You are here

The Meanings of Genesis 1

After examining the meaning of the word "day" in the context of Genesis 1 and within the larger context of Genesis, and considering the cosmological assumptions of ancient Israel, it's time to consider the meaning(s) of the first chapter of Genesis.

Creationists sometimes allege that we can't find any meaning if we read Genesis as anything other than history.

For example, the young earth Logos Research Associates make the claim that

Interpreting earth history in terms of that time scale makes Genesis 1-11 appear as a quaint fable, instead of God breathed truth that recounts the genuine history of the world.

This may sound like a harsh criticism, but I've made essentially the same comparison in my previous post, comparing Genesis 1 with Aesop's The Tortoise and the Hare. But unlike the folks at Logos Research, I don't think a fable is a bad thing. The value of a fable is not in the literal story, but in the deeper meaning it conveys.

I see three distinct meanings in Genesis 1.

The first is rooted in the setting found in verse 2, borrowed from the Enuma Elish. Israel's God—like Babylon's Marduk—hovers over the chaotic, untamed waters. This is a clue for the original audience. One point of this story is to compare the God of Israel with the gods of Babylon. At every turn, the God of Israel is shown to be superior.

Whereas the Babylonian gods took six generations to produce Marduk, who could defeat the sea monster Tiamat, the God of Genesis took a mere six days to create everything. While Marduk could not tame chaos without an epic fight, Israel's God just needed to say the word and it was done. And whereas the Enuma Elish presents the sea monsters as enemies from before the time of the gods, Genesis 1:21 introduces them as just another thing God spoke into being.

So one of the meanings of Genesis 1 is a polemic against Babylonian mythology. By necessity, the author of Genesis 1 creation story had to borrow elements from the Enuma Elish to drive home the point.

The second meaning is found in looking at the structure of the six days. In this view, known as the framework interpretation, the six days represent a thematic organization rather than a historical account of the world's origin. The point of Genesis 1 is to show Israel's God to be a God of order who transforms the chaotic void into an orderly universe which he can then proclaim is "very good".

The evidence that these are thematic groupings can be seen in the parallels between days one and four, which deal with light and darkness; days two and five, which deal with the water and the sky; and days three and six, which deal with the land. There's another parallel in that the first three days are days of "forming"—setting the stage for what is to come—while the next three days are days of "filling"—placing objects into the setting previously created.

  Forming Filling
Light and Darkness light and darkness sun, moon, and stars
Water and Heavens firmament and sky birds and sea monsters
Earth dry ground and plants animals and humans

The structure of Genesis 1 reinforces the message: not only does God bring order from chaos, but he does it in an orderly way. Even as the author of Genesis 1 is adapting and subverting elements of Babylonian mythology, he is doing so in a framework that would have been wholly foreign to the Babylonians.

The third meaning of Genesis 1 is one that even the creationists acknowledge. This is not a story about things that happened over the course of a few days: This story is presented as the justification for the sabbath. Whenever the six days of creation in Genesis 1 are referenced in the rest of scripture, it is in relation to a requirement that we rest on the seventh day. Creationists draw only one conclusion from this.

The correlation between the days of Genesis 1 and the six-day work week enjoined upon people under the Law of Moses would have been unmistakable and could have been understood in no other way but literally.

But as we've already seen, even in ancient times many believers grasped the concept of the sabbath without believing that God needed six whole days to put everything together.

In the end, the disagreement between YECs and OECs about the length of the "days" in Genesis 1 is merely a distraction from the real messages found in this creation story. We have to move beyond the surface level of the text if we want to understand what it's actually saying.

up
54 readers like this.

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer