Understanding the Creation Story from Genesis
How did the world begin? Was the world a cosmological mistake or an intentional creation? What existed before the universe as we know it? Questions like these have generated tons of discussion (and arguments) in the historical, scientific, and religious communities.
While most people are familiar with the creation story found in Genesis, there’s a richness that’s often lost. In The Torah Story online course, Gary E. Schnittjer, Cairn University’s professor of Old Testament, plumbs the depth of the creation story while answering important questions like:
- How did the author of Genesis receive the creation story?
- How does the narrative style of the creation story provide the backdrop for the rest of the biblical story?
- What does the creation story reveal about God?
- How are humans different than the rest of creation?
- What is mankind’s responsibility to creation?
This post is adapted from Dr. Schnittjer’s course.
What is the origin of the creation story?
The Torah begins with a beginning—“in the beginning.” It simultaneously serves as the introduction to the book of Genesis, the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures, and the entire Bible.
You may wonder, “The beginning of what?”
The story that follows reveals that this is the beginning of the human world—the setting for God’s story. Whether there are other beginnings or not remains a significant issue. The opening of Genesis, however, attempts to tell the story of the beginning of the human realm.
You may also ask, “How did the author learn of this story since there were no people to observe it?” We, as readers, can make guesses.
Perhaps the author learned the story from an ancient oral tradition. He could have imaginatively adapted his narrative as a polemic against an ancient written account like the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish. Perhaps he offered his own interpretation of how it might have happened based on his understanding of God, humanity, and creation. Or, perhaps God revealed it to him in a special way, such as through an oracle or vision.
The author does not disclose the source of the Genesis creation story. From ancient times, Judaic and Christian believers have embraced Genesis and its account of creation as Scripture—God’s word. The other biblical authors found in the pentateuchal creation narrative an account on which to construct their own writings.
Biblical readers are free to wonder about the source or sources of the creation account. An apprentice of the biblical writers, especially one who regards their writings as Scripture, needs to put the weight of his or her studies on what the biblical authors have written rather than on what they have omitted.
In this case, the author is not primarily explaining in historical or scientific terms the beginning of the human realm. Instead, the opening of Genesis theologically interprets the relationship between God and the human world, namely, that he created it by the power of his word.
Learn more in The Torah Story online course.
Formed from the wild and the waste
According to the storyteller, the world God created in the beginning was unformed and unfilled—wild and waste. The unformed and unfilled state of the earth set up the six creation days—three in which God formed the world and three in which he filled it. The relationship between the preformed and pre-filled world and the creation days is important for this passage and for the entire Torah (not to mention all Scripture).
In the creating days, the power of God’s word tamed what was wild and brought to life what was desolate. The Torah closes with the people at the end of a trek through the wild and barren wilderness hoping for blessing and life in the land God promised to their ancestors (see Deut. 32:9–11). What God did at the beginning and in the wilderness he can do again. Indeed, the Torah portrays a gracious God with a powerful voice that all readers need to obey.
The style of the creation story
Within these first verses readers are introduced to a distinctive biblical literary style that, in some ways and to varying degrees, was emulated by later biblical writers. In Genesis 1:2, for example, a “special word” is used, or better, an ordinary word is used in a special way.
The Hebrew word rûaḥ can signify one of several meanings depending on context. Here it seems to mean spirit—“the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” In the following chapters rûaḥ is applied in other contexts that at once give it a new sense and invite readers to consider the new use in light of this context.
In Genesis 3:8 God is said to have walked in the garden in the rûaḥ of the day (traditionally, in the “cool” of the day). If rûaḥ here means windy, then perhaps cool of the day or evening is appropriate. Still, the reader may easily think of the rûaḥ of the day in reference to the rûaḥ of God hovering over the waters in Genesis 1:2. The hiding humans and the chaotic empty world provide the contexts in which God is seeking and hovering.
In Genesis 8:1 God remembers Noah and sends the rûaḥ (wind) to make the waters of judgment subside so that Noah can again live on the earth. The fact that rûaḥ is sent by God to clear the waters for human life on earth to resume and that previously the rûaḥ of God hovered over the unformed and unfilled world prior to the creation days invites readers to compare and consider this word in a special way.
The dual imagery of the flood and the wind—judgment and new beginning—is similar to the imagery of Israel’s salvation from the Egyptians at the sea in Exodus 14. There God sends an east wind (rûaḥ) to provide deliverance to Israel and uses the waters to destroy his enemies.
The narrative of the sea crossing in Exodus uses imagery from Genesis 1 in order to depict the theological significance that God is creating a nation for himself (Gen. 1 language in italics):
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night Yahweh drove the sea back with a strong east wind [rûaḥ] and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left” (Ex. 14:21–22).
The imagery here can also be thought of in terms of “denotation” and “connotation.” The narrative of the sea crossing denotes or refers to the acts of God to save Israel from the Egyptian threat. Yet, the specific language used to tell the story of the sea crossing connects it by its imagery with the account of creation in Genesis. Thus, the sea crossing narrative connotes God as the Creator of his nation.
Genesis’ textual depth
Many biblical words are used in special ways that both reveal a need for close reading and show a depth, another dimension, to the text. This textual depth is among the reasons that ancient biblical interpreters—before and after the New Testament era—considered the Bible a cryptic writing with subtle and hidden meanings.
In a manner similar to the use of special words, Genesis 1:1–2:4a begins the biblical precedent for special numbers. The seven days set a pattern for a complete week—God finished his work and rested. Thus, in the biblical writings, seven often signifies completion or perfection.
In the following chapters of Genesis other numbers become special, such as three, ten, twelve, and forty. The special numbers become part of the fabric of classic biblical style. The use of special numbers invites readers to reflect on the later events in relation to earlier ones. The forty years that Israel was wandering in the wilderness, for example, encourages the reader to compare it to the forty days of rain in the flood narrative.
The use of special words and numbers are among the many distinctive characteristics of biblical narrative that begin in Genesis 1. The narrative style—somewhere between prose and poetry—displays:
- Rhythmic lines
- Characteristic repetition
- Symmetrical imagery
- The manifold use of “and” to connect lines and scenes
- Frequent intertextual allusions
- Earthy symbolic language
The literary features effectively create a narrative almost poetic with its intertwined realistic and surreal qualities so familiar to biblical readers. Later biblical narrators emulated, whether by intention or otherwise, many of these literary characteristics, always with their own flair, in such a way that their writings “sound like” the Bible.
What does it mean to create: the creation days
The creating days themselves demonstrate the significance of the entire story. Throughout chapter 1 there is a repetition of “God” plus verb—the fourfold repetition in Day 1, for instance: “God said,” “God saw,” “God separated,” “God called” (1:3–5).
The rhythm of God-plus-verb demonstrates several things: the power of God’s word; the relationship between God and creation, namely, the dependence of creation on God and God’s power over and ownership of creation; God’s interest in measuring the character of creation (i.e., “God saw that it was good”); and so forth. Above all else, the reader is confronted by God the Creator.
What does it mean to create? Whatever it means to form and to fill is synonymous with creating in the context of Genesis 1. To understand the Creator, therefore, one must comprehend what it means to form and to fill. In the first three creating days God formed the realms for existence in this world—light and darkness, skies and seas, land and vegetation. During the next three creating days God filled these realms successively with celestial lights, birds and marine life, and the land animals and humankind. The six creation days demonstrate, among other things, the power of God’s word to order and to grant life.
The first three creation days expose the difference between unformed and formed, chaos and order. The difference is separation. To create, in these cases, is to separate. The light was separated from the darkness, the skies from waters, and the land from the seas. Without grasping the essence of order as separation, the call to be holy, to be separate toward God, in Leviticus will not be rightly appreciated. The holiness required of worshipers is the basic characteristic for relating to the Creator.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth creation days likewise display the difference between unfilled and filled. The difference, in large part, is life. To grant life, or to fill realms with life, is, in these instances, what it means to create. The realm of illumination was filled with life-sustaining cosmic lights (these lights also function as time separators; thus the fourth day is transitional), the skies with flying beings, the waters with aquatic creatures, and the land with terrestrial beings. The Creator is the life-giver.
|Separating the Realms||Filling the Realms|
|1 light and dark||4 celestial lights|
|2 sky and water||5 birds and fish|
|3 water and land||6 land animals and humankind|
By conceiving of creation as forming and filling, separating and life-giving, the tools are in hand for uncovering the meaning of judgment. To be specific, to die is at once separation and life-losing. Death is the effect of the anti-creational acts of sin. Death is not separation to form but from form. It does not give but takes life. Therefore, the death that comes from defying God’s commanding word contradicts creation. Life, by analogy, is to accord with the word of God. When the nature of creation and judgment is recognized, the oneness of God as Creator and Redeemer comes into sharp relief.
Learn more in The Torah Story online course.
Where does humanity fit in creation?
The story of the creating days not only reveals the relationship of God and the created realm and the meaning of creation itself, but also the place of humanity within creation. Specifically, creation is viewed in human-centered terms; the created realm itself tells of God’s grace toward humankind. The creation is the home or context for human life. Human beings make sense within their realm, namely, the creation of God. The human-centered view of the created world can be seen in the case of each of the six creation days. I will illustrate the human-centered orientation of the fourth day. On the fourth day according to Genesis 1, God created the celestial lights. The entire description is geocentric.
The earth-centered viewpoint of the fourth day is the opposite of the modernist perspective of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The “objective” perspective of modernity saw the rather ordinary star that is our sun as located in a remote area of the rather unexceptional Milky Way galaxy, which is one of billions of such galaxies.
This is one of the points made in the 1997 motion picture Contact, based on the late Carl Sagan’s book. Three times during the movie lead characters say something to the effect, “If human beings are the only life in the vast universe, then it sure is a waste of space.”
The objective view from “out there” makes the earth seem inconsequential within the universe of planets and stars and galaxies. One of the biblical poets, by contrast, reflecting on Genesis 1, marveled at God’s grace toward humans given the enormity of the skies and the celestial lights: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them?. . . . You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Ps 8:3–4a, 5 NRSV).
The vantage point of the fourth creating day is that of the earth-dwellers—“from here.” The great lights are those that rule the earth days and the earth nights, namely, the sun and the moon. Even describing the cosmic lights in terms of “day” and “night” is an entirely earth-centered point of view. The stars, moreover, are regarded according to their function of measuring the earth-dwellers time.
“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so” (Gen. 1:14–15 NRSV; italics added).
By interpreting creation in a human-centered manner, the stage is set for the entire biblical drama. The story unfolds from this beginning. It is the story of humankind within the human world—both created by God—and their progressive relationship with the God who speaks, creates, evaluates, and gives.
Comparing humans to the rest of creation
On the sixth day God made land animals after their kind and humankind in his own image and likeness. The phrases “after their kind” for animals and “in his image” for human beings underscore the categorical difference between humankind and all other created beings—the unique ability to relate personally to God.
Although God prohibits making images of himself in the Ten Commandments, he made humanity in his image. Human beings reflect and represent God in a special sense. Their creational design defines them according to the Creator. This image is displayed vertically in responsible dominion over the creation and horizontally in mutual social relationships.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1:26–27 NRSV; italics added).
The two great commandments—love God and love others—are direct implications from and applications of humanity’s being created in the image of God. Because humans are created in the image of God, it is their intrinsic responsibility to love him. And because all other human beings are created in his image, it is each one’s responsibility to love others as oneself.
The great commands of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are the natural extensions of creational design.
Human responsibility toward creation
Beyond the responsibility humans have toward their Creator and toward fellow humans is their responsibility toward the rest of creation. Humankind is related to but distinct from the Creator and the creation at the same time.
Human beings are creatures among other creatures who live within the created realm. Yet with respect to dominion, humans are responsible to rule over the other creatures by virtue of humankind’s distinction of being created in God’s image. Humans are creatures, but not like any other because they are like God. The idea of image signifying dominion was part of the ancient Near Eastern idea that statues or images of a king could be used to mark or define the realm of his domain. It is in this sense that humankind is the Creator’s royal representative ruler on earth. Human beings are the lords of creation because they are specially created in the image of God.
The creation days move in a direction. They move toward the seventh day, the day of God’s rest. The nature and significance of time itself is thus defined. Time is measured in earth days and counted in sevens or weeks. Each week moves invariably toward its completion—the sabbath. The perpetual repetition of celebrating the day of God’s rest provides a constant reminder of the human place within the world. Humankind lives in a world created by God, forever moving toward the day of God’s rest.
|the distinction between Creator and created||the distinction between rulers and ruled|
|the Creator||the Creator|
|—||humankind in the image of the Creator|
|other creatures and the created realm||other creatures|
The creation story provides history’s backdrop
The biblical story, thus, begins with the human world created by God. Genesis 1 defines the manner in which the story is told and the way to hear and read the story. Moreover, the beginning provides the cosmological backdrop against which the rest of the story—the book of Genesis, the Torah, and the Bible—unfolds.
The events narrated in the remainder of the biblical story did not just happen in a remote historical context. They happened within the context of the entire human world, the world God created by his word. Because the beginning of the story is God’s creation of humankind within the human context, the story line is, in some way, about the relationship between God and humankind as they exist within his creation.
Learn more in The Torah Story online course.