Read an Excerpt
Genesis 1-11God Makes a Start
By Kevin Perrotta
Loyola PressCopyright © 2004 Kevin Perrotta
All right reserved.
How to Use This Guide
You might compare this booklet to a short visit to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing in the trees, and get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll drive through the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which contain the Bible’s accounts of creation and the beginning of the human race. We will be able to take a leisurely walk through each account, thinking carefully about what we are reading and what it means for our lives today. While these chapters of Genesis are only a small fraction of the entire Bible, they touch on central themes in God’s revelation to us: God’s creative purposes for us, the effects of sin on our relationship with God, and God’s continuing faithfulness toward us.
This guide provides everything you need to explore Genesis 1 through 11 in six discussions, or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections provide explanations that highlight what the words of Scripture mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch you into fruitful discussion, helping you to explore Genesis for yourself and to learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided ~ None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in and with the church. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the message of Genesis. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery ~ The purpose is for you to interact with God’s Word. “Questions for a Closer Look” is a tool to help you dig into the Genesis accounts and examine them carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you discern what these stories mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s Word. The supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present in order to show you what Scripture has meant to others—so that you can consider what it might mean for you.
If you are using this booklet for individual study, pay special attention to the questions provided for each week (Warm-Up Questions, Questions for a Closer Look, Questions for Application). One advantage of individual study is that you can take all the time you need to consider all the questions. I also suggest that you read the first 11 chapters of Genesis in their entirety, and you will find that the “Between Discussions” pages will help you understand the portions of Genesis not covered in this booklet. Take your time making your way through Genesis 1–11 and this accompanying guide: let your reading be an opportunity for these stories to become God’s words to you.Exploring Our Beginnings
We’re all fascinated by beginnings—the beginning of a new school year, the beginning of a new sports season. One beginning that particularly intrigues us is the big bang, that first moment when a mysterious little gift package of particles and forces arrived from nowhere, unwrapped itself, and exploded into a universe of galaxies, planets, mountain ranges, oak trees, and robins. The beginning of the universe attracts us because it is our beginning.
So it is natural for us to be intrigued by Genesis. Genesis is the book famous for the opening words, “In the beginning . . .” The first 11 chapters recount the origins of the universe and humankind. These are God-inspired accounts of our beginnings. Of course we are interested.
When we open the Bible to the first page, however, things seem strange by modern standards. Genesis is unlike modern books on cosmic or human origins. It doesn’t give us an astronomer’s account of a big bang and an expanding universe, nor does it give us a biologist’s sketch of life evolving over a billion years. In Genesis 1 the interval from dark emptiness to human beings is spanned in six days. We won’t find a paleontologist’s report on early toolmaking hominids, but vivid, tragic tales of creation, harmony, sin, and judgment.
Most of us are very familiar with the stories of Genesis. Pretty much everyone has heard of Adam and Eve, Cain, and Noah. It’s hard for us to appreciate how unusual these stories are. Nevertheless, it should not take you too long to realize that the types of writing we meet in Genesis chapters 1–11 are also different from those we are familiar with today.
The main reason for this difference is that the authors of Genesis belonged to a world quite unlike our own. They lived before the rise of scientific thinking. They did not have modern methods of writing history. They expressed their thoughts through stories. This is not to say they were primitive or unintelligent. They were as capable of wisdom as any later people, and they had God’s guidance in composing the work that he intended. Nevertheless, the book they produced is the product of their culture, not ours.
As a result, the Genesis accounts do not fit neatly into our categories of thought. To help you understand this point, picture yourself as the librarian in charge of your school’s library. Someone donates to the library the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which have been published as a separate book. When the slender volume arrives, you have to decide where to shelve it. First you survey the nonfiction side of the library. Should it go with works on astronomy? biology? history? You examine the book closely and decide it doesn’t belong in any of those categories. You can’t put it in the psychology section either, despite its interesting descriptions of dysfunctional families. So you turn to the fiction side of the library. What about shelving the book with collections of short stories? But you quickly realize that the Genesis accounts are documents of religious instruction, not imaginative works of art. Feeling somewhat frustrated, you consider shelving the book with collections of mythology. Yet the Genesis accounts are different from myths in important respects.
You would be puzzled about what kind of book Genesis is because the authors of Genesis combined elements that modern authors keep distinct. People in the ancient Near East would have been familiar with the combination of ingredients in Genesis. But for us modern people, Genesis is virtually unique.
It might help you to read many of the Genesis accounts as if you were reading a parable. A parable is an imaginative story that communicates a truth and spurs us to think. Jesus delivered much of his teaching through parables. The account of Adam and Eve, for example, is not a historical narrative but a parable-like story that brings out certain meanings. But keep in mind that the Genesis stories are only similar to parables; they aren’t actually parables. Parables are pure fiction, but some actual events lie behind the Genesis accounts. Those events are not conveyed in straightforward scientific or historical language, but they are not fictional.
If people a couple of centuries ago had appreciated the parable-like nature of the Genesis accounts, we might not today be caught up in a lot of unnecessary arguments between advocates of science and advocates of the Bible. Many Christians think they are defending the Bible against theories that contradict it when they refuse to accept evolution as an explanation of the development of species, especially human beings. They do not realize that the authors of the Genesis stories do not intend to convey scientific or historical information. Their stories, therefore, cannot be in contradiction of scientific or historical findings. The narrator of Genesis, for example, was not concerned with how God brought humans into existence, and in fact he offered different descriptions of the process. Chapter 1 states that God “created” us (1:27), using a Hebrew word that never means making one thing from another. Yet chapter 2 says that God “formed” a man from dust and “made” a woman from the man’s rib (2:7,22). Evidently the narrator was telling his readers that God created humans, not how God did it.
So we do not have to defend the Genesis account of human creation against the proponents of evolution. We can leave it to biologists to speculate about the processes by which humans developed. No biological discoveries can disprove the Genesis message that God created the human race, since in creating us God could have chosen any process that biologists might ever discover.
Parables are very brief, usually making only a single point or two. Because of their simplicity, parables raise questions for which there are no answers. Keeping this limitation in mind will save us from asking the wrong questions as we read Genesis. For example, we may wonder what kind of legs the snake had before God cursed it (3:14) or where Cain’s wife came from (4:17) or how Noah and his family could possibly have taken care of so many animals on the ark (7:1–24). These questions are unanswerable because parables are just not designed to answer questions like that.
Recognizing the parable-like quality of the Genesis accounts keeps us from getting hung up in pointless arguments and unanswerable questions. This frees us to focus on the meaning of the accounts. The authors of Genesis wrote to shed light on basic questions about human existence. It may be helpful to identify some of those questions before we begin our reading.Chapter 1 in Genesis deals particularly with “what” questions:
? What is the universe? Most ancient Near Eastern people thought that the universe was made up of three orders of beings: gods who are a part of nature, nature that is filled with gods, and human beings, who are dependent on both. Genesis 1 is different: it elevates God far above nature and strips nature of any divinity.
? What is the place of humans in the scheme of things? Ancient people thought that humans were slaves of the gods, or maybe playthings of divine forces, or perhaps intelligent work animals. The way they saw it, humans were at the mercy of countless gods and demons and had to struggle to stay on the good side of those gods and demons. Genesis 1 gives a radically different answer to the question.In chapters 2 and 3, questions of meaning and purpose predominate. For example:
? Why is the drive for union between man and woman so strong? What is the meaning of this mystery?
? What is the natural status of woman in relation to man?
? Why are relationships between men and women often marked by shame and exploitation?
? Why do human beings, who feel so at home in the world, meet such resistance from the natural environment? Why is getting food so hard? Why are animals strangers, even enemies?
? Why does the great blessing of childbearing involve such pain?
? Why do we have to die?
? Why don’t snakes have legs? (Not all questions in Genesis are deep, theological ones.)Key questions in later chapters include the following:
? In light of the barbaric ways in which humans sometimes treat each other, why doesn’t God bring the human race to an end?
? Why do people, who have such intelligence, often fail to understand each other?Obviously, these questions concern us too. While Genesis was written in a culture different from ours, it deals with universal human issues. We can grasp the point of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God, even without knowing a lot about the Galilean fishing and farming to which he referred. Just so, with a little study, we can grasp the basic messages of the Genesis stories without being experts on the ancient Near East.
The Genesis accounts deal with God’s creation of the whole universe, but they focus on his relationship with his human creatures. They present us with very different pictures of God and humans. God emerges as a lover of good, a patient judge, a fatherly figure who wants what is best for his human children and is willing to make a new start with them when they mess up. Humans, on the other hand, show themselves to be a mixture of nobility and vice. They are intelligent and creative, capable of doing right, but inclined to transgress their creaturely limits and fatally attracted to the false notion that they can do without God.
It took many centuries for the early chapters of Genesis to be developed, and for many more centuries they have been read, studied, and interpreted in Israel and in the Church. Reading these accounts at the beginning of the 21st century, we are heirs of a tradition of writing and interpretation that stretches back more than 3,000 years. If we want to understand the accounts and see how they apply to us, we should know something about this tradition.
Scholars have studied the writings of other peoples in the ancient Near East, and they have learned that the origins of many Genesis stories go far back, to a period before Israel existed. In other words, both the Israelites and their neighbors who did not believe in the God of Israel inherited many of the same mythic descriptions of the beginning of the world from older Near Eastern culture.
Over centuries, as the people of Israel interacted with God, they came to a view of reality different than their neighbors. Consequently they reshaped the inherited stories to reflect their own very different picture of God, the world, and human beings. The result was stories that were still similar to those of their neighbors but that now carried new, divinely inspired messages.
The flood story is an example of this process. The Israelites and the Akkadians (who were from present-day Iraq) both drew on very ancient traditions of a catastrophic flood. In the Akkadian version of the story, the gods bring the flood because people were bothering them with noise. The Israelites, however, had discovered that God is not bad-tempered but just, and they reflected this knowledge in their version of the story. In the biblical telling, God brings the flood because he is saddened by people’s violent oppression of each other. The Israelite story portrays a God who is righteous and compassionate, rather than capricious and self-concerned. Thus at one stage the accounts of the beginning served to sketch a truer portrait of God than that held by Israel’s neighbors.
The accounts acquired another level of meaning when they were incorporated in the growing book of Scripture. Contrary to what we might expect, the accounts of the beginning were not the first part of Genesis to be included in the Bible. The narratives of God’s dealings with Abraham and his family and of the exodus from Egypt were composed earlier. Later the accounts of the beginning were placed in front. By combining them with the history of God’s dealings with Israel, the message came across that the God who had been unfolding a merciful plan for the people of Israel was not just the tribal God of Israel; he was the God of the whole universe. Thus the Genesis stories implied that God’s activity on behalf of Israel must be part of a larger plan for the entire human race.
The Genesis stories reached a third stage of meaning with the coming of Jesus. God achieves his original purposes for the universe through his Son, who has now taken on human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. Since God’s creative purposes find their fulfillment in Jesus, the creation accounts in Genesis reveal their deepest meaning when viewed in relation to him. Now that God’s Son has come in human flesh, the Genesis accounts help us understand who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
The stories of Adam and Eve, of their sons Cain and Abel, of the people who provoked the flood and those who built the tower of Babel: all of these stories display our human tendency to overstep our limits as creatures, to take control of our lives apart from God, to treat one another unjustly. The Genesis accounts tell us that our unhappiness stems from our failure to trust and obey our creator. Against this background, Jesus’ life and death emerge as a deliberate reversal of the deep-rooted human tendency to distrust and disobey God. Saint Augustine writes that Jesus “did not come to do his own will but the will of God by whom he was sent. In this he differed from Adam who chose to do his own will, not the will of his creator.” Jesus’ death and resurrection become understandable as the divine means of putting an end to our rebellion—symbolized in the Genesis accounts—in order to give us a fresh start in relationship with God (Romans 6:3–10). Just as Adam was the first human being, through whom we have received our human life flawed by sin, so Jesus is the new Adam, through whom we receive a life cleansed of sin and enlightened by the presence of God’s Spirit (Romans 5:12–19; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22,45).
The early Church saw a clear connection between God’s initial purposes revealed in Genesis and the fulfillment of those purposes through Jesus. It is not surprising, then, that the early Church used the Genesis accounts to help explain Jesus. For example, it viewed the cross on which Jesus died as a “tree” corresponding to the tree in the garden of Eden. At the first tree the human race lost its original relationship with God by distrust and disobedience; it regained this relationship with God through Jesus’ trust and obedience at the second tree.
As centuries have passed in the life of the Church, Christians asking questions about God’s plan have returned again and again to the Genesis accounts of beginnings. Saint Augustine, who died in the early fifth century, investigated Genesis as he tried to understand how there came to be any evil in a universe created by a perfectly good and powerful God. Augustine and later theologians have looked to Genesis for help in understanding the destabilizing effects of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience (what theologians refer to as original sin) and how these effects are passed from one generation to another. In the late 20th century, Pope John Paul II intensively explored the account of Adam and Eve to shed light on the relationship between the sexes and on the “nuptial meaning of the body.” The author of Genesis did not directly address these subjects, yet Genesis will always be part of Christians’ efforts to deal with such issues.
Scripture is the soul of theology, the bishops of Vatican II pointed out. It is meant to be the soul of our own reflections. Just as the greatest Christian thinkers have repeatedly pondered the opening chapters of Genesis, so may we also read and reread them, seeking to understand God’s relationship with us and his purpose for our lives. As we read, the Spirit who guided the narrator of Genesis to write will be with us, guiding us to understand and to act, to wonder and to praise.
Week 1Let There Be Light!
1 For you, this last week has been
a time of grace
a week to forget
2 Describe a memorable beginning in your life. How did it turn out?
3 If you could make a fresh start in some area of life, what would you change?Opening the Bible
Genesis 1:1–31The Universe: Act One, Scene One
1:1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 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. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
9 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. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.Creatures of Sea, Air, and Land
14 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, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.God’s Masterpiece
26 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.”
27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.Questions for a Closer Look
1 How does God’s evaluation of his work in verse 31 differ from his previous evaluations? What might be the significance of this difference?
2 What are animals and humans allowed to eat? What, then, shouldn’t they eat, and why shouldn’t they eat it?
3 If this story were our only source of information about God, what would our picture of God be like?
4 Most ancient Near Eastern people thought of the sun, moon, and stars as gods. What would verses 14–18 say about such a belief?A Guide to the Reading
Picture a movie scene that includes the use of cartoon-type animation. An artist sitting at an easel begins to paint. She sweeps her brush in broad strokes back and forth across the canvas. Through animation, at each stroke objects magically appear. With one stroke of the brush, a tree springs into view. Another stroke and a meadow surrounds the tree. Two dabs of the brush put a sun in the sky and a child beneath the tree. Suddenly the picture comes to life. The tree’s branches sway in the breeze. The child runs across the meadow.
Genesis 1 is like that. God calls forth the universe in six days, each day an effortless stroke of an artist’s brush. The account does not describe the processes by which the universe took shape and life developed, just as the animation does not show how an artist actually paints a picture. But Genesis teaches us things we cannot learn from astronomy or biology.
When you tell a story, you must say when and where the action begins. The problem in Genesis is that before creation there was no time or place. Nothing had been created, so the narrator describes the “situation” before creation: a shapeless emptiness, a watery darkness whipped by storms (the “wind from God” in verse 2 is probably a Hebrew way of describing an extremely violent wind). The narrator describes what cannot really be described, because it did not exist. (Keep in mind that, although I talk about “the narrator” or “the author” in this booklet, Genesis probably had several authors and editors.)
The author does not describe creation from nothing in quite the way that we have come to understand it. At the same time, he does not say that anything existed before God created. So when we see God performing operations on the watery darkness (1:6–10), this does not mean that God formed the world out of matter that already existed, for the dark ocean of verse 2 is not neutral matter in our modern sense. It is chaos, sinister nothingness, absence of any possibility of life. The account of God’s bringing light to darkness and dividing waters (1:3–10) is a way of saying that God called into existence an orderly universe.
It seems strange that God creates light on the first day, while sun and stars appear only on the fourth, but the narrator is pursuing a logic of his own. The purpose of the light is to inaugurate time, and that is why God names Day and Night (1:5). Next God creates space. He establishes vertical space by engineering the sky, which ancient people thought of as a hard, transparent dome holding up a vast, blue ocean (1:6–8). God makes horizontal space by clearing away water to expose the land (1:9–10).
God called earth “Earth” and seas “Seas” (1:10) because in the culture of the time, name-giving indicated possession (see Isaiah 43:1). Thus the account shows that the universe is God’s property; it belongs to him. Notice that God does not name the animals (keep this in mind for next week).
After creating various creatures (1:20–25), God reaches the climax of his efforts. Here he does not merely utter a “Let there be.” God deliberates with himself—“Let us make” (1:26)—carefully considering his greatest undertaking.
God creates humans in his “image” and “likeness” (1:26–27). In the ancient Near East, kings were considered images of the gods. Thus for humans to be made in the image of God means that each of us has a “royal” dignity. God has made each of us with the intelligence and freedom required to carry out a royal assignment. God assigns us as his viceroys to govern the earth and its creatures (1:26).
Being made in God’s image means even more than this, for it also means that we correspond to God. We are made like God in order to interact with him. There is a fit, a match, between God and us that makes a relationship possible. Indeed, our entire physical and spiritual nature is set up for a relationship with God. As soon as the first human couple stands before him, God activates this relationship. We read for the first time, “God said to them” (1:28). Human beings are the only creatures with whom God can carry on a conversation.Questions for Application
1 How can it affect a student when there is turmoil at school? at home? among his or her friends? How can the turmoil in other parts of the world affect a young person’s life?
2 Genesis tells us that the universe belongs to God: what difference should that make in how we treat the earth? God has put in your hands a tiny part of creation—your clothes, your CD player, your school supplies, your pet. If you were to consider these things as God’s personal possessions, how might you relate to them differently?
3 What might this week’s reading say about the belief that the movements of the stars and planets determine the course of people’s lives?
4 How do you think God communicates to us that he is seeking a more personal relationship with us? What can we do to respond more fully to his invitation?
5 God gives the whole human race the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (1:28). It is the mandate parents follow in giving birth to their children. If you have children one day, what would you want them to be like?Approach to Prayer
Now that you have read the repeated divine declarations that “it is good,” it is your turn to reflect them back to God in a litany of thanks:
First recite Genesis 1:31 with the group: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
Listen as others in the group mention things for which they are grateful, pausing after each item to pray together, “Thank you, Lord, for the goodness of your creation.”
Recite Genesis 1:31 one more time with the group. Close by praying Psalm 8.Supplement for Individual ReadingSaints in the MakingGod and Our Chaos
In Genesis 1 creation is an ordering of chaos. God shatters the darkness of nonexistence by creating light, then joins darkness as a subordinate to the light in the alternating rhythm of night and day (1:1–5). God rolls back the lifeless deep; the tamed waters are assigned now to a place beside the land and become the bright sea (1:6–10).
God imposes order on chaos, but tendencies to fall apart and lose meaning remain. In the Israelite view, night and ocean continue as zones of danger. They are symbols of the destruction that lurks at the edges of life. Creation constantly needs the Creator to keep bringing the dawn, to keep holding back the floodwaters from the dry land.
Many young people experience chaos in their lives. They are confused about the direction in which their lives are going and are not even sure if they know in what direction they ought to go. They miss the things of childhood but are glad they have grown beyond childhood. They long for adulthood but are fearful of the obligations it will bring. They feel that no one understands the tensions in their lives, and yet they want very much to talk with someone who might understand.
Sometimes there is chaos in the lives of young people because of the actions of others. Parents argue and fight, they may even separate and divorce, and their children’s lives are thrown into turmoil. One friend may turn against another and spread rumors that have no basis in truth. A thoughtless teacher may humiliate a student in front of the class, or an unreasonable administrator may treat a student unjustly.
At other times, the chaos is self-imposed as the young person looks for peace and satisfaction in all the wrong places. Experimentation with drugs, sexual encounters, excessive risk-taking, and fast living—these things can turn a young life inside-out.
Of course, there can be chaos at any stage in life. The late Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife, Brazil and human rights advocate, spoke of getting up in the morning and having to “gather up the pieces I’ve scattered during the day—an arm here, a leg there, the head who knows where. I sew myself back together again.” Throughout our lives we need the Genesis image of a chaos-ordering God standing before us as a sign of hope.Between Discussions Let’s suppose that you are visiting relatives in another state and you have met someone your own age. Your new friend asks about your school, and you tell him or her about the yearbook and the French club. Your new friend would not notice anything, but if some of your classmates were standing next to you and heard what you said, they might wonder why you did not also mention the football team or the drama club. The fact is that we all tend to leave things out in our description of persons, places, and experiences.
We modern readers may not immediately notice, but the narrator of Genesis has also left out some features that his non-Israelite neighbors would have expected in a creation account. Most notably he has left out of his account any mention of other gods.
Many ancient Near Eastern people imagined that the world came into existence as the result of a battle between gods. They tended to think of creation as a laborious process in which gods made some things from other things. Genesis 1 has none of this. God creates without struggling with other gods because, quite simply, there aren’t any. He commands, and things come into existence.
In one ancient creation myth, a certain god slays another god, called Sea, who has the form of a sea monster, and uses the corpse to construct the world. The author of Genesis knew this story and rejected it. In Genesis the sea is not divine; the “deep” in 1:2 is simply an image of chaos, of nonbeing. The sea does not emerge until the third day (1:9–10) and is merely an element of creation. Sea monsters are just the biggest, oddest pets in God’s global aquarium (1:21).
Ancient readers would have been struck especially by the Genesis narrator’s treatment of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies (1:14–18). Near Eastern people saw these things as gods who ruled human lives. Genesis 1 firmly demotes them from divine status. First, God creates all heavenly bodies. Second, they do not appear until the fourth day. They have no light of their own but merely transmit light already created (1:3). They serve to mark the passage of time and the occurrence of holidays (1:14); that is all. Far from being gods, they are nonentities: they do not even have names (see 1:16).
The narrator of Genesis was writing at a time when people thought that the universe was crowded with warring gods. He offered a simpler, yet deeper, view: one God has created everything. This God is not a power within the universe—a power of sun or sea or storm or sex. He is the power that has brought every other power into existence. Therefore we humans should worship, revere, listen to, and love this God alone. There is no need to worry about placating any other gods.
In many places in the world, this is a very relevant, up-to-date, and countercultural message. Think of India, for example. But what about us living in Western societies? Our public spaces and institutions are secularized. We do not meet statues of gods in schools or supermarkets or courtrooms. In our society, people look for scientific, rather than mythic, explanations of the origin of things. On the other hand, many people in our society believe that human lives may be influenced by stars, by magic, by supernatural beings of various kinds, by spiritual forces working through places or crystals, by the minds of the dead channeled through human teachers.
Genesis 1, then, carries a twofold message for us. First, in the face of growing beliefs in a variety of spiritual powers, Genesis declares absolutely that God is the only deity in the universe. From top to bottom, the universe is God’s creation, inhabited only with the creatures that God has put there. Second, as we conduct our lives in secularized settings—in school, in sports, in entertainment—Genesis reminds us that no time or place exists apart from God. The universe is not meaningless matter; time is not an emptiness filled only with human sound and fury. All places and times, and we ourselves, are the handiwork and possession of a personal God.
Excerpted from Genesis 1-11 by Kevin Perrotta Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Perrotta. Excerpted by permission.
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