Genesis One as a Work of Literature

Genesis 1:1- 2:3 was one of the last contributions to the opening five books of the Hebrew Bible. It was added when they were reaching their final shape, at the hands of Priestly editors. The following Genesis 2:4 to 3:24 ‘creation’ account is much earlier, with a human-like God strolling around his garden, talking to the first humans, and even making “clothes out of animal skins” for them.

In Gen.1:1, the writer presents the reader with a concise summary of what will follow. Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have the same ‘case’ system as English, but perhaps we can say that the word “beginning” is in the ‘genitive’ case. What’s in focus is the beginning of God’s creating of skies and land. 

Gen.1:2 then sets the scene with information about what God had to deal with. The Earth was “barren with no form of life”, chiefly because it was buried under “a roaring ocean covered with darkness”. This isn’t very promising for the reader, but a hint is given that help is at hand. Either a “wind from God” or “the Spirit of God” was “hovering over the waters”. That word is used of a bird fluttering over its nest, so the writer is suggesting that something is ‘hatching’. The rest of the chapter tells us what.

What follows is a well constructed, well balanced, logically progressing literary framework which reaches a preliminary, then final climax. There are six interrelated days, and a concluding seventh. These “days” are just that, hence the six-fold repetition of “evening came, then morning(each Jewish day begins at sunset). Genesis 1 predates Science, so we’re not dealing here with successive ‘geological epochs’. It’s interesting, however, that this chapter’s God is all for ‘evolution’, since there’s a steady progress from the more simple to the more complex!

Since the first day separates “day” from “night”, the fourth day introduces us to the Sun, Moon and stars. Since the second day separates the seas from the skies, the fifth day fills the seas with fish and the skies with birds. Since the third day separates land from oceans, and also fills the land with vegetation, the sixth day fills the land with animals and humans, and also gives them the vegetation for food. This creator is clearly a God of great dexterity, authority and logical order, who knows what he wants to do and how to do it. Six repetitions of “God said …” is all that’s required. 

The high point of the six days is the creation of man and woman. Only they are “made in the image of God” (these being pre-Darwinian times). Hopefully, having been made ‘kings and queens of the castle’, we won’t repay this ‘regard and trust’ by crashing it down, and devastating the rest of the planet as well as ourselves. 

Although the creation of the humans is a “high point”, it’s worth noting that the 3rd and 6th days each contain twoGod said”s. This suggests that at some point in the development of the Israelite tradition there were eight days of creation. If so, the reason the Priestly writer ‘engineered’ six days, was to give the ultimate pride of place to the setting aside of the Sabbath day. Just as God needed ‘a day off’ after the six spent on creation, so all of us, including our ‘beasts of burden’, should enjoy the same. The world owes the Jewish people a great debt of gratitude!

The Sabbath had an additional importance. After the Israelite people were almost wiped out of existence, being exiled to Babylon, there was an urgent need to maintain their distinctive, collective identity. Keeping the Sabbath was one of the vital observances for achieving that end. It reminded the Israelites not only that their God was the creator of all that is, but also that just as he’d delivered them from hard labour as slaves in Egypt, so he was decreeing for them, a weekly day of rest. 

Whatever our religious, philosophical or scientific views, from a literary point of view, this is a timelessly appealing piece of eye- and ear-catching literature. Especially in the more limited vocabulary of biblical Hebrew, the same key, operative words continually recur, like the repeating chimes in a sounding paean of bells, or the leitmotifs informing and enriching a Wagnerian opera. Rather than dismissively ridiculing it, or unimaginatively literalising it, let’s just simply read and enjoy.

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