Commentary on Genesis 1:1—2:4a
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth … ”1
The opening words of the creation account in Genesis are a familiar story to many of us. In our valiant attempts to read the entire Bible in a specified period of time, we confidently zip through this passage.
For some of us, the creation account recalls the overly-interpretive illustrations from children’s Bibles, or felt-board Sunday School materials with the modest Adam and Eve and uncharacteristically happy animals. Others recall the glorious image of the creation of Adam that covers the Sistine Chapel. Still others might recall a crisis of faith when juxtaposing the creation account with the content of high school biology.
For this week’s reading, I ask you, Working Preacher, to set those images aside as you begin to look at the text. The ancient Israelites had never heard of felt-board, nor the concept of evolution. Rather, in ancient Israel, Genesis 1-2:4a likely triggered other accounts of the origins of the world. These ancient Near Eastern creation narratives were unapologetically polytheistic.
There were many deities, and they each had changing roles and forms. Marduk was associated with water, vegetation, and eventually magic and the head of the pantheon. Assur was leader of a rival pantheon in northern Mesopotamia. Back of Egypt, a different set of gods quarreled over legitimacy beginning with Osiris and Seth and then Seth and Horus. Each of these major pantheons had hundreds of lesser deities, contending for prominence or even survival.
And these deities were fickle. According to the Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish, they created humans, or at least some of them did. But at the same time, they latter regretted the decisions and schemed to destroy the human race because we were too “noisy.” These deities would battle, kill, enslave and retaliate against each other, and humans were often caught in the midst of these disputes.
Within this cultural narrative, the creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:4a presents a completely different account of the world’s origins. First of all, the creation in Genesis 1-2:4 is fiercely monotheistic. Not only is there one God, but this God is sovereign and powerful. God says, and it happens. God does not have a singular specified area of competence, but rather he is the creator God of all things. In this power, God has no spatial limitations:
- “God created the heavens and the earth” (1).
- “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters” (6).
- “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (9).
Similarly, God has no temporal limitations:
- “In the beginning” (1).
- “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years” (14).
As well as creating the vast cosmos, God also created the animal and vegetable life, a meaningful feat for an agrarian society like ancient Israel. In particular, the creation of “the great sea monsters”(21) represents a veiled polemic, championing the power of God. In Enuma Elish, the sea monster Tiamat gave birth to the first generation of deities, and was later defeated by Marduk. But in Genesis 1, God has no such struggle with even the sea monsters.
Most significantly, Genesis 1-2:4a provides a unique account of the relationship between humans and divine. Somehow, God decides to makes humans “in our image, according to our likeness.” Of course, understanding the precise theological nature of “image/likeness” in Genesis 1:26-28 is elusive, and probably deliberately so.
But minimally, we can infer that humans are not created out of the capricious whim of certain deities, but rather, we stand as the pinnacle of the creation event. After the creation on humans, God, in his powerful word, blesses them and declares them as good.
As you consider the wondrous nature of creation, it is important to recognize the radical, remarkable, and revolutionary nature of the Genesis creation in its original context. This presentation of God comes as a wonderful relief and assurance to the family on ancient Israel.
The God of Genesis 1-2:4a provides assurance to those, who work to raise crops against the numerous natural challenges. The God of Genesis 1-2:4a brings peace to the nation struggling for survival against the numerous encroaching enemies from all sides. God is one. God is powerful. And God created us in his image. This opening passage of our Bible constitutes the essence of good news.
Of course, this is not the only good news of the Bible. In addition to giving a refreshing account of creation, canonically, Genesis 1-2:4a parallels the start of another biblical narrative of that reads, “In the beginning was the Word,” and the ensuing narrative assures, comforts, and challenges all who hear.
- Commentary first published on this site on June 15, 2014.