Biblical Beginnings 6b: Gen. 1:1–2:4a, Notes and Quotes

This purpose of this post (and others to follow) is not to serve as a verse-by-verse commentary on the first eleven chapters of Genesis. There are many really good works written by scholars who are far more qualified than I to address some of the thorniest issues. However, what I will write about has to do with my understanding of what are key words, phrases and concepts for me on my faith journey.

First, Genesis 1 does not describe the creation of the universe out of nothing. Rather, it speaks of God creating order out of chaos. This is the theme of every other ancient creation myth. What existed was “empty and void and darkness was on the face of the abyss.” However, the breath of God hovered over the waters and God began creating an ordered world by introducing light, separating day from night. Step by ordered step God organized the world and created an environment into which God could place the crowning achievement as God “created the human in his image; male and female he created them.” God then set humans over the rest of his creation with the charge to “be fruitful and increase and fill the land and subdue it” by ruling over all other creatures.

Genesis 1 was written, I’m convinced, as a stark contrast to every other creation myth. While the goal of those creation stories was to demonstrate that the gods brought some semblance of order to what existed, the gods themselves interacted in less than harmonious ways. Humans were conceived of and created to serve as slaves to the gods. But that’s not how the Israelite author(s) conceived of humankind’s relationship to their creator. Though, very quickly (in the Genesis account), the image of God would be tarnished by human disobedience, pride, selfishness and lust, nonetheless, God did not create humans to be slaves and to do the work God was no longer willing to do. Humans were not an afterthought to solve a problem, but rather represented the crowning achievement of creation week![1]

Genesis 1 is not a historical or scientific account of how the universe, or even our planet, came into existence. To interpret it literally and/or to try to demonstrate its equivalence to modern origin theories and align it with scientific realities “discovered” in the last two hundred years is to miss the point entirely and to misrepresent its message. As Jacoby and Copan note,

  • Most leading scholars of the Old Testament recognize Genesis 1 as a magnificent hymn attesting to the oneness and omnipotence of God. Once we get past any fear of moving away from the mistakenly labeled “literal” interpretation, we recognize a clearly poetic dimension to this creational prologue…Genesis never purports to be a scientific study of “what happened,” yet it does contain a carefully constructed account…The literary view takes stock of the historical situation, recognizing the rejection of rival stories circulating in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the rest of the contemporary Mediterranean world…How different the Genesis account is from the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian stories![2]  

How could Genesis 1 be anything but an ancient story, given that it was written to be read by/to an ancient Israelite audience who had neither historical consciousness nor scientific knowledge. However, as a literary, rather than literal, account, “[t]he story is subtle, challenging, and artistically composed; the theology is deep and, against the ancient backdrop, staggering.”[3]

I agree total with Enns and other scholars who state that Genesis 1 was not written to answer modern questions about how our universe came into existence. Rather, “it was written to tell the Israelites that their God, and not the gods of the other nations, was the chaos tamer, and therefore, this God and this God alone was worthy of worship. And they made this point in ancient terms, using ancient ways of thinking.”[4]

Seen this way, as literary rather than literal, there are no “errors” or “inconsistencies” because this account was not written to explain what we moderns think we know about the origins of the universe. So, we can let go of that whole debate and appreciate the story for what it is and the theological “truths” its authors were attempting to convey, as stated above. As a twenty-first century reader of this ancient text, I can wholeheartedly read and reflect on it, and excitedly encourage others to do the same. I don’t have to be defensive or biblically apologetic. I can appreciate it for what it is, an ancient Israelite creation story that both compares and contrasts with other, older, creation stories. From that, I can choose to either accept or reject the theological “truths” it presents.

[1] In order to read summaries of the various pre-existing creation myths check out S. H. Hooke, Middle Eastern Mythology (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004). Go to the index, under “Myths” see page references for “Creation.”

[2] Paul Copan & Douglas Jacoby. Origins: The Ancient Impact and Modern Implications of Genesis 1–11. (Nashville: Morgan James Publishing, 2019 [Kindle Edition]), chapter 5.

[3] Peter Enns. Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible. 2nd ed. (The Bible for Normal People, 2019), 41.

[4] Enns, 37.

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