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The first book of the Bible, Genesis, falls easily into four main sections, according to its content: Primeval History (chs. 1–11), Abraham and Sarah (12:1–25:18), Jacob and his family (25:19–36:43), and Joseph (37–50). The first section, the Primeval History, contains some of the Bible's bestknown stories and sets the stage well for our survey of the Hebrew Bible. Hence, we devote the first section of this introduction—three chapters—to it.
Genesis 1–11 1–3 Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden 4 The First Murder: Cain and Abel 5 Genealogy from Adam to Noah 6–9 The Flood 10 Peoples Descended from Noah's Three Sons 11:1-9 The Origin of Different Languages: The Tower of Babel 11:10-32 Descendants of Shem to Abram
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are about origins. They relate creation and the origins of different groups of humans as background to the story of Abram and his descendants. They are history, but ancient history rather than modern history. Their purpose is not to recount exactly what happened in the past but to provide a broad context for Israel's history by explaining the origins of the world and of other civilizations. Writing within their culture and worldview, biblical writers made use of legends and myths in the absence of other sources in order to account for the origins of the world. Thus, these chapters of Genesis actually contain not one but several different stories of creation. Their account of origins is heavily influenced by Mesopotamian tradition in which the flood is an extension of creation. The Genesis account of the flood is composite and adapted from Mesopotamian versions. In addition to creation and the flood, these chapters give legendary explanations for the origins of different professions (ch. 5), the different peoples of the known world (ch. 10), and the different languages and cultures (ch. 11).
THE FIRST CREATION STORY (GENESIS 1:1–2:3)
The first chapter of Genesis tells of creation in six days. God's resting on and consecration of the seventh day (2:1-3) presumes and continues this day-by-day account, making it clear that the description in chapter 1 spills over into chapter 2. The division between chapters in this instance is poorly placed. The conclusion of the account does not come until God's blessing of the seventh day in 2:3. The full extent of the textual unit, then, is 1:1–2:3.
The first words of the Bible are ungrammatical in Hebrew. They literally read, "In the beginning of the God created the heavens and the earth." A slight change in the Hebrew vowels is required to make sense of the sentence. The most common solution yields, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." But another solution is to read these words as a temporal clause: "When God began to create the heavens and the earth ..." This latter solution is preferable in terms of Hebrew syntax. The sentence begun by the temporal clause is interrupted in 1:2 by a parenthetical description of the condition of the world when God began creation. The sentence then concludes in 1:3 by naming the first item of creation. The full sentence reads:
When God began to create the heavens and earth (the earth being formless and empty with darkness over the surface of the deep and a divine wind sweeping over the surface of the water), then God said, "Let there be light." (AT)
The view of creation reflected here is that of bringing order out of chaos rather than making something out of nothing (creation ex nihilo).
The account of creation for each day contains the same basic set of expressions:
God said, "Let there be x." And there was x/So God made x/And it was so. God saw that x was good. God called x "x." There was evening and morning, day y.
The set of expressions accommodates variation, as on the fifth and sixth days when God blessed them (animals, including birds and fish, and humans) with the command, "Be fruitful and multiply." But the basic pattern upon which each day's account of creation is built is still evident.
Remarkably, the basic pattern occurs twice for days three and six. Verses 9-10 read:
And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
According to the pattern in the other verses, one expects to read, "And there was evening and there was morning, the third day"(1:13). Instead, the pattern begins again:
Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation ..." And it was so (1:11) ... And God saw that it was good (1:12).
Only then does the time reference, "And there was evening and there was morning, the third day," occur.
Similarly, for the sixth day, the basic formula occurs in verses 24-25:
And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind ..." And it was so ... God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind.
One expects to read, "And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day." Instead, the formula restarts in verse 26 and is expanded through the end of the chapter:
Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image ..." (1:26) So God created humankind in his image ... (1:27) And it was so. (1:30) God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (1:31)
The narrative thus describes the creation of two categories of things, or better, two creative acts for days three and six. The first act on day three is the gathering of the waters to form seas and dry land. This is followed by the creation of vegetation on the dry land. On day six, land animals and humans are created in separate acts. Only one creative act is detailed for every other day.
The structure of the entire account may thus be sketched as follows:
Day 1 – light
Day 2 – dome (sky) in the midst of waters
Day 3 – seas and dry land vegetation
Day 4 – sun, moon, stars
Day 5 – birds, fish
Day 6 – land animals humans
Day 7 – Sabbath
The account is literarily sophisticated and extremely well balanced. The balance is obvious when the two halves of the account (days 1-3 and days 4-6) are compared side-by-side. In addition to having one item or category created on the first two days in each half (1-2, 4-5) and then two items on the third day (3 and 6), there is "horizontal" correspondence between each half: light (day 1) and luminaries (day 4), sky and seas (day 2) and the creatures in them (day 5), dry land and vegetation (day 3) and the animals and humans who live on land and consume its vegetation (day 6).
The structure of this text as just diagrammed suggests that a version of creation in eight installments lies behind Gen 1:1–2:3. The author retained the eight installments in the pattern in which each item or category of creation is narrated. This pattern occurs eight times in the chapter. But instead of having creation take place over eight days, the author compacted it into six days by placing two installments on days three and six, that is, having two categories of things created on those days. The obvious reason for doing this was to leave the seventh day, the Sabbath, as a day of rest for God. The significance that this account invests in the Sabbath is an important clue to its author's identity. Scholars typically assign it to a Priestly author (abbreviated "P") because of the interest that it reflects in ritual matters, specifically the keeping of Sabbath.
The reading of Gen 1:1-3 just proposed is supported by the fact that other creation accounts from the ancient Near East begin with a temporal clause. One of the best known of these is the Babylonian story of creation called Enuma Elish after its beginning two words:
When on high the heaven had not been named, firm ground below had not been called by name, there was nothing but primordial Apsu, their begetter, and Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all, their waters commingling as a single body; no reed hut had been matted, nor marsh land had appeared, when no gods whatever had been brought into being, uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined— then it was that the gods were formed within them. (ANET, 60)
After recounting the generation of the gods, Enuma Elish goes on to describe a conflict between the primordial goddess, Tiamat, and the younger gods. The champion of the younger gods, Marduk, defeats Tiamat in battle and then divides her corpse in two, using half of it to create the sky and the other half for the earth. After making the rest of the cosmos, Marduk ingeniously orders the mixing of the blood of a god with clay to form humans so that they can do the work of the gods. The story ends with the gods proclaiming Marduk their king and enthroning him in Babylon, which they have built for him.
Other Bible writers are familiar with a myth like the one in Enuma Elish, in which the storm god defeats the sea god in battle and then divides her or his corpse in order to create the cosmos. In Isa 51:9-10 it is Yahweh, the God of Israel, who defeated the god Sea, also known as Rahab:
Awake, awake, dress yourself in strength, O arm of Yahweh. Awake as in former days, generations of the distant past. Were not you the one who cleaved Rahab, who pierced Dragon? Who dried up Sea, the waters of the great Deep? (AT)
Genesis 1:1–2:3 contains several similarities to Enuma Elish. The word for "deep" (tehom) is the Hebrew version of "Tiamat." Also, the view of the cosmos as a dome over the earth that holds back water (1:6-8) is similar to the idea that it consists of two parts of Tiamat's body. The order of creation (light, sky, land, luminaries, human beings) is the same in both texts, and God's resting in Gen 2:1-3 may be compared to the celebration of the gods at the end of Enuma Elish.
At the same time, Gen 1:1–2:3 and Enuma Elish are obviously very different documents, especially in their respective theologies. While Enuma Elish is polytheistic, there is only one God in Gen 1:1–2:3. Phenomena such as the sun and moon, which are deified in other cultures, are part of God's creation in Genesis. Even the "deep," though in existence when God begins to create (Gen 1:2), is not a deity. What is more, in Gen 1:1–2:3 God creates not by building or forming but by merely speaking or thinking (the Hebrew verb means both) things into existence. If the Priestly author of Gen 1:1–2:3 was in Babylon and knew Enuma Elish, as some scholars have suggested, he surely wrote at least in part to counter Babylonian theology.
The expression "evening and morning" (rather than "morning and evening") reflects the ancient Israelite calendar, which marked the beginning of a new day at sunset. (The same calendar continues today in the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown on Friday.) This expression already indicates that this text embodies a particular cultural outlook that was different from a modern, scientific one. Its balanced structure indicates that it is a work of literary artistry and creativity rather than a journalistic report of events that have taken place.
The description in this chapter is also at odds with the modern, scientific view of the world in several particulars. The sun and moon are not created until the fourth day. Before that time, there is already light, day and night, and thriving vegetation—all of which we know to be impossible without the sun. The notion of the sky as a "dome" indicates that the author understood the earth to be flat. Day five sees the creation of "dragons," which we know to be mythological creatures (cf. Job 7:12; Ps 74:13; 148:7; Isa 27:1; 51:9; Jer 51:34; Ezek 29:3; 32:2).
Genesis 1:1–2:3 is not a scientific document. Its purpose is theological rather than historical. It makes the point that a supreme God created the world. In contrast to the Babylonian story, there is only one God—the God of Israel. The "us" of Gen 1:26 does not refer to a plurality of deities, as in a pantheon, nor does it refer to the Christian Trinity. Rather, it reflects the metaphor of God as a Near Eastern king surrounded by a court or council of advisors. The creation of humans in God's image likely refers to the dominion that human beings exercise over animals, as 1:26 explains.
The claim that God created the world in six days carries social and political implications as well as theological ones. The Sabbath, the seventh day, is so important, the author claims, that it is engrained in the very order and fabric of the universe. Even God at creation observed the Sabbath. By giving the Sabbath such an exalted role, Gen 1:1–2:3 promoted a particular class in ancient Israel, namely, the priests, who had oversight of the Sabbath and ritual observances. This is one of the reasons that biblical scholars typically speak of the creation account in Gen 1:1–2:3 as a document probably written by a priest (P). This social dimension of Gen 1:1–2:3 is perhaps its most striking similarity to Enuma Elish. By promoting the cult of Marduk in Babylon, the latter obviously furthered the cause of the priesthood of Marduk against the priesthoods of other deities in Babylon. Similarly, the stress on the Sabbath in Gen 1:1–2:3 furthered the cause of the priesthood over against other social classes, such as prophets, scribes, and adherents of the royal court.
Excerpted from The Old Testament by Steven L. McKenzie Copyright © 2007 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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