Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Genesis 1 - The Main Ideas

I have recently been doing Bible studies on campus at UWS Bankstown on Genesis 1. Because of the limited time it always seems such a rush and there are often questions from students at the end which we don’t get to answer in full. In this post I will outline some of the main points that ARE made in Genesis 1. In a future post I will try to answer some questions about the relationship of these points with modern science.

It is important to remember that Genesis was written down probably 3,500 years ago at around the time Moses lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. Although it is clearly God’s word to US, we need to remember it was initially directed to THEM. Therefore it is not surprising that many things taught in Genesis 1 directly challenge the common creation stories of the Ancient Near East – from (for example), Egypt, Babylon, Sumeria and Akkadia. While not ‘borrowing’ from these accounts, Genesis teaches about God, humans and the creation in a way that highlights the differences to these alternative accounts - while having some similarities.

The most significant similarity with other creation accounts is the common ‘cosmology’ and ‘scientific’ understanding. Put simply, Genesis assumes the ancient (pre-scientific?) understanding of the structure of the cosmos – using the ‘scientific’ understanding that was common at the time. In particular this assumed the existence of the chaotic ‘waters’ (or deep) which had to be gathered into the seas and still exists above the heavens and below the earth, but is now providing water to nourish the lands. We can perhaps think of ‘the heavens’ as a dome shaped surface above the earth which holds the ‘heavenly objects’. We see many traces of this in the text of Genesis 1. This ought to make us cautious in trying to make the creation account accord too closely with our modern (or post-modern?) cosmologies – especially fixing times and dates associated with the age of the earth, the existence of the first humans and so on.

Verses 1-2 – An Overview. These verses stand as an introduction and overview of the whole chapter. The emphasis is on ‘creation’ by one God (as opposed to the many gods involved in other accounts). The ‘heavens and the earth’ is a term that means ‘everything’ and not simply the sky and the land. Verse 2 seems to describe the state of things before God begins his work. It is worth noticing that the ‘creation account’ does not start with ‘nothing’ but with ‘formless and empty’ – darkness over the surface of ‘the deep’ (chaotic seas?) and the Spirit of God over the waters.

Verses 1:3 – 2:3 – Teaching Us about God the Creator and the Place of Humans in the Creation

1.       God Creates with a Word. ‘God said ‘let there be light, and there was light.’ (v3) Notice that throughout the account God creates simply by speaking. This emphasizes his power (since he does not have to exert himself) and the power of his words. In contrast to other ancient accounts material things are not created from the dead bodies of gods!

2.       God separates and gathers (eg. V6 and v9). What is happening in the creation is about creating order and putting things in their place – specifically in the places and relationships where they are to function.

3.       The Pattern of the Days. Notice the pattern of the relationship between days 1-4, 2-5 and 3-6:  In the first three days the ‘spheres’ are created. These are filled on days 4-6. We could say that the first three days are creating the canvases that are filled on the following three days. The attempt to fit these days into scientifically defined ‘epochs’ of time (‘Concordism’) is fraught with difficulties, since the account is not primarily concerned with material relationships but with ‘function’.

               Day 1:   Light (Day & Night)           Day 4:   Lights in the Heavens
               Day 2:   Water & Sky                    Day 5:   Fish & Birds
               Day 3:   Land & Vegetation            Day 6:   Animals & Humans

4.      ‘And it Was Good’.  This refrain occurs six times throughout the account, climaxing in the overall summary on day six: ‘And God saw that it was very good’.  The declaration of goodness does reflect the goodness of God who creates things that reflect his goodness. The declaration of goodness is also a declaration that what has been created is fitting for its purpose.

5.       Humans are made in the image of God (v26-27). There has been much debate about what it means to be ‘in the image of God’, but it is clearly a significant declaration that separates mankind from the rest of the creation (including the animals). Both man and woman are in the image of God! One aspect of being in God’s image is probably relationship – with other humans and with God. Another significant aspect is rule (v26): ‘and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’. This rule  is to be exercised OVER all the creation but UNDER God.

6.       Humans are blessed and given a task – to fill the earth (involving procreation, hence male and female) and subduing – another way of speaking about rule (without implying misuse – compare 2:15).

7.       On the Seventh Day God rested. The fact that the time of creation is over points to a stability of the creation (without denying change). There is no danger that God will be fickle and change his mind about the plan of his creation. Rest does not imply that God does NO work (since he holds the whole earth together), but a weekly day of rest (and remembering God) is later given to the people as an ordinance based on the pattern of God’s work. However the ultimate ‘rest’ is not received until we ‘rest’ in God’s arms (cf. Hebrews 3:7 ff.)

Summary:  The account of Genesis 1 is primarily asserting the lordship of the true and unique creator God over against the gods of the other nations. This account emphasizes the goodness of the LORD and his plan to create an ordered world that is fit for humans who are created in his image. God places humans in this world as the ‘pinnacle’ of creation and gives them the task of ‘filling’ and ‘subduing’. Even this role is to be done in a way that recognizes the ultimate sovereignty of the creator.

There is obviously more that could be said, but this is intended to be a summary of the main teaching. I value your feedback or questions.


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