December 1, 2020

Creation Is a Many Splendored Thing (2): Genesis 1:1-2:3


Crucible of Creation: Orion Nebula (detail: Hubble)

The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.

• Psalm 93:1-2, NRSV

As the Bible’s first creation account, Genesis 1 enjoys pride of place. Positioned as the cosmogony of cosmogonies, the Priestly account is also the most carefully structured text in all of Scripture. Its intricate arrangement reflects something of creation’s own integrity . . .

. . . As creation unfolds “daily,” it becomes constructed in the imago templi, in the model of a temple. What took Solomon seven years to complete (1 Kgs 6:38), God took only seven days, and on a cosmic scale no less! In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests.

• William P. Brown

In our first post reflecting on insights from William P. Brown’s book, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, we noted Brown’s observation that the story of “creation” is found not just once, but seven times in the Bible:

1. Genesis 1:1-2:3
2. Genesis 2:4b-3:24
3. Job 38-41
4. Psalm 104
5. Proverbs 8:22-31
6. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; 12:1-7
7. Isaiah 40-55 (excerpts)

The first of these accounts, of course, is in Genesis 1. Brown’s interpretation of this text is close to my own (with some significant differences — see My View of Genesis 1— a post I will update soon). In particular, let me mention the following seven points, with which I am in full agreement:

First, Genesis 1 may have the polemic purpose of contrasting the Jewish view with that of the Babylonians and others in the Ancient Near East, but it does so subtly. Whatever hints of cosmic conflict it may contain are muted, with the overall effect of portraying God as One who is majestically above all other so-called gods.

Second, the account is intricately structured, primarily by the number 7. This is not always appreciated by English readers, but it is  key to understanding that this is not merely prose reporting of events, but “exalted prose” that is written this way for effect. It is not poetry, but if not, it comes close to having a poetic effect on the reader. Some suggest it may have been liturgical in nature, but whatever its precise genre, it is magnificent in its numerical complexity while at the same time it speaks with profound simplicity of language. “. . . the order inscribed in this account imparts a remarkable mathematical aesthetic, the quantifiable order of a fully stable, life-sustaining, differentiated world.”

Third, the narrative also follows a symmetrical order by which God addresses the conditions spoken of in 1:2 — “without form” and “empty.” God forms his creation on the first three days and then fills it on days 4-6. These days are essentially parallel to each other, with some variations, so that on Day 4 God fills what he formed on Day 1, and so on. Day 7 stands alone as the day of completion, answering “Day 0” when creation was uninhabitable.

Gen_Pattern_convertedFourth, Brown notes that this pattern is consistent with the three-fold arrangement of sacred space in ancient temples. Genesis 1 is a portrayal of God the King creating a cosmic temple in the world.

Orion Nebula (Hubble)

Orion Nebula (Hubble)

Fifth, this gives us a clue as to the place of humans as creatures made in God’s image. “Many an ancient temple contained an image of its resident deity within its inner sanctum. In Jerusalem, however, the physical representation of God was expressly forbidden . . . . Genesis 1, however, does not jettison the language of divine image but recasts it by identifying the imago Dei with human beings, created on the sixth day.” This suggests that humanity’s role is to rule as priests in God’s good creation, to embody the imago Dei in the world.

Sixth, in creation God works with its material elements, not simply over them and without their free cooperation. The idea that creation is “good” includes its fecundity and ability to generate and sustain itself. God’s engagement with creation is thoroughly interactive.

As a whole, creation takes place in Genesis 1 from the top down and from the bottom up. God commands from on high for creation to happen, yet much of the creative process emerges from below. Both the earth and the waters contribute to the emergence of life. God’s engagement with creation is thoroughly interactive. The creative process is no singular event; neither is it a unilateral process. The result is a creation that exhibits structure and variety, a cosmic living temple, a creation deemed “extremely good” (1:31).

Seventh, God is portrayed as a beneficent Ruler who builds his temple as he commanded Israel to build hers: led by Moses (who spoke the word of divine instruction), Aaron (who served as priest), and Bezalel (the artisan who crafted the temple by the Spirit). All these roles are filled by God in Gen. 1.

• • •

One more thought in closing. Brown gives us an important reminder about the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3. This story came to Israel in an important socio-historical context.

The Babylonian exile of 587 BCE had left the land of Judah more than decimated. From the perspective of those most affected, imperial conquest and deportation rendered the land “void and vacuum.” The survivors experienced such national trauma as nothing less than a resurgence of cosmic chaos, leaving the land “empty,” stripping the community of its national identity, and leaving the temple in ruins. The good news of Genesis 1 is that God can work with such chaos to bring forth new creation. Heard in the time of exile, the message of imago Dei in Genesis would have been a “clarion call to the people of God to stand tall again with dignity and to take seriously their royal-priestly vocation as God’s authorized agents and representatives in the world.”


  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Yet since the Age of Reason and Industrial Revolution turned the Bible into a Spiritual Engineering Manual, minds of wheels and metal see Genesis and Creation as nothing more than a timeline of FACT, FACT, FACT. (Cue 60 Minutes logo of Tick Tick Tick Tick Tick…)

    Just as Revelation (the other book-end of the Bible) became nothing more than a checklist of FACT, FACT, FACT. (Any Minute Now — Tick Tick Tick Tick Tick….)

  2. David Cornwell says

    This is a totally fascinating post for me. A few days ago I jotted down Brown’s seven accounts of creation and have started to read them once again. Genesis 1, itself, is such a beautifully constructed and told story that it always reveals itself anew when reading. When we attempt to jettison our preconceived ideas of creation and let it speak freshly to us once again it is very powerful indeed. The Hebrew reality and mindset runs against the grain of so much Enlightenment thought that it can be hard for us to wrap around. And yet it can speak because it is part of the Story that was told and is still being told.

    • We have to read the Genesis story in the light of a people who knew nothing of the science we now have. Thinking Hebrew in a Greek thought society today is hard. John Walton has written some great thoughts that helped me appreciate the OT,

      • Problem is most of us who read the Bible’s creation stories today know next to nothing of the science we now have; even less do most of us know how people thought in Old Testament times.

        If interpreting and understanding the Scriptural texts is so difficult, and part of understanding them is thinking Hebrew, which is also very hard, then it’s not hard to understand why so many people would just chuck it all and say, “To h— with the Bible and Christianity, it’s just too daunting and I don’t have the time or the wisdom to sift trough all this and figure out what’s true, I’ll just live my life as best I can and hope that that’s enough for God, whoever God really is or isn’t.”

        It’s not hard to understand why they would say that at all. I often feel that way myself, although with me it manifests as a strong desire to just put my Bible on the bookshelf for good, and go sit with the Quakers.

      • I mean, when the first Hellenic and Roman converts to Christianity were made, did they understand the Hebrew thought patterns any better than we do? Was becoming a Christian then an exercise in cross cultural education? Was such cross cultural education necessary before a Christian understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures could be unpacked for first, second and third century Christians? Did the Church Fathers really possess an extensive and trustworthy understanding of Hebrew culture centuries away from their own time, and with very limited historical resources? If not, then how trustworthy was their Christian unpacking of the Old Testament, and the theology that came out of it? Are we not, in certain ways, in a better position to understand ancient Hebrew thinking than they were, and, if so, what implications does this have for the theology and Scriptural interpretations worked out by them in the first centuries of our era? After all, weren’t the Romans and Greeks, by definition, far more immersed in a Greek thought society than we are?

        • Oh but I think we have a lot to learn from those early Christian interpreters, Robert. For one thing few of them were literalists. They understood the power of story and were not afraid to think the Bible might have “spiritual” meanings the Spirit could help them discern.

          How very post-modern of them!

          • I don’t deny that we have much to learn from them; but I don’t see how their approach to the Scriptures could have been based on understanding Hebrew ways of thinking, because, especially once you get into the second and third centuries, they had little to no direct access to these. And the fact that they so often rendered pneumatic readings and interpretations of Scripture set a precedent for our doing the very same thing, and not necessarily following their narrative arcs in all places or all the time.

            And I don’t see how we can avoid acknowledging that the first generations of Christians, both Jew and Gentile, took a very free hand in appropriating the Scriptures from the their Jewish origins, without worrying too much about Hebrew ways of thought, or how wrenching them from their contexts in both written and oral traditions might change the textual meanings. They, in fact, undertook pneumatic hermeneutics, and these are always subversive not only of the literal but, even more importantly, the traditional literary meanings of texts.

          • Good comments, Robert F.

  3. It is always amazing to me how many times I have been talking to God and ideas that are presented in Genesis are pointed to and have my attention. I have looked at it in the nature of Hebrew poetry as I do with life itself. Having so many layers and seasons with depth and beauty mixed with sadness and joy. Such Ideas seem to have no end for me yet, as they continually are expanded upon in a personal way. Wish I could tell everyone the moments in which I see something but I think I would rather He would because it would be custom made and crafted just for you. I think that is what this story is about custom made and crafted just for you. My writing every day consists of poetry. Now I am a rhythm and rhyme but it amazes me how ideas are layered within that context. Imagine a 270 pound man covered in ink who can bench press a house at 54 writing love poems to His God every day, go figure. These inspired words captivate my mind and soul and then pour into my heart a love that I can’t live without as i realize he has written love poems to me.

    • How much does a house weigh? I’m up to a 335 lb deadlift and hoping to hit 400 by end of year…

      • it’s in the math 135X30rps,185X20, 225X15 to 20. 100lb dumbells for 10 110 for 9 120’s for 8 and then declines and then supersets for chest day. Next day is back….lol…It sounds like you are doing good though

  4. One more thought in closing. Brown gives us an important reminder about the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3. This story came to Israel in an important socio-historical context.

    The Babylonian exile of 587 BCE had left the land of Judah more than decimated. From the perspective of those most affected, imperial conquest and deportation rendered the land “void and vacuum.” The survivors experienced such national trauma as nothing less than a resurgence of cosmic chaos, leaving the land “empty,” stripping the community of its national identity, and leaving the temple in ruins. The good news of Genesis 1 is that God can work with such chaos to bring forth new creation. Heard in the time of exile, the message of imago Dei in Genesis would have been a “clarion call to the people of God to stand tall again with dignity and to take seriously their royal-priestly vocation as God’s authorized agents and representatives in the world.”

    So is Brown saying that Genesis 1 first “came to Israel” during the Babylonian exile? I.e., it was first written and told that time?

    • Should be “…told at that time?”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Probably more like it reached its final form at that time. The structure of Genesis 1 as a parody of the Mesopotamian Creation Myths (which would be common knowledge in Babylon) seems to point to that.

      It’s probable that oral Torah had been written down before (the alphabet reached Israel around the time of King David), but most or all copies had been destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar flattened Jerusalem. They would have had to reconstruct it from oral tradition and memory.

      • So, you’re saying that Genesis 1 is not really God’s word but is based on the Babylonian mystery religion myths?

        • Not what he said. I suggest reading this article by Pete Enns:

        • I don’t get how you made this jump in thinking. Could you explain?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          No, I said that the final form of Genesis is structured to PARODY Babylonian creation myths.
          * Everything created by God in Genesis is something worshipped as a god by the Babylonians.
          * The sky and the waters are specially created instead of being stitched together from the corpse of Tiamat.
          * The Sun/Moon/Stars: In Mesopotamian mythologies since Sumeria, the Stars were the greatest gods, the Moon inferior to the Stars, and the Sun least of all. Genesis reverses the order and mentions the Stars — the Greatest Gods of the goyim — as only an afterthought.
          * Adam & Eve: In Mesopotamian mythology, humanity was just an afterthought of the gods, created so the gods would have someone who worshipped them. In Genesis, humanity is the crowning achivement, the pinnacle of creation.

      • It’s amazing that for so many years the narrative in my head of how the Bible was constructed was entirely long form written by the hand of the guy who’s name is top of the book. When that mental block started crumbling, even asking leaders if things like Q were plausible (essentially wondering if, I don’t know, Matthew Mark and Luke maybe compared notes?), I was quickly and sometimes harshly slapped down for thinking…

        • Without countenancing those leaders for slapping you down, and without taking a naive view about the formation of the canon, Q is a hypothesis without any documentary evidence. Though most modern Biblical scholars subscribe to it, some very intelligent and perceptive scholars don’t, for instance, Luke Timothy Johnson.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            So the Bible DID descend from Heaven word-for-word like the Koran except in Kynge Jaymes Englyshe?

          • If you knew anything about Johnson, you would know that he is further from resembling the caricature that you offer than you are, in part because you were and he never has been. You have a habit of seeing things as either/or, no doubt the carryover of trauma experienced during your years in the evangelical subculture. I hope and pray that some day you will be free of it.

  5. Gee, all this time I’ve been that Moses was important when I should have been studying Nimrod and Tamuz!

    • Exactly. Just read Zecharia Sitchin. 😀

    • Moses was replying to the pagan religions of the time. The ten plagues of Egypt weren’t just random bad stuff God pulled out of a hat – they were specific insults to specific Egyptian deities. Each plague not only displayed God’s power, they also showed up an Egyptian god as a phony. In the same manner, the days of creation show that all the things the Israelites’ pagan neighbors worshiped – whether sun, moon, seasons, harvest, or even raw chaos – were all created and under the control of the One True God. Knowledge of the pagan background of the OT times does not undermine God’s word, IMHO – it enhances it.

  6. “been thinking”

    • I see. So Genesis 1 is from Babylonian writings that came from the planet Nibiru. Maybe Joseph Smith was right about the planet Kolob. Wait, is this a Mormon blog?

      • Faulty O-Ring says

        I’m afraid you have slandered Mr. Sitchen. He never called his “Twelth Planet” by the name “Nibiru” (or claimed that it would arrive in 2012, as others have). He merely applied von Daeniken’s ancient astronaut theory to a systematic misreading of ANE texts.

        Rather than “mystery religions” (which were Hellenistic), we are speaking of Zoroastrianism, or perhaps a closely-related Iranian cosmology. The suggestion that Iranian beliefs molded Hebrew ones should not astonish anybody. I mean, have you looked at the Hebrew calendar? Marduk and Ishtar are even in the Bible, sort of (under the names of Mordecai and Esther).

        I am amused by the notion that Levantine religious elements are more plausibly supernatural in their origin than Iranian ones.

        • At first I started to laugh as I thought you were making words up but then I googled them. I am sorry the way you have worded things it simply sounds funny. Long have I wondered at the ancient religions and how they ended up dying out. As I see some still endure today. I have taken days off lately which is really a first for me in several years and have spent many wonderful hours reading into some of this stuff. As I was reading the link posted by CM I wonder if some of the stuff the persians were writing prior to what we have is not borrowed from Israel. It would be hard to believe there was not a lot of trading and ideas certainly would be one of them. Quite amazing this story we are involved in.

      • If you folks don’t realize that most of Genesis emanated from Zortron (in the 3rd universe, 4th quadrant)…then…well…you can just kratzmelni yourselves.

  7. Before you become a Sitchin disciple (I read his first several books):

    (Heiser does Hebrew scholarship for Logos Bible Software.)

    • Faulty O-Ring says

      I assume that his criticisms of Sitchin are sound, but note that Dr. Heiser seems to have some ideosyncratic beliefs of his own involving (as near as I can make it out) government conspiracies, faked “alien” visitations, and demons. Interestingly, he went to Bob Jones University before getting his Ph.D. from Wisconsin. He is apparently a Congregationalist.

  8. we have all seen the photographs of the great Nebula, and we have read about Creation in sacred Scripture, but it’s our poets and our musicians that have always had an edge when it comes to reaction

    ‘I saw Eternity the other night,
    Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
    All calm, as it was bright;
    And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
    Driv’n by the spheres
    Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
    And all her train were hurl’d . . . ”

    this was written by Henry Vaughan four hundred years ago . . . an English poet . . . a timeless tribute to unfolding Creation . . .

    is a film about deep space travel called ‘Contact’ in which the actress Jodie Foster says ‘they should have sent a poet’

    is it possible to capture the ‘reality’ of unfolding Creation observed by those of us who hold within our beings ‘the image of God’ . . . or is the presence of ‘awe’ within us best celebrated in silence ?

    • Is it possible to “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour..”? William Blake seemed to think so. Poets like Blake and Vaughn don’t need to leave terra firma to see these things, though astronauts and “rocket men” do.

      If awe kept us all in silence, then we wouldn’t have those wonderful poems, which not only capture and celebrate the reality of unfolding creation, but are themselves even more miraculous points of creative deepening and unfolding.

  9. So my IT guy is a confessional lutheran (that WI synod) who sometimes reads IM, so I may get an email for posting this. Anyways, I sent it to him during coffee break, and his response is one I hear often:

    “Why should I value the ideas of men over the Word of God?”

    Comments? Responses?