Genesis 1 – from a Different Angle

The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was compiled, over several centuries, using earlier materials, oral and written, from 4 different main sources, the latest one representing the interests of the Israelite priesthood. 

The 1st section of Genesis comes from this priestly source, and runs from 1:1 to 2:4a. The bible wasn’t divided into chapters until the middle ages, and the divisions weren’t always well placed. In addition, this section, though appearing before it, was written/edited later than the next section about the Garden of Eden. The two sections are inconsistent, but the editors didn’t reconcile them. They didn’t think they were writing history, and would’ve been astonished that some people would later imagine that they were.

This section is called a ‘creation story’, and it’s been skilfully put together, using an inter-related three-plus-three framework. On day 1 there’s light, and on day 4 the sun and moon are light givers. On day 2 there’s the dome of the sky and the sea under it, and on day 5 birds in the sky and fish in the sea. On day 3 there’s land and the plants that grow on it, and on day 6 the land animals and humans who eat the plants (Genesis 1 is strictly vegetarian).

If we recall. however, that this section is priestly material, we can view it from a different angle in which it doesn’t climax at 1:26, with the creation of humans, but at 2:3, with the setting apart of the sabbath day. We can then see other things as being of particular importance to priests. The movements of the sun and moon were vital for regulating their annual cycle of worship, festivals and ritual observances such as the sabbath. Dominion over the living creatures was important authorisation for the priests who slaughtered them as sacrifices. We can then reflect on the 8 steps in the process of creation. The 3rd and 6th days each contain two steps. The earliest versions of this story may have had an 8 day creation, which the priestly editors changed to 6, to highlight the supreme importance of the 7th, the sabbath. It’s noteworthy that the book of Deuteronomy, in 5:15, gives the reason for the sabbath as being, not the creation story, but God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. But then that’s from a different source than this priestly one!

This priestly need to highlight the sabbath may be related to evidence suggesting its observation was lax, prior to the exile of the Israelites into Babylon. Once a remnant had returned, and needed to observe the religious customs that gave them a clear, separate identity from all other peoples around them, the sabbath day was a most important one, and decidedly worthy of being highlighted as a culmination in Genesis 1:1 to 2:3a. 

In itself, the sabbath day was a highly commendable, humane and sensible observance, knowing as we now do that periods of rest are essential for human health and welfare, leading to an increase, not a lessening, in productivity. It was equitable and non-discriminatory, in that it included not only any guests in the house, whether Israelites or not, but also the domestic servants, and the domesticated animals. There were, of course, the inevitable literalists who took the instruction to “do no work” as disallowing taking active care of those falling ill, or becoming victims of accidents, but enlightened Jewish rabbis decreed that, “Every case of danger of life allows for the suspension of the Sabbath”. That reminds me of a man named Jesus.  

As it happens, there is no evidence of any other people, at any other time, coming up with the idea of a weekly day of rest. We should all be ever grateful to the Jewish people for this very important, longstanding contribution to human health and to social welfare.

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