Bible as Literature: Genesis 1 – The Orderly Creation of the Universe

The first chapter of Genesis begins with the first creation account. I say the first creation account because there are in fact two creation stories to be found in the Bible as I will discuss in more depth when we cover Genesis 2.

I want to begin by comparing two different translations. The JPS rendering of Genesis 1:1 – 1:3 reveals the fascinating difficulties and problems of translation, and how translation can affect meaning of a passage. The JPS translation reads:

“When God began to create heaven and earth–the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water–God said, “let there be light”; and there was light.” – Genesis 1:1 – 1:3.

Now let’s compare this translation to the King James Version:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. [2] And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. [3] And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

The JPS version translates the first three verses as a single sentence, whereas the KJV translates it into four separate sentences. Where the translator chooses to punctuate changes the meaning!

In the JPS translation, God is in the process of creation, in which the earth is unformed as of yet and non-existent, the only thing existing being darkness and the deep waters. On the other hand, in the KJV, God creates the heaven and earth, PERIOD. He performs this action and then the sentence ends. The next sentence tells us that the created earth was without form and void, giving the sense that the now created earth is a barren hunk of rock. These adjectives function as literal descriptions of the state of the earth, while the same adjectives “unformed” and “void” are more abstract in the JPS rendering to suggest that earth hasn’t been created at all and there is only a void in the place of where the earth will eventually be rather than those being words that physically describe a half-formed earth like in the KJV. All this from different punctuation choices! This should be a case study in the problems of translation. Not only do word-choices matter, but even grammatical structures and punctuation can drastically change the meaning of a sentence.
The world begins as darkness, void, and the deep (water). God counteracts the darkness with light and stirs the deep with a wind. The wind symbolizes movement, the opening moments of creation about to begin, everything is about to getting moving. The watery deep that preexists creation is a common symbol in Near Eastern literature for chaos and evil (1). What is also striking is that God speaks the world into creation, which is a rather peaceful method compared to other Creation Myths of the Near East (2). Since this is a creation myth, the text is laying down not just the actual literal physical creation of the world, but the core philosophical beliefs and values of the culture writing the text. It is no coincidence that the God of the Israelites (and by extension later Jews), a people who in some ways literally worship the written word (the three core staples of Judaism being: God, Torah, and Israel), speaks the world into creation, highlighting the power of words and language as the ultimate metaphysical source, the stuff that brought about the universe itself.

It’s also worth noting that instead of the wind of God moving across the deep in KJV, we have the “spirit of God” in this translation. Both translations are technically correct, as the Hebrew word “ruach” can mean either wind or spirit.

Getting back to the main narrative, God creates the world in seven days:

1) On day one, he creates light, night, and day.

2) On day two, he separates the water of the sky from the water of the earth, creating the sky.

3) On day three, God gathers all the water in one spot, separating the seas from the physical land. He also grows vegetation on the third day.

4) On the fourth day, God creates the stars, the sun, and the moon “to separate day from night.”

5) On the fifth day, God creates birds, sea monsters, and all the animals that live in the sea.

6) On the sixth day, God creates cattle (which is mentioned specifically), and all the other animals that live on Earth, and finally humanity.

7) On the seventh day, God rests. The seventh day actually takes place at the beginning of Genesis 2.

Careful reading reveals there is a parallelism inherent in the structure. The first three days correspond to the last three day. Day one when light and dark were created corresponds with day four in which the sun and moon are created (the objects associated and “contained” within those things). Day two when the sky and sea were created corresponds to day five when the animals of the sea and sky are brought to life. Day three when the physical land is created corresponds to day six when the animals that roam the earth are born. By creating these parallel structures of days the writer emphasizes the orderliness of creation, everything corresponds perfectly with each other in harmonious symmetry. This is a perfect example of style, content, and theme meshing together.

Another literary technique of importance besides the symmetry of the days is the repetition of the phrase: “And God saw that this was good.” Creation is good, life is good, and most importantly because human beings are a part of creation, they, too, are good. In fact, you might say human beings are centrally good and that as the later stories in Genesis will show we sometimes wander off the correct path and perform wicked deeds that goes against our natural inclinations. The point of this repetition is to point out the goodness of life, of the world, of creation. Most importantly the orderliness of creation is good, which the repetition emphasizes after each section.

On the fifth day, God creates man in His image. There has been a lot of debate about what that means exactly: does God have a humanoid shape? Does our rational thought resemble God? Freewill? Are we meant to be divine stewards of the earth, servants molded in His will? I believe the textual evidence of Genesis 1 suggests we are in the image of God in the sense that we possess his creative capacity. All one needs to do is consider what God has been doing up until this point; He has been creating the world! We have no other image of God besides this in the story. The parallelisms of the days suggests particular categorizations in place, which also implies creativity and rational thinking. We are like God in that we can create, that we can make complex objects from nothing, that we can categorize and organize the world around us.

On the other hand, given God’s instructions to humanity that follows their creation, I think a case can be made for the steward/servant interpretation; humans rule over the earth like God rules over the universe. We watch over the earth as stewards, while God watches over humanity. In this section, God already begins giving commandments with the goal on how to live a worthy life.

Man and female are created simultaneously and remain unnamed. God’s commandments here are often seen as admonishing a vegetarian lifestyle. He also tells the humans to be fruitful and multiply. This is not a throwaway line, but rather reveals an important understanding of what the Israelites considered good. Sexual reproduction and sex in general is seen as positive and good.

Even though this is the creation story of a culture that existed thousands of years ago, it still amazes me how many of the larger themes in this story still speak to us today. I find this story with its emphasis on the goodness of existence and its harmony of the earth to be a positive testament to life. Yes, life can sometimes be shitty. Yes, there are many evils and horrors in the modern world, and even the world of the authors living squashed between violent neighbors and constantly plagued with warfare, yet there is an unrepentant idealism buried at the core of this text, a radical vision of a good, peaceful harmonious world. The text with its interrelated symmetry of days and its divine caretakers of the earth implies that everything in the universe is connected: the evil I do will affect you, but the good I do will affect you too.

Notes

  1. The Enuma Elish (the Babylonian Creation myth) begins with the coming together of Apsu and Tiamat who represent fresh water and salt water respectively. According to wikipedia, the “su” or “zu” part of Apsu’s name means, “the deep.” Eventually in the narrative Tiamat who represents both chaos and salt-water tries to restore chaos and put a halt to creation, hence salt-water’s symbolic association with evil and chaos. Ancient Egyptian Creation myths also had a primordial water deityat the beginning of time called Nu who represents a watery deep chaos from which the earth is born. In the Ugaritic Creation myth, El the king of the gods invites prince Baal to kill Yaam who symbolizes the watery deep and usurp his throne.
  2. The Ugaritic Creation myth represents the act of creation as military violence, one god usurping the throne from another to bring about the end of chaos and the beginning of creation. The Enuma Elish creates the earth and the gods through a sexual act, and also ends in a fight that kills Tiamat, and finishes creation. In the Egyptian Creation myths, Nu is the symbolic Nile, which the god Khepri draws the raw materials to begin creation, which is nonviolent. Many critics I think overstate the similarities between these stories, while ignoring the major differences. These differences are important in that they reflect unique aspects and values of the cultures that created them. It should come then as little shock that the God of the people of the Book created the world from His words; and that this form of creation in fact says something significant about the culture that wrote it.
  3. The Enuma Elish has a description that captures a created, but barren earth quite well: “And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen.”
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5 thoughts on “Bible as Literature: Genesis 1 – The Orderly Creation of the Universe

  1. Well written. Spending time on your blog makes me appreciate literature more. It’s very fascinating how translation reveals the biases of the translator. Interestingly, certain verses in the KJV were translated with a sexist bias and probably helped to fuel sexism in later generations in Christian denominations. Also, I like your conclusion that some of the themes in the first creation myth are still relevant. The stewardship theme is especially important for our fossil fuel consumption patterns!

    • Well, it is my hope that people leave my blog with a greater appreciation of literature. If it is one thing they take away, I hope it is that.

      Often people overlook translation and the many interesting problems it can bring. I think for any book in another language, whenever possible, it is worth looking at a couple of translations. It is almost impossible to capture the original perfectly and a translators then needs to make all sorts of decisions: do I try to translate as literally as possible? do I try to maintain the style and keep some of the artistry? Do I keep the rhyme scheme (in cases of poetry)?

  2. Forgive me for going off topic, but I’m wondering your thoughts on something. In the second creation myth, G-d’s punishment for Eve is greatly increased pain during childbirth and desire for her husband who shall rule over her. From a literary standpoint, this suggests that the author(s) thought childbearing pain and patriarchal marriage were not ideal. This is very interesting to me because it’s almost like a subtle protest against patriarchy. What do you think about this idea?

  3. Pingback: Bible as Literature: A Second Creation Story? | The Consolation of Reading

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