The Message of Genesis 1

One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts. They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty—and I will meditate on your wonderful works. (Psalm 145:4-5, NIV)

Understanding the historical and cultural context in which a book of the Bible was written often illuminates passages of scripture that otherwise would be mysterious. Through their knowledge of ancient languages and cultures, Bible scholars can help us to see how the ancient Hebrews would have understood the creation story in Genesis 1 and 2. What did the author of Genesis intend to communicate to his Hebrew audience? That is an important question, and biblical scholarship has been able to shed some light on the subject, as we’ll see.

Even if we think we understand what the human author meant, though, we must remember that the human author was not writing on his own. The writers of Scripture were divinely inspired (2nd Timothy 3:16) and they didn’t always understand everything that the Spirit of God was revealing to them. Consider the words of the prophet Daniel: “I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, ‘My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?’ He replied, ‘Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. … None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.’” (Daniel 12:8-10, NIV) Daniel did not fully comprehend what God revealed to him. The visions he saw were recorded in Scripture so that God could use those words to speak to future generations, long after Daniel’s lifetime. There are also examples in which Jesus used ancient scriptures to reveal new insights that the human authors of the Old Testament probably never anticipated.For example, in chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2) The prophet Isaiah had written those words about himself, apparently, since he made no indication that these verses were meant for someone else. Regardless of what Isaiah intended, however, Jesus reveals that the prophecy applies to himself: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) Moreover, it is interesting to note that Jesus only reads the first half of Isaiah 61:2, then rolls up the scroll and gives it back to the attendant. He deliberately omits the second half of the verse, which refers to “the day of vengeance of our God.” Clearly, Jesus is using this passage of scripture to reveal something new, something that the prophet Isaiah may not have anticipated. Likewise, I imagine that the ancient Hebrew people didn’t fully understand everything that God has revealed about His creative work.

It is widely recognized that the Bible contains references to ancient theories of the cosmos—theories that few, if any, Christians believe today. For example, in ancient Egypt and other civilizations of that era, people thought that the sky was a solid dome, perhaps made of glass or crystal, which supported an ocean above it. Rain was caused, they supposed, by openings in the dome that allowed water to leak through. Their theory also explained why the sky is the same color as the sea: the sky just is a sea. This idea shows up in Genesis 1:6-8, which describes God as separating oceans above and below a supporting structure:

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky… (Genesis 1:6-8, NRS)

The word rendered “dome” in this English translation is the Hebrew word raqiya`, which refers to a solid surface or supporting base. In some older English translations, like the King James Version, the word was translated “firmament,” derived from the Latin word firmamentum, which means a supporting structure.See here for a comparison of translations and here for more on the definition and biblical usage of the word raqiya`.

Examples like that are sometimes taken to discredit the Bible. The Bible contains scientifically inaccurate descriptions of nature and therefore, some say, it cannot be the true and authoritative word of God. However, as I emphasized earlier in this chapter, we must recognize the purpose of God’s communication in order to understand the true, intended meaning of Scripture. Consider the analogous scenario I mentioned previously, where I wake my children in the morning and tell them it’s time to get ready for school because “the sun is coming up.” I know full well that the apparent motion of the sun is really due to Earth’s rotation, but I’m not telling a lie when I describe the sun as “coming up.” I’m describing the sunrise from our naïve perspective and there’s nothing deceptive about doing so, since I’m not purporting to give a scientifically accurate account of the phenomenon. If my children respond by accusing me of geocentrism, I might chuckle at their cleverness, but their failure to heed my intended meaning would not be a sign of wisdom on their part.

Similarly, the Bible may use scientifically inaccurate descriptions to communicate important truths, just as people do in everyday conversations. It makes sense that God would describe his creative work to us in ways that we can relate to our own concepts and experiences, especially when His intended message has nothing to do with science. The human writers of scripture knew far less about the physical universe than we know today, and God revealed Himself to them in ways they could understand. This doesn’t make God a liar, and it doesn’t undermine the truth and authority of the Bible. The Holy Spirit can still speak to us when we attentively study the divinely-inspired words of Scripture. God’s word—the message He has communicated—is true, even when our human understanding falls short.

The opening chapter of Genesis paints an amazing picture of God’s sovereignty and goodness, but its true meaning is easy to miss if we ignore the historical context in which the book’s original audience—the ancient Hebrews—lived. The Hebrew people had lived as slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years before the prophet Moses led them out into the wilderness, where God revealed Himself to them. They were well-acquainted with the mythologies of Egypt. (Moses was also educated in the Egyptian tradition, undoubtedly, as he was raised by the pharaoh’s daughter.) So, to understand what the Genesis creation story meant to them, it is helpful to know a little about Egyptian mythology.

The Bible doesn’t say exactly when Genesis was written. Traditionally, Moses was presumed to be the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), since numerous scripture passages refer to these books collectively as the “Law of Moses” or “Book of Moses.” (See for instance 1st Kings 2:3; 2nd Kings 14:6, Ezra 6:18; Daniel 9:13; Malachi 4:4; Mark 12:26; Luke 2:22, 24:44; Acts 28:23; 1st Corinthians 9:9). On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t explicitly say that Moses wrote Genesis. Many Bible scholars believe—based on textual clues—that Genesis was written (or at least edited) centuries later, by Hebrew scribes who used older records and sacred writings as their source materials. Nevertheless, even if Genesis was compiled and edited long after Moses’ lifetime, some of the source materials clearly originated with Moses himself. (See Exodus 24:4, 34:27; Numbers 33:1-2; Deuteronomy 31:9-11.) Moreover, Jesus affirms that Moses authored some of the Hebrew scriptures (John 5:46), and the apostle Paul cites some specific verses of the Pentateuch as written by Moses (Romans 10:5, 10:19). In light of this evidence, it is reasonable to assume that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 originated around the time of Moses. I strongly suspect it was written by Moses himself. In any case, the writer was clearly familiar with the mythologies of ancient Egypt, as we’ll see.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the earth was completely surrounded by water. According to Egyptian myths, the primordial waters had always existed, and they extended endlessly in all directions: beyond the horizon, above the dome of the sky, and beneath the depths of the ground. The earth and its atmosphere were just a mound of mud and a bubble of air trapped within this limitless sea. The earth was finite and temporary; the waters were infinite and eternal.James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 130. Even the gods of Egyptian mythology had come from the waters and were contained within the waters.A variety of creation myths were popular in ancient Egypt. One myth said that the first god was Atum, who created himself from the waters and later engendered several other gods in various ways—for example by sneezing and spitting. Another myth personified the primordial waters as four pairs of deities, who represented different characteristics of the waters: the god Nu and his wife Naunet represented wateriness and inertness or inactivity; Huh and his wife Hauhet represented the waters’ infinity and eternality; Amun and his wife Amaunet represented hiddenness and unknowability; Kek and Kauket personified darkness. For more details, see James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2010). The latter myth is discussed on page 130; the former on pages 147-148. Moses and his contemporaries probably accepted this view of reality until God revealed to them that the cosmos had a beginning: the whole universe is His creation. (Genesis 1:1)

The next verse gives another profound revelation. When the ancient Hebrews heard that “the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), they would have understood this to mean that God was above the entire cosmos! Unlike the gods of Egypt, He existed before the primordial “waters” and He is sovereign over the whole universe. God had created the universe in the beginning (verse 1), and now (in verse 2) His Spirit is moving over it, above it. That is the opening scene, the setting in which the “days” of the creation narrative begin.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) The dawn of the first day reveals at least two important truths about God. First, God works by speaking—that is, by expressing His will. As the Psalmist sings, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” (Psalm 33:6, NIV) Second, God’s word is efficacious, as He later reaffirms through the prophet Isaiah: “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11, NIV) Both of these important truths are revealed on the very first day of the creation week. When God says “let there be light,” there is light.

From our contemporary perspective, we may be tempted to think that this verse about light refers to the creation of the first photons at the time of the Big Bang, or perhaps the moment when the sun ignited, billions of years ago. It’s possible that God had those events in mind when He inspired the author of Genesis, even if the ancient Hebrew readers didn’t fully understand. However, I suspect that Genesis 1:3 isn’t talking about physics or astronomy at all. C. John Collins, an expert in biblical Hebrew linguistics, argues that Genesis 1:3 is best understood to mean that God is summoning the “dawn” of the first “day” of His workweek, the dawn of a series of events in which God brings order to the earth and fills it with living creatures.C. John Collins, Science and Faith:Friends or Foes? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), 91. This makes sense, especially when we understand the preceding verses in the context of Egyptian mythology, as the ancient Hebrews would have understood them. In ancient Egypt, the primordial waters were associated with disorder and darkness.As I mentioned in a previous footnote on this page, one Egyptian myth personified the primordial waters as four pairs of deities who represented different characteristics of the waters including inertness (or inactivity), hiddenness, unknowability, and darkness. For further discussion of this myth, see James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 130. Likewise, the universe was initially dark and formless. The primordial waters (verse 2) signify chaos; but the dawn of the first “day” marks the beginning of order: God summons the dawn (verse 3) and puts light and darkness into their proper places (verse 4).

As God continues His creative work in the remainder of Genesis 1, the order, complexity, and beauty of creation increase. He puts the sky, land, and seas into their proper places on the second and third days; He appoints the celestial lights to their appropriate roles on day four; and on days five and six He populates the world with the appropriate kinds of creatures for each realm of nature: creatures of the sea, of the air, and of the land. Throughout the narrative, moreover, God repeatedly observes the goodness of His creation: the things God made are good, and His completed work is not just good but very good (verse 31). All aspects of the world are governed by order and harmony. This picture of creation contrasts sharply with the Egyptian view, which saw the earth as a miniscule patch of order in a vast sea of disorder and darkness.

Interestingly, the author of Genesis avoids using the words “sun” and “moon” when those celestial objects are mentioned in Genesis 1:16, instead referring to them as the “greater light” and the “lesser light.” The Hebrew language did have names for the sun and moon, but those names were also associated with pagan deities. The writer carefully avoids using those names in the creation narrative, presumably to emphasize that there is only one God: the sun and moon are merely lights, not gods!For further discussion of this point, see Melvin Tinker, Reclaiming Genesis: The Theatre of Gods Glory - or a Scientific Story? (Grand Rapids: Monarch, 2010), 42-43.

Regardless of whether the “days” are used literally, analogically, poetically, or in some other way, the overarching message is clear. To its ancient Hebrew audience, the first chapter of Genesis presented the cosmos as an artful masterpiece created by the one true God, whose sovereignty and goodness stood out in sharp relief against the mythical gods and aimless forces of nature in which they had formerly believed. The Creator’s sovereignty and goodness was revealed to them using the language and concepts of their own culture, but the message of Genesis 1 is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. The forces of nature may seem aimless to us, and people today still worship false “gods,” but there is one true Creator God who is sovereign over all. God existed before the cosmos, and He is not confined within the cosmos. He created the entire universe as a temple, in which He dwells with us. That timeless message is true, and its truth does not hinge on the vagaries of human language and culture.

The first chapter of Genesis reveals other important truths as well—for example, the awe-inspiring fact that we are created in the image of God! We’ll ponder what that means later in this chapter. Before reading on, however, I encourage you to prayerfully meditate on the first chapter of Genesis for a while, and consider these questions: Why did God inspire the author of Genesis to record this account? What is God’s purpose in providing this description of His creative work? Can you learn anything from this passage of scripture that makes a difference to how you relate to God, or to how you live your life? Are there any aspects of the creation story that you don’t understand? Perhaps the Holy Spirit will reveal things you hadn’t noticed before.