I. Creation of Heaven and Earth (1:1–2:3)

Creation's mystery and its Maker beckon us to know the One in whom “we live and move and have our being.” The opening section of Genesis introduces us to the Creator. He is the main character of the book, even all Scripture. The creation account is theocentric, not creature centered. Its purpose is to glorify the Creator by magnifying him through the majesty of the created order. The passage is doxological as well as didactic, hymnic as well as history. “God” is the grammatical subject of the first sentence (1:1) and continues as the thematic subject throughout the account. “And God said” is the recurring element that gives 1:1–2:3 cohesion as he is the primary actor. For this reason, one could use as the title of this first section the affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed, “God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.”

Literary Structure. The literary contours of this first section are disputed among scholars. Some translations and many commentators have chosen to divide 2:4 so as to end the creation account in 1:1–2:4a, leaving the latter half to begin a second account of creation in 2:4b–3:24 (e.g., NRSV, REB, NJPS). This reconstruction is related to the proposal that Genesis contains two separate and independent creation stories having different origins and conflicting theological perspectives: 1:1–2:4a is credited to the so-called Priestly tradition (P), and 2:4b–3:24 to the supposed old epic tradition, the Yahwist (J). The recurring phrase “this is the account of” (traditionally, “these are the generations of [tôlĕdôt]”) is considered the distinctive terminology of the P source in Genesis. Its appearance at 2:4a is assigned to the preceding narrative, for otherwise a P statement introduces the J account of origins. Since the language of 2:4a has clear similarities with 1:1, it is contended that 2:4a is best taken as the précis of the previous narrative and forms a literary inclusio, marking out the beginning and end of the priestly story.

There are problems, however, that discourage dividing the verse in this way. First, the tôlĕdôt formula in 2:4a, if taken as a summary, would differ from its common use in Genesis where it uniformly refers to genealogy or narrative that follows, not precedes. The tôlĕdôt rubric is best taken as a binding device or hinge verse (see Introduction) and always refers to what follows, though it does allude to the preceding so as to create a linkage between two sections. Second, the genealogy or narrative that is introduced by the tôlĕdôt usually concerns those who descended from the parent or family named in the tôlĕdôt rather than the head of the family himself. Again, 2:4a if taken with 1:1–2:3 would not conform to the common tôlĕdôt usage since that section tells of the origins of creation (“heavens and earth”) and not what became of it. Third, the chiastic structure of 2:4a and 2:4b argues for retaining the unity of the verse (see 2:4 discussion) as an introduction to what follows.

Moreover, 1:1–2:3 has been shown to be a symmetric, cohesive unit that makes 2:4a, if taken as its conclusion, an awkward appendage. What matches 1:1 is not 2:4a but 2:1–3, where the seventh day serves as a satisfying denouement to the account's narrative progression. The key terms of 1:1bārā’ (“created”), ’ĕlōhîm (“God”), and haššāmayim wĕ’ēt hā’āreṣ (“the heavens and the earth”)—are repeated in 2:1–3 but in reverse order, which recommends that 2:1–3 forms the inclusio ending to the first section without the unnecessary 2:4a. The final three words of 2:3 (bārā’ ’ĕlōhîm la‘ăśôt, lit. “God created to do”) also repeat the primary lexical and theological terms of chap. 1 so as to reflect its content. Also there is the striking similarity in the use of “seven” and its multiples in 1:1 and 2:1–3. As a whole 1:1–2:3 shows a proclivity to groups of sevens, which would further suggest that 1:1–2:3 is an inclusive section.

The arrangement of the passage consists of an introduction and seven paragraphs. The introduction identifies the Creator and creation (1:1–2); six paragraphs are carved up according to six creation days (1:3–31); and the final paragraph regards the climactic seventh day, the day of consecration (2:1–3). The presentation of each creation day follows a predictable order: (1) “God said,” (2) command given, (3) the fact of creation, (4) God's evaluation, (5) the boundaries of the created element, and (6) the naming. This pattern is not slavish; there is variation within the account, but this does not distract from the impression of the general pattern, namely, that the creation is shaped by a supreme Overseer.

In v. 2 the condition of the earth as “a wasteland and empty” (the literal meaning of tōhû wābōhû) provides the foil by which God directs his creation agenda. Since the earth (’ereṣ) is lifeless, God sets about creating it inhabitable (i.e., no longer an unproductive wasteland) and inhabited (no longer empty) in six creation days, or two parallel sets of three days each. Days three and six, which conclude each pair, are highlighted by the repetition of the divine word “And God said” (vv. 9, 11, 24, 26) and the divine assessment “and it was good” (vv. 10, 12, 25, 31). There are eight acts of creation, one on each day except days three and six, when there are two. Day three commences a productive earth that provides vegetation for both animals and humans: “Let the land [’ereṣ] produce vegetation” (v. 11); day six describes its first habitation: “Let the land [’ereṣ] produce living creatures” (v. 24). Unlike vegetation and the animals, where the “land” (’ereṣ) is God's intermediary, the second act of creation on day six (mankind) is achieved by God directly (vv. 26–27).

Unproductive Becomes

Uninhabited Becomes

Productive

Inhabited

Day 1 Light and Darkness

Day 4 Luminaries

Day 2 Sky and Waters

Day 5 Fish and Fowl

Day 3 a. Land and Seas

Day 6 a. Beasts

b. Vegetation

b. Human: male and female

This culminates in the seventh day, which has no matching member and is distinctive in many ways from the former six, distinguished as a day of rest and consecration.

Before we turn to the exposition, we will preview the primary theological affirmations of 1:1–2:3 and how the passage fits into the canonical shape of the whole Scripture. This introductory discussion is not a digression, for without a proper historical and theological orientation the power of the Genesis message is lost on the modern reader.

Lord of Creation and History. The creation account, as the preamble to the Pentateuch, announces that the God of Israel, the covenant Deliverer of his people, is Creator of all that exists. The opening verse is the theological presupposition of true biblical religion: the Lord of covenant and the God of creation are one and the same. This story of beginnings introduces the thematic interests of Genesis as well as the whole Pentateuch; it tells of God's creation of “land” and his promise of “blessing” and “seed” (progeny). These three motifs integrate the universal history (1:1–11:26) and the patriarchal accounts (11:27–50:26) under the overarching rubric of tōledōt. The Pentateuch is developed along the lines of these three motifs, and, for that matter, the continuing Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings) reflects the same concerns. It tells how Abraham's seed faltered in their faithfulness to God, forfeiting their blessing, and suffered expulsion from the land of their fathers. God's promissory blessings of land and seed had their inception at creation (1:10, 22, 28) and hence are universal promises bestowed upon all those created in the “image of God” (1:26–27). Genesis 1–11 shows how the universal blessing is realized only through a particular lineage, namely, through the progeny of Seth and his descendant Shem (chaps. 5; 11). Even more so, the genealogies narrow on the one man Abraham (11:26), who is deemed the recipient of divine blessing par excellence (12:1–3). Creation therefore entails the beneficent intentions of God, sets the course for their outworkings in human history, and prepares us for the ensuing account (2:4–11:26) of how God, despite recurring human disobedience, preserves his promises through the appointed seed of Abraham (11:27–50:26).

We have said that the telling of the creation account is framed so as to proclaim and demonstrate that Israel's God is the one and only true Creator Lord without rival. More than this, its depiction of God and his creation of the world resonates with what Israel had come to recognize in the words and deeds of their God, who formed them and ordered their life as a redeemed community at Sinai.

First, God is depicted as autonomous Master who has by his uncontested word commanded all things into existence and ordered their design and purpose. The spoken “word” is the preeminent motif of Genesis's affirmation concerning God as Creator. Egypt's Memphite Theology has creation by the speech of the deity Ptah, but it is a magical utterance that energizes life, whereas in Hebrew cosmology divine decree is the transcendent word (see Introduction). Creation by word stands in stark contrast to Mesopotamian cosmogony. In the mythopoetic stories of the ancient Near East, the ordered universe owed its existence to a cosmogonic struggle whereby “cosmos” resulted from the victorious clash of a hero deity overcoming a monster who restrains order. The gods of creation were themselves the product of the generative primeval material. The cosmogonic stories told little about creation itself but focused on theogony (origins of the gods). The gods of creation were depicted primarily as re-ordering unruly primeval matter, not creating matter. Moreover, cosmogonic myths were sociological in function and goal, presenting a divine, cosmic explanation or pattern for the established social system.

The ancients’ understanding of origins was tied to their concept of the natural world as alive and personal. They believed that nature was a divine “Thou,” not an impersonal “It,” and that natural phenomena were related to the activities of the gods. There was a mysterious correspondence between what happened in heaven and what occurred on earth. For instance, procreation among the family, herd, and crop was dependent upon sexual relations among the deities. As a result, fertility deities were focal in the thinking of ancient religions. The existence and well-being of life were dependent in some way upon the activity and favor of the gods. The fertility deities among ancient Near Eastern peoples, no matter by what name, were responsible for the reproductive forces of the universe.

Ancient myth reflects this ongoing pattern of struggle between the forces of plenty and those features of nature that threatened prosperity. The vehicle of literary myth expressed this understanding of the world's processes by describing the lives of the gods. Myth was not just entertaining fable; it conveyed a heavenly imitation of earth, like a cosmic mirror that reflected terrestrial, human experience. Myth is like looking up into heaven and seeing ourselves masquerading as gods. Therefore the gods have the properties of everyday human experience and feelings—love and marriage, giving birth, fighting, and war. The gods were truly the creations of man! Ancient myth, then, tells of a threatening and unpredictable world where the gods operate, placing society at their mercy. Ancient religion celebrated the gods but also attempted to control them through cultic rituals.

Against this backdrop the Genesis account speaks volumes regarding the uniqueness of biblical revelation. Indeed, “revelation” was required to liberate antiquity from its superstitions and fear of the world that was viewed as a playground for capricious deities. “The God Israel worships is the lord of nature, but he is not the soul of nature.” Biblical religion has as its fundamental premise that God is and that he is Sovereign Lord above and over nature, not bound up in the process of creation nor a fertility participant in the cycle of life and death, plenty and famine. There is no Hebrew theogony. God has no father. He has no consort. “The idea of creation by the word preserves first of all the most radical essential distinction between Creator and creature. Creation cannot be even remotely considered an emanation from God; it is not somehow an overflow or reflection of his being, i.e., of his divine nature, but rather is a product of his personal will.”

We have said that ancient myth commonly portrays creation in terms of conflict between forces in which the creator-gods subjugate their cosmic enemies and bring an ordered universe out of disarray. This underlying conception of order versus chaos is reflected in the Bible by the employment of word imagery, but there is far more here. It is not just that God controls an uninhabitable earth (1:2); rather Hebrew cosmology declares that the existence of all things is due to God's own free, determined will. This is stated explicitly in 1:1 and is implied throughout the account. The author was not a mimic who historicized a pagan version in order to satisfy a developed Yahwism. Although it is too strong to claim that the biblical account is a direct polemic, it is clear that the author had no use for pagan ideology and carefully distinguished biblical cosmology from pagan misconceptions. The author chose the conventional language of his times, but he was not a conventional thinker. In the biblical tradition the universe is creatio ex nihilo (see 1:1–2 discussion). Moreover, in distinction from pagan myth, which is always timeless and stands alone outside history, biblical creation inaugurates history (“In the beginning”). Creation is inseparably linked with the tôlĕdôt (“account”) of human history (see 2:4 discussion).

Also God's authority is demonstrated by the efficacy of his spoken word. The pattern of creation includes with the mandate an executed response. God commanded, “Let there be light,” and the text says, “there was light” (1:3). The recurring declaration “and it was so” (1:7, 9, 11, 15, 24) leaves no doubt about the mastery of the creative word. Moreover, God's authority is indicated by the act of naming the constituent parts of the created order (1:5, 8, 10). The three acts of naming are related to the three acts of separation: day and night (v. 5), skies (v. 8), and land from seas (v. 10). In the ancient world the naming of an entity signified and defined its existence. By giving names to his creatures, God's word authenticates their existence and demonstrates his superiority.

Second, the literary arrangement of the six days plus one (seven) depicts God as the authoritative Designer who invokes structure, boundaries, as well as gives life—all culminating in the sanctification of the day of rest. Also, the narrative has the repeated use of the number “seven” and multiples of seven, followed in frequency by the use of “three's” and “ten's.” The macrostructure of seven days is transparent, but also the first verse has seven words and the second verse fourteen words (7 x 2). The last section (2:1–3), concerning the seventh day, consists of thirty-five words (7 x 5) and possesses the expression “seventh day” three times. The days consist of two groups of three parallel, corresponding days, leaving the final seventh day without a match. God speaks ten times, with seven commands for creation and creatures and three pronouncements concerning humanity. The divine evaluation “it was good” occurs seven times (“very good,” the seventh). This numerical repetition speaks to the literary unity of the narrative and emphasizes the idea of perfection and completion in God's finished creation.

This schematic arrangement marks the harmony and symmetry of the created order; the Designer sets limits for the creation. The skies, land, and seas know their place. They hearken to their Master's dictum, not overreaching their imposed boundaries. Life forms, including vegetation, are instructed to reproduce within the restrictions of their own “kinds” (vv. 11–12, 21, 24). Neither God nor his world is capricious. He produces an orderly, predictable, and dependable world. Also, neither God nor man is threatened by rampaging waters, engulfing darkness, or teeming monsters; God sets the rhythm and course of nature, maintaining its tempo. Thus, the world is “good,” and in its entirety it is “very good.” The world is friendly, valued, and to be utilized without fear; here is “the good order of life” that human life enjoys with the Creator.

Furthermore, the creation account, tied to the chronological tôlĕdôt scheme of Genesis, indicates that God as Creator has established history as his arena of revelation and action. In biblical cosmology creation is event, an inauguration of history that will culminate in the eschatological “day of the Lord.” Pagan cosmogonies commonly are concerned with rehearsing the eternal present, but chronology is the controlling framework for the telling of origins in chaps. 1–11.

That Israel's concept of Yahweh acting in history has no correspondence among pagan nations has been challenged. Although it is true that the pagan deities intersect with historical events, bringing about national outcomes, this is not the same as the Israelite idea of God as Lord of history whose motivation is grounded in history and who has an encompassing plan for history. Pagan deities are motivated by mythical concerns and act in continuity with the mythic world, while biblical religion insists that Yahweh always transcends nature.

If chaps. 1–2 are theological story, without correspondence to history, the creation account says nothing about cosmos or covenant-history, for both are intertwined in history. In Sumerian and Babylonian traditions, creation is paired with the poetic hymns of praise for the gods and in some instances related to incantations and temple rituals. Such myths were designed to invoke praise for the creator-god. Yet Genesis remains in a narrative arrangement, unlike the mythopoetic style of Mesopotamia. Though it shows some hymnic echoes, the presentation of 1:1–2:3 is cast in a historical framework, analogous to the human week, and not in the genre of descriptive praise. Genesis no doubt is implicitly calling Israel to praise its Creator, but it is in the Psalms where the explicit call to praise is heard (e.g., Pss 19; 104). This praise of God as Creator is tied to the historical deeds of God, who delivered Israel from its enemies (e.g., Ps 107:32–37; cf. also Isa 40–48).

For later Israel the affirmation concerning the life-giving word was central to their experience. Although God transcends the material world, he is only known in terms of his self-determined relationship to it. God is the autonomous “i am who i am,” the self-existing One (Exod 3:14), but more importantly for Israel, God is the “I am” who revealed himself to the Fathers and would deliver his people from Egypt's bondage (Exod 3:15). Thus, God is known primarily by his salvific acts in behalf of his people. Similarly, 1:1 indicates that God is known in terms of his relationship with the world. He is not defined or explained either in the cosmogonic thinking of the ancients or the philosophical categories of moderns. He is met in history, and that history is told primarily by historical discourse.

Also the Israelite's entire way of life was ordered by the words of God as spoken through the prophet Moses. The Ten Words and the covenant-law tradition were uttered by God in the hearing of Moses, either on the mountain or at the Tent of Meeting. The commandments of God were not “idle words” but the source of life for the community (Deut 32:47). “For the man who obeys them will live by them” (Lev 18:5). These words secured order for the community and promised prosperity, but they also were the heartbeat of the obedient who came to faith—those whose hearts were circumcised (Deut 30:6, 11–14).

The New Testament acknowledges that God is Creator and Redeemer, and he has revealed himself fully in his Son Jesus Christ. That same God who is known relationally as Creator and Covenant Lord is John's Logos, who has dared to become incarnate with us (John 1:14). The Word is known both by his relationship “with God” and also his relationship with all things as their source (John 1:1–3; Col 1:15–17). He who had no biography took on one so that he might redeem human history (Gal 4:4). He alone explains God to us (John 1:18), and only those rightly related to him by faith are born “children of God” (John 1:12). While the Christian community affirmed the Hebrew tradition concerning God as author of all things (e.g., Acts 4:24–30; Rom 11:36), it identified Christ as the incarnate Creator-Redeemer who has equal footing with God (John 1:3; Heb 1:2; Col 1:15–16; 1 Cor 8:6). More importantly, the creation finds its focus and culmination in Christ, who has subjected all things under his lordship through the cross and resurrection (Eph 1:9–10; Phil 2:6–11). Those who are in Christ are new creations (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), and he in his regal glory will usher in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1).

The apostolic tradition recognizes too that the promise of life in the law transcends the social operations of the community. For while the righteous lived in accordance with the law, it was by the word of faith, affirmed in this law, that established righteousness. Thus the gospel was available to whoever “confessed with their heart” the Lord Jesus (Rom 10:5–10). The Christian voice declares, drawing on creation language, that in the divine Word “was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:4). So it is that this creative Word that brought the worlds into existence is the same Word that creates Israel (e.g., Isa 43:15), orders Israel's life, and proclaims the gospel of faith whereby the believer is liberated from the darkness of sin.

Response of God's People. In the creation account human life is explicitly charged with caring for the terrestrial world (1:28; cf. 2:15, 20). The proper response of God's people is to subjugate the created order through procreation, responsible conservation, and exploration. At the command of God Israel subjugated the “good” land of Canaan. It was the gift of God, and as tenant Israel was required to act in holiness lest the land and its people suffer (Lev 25–26; Deut 28). But we know that sin's effects have meant not only death for man but also a tortured creation that languishes “subjected to futility,” awaiting its liberation from decay (Gen 3:17–19; Rom 8:18–25). Just as humanity must be redeemed, so must the creation. This, Paul declared, will occur at the advent of Christ, who will redeem through the resurrection our mortal bodies and will transform creation. Hence, ultimately, this subjugation will be achieved through the last Adam, who will bring the heavens and the earth to their knees and release them finally from the bondage of sin's curse (Heb 2:5–9; Phil 2:10), at which time there will be “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet 3:10, 13).

At present we who are the children of God enjoy our redemption by faith, yet we realize that our full inheritance is eschatological. Similarly we acknowledge that creation remains untamed and will not come into its full liberation until the “day of the Lord,” although we strive toward the mastery of the present world through responsible stewardship enabled by human advancements in knowledge and technology. “The Christian will neither hold that at present ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ nor write the world off as belonging to the devil.”

Israel's response to God as Creator was obedient trust and worship. We have said earlier that the God of Israel was understood by the Hebrews as autonomous Ruler who transcended nature and brought into being all that exists through his irreversible commands. The universe was systematically and progressively organized by the establishment of boundaries through separations and limits. By delegated authority the operations of divine rule were bestowed upon his supreme creation, human life. The universe inherently possesses a hierarchy of value and function. “Cosmic order depends upon maintaining clear demarcations among the elements of the universe. God maintains the division between light and dark, waters and dry land, world above from world below. People are to maintain the other divisions in the universe.” Hence, human life was distinguished from the divine above and the animals below. Through the Mosaic law the community honored divisions, distinctions, and hierarchy within human society itself. There were a host of “classifications” that pertained to sexual behavior, dietary laws, and the holy in cultic matters. For Israel to transgress the covenant-law that governed their lives meant unsettling the cosmic order and bringing upon itself the response of God, whose weapons were the destabilizing forces of the environment, such as floods, drought, and pestilence. It was incumbent upon later Israel to honor the Lord as Creator-Redeemer through careful observance of the covenant-law.

Some have supposed that chap. 1 is a liturgical text, but there is no compelling evidence of such a creation ritual in Israel. Moreover, its polemical tenor opposing the myth-ritual practices of the ancient Near East obstruct a liturgical explanation for its composition. Rather, we must turn to the voice of the poets to discover how Israel integrated creation theology into the life of worship. The psalmist implored all peoples to worship the Maker of heaven and earth (Ps 150:1–6), who has sustained the world through his mighty word and deeds (Pss 33:6–12; 103:19–22; 113:4–5; 145:10–13). For God has given order to the universe (104:1–9), and the heavens testify to his eternal glory (Ps 19:1–6[1–7]). Therefore all people must respond in obedience by moral uprightness (19:7–14[8–15]). God is found trustworthy in sustaining his creation; he provides for all creatures without fail (104:27–30). The psalmist inferred that since the heavens and the earth obey the utterance of the Lord, do men and women, his most excellent creative work, chance to disobey his moral precepts?

Creation theology was also an important source of speculation in the wisdom tradition of Israel. “Genesis 1:1 stands behind all biblical wisdom tradition,” which considered critical the consequences of creation's order for human behavior (e.g., Prov 14:31; 17:5). The achievement of successful living was through conformity to the inherent order in the cosmos, but that way of life could only be grasped through the “fear of the Lord,” who as Maker of heaven and earth alone possessed wisdom for living (Prov 8:22–31). This is especially true of Job's queries, where linkage between cosmic order and God's justice in human affairs is supposed. God's response to Job was designed to show Job that he did not have the understanding required to run the moral order of human affairs any more than he had the power or wisdom to have designed the natural world (38:1–41:34). God alone understands the cosmos as its sole Maker and Designer, and he alone is qualified to keep in balance the tenuous aspects of the world—both its inanimate and animate properties. Hence, he alone can operate the moral order, and he accomplishes this not by a mechanical principle of retributive justice but according to his moral integrity.

From the prophets we hear the excelling witness that the Lord is both Judge and Savior. Divine judgment upon wicked Israel and the proud nations is grounded in God's role as Creator who imposes just deserts against the rebellious. Isaiah's theology of comfort and restoration (chaps. 40–66) was anchored in God as Creator and only Lord. Because God is the Lord of all things, he is free to create for Israel a “new thing” (43:15, 18–19; 45:21; 48:3, 6–8). As Lord of the universe he alone determined the course of the nations (40:12–31), for the Gentile gods were mere idols who could not save (43:10–13; 44:6–20; 45:11–20). God created Israel (42:5; 43:1), and he will redeem his people, resulting in the transformation of the old into “new heavens and a new earth” (60:5–14; 62:6–9; 65:17–18).

—New American Commentary