The opening declaration of the Bible (1:1) is that God is ultimate and prior to the universe, and that nature and man owe their being and continuance to Him. The "creation account" tells us as much about God as about His creation: He is a personal, sovereign, rational, moral being. The grand fact to which the entire Genesis narrative swiftly points is that the eternal God is also the God of creation, of conscience, of judgment, of human redemption and restoration.
After the basic assertion attributing creation to God alone, the statement, "the earth was," is cast into such form in Hebrew that we may catch its force by some such translation as this: "And the earth lay there" (1:2). How long? We are not told. The statement allows an adjustment with the claims of the geologist who requires vast ages for geologic processes. We understand the opening statement to mean: When God began His creative work, He first made the universe "in the rough." "Heaven and earth" is the Hebrew way of saying "the universe."
The Spirit of God mysteriously moved and worked on this chaotic mass, ordering and preparing it for the great things yet to be brought into being. The six great days of creation exhibit the Spirit's work. In them all things basic to human existence were marvelously made.
Whether the days of Genesis follow a long time period, whether they are six immediately successive literal days (the writer's view) or six days of divine activity separated by long intervals, or whether they are themselves to be understood as ages, are questions that have long troubled expositors. Some facts are plain. The inspired writer of Genesis is more interested in events than in chronology, a characteristic of the Eastern mind. He is not writing with an eye on the harmony of religion and science in some far-off century whose basic interest is in the arrangement of fossils according to complexity of their anatomy or physical structure. While he notes that there are divinely graded "kinds" of life, his emphasis falls on the dependent, moral and spiritual character of the universe ("and God saw that it was good," 1:4, 12, 18, and so forth) and on the towering significance of man as a moral agent.
The first day witnessed the creation of light, that mysterious form of energy whose wonders and marvels the twentieth century scientist has only begun to understand. This light is thought of as merely existing and flooding the universe; we do not know if it was localized anywhere. How it existed apart from the sun, the center from which light was later to emanate, we are not told.
The second day witnessed the inauguration of physical laws summed up in the word "firmament," which is also defined (1:8) as "heaven." It involved chiefly the separation of waters into lower and upper. The firmament gives us such essentials for human existence as surface waters, an intervening air-space, and a heaven with clouds.
On the third day solid earth and water, apparently mixed in one conglomerate until then, were separated so that the earth appeared, and continents and seas came into being. That day also vegetation clothed the bare earth.
On the fourth day the luminaries were created. Certain of the opaque heavenly bodies, already brought into being in the initial creation, were now made luminous. Light was centered chiefly in the sun, and to a lesser degree, in the moon and the stars.
On the fifth day all kinds of sea animals and birds were brought into being.
On the sixth day God created the various mammals that move on the ground, and man. The creation of man is very obviously represented as the climax of the work that God wrought in all these days. It is introduced by special planning on God's part, the divine words "Let us" (God speaks in the fulness of His majestic being) intimating the importance of this step. Nor should we overlook the singular dignity with which God invested man. This is indicated chiefly by the parallel phrases "in (God's) image and according to (his) likeness," that is to say, very much like God. We are given no definition at this point as to what the image of God involves; yet the high station of man could not be set forth more emphatically than by the statement that man is much like God. Man's dominant position in the realm of created things is mentioned.
When it is said (1:31) that all that God had made was "very good," the idea of perfection is involved. The statement indicates that in each case God achieved what His divine wisdom had intended. This allows for growth and development under God, but it excludes imperfection and sin. The Creator Himself could rejoice over His work of creation.
After the introduction, the Book of Genesis provides headings to mark its own divisions, and these headings may be regarded as an outline of the plan of composition. The Hebrew word toledoth (story) is used thus ten times (cf. 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, and so forth). The King James Version regularly but inaccurately translates this word as "generations," and the Revised Standard Version employs varying translations.
What this second chapter contains must be fitted, in point of time, within the framework of the six days. Its concentration on the activity of the sixth day deepens the impression already given by the opening chapter that the drama of heaven and earth finds its crucial center in man, divinely stationed at the apex of the world of creatures.
Concerning man we are given additional information. His creation involves a lower factor unmentioned in chapter 1; he was formed from the dust in which divine breath was infused. Man is a creature as well as a bearer of God's image. Man was especially favored, moreover, by his assignment to a special place of habitation, "a garden in Eden." Tokens of divine favor surround him on every hand.
Two distinctive trees are set in the garden, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. Some scholars think (as does the writer) that these trees are best described as sacramental in character, the one providing opportunity to acquire further knowledge as man needed it in this earthly life, and the other having the capacity of imparting indestructible physical life. Other scholars regard their function as symbolic, the one pointing to the requirement of moral obedience to God's command in the discrimination of good and evil, and the other to man's prospect of undying life in Eden on condition of obedience.
It is further shown (2:15-22) in what a fatherly manner God dealt with the first pair. They had a place of habitation; they had an assigned task, a pleasant one; they had permission to eat freely of the fruit of the trees in the garden; they had one simple, clear-cut prohibition: Do not eat of the tree of knowledge. Man was not cumbered by a perplexing array of commandments which might be forgotten or overlooked; he had one single commandment that summarized the will of God for him.
Since the relation of the sexes to each other would always be a matter of concern to mankind, the account also furnishes details of the precise manner of the creation of woman. As a result we can understand her and her destiny better. To prepare man for this divine gift of a life's companion, God assigns a task to man beforehand, the naming of the various creatures that surround him. This may not have been so confusing and complicated a task as we are now inclined to assume. The species may not as yet have been numerous; the major classes alone may have existed. But the immediate purpose behind this assignment was to produce in Adam an awareness that all creatures were living in pairs except him, and that no form of animal life could meet his lack. That prepared him for the gift of a helper to be at his side. That the first pair's nakedness was in no sense a cause of embarrassment for them attests the state of innocence in which they lived.
Sooner or later a test had to come to a free moral being like man. This chapter tells how it came. A factual account of what transpired is offered. While elements of mystery appear, this is not allegory. Since the New Testament, which is the standard for our interpretation of the Old, refers to the Fall as an historical event, we must regard it as such (1 Cor. 15:21).
The mystery centers largely in the person of the tempter, referred to only as "the serpent." For reasons not disclosed, no further identification is given. Satan does not appear by name. Yet the sinister figure of this chapter is morally accountable, for after the Fall he is treated as such and his punishment is decreed. When we claim that Satan here tempted Adam and Eve, we are not indulging in vague surmises, for the New Testament confirms this (Jn. 8:44; Rom. 16:20; Rev. 12:9).
The arch-liar begins by calling into question the truth of God's word. He skilfully leads the woman to question the goodness of God. Such questioning is mistrust and doubt, the opposite of faith. The very moment the woman began to mistrust God the Fall took place; the act of taking forbidden fruit was merely evidence that the Fall had occurred. The woman apparently used the same approach upon Adam when "she gave some to her husband, and he ate."
Immediately, evidences of a serious disturbance appear in the character and attitude of the first human pair. Serious moral damage has occurred; from this point, man is afraid of God and shuns him. Man tries to lie himself out of the difficulty, and goes so far as to blame God for what has taken place. Man deteriorates speedily from the being God originally made him to be.
Though punishment has to be laid upon man, there is at the very outset proof of divine grace. A strong promise, rich in hope, is pronounced even as the Lord is addressing the serpent (3:15). This promise, clear evidence of divine grace, is that "the seed of the woman" — a person or persons born of womankind — in the course of time will inflict crushing defeat on the tempter; for a crushed head is fatal. ("Bruise" is not to be taken in the mild sense, because of the contrast of "head" and "heel") This verse has been with good reason regarded from days of old as the "first gospel" (proto-evangel).
But at the same time various disabilities are laid upon mankind — pain, toil, physical death, and banishment from the garden. In a sense the curse threatened was instantly carried out; and man did die on the day he ate of the forbidden fruit. He set the barrier of sin between himself and God, and such separation, or alienation, from God is death in the most tragic sense of the word. Physical death is a further consequence.
But God in bis mercy prevented man from making his miserable lot irremediable. For from the manner in which the case is stated in Genesis 3:22, we are forced to conclude that the eating of the fruit of the tree of life, which had originally been destined to confirm man in his holy estate, now would have been the greatest calamity. It would have prevented him from ever escaping by death this degraded physical existence. For man's own good, God therefore successfully barred our first parents from access to the tree of life, driving them from the garden and placing the cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the garden entrance.
The closed gate to paradise and the complete disbarment of man from his original habitation are the fateful consequences of the Fall. No more tragic story than that of the third chapter could be written in the annals of mankind.
Sin in Vicious Form (4:1-15). Once sin has entered the world and man has fallen, the terrible impetus of evil is made apparent in the narrative that follows. The latent possibilities of sin become tragically apparent to our first parents in the lives of their own sons. Brother slays brother.
When God calls the first murderer to account, Cain uses foolish evasions; he speaks bitterly, as though God were expecting too much of him; he denies his guilt until confronted with it by God. His insolence turns into despair (4:13). For reasons best known to God, Cain's life is spared; he is permitted to live, perhaps in his very unhappiness a warning to those persons who in those early days peopled the earth. God promises him safety against any avenger that might later appear on the scene, by some "sign" (not "mark") that God wrought for Cain's reassurance. Yet the murderer is condemned to the life of "a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth."
The Family of the Cainites (4:16-24). At this point two branches of the human family develop as relatively distinct groups. Cain's descendants are recorded by names and significant achievements through several generations, beginning with Lamech, the bigamist. The spirit of innovation in worldly pursuits was strong, and his children forged ahead in new endeavors. Jabal, the originator of the idea of the movable home, the tent, moved with his flocks when pasturage demanded a change of location, thus becoming the first nomad. Jubal devoted himself to music and invented stringed and wind instruments. Tubal-Cain blazed a trail in metallurgy by making cutting instruments of bronze and iron. Utter absorption in earthly things characterizes and pervades the descendants of Cain.
The Family of the Sethites (4:25, 26). Still another family group is described in contrast to the family of Cain. The brief indications take us into an entirely different setting. When Seth is born, he is at once regarded as a gift from God, given under very special circumstances ("God has appointed me another child," v. 25). The very next verse, which speaks of men beginning "to call upon the name of the Lord," is rightly construed to indicate the beginning of public worship.
The development of one of the two branches of the human family is traced in stereotyped statistics, each patriarch being reported in practically the same formula. Unlike the Cainites who were deeply involved in earthly pursuits, the Sethites were not deeply concerned with the things of this earth. This account is called "the story of Adam" because it deals with the type of life that men lived who, like Adam, were conscious of their higher destiny though the stamp of death was upon them.
God's warning that death would be the outcome if man sinned (2:17) was no idle threat. The sin of Adam and Eve caused death to become the lot of man. That the Sethites recognized that this doom was upon them because of sin is implied by the refrain, "and he died," which with dreary monotony runs through this chapter even as it runs through life.
But a clear and positive note is struck in the account of Enoch (5:21-24). Seventh from Adam in the line of Sethites, Enoch had the unique distinction that he "walked with God." Beyond a doubt this means that he did what all these Sethites did, only in a greater degree than they, excelling all in true piety.
The last verse of chapter 5 introduces another Sethite who is also going to play a significant role in the development of God's plan for mankind.
Where chapter 5 had swiftly outlined how the true descendants of Adam (the word adam also means "mankind" in Hebrew) moved along as a separate group, chapter 6:1-8 pictures the blending of the two groups which took place at the time when men were beginning to multiply their kind on the face of the earth. The Sethites (called the "sons of God") indiscriminately took wives to themselves, sometimes from their own group, sometimes from among the Cainites (designated as "daughters of men"). In the light of the previous developments, this is all that this passage can mean. There is no reference to fantastic angel-marriages, as is sometimes claimed in our day.
God's decision to destroy mankind, being a decision of major importance, is now announced (6:5-8), with one notable exception indicated, Noah.
Though Noah was outstanding for "righteousness" among his contemporaries, "perfect" (KJV) is too strong a term to use. He did what God wanted all men to do; he trusted in God and walked according to His will. The same fine phrase that was used with reference to Enoch — 'he walked with God" — occurs here. To save this true follower of His, God first communicates to Noah His decision to destroy the world. He then indicates briefly by what means He is determined to save this man (6:15-17). Imbedded in the set of divine directives for the ark is the word that indicates God's attitude to Noah: "but I will establish my covenant with you" (v. 18). Apparently this is only a preliminary indication of that which is reported somewhat later in Genesis 9:9-17, the covenant which God established with Noah after the Flood.