the potential of becoming is built into the very structure of things. Moreover, God approves and delights in his creation, affirming it as “very good” at the end of day 6.

There is, of course, much more that could be said concerning Genesis 1, and nuance to refine what I have said! However, this way of understanding the text liberates us from an unnecessary war that has been waged for far too long. It is a battle not about the authority of Scripture, but on its interpretation. Treating Genesis 1 in this way is still being totally faithful to Scripture. In summary, reflect on the words of Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, written over 30 years ago:

“[Gen 1:1—2:4] is not a scientific description, but a theological affirmation. It makes a faith statement. . . . This text has been caught in the unfortunate battle of ‘modernism’, so that the ‘literalists’ and ‘rationalists’ . . . [are] nearly ready to have the text destroyed in order to control it. Our exposition must reject both such views. . . . Rather, it makes the theological claim that a word has been spoken which transforms reality. . . . The claim made is not an historical claim but a theological one about the character of God who is bound to his world and about the world which is bound to God. . . . In interpreting this text, the listening community must speak its own language of confession and praise, which is not the language of ‘scientific history’ nor the language of ‘mythology and rationalism.’ These tempting epistemologies reflect modern controversies and attest to a closed universe. . . . Against both, our exposition must recognize that what we have in the text is proclamation. The poem does not narrate ‘how it happened’ . . . [rather] Israel is concerned with God’s lordly intent, not his technique. . . . The text proclaimed a newness which places the world in a situation which did not previously exist. . . . Our interpretation must reject the seductions of literalism and rationalism to hear the news announced to the exiles. The good news is that life in God’s well-ordered world can be a joyous and grateful response.”[6]

Good news indeed!

Notes

[1] Moreover Ex 20:11 and 31:17 only makes sense if the “days” are actual days. Literalists, of course, will see it that way.

[2] In the Adam and Eve story, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden needs to be seen in the context of the Babylonian exile. This is also alienation and an enforced removal from their homeland, one brought about—as they understood it—by their persistent breaking of their covenantal relationship with God (see Deut 28).

[3] Old Testament scholar, Terrence Fretheim, points out that light was thought to have another source (Job 38:19) and only augmented by the sun, (e.g., light on a cloudy day, and before sunrise and after sunset.) Fretheim, “Genesis,” 343.

[4] On day 3, God not only creates the space of dry land but provides vegetation of all kinds to make it habitable, or ready, for all animal life and humankind who will fill the space on day 6. In light of Gen 1:28–29; 9:2–3, all air-breathing animals were intended to be vegetarian! (Yet tyrannosaurus-rex was not!) In keeping with this picture, Isaiah 11:7; 65:25 imply that animals will be herbivorous in the new creation.

[5] Brueggemann, Genesis, 30.

[6] Brueggemann, Genesis, 25–26, his emphasis.

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox, 1982.

Fretheim, Terence E. “Genesis.” In vol. 1 of New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, edited by Leander E. Keck. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.

———. God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.

Reddish, Tim. Science and Christianity: Foundations and Frameworks for Moving Forward in Faith. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009.

 

One thought on “A Reflection on Genesis 1”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *