As I’ve grown in my faith and understanding of the Bible, I’ve often had to deconstruct and reconstruct my theology, especially when it comes to some of the stories in Genesis. It’s not that I don’t appreciate where I’ve come from or the knowledge that’s been handed down to me, but in the last ten years I’ve learned to read more deeply into the stories that shape the Christian faith.
I started a seminary course this past week that’s both an overview of the biblical story and an introduction to interpreting Scripture. The first 2 lectures were fascinating, and they only covered Genesis 1-3. Once again, I found myself reconstructing what I thought these stories were about. And so, over the next four weeks, I want to bring some of what I’ve learned into conversation here. Today, I consider Genesis 1 and the creation of the world.
One of the liveliest debates in my circles growing up involved creation and evolution. It was assumed that both theories were trying to answer the same kinds of questions, and it became clear that these two concepts couldn’t co-exist. Either you believe in creation which implies a literal and scientific reading of Genesis 1-3 (i.e. a six day creation), or you succumb to the worldly idea of evolution which disregarded any hint of an intelligent designer.
But before we even dive into any kind of debate, we need to question the assumption that the Genesis stories of creation were meant to be a scientific, literal account of the origin of the universe. That’s a big assumption to make, and if that’s not their intention, then using them as ammunition for a debate against evolution would be like using silly string to hammer in a nail. However, when we study the genre and historical context of Genesis, it becomes clear that the purpose of these stories wasn’t to be used as a scientific textbook for 21st century creation debates.
That’s not to say that Genesis isn’t true, but truth is experienced in different forms. A news report about a natural disaster and a poem about the same event can both be true, but the way that that truth is conveyed and the nature of the truth they share is different. In the same way, equating a 21st century archeological study with an ancient creation story leaves us searching for the same kind of knowledge (or truth) from two very different sources. But if Genesis 1’s main purpose wasn’t to tell us the number of days in which the world was created, then what is it trying to convey?
To start, we need to consider the context in which Genesis 1 was written. The Ancient Near East (ANE) had a lot of different creation stories that helped shape the world-views of the people living there at the time. These stories were meant to answer life’s big questions, like “Who are we?,” “Who is God and what is God like?,” and “Why are we here?” Just like today, the stories that we tell about our past help shape our understanding of where we’re supposed to go and what we’re supposed to do in our present and future.
The Enuma Elish, which came out of Mesopotamia in the ANE, is an example of such a story. There are different characters, many of whom are gods with specific powers or purposes. One part of the story highlights the heroics of the god Marduk who attempts to fight the evil chaos creature named Tiamat. Tiamat is eventually defeated and out of its carnage, humans are created. But humans are created by the gods for one purpose - to be slaves of the gods.
The Egyptians also had their origin stories that told them how the world worked. One example is the sun-god Rah who sets every night in order to battle the evil monster of the sea. And if he’s victorious, he rises again in the morning. As the sun gives life, so Rah is in control of life.
Other nations were afraid of the gods because they believed humanity's only purpose was to serve them. And so they offered sacrifices (including their children) to appease those gods. The people of Israel would have known and been influenced by the stories around them. But that’s not how they understood or experienced the Creator to be. They had different stories that shaped how they saw the world and answered the fundamental human questions. Genesis 1 was one of them.
Genesis 1 begins with God, not a bunch of gods or any conflict. It begins with God who is distinct from creation. This God took what was formless and void and created by speaking things into being. There was no carnage and there was no battle. In fact, there was no threat to God. He speaks and there is. He speaks the world into being through peace.
God spends three days confronting the first challenge. He forms the formless universe and introduces order into creation. Light separates from darkness. Ground separates from sky. Water separates from land. And all that God brought form to was good.
Then God spends the next three days confronting the second challenge by filling what was formerly void with life. He creates all kinds of plants and living creatures, and finally humans created in the image of God. He commands humans to be fruitful and multiply, continuing to bring life into the world and order to the rest of creation. And finally, with the image of master designer admiring what He has made, God sees His creation, and rests.
Genesis 1 is quite poetic, especially because of all the repetition. With that genre and the historical context in mind, we have to be open to the idea that Genesis 1 wasn’t interested in answering the questions of whether or not the world was literally created in six days. That question simply wouldn’t have been on the author’s mind. Instead, it’s trying to answer the bigger question of who God is for a people surrounded by other nations with other gods.
Genesis 1 is a counter-narrative to the other creation stories that existed at the time. It was also subversive in that it opposed the other gods. Unlike the gods in the Enuma Elish, Genesis claims that there’s only one God who stands opposite creation and that that God has no rival. God doesn’t create out of carnage, but out of peace simply by speaking. God’s word is that powerful and amazing. In contrast to the Egyptians, who worshipped the sun-god Rah, the Israelites worshipped the God who created the sun. Genesis 1 also claims that there’s no God but the sovereign King and Creator of the universe, who brought order and life to formless, empty space. And that God is invested in prosperous life on Earth.
This first creation story in the Bible is trying to tell us about who God is, what this world is, and why we’re here. The message about God is clear. This is a God that’s worth worshipping with all you have, not out of fear, but because this God actually knows us and longs for the best for us and the whole world. But what do these stories tell us about ourselves? That’s the topic for next week’s blog when we look at Genesis 2.