Genesis, Creation and Ancient Interpreters: The Beginning


#Introduction

Genesis 1:1

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” You might think this is pretty straightforward, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

Thanks to the creation texts now known to us from other Mesopotamian cultures, readers today understand that “in the beginning” probably does not mean “at the very outset”—where there was first “nothing” and then God brought all things into being from nothing. (For example, see John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, where he argues that Genesis 1 refers not to the origins of the material universe, but to how those pre-existing materials are now designed to function by God.) Today, most scholars translate Genesis 1:1 “When God began creating” or something like that.

Ancient interpreters were also drawn to the first words of the Bible, but for different reasons. They knew nothing of these other ancient Mesopotamian stories. Instead they felt that, even if left to itself, the phrase “in the beginning” requires some explanation.

Some ancient interpreters felt that Genesis 1:1 couldn’t actually be about the beginning: God must have been creating even before, which is what several other passages in the Old Testament suggest.

One example is Proverbs 8, especially verses 22-31. There we read that Wisdom was the first of God’s works (v. 22) that God brought forth before the world began—before oceans, springs, mountains, hills, earth, fields, or dust (vv. 23-26). In fact,

I [Wisdom] was there when he set the heavens in place,
When he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
When he established the clouds above
And fixed securely the fountains of the deep… (vv. 27-28).

The passage continues like this for a few more verses. In Proverbs, Wisdom is a personified female figure. Genesis doesn’t talk about any of this, which gave a number of ancient interpreters pause to wonder whether Genesis 1:1 really tells the whole story.

Hence, we read the following:

One of our ancestors, Solomon [the assumed author of Proverbs], said more clearly and better that wisdom existed before heaven and earth, which agrees with what has been said [by Greek philosophers].

Wisdom existed before Genesis 1:1. Note also this author’s concern to help align the Bible with current thinking at the time. Such an effort is not simply a modern issue but has been with us for a long, long time.

Another ancient interpreter, Philo of Alexandria (about 20 B.C. to A.D. 50), writes, “Wisdom is older than the creation…of the whole universe” (On the Virtues, 62).

For these and other ancient interpreters, despite what “in the beginning” seems to mean when taken on its own, the Bible itself forces one to reconsider. The “plain meaning” of this text was hardly plain to them at all.

For us today, here is a thought to ponder. We may not agree with how these interpreters handled Proverbs 8, but how should we handle it?

#Wisdom is Creator

For some early interpreters, Wisdom was not just the first of God’s works, but actually involved somehow in the act of creation. That is one way of handling the absence of any reference to Wisdom along with the other created things in Genesis 1. She was creating right along with God.

For example, the Jewish philosopher and biblical interpreter Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. to A.D. 50) writes,

And who is to be considered the daughter of God but Wisdom, who is the firstborn mother of all things (Questions in Genesis 4:97).

Wisdom is firstborn, similar to what we see in Proverbs 8:22, but she is also the mother of all things. Wisdom has a creative role.

Some interpreters found a clever way of “seeing” Wisdom in Genesis 1:1, by associating her with the word “beginning.” Remember that in Proverbs 8:22 God made Wisdom “the beginning of his works.” “Beginning” is the same Hebrew word in Genesis 1:1. Some early interpreters saw this as a “hook” to bring the Wisdom of Proverbs 8 into Genesis 1:1.

This move is seen in two Targums to Genesis 1:1:

With wisdom did God create and perfect the heavens and the earth (Fragment Targum to Genesis 1:1)

In the beginning with wisdom did God create (Targum Neophyti to Genesis 1:1)

It is not clear whether wisdom is personified in these Targums, but that is neither here not there. In the minds of these interpreters, there was a need to see wisdom in Genesis 1 but not as a created being. “Beginning” is the hook that allows it.

Philo, never one to shy away from creative interpretations, went a little further. He said that “beginning” was one of Wisdom’s names.

By using different names for it, Moses indicates that the exalted, heavenly wisdom has many names: he calls it “beginning,” “image,” and “appearance of God.” (Allegorical Interpretations 1:43)

Other ancient interpreters went further and equated God and Wisdom: to speak of one is to speak of the other. The Wisdom of Solomon (early first century A.D.) gives a lengthy overview of Israel’s history. Whatever God did in the Old Testament, this author said Wisdom did. For example, it was Wisdom who delivered Israel from Egypt (10:15-21). This author is not pitting Wisdom against God. He is saying that “Wisdom” is one way of talking about the God of the Old Testament.

These different takes on “wisdom” were all generated by ancient interpreters trying to account for things like Proverbs 8 and the absence of any reference to wisdom in Genesis. Ancient interpreters saw that Wisdom “needed” to be either created prior to anything else or somehow be part of the creation process. They simply filled in what the Bible left unsaid.

We are not that Different

As much as we today might look at this imaginative approach as subjective and uncontrolled, ancient interpreters felt they were doing precisely what God wanted them to. Actually, these ancient interpreters felt that, by leaving things unsaid, God was actually inviting them to “fill in the gaps.”

But before we are too hard on these interpreters for “making things up,” we need to take the log out of our own interpretive eye first. We might agree or disagree with what ancient interpreters said about wisdom, but we should not be too hard on them for filling in the gaps. We also fill in the gaps when we read. Let me give one example.

If you talk to anyone who has grown up familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth, they will be able to recount the story with ease. Mary rides into Bethlehem on a donkey, led by Joseph. She is about to give birth but one insensitive innkeeper after another turns them away. They make their way to a manger, and after Jesus is born, the three wise men come and present him with gifts, surrounded by farm animals.

This is very familiar, but the problem is that much of this is not really in the text but in the “gaps.” Read Luke 2:1-7. There is no donkey, no mean innkeeper(s), no manger (rather a feeding trough), no three wise men (no number is not given, let alone the traditional names of Melchior, Caspar, and Belthasar), no farm animals.

We fill in the gaps, too. Surely, Mary could not have walked to Bethlehem in her condition: she rode a donkey. Surely the innkeeper(s) must have been cranky not to take in a pregnant woman, so we make them out to be surly. (Truth be told, Jerusalem must have been overflowing with people due to the census ordered by Augustus. Who knows how many people had to be turned away.) Surely, a feeding trough implies a farm setting with animals and all, so we supply them. Surely, the fact that three gifts were given—gold, frankincense and myrrh—implies that there were three wise men. We even give them names, to boot.

Whatever ancient interpreters might have made up, at least they were typically very conscious of what they were doing and very intentional in how they did it. We today are not always as self-conscious about what we say the Bible says.

Here is something to think about. How much of what you see in the creation stories in Genesis is in the text and how much of it is not? And listen to others when they talk about the creation stories. To what extent are they reading the text or reading into it? Then before you get too critical, read the creation stories again and take note of the “gaps” in the text (such as, “Where did Cain get his wife from?”). We all fill them in. How do you fill those gaps, and why do you fill them the way you do?

If you enter into that process, you will have entered the long and honored history of biblical interpretation, where neither the questions nor even some of the answers are all that new.

#Let There Be Light

A number of interpreters seem to suggest that this light allowed God’s creative work to be seen. Of course, the question we might ask is “seen by whom?” since God is the only one at the dawn of time who is there to see anything and he could do perfectly well without needing any light. Apparently, that issue didn’t seem to interest these early interpreters; they focused instead on the function of the light in Genesis 1:3. It is a light created by God to illuminate his creative work.

So, for example, Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (1:27) writes, “God commanded that there be light. And when this had come about, he considered all of the matter.” Similarly in 4 Ezra 6:40 we read that God “commanded that a ray of light be brought forth from your treasuries, so that your works might appear.”

Although not a Second Temple text, the Babylonian Talmud (Hagigah 12a) says, “With the light that God created on the first day one could see from one end of the world to the other.” The “one” seeing is certainly God, and this text implies that the light “allowed” God to see what he was creating. Likewise, in Enoch 25:3 God says that the light “revealed all the creation which I had thought up to create. And I saw that it was good.” Along with the others, this writer also seems to be saying that it was the light of day one that enabled God to see that “it was good.”

Sun and Moon Light before there was a Sun or Moon

Other interpreters took Genesis 1:3 in another direction. They made the understandable connection between the light in day one and the heavenly bodies that produced light in day four. Even though the heavenly bodies were not yet formed, their light already existed. (Incidentally, the moon was considered a source of light in Genesis 1:16, since the ancient Israelites did not know that it reflected the sun’s light. Hence, Genesis 1:16 refers to the moon as a “lesser light.”)

Even though there is nothing explicit in Genesis 1 to connect the light of day one and the heavenly bodies of day four, it was inviting nevertheless—in part because it helps address a problem many Bible readers even today ask themselves: how can there be evening and morning before there was a sun? The answer given is that the light that would come from the heavenly bodies was already in existence. In fact, the light of day one was for some interpreters the very source of the light later given off by the heavenly bodies.

So, for example, Jubilees 2:2 says that on day one “both evening and night” were “prepared in the knowledge of his [God’s] heart.” Ephraem, on his commentary on Genesis (at 9:2), says that the sun, moon, and stars, were fashioned from the light of day one. Philo (On the Creation 31 and 55) says that the light of day one was of a higher order than the stars and therefore the source of the starlight to come.

These interpretations of Genesis 1:3 do not sit well with modern sensibilities—especially the first example, which implies that God turned a light on to see what he was doing. Modern biblical commentators tend to look at the light of Genesis 1:3 as God’s initial act of bringing order to chaos. Darkness is part of the pre-existing chaotic condition of the cosmos (along with water in v. 2). God’s first move is to subdue it by introducing light.

There may also be an anti-Mesopotamian polemic at work here. The sun, moon, and stars tended to be deified in the ancient Near East. The light of day one, however, is not dependent on these divine heavenly bodies. Israel’s God simply pushes aside the darkness without any help, thus demonstrating his complete control over the cosmos.

I think this modern explanation is much better than what the ancients proposed. But we should resist the temptation to look down on these ancient interpreters and simply point out flaws. These ancient interpreters remind us today that Genesis 1:3 requires some explanation. Even if our answers are different from ancient ones, we are all agreed that the text deserves our careful attention.

#What about Angels?

God Made Angels according to Psalm 104

What made the matter more pressing for the ancient interpreters was Psalm 104. Verses 2-6 list some of God’s acts at creation, and in the middle is a reference to angels:

You stretched out the heavens like a tent,
You set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
You make the clouds your chariot,
You ride on the wings of the wind
You make the winds your angels,
Fire and flame your ministers.
You set the earth on its foundations.
So that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
The waters stood above the mountains (verses 2-6).

In this account of creation we read “you make the winds your angels.” In Hebrew,malakh can mean “angels” or “messengers.” It is very likely that this simply meant that the wind, along with lightning (“fire and flame” in the next line), does God’s bidding or something to that effect. However, since malakh also commonly means angels in the Old Testament, early interpreters took this as an indication that God created angels at the beginning. It was now up to them to discover that message in the creation story of Genesis.

Angels in Genesis 2:1

Ancient interpreters found in Genesis 2:1 one way of connecting the creation of angels to Genesis:

Then the heavens and earth were finished, and all of their host.

This is a summary statement for the first creation story in Genesis 1. In 1:1 the plan to create the heavens and earth is announced and subsequently completed; but 2:1 says a little bit more than 1:1. It adds “host.” What does that mean?

Some early interpreters took this to mean that angels were created sometime during the six days of creation in Genesis 1, even though they weren’t mentioned there explicitly.

It seems pretty clear from the context that “host” refers to whatever God had made to occupy the heavens and the earth. Hence, the NIV has “and all their vast array” and the NRSV “and all their multitude.” The actual Hebrew word is tsaba’, and elsewhere in the Old Testament it is often used this way (Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 33:6). Other places it seems to refer specifically to the stars (e.g., Daniel 8:10; Zephaniah 1:5).

However, like malakh in Psalm 104, tsaba’ has multiple meanings in the Old Testament. It can also refer to an angelic group of some sort. For example, 1 Kings 22:19 reads: “Then Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord; I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him.’” Again in Psalm 148:2 we read: “Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all hishosts.”

Even though in context “host” in Genesis 2:1 refers to all the things created in the six days (or perhaps stars), the word tsaba’ raised another distinct possibility for early interpreters. Since tsaba’ can mean “angels,” reasoned the ancient interpreters, perhaps that meaning is embedded in Genesis 2:1 as well.

Angels in Genesis 1

With that in mind, all that was left for these interpreters to do was to find more precisely where in Genesis 1 these angels were actually created. Even though Genesis 1 does not mention the creation of angels, a number of interpreters included them among God’s works in the six days.

Early interpreters did not all agree on precisely where in the six-day sequence to place the creation of angels. It seemed logical that they were created before humans. Hence, we read in Sirach 16:26-30:

When the Lord created his “created ones” [angels] in the beginning, their portions he allotted to them; He established their activities for all time, and their dominions forever. They neither hunger not grow weary, and they do not abandon their tasks. They do not crowd one another, and they never disobey his word. Then the Lord looked upon the earth and filled it with good things.

Angels came first, before any other created thing.

Other interpreters were more specific. For example, the book of Jubilees 2:2 connects the creation of angels specifically to Genesis 1:2. The hook is the phrase “spirit of God,” which was interpreted to refer to angels. Augustine, in his City of God 11:9, admits that Genesis is not explicit about the creation of angels, but, it is possible, he says, that they are alluded to in the “heavens” of verse 1 or the “light” of verse 3. The solutions differ, but all are trying to address the problem of where in Genesis 1 the creation of angels is mentioned.

Still other interpreters found the creation of angels in day two when the firmament was created. Since angels resided “up there” somewhere, perhaps they were created along with the firmament. For example, one of the Targums (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 1:26) says explicitly that the angels were created on day two.

Just to round out the discussion, a later rabbinic text Genesis Rabba 1:3 places the creation of angels on day five. Why? Because that is when God created winged birds, and in Isaiah 6:2 we read of angels with two wings who fly about.

As with other examples we have looked at in previous weeks, the Bible itself raises a question without providing a clear answer. Modern readers may say that Genesis simply is not concerned with the creation of angels and leave it at that. I think that is the correct answer, but such an answer did not satisfy early interpreters, especially given what they read in Psalm 104. Even though Genesis is silent, there were enough clues for ancient interpreters to invite them to read more deeply.

For any of us today who might be interested in the same question, these ancient interpreters make for interesting conversation partners.

#Who is “Us”?

The Problem

Why the plural? There are two problems here. The obvious problem is that this could easily imply that there are other divine creatures who share in the image and likeness that God says to bestow on humanity. In other words, it sounds like there are multiple heavenly beings on God’s level. Second, verse 27 reverts to the singular: “So created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It might be tempting for readers today to say that the singular in verse 27 neutralizes the plural of verse 26, but that was certainly not good enough for ancient interpreters who took every word of the Bible with utmost seriousness. The plural in v. 26 means something and the aim of interpreters was to find out what.

The modern explanation, based on our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian religions, is that “us” refers to a heavenly court over which Yahweh presides. Genesis 1:26 would not be the only place in the Old Testament where this appears. For example, in 1 Kings 22:19, Yahweh is sitting on his throne with “the host of heaven” standing around him. Also, in Job 1, God is holding court with the “sons of God” (that is, heavenly beings of some sort).

The modern view is certainly correct, but it was unknown among biblical interpreters until recently. Also, speaking of a divine court of some sort as in 1 Kings or Job is one thing. But Genesis 1:26 says something more: these beings are consulted at creation and share in God’s nature enough so that humankind would be made in their image and likeness. That is a much harder pill to swallow, both for the ancient interpreters and for us.

Throughout history, various explanations have been offered. A common Christian interpretation, especially in the early church, was that this is a reference to the Trinity. The fact that the Hebrew word for God is grammatically plural (‘elohim) only fed that idea. The problem with this is that a three-in-one God would have meant nothing to ancient Israelites, whereas a heavenly court would have meant something.

Other interpreters have suggested that the plural refers to God speaking to himself or perhaps using the royal “we”. Most scholars today reject these explanations because they seem forced, especially in light of the ancient Near Eastern context mentioned above.

In any event, none of these explanations were self-evident to ancient interpreters. They sought answers elsewhere.

Ancient Solutions

Some interpreters called upon a figure we saw in a previous post: Wisdom [link]. For example, the Wisdom of Solomon 9:2 explicitly connects Wisdom to the forming of humankind, as do a number of other texts. Based on what we saw in that earlier post, Wisdom is an obvious candidate, since she was along side God at the beginning (Proverbs 8:22-31).

Of course, this is hardly explicit in Genesis, and so other interpreters sought other explanations. Some thought “us” meant that God consulted with his angels, for example Genesis Rabba 8:8. This certainly accounts for the plural, but it also comes dangerously close to saying that angels were involved in the creative process somehow.

This may have been what drove other interpreters to make it very clear that God did not receive help from anyone, angels included. A document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hymn to the Creator (11QPsa), says that when God showed the angels his creation, they rejoiced because “he showed them what they had not previously known.” 4 Ezra 3:4 is very explicit when it says that God created the earth “without help.” Likewise, Josephus argues in Against Apion that God created “not with hands, not with toil, not with assistants, of whom he had no need.” All of these comments seem to be directed at maintaining some singular sense to “us.”

Genesis Rabbah 8:8, cited above, takes an entirely different—and entertaining—approach by scripting a delightful exchange between Moses and God. When Moses was writing down the words of Genesis at God’s direction and got to the passage of 1:26, Moses said, “Master of the Universe! Why should you give support to heretics?” God answered, “Let anyone who wishes to go astray go astray.” God said “us” in order to test peoples’ faith!

Ancient interpreters had their way of handling it and modern interpreters have theirs. But all agree that “let us make” needs to be explained somehow.

#Before Creation

Previously we have seen some examples of how ancient interpreters read Genesis. They were very “active” readers; they would dialogue with the text, ask it questions, and seek clarification. They would ask questions like “Why doesn’t Genesis talk about the creation of angels?” or “Why doesn’t Genesis mention Wisdom’s role like we see in Proverbs?”

These kinds of questions were not threatening to ancient interpreters. Quite the opposite: instead they thought of them as invitations by God to engage the text more carefully.

To remind our readers, I would like to review why these ancient interpreters are worth taking the time to look at.

  1. Ancient interpreters regularly pick up on real interpretive problems and challenges in the biblical text that tend to pass us by. We benefit from their close reading by becoming close readers ourselves.
  2. Paying attention to the interpretive challenges of Genesis corrects the notion that the meaning of the creation story is “obvious” and that debates over what it means is nothing or than making obscure what is plain.

In other words, watching ancient interpreters helps us read more closely and to do so more humbly. It hopefully opens up conversations about what the Bible is saying rather than closing them down.

Now we continue looking at Genesis 1 from an ancient point of view. An issue that has long attracted attention is whether anything already existed before the creation of the world. Again, from a modern point of view, knowing what we know about creation stories from ancient Mesopotamia, Genesis 1 is a story of ordering chaos, which is depicted in Genesis 1:2 as a dark, watery mass. There was “something” there where God began forming the cosmos in Genesis 1.

Don’t get sidetracked on this point. Ancient Jewish interpreters could not have been expected to pick up on this specific point. But they were still wondering whether there was anything around before the vents described in Genesis 1. Many seemed to think there was.

For example, things like Torah and the Temple—those central elements of Israelite and later Jewish identity—were surely not merely “creations” like everything else. Law and worship existed somehow before mundane things like mountains and beasts of the field.

This “had” to be so, as early interpreters picked up on some passages in the Old Testament that helped them establish their case.

For example, Psalm 11:4 speaks of Yahweh’s “holy temple” in heaven. In fact, according to Exodus 25:9, the tabernacle (the moveable precursor to the Temple) was to be made according to the “pattern” that God would show Moses. The conclusion to be drawn is that there is a Temple up there somewhere, a Temple that is not mentioned among the creative acts of God in Genesis 1 because it existed beforehand.

Hence, you had ancient interpreters making explicit what is implicit. The Wisdom of Solomon, a book we have met already in previous weeks, refers to the tabernacle as a “copy” of what God had prepared “from the beginning” (9:8), before God made Paradise (according to 2 Baruch 4:3).

Even though Genesis makes no mention of such a heavenly, pre-existent Temple/tabernacle, early interpreters picked up on other biblical clues such as Psalm 11:4 and Exodus 25:9, which speak of a heavenly sanctuary and concluded that it was a preexistent sanctuary.

Some early interpreters even thought the Garden of Eden existed before the world’s creation. As with the sanctuary, the reason for drawing this conclusion seems to be a verse in the Old Testament, but this time it seems to be based on a misunderstanding of a verse.

Genesis 2:8 says that God planted a garden in Eden miqqedem. That is the Hebrew phrase, and it is normally (and correctly) understood today as “in the east.” The Greek Septuagint, Philo, and Josephus took it that way, too. However, one possible meaning of this phrase is “of old,” which is how other interpreters took it, for example one of the Targums (Aramaic translations) and the Vulgate, and so translated the verse something like “a garden in Eden previously” or “from the beginning.” This led other interpreters to make more explicit comments, that the garden was planted “before the earth appeared” (2 Esdras 3:6), or “2000 years before the world was created” (Targum Neophyti to Genesis 3:24).

It all came down to a verse that was misunderstood.

Another type of example concerns the Law of Moses, the Torah. God gave the law to Moses, but surely something so central to Israel was not an afterthought. Rather, it was a reflection of God’s will—his character—and so to know the law was to know the mind of God. Hence, some reasoned that it was in God’s mind long before, even before the creation of the world.

The Bible does not actually say that the Law of Moses preexisted creation, but one can see why early Jewish interpreters would have thought it to be important. So, the second century B.C. apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus handles it this way: that author equates Wisdom, which existed before creation according to Proverbs 8, with “the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us” (Ecclesiasticus 24:23). In other words, law is a form of wisdom, and so is preexistent. Similarly the first century Jewish philosopher Philo equated the word by which God created in Genesis 1 with Torah.

What these examples show at the very least is that the story told in Genesis 1 was not considered a complete story that accounted for all there is. There were gaps that needed to be filled. Things that were important to faithful Jews—like law, sanctuary, not to mention wisdom and angels (which we have looked at in previous posts)—are not mentioned but still need to be accounted for somehow, whether as part of creation (as with angels) or prior to creation (law, sanctuary, and Eden). These were questions ancient interpreters were asking, and they searched for answers in scripture.


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About the Authors

  • Pete Enns

    Pete Enns

    Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. He is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for BioLogos and author of many books and commentaries, including Inspiration and IncarnationThe Evolution of Adam, and The Bible Tells Me So. His most recent book is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs.

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