This article is a literary critical study of the first creation account in the book of Genesis 1:1-2:3. It is divided into three distinct sections. First, a general literary analysis of the entire pericope will be examined. Secondly, as per the requirements of this paper, a word study follows. Thirdly, a verse by verse examination of the entire pericope is included, interacting with commentaries from various distinguished scholars. The translation used in this article is from the New American Standard Bible, copyright (c) 1960, 1988 by The Lockman Foundation.
LITERARY NATURE OF THE P CREATION ACCOUNT
The initial creation account of Genesis was not created ex nihilo. Rather, its content was born out a rich plethora of creation accounts permeating the ancient Near East. One striking example of this is seen in the similarities between Genesis and the Enumah Elish1:
Enumah Elish: Divine spirit and cosmic matter are co-existent and coeternal
Genesis: Divine spirit creates cosmic matter and exists independent of it
Enumah Elish: Primeval chaos; Ti’amat enveloped in darkness
Genesis: Earth was a desolate waste, with darkness covering the deep
Enumah Elish: Light emanated from Gods
Genesis: Light created
Enumah Elish: Creation of firmament
Genesis: Creation of firmament
Enumah Elish: Creation of dry land
Genesis: Creation of dry land
Enumah Elish: Creation of luminaries
Genesis: Creation of luminaries
Enumah Elish: Creation of man
Genesis: Creation of man
Enumah Elish: Gods rest and celebrate
Genesis: God rests and sanctifies the seventh day
While there are many similarities which link Genesis to the Enumah Elish, among other creation accounts, the striking theological statements of Genesis hold it in stark contrast to all other accounts of this time period. The above chart is simply to note that creation accounts of this nature and those containing similar orders predated Genesis and influenced its form, though not its theological assumptions regarding the Divine; for these are far removed in nature and character. Even in the use of templates for the order of when each portion was created, the theological postulations of how exactly they came about hold it in contrast to even its closest literary cousins.
Rightly, the literary genius of Genesis is in its very use of other well-known creation accounts. The ability to draw the audience in with familiar phrases and orders, only to shock them with unexpected concepts which radically alter the common understanding of reality at the time, reveals a well-informed and thought out strategy.
The thought and structures underlying the Genesis 1 account of creation cannot be overstated. There does not seem to be a word, phrase, or repetition that is not purposeful and precisely ordered. Consider the use of sevens and multiples thereof2:
- Genesis 1:1 contains 7 words
- Genesis 1:2 contains 14 words
- Genesis 1:1-3 contains 35 words
- God is mentioned 35 times
- Heaven is mentioned 21 times
- Earth is mentioned 21 times
- God made 7 times
- Naming or blessing something is used 7 times
- The Phrase “and it was so” is used 7 times
- The Phrase “and it was good” is used 7 times
- God saw that it was good 7 times
In addition to the number seven, the Genesis account is replete with other number and structural repetitions, as well as the use of chiasms. Due to the brevity of space I will address just three more in this section, which have the greatest impact on the theology of the text. First, there are ten divine commands spoken by God.3 Second, the way in which the author of the Genesis account uses words can best be understood by comparing them to the way a composer would use instruments. Consider for instance that the Genesis account uses a pattern of an ever increasing number of words for each of the days of creation, demonstrating an increasing variety and profundity.4 Finally, days three and six form crescendos with the double announcements of the Divine word (God said) as well as the double approvals (and it was good).5
The commentary on the first Genesis account of creation will be treated after the Word Study. This is due to the chosen word’s theological implications for the first three verses of the text. For the word study I have chosen to parse the meaning of the Hebrew word ruach (wind). There is a specific reason I have chosen this word instead of the more obvious choice of tselem (image). I have chosen ruach because of what I believe to be the central theme of this text. While Genesis 1-11 is a literary unit, Genesis 1-3 also stands as a literary sub-unit. It is my belief that these three texts deal with the three universal questions of existence:
Genesis 1: What is the nature of God?
Genesis 2: What is the nature of man?
Genesis 3: What is the nature of evil?
While each of these chapters provide aspects of the answer to all three questions, their central focus and theme is clear. Therefore, since the focus of the author in Genesis 1 is to give an understanding of the character of God, then it stands to reason that the focus of a word study should attempt to shine light on that same theme.
The word ruach in Scripture is expressed in the Old Testament with 14 different nuances of meaning, appearing 377 times, most commonly in Isaiah, Ezra and Psalms.6 The meanings extend from what is empty or transitory, spirit or mind (both in the human sense), breath, air, wind, wind directions, to the Spirit of God and even literally Holy Spirit: (ha)ruach.
The form of its usage in Genesis 1:2 is masculine singular construct. This links it in with the use of elohiym. So at the very least, it is of God’s sending or of His will. The question which has been often debated is whether it is His own Spirit/essence which is hovering or if it is merely a mighty wind sent by God.
Those supporting the view that it is nothing more than a mighty wind include: von Rad, Speiser, Schmidt, and Westermann.7 Their argument is that the ruach mentioned here is simply part of the chaos demonstrated in this verse. They see this verse as three parallel clauses emphasizing the void and chaos. Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, in the IVP Bible Background Commentary, state that the concept of mighty wind is similarly present in the Enumah Elish as a disruptive wind, bringing unrest.8
On the other side, Cassuto, Kidner, Gispen, Gunkel, Skinner, and Procksch view the usage of ruach to refer to the Spirit of God.9 According to Wenham, this usage of the word ruach in Genesis always includes some manifestation of God.10 This phrasing may be a little strong. It would be safer to say that God is involved in some way wherever the word ruach is used in Genesis. Specifically, the constructive form of ruach in Genesis 1:2 would allow for such an interpretation.
Considering the points above, and that Genesis 1 seems to be a narrative of God’s interaction with chaos–forming it, ordering it, and injecting it with life–it would make sense to have these opposing forces introduced together for the sake of contrast. The necessity to view all three clauses as negative parallelism is not readily apparent and not possible with the inclusion of elohiym in this verse. While there are repetitions of three or more parallel thoughts in Hebrew poetry, there are even more instances of two lines of parallel poetry. Thus, contrasting this one thought of chaos expressed in two clauses for emphasis juxtaposed in an antithetical poetic expression against God’s presence hovering over the waters (the essence of order hovering over the essence of chaos) is just as apt to be the case.
The final question that must be addressed in this usage of ruach elohiym is the reason for the inclusion of this clause at all. It was already stated that God created in v.1 and God begins forming in v.3, so the inclusion of His ruach in v.2 seems to serve no necessary purpose in linking God to creation as either creator (already established in v.1) or orderer of it (established in vv.3ff). So why this inclusion here of his ruach? Calvin proposes that it demonstrates God is not only the creator (v.1) and the one who forms it (v.3) but that it He is also the sustainer, through the presence of His Spirit (v2).11 Kidner also touches on this, referencing Job 33:4 and Psalm 104:30 as other instances of God’s ruach being a sustaining force.12
Genesis 1:1-2: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
Many have commented on the division of 1:1 from 1:2, much of which attempted to address the various concordists views. Von Rad, on the other hand, makes an interesting theological statement regarding the necessity of separating v.1 from vv.2ff. He says that the separation is necessary because v.1 is theological in nature and if chaos is to be placed beside the order of God, then chaos would have to be spoken of first, as a previous state, since God undoes chaos in favor of cosmos.13
Genesis 1:3-5: Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
The literary approach of light preceding the bodies that give light (sun, moon, stars) would not have brought any of the modern scientific puzzlements to the minds of the ancient audience. For they believed that not all light came from sun. There was still light when sun was down and when eclipsed. Even when clouds covered all of the heavenly bodies, there was still light.14 Rather, the literary choice here that would have been apparent to the ancient audience was in the portrayal of God as the one who holds the power of light as a created thing.15 This stood in stark contrast to other myths that portrayed light as an essential element of the deities or as a being ruled by the sun god. Here, it is merely one of many creations of God.
More importantly, light is seen here as the regulator of time, since its’ creation brings about the first day.16 It organized the totality of time.17 It is also of note that the days start with evening. As each part is ordered and/or bursts forth with blessed life it culminates in God’s approval and then evening–a time of rest for the inhabitants of creation who move and work in the daylight. In other words, God’s order brings rest.
Genesis 1:6-8: Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. And God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
Note here that while He has the power to merely “speak” things into existence, He also “creates” the things that need form. He is forming them according to their kind. The two things he does not physically form (the light and the dry land) have no specific form according to any specific kind; but the vault of the sky, the sun and moon, and the animals each have a form crafted by God. This is another literary construct emphasizing God’s focus on forming things according to their kind.
Also, notice the exclusion of God perceiving that, “it was good.” There are only two elements in creation that God does not single out, perceiving their goodness: the heavens and man. Many theological conclusions could be pulled from this omission; however, they would largely be speculative in nature.
Genesis 1:9-10: Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. And God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good.
Of interest in this movement of God is the fact that He did not remove the evils of darkness and water. He instead incorporates them by limiting them and giving them a proper place.18
Genesis 1:11-13: Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with seed in them, on the earth”; and it was so. And the earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
Again God is seen here as the ruler over all. Even that which He does not create with His own hands, He is still sovereign over by command. We will see this later on with the blessings over all the creatures. He created the first and it is only through His blessing of them that they are able to reproduce, an act that when employed is merely done so under the authority and will of God.
This command of the earth to produce plant life did not give it divine status, rather nature’s production of plant life is merely a right given to it by God and in producing each season it is showing itself to be subject to God’s command. This careful literary structure undercuts any pitfalls of pantheism. Without God, creation is non-existent, and without His command, creation is impotent to bring forth its produce.
Genesis 1:14-19: Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens 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 for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. And God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. And God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
Up to this moment of creation God has divided, ordered and created space. However, He now begins to use that “goodness” for a further purpose by injecting it with entities. In doing so, He produces further “goodness” and brings further blessing into creation, as well as giving creation stewards to ensure its continued order and therefore goodness.
In this first placement of entities into creation we again see God limiting and restricting the influence of darkness with light.19 Second only to the creation of man, the creation of the sun and moon are given the most attention. The description is both detailed for clarity and repetitive for emphasis.20 Wenham observes a basic structure for this21:
A. to divide the day from the night 14a
B. for signs, for fixed times, for days and years 14b
C. to give light on the earth 15
D. to rule the day 16a
D’. to rule the night 16b
C’. to give light on the earth 17
B’. to rule the day and the night 18a
A’. to divide the light from the darkness 18b
Conspicuous by its absence is any name for the sun, moon or stars. All of the other creations are either given a name (days 1-3) or given a blessing (days 5-6). However, in this lengthy section, neither name nor blessing is given. This may be a subtle way of disagreeing with ancient Near East, downgrading the common deification of the heavenly bodies.22
Genesis 1:20-25: Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day. Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind”; and it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.
Next God fills the seas, the earth, and the skies with the animal kingdom. The poetic expressions of the filling of creation with immense beauty and springing variety is well represented by the repeating structure best realized in the original Hebrew. Wenham attempts to place vv.24-25 into the following chiasm23:
A. cattle creeping things
B. wild animals
B’. wild animals
A’. cattle creeping things
However, a closer reading of the text reveals a repetition, rather than a chiasm:
A. Introductory Formula: God Commands:
B. Speech Proper
1. Let the Earth Bring Forth…According to its Kind
2. The Kinds listed
3. Restatement: each according to its Kind
C. God’s Command: Was So
B’. Action Proper
1. And God made…According to its Kind
2. The Kinds listed
3. Restatement: each according to its Kind
C’. God’s Action: and it was so.
Genesis 1:26-28: Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
This oddity of God taking counsel with Himself or with other deities has been profusely debated, but no satisfaction has emerged as the hallmark argument. If one holds to the late dating of the JEDP theory, then a polytheistic rendering of “our” could not be readily accepted. The other extreme of it being merely a self-encouragement is also unnecessary from a being who formed the entire cosmos with little to no effort.
The author’s focus of this section of the creation account is not on the nature of God, but rather on explaining in great detail many theological concepts regarding man. Thus, it is wise in this section to spend more time addressing this issue of the nature of man. For these verses offer us: 1) the most words used to describe any part of creation; 2) it is the only time God takes counsel before creating; 3) man is created in the image of God; 4) three of the seven times the word create is used is present here with the creation of humans; 5) a pronouncement of blessing on humans; and 6) gives them authority.24
This is significant because it gives humanity a framework from which to understand its role in the overall created order: 1) entrusting we who bear His image with stewardship over the earth; 2) God has set boundaries within which the various dimensions of the created order fulfill their purposes; 3) God assigns tasks and responsibilities to various members of creation, for example lights in heaven for times and seasons; 4) no member of the created order is a deity; and 5) in resting God provides a period of time for humans to enjoy the beauty of the created order. In addition, this counters false worldviews of dualism, astrology, nihilism, and philosophies that devalue human life.25
Genesis 1:29-31: Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Wehman and Westermann argue that telling man he can eat of the earth stands in contrast to the mesopotamian stories where man was created to supply the gods with food.26 While this may be a true statement, it does not track with the larger message of the text. If “food for man” instead of “man for food” was the heart of the message then the literary repetition of giving all of plant life to the animal kingdom after giving it to mankind seems to sidetrack the focus, that is, if the focus was on this reversal of the Mesopotamian creation account.
A closer reading of the literary focus of the entire creation account reveals that keeping divisions and boundaries is the most important thrust of God’s will. To eat of another kind is to break these boundaries, and so the message of these verses when read in context seems to favor God supplying all of the living creation with a means to nourish itself without crossing the boundaries that allow for order and life.
Genesis 2:1-3: Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. And by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
While it is easy to read this as an absence from or in contrast to the first six days of creation, that is not fully the case. In this final day of the creation account, God gives the final division, that of normal time and holy time.27 It is interesting that God begins by creating the means for the passage of time (light) on the first day and then gives bodies to rule over this “creation clock” (sun & moon) on the fourth day and finally He sanctifies and divides time on the seventh day. Note also the threefold use of the word “seventh” in 2:2-3.28
However, the seventh day is not merely another day of creation. The fact that there is no parallel to the sabbath day shows “a position of emphasis.”29 The blessing and hallowing here are striking terms, considering that God usually reserves blessing for God, man, and animals. The divine blessing that rests on the animate members of creation lead to fruitfulness, success, multiplication. Thus, it is paradoxical that the day on which God refrains from creative activity is pronounced blessed.30 There is then the suggestion that those who observe the sabbath will enjoy divine blessing in their lives.
Calvin, John, Calvin’s Commentaries: The First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948.
Dorsey, David A., The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.
Hartley, John, Genesis, Peabody, MA: Henderickson Publishers, 2000.
Holladay, William L. Ed., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Kidner, Derek, Genesis, Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977.
Speiser, E. A. , The Anchor Bible, Genesis, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964.
Walton, John H.; Matthews, Victor H.; Chavalas, Mark W.; The Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Von Rad, Gerhard, Genesis: A Commentary, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956.
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary, Vol.1: Genesis 1-15, Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987.
Westermann, Claus, Genesis: A Practical Commentary, Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987.
1 E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible, Genesis, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964), p. 10.
2 Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol.1: Genesis 1-15, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987) p. 29; Kidner also alludes to the word God being used 35 times, though not in reference to the repetitions of seven. Derek Kidner, Genesis, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977) p. 43.
3 Wenham, p. 29.
4 David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), p. 49. (Day 1: 31, Day 2: 38, Day 3: 69, Day 4: 69, Day 5: 57, Day 6: 149)
5 Wenham, p. 6. Double announcement: vv 9, 11, 24, 26; Double approval vv 10, 12, 25.
6 William L. Holladay Ed., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 334.
7 Wenham, p. 16.
8 John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 28.
9 Wenham, p. 16.
10 Ibid, p. 17.
11 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: The First Book of Moses Called Genesis, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), p. 74.
12 Kidner, p. 45.
13 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, (Philapelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), p. 46.
14 Walton, Matthews, Chavalas, p. 28.
15 Calvin, p. 76.
16 Walton, Matthews, Chavalas, p. 28.
17 Claus Westermann, Genesis: A Practical Commentary, (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p.7.
18 Hartley, p. 41.
19 Ibid, p. 44.
20 Wenham, p. 21.
21 Ibid, p. 22.
22 See also: Walton, Matthews, Chavalas, pp. 28f.
23 Wenham, p. 25.
24 Hartley, p. 40.
26 Wenham, p. 33; Westermann, p. 11.
27 Hartley, p. 50.
28 Wenham, p. 35.
29 Dorsey, p. 49.
30 Wenham, p. 36.
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