INTRODUCTION TO THE PENTATEUCH AND GENESIS:
See the companion article regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy).
The word Pentateuch comes from the Greek words penta (five) and teuchos (scroll), and is related to the fact that Genesis through Deuteronomy constitute the first five books (scrolls) of the Bible. These books are also known as the Torah, which is the Hebrew word for law.
The companion article (see above) deals with the two major theories of Pentateuchal authorship:
The first theory is that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. This is reflected in the phrase, “the book of Moses,” that is found four times in the Old Testament (2 Chronicles 25:4; 35:12; Ezra 6:18; Nehemiah 12:26), several times in the Apocrypha, and once from the mouth of Jesus (Mark 12:26).
The second theory is that the Pentateuch came about by oral tradition (stories handed down by word of mouth) until various authors wrote them down and various redactors (editors) pieced them together. The major redactors are known as:
J (Yahwist—the J is from the German Jahwist)
P (Priestly). The article cited above discusses these in more detail.
Scholars today generally agree that Genesis is the combined work of J (Yahwist) and P (Priestly), and that Genesis 1:1—2:4a is the work of P, dating to the time of the Babylonian Exile (6th century B.C.), and was written to counter Babylonian mythology and to give captive Israel hope in a time of despair. The Genesis account established that God is the sole creator—that God’s powerful word created all that is—and that humans stand at the apex of all that God created. Our proper response is to obey God’s command, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (1:28).
Claus Westermann suggested that Genesis 1-11 is composed primarily of narratives and lists. “The narratives involve disobedience and disaster in the human family…. The lists are different. Woven in and around the narratives of disaster, they represent the rhythm and flow of God’s blessing that cannot be destroyed by human disobedience…. Genesis 1:1—2:3…has more the character of a ‘list’ than a narrative…. But this account goes beyond many list genres in that it uses the praise language of hymns similar to that of Psalm 104…. Isaiah 40-55, speaking expressly to the disaster of the Babylonian Exile, uses the same hymnic creation language to announce God’s intervention in behalf of that community (cf., for example, Is. 40:17-20)” (Roop, 33-34).
These accounts of the creation are intended neither as a scientific nor a journalistic account, but are rather theological reflections of people-of-faith intended to inform and strengthen people-of-faith.
The Jews titled each book of the Hebrew Scriptures by the first word of the book. The Hebrew title of Genesis is Beresit, which means, “In the beginning.”
GENESIS 1:1—2:4a. THE CREATION STORY
Scholars generally agree that the creation story in Genesis is divided into two accounts from two sources. The first account is Genesis 1:1—2:4a (or 2:3—scholars disagree whether 2:4a belongs to the first or the second account) and was written by P. The second account is Genesis 2:4b—3:24, and was written by E.
The creation story “is cast in the form of a prose poem. It is written in terse, controlled phrases with rhythmic repetitions, the slow ascent of the cosmic drama culminating in the creation of humankind and the serene postscript describing the sanctification of the seventh day. In sparse, austere language, it speaks of God, the world, and humans in relationship to each other and reveals the basic and unalterable dependence of the world on the presence of God. (It) tells, with the assurance of faith, of life’s foundations, and it is in the light of this faith that it must be read and understood” (Plaut, 17).
The six days of creation form two groups of three, and there is a correspondence between the pairs formed by the respective days of the two groups:
Day 1: Light (1:3-5) Day 4: Lights (1:14:19)
Day 2: Dome (1:6-8) Day 5: Fish/birds (1:20-23)
Day 3: Earth/seas/vegetation (1:9-13) Day 6: Animals/people (1:24-31)
Days 1 & 4: The correspondence between Light and Lights is obvious, if somewhat confusing. We are familiar with the Lights of Day 4 providing illumination, so we are left to wonder how God provided Light on Day 1. However, if God could create the sun and moon on Day 4, he could surely provide illumination by other means on Days 1-3.
Days 2 & 5: On Day 2, God created the dome to separate “the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse”. This created the habitat for the creatures of the seas and sky that God would create on Day 5.
Days 3 & 6: On Day 3, God gathered the water together to allow dry land to appear—separated the Earth from the Seas. This created the habitat for the land animals and people that God would create on Day 6. Also, on Day 3, God created vegetation, and on Day 6, he authorizes the use of vegetation to feed people and animals. It won’t be until Genesis 9:3 that God authorizes humans to use animals for food.
There were, then, eight creative acts in the six days of creation. Days 3 and 6 each have two creative acts, the Earth/Sea separation and vegetation for Day 3 and land animals and people for Day 6.
Of course, the word “day” cannot have its usual meaning until the sun and moon are created on the fourth day (v. 14). We must allow for poetic license here, as throughout the creation account. We must remember that the writer’s purpose is not to transmit scientific data but to tell exiled Israelites that God is the creative force behind the universe—and to encourage them with the knowledge that, in spite of their current circumstances, they are in the hands of a loving and all-powerful God who will redeem them. We should also remember that, to God, a thousand days are as an evening’s watch (Psalm 90:4).
The creation for each day follows a basic pattern, but with enough variation to maintain our interest:
• “God said”—God is the creator and God’s word is the creative force
• “Let there be” or “Let the”—God commands creation
• “and there was”—God’s command is executed
• “And God saw that (the creation) was good”—God evaluates the creation
• “God called”—God names the creation
• “There was evening and there was morning, (number) day”
On Days 1, 3, 4, and 5, God pronounces the creation “good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On Day 2, there is no such pronouncement—perhaps because the work of Day 2 (separating waters-above from waters-below) will not be fully concluded until Day 3 (with the gathering together of the waters-below). On Day 6, after creating humans, God “saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (v. 31)—presumably God’s commentary on creation in general and on human creation in particular.
Days 5, 6, and 7 each include a blessing—of birds and sea life (v. 22)—of humans (v. 28)—and of the seventh day (2:3). Days 5 and 6 were the days when God populated the earth with living beings of various kinds. Day 7, of course, was the day that God rested.
GENESIS 1:1-2. IN THE BEGINNING
1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2Now the earth was formless(Hebrew: to·hu) and empty. (Hebrew: wa·bo·hu) Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s Spirit (Hebrew: weruah elo·him—wind/spirit/breath of God) was hovering over the surface of the waters.
The original Hebrew for verse 1 is ambiguous and allows various translations:
• The NIV translates verse 1 as an independent sentence—”In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Verse 2 describes the formless nature of the initial stage of that creation—”Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” This wording suggests that God created the heavens and earth from nothing (often referred to as ex nihilo—Latin for “from nothing”).
• But the NRSV translates verse 1 as a dependent clause supporting verse 2—”In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (v. 1), “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” (v. 2). Note the “when” in the first verse. This makes it sound as if the formless, empty earth existed prior to God’s creative act, and the creation was a matter of organizing the existing chaos—making something lovely out of something not lovely. This wording suggests that God did not create the heavens and earth from nothing (ex nihilo) but rather made something good from something not good.
Both translations are defensible, and scholars are divided on this matter:
• Von Rad strongly favors verse 1 as an independent sentence (as in the NIV, where God creates from nothing). He says, “Syntactically perhaps both translations are possible, but not theologically” (Von Rad, 48).
• Brueggemann notes that either translation is possible and says, “The very ambiguity of creation from nothing and creation from chaos is a rich expository possibility. We need not choose between them, even as the text does not” (Brueggemann, 29).
• Roop notes that either translation is possible and that the ambiguity frees us “to focus on the central affirmation of the text, God creating a livable world” (Roop, 25).
• Wenham understands verse 1 as an independent sentence, as in the NIV, with the effect that God created the earth ex nihilo—from nothing (Wenham, 11).
• Gene Tucker takes the other side, saying, “The second verse describes what ‘existed’ before creation…. Consequently, in the Old Testament view, creation was not ex nihilo, but out of chaos” (in Craddock, et. al., 301).
The early church fathers were likewise divided:
• Augustine said, “Scripture called heaven and earth that formless matter of the universe, which was changed into formed and beautiful natures by God’s ineffable command” (Louth, 1). In other words, God organized the chaos rather than creating from nothing.
• Nemesius of Emesa said that God “brought all things into being out of nothing” (Louth, 2).
• Basil the Great said, “It appears, indeed, that even before this world an order of things existed of which our mind can form an idea but of which we can say nothing” (Louth, 2). In other words, God organized the chaos rather than creating from nothing.
• Rather than defending one interpretation or the other, Chrysostom advised caution: “Let us accept what is said with much gratitude, not overstepping the proper limit nor busying ourselves with matters beyond us” (Louth, 3).
Several scriptures suggest that God created ex nihilo (Genesis 1:1-3; Exodus 20:11; Psalm 104:24; Jeremiah 10:12; John 1:2-3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; 11:3) (Towner, 18). One is explicit: “For thus says Yahweh who created the heavens, the God who formed the earth and made it, who established it and didn’t create it a waste, who formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18).
“In the beginning” (v. 1). The phrase, “In the beginning,” “anticipates the ‘end’ of the universe and human history” (Mathews, 126). That comment causes us to remember that the Bible deals with the end of time as well as its beginning—and that the New Testament closes with the Book of Revelation, which focuses on eschatology (last things) just as the Old Testament opens with the Book of Genesis, which focuses on creation (first things).
“In the beginning” cannot mean the absolute beginning, because God is eternal and had no beginning. “In the beginning,” therefore, must refer only to the beginning of creation.
“Now the earth was formless (to·hu) and empty“ (bo·hu) (v. 2a). To·hu means a wasteland or wilderness such as the deserts with which the Israelites were familiar. These deserts were difficult places—hot in the day and cold at night. Food and water were scarce, as were landmarks by which a person could navigate. People familiar with the desert could survive in it, but their lives were not easy. People unfamiliar with the desert or careless of its dangers could not survive. Bohu means “void” or “empty.” The similar sounds (tohuand bohu) and meanings (wasteland and void) reinforce the idea that the world was, at this stage, formless and empty—an inhospitable world, to say the least.
It is easy enough to conceive of such a place. Many planets in our solar system are empty, dark, and deep. Jupiter, for instance, is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. In 1995, a NASA spacecraft penetrated Jupiter’s atmosphere and found very high winds there. At the base of Jupiter’s atmosphere, pressures are so great that they turn hydrogen gas into a liquid (Encarta).
Try to imagine taming Jupiter’s hostile environment to sustain human life. That is the kind of challenge that God faced in the first stage of creation when the world was formless, empty, dark, and deep. But every creative enterprise begins with some sort of chaos. It takes vision and skill to turn a pile of building materials into a house. It takes vision and skill to turn a muddy lot into a landscaped yard. Imagine the vision and skill required to transform a chaotic world into a place fit for human habitation.
“Darkness was on the surface of the deep“ (v. 2b). The scriptures speak frequently of light, darkness, and the deep:
• Light symbolizes God (Isaiah 60:19-20), Jesus (John 8:12; 9:5; 12:35), Christians (Matthew 4:6), spiritual understanding (Psalm 119:105-106, 130), spiritual health (Luke 11:34), and salvation (Psalm 27:1).
• Darkness, the absence of light, symbolizes evil (John 3:20) and a lack of spiritual enlightenment and health (Luke 11:34; Acts 26:18).
• “The great deep” is a forbidden, dangerous place (Genesis 7:11). The book of Job uses the phrase “deep darkness” to describe a gloomy, forbidding place (Job 10:21) filled with terror (Job 24:17) and associated with eyes red with weeping (Job 16:16). People familiar with the sea know the dangers associated with the deep. When the author of Genesis describes the world as a place where “darkness was on the surface of the deep,” the picture is one of a gloomy, forbidding place.
At the very beginning of the Old Testament, then, we read of darkness and the deep (v. 2). At the very end of the New Testament, we will hear the promise that there will be no more seas and no more darkness (Revelation 21:1, 25).
“God’s Spirit ( weruah elo·him—wind/spirit of God) was hovering over the surface of the waters“ (v. 2c). Ruah can be translated “wind” or “spirit.” The NIV translates ruah elohim “Spirit of God.” Most commentators agree that the capital S in Spirit, suggesting the Holy Spirit, is inappropriate here. While the phrase “holy Spirit” is used three times in the Old Testament (Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10-11), it will not be until the New Testament that God’s people will become aware of the Holy Spirit as a distinctive persona of God.
Those who suggest that “wind” is a better translation than “spirit” note that there are three parallel phrases here:
• “the earth was formless and empty”
• “Darkness was on the surface of the deep”
• “God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters”
The first two phrases have a dark quality, so they conclude that “wind from God” (NRSV) is appropriate here because it continues that dark quality (Wenham, 17). However, it seems equally logical to translate the third phrase “God’s spirit” (note the small s), because it counters the dark quality—injects a glimpse of light into the darkness—and provides a subtle transition from the darkness of the “formless and empty” to God’s creative work, which will begin with the very next verse when God says, “Let there be light” (v. 3).
GENESIS 1:3-5. LET THERE BE LIGHT
3God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4God saw the light, and saw that it was good. God divided the light from the darkness. 5God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” There was evening and there was morning, one day.
“God said” (v. 3). It is at God’s word that creation takes place. God’s word is not empty, but has power (Isaiah 55:11). When God speaks, things happen. Even the chaos obeys.
“Let there be light” (v. 3). God commands, but gently. The mood is jussive (a mood with which few people are familiar) instead of imperative (an order-giving mood with which we are all too familiar). The jussive, “Let there be,” is gentler—softer. God does not jerk the creation into existence, but speaks it gently into existence (Roop, 27).
“and there was light” (v. 3). The light comes into being at God’s word. The “lights in the expanse of sky” will not be created until verses 14 ff., so we do not know from whence the light of verse 3 comes. Certainly God has no shortage of resources to provide light. Perhaps God is the light at this point.
Light is God’s first creative enterprise, and we understand instinctively the rightness of that. It is difficult to create in darkness, and even more difficult to appreciate that which has been created. When we begin a creative process, we turn on the lights—or bring in floodlights—or adjust the lighting so that it suits our art. It is possible to create in darkness, as blind musicians demonstrate, but we prefer light. Darkness is something to overcome, not to embrace.
Light will continue to be an important motif in God’s dealings with people. During the plague of darkness in Egypt, God will provide light for the Israelites (Exodus 10:23). God will light their way at night during their wilderness journeys with a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). God will give them lights to light the tabernacle (Exodus 25:37). Moses’ face will shine so brightly that it will be necessary for him to wear a veil (Exodus 34:29-33). The Psalmist will pray, “Yahweh, let the light of your face shine on us” (Psalm 4:6)—and “Yahweh is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1). Jesus will say, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), and will assure the disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).
“God saw the light, and saw that it was good” (v. 4a). As noted above, God’s evaluation is part of the standard formula for God’s creative enterprise. Only on Day 2 do we do not hear it. The pronouncement “that it (the light) was good” (v. 4a) follows the creation of light (v. 3) and precedes the separation of “the light from the darkness” (v. 4b), so it is the light rather than the separation of light from darkness that God pronounces good.
“God divided the light from the darkness” (v. 4). When God first created light, “the light …poured in and …removed chaos to a gloomy condition of twilight” (Von Rad, 52)—so God finds it necessary to separate light from darkness. “Every night, when the created world of forms flows together into formlessness, chaos regains a certain power over what has been created…. And every morning…something of God’s first creation is repeated” (Von Rad, 52-53).
For people in exile (as Israel was when the book of Genesis was written), remembering God’s bringing light out of darkness is a powerful, hopeful thought. Job will also find strength in that thought—”He uncovers deep things out of darkness, and brings out to light the shadow of death” (Job 12:22). In the book of Job, the word “light” appears in 28 verses.
“God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night'” (v. 5). Kings have the sovereign right to assign names (2 Kings 23:34; 24:17), so God exercises his naming rights as king of the universe (Von Rad, 53). We will see this naming convention for the creative acts on Day 2—for the Earth and Seas (but not vegetation) on Day 3—but for nothing thereafter. God will later delegate the naming of animals to adam(2:19-20). Man will also name the woman (2:23; 3:20).
“There was evening and there was morning, one day” (v. 5). This formula will be repeated to conclude each of the six days of creation (vv. 8, 13, 19, 23, 31).
GENESIS 1:6-8. LET THERE BE AN EXPANSE IN THE WATERS
6God said, “Let there be an expanse (Hebrew: ra·qia—expanse, dome) in the middle of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” 7God made the expanse, and divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. 8God called the expanse “sky”(Hebrew: sa·ma·yim—sky or heavens). There was evening and there was morning, a second day.
“Let there be an expanse (ra·qia) in the middle of the waters” (v. 6). ra·qia is related to the verb ra·qa and “is something that is created by being spread out either by stretching (e.g., a tent) or by hammering (e.g., a metal; cf. Deut. 28:23, in which the sky in a time of drought is likened to bronze; cf. also the use of ra·qa in Exod. 39:3, where the meaning is clearly ‘to hammer out’). The function of this vault is to separate between waters and waters…. Once the division is made (v. 7), two specific sets of water emerge, those above and those below the vault” (Hamilton, 122).
The worldview here is of a turtle-shaped world with a flat earth floating on an expanse of water. A vaulted expanse above the earth stretches from horizon to horizon (Job 37:18; Ezekiel 1:22-26) and contains not only the waters-above but also the sun, moon, and stars.
“and let it divide the waters from the waters” (v. 6). The waters-above are rain and snow. The waters-below are subterranean waters, streams, lakes, and seas. It is as important for God to separate the waters-above from the waters-below as it was for him to separate light and darkness. It is part of preparing the world for the life that God will soon create—part of bringing the forces of nature under control to make the earth habitable for people.
“God called the expanse ‘sky'” (v. 8). Again, God asserts his naming rights as king. This is of special significance here, because it re-emphasizes that God created the heavens and controls them—as over against the Babylonian pantheon of gods associated with skies, clouds, and storms.
GENESIS 1:9-10. LET THE WATERS BE GATHERED TOGETHER
9God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear;” and it was so. 10God called the dry land “earth”, and the gathering together of the waters he called “seas.” God saw that it was good.
“Let the waters under the sky be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear” (v. 9). On Day 2, God separated the waters-above from the waters-below. Now, on Day 3, God gathers the waters-below together to allow dry land to appear.
“God called the dry land ‘earth’, and the gathering together of the waters he called ‘seas'” (v. 10). Again we have God asserting his naming rights over the world that he has so recently created/tamed. People will fear the power of Earth and Seas—especially Seas—and lives will be lost to the Seas—but Earth and Seas are nevertheless part of God’s dominion, and God will set boundaries for them.
“God saw that it was good” (v. 10). There was no such pronouncement at the end of Day 2, perhaps because the gathering together of the waters-below on Day 3 concludes the work of Day 2 (separating the waters-above from the waters-below).
GENESIS 1:11-13. LET THE EARTH YIELD GRASS, HERBS, AND TREES
11God said, “Let the earth yield grass, herbs yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with its seed in it, on the earth;” and it was so. 12The earth yielded grass, herbs yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with its seed in it, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. 13There was evening and there was morning, a third day.
“Let the earth yield grass, herbs yielding seeds, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with its seed in it, on the earth” (v. 11). This is still Day 3—one of two days (the other being Day 6) on which God accomplishes two major creative acts.
Until now God has initiated each creative act by a simple command involving no other creative agency (vv. 3, 6, 9), but now God breaks that pattern by calling the earth to “yield grass” (v. 11). God has been creating the foundation to support the life that he plans to create, and the earth is part of that foundation, as is the light and darkness, the waters-above and the waters-below, and the seas and dry land. Vegetation is the first life form that God creates, and it will have its roots in the Earth that God prepared for it earlier on this same day.
God creates two categories of vegetation: “herbs yielding seeds, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with its seed in it” (v. 11). The seeds, of course, are essential for propagation, and we are reminded that God will soon say, “Be fruitful, multiply” (v. 28). God will, of course, address that command to the newly created people, but it is also important—vital to the ongoing of life—that the vegetation is also fruitful and that it multiplies. All life, even the life of carnivorous animals, is dependent on the presence of vegetation. Without vegetation, all life would come to an end and God’s purposes would be thwarted.
“The earth yielded grass, herbs yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with its seed in it, after their kind” (v. 13) Vegetation has life, but a quality of life quite different from that of fish, birds, land animals, and humans. God refers to those latter life forms as “living creatures” (1:20, 21, 24) or “living soul” (2:7), but uses no such term for vegetation. The living creatures are different in that they are capable of thought, decision, and movement, while vegetation assumes a more passive existence. Like the dry land and water, vegetation is essential to the lives of all living creatures, but it differs from dry land and water in that it is alive. We might think of vegetation as an intermediate form of creation—located somewhere between the inanimate earth and the fully animate living creatures.
“With the conclusion of the third day yet another color is added to God’s cosmos. To the basic white and black of day and night has been added the blue of sky and sea. Now the canvas is adorned with green. The golden-yellow sun and the reddish human being will complete this rainbow of colors” (Hamilton, 126).
GENESIS 1:14-19. LET THERE BE LIGHTS IN THE EXPANSE OF THE SKY
14God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of sky to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years; 15and let them be for lights in the expanse of sky to give light on the earth;” and it was so. 16God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He also made the stars. 17God set them in the expanse of sky to give light to the earth, 18and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. God saw that it was good. 19There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
On Day 3, God began the creation of life, albeit vegetation that is qualitatively different from the “living creatures” that will follow. However, on Day 4, God digresses to deal with inanimate objects once again. That is not to say that Day 4 is unimportant. On the contrary, it parallels the creation of light on Day 1 and heads up the second grouping of days—Days 4 through 6. The author describes the events of Day 4 in great detail—second only to the detail of Day 6—which testifies to the importance of this day.
“Let there be lights in the expanse of sky to divide the day from the night” (v. 14a). The Babylonians regard the sun, moon, and stars as deities. “NO!” says the author of Genesis. The heavenly lights are not gods, but were created by God. The author will not even dignify them with names—there is no mention of sun or moon—but refers to them only as “lights.” Note the almost offhand way that the author refers to the stars—”also… the stars”—adding them almost as an afterthought (v. 16). This is a deliberate effort to put the heavenly bodies in their proper perspective—in their proper relationship to God.
The “lights” are “for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years” (v. 14b)—intended only to serve the needs of earth’s inhabitants—servants instead of rulers. They serve to cue humans when to worship God, but do not rate being worshiped. They rule only the day (the greater light) and the night (the lesser light) (v. 16)—whereas God will charge humans with dominion over all living things (v. 28). The “lights” are merely part of creation—and not even the most important part—not even close to being most important. God will save the best creation for last.
We find this same emphasis in Moses’ charge to the people of Israel: “and lest you lift up your eyes to the sky, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the army of the sky, you are drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which Yahweh your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole sky” (Deuteronomy 4:19).
God created light in verse 3 and the dome in verses 6-8. Now he creates the “lights in the expanse of sky” (v. 14)—”the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He also made the stars” (v. 16). The sequence seems wrong. Vegetation is dependent on sunlight for its growth, so we would expect God to create the heavenly bodies before vegetation.
GENESIS 1:20-23. LET THE WATERS SWARM WITH LIVING CREATURES
20God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of sky.” 21God created the large sea creatures, and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind. God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
“Let the waters swarm” (v. 20a). This parallels God’s earlier command, “Let the earth yeild” (v. 11). The NIV approaches this verse differently, translating it, “Let the water teem with living creatures”—de-emphasizing the role of the waters in the creation. In any event, the earth and waters could never be more than instruments of God, who is the one and only creator.
“Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of sky” (v. 20). On Day 5 God resumes creating life—fully animate life this time—lots of life—swarms of life.
God refers to fish and birds as “living creatures,” a term that he will use again for land animals (v. 24), but that he did not use for vegetation (v. 11) and will not use for humans (v. 26). The phrase, “living creatures” distinguishes animals from vegetation. The phrase, “in our image” will distinguish humans (v. 26).
“God created the large sea creatures” (v. 21a). The mention of sea monsters is interesting, given the many kinds of sea life that could be named and the infrequent nature of human contact with anything that could be described as a sea monster. Perhaps the intent here is to discourage any thought that the more frightening forms of sea life might have demonic origins—to affirm that God created even the sea monsters. Perhaps the intent is also to show that this beast we find so frightening is only an ordinary part of God’s creation.
“and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind“ (NIV: ‘according to its kind’) (v. 21). One of the distinguishing characteristics of “living creatures” is that they move. They can choose to move toward something that is attractive or away from something that is frightening. This movement is an act of will that depends on a capacity to think and to decide. Vegetation, on the other hand, stands rooted to the ground in which it is planted. In some cases it can turn toward the sun or propagate slowly across the landscape, but it is, for the most part, immobile. “Living creatures,” by contrast, tend to be highly mobile.
“after its kind” (NIV: “according to their kinds”) (v. 21). A part of the creative process was to organize the creation in understandable and dependable ways. Even though we are faced with millions of plant and animal species, God has organized them in such a way that we can easily classify them and distinguish among the classifications. We also expect that when a plant or animal reproduces the offspring will look like the parent. We can tamper with the process and produce hybrid plants or animals that are different from anything seen before, but the tampering is possible only because the original organization was accomplished so brilliantly that we can understand how to manipulate it.
“God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply‘” (v. 22a). This is the first of three blessings. God will also bless humans (v. 28) and the seventh day (2:3). Blessings show approval and convey assurance of success.
GENESIS 1:24-25. LET THE EARTH PRODUCE LIVING CREATURES
24God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures after their kind, livestock, creeping things, and animals of the earth after their kind;” and it was so. 25God made the animals of the earth after their kind, and the livestock after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind. God saw that it was good.
“livestock, creeping things, and animals of the earth after their kind“ (v. 24). There are three general categories of land animal: (1) “Livestock” distinguishes domestic animals from wild animals. (2) “Creeping things” are reptilian life forms. (3) “Animals of the earth” includes all non-domestic, non-reptilian animals.
GENESIS 1:26-28. LET US MAKE MAN IN OUR IMAGE
26God said, “Let us make (Hebrew: aseh— plural) man (Hebrew: a·dam) in our image (Hebrew: sal·me), after our likeness (Hebrew: kid·mu·te·nu); and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them. God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Several things distinguish this creative account from those that preceded it. They depict this as the capstone moment of creation—the apex—the highest order of creation:
• It is the lengthiest, most detailed, and most repetitive of the creative accounts.
• It substitutes “Let us” for the earlier “Let there” or “Let the” formulae.
• Unlike other living creatures, which were created in the aid of “the waters” (v. 20) or “the earth” (v. 24), there is no external agency involved in the creation of humans.
• While other creatures were created “of every kind,” humans are created “in our image.”
• God grants humans dominion over the other living creatures.
• The word for “created” (Hebrew: bara) is repeated three times in verse 27.
• God commands, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.”
“Let us make (aseh—plural) man (a·dam) in our image (sal·me), after our likeness” (kid·mu·te·nu) (v. 26). Humankind is a good translation of adam, which is used here to name humanity in general rather than a particular person.
“Let us make (aseh) man in our image” (v. 26a). aseh is a plural verb that is very close in meaning to bara(create), which is found three times in verse 27. Why the plural of aseh (“Let us make”)?
• The plural might indicate a dialogue among the Trinity. This idea has its roots in such passages as the Prologue to the Gospel of John, which declares that the Word “was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made” (John 1:2-3)—and Paul’s declaration that Christ Jesus “who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). The fact that the first readers of Genesis could not have understood that does not disqualify it as a possibility.
• The plural could indicate God’s collaborative effort that involves the heavenly host (angels) in the creation.
• The plural could be a “royal ‘we’ “—as a king might say, “We will” when he means, “I will.”
For additional instances of the divine plural, see Genesis 3:22 and 11:7.
“in our image (selem), after our likeness” (kid·mu·te·nu) (v. 26b). Selem (image) means “an image, a likeness, a statue, a model, a drawing, a shadow” (Baker and Carpenter, 952). Kings of that era often distributed their image through coins or statues to their subjects in far-reaching places who would never see the king in person. In many places, people referred to the king as “the image of God.”
“Because of the temptation of Babylonian religion, Israel resisted every notion that things in the world resembled God. Israel was at pains to affirm the otherness and transcendence of God” (Brueggemann, 31). Exodus 20:4 forbids God’s people from creating any sort of idol. It is quite remarkable then that the author of Genesis would state that humans are created in the image of God. That seems like the ultimate hubris—fatal pride—except that the account goes on to put humans in proper relationship to God—created in the image of God but clearly subordinate to God. “The visual metaphor of the image of God in humankind is that of a polished mirror with no cracks…. We are created to reflect back to God God’s own justice, grace and mercy” (Towner, 27)—and to reflect something of God’s character to society at large. “In God’s eyes all of mankind is royal. All of humanity is related to God, not just the king” (Hamilton, 135).
This language is echoed in chapter 5, which reiterates that adam was made “in God’s likeness” (5:1) and then recounts the birth of Seth, who was born “in his (Adam’s) own likeness, after his image” (5:3).
“in our image” (sal·me) (v. 26a). What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
• It must have to do with something more than physical likeness, because “God is spirit” (John 4:24)—although there might be a physical resemblance between humans and the angelic host.
• It must have to do, at least in part, with spiritual likeness—the capacity for love, forgiveness, grace, generosity—etc., etc., etc.
• God’s decision to make humankind in his image is followed immediately by the decision to give humans dominion over all the living creatures (v. 26), so an essential part of being created in God’s image must have to do with the proper exercise of dominion. If the image of God is to be faithfully reflected in us, we must be caring stewards of that over which we have been given dominion.
“In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them” (v. 27). This is a remarkable sentence to come out of a patriarchal society where men are honored and women are not. This sentence puts men and women on a par at creation—on a par by God’s intent. The second account of creation, the Yahwistic account (2:4b ff.), has a very different sequence. In that account, God creates the man first—then the garden with vegetation and water—then the animals and birds—and finally the woman.
“God blessed them” (v. 28a). This is the second of three blessings in the first creation account (see also 1:22; 2:3). It reflects God’s approval of the male/female pair that he has created. We are left to wonder why God does not also bless the land animals (vv. 24-25). Most likely God intends the blessing of verse 28 for all the creatures created on Day 6—land animals as well as humans.
“Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (v. 28b). God first said, “Be fruitful and multiply” to the inhabitants of the sea and the birds (v. 22). Now God addresses these words to the man and woman, so it is obvious that he intends them to use their capacity for sexual reproduction to populate the earth.
“Jewish tradition considers this to be the first of the Torah’s 613 commandments. The halachah (oral tradition) derived therefrom establishes humanity’s duty to marry and have children” (Plaut, 21).
The word “subdue” here is focused on the earth, and is therefore related to taming the wilderness for the purpose of creating a habitat suitable for human life. This requires meeting human needs for food, water, clothing, and shelter. The word “subdue” does not constitute a license to despoil the earth. To do so would be to cripple the earth’s ability to meet future human needs, and would thus be counterproductive. “Subdue,” then, must involve a sense of stewardship over resources intended to meet the needs of future generations as well as the present generation.
“Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (v. 28; cf. v. 26). God gives the humans dominion over the three major groups of living things—fish, birds, and land animals.
GENESIS 1:29-31. BEHOLD, I HAVE GIVEN YOU EVERY HERB YIELDING SEED
29God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree, which bears fruit yielding seed. It will be your food. 30To every animal of the earth, and to every bird of the sky, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food;” and it was so. 31God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. There was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.
“God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree, which bears fruit yielding seed. It will be your food” (v. 29). God gives humans all forms of vegetation for food. Not until 9:3 will God authorize humans to use animals for food. This account contrasts with Babylonian practices with which the author would be familiar. In Babylonian mythology, people were to provide food for the gods. In the Genesis account, God honors humans by making provision for their food.
“‘To every animal of the earth, and to every bird of the sky, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food;’ and it was so” (v. 30). Whereas God gave humans access to all vegetation for food, he gives animals access only to green plants.
“God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good (Hebrew: tob). There was evening and there was morning, a sixth day” (v. 31). God has evaluated the creation as good at various points (1:1, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), but now he rates the totality of creation, including the man and woman, as “very good.”
GENESIS 2:1-3. THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH WERE FINISHED
2:1The heavens and the earth were finished, and all their vast array. 2On the seventh day God finished his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.3God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy, because he rested in it from all his work which he had created and made.
“The heavens and the earth were finished, and all their vast array“ (v. 1). This is an odd place to start a new chapter. Scholars agree that the break should come later, but disagree whether it should come after 2:3 or 2:4a.
“On the seventh day God finished his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made“ (v. 2). The language of this verse suggests that the creation was completed on the seventh day rather than the sixth. The creation of man and woman on the sixth day was the capstone of creation, so it would appear anti-climactic for God to create something on the seventh day—and the text does not tell us what, if anything, was created on the seventh day. Perhaps finishing the work on the seventh day involves a bit of fine-tuning. Perhaps it simply involves standing back—taking it in—enjoying the creation that he has created.
When God initiated creation, he had an end in mind—an end that he has now reached. The work that he intended to do is complete, so it is fitting to rest. God has pronounced the creation “very good” (1:31), but the real proof of his satisfaction is that he stops working and begins resting.
“The Babylonian creation epic also contains a concluding act following the work of creation; it is the public glorification of the god Marduk, in the assembly of the gods, as the chief gods name his fifty names and extol him. How different, how much more profound, is the impressive rest of Israel’s God!” (Von Rad, 62).
“God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy, because he rested in it from all his work which he had created and made” (v. 3). The word “rested” does not indicate that God was exhausted from his labors, but only that he ceased from laboring.
God blessed the seventh day (not yet called the sabbath). At Sinai, God will tell Moses:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
You shall labor six days, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God.
You shall not do any work in it,
you, nor your son, nor your daughter,
your male servant, nor your female servant,
nor your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates;
for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,
and rested the seventh day;
therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
Jesus will say: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The implication is that humans need rest from their labors.
GENESIS 2:4a. THIS IS THE HISTORY OF THE GENERATIONS
4aThis is the history of the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created,
Genesis 1:1 “is in a chiastic correspondence to 2:4a (create, heavens and earth / heavens and earth, create), and these two clauses thus frame the intervening account” (Wenham, 12). That fact supports putting 2:4 with the first creation account rather than the second.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990)
Louth, Andrew (ed.), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I: Genesis 1-11 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary: Volume 1a – Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Plaut, W. Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition) (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan