The Genesis of Everything, Part 3: The Purpose of Genesis 1
Today's entry was written by John P. Dickson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
Note: Today's post is the third of a four-part series by theologian, historian and Christian apologist Dr. John P. Dickson, dealing with the history and interpretation of Genesis 1. Dickson's paper first appeared in 2009 as "The Genesis of Everything: An historical account of the Bible’s opening chapter," at Christians in Science and Technology (ISCAST), an Australian organisation dedicated to exploring the interface between science and the Christian faith. As that title suggests, it urges us to treat the early chapters of Genesis as a literary and historical statement, and listen carefully to it on those terms.
In the previous post, Dr. Dickson examined the genre of Genesis 1. In today's post, he describes the purpose of Genesis 1.
The Purpose of Genesis 1
But genre is only half of the matter. Equally important is an appreciation of the historical purpose of Genesis.
As citizens of a scientific age we assume that any document which mentions the origins of the world must be concerned with the mechanics of those origins, that is, with how the universe was made. But that is surely anachronistic. One of the first rules of historical enquiry is: thou shalt not read contemporary assumptions into ancient texts. In the case of Genesis we absolutely must remember that this text was composed two and half thousand years before the scientific era, at a time when intellectuals were not even asking questions about the mechanics of creation.
Paganism and biblical ‘subversion’
So what is the purpose of this portion of Scripture, according to biblical historians? In a nutshell, the opening section of the Bible appears to have been written to provide a picture of physical and social reality that debunks the views held by pagan cultures of the time. In short, Genesis 1 is a piece of subversive theology.
To anyone familiar with the Old Testament this subversive, anti-pagan intent will come as no surprise. One of the golden threads of the Old Testament is its sustained critique of the pagan religions of Israel’s neighbours—the Egyptians, Canaanites and Babylonians. The first two of the Ten Commandments, for instance, are all about shunning the pagan deities of the ancient world.10 Moreover, the book of Psalms—the hymn book of ancient Jews—regularly and explicitly declares that the creation owes its existence not to the pagan gods but to Yahweh, the God of Israel.11 In Jeremiah 50:2 the Babylonian creator god, Marduk, is explicitly named and denounced. Given the prominence of this motif in the Old Testament it would be surprising if the Old Testament’s longest statement about creation did not take a swipe at pagan understandings of the universe.
We do not have to speculate about this. Through a stroke of very good fortune, scholars are now able to see just how the writer of Genesis went about his task of debunking his ancient rivals.
Enuma elish: a Babylonian Creation Myth
Just as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was about to be published (1858), archaeologists working in Mosul in Northwest Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) in the early 1850s discovered tablets almost three thousand years old (Hess 1994 pp. 3–26). On these tablets was written in cuneiform an account of creation held sacred by Israel’s near and dominant neighbours, the ancient Babylonians. Suddenly, we were in a position to compare Genesis 1 with a pagan creation tradition which, according to most scholars, predates the biblical account by several centuries.12
We now know that if you were raised in Babylonian culture of the second millennium BC your view of origins would have been based on a story that was as popular as our Santa Claus fable and as socially influential as Darwinism itself. The story came to be called Enuma elish, the opening words of the epic.13 To make a long, seven-tablet story short, Enuma elish narrates the violent adventures of the original family of the gods. Apsu and Tiamat, the father and mother of the gods, go to war against their offspring because of all the chaos the youngsters bring to their peaceful kingdom. Both divine parents are killed by the greatest of the junior warrior gods, Marduk, who goes on to fashion the universe out of the various bits and pieces of the vanquished gods.
As bizarre as all this sounds, stories like Enuma elish were critical expressions of ancient people’s understanding of the purpose and significance of life. Indeed, Enuma elish was so important in Babylon it was publicly recited in the capital every New Year’s day. It was their national mythic story. It was Christmas and ANZAC Day rolled into one.
The fascinating thing about all this is that Genesis 1 shares numerous thematic and stylistic features with the pagan myths scholars have uncovered in the last 150 years. Enuma elish provides the simplest point of comparison:
- Both Enuma elish and Genesis begin in the first paragraph with a watery chaos at the dawn of time. Instantly, then, we know we are in similar thought-worlds.
- Both stories proceed in seven movements: seven days in Genesis 1 and seven scenes written on seven tablets in Enuma elish.
- The narratives even share the same order of creation, beginning with the heavens, then the sea, then the earth, and so on.
- Both accounts climax with the creation of men and women, which occurs in the sixth scene or day in both accounts.
After initial speculation that Genesis had perhaps plagiarized pagan creation motifs,14 it soon dawned on scholars that what we find in Genesis 1 is philosophically antithetical to the message of these other myths. Historians soon realized something that they should already have expected given the criticism of pagan creation motifs found elsewhere in the Old Testament: Genesis 1 is a polemic against pagan cosmology and theology. Genesis uses stylistic elements of its pagan equivalents in order very cleverly to debunk the view of the world expressed in those traditions. The parallels constitute not an emulation or endorsement of paganism but a parody or subversion of it. Genesis storms onto the ancient Middle Eastern stage with guns blazing, so to speak, making profoundly controversial claims about God, the environment and the purpose of human life.15
Exactly how Genesis achieves these subversive aims is the concern of the remainder of the paper.
The Solitary God
The most prominent theme in Genesis 1 will have struck ancient pagan readers as a perverse novelty. The creation of the universe, says Genesis, was a solo performance. Behind the entire cosmos, in all its intricacy and variation, there is just one God. To give it a modern philosophical tag, Genesis 1 proclaims an uncompromising ‘monotheism’. It does this in a number of ways.
A striking introduction
Firstly, our text begins with a striking introduction: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ The writer does not bother to warm up his readers to the notion of one Creator; he puts it on the table up front. A single God, says Genesis, created not just this particular mountain or that particular constellation but the ‘the heavens and the earth’, which is the ancient way of saying ‘everything’.
A solo performance
Secondly, the chapter has just one performer. There is plenty of activity in the account—lots of speaking, making, seeing, separating, naming and so on—but only one actor. The second paragraph sets up the pattern well:
And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’. And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Gen 1:3-5)
Compared with other creation accounts of the time, Genesis 1 is a conspicuously lonely affair.
The use of ‘god’ instead of ‘Yahweh’
The third way the passage proclaims monotheism is subtle but highly effective, especially for ancient readers. It has to do with the use, or rather non-use, of God’s personal name. Pagan creation myths always named their gods so that readers could know which god did what. In the Babylonian Enuma elish no fewer than nine separate deities are named in the first two paragraphs.16
The ancient Jews also had a personal name for their god: ‘Yahweh’, or the more anglicized, ‘Jehovah’,17 and it appears many times throughout the rest of Genesis. What is fascinating is that of the 35 references in this chapter to Israel’s Lord not one employs the divine name. The author simply uses the noun ‘God’—elohim in Hebrew.18 The effect of this is to undercut any suggestion that Yahweh was simply a Hebrew member of the pagan pantheon. ‘There is not Yahweh and Apsu and Tiamat and so on’, says the author of Genesis. ‘There is just God.’ And by repeating the noun 35 times the writer makes his point loud and clear.
Coherence in Creation
A corollary of pagan polytheism was a belief in the essential incoherence or randomness of the universe. In Enuma elish, for example, the physical world is said to have been fashioned as an after-thought, out of the bloody carnage of the war of the gods. The creation, in this view, is ‘haphazard’ in origin and ‘tainted’ in character. This was the broad viewpoint of ancient societies.
By contrast, Genesis 1 insists upon the elegance and intention of creation, in other words, upon its coherence. The universe is not a mindless collection of unpredictable forces, but the ordered accomplishment of a single creative genius. Monotheism in the Creator, says Genesis, results in coherence in the creation. The theme is emphasized by the 1st-century Jewish intellectual Philo in his On the Creation. It is found at almost every point in the biblical chapter.
The number ‘7’ and wholeness
I have already mentioned the artful use of multiples of seven throughout the chapter. In accordance with Hebrew literary conventions, this underlines the ordered perfection of creation. Philo devotes 15 pages to the brilliance of the number seven. He begins:
I doubt whether anyone could adequately celebrate the properties of the number 7, for they are beyond all words. (Philo p90)19
The careful structure of the passage
A more obvious device is the careful literary structure of the passage. Each creative scene follows a deliberate four-fold pattern:
- a creative command (‘let there be light’, for example) followed by
- a report of the fulfilment of the command (‘and there was light’)
- an elaboration of creative detail (‘he separated the light from the darkness’) and, finally
- a concluding day-formula (‘and there was evening, and there was morning—the first day’).
This pattern carries on through the whole account. The effect of all this is to underline the order and coherence of creation.20
Repetition of the word ‘good’
The repeated affirmation of the ‘goodness’ of the creation serves the same point. Verses 4, 7, 12, 16, 21 and 25 tell us that what God made ‘was good’. The seventh and climactic reference in v.31 says that the creation ‘was very good’. One gets the impression that the author is trying to counter the low view of creation present in just about every pagan culture of the time.
The demystification of the heavens
The final contribution to this theme of coherence is particularly subversive in an ancient context. Many ancient societies worshipped the sun and moon as gods in their own right.21 Genesis 1, however, describes these heavenly bodies simply as ‘lights’—a big light for the day and a small one for the night:
And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.’ And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. (Gen. 1:14-16)
The author in fact refuses to use the normal Hebrew words for sun and moon, shamash and yarih, which may have been construed as divine names corresponding to Amon-Re in Egyptian tradition. These lights, moreover, are said to have been given by God to serve the inhabitants of the earth, rather than to be served by them. Anyone familiar with paganism will not have failed to see the significance of such comments.
The number symbolism, the careful structure, the affirmation of the creation’s ‘goodness’, and the demystification of the heavenly bodies, all combine to challenge pagan notions of the capricious nature of the physical world. The creation is not random or possessed by spiritual powers, says Genesis 1; it is the coherent masterpiece of a single creative genius.
10 Exodus 20:3-5 You shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
11 Psalm 95 1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD ... 3 For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. 4 In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. 5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Psalm 96 4 ... great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. 5 For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
12 For the dates of the documents and inscriptions in question see the relevant chapters in ‘I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood’ (Hess 1994).
13 The title comes from the opening words of the cuneiform text ‘When on high (enuma elish) ...’ The texts of various Mesopotamian myths, including Enuma elish, can be found in Dalley (Dalley 1992).
14 Leading the charge with the theory that Genesis was deeply dependent on the Babylonian myths was Herman Gunkel’s monograph of 1895 (Gunkel 1895). For an abridged English translation of the relevant parts of Gunkel’s study see Anderson (Anderson 1984 pp. 25-52).
15 Standard introductions to this theme in scholarship are found in Sarna (Sama 1970), Kapelrud (Kapelrud 1974) and Tsumura (Tsumara 1994 pp 3-26). A vigorous attempt to rebut the ‘majority view’ espoused above is found in Kaiser (Kaiser 1970 pp. 48-65).
16 Apsu, Tiamat, Lahmu, Lahamu, Ansar, Kisar, Anu, Nudimmud, and Mummu.
17 The name ‘Yahweh’ is represented in English Bibles by the word ‘Lord’, written in capital letters. This is rather unhelpful really because the word doesn’t mean ‘lord’ at all; it’s a personal name and was intended to be used as such.
18 Only in the introduction to the next section, in chapter 2:4, does the author name this Creator-God as Yahweh elohim, the God named Yahweh. This is such a striking feature of the text that some scholars have proposed that chapters one and two were written by different authors. The first they call the elohist because he preferred the generic word ‘god’ or elohim, and the second they call the yahwist because he preferred God’s personal name. The phenomenon is far more easily explained, as above.
19 His extraordinary account of the number 7 is found in On Creation 89-128.
20 This insight corresponds to that of the first century Jewish author, Philo, as mentioned at 1.1.
21 In fact, in Egypt, Amon-Re, the Sun-god, was said to rule the entire Egyptian pantheon, a collection of no fewer than 2000 deities.
In the final post of the series, Dr. Dickson examines the place of men and women in Genesis 1.
John Dickson is founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity. He has a degree in theology and a doctorate in ancient history, specializing in the birth of Christianity. An ordained Anglican minister he is also a Senior Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia), where he teaches a course on Christian origins. He has hosted two nationally televised documentaries (The Christ Files and Life of Jesus), authored over a dozen books and is a busy public speaker.