Reading Genesis 1 with Ancient Eyes

Imagine opening a puzzle box, only to dump out all the pieces. It’s a 1,000 piece puzzle. Your table looks like pure chaos, so you begin arranging the pieces, turning them face up. You arrange your outer perimeter. Then, you begin filling in the middle. It takes you time, but by the time you’ve finished, you’ve recreated the beautiful painting—da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper. You affix it to a backboard, then you frame it and hang it on the wall. You’re finished, and you can admire your labor. This is something like what God did with creation. He had pure chaos, arranged it in order, put it together, and once it was complete, He stopped to appreciate it. 

Isaac Newton gave us the scientific method, which was a way of evaluating data to arrive at a conclusion of facts. One begins with a hypothesis, tests the hypothesis through experiments, and modifies it based on the tests and experiments’ outcomes. This method was then carried from science into various other disciplines—law, history, and sacred history (theology). In some sense, our manner of biblical interpretation, known as “hermeneutics,” borrows from this method. However, at times this is to our peril. 

Allow me to unequivocally say that Genesis is not a scientific textbook by which we determine the age of the earth, the viability of a worldwide flood or the ark which bore creatures in pairs, and other such things. Our understanding of the cosmos differs from theirs. We have made advances in knowledge that they didn’t have then. They know what they know, and we know what we know. Genesis is a very sophisticated book, but we shouldn’t try to make it say something based on what we know when it wasn’t an issue for them. Now, someone might ask, “So you don’t believe God created the earth in seven literal days?” I believe God can do that, but that’s not the point of Genesis 1. To draw that conclusion is to focus on a few details of an entire story whose aim wasn’t to answer that question in particular, and I doubt Moses and the ancient Israelites could have envisioned our time and technology. This is a sacred book, not a scientific methodology, so we must read it as if we were ancient easterners living in the first millennium BCE. 

Genesis is a story. It’s the telling of a nation’s history about the land where they were situated and the God who had brought them to that land. This book must be read literarily and then theologically. We must understand the type of literature this is before we can properly understand the book as a whole. When we recall that Moses is recording this as Israel’s national epic, we can conclude that some of the information will have to do with rebutting competing nations and their narratives. Remember, these folks just came from polytheistic Egypt, so Moses will have to deconstruct some of their beliefs in order to fully turn them to their God. 

A Genesis of Genesis

At some point during his last eighty years of life, Moses, maybe on Sinai, recorded the beginning of Israel’s national history as angels mediated the law to him (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2), or he received the revelation at some other time. Moses’ life is sectioned off into three blocks of forty years: the first being his life as in Egypt, the second with him as a shepherd, and the third as Israel’s leader. We may soon forget that we’re reading about a man who’s over 80. However, whenever he received the information on Genesis, we know that it was to tell Israel’s national story about the relationship they had with God and the land. He wasn’t an eyewitness. No one in that time was, but they likely had oral traditions and stories about the things he’d record. 

The entirety of the story centers on land and people: Canaan and the people of Israel. They had long been immersed in slavery, so they had little to no personal identity. Their entire identity had been as slaves, and breaking the mindset of being a slave was what Moses aimed to do. You can only go from being a slave to a free person when you have your own national story, and not your master’s. When you have your own God, and not the gods of your master. Rather than the plethora of temples, you want to know about Yahweh’s temple, and this is the story Moses tells. 

Sacred Space

We’re taken back to the beginning where God creates. To the original audience, everything was made for functionality and not merely as material, so we have to think about function over the material. For example, were I to hold up a pencil and ask you to describe it, you’d likely say that it was made of wood, give its color, and describe it based on its appearance. The ancient easterners would have described it as something they write with rather than how it appeared. The function was at the forefront of their mind more so than appearance or material, so this will shift us in our thinking. 

Elohim, so God is called, is creating order out of the formless, void earth. He’s arranging space for what’s to come by putting things in order on days 1–3, but beginning day 4, He fills it: the earth with light, the water with creatures, and the skies with birds. The world is filled with animals as well, and then God creates a human. At first, one human is made, but then two, a male and female, appear (Gen. 1:27). His crowning achievement is these humans. 

Unlike other creation accounts, or myths, Israel’s God creates everything to function a particular way. He’s Lord over it all. Also unlike other creation stories, when He creates humans, it’s not as His playthings or to entertain Himself, but to rule over His creation. Humanity bears His image and likeness. Whenever ancient deities faced a dilemma, they began arranging things to sort out the dilemma. Upon fixing everything, they rested in their temples. That’s why temples were built—not for humans to go to for worship and sacrifice, necessarily, but for the deity to occupy after a catastrophic issue that they resolved.

Given the literature and language of this passage, God built a temple for Himself. Let’s note some of the architectural language in the creation account. First, the “firmament” could also be translated as a “vault” (raki‘a) in verses, 6–8 and so on. Second, everything enclosed by this vault, the seas and earth, would have been akin to the floors of a temple and the lights for day and night may have been natural light for the day and candles or oil lamps for nights. Many temples contained elements of creation in them. The ceilings would have had sun, moon, and starts, though to many cultures those were gods in and of themselves, but here they are created by Elohim for a function, and not to be worshipped. Trees of some sort might have adorned the walls. In Solomon’s temple pomegranate and fig trees adorned the golden walls to remind the priests of the Garden. Within temples were images of the god, but in this case, the image of God resides in living beings, humans.  

Upon finishing His work of bringing order out of chaos, He stops and takes up residence in this new temple He formed. Once the existence of disorder, He’s ordered it, and now that His work was done, He inhabits it. This would have been how ancient audiences understood this story. We think merely in terms of the world, but they would have understood that a deity rested in a temple after some troubling event had been settled and peace reigned. The humans He created bore His image and likeness. Hence, their job is to embody God’s qualities and do His work, much akin to how the Vice-Regent in India was regarded as the King-Emperor himself in the early twentieth century. This is what we do: we tend the earth and its various parts while representing God. 

The heavens and earth were created as a sacred space where God dwelt with his creation, among whom were humans. While more time will be given to this in the next lesson, we should keep in mind the sacred space theme. A lot of Scripture is about sacred space and God being with His creation—humanity. This is how the Bible begins and, for all intents and purposes, ends. Everything in between shows us the love God has for creation. He continually pursues humanity who violates sacred space, pushing God away. Yet God, in His infinite power and mercy, cannot be kept from us. He does everything possible to draw near us, culminating with Him coming to the earth in the flesh, a doctrine known as the incarnation. God willingly sacrifices Himself in our stead, so He can have us with Himself. We must decide whether we shall keep pushing Him away or be drawn in by His warm embrace and love. 

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star