The start of the book sets the stage for every word and situation that is to follow. When it all began, there was God, and everything that is to come will come at His behest, direction, and intention. This is important, as this story of creation sits within the context of an ancient world where multiple gods exist pre-creation, often fighting and creating things accidentally. (The Babylonian account Enuma Elish details this.) As we’ll note throughout with other examples, there are certainly similarities between most creation accounts among nations. This is to be expected, and we should consider that the account we view in Genesis was recorded specifically to combat the erroneous nature of other false accounts.
Of specific note here is that the God of Genesis is alone. Unlike in Enuma Elish, there are no other gods. Israel’s God is the only one and everything that will happen going forward will be intentional (where other gods are forced into creating things, sometimes in relief for all the work they had done. Marduk, one of the Babylonian gods, creates humans to help with all of this work. These weary gods are almost comical.)
We are to see this “creation” as something specifically divine and unique, as the Hebrew word (bara) used for “created” is only used with God as the subject (meaning it’s never attached to human work or creation.) These events aren’t repeatable by anyone else. When we read “heavens and the earth”, it’s likely a merism, meaning something that refers to two extremes as a representation of a whole (including anything in between). So, it says heavens and earth to mean “everything”. We see similar things in the Bible in the phrase “those who go out and those who come in”. Either folk be coming out or going in, but they have to be one or the other, so it refers to everyone.
The earth is without form and void. I think we’re supposed to understand this as kind of a step 1 in the process of creation. God has creating everything initially, now He’s going to take the next steps to put it in order. Now, if we accept a Creator God who can do anything, these steps are certainly unnecessary, He can just have everything happen at once if He wishes. The question is why is this happening in stages? Why mark it out day over day? Why this creation cadence of work, rest, work, rest? These reasonable questions should inform how we’re to perceive the narrative that follows. Some folks, in this vein, contend that God wouldn’t create a world that is formless and void so what must have happened is that this opening describes the creation of a perfect world that was later had some kind of catastrophe that threw it into chaos. It was then that God starts to restore order in the commands that follow.
This is known as the Gap Theory. It’s used to combat other protests around the supposed age of the earth, the dating of dinosaur bones and their existence as a whole, etc. Without delving too far into this, this proposition seems to be more than the text itself can bear. There isn’t any indication of a gap in the text itself and it doesn’t seem to be something that any Jewish historians or commentators had a concept of. It also kind of ignores the anticipation that sits in the image of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. Now, as stated in the intro, smart people who love Jesus will disagree on the veracity of the Gap Theory. Before you accept or reject it (or any theory/perspective for that matter), find someone who really believes it and listen to how they talk about it. You’ll always get a better understanding that way vs. listening to a synopsis of it by someone who doesn’t agree with it.
As previously noted, though, we’re likely looking at step 1 of the process. And we get to see these steps because the point isn’t just to historically capture that something happened, we’re to see the intentionality, the order, the specificity around the creation. We’re able to see the details and compare them to the other stories that are out there and see that this is the true God. The details here are meant to engage in that and provide assurance and comfort to God’s people.
This leads into v. 3, God speaks. There’s no show, no negotiation, no collecting of resources. God speaks, things happen. That’s power. The raw darkness we saw in the last verse is not destroyed, it is given boundaries and a counterpart – light. It’s certainly worth noting that light and darkness are defined and created prior to creation of the sun and the moon on Day 4. God Himself appears to be the source of this light, a direct rejection of those who would worship the sun or the moon or entertain the thought that they might be gods themselves. Light exists before they are formed, and God is the source. This is interestingly reinforced in the second to last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 21, where we get a picture of this final, restored Kingdom and there is no sun at all, the Kingdom is lit by the glory of God Himself (Revelation 21:23).
In this first day we also see God giving things names. He creates them and then He names them, showing He has ultimate authority. In the ancient world, names were a big deal. Without a name, you were non-existent. This reference has parallels in the Enuma Elish story as everything was nameless prior to creation there as well. Again, this isn’t really a surprise, the implication is consistent in both.
We see evening and morning, the first day. This sequence supports the Jewish interpretation of counting days, from sundown to sundown. Not sure that’s a necessary extrapolation but that’s where it comes from. The presence of morning and evening without the sun allows for interpretive wiggle room on the understanding of “days”, which some take as literal 24 hour days and some take as ages. Both are allowable interpretations of the underlying Hebrew word used (unless you ask a particularly aggressive literal, 24 hour day person, they tend to be feisty about that definition. The days as “ages” folks tend to be a bit more laid back about the whole thing, but they are folks trying to keep peace between the Genesis account and modern science, so they’re a conciliatory bunch anyway.)
How should we read this then? For purposes of understanding the text as it sits, I’m not sure it particularly matters. For a God who can create absolutely everything with just His word and in an instant, the argument over exactly how long it took doesn’t seem all that relevant. The extension of the creation over any amount of time must serve a different purpose then just the laying down of historical fact or scientific example. To that end, it functions in the narrative as a simple breaking point and likely an example of the human rhythm of work and then rest (the same function that the rest on day 7 provides.) Humanity will follow God’s example to work, know it is good, rest, and then start again the next day.
The second day brings an “expanse” to separate the waters above and the yet unrestricted waters below. Understanding terms is helpful, here. What the ESV translates as “expanse” is the Hebrew word raqiya. This word is later used in the Psalms to describe “skies” or “heavens” (some translations do use “dome” or “firmament”). So, the expanse is the sky, which sets the scene for putting the sun and moon up in it in the days to come.
What is less clear is this bit about the waters above. There’s no language issue to provide direction here, we are left to understand what waters may exist above the sky, There are a number of theories. It could just mean the clouds (which can be considered above as well as in the sky.) It could be kind of a poetic notion of where God keeps the rain (you know, Job 38 style). There’s also a pretty extensive theory about it being a water vapor canopy that was eventually the source of the Flood and regulated weather down below so that the entire earth had quasi-tropic weather. This theory also holds that the canopy would increase air pressure, which is beneficial for health and may have contributed to the long life of the pre-flood citizens of earth.
What’s the answer? The truth is, the text doesn’t say. In the context of understanding Genesis, I’m not sure it matters. Either way, God has started to take the raw materials of creation and set boundaries for it. The balance is His to control and He is doing so and it is good.
The third day comes and God deals with the water below the sky. It’s interesting to note that in the ancient world the water was considered unpredictable, dangerous and powerful. Biblically, we see this notion show up in the beasts that come out of the sea in Daniel 7, the fear as the disciples get caught up in the storms on the lake of Galilee, and even the discussions of the great beasts like leviathan. However, here we have a creator God who speaks to the waters and they obey Him (just like Jesus in that storm situation).
Water is bundled together into massive bodies, leaving land exposed as a separator. Again, God names them, He is in control. Where other cultures may look around them and see gods or deities in land masses, great bodies of water or other unique elements of the environment, a follower of God looks and sees God’s creative work and a reminder that He is sovereign over that creation. This had relevance for the Israelites who were surrounded by competing gods of nature, as well as in our time in some of the movements that point us with reverence to nature instead of nature’s God.
Now that the land is revealed, God creates plants to sprout from it. Note the use of “seed’ four different times here. The plants that are created are one thing, but we’re introduced to the care taken for their continuation. We see plants that produce seed that will produce new plants of the same kind. They are intended to bear fruit and intended to propagate themselves across the world. This is good.
Remember, the concept of “seed” is one of the major themes in Genesis. The same word used here for the plants and trees and such is what is used to describe the offspring of animals and humans.
Day 4 is the installation of what we would call the sun and moon into the sky. Genesis doesn’t use those terms, likely because these were also parts of creation that other cultures had already started to worship. In fact, the heavenly realms were ripe for being turned into objects of worship. Here, we see the sun, moon, and stars subservient to God. We also see God molding His creation into a rhythm, the regulation of time, seasons, night and day.
Day 5 we see life created in the seas and in the air and our first notion of “blessing”. What sticks out as interesting here is the specific mention of the “great sea creatures”. It seems odd, in both a sea and sky full of creatures of all variation, the giant sea creatures get a starring role. However, from what we’ve seen so far, the Genesis account seems to at least have in view the notion of speaking to that which people are mistakenly worshiping. Certainly there are ancient myths of divine monsters (the Hebrew word can be translated as dragon) and the mention here affirms that God has made these creatures, they are not divine and there is only one God. (We see that term “bara” again, the create term that only refers to something God does.)
We also get the first blessing. As we watch for blessings in Genesis, the context will generally explain how we are to understand them. In this case, God blesses the creatures that they should be fruitful and multiply, to populate the skies and the water.
As you look back at the text, notice that it has been specifically and intentionally poetic: the same pattern in repetition for the days, the continuous affirmation that things are good.
We’re now on to day 6 and we get more detail on this day than
all the previous days. The earth, unlike the water and the sky, has a specific
instruction to produce living creatures, which it does. Just like the plants,
we see a variety of creatures come forth from the land; livestock, creeping
things, and beasts. And it is good.
The God decides to make man. The text uses a plural, here, that man should be made in “our” image. As Christians, we look back and can understand this as a glimpse of a God that exists in trinity. However, especially in a fiercely monotheistic creation account so far, some think of that as a stretch. Other explanations have been offered, such as maybe he’s talking about other created beings like angels. That one doesn’t make much sense, though, it would mean man is created in the shared image of God and angels.
Since we already have met the Spirit of God hovering over the
water (which doesn’t put monotheism at risk, it’s still God), the traditional
Christian interpretation seems like the right bet.
Man is created (bara, for the third time) in God’s image and likeness. These could certainly be seen as repetitive, synonymous terms. In general, we should likely read this as humans being given some characteristics of God that are not shared with the rest of creation. The further implication is that this allows humans to have a relationship with God that is different than animals or other parts of the creation. Finally, we should recognize that bearing the image of God comes with the expectation that we act consistently with that image.
The humans are given authority over the rest of the creation, and not just the land animals that were created that same day. It’s everything, the fish, the birds, the livestock, the creepers; all of it. The language here certainly has lineage in subduing as a hostile action or conquest. However, that doesn’t seem to be the relationship between man and the rest of God’s creation. Man doesn’t appear to need any of the animals for food at this point. And, we’ll note soon that man is given work to do but it is good and blessed, there’s no indication the animals are being used to assist in the work (although, rightly noted that there isn’t an indication that they weren’t, either.)
Still, in their uniqueness, man does not seem positioned to either fear the animals nor relate to them in a hostile manner. In fact, man will be given the responsibility of naming these creatures. So, although there is certainly a hierarchy here, the relationship at this point seems to be one of mutual benefit and one that is peaceful. To mistreat creation would be to act differently than God has to that which is subservient to Him, a violation of carrying His image and likeness.
There is a call out in v. 27 where we see the affirmation again that God created man in his own image (repeated again), then specifically called out “…male and female he created them.” This affirms, certainly, that both men and women share this unique “image” and “likeness” of God. It’s how Christians came to understand the value of all life, given that all human beings have been created in that same image and likeness thus having inherent value and worth.
God blesses the humans with the same blessings as the animals, but this time the words are “said to them” vs. just spoken among or over them. Their blessing is to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” and God has given all of the plants to sustain them while they do so. It’s this section that is the basis for folks believing that meat was not eaten in the Garden of Eden. In general, as we look at blessings, we should consider blessings the provision of advantages and/or privilege, where curses are forces that hinder or restrict. As we look back here we see that God has called them to multiply and then described how He is blessing them in order to do that. And that is very good.
Day 7 God rests. Unlike other ancient myths, God does not rest because He needs to, He does so as an example to humanity (similar to the work/rest rhythm we saw in the previous days). Interestingly, God blesses the day itself, setting it apart. As we understand blessing, I think the fair way to see this is a day set apart for our example and one that is ultimately to serve creation, to give it advantage or privilege. For all talk of trying to get people to keep the Sabbath, we should recognize that by not doing so we are willfully snubbing our noses up at rest that God has created for us as a blessing. That’s a mistake.