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The Theology of Genesis: In the Beginning – Genesis 1:1-2:4

The opening chapter in our Bible is among the most debated passages in the Scriptures. At least among Evangelical Protestants, the general family of believers I am a part of and most familiar with. It seems pretty straightforward, at least on the surface. And many people take it to be a straightforward account of creation in a literal week. Many others have challenged that understanding of this chapter. And a great number of theories have been developed over the years. Each one trying to explain just what it is that the text is trying to say. As well as how it relates to modern science.

I find that debate to be interesting. And I certainly have my opinions about it. But, as I expressed in the introduction to this series, my interest in writing here is not to promote a specific interpretation of this creation week. Rather, I want to look at what the passage is teaching us about the creator and his creation. I believe that there is truth in this chapter. And that it is independent of one’s specific understanding of the mechanics of creation. Just for clarification, what I will be calling the first chapter of Genesis actually runs through chapter 2 verse 3.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

The Week in Review

Before looking at what I see to be the important truths taught in this chapter, let’s take a very brief tour through this week. The chapter starts with an affirmation that, in the beginning, God is the creator of everything. From there it describes what appears to be the starting condition that God worked from. An earth that was formless and void. With darkness over the face of the deep. And God’s Spirit hovering over the waters.

The Description in Genesis

Over the following six days we see eight creation acts recorded. Each begins with the expression “And God said”. And each day ends with the expression “And there was evening, and there was morning, the xxx day”. Days three and six each have a pair of creation events. Each of the other days has a single event.

During the first six days of the week God creates light; separates the waters, putting a vault between the upper and lower waters to keep them divided; draws dry land out of the sea; produces vegetation on the land; creates the sun, moon, and stars; populates the waters; populates the land; and, finally, creates humanity in his own image.

These six days can be divided into two equal parts. Each part deals with one portion of the starting condition of formless and void (or empty). The creation is given shape, or form, over the first three days. And it is populated in the second three days. When the week is over, the creation is no longer formless and void.

At the end of the six days of creation, God declared that all he had done was very good. Then, on the seventh day, he rested. And, because God rested from his creative activity on the seventh day, he declared it to be holy.

What is Pictured

I find it incredibly hard to let go of the images that I was raised with and to try and see this passage as if for the first time. As well as trying to see it as the ancient Hebrews would have. And I will no doubt fall short of complete success, simply because this is not my first time reading this passage. Or even, the second, third, tenth, or even hundredth time. I have been reading this pretty much as long as I could read, well over 60 years. And the images formed are pretty ingrained. But I will try.

In the beginning, picture a dark ocean. It is not very inviting and is hostile to human life. So God brought forth light to deal with the darkness. Then divided the sea vertically, creating a bubble of air. A dome was placed between the divided waters to hold back the upper waters. And then the lower waters retreated somewhat and dry land appeared. We might picture it like a volcanic island rising out of the sea. Except it happened quickly and with no sense of volcanism. And, finally, plant life sprung upon the land. Now all of the things necessary for life were in place: light, an atmosphere, dry land, and vegetation.

In the second half of the week, God put lights into the dome that held back the upper water. These lights gave us the ability to keep track of time and seasons. Then God populated the seas with animal life, followed by the land. And, when all was ready, he created us, leaving us in charge of his creation.

And he was satisfied. It was all good.

In the Beginning

Genesis starts with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is a verse packed with significance. And it is one of the details that distinguish the Genesis account of creation from that of all the surrounding cultures. They all had gods that were responsible for different parts of the cosmos. And their gods formed at least some portions of what they saw around them. But Genesis was totally different.

There is only one deity involved, God. And, unlike the other Ancient Near East (ANE) gods, he precedes the creation. He is transcendent to the creation. The other ANE gods are not transcendent. They are living in and confined to the physical cosmos. In the beginning, there was God. And that is also significant. There was a beginning. That was unheard of in other ANE cultures. And, apart from Christianity, was a foreign concept until relatively recent times.

And, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In Jewish thought, the heavens are not really a spiritual realm as we think of it today. For them, the heavens were what was ‘up there’, including God’s dwelling. So Genesis says that God created everything up there, and everything down here. The word translated as created, bārā’, can refer to creation from nothing as well as forming from preexisting materials. But whichever was intended here, Genesis affirms that God is responsible for all that is.

Where does the Week Start?

Is this first verse a summary statement of the rest of the chapter? Or does it result in the condition found in verse 2? A condition that moves from formless and void to an ordered and fit habitat for humanity in the remainder of the chapter? I have read arguments for both positions. And, currently, I don’t know. Nor do I see that it matters all that much for the purposes of this exercise.

And God Said

In many of the ANE origin myths, the shaping of the world takes place through conflict among the gods, or a great effort. In contrast to this is the description in Genesis 1. Each step of the unfolding of creation is preceded with “And God said.” Everything that is, came into existence at God’s command. He commanded, and it happened. God had simply to utter the words for it to happen.

This seems to foreshadow John’s gospel. According to John, the Word was in the beginning; the Word created all things; and the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus. This expression, ‘And God said’, could be taken as all things being made by the Word.

And It Was Good

At the end of many of the creative acts, it is recorded that God saw what he had done as good. And at the end of the sixth day, he identifies his work as very good. We are often guilty of associating ‘good’ here with ‘perfect’. But that is not what the word meant. The Hebrew word translated as good is ‘ṭôb‘. And it means good, pleasing, or desirable.

You might argue that for something to be pleasing to God it would need to be perfect. Or you might argue that everything God creates would, by default, have to be perfect. But that goes beyond what this creation account tells us. It simply affirms that God was pleased with what he had made. It would work well to accomplish his purpose in creation.

God’s creation may or may not have been perfect by human standards. But it was a desirable place for the humans that he created. It was a good place that provided everything we need to live and prosper. As well as to accomplish the mission God gave us.

The Divine Council

Genesis 1:26-27 is a part of this week of creation that is challenging. God has been speaking everything into existence. Then, at the end of day six the terminology shifts to the plural. God says, “Let us man mankind in our image, in our likeness . . .“. Who is us referring to here? Many see this as an early reference to the Trinity. But that would have been meaningless to the original audience of this text. Another suggestion is that this is referring to what some call the divine council. And I think, in light of the rest of the Old Testament, that this view has a lot going for it.

Psalm 89:5-7 references the council and assembly of the holy ones and the heavenly beings. It is hard to picture this council as anything other than heavenly beings. In 1 Kings 22:19-22, the prophet Micaiah gives king Ahab a message from God. And this message pictures God on his throne surrounded by the host of heaven. God is listening to proposals for enticing Ahab into a fight that will cost him his life. And God approves of one of them. In Job 1:6 & 2:1, the sons of God, and Satan, present themselves before God. God asks Satan about his activities. It is easy to picture God asking that of each of those who have come before him.

By no means are these other beings on a par with God. But it does seem like he delegates authority to them and holds them accountable, just like he does with people. Here in this passage in Genesis through, while he expresses the creation of humanity as a group project, it goes on to say that it is God, and God alone, who creates humanity.

In the Image of God

After everything else was completed, God proceeded to create humanity. In Genesis 1 this is humanity in generic terms rather than Adam and Eve. And this creation of humanity is unique. Unlike anything else in creation, we were made in God’s image. We are his image-bearers. There are a variety of understandings as to what it means to be made in God’s image. But regardless of which, if any, of these positions is right, one thing is clear. Humanity is distinct from the rest of the creation. Humanity alone is created in the image of God.

The Hebrew word ‘ṣelem‘ is translated here as image. This word is used 15 times in the Old Testament. 5 times translated in the NIV as image, 6 times as idol, and also as a model or figure. An idol was an image that represented one of the gods of the ANE. The idols were understood not to be the actual god. But it did represent the god. And was generally treated as if it were a god.

The second of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 20:4-6, forbids the making of images for the purpose of worship. This is a different word than what is used in Genesis, but the idea is clear. God has made us in his image. We should not be making something else that is supposed to be in the image of God. That is our role. Humanity represents God to the rest of creation.

Subdue and Rule Over the Creation

When God chose to make humanity in his image, it is for a specific purpose. We are in his image so that we can rule over the rest of the creation. Sometimes we are guilty of ruling over the rest of the creation for our own benefit and to the detriment of the creation itself. But I do not believe that is what God intends here.

God has created the world and all that it contains. And it was a good creation. And, when he finished, he made humanity and put us in charge of the rest of creation. We are here as God’s image-bearer, representing God to the rest of the creation. You might see that creation was not made for us as much as we were made to care for the rest of the creation.

A Seven Day Cycle

At the close of this chapter, we are told that by the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing. And on that day he rested. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because he rested then from his work.

When God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel, commandment number four looked back to this seventh-day rest. It became their Sabbath, a day to rest from the labor of the remainder of the week. In the same way that God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, he instructed ancient Israel to do the same.

The seventh day here would also seem to represent completion. And this number is used in that way throughout Scripture. Whether referring to days or years, lambs or bulls, sacrifice or purification, seven seems to be far and away the most used number. And the significance of that usage begins here.

The Sea

Genesis 1 gives us a picture of creation coming out of the sea. This image is repeated a number of times in the pages that follow. During the flood, the waters above and the waters below are both loosed and cover the land. But out of that sea, dry land reappeared, a new creation.

When Israel marched out from Egypt, they were pursued by Pharoah and his army. The sea parted and Israel passed through on dry land. There is a sense in which you can see the creation of Israel here, mirroring Genesis 1.

When Jonah attempted to flee from God, he found himself in the midst of a raging storm at sea. Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed by a big fish. As far as Jonah was concerned, he was dead. But he spat back up, out of the sea, and given a second chance. A new start in life.

In the New Testament, you can find one additional new creative act, the church. And this creative act is accompanied by the baptismal waters. We come up out of the waters as a new life.

It is not uncommon for the sea to be pictured as untamed and chaotic, dangerous. And that can be a metaphor for the world we live in. But out of that chaos, God creates life, a new beginning.

Conclusion

As you can see, this chapter has a great significance that extends beyond the mechanics of the creation week itself. It tells us that God, and God alone, is the creator of all that is. God’s creation was good and pleasing to him. He made us in his image and gave us the responsibility for caring for his creation. And he was careful to divide our labor and rest.

Theology of Genesis Post List

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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2 thoughts on “The Theology of Genesis: In the Beginning – Genesis 1:1-2:4”

  1. I know you expressly want to avoid a discussion of the sequence of days, and what ‘day’ means in this passage, but it is unavoidable for a couple of reasons:

    Firstly, the days are clearly defined as to what type of day is referred to: they are ”evening and morning’ type days. They are also numbered, driving the point that they are the normal days of our experience. The Spirit drives this point relentlessly, and so, it is significant. I cannot think of any other passage in scripture were a point is driven so emphatically. The days in themselves mean something.

    What do they mean?

    At first flush they tie God’s actions to our world: God is not remote from us, but he shows himself to be present and active in the world that we are present and active in. There is an existential connection made which sets the scene, provides the context, for all subsequent epiphanies culminating in the incarnation. They are all real, in the real world that we are really in.

    Acting in days in the cadence of creation (will, effect, completion, evaluation) shows that God is personal. His action is decided, then evaluated. Only persons do this.

    God acting in the days of our experience suggests that he is commutatively present: that is we can commune with him.

    It also is his demonstration that he is not the remote god of Deism, disconnected with the world and its inhabitants, which reduces God, ultimately to a ‘force’. This is not the Star Wars god, but the personal engaged creator acting in terms of the nature of his creation.

    He demonstrates rational causality, he shows that the creation is made of distinguishable components or occupants; his work shows that word precedes effect and effect proceeds knowledge (for us to gain as stewards). Again, this drives the point of an intimate connection between God’s acts in creation and our experience of him in his acts and as persons (1: 27, 3:8, where this is show broken).

    That God acts in the way we act: we act in days, we think first, we evaluate afterwards, he shows the basis for our imageness. He also shows his embedded ‘responsibility’ for the creation while distinct from it. This eliminates the possibility of views such as theistic evolution, where God is merged into the creation, which tends to either occasionalism or panentheism, where ‘principles’ create, rather than the loving creator. This trajectory ends in monism.

    God finally confirms that he created in days in direct speech in Exodus 31:17. The days of creation in Genesis 1 are not there to ‘retrofit’ the Sabbath, but the Sabbath flows from them celebrating the God who is there, active and not silent.

    Further this gives us the certainty of a world that is comprehensible, truly ‘real” and substantial, and where are knowledge, wisdom and understanding can be had (Proverbs 3:19-20); not perfect, not comprehensive, not exhaustive but nevertheless, in truth.

    The acts also show that our thinking is rightly grounded here. The created world from God’s word gives us the basis for understanding this setting for our life with God as his image-bearers in his creation, and is the starting point of our philosophising as to what reality is and how we fit into it. Indeed the creation in a sequence of days, doing all this, establishes the modality of our relationship with God and the purpose of the creation.

    The days are of central importance.

    Reply
    • I appreciate your insight and contribution here. While I do disagree with some of your points, I do fully hold to the idea of a personal God at work in his creation. My intent in this series was to purposefully steer clear of the topics that we so often argue over and look to see what lessons we can learn from these passages, irrespective of our view on the days or mechanisms of creation.

      Reply

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