Reading Genesis 1

George L. Klein  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 44 - Fall 2001


But the LORD is the true God;
he is the living God, the eternal King…
But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
Jeremiah 10:10, 12 (NIV)

“God looked into the Torah and created
the world.”
Genesis Rabba 1:1

Rereading Genesis 1 threatens interpreters with signifi­cant dangers which frequently lead them away from the text itself. To many, the chapter seems so familiar that it hardly bears further examination. For these readers, the text could not be clearer, resulting in superficial inter­pretation.

Alternately, others approach Genesis 1with reluctance, aware that perhaps no other chapter in the Bible raises such a plethora of intractable interpretive questions. This reluc­tance promotes ignorance, failing to attempt to probe the text’s meaning.

This brief essay aims to help the reader of Genesis 1 escape either extreme, both of which muffle the chapter’s voice. We will quickly disabuse ourselves of any notion that we grasp the full significance of Genesis 1. We cannot possi­bly pose more than a few of the more important questions the text holds. Rather, this essay suggests that one should read the first chapter of Genesis in light of two basic approaches that the passage demands. Both approaches afford the reader an opportunity to view the text through different windows, giving different perspectives on what the chapter once conveyed and what it now signifies.

First, this article will examine the ancient Near Eastern background to the creation narratives. Doing so recognizes the antiquity of the Genesis cosmogony, dating its theologi­cal concerns to the second millennium. Next, the study will introduce the major literary and canonical themes of Genesis 1.

I. Ancient Near Eastern Background

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, scholarship deciphered an indescribable wealth of texts from Mesopotamia and Egypt, heralding a movement whose influence continues to the present.[1]For an overview of the data, see Richard J. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1994). Initially, Old Testament studies embraced what came to be called the “pan-Babylonian” school. This approach sought to elucidate the Bible by appealing to Babylonian literary archetypes which were thought to manifest parallels to Israel’s Scriptures.[2]R.E. Clements, “Claus Westermann on Creation in Genesis,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 32 (Spring 1990): 18-20. In more recent years scholars have increasingly noted Egyptian texts, which although quite dissimilar from the better known Babylonian cosmogonies, show possible parallels that arrest the attention of Egyptologists and bibli­cal scholars alike.


Although best known among Mesopotamia creation sto­ries, the Enuma Blish represents only one of many extant Mesopotamian stories describing the world’s origins. Numerous Mesopotamian cosmogonies have dominated scholarly inquiry over the past century. These texts hail from diverse venues, some distinctly earlier, others later, than the biblical material. Scholars have reached differing conclusions from this data, however. Some assert that the biblical mater­ial owes a direct literary debt to the Mesopotamian creation stories by adopting the ancient stories from their predecessors.[3]Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 292. For instance, Thorkild Jacobsen writes:

If we accept – as I think we clearly must – a degree of dependency of the biblical material on the older Mesopotamian materials, we must also note how decisively these materials have been transformed in the biblical account, altering radi­cally their original meaning and import.[4]Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Eridu Genesis,” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (1981): 529.

Others maintain that any connection is solely thematic, simply reflecting the general intellectual milieu in both Mesopotamia and ancient Israel. Still others see no relation­ ship whatsoever between the different accounts.

The earliest known Mesopotamian creation stories, the Sumerian texts dating to the early second millennium, show important thematic similarities to Genesis 1 and 2. The most fundamental similarity lies in the shared assertion that the universe was created by God. Note the following lines from the “Creation of the Pickax”:

The lord, that which is appropriate (? ) verily he caused to appear,
The lord whose decisions are unalterable,
Enlil, who brings up the seed of the land from the earth,
Took care (?) to move away heaven from earth,
Took care (?) to move away earth from heaven.[5]Lines 1-5 cited and translated by Samuel Noah Kramer, Biblical Parallels from Sumerian Literature (Philadelphia: The University Museum, 1954), 8.

Also, both the Sumerian and biblical accounts envision God separating heaven from the earth. An excerpt from the Sumerian version of Gilgamesh and Enkidu portrays Enlil’s creative activity:

After heaven had been moved away from earth,
After earth had been separated from heaven.[6]Lines 1-2 cited and translated in ibid.

Likewise, in both Sumerian and biblical accounts, humanity represents the apogee of creation. In each the God(s) fash­ioned humans out of clay, giving them breath when he completed his work. “The Creation of Man” states:

Mix (?) the heart of the clay that is over the abyss…
Thou, do thou bring the limbs (?) into existence
…as man…[7]Lines 3, 5 cited and translated in ibid.
For the sake of the good things in their pure sheepfolds,
Man was given breath.[8]Lines 2, 5-6 cited and translated in ibid.

Lastly, one additional similarity underscores the correspondence between the cosmogonies of Sumer and Israel. Both Sumerian and biblical accounts describe God’s creative action as effected through a combination of speaking ele­ments into existence, along with specific reference to God “making” and “building.”[9]Kramer, Sumerians, 292-93.

Although a more complete assessment of the significance of these “parallels” comes at the conclusion of the Babylonian section of this essay, these Sumerian examples suggest several significant points. The texts, although brief and sometimes cryptic, have been taken from their contexts in order to illustrate the maximal possible likeness between the two traditions. However, the selective citation of Sumerian passages, which support the thesis that strong par­allels exist between the biblical and the diverse Mesopotamian cultures, magnifies the correspondence, cre­ating a false impression. Reflecting on the fuller contexts of the Sumerian cosmogonies yields more balanced conclusions.

On the other hand, the dissimilarities between cosmogo­nies are so profound that the shared themes begin to pale. The chronological structure, the sequence of creation, and the absence of a Garden of Eden in the Sumerian treat­ments all contrast with Genesis 1. The most important dif­ference of all, the identity of the Creator, underscores the uniqueness of the biblical account. The diverse identities and character of the Sumerian gods, contrasted with Yahweh in the Israelite texts, belies a simplistic understand­ing of any correlation between Sumerian and Israelite cos­mogonies.

Although the Sumerian data deserves careful scrutiny, the more familiar material, not to mention the more significant, hails from Akkadian texts associated with the Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. While the resemblance between the biblical flood narrative and the Mesopotamian versions of the Gilgamesh epic have received constant attention for the last 125 years, the importance of the Akkadian creation account, the Enuma Blish, demands thorough examination as well.

Subsequent to Alexander Heidel’s analysis of parallels between the Mesopotamian and biblical creation stories, every scholar has had to reckon with his understanding. Heidel, later followed by Ephriam Speiser, compares the two accounts as follows:

Enuma Blish                                                                              Genesis

Heidel’s interpretation reflects the general view of biblical scholarship, although some complain that the parallels many draw are simplistic.

James Atwell presents a significant critique of Heidel’s approach in a recent assessment of Babylonian and Egyptian creation stories.[11]James E. Atwell, “An Egyptian Source for Genesis 1,”Journal of Theological Studies 51 (2000): 441-77. Atwell surveys Heidel’s eight points, con­cluding that when correspondence does exist, it is of the most general nature. Atwell argues that a common ancient Near Eastern provenance represents one of the few clear parallels between Genesis 1and the Mesopotamian creation stories.[12]Ibid., 446-47. He also complains that Heidel’s presentation of the creation of humanity twists the evidence since the purpose for their creation differs radically in the biblical version.[13]Ibid., 448-49.

Richard Clifford shares Atwell’s concern over Heidel’s presentation. He objects that Heidel fails to account for the fundamentally dissimilar structures and purposes of the two accounts. The primary differences Clifford notes include: the sequencing of events in creation, the disparate views of the universe, the portrayal of humanity, and even the pur­pose of creation itself.[14]Clifford, Creation Accounts, 138-44. Moreover, the total absence of any female deity differentiates Genesis 1 from the Mesopotamian view.[15]David Toshio Tsumura, “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood: An Introduction,” in “I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood:” Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11, eds. R. S. Hess and D. T. Tsumura (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 32. In the various Mesopotamian cos­mogonies, goddesses play a fundamental role in creation. Ultimately, as was true with the Sumerian cosmogonies, the fundamental difference is the identity and character of the Creator in the biblical account and the creator-gods in the Enuma Blish.

Among Heidel’s eight shared points, none has garnered greater attention than the commonly asserted equation between Tiamat, the Mesopotamian goddess whom the Assyrians envisioned as a sea dragon, and tehom, the Hebrew word for “the deep.” According to the Mesopotamian myths, the creator-god Marduk fought with the goddess Tiamat in a cosmic battle. Ultimately, Marduk defeated Tiamat in battle, fashioning dry land from her carcass.

The Mesopotamian creation myths portray Marduk as the creator-god, while Tiamat symbolizes chaos ( Chaoskampf)[16]N. Wyatt, Myths of Power: A Study of Royal Myth and Ideology in Ugaritic and Biblical Tradition (Munster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1996), 194–200. This colossal struggle, many scholars maintain, forms the basis of all ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies, including the biblical one.[17]C. Kloos, Yhwh’s Combat with the Sea: A Canaanite Tradition in the Religion of Ancient Israel (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986), 70. To put the relationship more strongly, this perspective suggests that the Chaoskampf forms the missing link between the ancient Near Eastern accounts and Genesis 1.[18]See also Hermann Gunkel, Schopfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1895). More recently, note B. W. Anderson, Creation Versus Chaos: The Reinterpretation of Mythical Symbolism in the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 15-40.

Biblical scholars who attempt to correlate the Mesopotamian Tiamat with the biblical tehom typically do so on two grounds: 1) the perceived thematic similarities between cosmic battles in the different accounts, and 2) an etymological understanding which posits that the Hebrew word tehom was derived from the Babylonian word Tiamat. We will begin looking at the thematic similarities.

Among those who argue that the biblical tradition bor­ rows freely from the Babylonian story, few have enjoyed more lasting influence than Hermann Gunkel.[19]Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History (New York: Schocken, 1974), 17, 74, 146-49. He gave special attention to the supposed relationship between Tiamat and tehom. Gunkel was one of the first to argue that Genesis 1 borrows and demythologizes Tiamat with the more generic Hebrew expression tehom (“the deep”).[20]For a more recent articulation of the same view, see J. Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 53.

Nevertheless, after fresh examination of both literary and linguistic evidence, this older view ceased to enjoy the soli­darity it once did. More than any other, Lambert shaped the way many scholars viewed Genesis 1in its ancient Near Eastern milieu. On literary grounds, Lambert demonstrates that the similarities between Israel’s creation story and those of both Assyria and Babylon do not allow for an organic relationship between texts. Lambert rightly maintains that since literary borrowing is virtually impossible to prove, scholars have too long used the term “borrowing” careless­ly. Lambert also argues that the idea of a shared provenance serves the data far more appropriately than does the idea of borrowing. For instance, that both the Bnuma Blish and Genesis 1 begin with chaotic waters fails to adduce proof of borrowing.[21]W. G. Lambert, “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis,” Journal of Theological Studies NS 16 (1965): 293.

The second line of reasoning is linguistic, arguing that there is an etymological connection between Tiamat and tehom. For many scholars, linguistics prove that Genesis 1 drew from its Mesopotamian antecedents, concluding that tehom (“the deep”) is cognate to Tiamat) further underscoring both the conceptual and literary relationship between the Mesopotamian and biblical stories.[22]Anderson, Creation Versus Chaos, 15-40. While it was once asserted confidently that this etymology was sound, biblical scholarship’s ardor for finding Mesopotamian parallels has given way to a more dispassionate view of the evidence. For instance, Atwell concludes that the two terms cannot be cognate because the second consonants of the respective words are etymologically unrelated, a point corroborated by both Lambert and Tsumura’s thorough investigation.[23]Atwell, “Egyptian Source,” 446. Also, Lambert, “Babylonian Background,” 293 and David Toshio Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989), 45-65. The basic argument each proffers rests on the middle radical of the respective words, gutturals whose etymological relation­ ship is dubious at best. In other words, it is unlikely that the two words are linguistically related.

After a careful review of the respective literary traditions, Lambert asserts that, “there was hardly any influence from that Babylonian text (Bnuma Blish) on the Old Testament creation accounts.[24]Lambert, “Babylonian Background,” 292-99. Lambert also notes that the Babylonian texts themselves were influenced by a variety of different sources, including Sumerian and Amorite. He states that “it is no longer scientifically sound to assume that all ideas originated in Mesopotamia and moved westwards.[25]Ibid., 287. Further, Lambert critiques the practice of taking an isolated Babylonian text and extrapolating from the lone text “the Babylonian view” on a subject. Ultimately, he notes that there are few similarities between the Mesopotamian and biblical creation stories.

Lambert’s pivotal study does not eschew all similarities between the accounts, however. The division of the waters, the creation of humanity, and significantly, the institution of the Sabbath all highlight shared themes. Nonetheless, Lambert insists that it is one thing to note shared themes growing out of an intellectual milieu, and quite another to posit literary borrowing, explaining that the data presents  “no evidence of Hebrew borrowing from Babylon.”[26]Ibid., 292. See also A. R. Millard, “A New Babylonian ‘Genesis’ Story,” in “I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood:” Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11, eds. R. S. Hess and D. T Tsumura (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 115.

Moreover, numerous other substantive differences under­ mine the view that the biblical tradition owes a debt to the Mesopotamian cosmogonies. Curiously, in the Mesopotamian text, the names Apsu and Tiamat both occur without the determinative dingir, a symbol which scribes placed immediately before the names of gods.[27]Clifford, Creation Accounts, 140. The omis­sion of the determinative undermines the view that Enuma Blish viewed Tiamat as divine.

Before turning to Egyptian cosmogonies, the Ugaritic evidence requires comment. The Ugaritic texts, while not Mesopotamian, strictly speaking, may contain creation myths which have bearing on Genesis 1. Fisher first promoted the viewpoint that Canaanite creation myths existed and that they influenced the biblical account.[28]Loren R Fisher, “Creation at Ugaritic and in the Old Testament,” Vetus Testamentum 15 (1965): 313-24. In summary, Fisher’s view has garnered limited attention since scholars generally conclude that the Ugaritic myths focus not on cre­ation, but on the cycles of renewal and fertility which their gods engendered. Although an older work, Pope’s perspec­tive still represents the consensus, “There is hardly anything that could be called a creation story or any clear allusion to cosmic creativity in the Ugaritic texts …[29]Marvin Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1955), 49.


In the late 1870s, the noted Egyptologist A. H. Sayce first suggested traces of Egyptian influence on Genesis 1, lamenting what he felt was excessive attention to Babylonian sources.[30]Reprinted in A. H. Sayce, “The Egyptian Background of Genesis 1,” in Studies Presented to F. L. Griffith (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1932), 419. Also, A. S. Yahuda, The Language of the Pentateuch in its Relation to Egyptian (London: Oxford University Press, 1933). Until recently, scholarship has ignored Sayce, remaining focused upon Mesopotamian evidence. The last twenty years have seen an increasing belief that Egyptian cosmogonies contribute to a proper understanding of the Genesis account. Atwell epitomizes one of the most dog­matic positions, stating, “We would therefore see Psalm 104 and Genesis 1 as witnesses to a single Egyptian-inspired tradition.[31]Atwell, “Egyptian Source,” 461.

Egyptologists agree that it is exceedingly difficult to detail the specifics of Egyptian theological belief, including those about creation. Consequently, no unified Egyptian theology of creation exists. Instead, one encounters several diverse accounts from the Egyptian tradition, the most significant of which emerge from Heliopolis, Memphis, and Hermopolis.[32]John D. Currid, “An Examination of the Egyptian Background of the Genesis Cosmogony” Biblische Zeitschrift 35 (1991): 20.

The Egyptian myths share several notable features. In each, creation ensues from the creative activity of a single god, although the identities of these gods differ, with Re, Ptah, and Atum being the most common.[33]Ibid. Also, creation results directly from the personal activity of the god: yet the gods’ creative acts differ from account to account.[34]Ibid., 20-25. Creation springing out of a primordial chaos is another shared motif.[35]James K. Hoffmeier, “Some Thoughts on Genesis 1 & 2 and Egyptian Cosmology,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies 15 (1983): 44. The idea of separating heaven from earth plays an important role in Egyptian and biblical stories.[36]Atwell, “Egyptian Source,” 456. Other details such as the creation of heavenly bodies, vegetation, and animal life occur in the Egyptian accounts. In the Heliopolis version, the sun god Re plays a prominent role, evoking images of God creating the “greater light” in Genesis 1:14. Although his conclusion grows out of a rather strained handling of the evidence, Atwell even suggests that the divine image which humanity bears grows out of the pharaoh’s status as divine.[37]Ibid., 464.

The differences between Genesis 1and the Egyptian creation myths are equally striking. Perhaps the biggest disparity lies in the fact that the Egyptian creation stories were more than cosmogonies: they functioned as theogonies, attempting to explain the origins of the gods themselves. In contrast, Genesis 1 assumed God’s presence, finding it inconceivable to think otherwise. In Genesis, God and his creation remain distinct, with God utterly separate from and antedating his universe. The Egyptian cosmogonies portray the gods and creation as intermingled.[38]Clifford, Creation Accounts, 114.

The creation of humanity in the image of God, whatever the phrase means precisely, stands prominent in chapter 1. However, no similar notion occurs in the Egyptian texts.[39]Ibid., 47. Lastly, as with the Babylonian stories, the whole purpose and outlook of the Egyptian myths reflect little of the Bible’s emphases. These differences are important enough to make it impossible to posit a direct debt for either tradition, especially the Israelite. The primary point is that all come from an interconnected intellectual environment.[40]Wyatt, Myths of Power, 208.

The Polemical Character of Genesis I

After surveying the evidence for Mesopotamian and Egyptian influence on Genesis 1, several conclusions become clear. Interest in possible ancient Near Eastern liter­ary connections continues unabated after more than a century of inquiry, with Egyptian texts finally assuming their place beside the Mesopotamian ones. After years of study, notwithstanding several excessive perspectives, one must conclude that Genesis 1 does not plagiarize other texts as some have asserted. But it is equally impossible to overlook significant thematic parallels, similarities which indicate that each of the issues Genesis 1addresses represents topics of shared concern throughout the entire region. Contrast this conclusion with the view that Genesis 1 did not emerge   until near the end of Israel’s history. Firmage illustrates this latter view, “By the time this document and the related Priestly corpus proper were written …the priests had no real need to do battle with polytheism.”[41]Edwin Firmage, “Genesis 1 and the Priestly Agenda,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999): 99.

Nevertheless, this polemical focus, a concern with cor­recting the false theological views which competed for the allegiance of both Israel and her neighbors, controls what the biblical story mentions and how it does so. Our literary survey shows how diverse and complex the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmogonies were. Further, no cautious study should attempt to focus only on one element of an account, talking motifs out of their contexts, and ignoring conflicting evidence. Each component of the bibli­cal story critiques contemporary religious thought. Thus, Genesis 1 stands as a powerful polemic against the prevailing cosmogonies of the era, and against several particular theological tenets.

The most distinctive element in Genesis 1 is its view of God. Genesis begins with God, existing and creating at his own choice. Unlike most of the other cosmogonies, the biblical story does not attempt to explain God’s own ori­gins. Further, while Genesis does not explain the specifics of matter’s emergence, it does assume that God created matter. Moreover, all of God’s creation arose out of the divine fiat. God and his creation are distinct, never to be confused or merged with one another. Further, the biblical text allows no room for magic in the world’s response to God.[42]Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken, 1966), 3-12.

While “the deep” is best viewed as a chaotic state of the primeval universe, God’s dominion over the chaos must have communicated with the ancients on a more profound level than the modern reader perceives. In Genesis, God creates, while the turbulent waters merely describe the cos­ mos at an early stage of God’s ordering his world. In no way does Genesis describe these waters mythologically as the source of life as many other ancient cosmogonies do.[43]Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” Evangelical Quarterly 46 (1974):·84-85.

The creation of the expanse surely repudiated Egyptian influences of the sky god cult, as well as the Mesopotamian view that the heavenly bodies were themselves gods.[44]Ibid., 87-89. For example, the deity Shamash (Heb. Shemesh, “sun”) was a prominent Assyrian deity. In fact, by declining to name the heavenly bodies, Genesis’s reference to the “greater” and “lesser” lights may express its preference not to mention the Mesopotamian or Egyptian gods by name.[45]Atwell, “Egyptian Source,” 457.

Genesis presents the creation of humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creative activity. Humans bear the mysterious image of God, an expression which has spurred the imagina­tion of interpreters since the text was first penned. Humans represent the best of God’s creation, creatures fashioned with great dignity and significance. God even delegated dominion to humanity, overseeing everything else God had created. Contrast this with the raison in the other creation stories. Most notoriously, the gods created humans in the Sumerian accounts in order to provide sustenance and to fulfill menial tasks for the gods, viewing humans as worthy of little more than fulfilling lowly service.

In summary, Genesis 1 portrays creation in an aggressive­ly anti-mythological fashion. Genesis 1 does not merely shape ancient thought – it rejects it outright. Nothing less could begin to present God and his world as it is.

II. Literary and Canonical Issues

Just as one must appreciate the ancient Near Eastern provenance of Genesis 1 in order to read the chapter rightly, likewise it is necessary to recognize the liter­ary structures and canonical influences of the Bible’s first chapter.[46]For a helpful overview of the literary character of Genesis 1, see Bruce K. Waltke, “The Literary Genre of Genesis, Chapter l,” Crux 27 (1991): 2-10. The tight structure of Genesis 1underscores God’s orderly approach to creating, contrasting sharply with the chaos characterizing the non-biblical cosmogonies in the ancient Near East. The description of God’s creative work completed within the confines of a workweek forms one of the most prominent features of the chapter. Further, the pattern of divine speaking, elements of creation emerging in fulfillment of God’s will, assessment and naming, all set within successive days, mortise the story of God’s creative work together. Manifold additional literary features produce the same effect.[47]Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 25-35.

Chapter 1 begins and ends with several terms that serve as an inclusion, providing a literary frame for the entire pas­ sage. The chronological reference “in the beginning” in 1:1 parallels “this is the account of” (toledoth) at the conclusion of the pericope. While toledoth does not usually have chronological significance in Genesis, it does so in 2:4a. Second, Genesis 1:1 and 2:4a speak of God’s handiwork using different forms of the word “create” (baral Further, both 1:1 and 2:4a employ the phrase, “heaven and earth,” the object of God’s creation.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the unified structure of Genesis 1is the use of chronological elements to frame the body of the chapter. The phrase “evening and morning” functions like a refrain, uniting the passage. Thus, the pattern of creative activity during six consecutive days, followed by the seventh, the sabbath, shapes the whole creation story.

Genesis 1 also evidences number symbolism in which the number “seven” plays a prominent role. Not only does God create the universe in seven days, but the Hebrew text man­ifests several additional patterns of “seven.” For instance, several verses contain seven (or multiples of seven) words. Cassuto notes that the terms “living creatures,” “it was good,” plus other expressions also occur seven times in the chapter.[48]Not all of Cassuto’s suggestions are equally compelling. See, Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1978), 14-15 and Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 4.

God’s creative acts on the first three days parallel those of the second three days. The following patterns emerge: day one: light parallels day four: luminaries; day two: heaven and sea parallels day five: birds and fish; and day three: earth and herbage parallels day six: the land and humanity. While far from exhaustive, this survey of literary features in Genesis 1 emphasizes its structural unity. However, the chapter presents an equally compelling canonical unity.

Canonically, Genesis 1 serves as an introduction not only to Genesis, but to the entire Torah. Moreover, the story of creation prepares the way for the imminent work of God among his people; the text does not aim to satisfy the read­er’s curiosity about origins.[49]William H. Bellinger, Jr., “Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Old Testament and Creation Theology,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 32 (1990): 27-35. Genesis 1 outlines the begin­ning of God’s relationship with his creation. It also por­tends God’s subsequent dealings with Israel.

A brief overview of theological themes in Genesis and Exodus illustrates creation’s theological importance. The fall turns God’s blessings on humanity into cursing. Because of the chaos sin engenders in the world, God destroys his own creation with the flood, while the retreat of the post-diluvial waters recreates God’s world. The Noahic covenant represents a partial restoration of the perfect world God made in chapter 1.[50]David J. A. Clines, “Theme in Genesis 1-11,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 38 (1976): 499-502. Further, both the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants continue various themes established in Genesis 1, particularly that of blessing.[51]For a reformed survey of these themes, see Craig G. Bartholomew, “Covenant and Creation: Covenant Overload or Covenantal Deconstruction,” Calvin Theological Journal 30 (1995): 11-33. God’s blessing which he extended to creation, especially humanity, was lost in the fall. Nevertheless, the Sinaitic covenant extended the hope of a restoration to those who would obey God, the test in Genesis 3. But Israel refused to obey her God, just like her ancestors Adam and Eve, and forestalled blessing once more.[52]John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 27-28.

Thematically, Genesis 1 has two foci. The creation of humanity is one, an often-noted emphasis of the chapter. God created humans expressly for the purpose of blessing them. Humanity enjoyed the distinction of being the LORD’s only creature made in the image of God, allowing them to have a special relationship with him.

The chapter also magnifies a second theme, God’s prepa­ration of the “earth” or “land,” the place where those humans living in a relationship with God would dwell.[53]Ibid., 26; Mathews, Genesis 1-11, 58-60. Unfortunately, this theme has received limited attention. The expression, “the heavens and the earth,” in Genesis 1:1 functions as a merism, a figure of speech which signifies the totality of the universe. Creation thus emphasizes the funda­mental point that God made the earth, and as its maker, he owns it as well. The owner thus has the right to dictate how the inhabitants will conduct themselves.

However, this text functions at another level. While the Hebrew word ‘erets is frequently translated “earth,” it can be translated with equal ease, “land.” Modern readers with their own cosmological concerns have typically read the Hebrew to mean “earth,” but for the Israelites, the original readers, the meaning “land” would predominate. The land was an essential element of God’s covenant, a blessing he intended for Israel. The land stands at the heart of God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses. But the Torah reminds us that the LORD would give it to anyone he pleases (Jeremiah 27:5), especially if Israel disobeys his covenant. Hence, a canonical reading strongly suggests understanding ‘erets as “land,” God’s provision for his own special people.[54]Sailhamer, Pentateuch, 81-82.

Chapter 1 also demonstrates that the God who can create the cosmos can create a nation of Israel. Yet Genesis 1does not focus on Israel as much as it seeks to establish the char­acter of God as he works in Israel’s corporate life. Biblical law serves as but one example of this point. Chapter 1 lays the foundation upon which law rests. For instance, when the law states, “you shall have no other gods before me,” what could be more plausible than to proscribe idolatry in light of Yahweh’s incomparable nature?

Thinking about Genesis 1canonically also forces the reader to consider theological themes outside of the Torah. The first chapter shares an important relationship with Old Testament wisdom. Genesis 1 and wisdom both place great emphasis on the powerful word of God, equally of creating the cosmos or a wise life.[55]Mathews, Genesis, 125-26; Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Nashville: Broadman, 1993), 53. John Sailhamer develops the wis­dom implications of the early chapters of Genesis extensive­ly, maintaining that wisdom is a primary theme in the Torah. He notes that the phrase “good and evil” and Eve’s rationalizing her disobedience, claiming that it was “desir­able for gaining wisdom,” contrast “wisdom as ‘obedience and trust in God’ with that of ‘disobedience and doubt.'”[56]John H. Sailhamer, “A Wisdom Composition of the Pentateuch?” in The Way of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Bruce K. Waltke, eds. J. I. Packer and S. K Soderlund (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 26.

We have already noted that the phrase “in the beginning” links with 2:4a, tying the passage together. On a broader scale, the beginning compels the reader to ask, What will the end be? Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; and Deuteronomy 31:29 all refer to “the last days,” continuing what Genesis 1:1 introduces.[57]Ibid., 21. Sailhamer argues that Genesis 1-11 bears significant wisdom influences, clearly indicated by the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil” and the statement that the fruit was “desirable for gaining wisdom” (p. 26). While these three passages suggest a literary unity within the Torah, ultimately the reference to the beginning points the reader in an eschatologi­cal direction, looking to the Eschaton described in Isaiah 65:17 and Revelation 21:1 when God would relieve creation’s groaning at last.

Finally, one must view Genesis 1 as an introduction to the entire Bible. The theme of God’s creative might rever­berates throughout the Old Testament. For example, Isaiah appropriates earlier teachings on creation to persuade his audience that God has the power and the personal relation – ship with Israel to restore their blessings after the Exile. Psalms 8, 19, and 104 employ creation to exalt God, and in so doing, humanity as well. Likewise, the New Testament underscores God as Creator when seeking to portray his servants in their proper light (Acts 4:24; 14:15; 17:24) or when desiring to extol God himself (Ephesians 3:9; Revelation 4:11; 10:6).


Genesis 1 begins with God creating order out of chaos. Genesis 3 shows chaos reintroduced into God’s orderly world. These narratives pave the way for the patriarchs, Abraham in particular, for it will be through him and his descendants that the lost blessings of God can be regained.

In conclusion, Sarna writes:

The mystery of divine creativity is, of course, ulti­mately unknowable. The Genesis narrative does not seek to make intelligible what is beyond human ken. To draw upon human language to explain that which is outside any model of human experience is inevitably to confront the inescapable limitations of any attempt to give verbal expression to this subject.[58]Sarna, Genesis, 3.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:1, 4 (NIV)


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Southwestern Journal of Theology
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