Genesis Chapter 1 Summary: Understanding What Creation Means

In this episode, we will examine the first chapter of Genesis, the first book in the Torah, dealing with the six-day creation account. Today, we’re going to take a look at how the original recipients of this account might have read and understood it.  

Genesis 1:1-2 

The original recipients were likely a group of faithful Jews immersed in the culture of the ancient Near East. While they differed in theological understanding and religious practices, they certainly experienced enough cultural overlap to understand references to common idioms, myths, and pagan gods. Whether one subscribes to the translation “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth” or “In the beginning when God began to create heaven and earth” (Genesis 1:1), the common element is the combination of heaven and earth. In the ancient Near East and in polytheistic settings, if you were to hear of a meeting place between heaven and earth, you would immediately think of a temple as that is the place where the God or gods of heaven dwelt with the earthly.[1] Additionally, polytheistic creational myths entailed a creator god conquering another god (the god of chaos, for example), before becoming able or worthy to create. This creator god would then have a temple erected in his name where his image, often a statue, would be placed in its midst. But in the case of the monotheistic vision of the Israelites, God or Elohim is not fighting anyone nor does He need to show His power through a fight with a false deity. Instead, he creates with sovereignty, using His words to bring order to the place of chaos.

The second verse states, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). This verse describes the chaos that would often be associated by the polytheists with a war among the gods. The elements of chaos here are not only the obvious “formless void and darkness covering the face of the deep,” but also “the face of the waters.” These “waters” were often associated with the Canaanite god of chaos who would normally need to have been conquered by the creator god.[2] eHowever, the Hebrew word translated as wind here is “rua’h” which can be translated as wind or spirit.[3] At any rate, the God of Israel does not fight chaos. Rather, He sweeps over it with His word without being impacted by it. Already, the God of Israel here transcends the gods of other nations as the narrative unfolds in a way that demythologizes the gods of the surrounding nations. 

Surrounding Creation Myths: 

Before we delve into the next verse, which details the six days of creation, let us dedicate some time to understanding what one of the surrounding myths might have said about creation. These creation myths shaped the minds of the ancient people in a way that differs from the way we think today. For example, we, as modern people, think that the created order was a vacuum of nothingness. But the ancients believed it to be something more akin to a malevolent force often personified as chaos.[4] A classic example of these myths — which shares some similarities with the opening chapter of Genesis — is the Enuma Elish, the infamous Babylonian epic. Similarities aside, the epic presents the god Marduk as one who attains his supremacy and right to create the world by splitting his aquatic enemy Tiamat in half. Tiamat would appear in the Genesis account in the Hebrew word “tehom” translated as “deep”. Knowing the audience, Genesis 1 insists that the God of the Hebrews is not like Marduk, who has to attain supremacy. Rather, He is the supreme creator who does not need to prove his supremacy by initiating a war. Instead, He embraces the waters through His wind or spirit.[5] Awareness of surrounding myths and polytheistic religions where the sun and moon were worshipped might have been the reason behind identifying them as greater and lesser lights as they were considered objects of worship in pagan culture.[6]

The Six Days of Creation: 

The six days of creation are best understood when juxtaposed by theme rather than in chronological order. For example, the first day in which the light is created is mirrored by the fourth day in which the greater and lesser lights are created. Likewise, the second day, when the sky is created by the separation of the waters above and the waters below, corresponds to the fifth day in which the sky and water creatures come to be as in birds and fish. Finally, the third day, in which the land and plants are created, is completed on the sixth day, when land animals and human beings are created. The sixth day—being the culmination of all of creation—is singled out by God declaring that all He has made is “very good,” as opposed to the mere “good,” which is seen in the previous days. Throughout the six days of creation, God is seen creating complementary binaries, including but not limited to: heaven and earth, water above the firmament and water below, land and water, man and woman, etc. The seventh day would come the unique day of the one Lord of Israel, with whom nothing can be compared. The Shabbat or Sabbath celebration is effectively inaugurated through this anaphoric narrative that culminates in the day of the Lord.   

Sabbath – the Seventh day (2:1-3)[7][8]
Day 3 – Land and Plants  Day 6 – Land Animals and Humans 
Day 2 – Sky (or separation of firmaments) Day 5 – Fish and Birds 
Day 1 – Light  Day 4 – Lights (sun and moon) 

 

Poetry and Liturgy: 

Biblical scholars consider the text of Genesis 1-2:4 to be a liturgical poem as it includes repetitions and refrains. This comes from the days mirroring each other, as we just learned. Additionally, each day ends with the phrase “and there was evening and there was morning of a certain day,” which acts both as a divider and a refrain. The fact that ‘evening’ comes before ‘day’ in the refrain is likely a liturgical allusion to the Jewish practice of the day, which begins in the evening rather than in the morning. Christianity would eventually inherit the same practice from Judaism. All these implicit liturgical motifs pale in comparison to Genesis 2:1-3, which “became part of the Jewish liturgy as the introduction to the Kiddush, the prayer over wine to sanctify the Sabbath that is recited before the first meal of Shabbat on Friday night… This passage is characterized by the type of repetition that suggests it might have served in antiquity.”[9] Furthermore, the text of Genesis 1:1 – 2:4 is carefully arranged so that the name of God appears thirty-five times, while the passage dedicated to the seventh day is precisely thirty-five words in Hebrew.[10] Such numerical aspects of the text certainly served the minds of Jews devoted to Kabbala or Jewish mysticism. The liturgical use of this text formed the identity of the people of Israel as the people who celebrate the Shabbat weekly and whose lives are shaped by their allegiance to God, which is expressed by their identity as liturgical beings. 

The Human Being: 

The creation of the human being is the pinnacle of the sixth day where instead of simply speaking creation into existence, God seems to deliberate what the creation of the human being will entail. God then creates the human being in His image. If you remember, at the beginning of this episode, we mentioned that creation myths often ended with the erection of a temple where the image of the god is a statue amidst the temple. However, the cosmic temple which the God of Israel creates does not consist of the construction of a silly statue; rather, the human being is the best representation of the image of God. To associate the human being with the image of God was by no means peculiar to the Israelite faith, as other cultures would consider Pharaoh the King to be the image of god. The unique element here is that in a way every human being created by God is the image of God regardless of their royal status.[11] The human being is thus given the animal kingdom to rule over as God’s covenant suggests “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The story of Eve being created from the side of Adam does not feature in this narrative of Genesis 1. Instead, God creates man and woman together and gives them the positive commandment to “be fertile and increase” and “to fill the earth.” Consequently, Jewish law sees in this text a commandment obligatory to Jewish men, but not to women.[12]

The rest of chapter two offers us another perspective on creation, as the relationship between God and the human being puts on a different guise—which is quite telling of the theology of the Israelite religion, as well as the purpose of the human being in Jewish theology, which we will explore in future episodes.

[1] Jon D. Levenson, “The Temple and the World,” The Journal of Religion 64, no. 3 (1984): 295.

[2] Father Lawrence R. Farley, In the Beginning (Expanded Edition): A Fresh Look at the Early Chapters of Genesis (Alhambra, California: Sebastian Press, 2019), 26–27.

[3] Farley, 28.

[4] Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 11.

[5] Berlin and Brettler, 8.

[6] Berlin and Brettler, 12.

[7] Berlin and Brettler, 11.

[8] Animator is expected to create a table based on this table here as the narrator recites the preceding paragraph.

[9] John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 12–13.

[10] Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, 35.

[11] Berlin and Brettler, 12.

[12] Berlin and Brettler, 12.