Genesis One – Its ‘Beginnings’

The Book of Genesis is neither a science book, nor a history book. It’s a story book, containing some of the world’s most memorable tales. In its final form, involving the work of one or more editors, it’s a collection of traditional stories, originally shared by word of mouth, before being written down. These stories came from different tribal groups, places and times, in the history of Israel. Happily, in their final compilation, the editors didn’t try to ‘iron them out’, but respected the ‘bumpiness’ of their individual viewpoints, and left you and me to come to terms with the inevitable repetitions, inconsistencies and even contradictions. These remind us that we’re dealing with myths, legends and folktales, all adding their own richness of diversity, drama and colour to the mix. It’s a great read!

Having noted that Genesis 1 is not science, it’s nonetheless tempting to compare its sudden transformation of the primordial darkness by a vitalising outburst of light, with the equally sudden ‘big bang’ which saw the ‘birth’ of time and space, as we now experience them, from the dimensionless ’black hole’ of the ‘singularity’ which preceded them. The explosive ‘wind’, or ‘dark energy’, from that pitch black beginning is still driving the galaxies onwards and outwards towards infinity. But back to Genesis …

Over the last two centuries, scholars have shown that there are at least four different sources underlying the ‘Pentateuch’, (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). The earliest source, (J), was from the southern kingdom of Judah. Then a second source, (E), was brought south by refugees from the devastated northern kingdom, and some of it used to supplement ‘J’. The third source was (D), which is now Deuteronomy, the final book of the Pentateuch. The last source was (P) which represents the interests of the priestly class. This is the source that has given us the first ‘creation’ story (Genesis 1), the later ‘creation’ story, (Genesis 2 & 3) being, (confusingly perhaps), an earlier, significantly different, version from ‘J’. Since it was the priests who produced the Pentateuch’s ‘final edition’, they understandably made their account its first ‘chapter’.

Being a priestly source, Genesis 1 has a style that isn’t ‘down to earth’ and anecdotal (like 2 & 3), but much more lofty, detached, formal and carefully ordered. The arrival of light on day 1, is matched by that of sun, moon and stars on day 4. The separation of sea and sky on day 2, by the coming of fish and birds on day 5. The appearance of land and plants on day 3, by the animals and humans, who will inhabit the land and eat the plants, on day 6. (Genesis 1 being apparently vegetarian)! Since the raison d’être of the priests was advocacy and oversight of the proper observance of religious ritual, the climax of their account is not the creation of human beings, but the setting aside of the 7th day as a ‘Sabbath’, a cessation of all daily work. We owe the Israelites an ongoing vote of thanks, for originating the requirement for one day of rest in every seven.  

We have to note, however, that the Israelites were neither the earliest, nor the only inhabitants of the ancient near east. There were other nations who preceded them by very many centuries, such as the Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians, as well as neighbouring peoples such as those of Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast. These all had rich literary, religious and artistic cultures, and the editors of Genesis, being familiar with them, made good use of these myths, legends and folktales in the construction of their own. They adopted, modified and rejected different ideas and motifs, as they brought into being their own unique contribution to the world’s religious literature. Next time, we’ll see this in operation in the first three verses of Genesis 1 …..

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