In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
So begins the section of the Bible called the Law, or the Pentateuch (referring to the fact that there are five books in all: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). My RSV study Bible has this to say about Genesis: “The primary purpose of this whole book … is to narrate God’s dealings with men and, in particular, to interpret Israel’s special role in his historical plan.” It then goes on to describe the role of Abraham as a turning point. Pre-Abraham is a time when human wickedness keeps messing with God’s creation, until God “gradually separated one family line” to be the instrument of divine blessing on the rest of us.
This makes me think of husbanders who select individual animals for breeding so that they eventually get a line with whatever the desired qualities are. This certainly puts a creepy (creepier?) spin on the idea that everything is just part of God’s plan…
But enough with the introduction, let’s get into the story!
So we start with an introduction: God created the heavens and the earth, and here’s tots how it happened… My study Bible notes that this is a the Priestly story of creation (“Priestly” referring to the theory that the books of the Old Testament can be divided into types, or classes, of authors – something I’ll probably make a post about someday).
Everything is dark and chaotic, so God goes creates light and says that it was good, even if he does say so himself. An interesting note from my study Bible is that each day ends with something like “there was evening and there was morning, X day.” My book notes that the Jewish day begins at sundown, so we have that cultural remnant in the language that Christian readers may not get..
The first thing that struck me about this creation story is the idea of water. God doesn’t create the water, it’s already there. The association between water and chaos, and the idea that a deity is going to come along and bring order is a very common narrative theme in creation stories, particularly those from Middle Eastern-y cultures (at least that I can think of off-hand). So we have a bit of chaoskampf going on here… Epic.
Now that we have light and can properly think of the rest of creation in terms of days, God decides that he’s going to start cutting up all this water. So he creates this thing called “firmament” to cut the water in half. We now have “bottom water” and “top water” with heaven in between (“God called the firmament Heaven” Gen. 1:8). Anyone who has ever spent any time looking into astronomy is probably scratching their heads at this point. Just how much firmament is there before we get to the next layer of water? And was the water divided in equal portions? If so, I’m imagining that with the size of the universe, there must only be a very thin layer left on the outer edge.
And while we’re at it, we were told earlier on that God was flying around over the “face of the waters” (Gen.1:2). This implies that there was something above the waters for God to fly around in. So what, exactly, is the firmament? I can conceive of God not needing air to breathe, so it’s possible that the firmament is the atmosphere – but then where is the second half of the water that’s supposedly above the atmosphere? And if the firmament is the universe, what exactly was this “non-universe” like? It’s all very confusing once you try to read the stories with the knowledge that the earth is round…
So now God decides that we should have some dry land, so he causes the waters to gather up into “one place” (Gen. 1:9), which he then calls the “Seas” (plural in both the RSV and King James). I’m assuming that he’ll make landlocked water later on. In any case, this reveals the land underneath, so we now have earth.
Separating waters horizontally doesn’t take as long as doing it vertically, apparently, so God has a bit of time left over. He decides to go ahead and create vegetation (originally planned for Day 4, but by getting it done today, God gets to just hang out and rest on Day 7 – so yay!). But God’s a bit concerned about these plants. Apparently, there’s always a bit of a danger that apple trees will suddenly start spreading seeds for peach trees or something, because God specifies that each plant will only make seeds “according to its kind” (Gen. 1:12). This is separate from the process of making the plant itself, according to the Bible.
So on the fourth day, God finally gets to creating “lights in the firmament of the heavens” (Gen. 1:14). So God makes “two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, he made the stars also” (Gen. 1:16). I hate to read too much into the wording of a translation, but I find it interesting that God creates the sun and also creates the stars. Also, the moon is not a light (oops!). Easy mistakes for earth-bound deities to make, I suppose.
The mention of these astronomical bodies as “lights” appears to be deliberate. My study Bible explains that the emphasis on the sun, moon, and stars as “lights” indicates that they are not divine powers in their own right, and therefore do not exert an influence over human destiny. It’s a bit of an “effyoo” to all those surrounding cultures that worship them.
We’re starting to populate our new earth now, and we’re getting some rather significant differences between the RSV and King James. In both cases, God gets the waters to bring forth some living cultures, but the RSV says “and let birds fly above the earth” (Gen. 1:20). The King James, on the other hand, combines the two ideas so that God is getting the waters to “bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and the fowl that may fly above the earth.” The implication seems to be that God is using the water as a prima materia from which he is creating animals, birds included. Of course, we’re talking about a translation, so it’s hard to know what might be implied in the original Hebrew.
The next hilarious difference comes in the next verse, where God creates either “great sea monsters” (RSV Gen. 1:21), or “great whales” (KJ Gen. 1:21). That’s right, we can either be talking about monsters, or we can be talking specifically about whales (the only named animal species so far). Either way, whale or monstah, it’s created separately from all the other water animals. Perhaps monsters/whales are more complicated than other sea creatures, so the process is a bit different. I wonder how one distinguishes a sea monster from an ordinary sea creature? Is it size? Ugliness? Rarity?
God finishes up by reminding all these birds and sea creatures (fish and sea mammals are apparently created all at once) that they have a responsibility to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22).
The sixth is another busy day. God makes three different kinds of creatures: cattle, “creeping things,” and beasts. What makes the differences between, say, “cattle” and “beast” isn’t really explained, but there you have it. Next, God gets down to the real business at hand…
God makes man “in our image, after our likeness” (1:26). This is one of those totally overused passages that everyone seems to know, but that doesn’t really mean anything. Or, rather, it could potentially mean so many different things that it effectively means nothing. Are we made in God’s physical image? If so, what race is he? Does he have boobs or not? If we’re made in God’s intellectual image, one has to wonder where the idea that “God works in mysterious ways” comes from (the idea that we are too inferior to understand God’s plan). Or are we made in God’s moral image – created good (prior to original sin)? And if the answer is in either of the latter two realms, how can we explain the rest of the events leading up to the Fall?
Another interesting thing about this passage is that God says that he will make man “in our image” (Gen. 1:26, emphasis mine). My study Bible notes that this plural may refer to the beings that compose God’s heavenly court. I’ve read some theories that Judaism may have begun as a polytheistic religion in that they recognized the existence of a multitude of Gods, but that they choose to worship only one (something that wasn’t at all uncommon in the ancient world – many households would have a particular tribal/family god that they would worship, acknowledging the reality of their neighbour’s family god without ever praying to it). So I wonder how legitimate it would be to interpret this “our” to refer not to God and his angels, but to deities in general. God made us in the image of the gods (or, selectively, in the image of anthropomorphic gods rather than those with animal characteristics). In other words, could this passage be a description of God rather than a description of man? “This one is a man-god, as opposed to a bull-god.” Just a thought…
But putting all that aside, God gives humans “dominion” (Gen. 1:26) over all the animals. Because repetition is a classic element of storytelling, we now get all the previously created animal groups listed for us, with one glaring omission. Humans do not get dominion over the sea monsters/whales. So all you whalers and/or Nessy-searchers had better stop it, right!
Once we get through the list of Things Over Which Man Has Dominion, we get to the famous Gen. 1 line: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Confused? God keeps telling us what he’s going to do and then we get a narration of him doing it. This narration then often is repeated at least once. Blame Hebrew poetic tradition.
In any case, a whole lot of ado has been made about this Gen. 1:27 line, particularly among Christian feminists who claim that this is the True creation story (unlike the patriarchal creation story we get later in Gen. 2). This is the one that God wanted us to have because man and woman are created simultaneously or, as I’ve variously heard it interpreted, were created as a single androgynous being (“him”) that God then separated into a male and a female (“them”).
Next, humans get the same commandment God gives to the rest of the animals: we’re to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Of course, our first commandment has a little twist: We’re not just to “fill the earth,” but also to “subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).
The next passage is rather interesting in that it seems to suggest a commandment to be vegetarian (and my study Bible does refer to it as “the vegetarian requirement” which is “modified in Noah’s time”). Humans are given “every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (Gen. 1:29) (the word “food” is replaced with the word “meat” in the King James, by the way, which is rather funny). I didn’t know that this was going to be in the Bible, but I had heard from Ken Ham types that everything was peaceful and wonderful in Eden, so humans and animals were all vegetarians (which goes a long way to explain the dental structure of animals that have since become carnivorous…). Silly as the claim is, I didn’t realize that it actually had Biblical support!
In any case, humans get all plant/tree that yields fruit (I’m hoping that there weren’t too many poisonous plants in Eden) while the rest of the animals only get green plants. No fruit for you!
This time, God assesses his creation as “very good” (Gen. 1:31)!
And that, finally, brings us to the close of Genesis 1. Hoorah!