Genesis 1: The Story of Creation

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Unique among the ancient creation stories, Genesis 1 is a document of faith. Some scholars insist that Moses wrote every word; others favor the Documentary Hypothesis; still others maintain that Genesis was written during the exile by priests who were trying to understand how the horrible tragedy of exile could have happened to God's chosen people. Most scholars have now embraced the latter position. There is no doubt that the events of the exile certainly influenced how people thought of God and their relation to him. Their writings reflect these influences. It is equally possible that they used ancient source materials for their stories, but the final form emerged through the lens of a crisis in which they were not only displaced, but also cut off from worshiping God the way they believed he wanted to be worshipped.

The creation story of Genesis 1, then, is a statement of what the priests believed is true about God, the world that he created, and the role of humans in that creation. It is profoundly simple yet complete, and filled with praise. It was not meant to be an historical account; this is about God and his people.

There are six units of time, which are perfectly balanced into two parallel groups that each describes four creative acts in three days. Each day begins with the formula "God says," and ends with "evening and morning" of that day. The first line is possibly the most well-known verse from the Bible: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." It is unlikely the ancient priests were attempting to understand the creation of the universe, much like today's scientists who are looking to explain the Big Bang Theory or searching for the God particle. Instead, the priests were asserting and affirming a truth that seemed to mock them. There they were, recently eviscerated by a three-year siege, living in a hostile land, and seemingly cut off from God's presence. Against all current evidence, they affirmed that God was omnipotent, that God created the world, and that they had a place in that world. Moreover, that world was not chaotic, but ordered, predictable, and good.

Initially, the world that existed was formless, void, empty, and dark. Nothing could live there; indeed, nothing had yet been created that needed a place to live. Yet, even in this formless darkness, God's spirit hovered over the waters. That word for "hovering" has oftentimes been likened to a mother bird hovering over her young. The idea, then, seems to suggest that despite the darkness and the deep, God was moving over the waters, keeping everything under his control.

Suddenly, God said, "Let there be light!" The silence was shattered and light appeared. Throughout the Bible, light is symbolic of understanding, joy, and life. It is fitting that light is present apart from any source. Surely, this is a testament to God's power and shows that God is not part of creation, but independent from it. With the separation of light and darkness, time came into being. Light has overcome the darkness and is called good.

On the second day, God said, "Let there be a [vault, firmament, expanse] to separate water from water." The water that previously existed had to be divided into two parts. This was done. The [vault, firmament, expanse] was called "sky." Scholars don't know exactly what separated the water from water. The Hebrew word has oftentimes been used in the sense of hammering metal. That might suggest some metal barrier between the two, leading to the idea of a dome separating the heavens from the earth, but it is better thought of as a simple space between the two waters.

On the third day, God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered into one place and let dry ground appear." Making a distinction between wet and dry areas on earth was essential for the second part of creation on day three. In these verses, God instructed the land to produce vegetation that would fill the land – seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees. This does not mean that God had a partner in creation, but rather highlights the regularity and order of plant life on earth. All of this was pronounced good.

With the arrival of day four, God began to populate all of creation. First, he said, "Let there be lights…to separate, serve to mark sacred times, and give light on earth." Many of the nations surrounding the Israelites, including their oppressors, attributed divine status to the sun, moon, and stars and worshipped them. In contrast, God gave these luminaries specific jobs with built-in limitations. The only thing they would govern would be the day and the night. Plus, they were not to be served, but would "serve to mark the sacred times."

On the fifth day, God said, "Let the waters and the sky be filled with living creatures," thus populating the water and sky created on the second day. God mentioned both the large (Leviathan) and small creatures of the sea, again showing his power over them. Additionally, God blessed the living creatures and said, "Be fruitful and increase in number…" Unlike the plants and fruit trees that had their seed within them, the fish and birds received a divine blessing that would allow them to reproduce.

In several ways, the sixth day corresponds to the third. First of all, the land is again instructed to produce living creatures, which it did. There are also two parts to the day's creative work. Populating the land came first, with all animals "according to its kind." But then, God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, to have dominion…"

Much has been written over each word in this proclamation. Many people have asked, "Who is God referring to with the 'us'?" Scholars have offered many options ranging from a Trinitarian reference to a plural of majesty to a heavenly court. With no specific resolution, perhaps it was a rhetorical device to get the listener's attention. After repeating, "Let there be…, Let there be….," now suddenly, God said, "Let us make…." This is different; something very different is about to happen. And that very different "something" is the creation of man.

The next word requiring interpretation is "man," in this instance, 'adam'. It is a collective noun meaning humanity, or people in general. It does not have a sense of gender. It surely does not mean a male person. The real issue is to determine what it means for man to be made in God's image or likeness. In its other uses, these words describe idols, typically ones that should be destroyed. That's not too helpful, so how might one think about this word when it is paired with God, as in the "image of God"? In antiquity, it was a phrase used to describe a king or other royal personage. The king would have been called "the image of God." It signified the close relationship between the ruler and God. The king was special. But here God is saying that all of mankind is made in his image. All of mankind qualifies; all of mankind is that royal person – not just the king. All humans have that special relationship to God.

"Likeness" can be thought about in two ways — either it makes "image" less or more specific. The less specific meaning would somehow tone down the impact of image; the likeness may not be as exact. It would be like the son who resembles his parent, but is not an identical twin. The more specific claims the exact opposite, that "likeness" actually intensifies "image." It would be the model of the new building, a copy or blueprint, an exact representation.

These words indicate a correspondence between created man and God, the creator. "Image and likeness" makes the claim that this coincidence is exact. Whatever God is, man is too. He is spiritual because God is Spirit. Every attribute of God is ours by reflection. Image and likeness says that our lives reflect God's nature. But the reverse is also true in that we reveal what God is. Our lives bear witness to God's activity in the world. By studying God, we learn more about ourselves, and by studying ourselves, we learn more about God. If we had any lingering doubts about the truth of this statement, verse 27 will repeat it twice more. That alone should give an indication of its importance.

Afterwards God blessed "them," male and female. He has already blessed the animals, but this one is a bit different. When God blessed the animals, it was a general statement. Here, however, he addresses them directly. "And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply.' " He also commanded them to replenish the earth and to subdue it. "Subdue" is a stronger word than "dominion," usually having the connotation of trampling on or conquering. But this is not a command to wage war, for man is constrained by his reflection of God. He must reflect the same care for God's creation as God does. Once again, after all this, God surveyed his work and was satisfied. It was good. All of it was good. Some would say that at this point, his creation was perfect.

The beginning of chapter two states, "the heavens and the earth were finished — all the host of them." Everything that we know about the world, its organization, beauty, and energy — was just as it should be. God was pleased. And by the seventh day, he ended his work. He took time out to rest. The word for rest is Shabbat, which many scholars think was the origin of the Sabbath, though Sabbath is not mentioned at this point.

After carefully reading this first creation account, it should be obvious that God is in charge here. It is God who set everything in motion and surely He can continue to care for it. And this account also says something else about God—it says that God is outside of his creation. People are signs of God's care and diversity. Things are not only complete but also good. Comforting words, indeed, for people in exile as well as for the difficult eons to come.