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In the Beginning: Genesis 1, part 1

November 1, 2010
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In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. It’s the opening to the entire Bible. I’ll wager many of you can complete the sentence unaided. When John opens his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word…” he is quoting, and reshaping, Genesis 1. I’ll bet many of you can finish that sentence, too. However, Genesis 1 and 2 have been eaten alive. Our current reading tends toward starting with the question “Did this happen and how?” Given the culture wars raging over evolution this is not a particularly surprising question to start with but it is not a helpful starting point. Even the most “literal” of readings which tries to fit a scientific model to Genesis 1 and 2 ends up doing extreme violence to the text. Not only are sections ignored (the second half of Genesis 1:2, for instance, is generally completely ignored while the first half is considered an important point) but large sections are also fabricated to make things “work”.

There’s another way of handling the early chapters of Genesis. It’s the way I suggest in “Reading Stories”, an essay I wrote in part so that I could write this series. In this method of reading I will attempt to ask questions as guided by the text not by external agendas (for instance the debate between the modern scientific synthesis and six-day creation). I assume that when things are mentioned in the text they are mentioned because they have meaning, and that when things are skipped over in the text this is because they do not further the purpose of the narrative. This means that, especially in the chapters beyond Genesis 1, I will sometimes allow things to come out of nowhere without speculation. Genesis is hard to read if you don’t and speculation is the road to expanding the story with details you’ve made up yourself. However, I hope that you will find that reading Genesis in this way, while it may not answer some of your own questions, explains what is actually present in Genesis better than the alternatives.

I should note, before I go further, that I am deeply indebted to my Graduate Bible Study for many of the thoughts in this essay. I had what might be the only intelligent discussion of Genesis I’ve ever been involved in with this group and the ideas I present, while they reflect my own conclusions about Genesis, often owe their shape to this discussion.

I intend, eventually, to cover Genesis 1-4. That is too much for a single essay, however, and so I will begin with Genesis 1:1-2:3. Since I’ve already plugged “Reading Stories” it should come as no surprise to you that I think Genesis 1:1-2:3 form a single textual unit. Genesis 2:1-3 forms a conclusion to Genesis 1, summing up what’s happened and discussing God blessing the seventh day. Genesis 2:4 introduces the entire topic again and begins with a very different style of writing. The idea that there are two Creation stories does not automatically mean much of anything other than there might be more than one point to be highlighted in the story of Creation and, therefore, more than one way to tell the story.

The focus in Genesis 1 (by which I mean Genesis 1:1-2:3, but which is shorter to write) is the entire universe. In the language of the Bible “the heavens and the earth”, although “the earth” can sometimes also refer to the entire package deal. We begin with a simple thesis statement: in the beginning God created all this. Hebrew lacks a number of the philosophical terms later theologians like to use and so we must accept that “the beginning” could be less precise than we want. Immediately, though, we run across problematic verses. There’s formless void, waters, and the Spirit. The earth (by which we probably mean what we would now call “the universe”) is described as תהו and בהו (“tohoo” and “bohoo”). Neither term translates neatly into English. I would translate the first term as “empty” were I responsible for finding a single English equivalent. It is used to describe people saying nothing, people making ridiculous arguments, empty wasteland, the emptiness of the sky, and meaningless things. The second word is used much less but appears to mean roughly the same thing. To describe the world in this way is terrible. In fact Jeremiah 4:23 does exactly that, saying, “I looked at the world and look! It was empty and void!” It’s the same words as Genesis, broken only by the word I’ve translated as “Look!” (often “behold”, but nobody really uses that word in English anymore). Jeremiah’s description, though, is not the emptiness before Creation but the terror of God’s wrath poured out on Israel. He goes on to describe a sky without any light, mountains and hills shaking, an absence of people and birds, farmland reduced to desert, and ruined cities. Really, though, this isn’t too far off from Genesis 1. Not only is the universe an empty wasteland but there is darkness over the surface of the deep.

Darkness is easy. Humans are diurnal creatures and we’re no more friendly to the imagery of darkness these days than millennia ago. But we are friendlier towards the sea. The sea in Near Eastern mythology is a place of monsters and chaos. The creation myth Enuma Elish features a battle between the god Marduk (at least in the Babylonian version, since Babylon considered itself Marduk’s city) and the goddess-sea monster Tiamat. Water’s lack of form may be the foundation of the water as chaos idea, or perhaps the foundation is found in the number of people who disappear into the sea when shipping is so primitive but the idea is the same. The sea is hostile. The deeps, the bottom of the sea, are frequently thought of as the furthest point from everything good – God and humankind. Job and the Psalms marvel at how God can do things even in the deeps, and there is some reason to believe that She’ol was thought to be at the bottom of the sea.

In the beginning God created the universe. The universe was empty and barren and darkness covered the angry seas, but the Spirit of God hovered over the chaos.

At this point we’re in understandable territory. God is ready to make the universe habitable and good (because right now it is uninhabitable and scary). We’re also ready to hit the rhythmic stride that marks most of Genesis 1. God declares. God separates. There is evening and morning. We are told what day it is. This pattern itself is important. God’s first act (or second, since “in the beginning God created the universe” may be the first act) is not just the creation of light but the separation of light and darkness. In the first three days God engages in acts of sorting. He imposes an order upon the chaos. He divides light and darkness (and day and night) and then what is, for lack of a better term, the skies and seas, and finally he gathers the seas together to create land. The world takes form by organization. Notably, for the Near East, Yahweh does not fight anyone. The seas aren’t hostile to God (although they should probably be initially seen as something that prevents humans from living in the world): God merely orders the seas into their places. The scariness of the primordial universe is not eradicated by removing darkness and the chaotic waters but by giving them a place.

It is also important to note that God begins by creating light. It’s important for two reasons. First, light is tied to day but there’s no sun. The sun appears on day four. This should set the tone for Genesis 1. It is not a straightforward story. In fact, there’s no attempt to explain how this works. This suggests that you weren’t supposed to ask this question. Second, light and darkness are common metaphors for good and evil. There’s a sense, which is probably supposed to be there, that God begins by establishing moral order.

By day three we get to the creation of life. Again, there are many details that make no sense. The most obvious is that the earth is described as “bringing forth” plants, which suggests that they sprout, but the description includes trees bearing fruit. Now one could imagine trees growing at extreme speed but again I think the answer is that this is not a question you should have asked (or, having asked it, you should realize that Genesis isn’t going to give you an answer and so it must not be important to understanding what’s going on). What is important is that God, having ordered the world, is now populating it with life. The hostility of the primordial universe is over and so God’s plan for a living world can now commence.

We should point out several additional things at this point. First, the order of plants, then fish and birds and sea monsters, then land animals, and then humans appears to be a Hebrew order of importance (and the Hebrew system of categorizing life). If an ancient Hebrew were to create an ordered list of living things with humans at one end this would be the order of the list. God is building up to making humans and that’s the point.

However, on day four God suddenly goes back to inanimate objects. We get the sun and the moon and we’re back to talking about separating things out. Why? Well, think about the impact this has on a sun or moon worshipper (of which there were plenty when this story first circulated). The sun and the moon were worshipped because they produced light. Genesis 1 has already told us, though, that Yahweh doesn’t need the sun or moon to create light. He did that, in sufficient quantities to make days, way back on day one. (Incidentally, we could ask why there are days or what a day consists of without a sun. The short answer is that I don’t know. What I do know is that the days order the story. There’s a sense that God has a plan throughout the story because every day he does one or two things and then waits. If the days were not mentioned God would seem less like a thoughtful architect and more like someone who might say, “That’s interesting. Let’s try…this!”) Not only does Yahweh not need the sun and the moon to make light but the story doesn’t even use the Hebrew words for sun and moon. I’ve read an article or two which suggests this is because pious Jews wouldn’t use the names of other people’s gods but this is, frankly, stupid. These words are used all the time, including in descriptions of people worshipping the sun and moon (see, for example, Deuteronomy 17:3). What referring to the sun as “the greater light” and the moon as “the lesser light” does do is insult both. I haven’t met any sun worshippers but I suspect calling them giant lightbulb worshippers (which seems to be a decent modern equivalent of the Hebrew here) would probably not be received kindly. And, of course, these stupid lights are not only latecomers and not pre-existent gods but they need to be set in their places by Yahweh the way a man hangs his coat. (Compare this, for a moment, with Enuma Elish, where Marduk appoints the Moon-god to determine the days.) Whatever one thinks of the “reality” (whatever that means) behind this description the description seems to me to contain a good deal of monotheistic polemic against sun and moon worship.

The second important thing about the creation of life is that it is all done by speaking. This is, in fact, generally important. Most Near Eastern myth involves the gods shaping clay and forming things to make them. Genesis 2 uses a lot of that language but Genesis 1 avoids it, probably deliberately. God doesn’t even breathe life into the nostrils of animals in Genesis 1, let alone sacrifice another god and use the blood to kickstart life as in Atrahasis. God simply speaks.

Finally, we should note that God creates sea monsters. I’ve covered these beasts in excessive detail elsewhere but Genesis 1 reinforces God’s complete dominion. God doesn’t fight sea monsters (think again of Enuma Elish), He creates them. They are even described as large or great, but God still makes them with a word. There is no hint that God is worried about making competition.

At this point we have a word, populated with life, habitable and good. While the next verses fit the patterns we’ve described in many ways they also introduce a lot of material. They will be covered in the next article in this series.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2010 5:15 pm

    Very good.

  2. November 9, 2010 5:00 pm

    excellent yet again.

  3. November 10, 2010 9:21 pm

    I second Will’s sentiments! Love this coverage of Genesis and how it plays against other religious traditions, such as Greek mythology. You mentioned also the interplay of John “reshaping” the story. In the same way as God doesn’t fight the monsters, John highlights Jesus turning water into wine, which back then would have been an affront to Dionysus. Anyway, very cool breakdown.

  4. Eric permalink
    November 11, 2010 11:33 am

    John rocks. Every time I read John I find stuff I’ve never caught before.

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