The “Cosmogonic” Form of Genesis 1

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This three-part series is drawn from an article entitled “The Narrative Form of Genesis 1: Cosmogonic, Yes; Scientific, No,” originally published in 1984 in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (now Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith). It is reprinted with permission. The ideas in this essay are drawn from Hyers’ excellent book The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science For a helpful explanation of where Hyers' views fit in the spectrum of Genesis 1 interpretation, check out this 2012 article by Ted Davis.

Babylonian Map of the World, c.600 BC. The ancient Israelites' conception of the universe was very similar to the Babylonian world-map illustrated here.

A basic mistake through much of the history of interpreting Genesis 1 is the failure to identify the type of literature and linguistic usage it represents. This has often led, in turn, to various attempts at bringing Genesis into harmony with the latest scientific theory or the latest scientific theory into harmony with Genesis. Such efforts might be valuable, and indeed essential, if it could first be demonstrated (rather than assumed) that the Genesis materials belonged to the same class of literature and linguistic usage as modern scientific discourse.

A careful examination of the 6-day account of creation, however, reveals that there is a serious category-mistake involved in these kinds of comparisons. The type of narrative form with which Genesis 1 is presented is not natural history but a cosmogony. It is like other ancient cosmogonies in the sense that its basic structure is that of movement from chaos to cosmos. Its logic, therefore, is not geological or biological but cosmological. On the other hand it is radically unlike other ancient cosmogonies in that it is a monotheistic cosmogony; indeed it is using the cosmogonic form to deny and dismiss all polytheistic cosmogonies and their attendant worship of the gods and goddesses of nature. In both form and content, then, Genesis I reveals that its basic purposes are religious and theological, not scientific or historical.

Different ages and different cultures have conceptually organized the cosmos in different ways. Even the history of science has offered many ways of organizing the universe, from Ptolemaic to Newtonian to Einsteinian. How the universe is conceptually organized is immaterial to the concerns of Genesis. The central point being made is that, however this vast array of phenomena is organized into regions and forms—and Genesis 1 has its own method of organization for its own purposes—all regions and forms are the objects of divine creation and sovereignty. Nothing outside this one Creator God is to be seen as independent or divine.

In one of the New Guinea tribes the entire universe of known phenomena is subdivided into two groupings: those things related to the red cockatoo, and those related to the white cockatoo. Since there are both red and white cockatoos in the region, these contrasting plumages have become the focal points around which everything is conceptually organized. The religious message of Genesis relative to this "cockatoo-cosmos" would not be to challenge its scientific acceptability, but to affirm that all that is known as red cockatoo, and all that is known as white cockatoo, is created by the one true God.

Or, one may take a similar example from traditional China, where all phenomena have, from early antiquity, been divided up according to the principles of Yang and Yin. Yang is light; yin is darkness. Yang is heaven; yin is earth. Yang is sun; yin is moon. Yang is rock; yin is water. Yang is male; yin is female. It would be inappropriate to enter into a discussion of the scientific merits of the Chinese system relative to the organization of Genesis 1; for what Genesis, with its own categories, is affirming is that the totality of what the Chinese would call Yang and Yin forces are created by God who transcends and governs them all.

There are certain uniquenesses in the 6-day approach to organizing the cosmic totality, spatially and temporally, but the point of these uniquenesses is not to provide better principles of organization, or a truer picture of the universe, in any scientific or historical sense. It is to provide a truer theological picture of the universe, and the respective places of nature, humanity and divinity within the religious order of things. In order to perform these theological and religious tasks, it was essential to use a form which would clearly affirm a monotheistic understanding of the whole of existence, and decisively eliminate any basis for a polytheistic understanding.

The Cosmogonic Form

The alternative to the "creation model" of Genesis was obviously not an "evolutionary model." Its competition, so to speak, in the ancient world was not a secular, scientific theory of any sort, but various religious myths of origin found among surrounding peoples: Egyptian, Canaanite, Hittite, Assyrian, Babylonian, to name the most prominent. The field of engagement, therefore, between Jewish-monotheism and the polytheism of other peoples was in no way the field of science or natural history. It was the field of cosmology which, in its ancient form, has some resemblances to science, but is nevertheless quite different.

Given this as the field of engagement, Genesis 1 is cast in cosmological form—though, of course, without the polytheistic content, and in fact over against it. What form could be more relevant to the situation, and the issues of idolatry and syncretism, than this form? Inasmuch as the passage is dealing specifically with origins, it may be said to be cosmogonic. Thus, in order to interpret its meaning properly, and to understand why its materials are organized in this particular way, one has to learn to think cosmogonically, not scientifically or, historically—just as in interpreting the parables of Jesus one has to learn to think parabolically. If one is especially attached to the word "literal," then Genesis 1 "literally" is not a scientific or historical statement, but is a cosmological and cosmogonic statement which is serving very basic theological purposes. To be faithful to it, and to faithfully interpret it, is to be faithful to what it literally is, not what people living in a later age assume or desire it to be.

Various patterns, themes and images used in Genesis 1 are familiar to the cosmogonic literatures of other ancient peoples. To point this out does not detract in the least from the integrity of Genesis. Rather, it helps considerably in understanding the peculiar character and concern of this kind of narrative literature. And it indicates more clearly where the bones of contention are to be located, and what the uniquenesses of the Genesis view of creation are.

The act of creation, for example, begins in Genesis 1:2 in a way that is very puzzling to modern interpreters, yet very natural to ancient cosmogonies: with a picture of primordial chaos. This chaos—consisting of darkness, watery deep and formless earth—is then formed, ordered, assigned its proper place and function, in short, cosmocized. Chaos is brought under control, and its positive features are made part of the cosmic totality.

If one is determined to interpret the account as a scientific statement, then one would need—to be consistent—to affirm several undesirable things. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever, whether from geology or astronomy, that the initial state of the universe was characterized by a great watery expanse, filling the universe. Nor is there any evidence that the existence of water precedes light (day 1) and sun, moon, and stars (day 4). Nor is there any evidence that the earth in a formless state precedes light (day 1), or sun, moon and stars (day 4). On the theological side, one would also be affirming—if this is to be taken completely literally that water is co-eternal with God, since nowhere does the account specifically speak of God as creating water. Day 2 refers to water as being separated by the creation of the firmament, and Day 3 only speaks of water as being separated from the earth in order that the formless earth may appear as dry land.

The only viable alternative is to recognize that Genesis 1 is intentionally using a cosmogonic approach, and to reflect on the logic of the account in its own cosmological terms—not in geological or biological or chronological terms. The account is not pre-scientific or un-scientific but non-scientific—as one may speak of poetry (unpoetically) as non-prose. This does not mean that the materials are in any sense irrational or illogical or fantastic. They are perfectly rational, and have a logic all their own. But that logic is cosmological, and in the service of affirmations that are theological.

So the issue is not at all, How is Genesis to be harmonized with modern science, or modern science harmonized with Genesis? That kind of question is beside the point, if by the question one is proposing to try to synchronize the Genesis materials with materials from the various fields of natural science: biology, geology, paleontology, astronomy, etc. That would presuppose that they are comparable—that they belong to the same type of literature, level of inquiry, and kind of concern. But they do not. Trying to compare them is not even like comparing oranges and apples. It is more like trying to compare oranges and orangutans.

The questions then, are: Why is this cosmogonic form being used, and how does a cosmogonic interpretation make sense of the passage?

Like anything else in biblical literature, the cosmogonic form was used because it was natural, normal and intelligible in that time period. For some, it has been an offense to call attention to ancient Near Eastern parallels of the Genesis materials. This approach has appeared to undermine acceptance of the Bible as a unique vehicle of divine revelation. Yet the Bible, obviously, does not speak with a divine language which, to say the least, would be unintelligible to all. The biblical authors necessarily used the language forms and literary phrases immediately present and available in Israel, which included materials available through the long history of interaction with surrounding peoples. They did not use a whole new vocabulary, or fresh set of metaphors and symbols, suddenly coined for the purpose or revealed on the spot. When one speaks of the Word of God, one must be careful not to suggest by this term that what is being delivered is some sacred language, complete with heavenly thesaurus and handbook of divine phrases, specially parachuted from above.

Jewish scripture abounds in literary allusion and poetic usage which bear some relation, direct or indirect, to images and themes found among the peoples with which Israel was in contact. An analogy may be drawn from contemporary English usage which contains innumerable traces of the languages and literatures, myths and legends, customs and beliefs, of a great many cultures and periods which have enriched its development. Thus one finds not only a considerable amount of terminology drawn from Greek, Latin, French. German. etc.—including the terms "term" and "terminology"—but references derived from the myths, legends, fables and fairy tales of many peoples: the Greek Fates, the Roman Fortune, the arrows of Cupid, Woden's day and Thor's day, and even Christmas and Easter.

The issue, then, is not where the language (Hebrew) and certain words and phrases came from, but the uses to which they are put, and the ways in which they are put differently, The cosmogonic form and imagery, in this case, is not chosen in order to espouse these other cosmogonies, or to copy them, or to ape them, or even to borrow from them, but precisely in order to deny them. Putting the issue in terms of "borrowing" or "influence" is to put matters in a misleading way. Various familiar motifs and phrasings to be found in surrounding polytheistic systems are being used, but in such a way as to give radical affirmation to faith in one God, a God who transcends and creates and governs all that which surrounding peoples worship as "god.”

Such a God, furthermore, is not only transcendent but immanent in a way that the gods and goddesses could not be. These divinities were neither fully transcendent nor fully immanent, for all were finite, limited, and localized, being associated with one aspect and region of nature. The gods and goddesses of light and darkness, sky and water, earth and vegetation, sun, moon and stars. each had their own particular abode and sphere of power. One or another divinity, such as Marduk of Babylon or Re of Egypt, might rise to supremacy in the pantheon and be exalted above every other name. But they were still restricted and circumscribed in their presence, power and authority.

The biblical affirmation of One God is decisively different from all finite and parochial attributions of divinity. In the words of the Apostle Paul, this God is "above all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:6). The very fact that God is ''above all" makes possible a God who is at the same time "through all and in all." Radical immanence presupposes radical transcendence. At the same time all things are in God, for apart from God they have no being; they do not exist. As Paul also says, citing a Greek poet: "He is not far from each one of us, for 'In him we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17:28).

Genesis 1 is, thus, a cosmogony to end all (polytheistic) cosmogonies. It has entered, as it were, the playing field of these venerable systems, engaging them on their own turf, with the result that they are soundly defeated. And that victory has prevailed, first in Israel, then in Christianity, and also Islam. and thence through most of subsequent Western civilization, including the development of Western science. Despite the awesome splendor and power of the great empires that successively dominated Israel and the Near East—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome— and despite the immediate influence of the divinities in whose names they conquered, these gods and goddesses have long since faded into oblivion, except for archeological, antiquarian or romantic interests. This victory belongs, in large part, to the sweeping and decisive manner with which the Genesis account applied prophetic monotheism to the cosmogonic question.

The Plan of Genesis 1

How, then, does an understanding of this cosmogonic form—as radically reinterpreted in Genesis—help in understanding the organization and movement of the passage?

The emphasis in a cosmogony is on the establishment of order (cosmos), and the maintenance of that order, and therefore upon the ultimate sources of power and authority. Given these concerns, there are three amorphous realities that are seen as especially threatening to order: the watery "deep," darkness, and the formless earth ("waste" and "void"). These potentially chaotic realities must be cosmocized. They are not, however, simply threatening or demonic, but rather ambiguous. They have a potential for good as well as evil, if controlled and placed in an orderly context. The particular organization and movement of Genesis 1 is readily intelligible when this cosmological problem, with which the account begins, is kept clearly in mind.

Water, for example, has no shape of its own. And, unchecked or uncontained, as in flood or storm or raging sea, water can destroy that which has form. Darkness, also, in itself has no form, and is dissolvent of form. Only with the addition of light can shapes and boundaries and delineations appear. Similarly, earth is basically formless—whether as sand, dust, dirt or clay. And it is doubly formless when engulfed by formless and form—destroying water and darkness.

These fundamental problems confronting the establishment and maintenance of an orderly cosmos, therefore, in the logic of the account, need to be confronted and accommodated first. The amorphousness and ambiguousness of water, darkness and formless earth must be dealt with in such a way as to restrain their negative potential and unleash their positive potential. Otherwise, it would be like building a house without giving careful consideration to potential threats in the region, such as the adjacent floodplain, or shifting sand.

The structure of the account, then, is that of beginning with a description of a three-fold problem (the chaotic potential of darkness, water and earth) which is given a solution in the first three days of creation. The first day takes care of the problem of darkness through the creation of light. The second clay takes care of the problem of water through the creation of a firmament in the sky to separate the water into the waters above (rain, snow, hail) and the waters below (sea, rivers, subterranean streams). The third day takes care of the problem of the formless earth by freeing earth from water and darkness, and assigning it to a middle region between light and darkness, sky and underworld.

This then readies the cosmos for populating these various realms in the next three days, like a house which has been readied for its inhabitants. In fact, the third day also takes care of providing food for its forthcoming residents through the creation of vegetation. We thus observe a symmetrical division of the account into three movements (Problem, Preparation, Population), each with three elements. The account could be read as if written in three parallel columns as shown in Table 1.

Table 1

The problem of the three "chaotic" forces is resolved in the first three days by circumscribing their negative potential and making use of their positive potential. As a result a harmonious context is established in preparation for the population of these three regions. Darkness is contained and counterbalanced by light; water is separated and confined to its proper spheres by the firmament; and the earth is demarcated from the waters, allowing dry land and vegetation to appear.

Thus, with everything readied and in order, the inhabitants of these three cosmicized regions are created and invited to take their proper places. The light and darkness of day one are populated by the sun, moon and stars of day four. The sky and waters of day two are populated by the birds and fish of day five. The earth and vegetation of day three make possible a population by the land animals and human beings of day six.

In this way of reading the account, the dilemmas that arise for a literalist (i.e., scientific and historical) interpretation disappear. The three problems, which are envisioned as difficulties for cosmicizing, are dealt with first, followed by a sketch of the way in which these cosmocized regions are then inhabited. This is the logic of the account. It is not chronological, scientific or historical. It is cosmological.

The procedure is not unlike that of a landscape painter, who first sketches in with broad strokes the background of the painting: its regions of light and darkness, of sky and water, and of earth and vegetation. Then within this context are painted birds and fish, land animals and human figures. It would be quite inappropriate for anyone to try to defend the artistic merit and meaning of the painting by attempting to show that the order in which the painting was developed was scientifically and historically "correct." That order is irrelevant to the significance of the painting as a whole and the attribution of its authorship. It is a painting of the totality. And the critical concern is to sketch in all the major regions and types of creatures, so as to leave no quarter that has not been emptied of its resident divinity, and no elements that have not been placed under the lordship of the Creator.




Hyers, Conrad. "The “Cosmogonic” Form of Genesis 1" N.p., 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 11 December 2017.


Hyers, C. (2015, January 22). The “Cosmogonic” Form of Genesis 1
Retrieved December 11, 2017, from /blogs/archive/the-cosmogonic-form-of-genesis-1

About the Author

Conrad Hyers

Conrad Hyers was Professor and Chairman of the Department of Religion, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota. He held a BA from Carson Newman College, a BD from Eastern Baptist Seminary, and a ThM and PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. He was author of The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith (Pilgrim Press, 1981), andThe Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (John Knox Press, December 1984). Dr. Hyers passed away on March 23, 2013.

More posts by Conrad Hyers