Genesis 1 is one of the most loved and hotly debated chapters in all the Scriptures. Probably the most famous debate has been around issues like the age of the earth. Young Earth Creationists use Genesis 1 (and of course other passages) to argue for the existence of a Creator and even go so far as to use it as a model or paradigm for their scientific method. Others interpret Genesis exclusively as mythology, seeing no authority in the text whatsoever and understanding it as an ancient Jewish origins account of the world. These people think that in light of modern science, Genesis 1 has nothing to offer its contemporary readers. Two very different understandings of the text lead to two very different ways in which you can understand the world and God. I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
In past blogs in this series, I have categorised Genesis 1-11 as mythological theological history. What I don’t mean by this is that the events in Genesis 1-11 didn’t happen. Instead, the primary point of these chapters is the divine truths the author is presenting. Mythological doesn’t mean fiction in this context. The mythological genre can be better understood as parabolic or allegorical. The events in Genesis 1-11 happened. However, the events recounted in the narrative bring out a theological point rather than a detailed account of the past. As Tremper Longman III says, “The book of Genesis is not a history-like story but rather a story-like history.” After we explore the literary genre of the chapter, we need to ask ourselves some critical questions.
- What is this saying about God?
- What is this saying about creation?
- What is this saying about humanity?
As we have already seen in the first verse, the Lord God is the creator, of all that exists. What we see in the rest of the chapter is that God places importance on an ordered and ruled creation rather than merely leaving it to its own devices. Unlike the other gods of the time, Yahweh is deeply concerned with every piece of His creation as He places everything in the right place and humanity has the crowning jewel.
The seven days of creation in Genesis 1 are not a scientific account of how God created the world, rather, it is a literary device standard in the Ancient Near Eastern world to describe God who is king ordering a cosmic temple to settle in and rule over. Another way to explain it is that Genesis 1 is not about the material origins of the universe. Instead, it is about the function of the things that exist with God at its centre. As John Walton explains:
I believe that people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system.
Beginning in a state of chaos, in days 1-3 light, darkness, the sky, the earth, and the sea are all formed, separated and ordered. In days 4-6, God fills these spaces with the Sun, moon, stars, animals and humans to rule over them. In other words, God gives them a function. On day 6, humans are made in the image of God. The image or the imago Dei is another debated issue, but two things are clear in the text. The imago Dei is an ontological reality that is reflected in the function of flourishing humanity. They’re to have dominion over the earth (God’s cosmic temple), they’re to multiply and fill the earth.
On day 7 (the Hebrew number for completion – a recurring theme throughout the entire Bible), after having ordered His cosmic temple, Yahweh rests. The word rest here is important because as the story of the Bible progresses, it takes on developed meaning. Here, though, the word rest, according to John Walton, has royal and divine significance. It’s not merely God stopping or ceasing from His work (though that’s, of course, the apparent meaning of the text), instead, it’s God sort of sitting on the throne after completing the structuring of His cosmic temple where He now dwells.
In Genesis 1, the scene is set, the cosmic temple has been ordered, and God rules amid humanity and His good creation. Good though creation may be, it isn’t perfect. There is untapped potential that God wants humanity to cultivate and produce. This is the functional role that humanity is supposed to live in. Humanity in the world, God’s cosmic temple, is supposed to act as proto-priests as they tend to His good creation in harmony and peace. Genesis 2 fleshes this out more where Adam and Eve are to keep guard the Garden which is designated roles given to priests in Israel later in the Biblical story. For now, however, we see both male and female, and indeed all of creation was meant to live in an ordered world where God dwells and reigns from.
So what do these observations say about God? God is a divine king who wants to dwell imminently with His good creation as opposed to the ANE common understanding that gods were separate tyrannical rulers. What does this say about creation? That all of creation is good but has the capacity for more as it’s given to humanity to cultivate and rule over. What does this say about humanity? That humanity as God’s vice-regents, they were to live in harmony with God’s and the created order as they reign alongside God over the rest of creation and cultivate it.
As John Walton summarises
The key features of this interpretation include most prominently: The Hebrew word translated “create” (bārāʾ) concerns assigning functions. The account begins in verse 2 with no functions (rather than with no material). The first three days pertain to the three major functions of life: time, weather, food. Days four to six pertain to functionaries in the cosmos being assigned their roles and spheres. The recurring comment that “it is good” refers to functionality (relative to people). The temple aspect is evident in the climax of day seven when God rests—an activity in a temple. The account can then be seen to be a seven-day inauguration of the cosmic temple, setting up its functions for the benefit of humanity, with God dwelling in relationship with his creatures.