The major obstacle in this text is getting past the first verse.

September 11, 2011

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Commentary on Genesis 1:1—2:4a; or 1:1-5, 26—2:4a

The major obstacle in this text is getting past the first verse.

Whether we read “In the beginning. . .” (e.g. Revised Standard Version) or “When God began to create . . .” (e.g. New Revised Standard Version alternate reading) this verse often prompts heated discussions of evolution, intelligent design, creationism, and big bangs. But suppose we looked at the text as a literary whole; what might it say to us?

We might begin by noting that the repeated vocabulary (“God,” “created,” “heaven,” and “earth”) in 1:1-2 and 2:1-3 (not 2:4a as often claimed) forms an inclusion that brackets 1:3-31, the six days of creation. Within that inclusion, the alternate New Revised Standard Version reading precludes “creation out of nothing” in favor of seeing verse 2 as a description of the already existing “earth” as “formless and void,” that is, as a watery chaos.

If correct, this means we should look for an ordering of a primeval chaos in God’s creative activity in 1:3-31; and that’s what we find: a divine divide and conquer operation against chaos.

In verses 3-13, God deals with the formless aspect of chaos in a series of separations on the first three days. On day one (verses 3-5) light is separated from darkness. On day two (verses 6-8) God creates the dome that separates the primeval waters above from those on the earth’s surface.

The resulting space under the dome becomes the sky. Finally, on day three (verses 9-13) God separates the dry land from the waters that had concealed it. At this stage, God has dealt with the formless aspect of chaos by preparing three arenas: Light; Sky and Sea; and Dry Land and Plants.

In verses 14-25, God deals with the empty aspect of chaos on the second set of three days, by filling the arenas with inhabitants. Just as light had been separated from the darkness on day one, so now, on day four the sun, moon, and stars take their respective places in the arena of light.

On day five God fills the arena of sky and sea, formed on day two, with the living creatures that inhabit those realms. Similarly, on day six, the dry land and plants created on day three are populated with the remaining creatures.

The original watery chaos, defined as “formless and void,” has become a cosmos through God’s creative ordering. To God’s people living in the chaos of Babylonian exile, deprived of king, Temple, and homeland, wondering if their God was still in control, this text proclaims that God has always been in the business of bringing order out of chaos.

Comforting as this emphasis on order may be, a second, little recognized structural pattern leads us deeper into the theology of this text. The six days of creation share a common outline:

Introduction: “And God said”
Command: “Let there be”
Result: “It was so”
Evaluation: “It was good”
Time Frame: “Evening and morning, day X”

The first five days follow the outline closely. In the last half of day six, however, each element is modified in some way:

After the introduction, the impersonal, jussive “let there be” is replaced with the cohortative “let us make” (1:26b).

The simple report “it was so” is expanded by poetry, blessing, and a divine speech giving the human couple authority over the created order (1:27-30).

God’s evaluation is ratcheted up to “very good” (1:31a).

Contrary to English translations, in Hebrew, only the sixth day has the definite article: “the sixth day”; the other days are all “a first/second/etc. day.”

These minor changes stress the significance of the last half of the sixth day and suggest that people form the climax of God’s creation, created as God’s image, according to God’s likeness, and given responsible authority over that creation. This text is less concerned with how God created — there isn’t a silent shewa of text that tells us how God moved from Command to Result except where it says “the earth/waters brought forth” (1:12, 20, 24) — and more concerned with who created (God!), and why (for relationship).

Thus, 1:26-31 is the crux of this passage, not verse 1! One literary and two syntactical observations lead us to enlightenment:

The simple vav with the precative in 1:26 (“and let them have dominion”) should be translated as a purpose clause (“so that they might have dominion”).

People are created “in God’s image.” The preposition most likely signifies essence or identity, that is, we are created as God’s image.

In Hebrew, the key terms are arranged poetically:
A  God created humankind
B  as his image
B’ as the image of God
A’ God created him (“them” in New Revised Standard Version)

But then the following line repeats God’s creative act as male and female and makes the singular him a plural them: “Male and female created he them.” Male and female, together, bear the image of God and share in the following blessing.

In that blessing the human couple is charged with filling the earth and exercising dominion over it. Since “dominion” usually means the rule or authority that kings have over their subjects (1 Kings 4:24), this suggests that the human couple functions as God’s earthly representative, tending God’s creation in a responsible manner.

Genesis 1:26 gathers all these observations together as the following interpretive translation makes clear: “Then God said, ‘Let us make the human couple as our image, according to our likeness, so that they might have dominion . . .'” Helping congregations see that Genesis 1 speaks of our relationship to God and our role as earthly representatives of God’s rule may end the polarizing bickering that usually attends its appearance and result in hearing it as a clarion call to responsible tending of the earth.