Many of the debates people have about Genesis 1-2 and creation stay on a rhetorical level: “literal” vs. “metaphorical,” “historical” vs. “mythic,” concordant with modern science or representing Ancient Near East cosmology, and so on. Today I’d like to bypass all of that and look at a few interpretive issues in the text itself that have come to my attention over the years and have shaped my own perspectives on the Bible’s first creation accounts.
In what follows, I will list seven observations from the text in Genesis 1-2 for your consideration, giving brief explanatory comments after each one. It is hoped that this will help all of us as we approach these passages. You might want to have a Bible open in front of you. I recommend a good, more literal translation such as the NASB, NRSV, ESV, or KJV/NKJV.
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A few fundamental mistakes we make in reading Genesis 1-2 . . .
1. Thinking the 7 days of creation describe when God created the universe.
The translation of Genesis 1:1 and its relationship to the rest of the chapter has always been an issue in interpretation. There are two basic options:
- Gen 1:1 is a complete sentence — “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
- Gen 1:1 is a dependent clause linked to the main sentence in v. 2 — “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and empty . . .”
If Genesis 1:1 is a complete sentence there are two options:
- It is a summary of what is to follow.
- It records God’s original creation of everything sometime before the 7 days.
Either way, the point to note is that in Genesis 1:2, before the 7 days, “the earth” and the raw material of the universe is already present. That means the “7 days” that follow are not describing when God “created” the universe but when he brought order to the already existing world so that it became “good.”
If Genesis 1:1 is a dependent clause, not a complete sentence, you have the same result. The world is already present and waiting to be put in order before the 7 days.
The 7 days of creation (Gen 1:2ff) do not describe God bringing the universe into existence, but portray God bringing order to an already existing world that is without form and empty.
2. Failing to recognize the highly stylized prose of Genesis 1:1-2:3.
We miss some of this in English, but even in our language, the prose of Genesis 1 reads like poetry or liturgy or some other form of embellished speech rather than simple historical narrative. For example, it follows a clear parallel structure. There is an exquisite balance between the first 3 days and the second 3 days. Verse 2 describes the earth as “without form and empty” (tohu wabohu). God brings “form” on days 1-3, God “fills” the earth on days 4-6. And he pronounces it all “good” (tov).
Each day also follows a highly structured pattern. And there is an intricate numerology here. The number “seven” is woven throughout the account and everything fits within patterns of seven, beginning with 1:1 which in Hebrew is 7 words. All this and more impacts our understanding of Genesis 1’s literary type (genre).
Whatever we might call it, the literary style of Genesis 1 goes far beyond the bounds of historical narrative and presents itself to the reader as literary material for meditation and contemplation rather than a bare historical report of information.
3. Missing connections to the rest of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible in these chapters.
These chapters introduce not only Genesis 1-11 and the book of Genesis, but also the entire Torah, indeed the whole Hebrew Bible. So many elements of later stories and laws are found herein. For example, the phrase “without form and empty” is used elsewhere to describe the wilderness. God forms the good land by separating the waters. The “lights” in the sky are “lamps,” the same word used for the lamps in the tabernacle. The “signs and seasons” they are for are not nature’s seasons in the Torah, but the seasons when Israel was to celebrate the feasts. Israel’s faithful adherence to the Torah will enable them to be fruitful, multiply and extend God’s blessing throughout the world. God’s own sabbath reflects Israel’s own observance. In chapter 2, Adam is created from clay by the same Potter who formed Israel. The Lord had not sent rain upon the earth, i.e. the flood. The geographical description of the Garden fits the later boundaries of the Promised Land. “Nakedness” and “shame” will be the exiles’ experience. The whole story of Adam and Eve tells Israel’s story. Created by God and placed in a good land, they are given God’s commands and encouraged to choose life. However, they lean on their own understanding and are exiled from the land.
The language and patterns of Genesis 1-2 suggest that a main purpose of these chapters is to foreshadow the story of Israel, and not just to give information about the creation of the world.
4. Conflating Genesis 1 and 2.
Even the most literal reading of these chapters reveals something that many people miss: Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are NOT telling the same story. This is clear from the way chapter 2 begins. The text actually starts at 2:4 — “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.“ This is the first of ten such statements in Genesis that use the Hebrew word toledot and serve as headings for each new section in Genesis. Each one introduces a new development in the story that came before and describes events (or lines of relatives) that came after the previous material. In Genesis 2:4, we might colloquially translate this phrase: “This is what became of the heavens and the earth.” In the logic of the narrative, the story of the Garden is subsequent to the story of creation.
Many read Genesis 2 as if it is Genesis 1 remix. But it’s not. It tells what came to pass in the world God created in chapter 1.
5. Confusing the adam in chapter 1 with the adam in chapter 2.
This grows out of the last point. The Hebrew word adam is used in different ways in chapter 1 and chapter 2. In 1:26-27, it describes “humankind” (as in the NRSV translation) in both its male and female aspects. In 2:7, it describes an individual male human being. Later in the text it appears to be used as that male’s name. Two different stories, two different “adams.” This lends credence to the interpretation that the adam in chapter 2 is one particular individual human out of the whole group of adam that God had already created in chapter 1, and not the actual first human being. His story is subsequent to that of creation (point 4).
God created humankind, male and female, in Genesis 1. God created a particular male in Genesis 2.
6. Conflating the Garden with the whole earth.
Here is yet another mistake that comes from conflating Genesis 1 with Genesis 2. People think that the Bible says the whole world was like the Garden in Eden — a paradise, perfect. But nowhere do these chapters equate the world at large with the Garden in particular. The whole world is called “good,” even “very good.” But it is not suggested that the whole world was “Edenic.” (In fact, a close reading raises questions about whether the Garden itself was as “Edenic” as we suppose — after all, the serpent was there!) The Garden was a special place, set apart. The text says that God himself planted it and put the adam there. The Garden is described in the text in terms that are later used of the tabernacle and Temple. These were designed to be God’s special dwelling place in the midst of the broader world around. The Garden likewise was holy space, set apart from the rest of the world.
If there is a “paradise” in these chapters, it is not the world as a whole, but God’s Garden, which he himself planted in Eden.
7. Missing the evidence that all was not right with the world.
Genesis 1 says God made world to be “very good.” Genesis 2 portrays a divine Garden in that world where humans lived “naked” and “unashamed.” But look more closely and you’ll see some shadows. The original state of the earth was a wilderness of darkness and raging waters. This suggests that there were elements in the world that God had to tame to bring order to creation. Other scriptures do not hesitate to name and describe these forces of chaos. When God creates humankind in 1:26-27, his commission to them includes “subduing” the earth. This militaristic word describes bringing one’s enemies to subjection, trampling them down. Certainly that strikes a minor note amid all the positive melody in Genesis 1. Humankind is portrayed as mortal from the beginning; immortality was only to be gained by eating from the Tree of Life. Humankind somehow has the capacity to disobey God. And then there’s that pesky serpent.
According to Genesis 1-2, the world God made was once fresh and new, but from the beginning there were also elements of darkness in the midst of the light.
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These are some of the observations, taken directly from the text, that have shaped my view of the early chapters of Genesis. I have not delved into the relationship of these chapters to Ancient Near Eastern creation myths, the background, composition, and editing of the texts, or other questions that I think do indeed shed light on what these chapters are about. Today I simply wanted to show some of the insights that can come from a close reading of the text itself. Perhaps it will help you see why I can no longer take seriously so-called “literal” readings of Genesis (like the young earth creationists) or concordist readings (that seek to harmonize Genesis with modern science).