Genesis 1: In the Beginning
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
The Bible begins with these famous words in Genesis 1, laying the foundation for the rest of the Bible. Genesis 1:1–2:4a is the first of two creation accounts in Genesis, and it focuses on God’s creation of the cosmos.
The Bible’s creation account is the source of a lot of debate. Some modern readers strip away the cultural and theological significance of Genesis, and instead mine it for scientific details about how God created the heavens and the earth. Others suggest it is simply one of many ancient accounts of creation—a myth.
To help us understand this ancient Scripture, we’re drawing from the expertise of Tremper Longman III, a renowned Old Testament scholar. In his online course on the book of Genesis, Longman reveals the cultural and theological implications of this important passage.
The commentary that follows is adapted from Tremper Longman’s course.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 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.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place,and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day. —Genesis 1:1–31
God created the heavens and the earth
Unlike other ancient creation accounts, Genesis 1 presents creation as the work of a single God who does not engage in sexual activity or violence, but rather through the power of his word speaks forth matter and shapes it into functional order.
In contrast, the rival creation accounts describe creation as the result of the activity of multiple gods, even though one god takes precedence (Marduk, Baal, Atum, or Ptah).
As the narrative continues, the God of Genesis 1:1 turns out to be Yahweh, the name of the God of later Israel, revealed to Moses and used retroactively in Genesis 2:4b where the creator is described as Yahweh (the Lord) God. It is Yahweh, not Baal, Marduk, or Atum, who created the heavens and earth.
The second significant difference with rival creation accounts in this opening line of Genesis 1 is that there is no preexisting material from which God creates. The message is clear: everything that exists, animate and inanimate, comes from God and depends on God.
Did God create the universe in six literal days?
Interestingly, according to the description of creation in Genesis 1, God does not bring everything into existence in a single moment (as he surely could have), but over a period of time and in stages. He creates everything in six days, and on the seventh day, he rests.
Much controversy attends the nature of the “days” of the creation week. Close reading, though, helps clarify the intention of the author. In the first place, the author wants us to imagine creation taking place in six days with God resting on the seventh. Indeed, all six days end similarly with the expression “there was evening, and there was morning—the X day” (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31).
On the other hand, the author provides clear signals that we are not to take this description literally, as if God actually created creation in six 24-hour days. While the first three days have “evening and morning,” there are no stars, moon, or sun until the fourth day. There can be no literal evening and morning without these celestial bodies. God could manipulate some kind of light source to alternate light and darkness in a twenty-four-hour period, but these would still not be literal days.
Thus, describing creation as a week is a literary device to make a theological point.
We should also recognize that there is an interesting pattern to the days of creation. The first three days describe the creation of realms, and the second three days describe the creation of the inhabitants of those realms. The creatures (sun, moon, and stars) of day four fill the realm of day one (light; darkness). The creatures of day five (birds and fish) fill the realm of day two (sky and sea). The creatures of day six (animals and humans) fill the realm of day three (land).
The author of Genesis 1 is interested in telling us that God created, but not how he did it. Of course, the first creation account does more than inform readers that God is creator. The narrative tells us much about God, ourselves, and our world.
God’s creation was good
This first creation narrative makes special effort to point out that what God creates is “good.” Once God’s creative work is finished the earth is described as “very good” (1:31). Evil does not originate with God and his creation (another point of divergence from the rival creation accounts).
As mentioned above, human beings are not the focus of this creation account as they will be in the next, but they are certainly the apex of the account. They are the last of God’s creative acts. In other words, after everything else is set in place, then humans are created.
Humans are made in the image of God
The creation account highlights the importance of human beings by the use of the verb bara (“create”), as opposed to the more general term for “making” (asa) that clusters around their creation (see verse 27). While bara has been overinterpreted in terms of its theological importance, it nonetheless suggests something special about the creation of humans since the verb only occurs with God as its subject.
God announces his intention to create humanity by saying “let us make mankind in our image . . .” (v. 26).
Who is the “us” in Genesis 1?
The plural (“us”) reference has occasioned much speculation over the years. While the New Testament makes it clear that creation is a work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Old Testament author and audience would not be aware of the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead.
The plural has been understood by some as a “plural of majesty,” but we have precious little if any evidence that the plural was used in such a way during the Old Testament time period. It is most likely that the original audience would have thought the reference was to God and his divine assembly, composed of angels (see, for instance, the prose preface to the book of Job). We will see this plural reference again in the tower of Babel story (Genesis 11).
Men and women are both in God’s image
It is particularly important to note that God created both males and females in his image (v. 27). He did not create men in his image and women in the image of men. Both men and women reflect God’s glory. Thus begins an emphasis that will continue in the second creation account on the equality between men and women.
The image of a king
What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Since the biblical text never specifically defines “image,” its meaning has been debated through the centuries. However, it seems reasonable to understand the “image of God” on analogy with the ancient practice of ancient Near Eastern kings setting up images of themselves throughout their realm.
Perhaps the most striking confirmation of this idea can be found in the ninth-century BC Aramaic-Akkadian inscription on a statue from Tell Fakhariyeh in the Upper Habur of Syria, which refers to the statute as a “likeness” and “image” of King Hadadyis’i.
In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann notes, “It is now generally agreed that the image of God reflected in human persons is after the manner of a king who establishes himself to assert his sovereign rule where the king himself cannot be present.”
Like a statue reflects the presence and power and authority of a king, so human beings reflect the glory of God. Such a view presents human beings as possessing great dignity, captured by the psalmist:
“When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.” Psalm 8:3–5
The Hebrew suggests a more exalted portrait than the NIV’s translation allows: “You made them a little lower than God” (see NRSV).
Created to rule
The preeminence of human beings may also be seen in the charge that God gives to the male and the female in verse 28: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
As the human population expands in the future, men and women assume the positions of kings and queens among all the creatures of the earth. Here we see the connection between “image of God” and the responsibility to rule. They are to subdue and to rule.
As McDowell puts it in The ‘Image of God’ in Eden, “the verb rdh is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to describe the dominion of the king (1 Kings 5:4; Isaiah 14:6; Ezekiel 34:4; Psalms 8:6; 72:8; 110:2), and both rdh and kbsh reflect similar terminology used in the court parlance of Egypt and Babylon to describe the king’s royal duties.”
Of course, prior to the fall, this command has no hint of exploitation. As benevolent rulers and the earthly counterparts of the heavenly king, men and women are to care for and protect the rest of the creation. As the following verses indicate (verses 29–30), they are not even to eat the fish and the birds, but rather God gives them “every green plant for food.”
A world without sin
The work of creation came to an end on the sixth day. The final day of the week was a day of divine rest. God consecrated the seventh day, the Sabbath, a status that becomes significant for the later ritual observance of Israel (Exodus 20:8–11; 31:12–18; Deuteronomy 5:12–15).
Before ending our analysis of Genesis 1 in its Old Testament context, we must observe that upon completing his creation God “blessed” the man and the woman. At this point, they are living in harmony with God and with each other. They have everything they need to survive and thrive. In Brueggemann’s words, blessing “refers to the generative power of life, fertility, and well-being that God has ordained within the normal flow and mystery of life.”
They aren’t just given mere existence, but a rich and vital life in the very presence of God—a life without sin. Satan would soon sabotage humanity’s relationship with God, and sin would disrupt the harmony of his creation. Thousands of years later, Jesus would conquer sin through his death on the cross and offer every person the opportunity to return to that relationship.
But in this moment, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”