Genesis: Creation

Genesis 1.1-2.3

Introductory Note

As it has long been recognized that Genesis (with the rest of the Torah) was comprised of multiple sources, sometimes carrying alternate traditions of the same stories, one question is how those traditions relate to each other. One long-prevailing idea is that we can neatly divide these sources into four or five categories, summed up as 'JEDPR':

  • J, the Yahwist source, so-named because God is dominantly referred to by the name 'Yahweh'
  • E, the Elohist source, in which God is solely referred to as 'Elohim' (or cognates)
  • D, the Deuteronomist, who supplied a substantial portion of the law code
  • P, the Priestly source, which brought in yet more law code, and a handful of other traditions (genealogies, travel logs, etc.)
  • R, the Redactor, who unified the previous sources together (and may simply be the same as P)

In this hypothesis, J and E are the oldest sources and are the ones that preserve alternate traditions based on the same core stories. Called the Documentary Hypothesis, this stood at the top of the academic ladder for over a century, but in the last couple of decades has slowly been chipped at for being too clean and precise.

There is an emerging argument that these sources cannot be so neatly divided, and that later alternate traditions may in fact be consciously based on earlier ones. In one variation on the Documentary Hypothesis, sources in Genesis are simply designated as non-P(riestly) and P(riestly). Here, non-P is early and comprised of varied traditions, while P was an intentional rewrite of non-P, but for whatever reason was then broken up and weaved into non-P.

As I continue this series on Genesis, I will fall into the lingo of JEDPR (referring to 'the J source', or 'P', or 'the Redactor'). This is not to assume the traditional Documentary Hypothesis is the correct model, it is only a matter of convenience. So here, we begin with Genesis 1.

In the Beginning

Genesis 1 is well-known for its portrayal of the 'creation week', in which God makes the world and everything in it on the first six days, before concluding with his rest on the seventh day. A so-called 'literal' reading of the bible places the events of Genesis 1 between 6000 and 8000 years ago (depending which textual tradition you follow).

John Walton's book, The Lost World of Genesis One, has been hailed as necessary reading for anyone seeking to truly understand the 'meaning' of Genesis 1.1-2.3. His primary argument is that the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is that the 'material' world here already exists so that what we see happen is God assigning 'function' to parts of the world. It eventually becomes apparent that Walton intends to present a 'literal' reading of Genesis 1 as compatible with modern science, to accommodate and defend the Christian doctrine of biblical inerrancy. While Walton's distinction between 'material' and 'functional' creation isn't convincing, his book still points out valid clues on how to understand Genesis 1 by comparing the text to other creation stories of ancient Israel's neighbors. The order in which items are created, for example, is similar to the Babylonian creation myth Enûma Eliš.

Genesis 1.1 and 2.1-3 are an inclusio. Where Genesis 1.1-2 sets the stage and 2.1-3 concludes the story, they also act as bookends that define the content between them: 'God created the heavens and earth' and 'Thus the heavens and the earth were completed'. Recognizing this inclusio forces readers to wholly reject the speculative and baseless interpretations of Genesis 1 (such as the 'gap theory', which inserts a missing story of a 'Pre-Adamic' world between verses 1 and 2).

Israel's cosmology — their understanding of the shape of the universe — was most similar to the Babylonians, but there are parallels with other cultures of the time as well. The 'firmament', identified by the flimsy and misleading word 'expanse' in some English translations, was a crystalline dome that covered a flat earth. This firmament held back 'the deep', the primordial waters that embodied chaos. God's creation of the universe out of these waters was the closest conceptual equivalent ancient Israel had to 'creation from nothing'. Hence, the earth's beginning is one of being 'desolate and waste', terms that describe a functionless and inhospitable state which God proceeds to bring to order.

On the fourth day, God creates the sun, moon, and stars 'for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and for years'. It has been pointed out that 'seasons' is the Hebrew word mo'adim, which is actually used for Israel's holy festivals throughout the Torah.

So the author of this text is claiming that the god who created the habitable world also embedded into the very fabric of the sky luminaries for observing the festival dates, the mo'adim, which mankind in general, but the Israelites specifically, were obliged to keep.
Steven DiMattei, Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, 30

On the sixth day, God creates humanity. As with the sea creatures, birds, and animals of the earth, the text naturally supposes the creation of a community of humans, men and women together, all at once. Calling humans the 'image' and 'likeness' of God implies a ritualistic element to their identity. This is reinforced by the statement that God 'rested' on the seventh day; in ancient Near Eastern culture, deities 'resting' could refer to their habitation within temples, as is the case in this psalm:

We heard of it in Ephrathah; we found it in the fields of Jaar. 'Let us go to his dwelling-place; let us worship at his footstool.' Rise up, O Yahweh, and go to your resting-place, you and the ark of your might. […] For Yahweh has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation: 'This is my resting-place for ever; here I will reside, for I have desired it.'
Psalm 132.6-8,13-14

The Enûma Eliš includes the story of the gods creating the universe, an act which concludes with their creation of a temple in Babylon as a place for the gods to 'rest'. The temple in Jerusalem was God's 'dwelling-place', his 'habitation', his 'resting-place'. God 'resting' from his work on the seventh day implies that he had come to dwell in his temple.


Genesis 1, from top to bottom, is not simply a text about the creation of the universe. It was written by ancient Israel's priestly authorities to validate their beliefs and rituals: The universe God created and 'rested' in was a cosmic parallel to Israel's temple, the heavenly lights were created to guide Israel's temple feasts, and humanity was created as God's temple icon to express God's dominion over the earth while reflecting the earth's worship back to him, while the seven days of creation provide the pattern for Israel's sabbath.