Genesis creation story

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The Genesis creation narrative is the

In the second,

A common hypothesis among



Although tradition attributes Genesis to Genesis 2:4–24 is Jahwistic.

As for the historical background which led to the creation of the narrative itself, a theory which has gained considerable interest, although still controversial, is "Persian imperial authorisation". This proposes that the Persians, after their conquest of Babylon in 538 BC, agreed to grant Jerusalem a large measure of local autonomy within the empire, but required the local authorities to produce a single law code accepted by the entire community. The two powerful groups making up the community – the priestly families who controlled the Temple, and the landowning families who made up the "elders" – were in conflict over many issues, and each had its own "history of origins", but the Persian promise of greatly increased local autonomy for all provided a powerful incentive to cooperate in producing a single text.[12]


The creation narrative is made up of two stories, roughly equivalent to the two first chapters of the Book of Genesis.[13] (There are no chapter divisions in the original Hebrew text, see Chapters and verses of the Bible.) The first account (1:1 through 2:3) employs a repetitious structure of divine fiat and fulfillment, then the statement "And there was evening and there was morning, the [xth] day," for each of the six days of creation. In each of the first three days there is an act of division: day one divides the darkness from light, day two the "waters above" from the "waters below", and day three the sea from the land. In each of the next three days these divisions are populated: day four populates the darkness and light with sun, moon and stars; day five populates seas and skies with fish and fowl; and finally land-based creatures and mankind populate the land.[14]

The two stories are complementary rather than overlapping, with the first (the Priestly story) concerned with the cosmic plan of creation, while the second (the Yahwist story) focuses on man as cultivator of his environment and as a moral agent.

The primary accounts in each chapter are joined by a literary bridge at

Mesopotamian influence

Comparative mythology provides historical and cross-cultural perspectives for Christian mythology. Both sources behind the Genesis creation narrative borrowed themes from Mesopotamian mythology, but adapted them to their belief in one God,[8] establishing a monotheistic creation in opposition to the polytheistic creation myth of Israel's historic enemy, Babylon.[19]

Genesis 1–11 as a whole is imbued with Mesopotamian myths.[20] Genesis 1 bears both striking differences from and striking similarities to Babylon's national creation myth, the Enuma Elish. On the side of similarities, both begin from a stage of chaotic waters before anything is created, in both a fixed dome-shaped "firmament" divides these waters from the habitable Earth, and both conclude with the creation of a human called "man" and the building of a temple for the god (in Genesis 1, this temple is the entire cosmos).[21] On the side of contrasts, Genesis 1 is uncompromisingly monotheistic, it makes no attempt to account for the origins of God, and there is no trace of the resistance to the reduction of chaos to order (Gk. theomachy, lit. "God-fighting"), all of which mark the Mesopotamian creation accounts.[8]

The Enuma Elish has also left traces on Genesis 2. Both begin with a series of statements of what did not exist at the moment when creation began; the Enuma Elish has a spring (in the sea) as the point where creation begins, paralleling the spring (on the land – Genesis 2 is notable for being a "dry" creation story) in

Genesis 2 has close parallels with a second Mesopotamian myth, the Atra-Hasis epic – parallels that in fact extend throughout Genesis 2–11, from the Creation to the Flood and its aftermath. The two share numerous plot-details (e.g. the divine garden and the role of the first man in the garden, the creation of the man from a mixture of earth and divine substance, the chance of immortality, etc.), and have a similar overall theme: the gradual clarification of man's relationship with God(s) and animals.[16]

Creation by word vs creation by combat

The narratives in Genesis 1–2 were not the only creation myths in ancient Israel, and the complete biblical evidence suggests two contrasting models. The first is the "

Genesis 1:1–2:3


The cosmos created in Genesis 1–2:3 bears a striking resemblance to the Tabernacle in Exodus 35–40, which was the prototype of the Temple in Jerusalem and the focus of priestly worship of Yahweh; for this reason, and because other Middle Eastern creation stories also climax with the construction of a temple/house for the creator-god, Genesis 1 can be interpreted as a description of the construction of the cosmos as God's house, for which the Temple in Jerusalem served as the earthly representative.[25]

The word bara is translated as "created" in English, but the concept it embodied was not the same as the modern term. In the world of the ancient Near East, the gods demonstrated their power over the world not by creating matter but by fixing destinies: so the essence of the bara which God performs in Genesis concerns bringing "heaven and earth" (a set phrase meaning "everything") into existence by organising and assigning roles and functions.[26]

The use of numbers in ancient texts was often numerological rather than factual – that is, the numbers were used because they held some symbolic value to the author.[27] The number seven, denoting divine completion, permeates Genesis 1: verse 1:1 consists of seven words, verse 1:2 of fourteen, and 2:1–3 has 35 words (5x7); Elohim is mentioned 35 times, "heaven/firmament" and "earth" 21 times each, and the phrases "and it was so" and "God saw that it was good" occur 7 times each.[28]

Pre-creation: Genesis 1:1-2

The opening phrase of Genesis 1:1 is commonly translated in English as: "In the beginning God created both the heavens and the earth". The Hebrew is more ambiguous, and can be translated in at least three ways:

  1. as a statement that the cosmos had an absolute beginning (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth);
  2. as a statement describing the condition of the world when God began creating (When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was untamed and shapeless); and
  3. essentially similar to the second version but taking all of Genesis 1:2 as background information (When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth being untamed and shapeless, God said, Let there be light!).[29]

The second seems to be the meaning intended by the original Priestly author: the verb bara is used only of God, (people do not engage in bara), and it concerns the assignment of roles, as in the creation of the first people as "male and female" (i.e., it allocates them gender roles): in other words, the power of God is being shown not by the creation of matter but by the fixing of destinies.[26]

"The heavens and the earth" is a set phrase meaning "everything", i.e., the cosmos. This was made up of three levels, the habitable earth in the middle, the heavens above, an underworld below, all surrounded by a watery "ocean" of chaos. The earth itself was a flat disc, surrounded by mountains or sea. Above it was the firmament, a transparent but solid dome resting on the mountains, allowing men to see the blue of the waters above, with "windows" to allow the rain to enter, and containing the sun, moon and stars. The waters extended below the earth, which rested on pillars sunk in the waters, and in the underworld was Sheol, the abode of the dead.[30]

The opening of Genesis 1 continues: "And the earth was formless and void..." The phrase "formless and void" is a translation of the Hebrew tohu wa-bohu, (Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ‎), chaos, the condition that bara, ordering, remedies.[31] Tohu by itself means "emptiness, futility"; it is used to describe the desert wilderness; bohu has no known meaning and was apparently coined to rhyme with and reinforce tohu.[32] The phrase appears also in Jeremiah 4:23, [Jer. 4:23]] where the prophet warns Israel that rebellion against God will lead to the return of darkness and chaos, "as if the earth had been 'uncreated'".[33]

The opening of Genesis 1 concludes with a statement that Darkness was on the face of the Deep (Hebrew: תְהוֹםtehôm) Darkness and the Deep are two of the three elements of the chaos represented in tohu wa-bohu (the third is the formless earth). In the Enuma Elish, the Deep is personified as the goddess Tiamat, the enemy of Marduk;[31] here it is the formless body of primeval water surrounding the habitable world, later to be released during the Deluge, when "all the fountains of the great deep burst forth" from the waters beneath the earth and from the "windows" of the sky.[34]

The Rûach of God moves over the face of the Deep before creation begins. Rûach (רוּחַ) has the meanings "wind, spirit, breath", and elohim can mean "great" as well as "god": the ruach elohim may therefore mean the "wind/breath of God" (the storm-wind is God's breath in Psalms 18:16 and elsewhere, and the wind of God returns in the Flood story as the means by which God restores the earth), or God's "spirit", a concept which is somewhat vague in Hebrew Bible, or it may simply signify a great storm-wind.[35] Victor Hamilton in his commentary on Genesis decides, somewhat tentatively, for "spirit of God", but dismisses any suggestion that this can be identified with the Holy Spirit of Christian theology.[36]

The six days of Creation: Genesis 1:3-2:3

Day 1 begins with the creation of light (and, by implication, time). God creates by spoken command and names the elements of the world as he creates them. In the ancient Near East the act of naming was bound up with the act of creating: thus in Egyptian literature the creator god pronounced the names of everything, and the Enuma Elish begins at the point where nothing has yet been named.[3] God's creation by speech also suggests that he is being compared to a king, who has merely to speak for things to happen.[2]

And God said, “Let there be a rāqîa between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the rāqîa and separated the water under the vault from the water above it, and it was so, and God called the rāqîa “heavens”, and there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

Rāqîa, or

By the end of the third day God has created a foundational environment of light, heavens, seas and earth.[41] The three levels of the cosmos are next populated in the same order in which they were created – heavens, sea, earth. The language of "ruling" is introduced: the heavenly bodies will "govern" day and night and mark seasons and years and days (a matter of crucial importance to the Priestly authors, as religious festivals were organised around the cycles of the sun and moon);[42] later, man will be created to rule over the whole of creation as God's regent.

On Day Four God puts "lights" in the firmament, but the Hebrew word ma'or means literally "lamps", underlining the status of the cosmos as God's temple.[43] God does not create or make trees and plants, but instead commands the earth to produce them. The underlying theological meaning seems to be that God has given the previously barren earth the ability to produce vegetation, and it now does so at his command. The reference to "kinds" appears to look forward to the laws found later in the Pentateuch, which lay great stress on holiness through separation.[44]

In the Egyptian and Mesopotamian mythologies the creator-god has to do battle with the sea-monsters before he can make heaven and earth; in

When in

Man is created in the "image of God". The meaning of this is unclear: suggestions include:

  1. Having the spiritual qualities of God such as intellect, will, etc.;
  2. Having the physical form of God;
  3. A combination of these two;
  4. Being God's counterpart on earth and able to enter into a relationship with him;
  5. Being God's representative or viceroy on earth.[47]

The fact that God says "Let us make man..." has given rise to several theories, of which the two most important are that "us" is majestic plural,[48] or that it reflects a setting in a divine council with God enthroned as king and proposing the creation of mankind to the lesser divine beings.[49]

God tells the animals and humans that he has given them "the green plants for food" – creation is to be vegetarian. Only later, after the Flood, is man given permission to eat meat. The Priestly author of Genesis appears to look back to an ideal past in which mankind lived at peace both with itself and with the animal kingdom, and which could be re-achieved through a proper sacrificial life in harmony with God.[50]

God's first act was the creation of undifferentiated light; dark and light were then separated into night and day, their order (evening before morning) signifying that this was the liturgical day; and then the sun, moon and stars were created to mark the proper times for the festivals of the week and year. Only when this is done does God create man and woman and the means to sustain them (plants and animals). At the end of the sixth day, when creation is complete, the world is a cosmic temple in which the role of humanity is the worship of God. This parallels Mesopotamian myth (the Enuma Elish) and also echoes chapter 38 of the Book of Job, where God recalls how the stars, the "sons of God", sang when the corner-stone of creation was laid.[51]

The seventh day: divine rest

Creation is followed by rest. This is not quite "Sabbath", which is commanded in Exodus, but it looks forward to it. In ancient Near Eastern literature the divine rest is achieved in a temple as a result of having brought order to chaos. Rest is both disengagement, as the work of creation is finished, but also engagement, as the deity is now present in his temple to maintain a secure and ordered cosmos.[52]

Genesis 2:4-24

Genesis 2:4-24

Genesis 2–3, the story of Eden, was probably authored around 500 BC as "a discourse on ideals in life, the danger in human glory, and the fundamentally ambiguous nature of humanity - especially human mental facilities."

The Yahwistic creation account opens "in the day the God made the earth and the heavens," a set introduction similar to those found in Babylonian myths.[54] Before the man is created the earth is a barren waste watered by an ed; [Gen. 2:6]] the KJV translated this as "mist", following Jewish practice, but since the mid-20th century it has been generally accepted that the real meaning is a spring of underground water.[55]

In Genesis 1 the characteristic word for God's activity is bara, "created"; in Genesis 2 the word used when he creates the man is yatsar, meaning "fashioned", a word used in contexts such as a potter fashioning a pot from clay.[56] God breathes his own breath into the clay and it becomes nephesh, a word meaning life, vitality, the living personality; man shares nephesh with all creatures, but only of man is this life-giving act of God described.[4]

Eden, where God puts his Garden of Eden, is from a root meaning fertility: the first man is to work in God's miraculously fertile garden.[57] The "tree of life" is a motif from Mesopotamian myth: in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero is given a plant whose name is "man becomes young in old age," but the plant is stolen from him by a serpent.[58] There has been much scholarly discussion about the type of knowledge given by the second tree, whether human qualities, sexual consciousness, ethical knowledge, or universal knowledge, with the last being the most widely accepted.[59] In Eden, mankind has a choice between wisdom and life, and chooses the first, although God intended them for the second.[60]

The mythic Eden and its rivers may reflect the real Jerusalem, the Temple and the Promised Land. Eden may represent the divine garden on Zion, the mountain of God, which was also Jerusalem; while the real Gihon was a spring outside the city (mirroring the spring which waters Eden); and the imagery of the Garden, with its serpent and cherubs, has been seen as a reflection of the real images of the Solomonic Temple with its copper serpent (the nehushtan) and guardian cherubs.[61] Genesis 2 is the only place in the Bible where it appears as a geographic location: elsewhere, notably Book of Ezekiel 28, it is a mythological place located on the holy Mountain of God, with echoes of a Mesopotamian myth of the king as a primordial man placed in a divine garden to guard the tree of life.[62]

"Good and evil" is a set phrase meaning simply "everything", but it may also have a moral connotation. When God forbids the man to eat from the tree of knowledge he says that if he does so he is "doomed to die": the Hebrew behind this is in the form used in the Bible for issuing death sentences.[63]

The first woman is created to be ezer kenegdo, a term which is notably difficult to translate, to the man. Kenegdo means "alongside, opposite, a counterpart to him", and ezer means active intervention on behalf of the other person.[64] God's naming of the elements of the cosmos in Genesis 1 illustrated his authority over creation; now the man's naming of the animals (and of Woman) illustrates his authority within creation.[5]

The woman is called ishah, Woman, with an explanation that this is because she was taken from ish, meaning "man"; the two words are not in fact connected. Later, after the story of the Garden is complete, she will be given a name, Hawwah, Eve. This means "living" in Hebrew, from a root that can also mean "snake".[65] A long-standing exegetical tradition holds that the use of a rib from man's side emphasizes that both man and woman have equal dignity, for woman was created from the same material as man, shaped and given life by the same processes.[66] In fact, the word traditionally translated "rib" in English can also mean side, chamber, or beam.[67]

Marriage is monogamous ("wife", not "wives": in Judah at the time Genesis was canonised the issue of marriage, polygamy and divorce was a burning one) and takes precedence over all other ties. The end-point of creation is a man and a woman united in a state of innocence, but the word "naked", arummim, looks forward to the "subtle", arum, serpent about to be introduced in the next verse.[68]

Judeo-Christian reinterpretations


Many of the elements which Christians today take as part and parcel of the Creation/Eden story are the result of later interpretation: Genesis 1 was not originally concerned with establishing God as creator of the world (that was taken as given), or with explaining just how he created it (ancient peoples were not interested in that question), nor does the Eden story ever say that the serpent in the Garden is the Devil, or that Eden is a heavenly garden where the righteous will live eternally, or even that this is the story of the Fall of man.[69]

The process of redefinition began when the original Hebrew text was translated into Greek for Greek-speaking Jews of the last few centuries BCE. A notable example is the word adam. In the original it signified both mankind in general and the specific first man. The authors of the Greek version took anthropos for the undifferentiated adam, and transliterated the Hebrew as Adam when a single first man seemed indicated, thus transforming adam, "man", into a personal name. Unfortunately for later readers, there was no way Greek could capture the word-play that linked adam, man/mankind, with adamah, the material from which he or they were formed.[70]

Creation: Wisdom, Word, Spirit; creation out of nothing

The opening words of Genesis 1 sum up the authors' view of how the cosmos originated: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"; Yahweh, the god of Israel, was solely responsible for creation and had no rivals.[71] Later Jewish thinkers, adopting ideas from Greek philosophy, concluded that God's Wisdom, Word and Spirit had shared in the creative act.[72] Christianity in turn adopted these ideas and identified Jesus with the creative word: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1).[73]

The idea that God created the world out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) is central today to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism - indeed, the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides felt it was the only concept that the three religions shared.[74] Yet it is not found directly in Genesis, nor in the entire Hebrew Bible, and is found no earlier than later Judaism.[75][26] The Priestly authors of Genesis 1, writing around 500-400 BCE, had been concerned not with the origins of matter (the material which God formed into the habitable cosmos), but with the fixing of destinies. This was still the situation in the early 2nd century CE, although early Christian scholars were beginning to see a tension between the idea of world-formation and the omnipotence of God. By the beginning of the 3rd century this tension was resolved, world-formation was overcome, and creation ex nihilo had become a fundamental tenet of Christian theology.[76]

Shape of the cosmos

When the Jews came into contact with Greek thought it led to a major reinterpretation of the underlying cosmology of the Genesis narrative. The biblical authors conceived the cosmos as a flat disc-shaped earth in the centre, an underworld for the dead below, and heaven above.[77] Below the earth were the "waters of chaos", the cosmic sea, home to mythic monsters defeated and slain by God (Exodus 20:4 warns against making an image "of anything that is in the waters under the earth").[71] There were also waters above the earth, and so the raqia (firmament), a solid bowl, was necessary to keep them from flooding the world.[78] During the Hellenistic period this was largely replaced by a more "scientific" model as imagined by Greek philosophers, according to which the earth was a sphere at the centre of concentric shells of celestial spheres containing the sun, moon, stars and planets.[77]

Genre (Genesis 1-2 as myth, history and science)

The meaning to be derived from the Genesis creation narrative will depend on the reader's understanding of its genre, the literary "type" to which it belongs: "it makes an enormous difference whether the first chapters of Genesis are read as scientific cosmology, creation myth, or historical saga".[80] Misunderstanding of the genre of the text, meaning the intention of the author/s and the culture within which they wrote, will result in a misreading.[81] Bruce Waltke, a Reformed evangelical professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, cautions against one such misreading, the "woodenly literal" approach which leads to "creation science" and such "implausible interpretations" as the "gap theory", the presumption of a "young earth", and the denial of evolution.[82] Another scholar, Conrad Hyers, sums up the same thought in these words: "A literalist interpretation of the Genesis accounts is inappropriate, misleading, and unworkable [because] it presupposes and insists upon a kind of literature and intention that is not there."[83]

Genesis 1-2 can be seen as ancient science: in the words of E.A. Speiser, "on the subject of creation biblical tradition aligned itself with the traditional tenets of Babylonian science."[84] It can also be regarded as ancient history, "part of a broader spectrum of originally anonymous, history-like ancient Near Eastern narratives."[85] It is frequently called myth in scholarly writings, but there is no agreement on how "myth" is to be defined, and so while one scholar can say that Genesis 1-11 is free from myth, another can say it is entirely mythical.[86] (Brevard Childs famously suggested that the author of Genesis 1-11 "demythologised" his narrative, meaning that he removed from his sources (the Babylonian myths) those elements which did not fit with his own faith.)[87]

Whatever else it may be, Genesis 1 is "story", since it features character and characterisation, a narrator, and dramatic tension expressed through a series of incidents arranged in time.[88] The Priestly author of Genesis 1 had to confront two major difficulties. First, there is the fact that since only God exists at this point, no-one was available to be the narrator; the storyteller solved this by introducing an unobtrusive "third person narrator".[89] Second, there was the problem of conflict: conflict is necessary to arouse the reader's interest in the story, yet with nothing else existing, neither a chaos-monster nor another god, there cannot be any conflict. This was solved by creating a very minimal tension: God is opposed by nothingness itself, the blank of the world "without form and void."[89] Telling the story in this way was a deliberate choice: there are a number of creation stories in the Bible, but they tend to be told in the first person, by Wisdom, the instrument by which God created the world; the choice of omniscient third-person narrator in the Genesis narrative allows the storyteller to create the impression that everything is being told and nothing held back.[90]

See also



External links

Biblical texts

  • Chapter 2 (Hebrew-English text, translated according to the JPS 1917 Edition)
  • Chapter 3 (Hebrew-English text, with Rashi's commentary. The translation is the authoritative Judaica Press version, edited by Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg.)
  • Chapter 2 (New American Bible)
  • Chapter 2 (King James Version)
  • Chapter 2 (Revised Standard Version)
  • Chapter 2 (New Living Translation)
  • Chapter 2 (New American Standard Bible)
  • Chapter 2 (New International Version (UK))

Mesopotamian texts

  • "Enuma Elish", at Encyclopedia of the Orient Summary of Enuma Elish with links to full text.
  • The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford)
  • "Epic of Gilgamesh" (summary)
  • British Museum: Cuneiform tablet from Sippar with the story of Atra-Hasis

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