Genesis 1 – The Begining
Genesis 1 is probably one of the most controversial and misunderstood words ever written. Today it is taught in churches and seminaries worldwide that God created everything in the universe in just seven days. But is that what the text actually says? Can we deconstruct this ancient text and reconstruct it in a way that lets modern man understand what the ancient biblical author was really trying to convey?
As time goes by our understanding and even our definitions of words change. We also have new world views because of new technologies and we forget the previous world views our fathers and grandfathers had. A simple study of the English language over the past several hundred years will attest to this fact. So how can we know what the ancient writer of this text had in mind when it was written? Several ways, by looking at other biblical texts and the usage of words and motifs, and by understanding other cultures in the ancient near east and their beliefs. Because believe it or not, the ancient Hebrew writers read other texts from around the area including Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia.
The ancient near east can not be and should not be understood through the filter or lens of the church or cultural doctrines. We can not interpret the writings in our own modern world view. To understand the text was must understand it in the context that it was written, it wasn’t written in a protestant or catholic worldview, but in an ancient Hebraic context. So we will need to understand that the actual translations and meanings may be something quite different from what you learn in Sunday School, but I believe will make much more sense to you afterward.
Genesis Chapter 1:1-3
Ok, so you may be saying, “this is an obvious verse how can we misunderstand it”? Well, this verse is not as simple as you might believe, we in the west and modern man, look at this as a definite time in the past when all things began. The first mistake we make is trying to force the interpretation into our own cultural or religious lens. We believe we understand what something is and what makes it a thing. It seems so obvious that we don’t even stop to think that perhaps another culture viewed things differently on how things came to exist from our own understanding. We describe things by their properties, “it’s big”, “it’s round” “It’s orange”, but ANE cultures described a thing by their function “it gives light”, “it warms the earth”, “It rises anew each day”.
John Walton explains it best in his book “The Lost World of Genesis One“.1 John H. Walton is an Old Testament scholar and professor at Wheaton College. He was a professor at Moody Bible Institute for 20 years. He specializes in the Ancient Near Eastern backgrounds of the Old Testament, especially Genesis and its creation account, as well as interpretation of Job.
Ancient Near East and Mesopotamia
And if we look at other cultures we can find evidence of this. ANE creation myths usually begin with the word “When”, Note the following examples
Another relevant and often used motif in the ANE is they often refer to the gods and the earth coming out of the watery chaos which assumes there is a state of matter that already exists prior to the creation account, such as the Assyrian account below.
Order From Chaos
For the writers of the ANE, it doesn’t matter as much where all the matter in creation came from as much as how the gods gave an order to things. Neither were they concerned about a specific time in the distant past when everything began as much as a time when the gods showed up and turned chaos into order.
In the Enuma Elish, the author is not concerned with how the material matter was created, or even how material matter even come into existence, but how the chaos was turned into order. We see “The heaven was not named“, “Earth beneath it did not bear a name“, “the waters were mingled“, “no field was formed, or marsh to be seen“, and even “when the gods had not yet been called into being“. The text does not say the universe was void of matter, it is stating that the world was in chaos and nothing had been given a purpose. But as westerners and using modern thinking we want to force an interpretation of the text of material creation. This text explains how the gods put things in order so that civilization could happen.
This is the textual context of the Hebrew Bible as well as the surrounding cultures of the ANE. We must keep in mind the culture that wrote the text when reading the biblical text. However, when ancient Hebrew is translated into English or other languages it does so without keeping the original cultural context and tries to meet our cultural expectations of the storyline. And this is why Genesis 1:1 sounds to us like an absolute beginning point.
Michael S, Heiser2 Michael S. Heiser is a scholar in the fields of biblical studies and the ancient Near East. Dr. Heiser earned his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2004. He also earned an M.A. in the same field at Wisconsin, along with an M.A. in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania (major fields: Ancient Israel and Egyptology) suggests by the Hebrew Masoretic vowel point as well as the wording in the Greek Septuagint do not imply the phrase “in the beginning”. The opening of this verse is missing a definite article, the words “In The” do not actually appear in the text, but were added to the text by translators. He suggests that the text should actually read “when”, not “in the beginning”. which I agree with based on the grammar of biblical Hebrew.
This one change changes the first line from an independent clause into a dependant clause. This makes Genesis 1:1 dependant on Genesis 1:2. This makes it that when God shows up to “create” the earth, the earth was already formless and void versus an absolute beginning of all things. Some will reject this and point out the original Hebrew did not have the vowel points
However, an argument may be made on textual criticism of the Hebrew grammar made in other palaces in the Hebrew bible. John Herbert Sailhamer 3an American professor of Old Testament studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in California. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2000 and made notable contributions to Old Testament studies. in his book Genesis Unbound states this:
Sailhamer points out Job 8:7 that uses the same language which points to an earlier time period in Job’s life. And Jeremiah 28:1 refers to an earlier time period of King Zedekiah’s reign. And this supports the language used in Genesis 1:1, that it points to a time of extended chaos before God shows up and changes the chaotic state into a state of order. Robert D, Holmstedt in his doctoral thesis stated:
Holmstedt points out that Genesis 1:1 has a grammatical structure similar to other verse, (Hosea 1:2, Isaiah 29:1, Leviticus 25:48, 1 Samuel 25:15 and Jerimiah 48:36) which are restrictive relative clauses which are dependent in nature (dependent clauses) so in other words, they are not a complete thought, which means Genesis 1:1 is dependent on Genesis 1:2 and lacks a definite article.
This makes Genesis 1:1 to be seen as a state setting prepositional phrase for what follows, a dependent clause, followed by Genesis 1:2, a circumstantial clause followed by Genesis 1:3 the main clause. This follows the typical ANE creation account style.
We now can see this in Genesis 1:1-3
|verse 1||When God began to create the heavens and the earth||dependent clause|
|verse 2||the earth was unproductive and wasted, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the wind of God was hovering over the waters||circumstantial clause|
|verse 3||and god said “let there be light” and there’s light||main clause|
The Enuma Elsih lines 1-10
|lines 1-3||When on high the heaven was not named, And the earth below did not yet bear a name,||dependent clause|
|lines 4-8||And the primal Aspu, who begat them, And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both, Their waters were mingled together, And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen, When of the gods’ none had been called into being, And none bore a name and no destinies were ordained||circumstantial clause|
|lines 9-10||Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven, Lahmu and Lahamu were called into being…||main clause|
Epic of Atrahasis lines 1-8
|lines 1-3||When the gods were man, they did forced labor, they bore drudgery,||dependent clause|
|lines 4-6||great indeed was the drudgery of the gods, the forced labor was heavy, the misery too much:||circumstantial clause|
|lines 7-8||The seven great Anunna-gods were burdening the Igigi-god with forced labor||main clause|
from the Assyrian Kar 4 1-11
|lines 1-2||After heaven was separated from earth, its firm companion,||dependent clause|
|lines 3-6||so the mother goddess could live there, after building up the earth to make the ground firm when the designs were made firm in heaven and earth, to establish levee and irrigation ditch in good order||circumstantial clause|
|lines 7-11||the great gods, the Anunna, the great gods sat down in a lofty dias… Enlil himself deliberated.||main clause|
And this is also what we find in the creation of Adam account in Genesis chapter 2 verse 4b -7
|2:4b||when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.||dependent clause|
|2:5-6||When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground,||circumstantial clause|
|2:7||then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.||main clause|
Created or Gave Purpose?
Next, let’s look at the word normally translated as “created”, the Hebrew word here is “bara”. The phrase here, god created the heavens and the earth is in contradiction with verse two that says the earth was formless and void, as it suggests the earth was already created. John Walton notes that bara doesn’t necessarily relate to creation, as in material manufacturing. But is better understood as assigning purpose to or assigning divine function. As stated before when looking at ANE beliefs, naming and giving a thing a function brought the thing into existence. Kenneth Mathews in his book “The New American Commentary” wrote;
He sites psalm 51:10 “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” and Isiah 57:19 “I create the fruit of the lips: Peace, peace to him who is far off and to him who is near,” as examples that it doesn’t mean creating from nothing, but reassigning or giving a thing (heart) a new purpose. Genesis 5:2 (ESV) states “Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” John Walton notes here that the Hebraic syntax here refers to God assigning the roles of male and female. Yes, there are times when bara relates to actually creating or manufacturing something, here it relates to assigning functions to things.
Genesis 1:1 seems to be more about God naming and giving function to the heaven and the earth than physical manufacturing of heaven and the earth, similar to the opening line of the Enuma Elish “when things were not yet named”, and thus Geneses 1-1 should be understood and read as;
John Walton further says in his book Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament 4pages 142-143 “creation takes place by giving things order, function, and purpose which is synonymous with giving them existence”. This fits better with the text that the earth was formless and void. The word void in here is bohu, and the word formless is tohu, we translate this as formless and void. However, David Tsumura5 David Toshio Tsumura is a linguist, Old Testament scholar, Dean of Faculty, and professor of Old Testament professor of Japan Bible Seminary. on doing A full semantic analysis on the term tohu concluded that term most likely means unproductive and said; “this is keeping with my explanation, which takes tohu wabohu as signifying aridness or unproductiveness of the earth”. So it is saying that the earth was unproductive, with no human civilization. so before god started to name things and give things a function, the earth was unproductive like a wilderness.
Let There Be Light
In verse 3 of Genesis 1, we have the first act of creation or bara, He says “Let there be light”, which does not imply there was no sun or light before this, but rather he is calling into being a function. As we will see in the following days of bara “creation” god calling things into being, naming them, and giving them a function. In verse Genesis 1:5 we see he called the light day and the darkness night. why not just call the light the light, and the darkness dark? Because he calls the light by what its function is on earth, day. And likewise calls the function of darkness, night. And there was evening and morning, the first day.
On day four God bara(s) the greater and lesser lights, again he does this by first calling them into existence by naming and giving function to them, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years”. So he calls into being, he then assigns these luminaries functions, to divide day and night, and to be for signs, days and years, and to know the seasons. Again this does not mean there were no sun, moon, or stars before this, but only bringing order and purpose for the luminaries. J. Richard Middleton J. Richard Middleton is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary, located on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, NY. He also serves as an adjunct professor of Old Testament at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology in Kingston, Jamaica. in his book The Liberating Image “these two examples of creatures in Genesis 1:8 and Genesis 1:14-18 whose existence is explicitly defined by their function and purpose.
D.J.A Clines in “The Image Of God In Man” states, “the existence of the firmament exists related to its purpose”. And we see the same similar ideas throughout the rest of Genesis 1. The water is designed to function as seas, dry land is to function as earth to bring forth vegetation. so God is assigning everything a function within his new ordered system.
Now we can look at the seven days. Seven is the ANE typical symbology of a temple dedication, for example, the construction of the tabernacle in exodus 40:19-32 was completed in seven stages, the ordination of a priest is seven days (Leviticus 8:33=35), Solomons temple was constructed in 7 years, (1Kings 6:38) and dedicated to God during a 7 day festival in the 7th month (1kings 8:2,65) and evens Solomons dedication speech was given in 7 petitions. Outside the bible, the Gudea Cylinder 212 BCE mentions a seven-day temple dedication, and a Ugaritic text6 KTU 1:4:16-40 speaks of Ba’al completing his cosmic temple in seven days. so we can now see the function of the seven days was to bring order and function to the world as well as giving us a calendar for which we count days, months (seasons), and years and setting up the cosmos, heaven, and earth as his temple.
But why did he do it in that order? It seems counter-intuitive and in the wrong order, you can’t have the sun before the light, can you? One thing I love about biblical Hebrew is the poetic style and its symmetry. Let me give you a visual to understand it.
The Symmetry of The Hebrew Text
|DAY ONE |
Light And Darkness
|What Function Did God Create Light And Darkness For?||DAY FOUR |
|DAY TWO |
Sky And Sea
|What Function Did God Create Sky and Sea For?||DAY FIVE|
Birds And Swimming Creatures
|DAY THREE Land And Plants||What Function Did God Create Land And Plants For?||DAY SIX|
Land Animals And Man
So you see, in the mind of the ancient Hebrew the order of things made symmetrical sense. This is symmetrical and sequential order instead of a chronological order we as westerners would use. This type of symmetry can found in other places in Genesis. The ancients didn’t care about chronological order the way we do, day one was meant to go with day four, day 2 with day five. this order also reveals the number three, three mirrored events, and is another preferred and holy number like the number 7. And John Walton Adds;
In Conclusion Genesis 1
So I conclude with these thoughts on Genesis 1 and what the writer was trying to convey. God shows up in a chaotic cosmos with the earth being unproductive like a wilderness. He begins to bring order to the chaos by naming things and therefore making them exist in the ANE mindset. He further gave these things function in his new order of the cosmos and assigned all a purpose in his new order. It is not about creating or manufacturing matter out of nothing, because everything was already here. Like in other ANE writings, they hadn’t been named and given a purpose yet. It is not setting an absolute date of when everything came into existence by God manufacturing and creating mater, but a time after a long period of chaos in the cosmos when God shows up to bring order to the cosmos. I hope you found this essay on understanding Genesis 1 informative, useful, or even entertaining. Thank you
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- 1John H. Walton is an Old Testament scholar and professor at Wheaton College. He was a professor at Moody Bible Institute for 20 years. He specializes in the Ancient Near Eastern backgrounds of the Old Testament, especially Genesis and its creation account, as well as interpretation of Job.
- 2Michael S. Heiser is a scholar in the fields of biblical studies and the ancient Near East. Dr. Heiser earned his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2004. He also earned an M.A. in the same field at Wisconsin, along with an M.A. in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania (major fields: Ancient Israel and Egyptology)
- 3an American professor of Old Testament studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in California. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2000 and made notable contributions to Old Testament studies.
- 4pages 142-143
- 5David Toshio Tsumura is a linguist, Old Testament scholar, Dean of Faculty, and professor of Old Testament professor of Japan Bible Seminary.
- 6KTU 1:4:16-40