Genesis Bible Study
Lesson Three: Creation 1, God and Boundaries
Creation 1: God and Boundaries (Genesis 1:1-2:3)
With the cultural background firmly in mind, as well as the other guidelines for approaching the narrative text of Genesis, we are ready to delve into the text itself. The goal here is not to cover every aspect of the text, but to touch on the main story line and features of the text that will help us hear it as theological communication. Other issues that arise, such as various ways the text has been interpreted, will be dealt with as questions arise in the discussion forum.
A Quick Reading
The first thing we should do is quickly survey the entire passage for basic content and structure. The story begins with a formless, empty darkness into which the activity of God comes as breath (wind) and light. This activity of God unfolds in a sequence of six very ordered stages, each beginning with a creative word of God, and each concluding with the refrain "and there was evening and there was morning, day 1," etc.). The seventh day concludes with a day of rest. This is in the following sequence:
Several observations arise just from this quick reading. First, this passage will not easily lend itself to logical analysis. For example, there is an "evening and morning" for 3 days before there is a sun to define days. This, as well as other features, suggests that a logical or literal reading of this passage will most likely miss what it is trying to communicate. Since in biblical contexts a "day" was traditionally measured from sundown until sundown the next day, the fact that the days are marked as "evening and morning" suggests that we are dealing with a way of describing time that comes from an Israelite cultural background (still observed in modern Judaism).
If this is to be taken seriously, then seven days reflect the fact that the people writing this material are already living within the parameters of a seven day week, which gives them a temporal framework for this account. In other words, rather than this defining a seven day week because that is how long it took God to create the world, this way of talking about creation spans seven days because the authors had already been living in a seven day week for centuries, and so cast the narrative in that structure. More on this later.
Second, the recurring concern with separation or division is obvious. In every aspect of the creation, in some way specific mention is made of a division between parts of creation. There are boundaries set between light and darkness, between the different kinds of water, and between sea and land. Both vegetation and animals multiply after their own kind. There is clearly a distinction between humans and the rest of the world. This aspect of divisions and boundaries between them will play an important role in this story.
Third, the idea of animals and humans being fruitful and multiplying also figures prominently in the story. The fertility of the land and water is important. It is interesting to note that the earth and waters "bring forth" these animals at the command of God, while the humans are made by God himself. Again, we will return to this in more detail later.
Fourth, the very orderliness of this account is striking. It is tightly organized, follows a carefully laid out structure, and falls clearly within defined parameters of time and space. This is especially noticeable in comparison to the account in ch. 2, in which such order is strikingly absent. This order is obviously deliberate and purposeful, and suggests that we should pay attention to that fact.
These factors arising from a quick reading of the text actually provide some important background clues for the import of the passage and its message. We will note that importance as we work through some of the details of this chapter.
The opening line of Genesis can actually be translated three different ways. The traditional reading takes verse 1 as a single sentence and starts a new sentence in verse 2: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The earth was formless and void . . . ." This is a possible translation, although it presents some problems in dealing with the Hebrew text. Without going into detail about the Hebrew, it is probably better to take the opening line as the beginning of a dependant temporal clause. This leads to two other possible translations: "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void . . ." or "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void . . . ." (NRSV).
While this may seem like a minor difference, these last two translations serve to shift the emphasis from a concern with time ("beginning") to a concern with the pre-creation condition of the earth. While that may seem like a contradiction to us, accustomed as we are to talking about creation in terms of "out of nothing," we need to realize what the concerns of this passage are. It may be a valid logical observation that only God is eternal, therefore he must be the origin of all things, and therefore nothing can exist prior to God (the doctrine of ex nihilo creation, "out of nothing"). That would much later become part of the Jewish confession of faith (cf. 2 Macc 7:28 "I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed.") Yet the biblical text does not require this (see Two Theories of Creation).
But that is not really the concern of this text. The earth, which is a way to describe the realm of human existence, is described here as "formless and void." The starting point for God’s work here is disorder, we might even use the stronger term chaos. In fact, the Hebrew word translated here "formless" is translated in other places as "chaos" (Isa 24:10, 34:11, both passages referring to judgment; cf. 4 Ezra 5:8). The term also occurs more directly in context with statements about creation (Isa 45:18-19):
For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): "I am the LORD, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, 'Seek me in chaos.' I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right.
Now, recall that in Babylonian mythology of the Enuma Elish the world is conceptualized in terms of order or chaos, in terms of the threat of crop failure, drought, and famine that the gods annually alleviate by their activity in the coming of Spring. There, Marduk (or Ba’al) is the one who brings order out of chaos, stability out of threat of extinction of winter as he brings the Spring rains and fertility to the land. But here, Marduk and Ba'al and the other gods of nature have no role. This is not a myth of the cycles of seasons. It is an affirmation about God. The chaos of the world, the threat under which human beings live is still the given, the reality which they must face. And yet this text will give a radically different answer to that threat.
It is significant that the same two Hebrew words translated "formless and void" occur again in the Old Testament in a different context. These are the exact words in Hebrew that the prophet Jeremiah uses when he wants to warn the nation of Israel of their sin (4:22-27a).
For my people are foolish, they know me not; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but how to do good they know not." I looked on the earth, and lo, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger. For thus says the LORD, "The whole land shall be a desolation. . . ."
Jeremiah used the same creation language, but in a negative sense with a spiritual application, although a spiritual application that will have very real effects in the life of the nation. He is telling the people that if they do not repent and turn to God, they are unleashing a chaos into the world that will bring destruction, and will, in effect, reverse the creative activity of God. The imagery here is the same imagery used in Genesis 1, although the application is dis-creation. It is interesting that the same word "formless" is also used to describe the idols of the Canaanites (1 Sam 12:21). The idea of chaos, disorder, desolation, and destruction associated with the gods who were supposed to bring the stability, order, and fruitfulness gives a further clue to the direction of the passage here.
The writer uses two other heavily symbolic terms here to focus his message. There are many passages in both Old and New Testaments where darkness is a metaphor for the absence of God, just as light is a symbol for his presence. The linking of the concept of chaos here with the image of darkness is a compounded metaphor for the absence of God. Or, to look at it from the other direction, which is probably closer to what the writer wanted to say, without God and his active presence in the world there is only darkness, disorder, and chaos. That provides a background for the creative activity of God.
The second metaphor is the term deep. Some have tried to make a linguistic connection between this word in Hebrew (tehom) and the dragon of chaos in Babylonian mythology, Tiamat. While there are some similarities, there is not really enough to establish a direct linguistic connection. However, it seems obvious from many other passages that the Israelites have adopted the imagery of chaotic primeval water from the Babylonian culture to represent the threat of disorder and chaos in the world. This untamed chaotic water is frequently personified as a dragon or as a sea monster in Scripture. The "deep" is a reference to this untamed water of chaos. It is this very term that is used in the Noah story where the uncontrolled water of the deep is unleashed in the world as a consequence of sin (Gen 6:11).
There are too many passages in which this metaphor occurs to examine in detail. Suffice it to say that the idea of water as a threat to the world, as a symbol of the destructive power of sin, as a way to describe the world or people without God, even as evidence of the judgment of God, is a pervasive theme in Scripture. Conversely, the conquest or taming of water is a common metaphor to describe the creative and transforming actions of God in the world, especially at crucial junctures in human history. In the middle section of Isaiah, in a section that is encouraging a defeated nation with the promise of a new action of God to return them from exile, the writer appeals to the old metaphors of God defeating the dragon of chaos (there called Rahab). The immediate reference is to the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Reed Sea, but the stylized and metaphorical language is the imagery of the dragon of chaos (Isa 51:9-10):
Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?
Another example is from Psalm 89, a hymn to God as the defender and supporter of the Davidic monarchy and therefore of Israel. First, God is exalted as the creator God who has conquered and subdued the chaos, again in the figure of the dragon Rahab (Psa 89:9-10): "You ruled the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass, you scattered you enemies with your mighty arm." Then the psalm continues to affirm God’s presence with the king, again using the imagery of conquest of the power of chaos represented by water (v. 25): "I will set his [the king] hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers."
Similar images occur throughout the OT (e.g., Job 26:12, 38:6-11; Psa 104:3-13, Hab 3:8-15), sometimes using the name Leviathan instead of Rahab for the dragon of chaos (e.g. Psa 74:13-15). Isaiah could even adopt the imagery of God subduing chaos as a theme of future restoration (27:1): "In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea." This same imagery is picked up in the New Testament book of Revelation (12-13, 20:1-3) where the great red dragon of chaos is identified both with the beast who lives in the sea and with the devil, who threaten the world with water (chaos, 12:15) but whom God finally defeats.
All this serves not only to illustrate the heavily metaphorical character of this narrative, images with which the ancient Israelite would immediately be familiar, it also serves to anchor this narrative in the life and thinking of ancient Israel. It will not remain there, but it will be difficult to understand the rest of this material apart from that.
With these images in place, the impact of God moving over the surface of the deep could hardly have more impact. Some translations say the "Spirit" of God hovered over the waters, implying by the capital letter on Spirit some Trinitarian formulation (there are no capital letters in Hebrew; this is a translator’s interpretation). That is really alien to the text here. The word in Hebrew (ruach) can be translated as wind or breath or spirit. The idea behind the word is movement or activity, as in breathing. Most modern translations say "wind from God" or even "a mighty wind" (since the generic term for deity here can also mean "powerful").
However, in one sense it really doesn’t matter exactly how we translate the term as long as we realize that wind or breath is a way to talk about God’s presence in the world, the animating life force of God that makes things happen. In fact, the term came to be almost interchangeable with God, so that the later prophets could speak of the "spirit" of the lord coming upon them, a way to say that they were empowered by God himself. In the same sense, the metaphor of wind (or smoke, or cloud since they were virtually interchangeable) can describe the presence of God at Pentecost ("a rushing mighty wind," Acts 2:2). It is a way to say the presence of God is here in such a way that things will happen.
Now, notice where the wind is moving in verse two. It is moving over the waters. From what we have already observed, it is not surprising to note that God will do a lot with water a lot here, and later in Scripture. We find all through the Old Testament continual references to God taking charge of water or that God subdued the water. In fact sometimes when it is totally out of context, the imagery of water appears. For example, in 2 Sam 22:17-18, a song celebrating David’s victory over the Philistines, the writer refers to God drawing him out of the mighty waters. This kind of language makes little sense to us without knowing the pervasiveness of this symbol, and the power it had to communicate. To say that God’s wind is blowing over the waters, is a way to say that God is about to act to subdue the chaos and bring order and stability into the world.
As we move into verse three, we notice that there is no battle here, no opposing deities competing for the upper hand to see who will rule. In fact it is amazingly calm, especially in contrast to the bloody Babylonian myth. Here, God simply speaks. This is a powerful faith affirmation about God just by the way it is phrased here. Those who believed the myths as a way to describe reality were never really sure if the sun would come up tomorrow, or if the rains would come when they should, or if life would go on at all. There was fear that if they did not do the sacrifices the right way, it might be their fault that the world did not work the way it is supposed to work. A magical world is a fearful place!
But there is no magic here in this account. Just God! God simply speaks, and things are. Human beings have no role in this story, they have no responsibility to keep the physical world running or to make the world work properly. The world works because God is God. It is his word that creates the world and it is his word that keeps it working. Sacrifices are not necessary here to establish the order of the world. It is God and God alone who brings order into the chaos of the world. God brings life and we can simply trust God that the sun will come up tomorrow.
We tend to think of this as a creation story, the origin of things. If we reflect on this aspect a moment in light of the cultural background of the ancient world, we realize that this is not really a creation story in the sense of the ultimate beginning of all things. That is not really what it is trying to say. It is not really a story about creation. It is a story about the Creator. It is not even a story about God who created at some point in the past. It is a story, a faith confession, about the on going nature of God as Creator now. That is not something God did; it is who he is! He is the Sustainer of the world.
Now, beginning in verse four, notice what God does as Creator throughout the chapter. He speaks, separating and dividing. In fact, the creative act of speaking has to do with dividing and setting boundaries. While the idea of boundaries and limits are not specifically mentioned here in this passage, the idea of God putting limits and bounds in creation, imposing order in the chaos, is clearly present in the idea of separating. In other passages that use these same metaphors, the idea of boundaries is much more obvious (for example, Psa 74:14-17, 104:9, Job 26:10, 38:8-11, etc.).
Both the idea of separating and of setting limits is important here, and moves to the heart of the passage. God is portrayed here as coming into the formless, empty, dark chaos and imposing his own order by a spoken word. He divides light and darkness, tames the waters, and establishes dry land. In other words, God establishes a safe place for human existence. There is no threat of daily or annual failure of the physical world, because God is the Creator and Sustainer of the world, totally independent of human activity and without the need of other gods. This is God’s world, and his alone! This story describes human existence as anchored in the nature and activity of God.
The order that God brings into chaos extends beyond the cycles of seasons. While some of the more recent translations have "every kind of" plant and animal in these verses, the older translation here is probably better: "after its kind." That is, there is a stability even associated with the fertility of plants and animals. Fertility was especially Ba’al’s domain, and yet the writer affirms as strongly as he can that it is God who establishes the boundaries and limits of fertility of the earth. The plants and animals that inhabit God’s world all produce "after their kind." If one plants a peach seed it is going to produce a peach tree. This is a way to talk about a stability of the world that is anchored in God’s creation. God created it to be so. They don’t have to perform magical acts when they plant a peach seed in order to get a peach tree. That’s simply how God’s world works.
This idea of a world ordered by God who himself sets the limits and boundaries of his creation will become a fundamental principle for the Israelite conception of God and human relationship to God. The idea of boundaries and limits as part of the created order will provide the basis for the Israelites to develop concepts of law and morality that provide them with principles by which to live in God’s world as God’s people. Some of those later laws seem strange to us from a modern perspective. For example, the law codes in Deuteronomy prohibit sowing two kinds of seed in the same field, or wearing clothes made of two kinds of cloth (22:9-11) Yet those are very practical attempts to apply this fundamental principle that there are boundaries in the world that define human existence under God, that there are some boundaries that should not be crossed and some things that should not be mixed. That idea will play out in various ways in the rest of Scripture.
All of this is a very powerful and deliberate frontal attack on the idea of Ba’al worship that so captivated the Israelites. Every major premise of the Ba’al myth is rejected and that role assigned to God. There are several implications for this from this text and from that cultural context, implications that may have some application to us as well.
First, it affirms that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the world. As such, there is a stability to the world that does not depend on human action and will not yield to human manipulation. It is God’s world, not ours, and we will never be able to control it. That certainly does not exclude the endeavors of science to understand the world as God creates it, nor does it eliminate technology as a means to enable us to live in it. In fact, it encourages such investigations as the way to understand God’s creation (this dimension is a major part of the Old Testament wisdom traditions, especially in Proverbs). But it does suggest a certain humility and respect in the enterprise that prevents a self-sufficient arrogance in which we assume that we no longer need God as Creator.
Second, there is a clear rejection of any other controlling force with which God would have to share his world. There is nothing here but God. He has no rivals, no other gods with which to share his power in the world. True, there will be times in the biblical text, even later in this same passage, where the Israelites will conceptualize God in metaphors that describe him as king presiding over a heavenly court, much like Ba’al or Marduk were described as presiding over the council of all the gods. Yet, here where the most profound affirmations about the nature of God are made, there are no other gods. This provides us with a different model for God and his activity in the world than the one popular in mythological and magical conceptions in which one god is locked in mortal combat with another god for control of the world. It is not enough to say that the outcome of the battle is certain; there is simply no such conception of a battle allowed here.
Third, the idea of boundaries and limits within the confines of an ordered world is a significant concept for the ancient world, as it is in ours. If the world is orderly, and God acts in orderly ways, then he is not a capricious God that will himself introduce chaos into the world. In fact, he is the only source of order and stability, of shalom (peace, well-being) in the world. Likewise, humans beings will have some responsibility to live within the boundaries that God as Creator has set in the world. That is not a direct topic of this passage, but it will soon emerge as a crucial element. Trying to live outside the boundaries, erasing the boundaries God has set, or trying to create new ones of our own making will have devastating consequences, because that will threaten to unleash chaos into the world once again. We will quickly learn in this unfolding story that humans cannot create in God’s world (they cannot bring order), but they can destroy (they can bring chaos).
Finally, one other feature of this text is important for us to notice. God repeatedly affirms that his creation is good. Because of tremendous influence from certain philosophical ideas through the centuries, most notably from Augustine beginning in the 4th century AD, the idea has developed that the physical world and everything in it, including humanity, is inherently evil. Without going into all the origins of that idea, it is enough to say from this text that the biblical perspective is quite the opposite. Since the physical world is created by God, and it is God’s world, it is good.
That is not to say that sin has not taken a toll on God’s world, and in many ways has perverted and marred the goodness of the world. We will see that unfolding in this story all too soon. But nowhere does Scripture present the idea that the physical world is inherently evil. It has been corrupted by sin, but it is good. The eschatological vision, the vision for the future, throughout the Bible is not that the world will be destroyed because it is evil, but that it will be redeemed because it is good (we will deal with this issue more directly in Gen 6). It will be transformed and restored. That’s why even in the Apocalypse of John (Revelation), as well as other places, the writers speak of a "new" world, not new in the sense of the old one destroyed and replaced by a different one, but of the old one transformed and renewed to the state God intended. Paul can even say in Romans (8:18-25) that all creation groans for its redemption, which is another way of expressing this idea.
We cannot here explore all the implications of this concept, but it has some profound implications not only for how we view the physical world, but for how we view ourselves as part of that world. It suggests that God doesn’t need to start over with the world, or with us, but rather works with the world the way it is because there is still a goodness there. The world, and we, are redeemable because we are God’s creation! That idea begins to unfold more clearly in the following verses and chapters.