The purpose of exegesis is to discover what a given passage means. And while what it means is not exhausted in what its human author intended—obvious in the case of typological prophecies like Psalm 22—it does begin there. In exegesis, we make the assumption that the human author wrote to be understood by his readers, and that his readers therefore had a good chance of understanding him.
A key question when exegeting a passage, then, is:
How would the original readers have understood this?
It can be a surprisingly difficult question to answer, because we are much further removed from the original audience of Scripture than we sometimes realize. This point has been labored rather dramatically in evangelicalism with regard to early Genesis—but although scholars like John Walton and Paul Seely (with whom I disagree almost entirely) have done a fine job of calling attention to, if not accurately documenting, some differences in thinking between the ancient Hebrews and ourselves, their approach is ironically academic.
They are quick to describe what ancient peoples believed differently to us…but they neglect to ask what ancient peoples experienced differently.
Steve Hays has made the same observation. For example, he notes the significance of light and dark to a pre-industrial people.
Recently I’ve been reading a review copy of an upcoming book called Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall. One of Perry’s observations which particularly struck me was how completely terrestrial the perspective of ancient peoples was. He makes the point that when we read Genesis 1, we tend to imagine the earth from space. We picture the solar system, the sun, even the stars and galaxies as we know they exist in space. And speaking for myself, even when I imagine the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, I tend to imagine God “enveloping” the planet as viewed from space.
This is so natural that it never occurred to me—despite knowing of the worldview differences between us—that an ancient Israelite would have pictured the account very differently. Let’s call her Miriam for convenience. Miriam had no knowledge of space. To her, the sky was rather inscrutable in terms of its size and composition. How far away were celestial bodies? The terrestrial perspective was the limit of her experience. The sky was clearly very big…but not space big.
With this terrestrial perspective in mind, and also drawing on other elements of Miriam’s life, I’d like to try to imagine how she would have pictured the Genesis account when Moses delivered it to her. How would she have imagined it differently to us—and how might that inform our understanding of it?
Creation of heaven and earth
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Or, perhaps more likely, “When God created the heavens and the earth…” Either way, we tend to imagine this in terms of the big bang. God created the universe, and there in the middle was the earth. Which, of course, is a spherical(ish) planet. (This actually raises some very interesting questions about the timing of the creation of light and the luminaries, which I’ll get into at the appropriate times.)
Miriam, by contrast, would probably read Genesis 1:1 as referring to God’s creation of the land and the sky. It is of course a merism referring to all of creation; but her view of all creation was limited to “ground level”—the land with the sky in a vast hemisphere over it.
Which of course raises the question of the exact details of how Miriam conceived of the earth and the sky.
Many scholars, even conservative ones, are convinced that Miriam thought the earth was a flat disc sitting in the primordial waters. This is, apparently, the uniform view of all ancient peoples, and not just Near Eastern ones. I am personally very skeptical that most ancient peoples thought the sea was literally flat; certainly any sea-faring peoples would have spotted, at least, that it was curved (if they had two brain cells to rub together). By extension, it would be logical to suppose that the land sitting on top of it could be curved too. But from a strictly local, terrestrial experience, it would probably be hard to infer that the land on which you lived was actually part of a spherical whole.
So it’s certainly plausible that Miriam conceived of the earth as a vast, flattish mass rising out of an all-encompassing sea. But I think the evidence is at least far more conflicted than many scholars suggest. For example, the book of Job makes some remarkable comments that seem much more reminiscent of our modern scientific understanding than the supposed pre-scientific flat-earth view:
God spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth on nothing … A limit he has circled on the surface of the waters, as a boundary between light and darkness. Job 26:7, 10
The writing of Job is notoriously difficult to date, but he himself certainly lived in the patriarchal era, so the Bible ostensibly presents a man living well before Moses’ time having knowledge of cosmology. Verse 7 alone would probably be too ambiguous to show plausibly that space is in view, per se; no doubt one could interpret it within a flat earth framework. But verse 10 is hard to understand if the earth is flat, because the division between light and dark on a flat earth does not form a circle, but rather a straight line. It could be translated as God having “traced a limit” between light and dark, but the circle language seems more naturally understood in circular terms—as the translation decisions of most Bibles demonstrate.
I don’t think this proves definitively that the Hebrews knew the earth was a sphere long before the Greeks did. I’m simply saying the evidence is ambivalent. It’s certainly possible that Miriam would have pictured the earth as a generally flat mass of land surrounded by oceans—but it’s certainly possible she knew it was not.
Another ubiquitous view among scholars is that the sky was a solid dome. This is partly based on general ANE depictions, and partly on the root of the Hebrew word raqiya—usually translated “firmament” or “expanse”—which refers to beating out metal. But again the evidence is less than conclusive. For example, many scholars will cite Job 37:18 to support this view:
With him can you beat out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?
The term “beat out” is the verbal form of raqiya, translated “firmament” or “expanse” in Genesis 1. Clearly, scholars say, Job thought the sky was solid.
But aside from the obvious problem that he is speaking poetically—thus one needs to argue for a straightforwardly literal interpretation—it has always puzzled me that anyone would assume that such a literal interpretation would mean the sky was hard. If I say “hard as molten metal”, aren’t I saying “soft”? Isn’t molten metal, you know, molten?
In any event, the imagery is obviously not intended to be taken so woodenly. Indeed, reading Job like this unravels the details of the flat earth hypothesis, since Job 38:13 refers to the “corners of the earth”, while scholars say that people thought the earth was a disc. All this to say that the elaborate cosmology scholars build seems like a house of cards constructed by pressing metaphors and phenomenological descriptions further than they were intended to stretch.
I am also highly skeptical that the Hebrews thought the sky was literally metallic, or even literally solid crystal or similar, given that they would have been quite familiar with the constraints of what was architecturally possible with natural building materials. It is also a view incongruous with Genesis 1:8, as we’ll see.
However, all that said, if you had never seen the earth from space, and were relying entirely on your terrestrial experience, and you believed the earth was flattish, it is possible you might come to the belief that the sky was a solid dome—particularly if you paid careful attention to the movement of the stars:
I suspect you would hold this belief a little loosely. You would have obvious questions. Miriam would certainly have wonderered what the dome was sitting on. Scholars say pillars. Well okay, what are the pillars sitting on? They go into the sea? Okay, well how far down? You can’t build on water. Is there a bottom? If so, what is that sitting on? Having just come out of Egypt, the Hebrews were painfully familiar with the practicalities of construction and architecture.
In fairness, we have the exact same questions. We just couch them in bigger, more scientific terms. What is “outside” the universe? How can it have a boundary? How can it not have a boundary?
Formless & empty
2 Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
Again, we think in terms of the planet, while Miriam would think in more parochial, terrestrial terms. She would probably picture a huge, dark expanse of water, like an ocean—and the language here would conjure up allusions to pagan creation myths, where the world was created out of an eternal chaotic sea. The point would be obvious to her: there is nothing tumultuous or violent here that God must calm or subdue or battle with; rather, there is simply no land yet, and God is milling over the water, preparing to divide and order it into something functional.
Separation of light & dark
3 And God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. 4 And God saw the light, that it was good, and God caused a separation between the light and between the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
For some reason, many Christians seem to think this refers to the big bang—even though presumably they also think that of verse 1. Or if not the big bang, then at least to the creation of light itself. But since the big bang created the universe, and the earth is part of the universe, verse 3 cannot refer to that. And since light is just photon energy, and photons are carrier particles that mediate electromagnetic interactions, and the electromagnetic force is fundamental to the universe itself, so the earth could not exist without it, we can’t suppose verse 3 to be referring to that either.
Obviously it is specifically visible light which is in view here, and at least we can infer that it was not present on earth before verse 3. But knowing that Genesis cannot be at odds with science (if we believe in inerrancy), it is still tricky to draw a distinction between photon energy in general, and visible photon energy specifically. Clearly such a distinction is not on the mind of Miriam or Moses. We can ask scientific questions when interpreting the text, but we shouldn’t expect it to provide scientific answers.
In that vein, knowing what we do about light, it seems verse 3 cannot be referring to the creation of photons, but rather the giving of visible light to a previously dark earth. This at least strongly implies that the language is phenomenological rather than objective; referring to the appearance of light on earth rather than the initial creation of light in the first place. Those could be simultaneous events, but they equally could be distinct. We don’t know.
In any case, Steve Hays—as I’ve noted—has pointed out the functional significance of light appearing. But how was it done without a sun?
Well, one way would be if God himself was giving off the light. This would fit with Revelation 22:5 (cf Isaiah 60:19), where God himself gives light to his people. But the obvious problem with this interpretation is that in Revelation 22:3-4, the throne of God is in the city of the saints, so they see his face. Now, this is surely an allusion to Exodus 33:18ff, where Moses could only see God’s back, and then after being on Sinai his own face shone brightly. But this very allusion should alert us to the fact that John doesn’t intended to describe something as mundane as how we will see on the new earth. His point is not about physical light, but spiritual light: that we will have unfettered communion with God, without requiring mediation like written revelation (“lamps and lights”; cf Psalm 119:105), or even an earthly savior (cf Malachi 4:2) since our sins will be no more. One can hardly imagine how we would function if all the light provided to the earth originated from a single place on the earth. There would be permanent, blinding daytime in one small location, and permanent freezing night everywhere else.
Now presumably God could overcome these problems, but it would entail overturning the created order completely for something radically different. There’s no indication in Revelation that this is the aim; rather, the new earth is a recreation and extension of the original Edenic state.
These considerations echo back into Genesis 1. In vv 4-5, God separates the light from the darkness and thus creates the day/night cycle. This suggests not only that he himself is distinct from either the light or the darkness, but also that what is in view here is a normal day, with a single light-source illuminating the earth from one side.
How would our ancient Hebrew Miriam have pictured this? She is already picturing a dark ocean with God hovering over it. How would she add daylight without the presence of the sun?
Bearing in mind that she had no everyday experience of sudden creation of light—as we do with artificial lighting—the only way I can imagine this in her shoes is something like the sun rising on a very cloudy day. On an overcast day the sun isn’t visible, but the clouds are still a light source. Indeed, this is strongly corroborated by God’s own description of these events to Job:
Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed”? Job 38:8-11
God is plainly describing the newly-created earth—covered in sea, darkness, and clouds. Indeed, the parallel between the darkness and the clouds suggests they are of a kind in covering the sea; both are thick and unbroken like layered clothing.
Now, as I say, perhaps there is some way to cash this out that I haven’t cottoned onto. But picturing Genesis 1:3-5 from the surface of the earth, and referring to other passages of Scripture for clarification, this is what I come up with. There is clearly a day cycle, suggesting sunrise and sunset—but without the visible presence of the sun. Thick clouds seem the most likely solution. Which becomes quite interesting in the next verse…
Creation of the sky
6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it cause a separation between the waters.” 7 So God made the dome, and he caused a separation between the waters which were under the dome and between the waters which were over the dome. And it was so. 8 And God called the dome “heaven.” And there was evening, and there was morning, a second day.
I have used the word “dome” here as a fairly neutral compromise between “vaulted dome” or “firmament” in some translations, and “expanse” in others. A dome could, in principle, be made of anything and be any thickness. Remembering again that the viewpoint is from earth, the sky is dome-shaped. That is accurate phenomenological language. Now, onto a couple of important points:
1. Separation of the waters
Notice that the dome is “in the mist of the waters”. Many people tend to assume that the waters above the dome are some kind of cosmic sea. But suppose my suggestion about vv 3-5 is roughly right and that clouds are acting, in some sense, as the light source. Now, without a sky, it is not technically cloudy but foggy. The clouds, as Job 38:9 says, are like a garment over the water. If this is right, then what God is doing in vv 6-8 is separating the fog from the sea by creating a dome of air between the two. Or, recognizing that Genesis is using a lot of phenomenological language, God is not creating the air for the first time, necessarily (does water vapor in the absence of air even form fog?) but is making the sky appear for the first time. The fog rises as the air pushes it up, forming a dome topped by clouds—which as any child will tell you, are in fact made of water. And what is left beneath the fog remains where it is as the sea—which again, any child will tell you is made of water.
I realize this puts paid to the quaint creationist notion that the Flood was caused by literal sluices opening in the solid firmament to let the ocean above fall to earth (Genesis 7:11; 8:2); and also to the scholarly view that the Hebrews thought rain came through the firmament from this cosmic sea; but I feel compelled to point out that in 2 Kings 7:2 and Malachi 3:10 these “windows of the heavens” make appearances in obviously metaphorical ways, and the Hebrews were well aware that rain actually came from clouds (1 Kings 18:44ff).
2. “God called the dome ‘heaven’”
This simple phrase, I think, is devastating to the view that Miriam thought the dome was a solid structure. Here, Genesis explicitly draws a one-to-one correlation between the dome and “heaven”—through which birds fly. Birds cannot fly through a solid structure. Miriam was well aware that they fly through air. In other words, heaven is the sky. But if heaven is the sky through which birds fly, and is therefore made of air, and if the dome is directly identified with heaven, then the dome is the sky and is made of air.
Scholars object that if the dome was made of air, then not only does that go against the verbal root of raqiya as beating out metal, but it leaves nothing for Miriam to imagine the sun, stars, and moon being embedded in or suspended from. Surely she would have thought they were attached to something? Isn’t this what Genesis 1:17 says? But this is simply circular reasoning. Why suppose Miriam thought any such thing—aside from our having already woodenly interpreted raqiya to be a solid dome? If birds and bees and bats can fly, why can’t suns and stars and moons?
Moreover, the parallelism in Job 26:7, which we looked at before, strongly suggests that Job, at least, understood the stars to be suspended from empty space, as well as above empty space. So this idea that the firmament must be solid just strikes me as a comically wooden reading that runs aground on the Bible’s own explicit explanation of the term.
Division of land & sea
9 And God said, “Let the waters under heaven be gathered to one place, and let the dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 And God called the dry ground “land,” and he called the collection of the waters “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
Again, we tend to picture the globe—perhaps Pangea. Miriam, on the other hand, would probably imagine a sea receding so that land appears. Either way, a little reflection would tell anyone that the sea must either be draining somewhere, or the land must be rising. But Genesis does not describe the details of this; the point is that God is continuing to divide his creation into natural boundaries, transforming it from empty and purposeless into a functional habitation.
Notice the phenomenological aspect to this: the land is already present, but obscured by the sea. The dry ground appears, not by being created for the first time, but by being uncovered. This is a point worth remembering when we get into the creation of the luminaries.
Creation of vegetation
11 And God said, “Let the land produce greenery—plants that will bear seed and fruit trees bearing fruit in which there is seed, according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 And the earth brought forth greenery—plants bearing seed according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit in which there was seed according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
The most notable thing here is the way in which God creates the vegetation. He does not form it himself; he commands the land to “bring it forth”. A lot of people see evolution here. I’m open to the possibility that God used some kind of evolutionary process, but I am more than a little skeptical it looked anything like the just-so story of modern science with its tree of life.
Be that as it may, Miriam—to our knowledge—had no concept of evolution, and would certainly have read this differently. She would have presumably pictured this as the earth producing vegetation in the normal way—seeds sprouting, shoots growing into saplings, bushes spreading. This is interesting because absent the repeated use of yom (“day”), suggesting regular workdays, the natural way to imagine this is as a lengthy process taking months or years. So there is an intriguing tension between the prima facie meaning of yom and the prima facie description of creation here.
Also worth noting is that only some kinds of vegetation are mentioned; seemingly those best fitted for human cultivation and consumption. Many trees are not fruit trees. Some plants are not green. Did Miriam suppose that cedars like those found in Lebanon, or the bulrushes of Egypt, were not created here? I would suppose not—most likely it is a merism chosen to emphasize the functionality of the creation; God’s ordering it to be a suitable habitation for man in particular. Other kinds of vegetation are probably assumed.
Also notice the emphasis on the seeds. The earth is not just producing vegetation, but vegetation which will reproduce—a repeated theme throughout Genesis 1, and indeed in the story of Israel, which multiples from a single man into a vast nation.
Creation of luminaries
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of heaven to separate day from night, and let them be as signs and for appointed times, and for days and years, 15 and they shall be as lights in the dome of heaven to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the smaller light to rule the night, and the stars. 17 And God placed them in the dome of heaven to give light on the earth 18 and to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
As scientifically-literate 21st century Western readers, we automatically picture God creating huge masses of hydrogen throughout the cosmos, and igniting them into plasma. And perhaps he did; I’m not averse to the idea.
But whatever we think, that is certainly not how Miriam would have imagined things. Rather, from her terrestrial outlook she would picture the sun, moon and stars appearing in the sky.
Which leads me to wonder:
Is this an objective description of the luminaries being created, or is it a phenomenological description of the luminaries appearing for the first time?
This might sound like an odd question—certainly I have always read this passage as describing the initial creation of the heavenly bodies. But there are a host of factors which lead me to think the latter view deserves consideration:
1. The prior existence of light plus a normal day/night cycle
I suggested of verse 3—“let there be light”—that Miriam would most naturally have pictured this in terms of sunrise on an overcast day; and that in combination with the separation of the waters in verse 7, what is being described might very plausibly be lit-up fog. But I skipped somewhat merrily over just exactly where the light was coming from.
Given that God is creating the natural world here, and fog or clouds are not self-luminescent, it is most logical to imagine they are obscuring an existing light source rather than creating the light themselves. And again, since God is creating the natural world here, and in the natural world the light-source on earth is the sun, it is certainly plausible to think the sun is present but concealed by fog or clouds until verse 14.
You could counter that given the architectural motifs of Genesis 1, it’s also plausible to think God created a temporary, supernatural source of light, just as a builder uses temporary lights until he has installed the permanent ones. That’s reasonable too; but make sure you aren’t importing the concept of modern artificial lighting to the motif—the roof on a building goes on last for more than one reason. All I’m saying is that it is plausible to think the luminaries were already in place, but obscured, and that vv 14-18 are phenomenological rather than objective.
2. Precedent in verse 3
I’ve already noted that we seem compelled by our scientific understanding of photons to take the creation of light in verse 3 as a phenomenological description. It is not necessarily referring to the initial creation of light, period. Rather, it is referring to the initial appearance of light on earth. Those could be identical events, but they could equally be distinct and separate. But if that’s so, then certainly the same could be said of the creation of the luminaries. Indeed, if verse 3 is presupposing that light already existed, and that it was simply appearing on earth for the first time, then we should certainly read verses 14-18 in the same, ahem, light. If verse 3 isn’t intending to describe the initial creation of light (which is scientifically very implausible), then it could well be presupposing the existence of the luminaries—in which case we should certainly revise our understanding of verses 14-18 in accordance.
3. The interconnectedness of the earth with the rest of the universe
The sun and the moon are integral components in the orbit of the earth, and the function of its tides. Moreover, the stars are in turn integral to the orbit of the solar system, and indeed of our galaxy to others. Sure, God could have set all this up on day four. I’m not saying he didn’t. I’m just saying it seems oddly ad hoc to me. There is a certain elegance in setting it all up at once, at the very beginning, since it is an interconnected system.
4. The “inward-working” nature of the creation account
Genesis 1 is in many respects a progression of functionality. The world starts out essentially nonfunctional and disorganized, and is progressively tuned into a system suitable for human habitation. It starts with the creation of light to see by; then air to breathe, and space to breathe it in; then land to live on; then plants to cultivate and eat. The next thing after day four will be the creation of animals, going from those most remote and alien to us (sea creatures and then birds), to those most useful and familiar to us (livestock, wild beasts and crawling animals). The whole process works inwards and upwards toward man.
From a scientific perspective, then, it seems incongruous to interject this sequence with the creation of the cosmos—a step which jumps far, far outward from earth and away from man (astronomically far, one might be tempted to say). It is perhaps more elegant, again, to take this phenomenologically and functionally as referring to the appearing of the luminaries for the purpose of man’s use. Indeed, verse 14 explicitly emphasizes that this is their purpose.
Again, note that I’m not saying this is airtight. I’m offering a cumulative case of plausible factors.
5. Genesis 1:1
This is a good place to raise the question of how we should read Genesis 1:1. Regardless of whether it is, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” or, “When God created the heavens and the earth,” the fact remains that it most naturally reads as a scene-setting introduction which describes, in brief, the creation of the entire cosmos and the earth, before moving into a description of how God ordered the earth specifically from something formless and functionless into something useful and habitable.
Now, Christians have traditionally resisted this reading because they take vv 14-18 as saying that the rest of the cosmos was only created on day four. So they have, instead, interpreted verse 1 as a summarizing statement about what is to come in the rest of the chapter.
I think the former reading is obviously more straightforward and elegant, and the latter is obviously awkward and assumption-driven. That doesn’t mean it is wrong; we can say the same about my reading of verses 14-18. The question is simply which assumptions are more reasonable? Which reading is less strained? Taking Genesis 1:1 on face value and interpreting the creation of the luminaries as phenomenological? Or taking verses 14-18 on face value and interpreting verse 1 as a summarizing statement? I think both are plausible; but I’m by no means convinced the latter is not less plausible.
6. The position of the luminaries
Notice that God places them “in the dome of heaven”. I’ve previously noted that this dome (raqiya) is simply the sky. Now, we can conceivably take the sky, in isolation, as extending infinitely into space—but it is difficult to read the text this way in view of how the sky and the raqiya are identified as one and the same, and the raqiya has birds flying through it and water “over” or “above” it. It’s hard to interpret raqiya as anything other than a phenomenological term for the expanse of air as it appears from earth—sometimes referring to the air separating the waters above (clouds) from the waters below (sea), and sometimes implying the atmosphere more generally. The point is that it describes how the sky appears from the perspective of Miriam.
This being the case, we are forced to read verses 14-18 as phenomenological—we know that none of the luminaries are literally positioned within the atmosphere. To say the sun, moon and stars are placed “in the air” just is phenomenological language.
But if vv 14-18 are phenomenological descriptions, it is extremely hard to adjudicate between them describing the initial creation of the luminaries, and their initial appearance. If Moses is simply saying that from a terrestrial perspective God put the luminaries in the sky, that could describe how it looked when he first created them, or it could describe how it looked when they first became visible. How could we tell which he means without more information?
In fairness, under the latter view Moses surely supposed that the sun, at least, was up there, and was thus literally made before day four. In which case saying it was “made” on day four seems, well, awkward. And that’s a good point. But I can equally reply that since he was concerned with describing the phenomenology and functionality of the creation sequence, rather than the timing of the initial creation for everything in the universe, and since he couldn’t see the stars or moon, his language is perfectly reasonable. Moreover, this objection begs the question against reading Genesis 1:1 as a scene-setting remark that describes in brief God’s creation of the rest of the cosmos—including the sun, moon and stars.
7. The mode of revelation for Genesis 1
I realize I’m being a bit piecemeal in the organization of my thoughts—perhaps I should have been more systematic by raising this question near the beginning. But it fits naturally here.
We tend to assume that Moses was told Genesis 1. That God simply explained what happened, and Moses wrote down what he said. That’s possible, and certainly Moses did receive revelation in this way. But it strikes me that the revelation he was given verbally was the kind that required careful propositional dictation—it was a complex law that was most feasibly and naturally communicated in this way.
By contrast, we find that revelation about detailed or extended historical events is communicated quite differently elsewhere in the Bible. When we think of the most famous revelations about history, we think of Daniel and Revelation (well, I do). Those are both visionary revelations. So again, it is certainly plausible—and please note my repeated use of that word; I am theorizing, not setting out dogma—that Moses received the information recorded in Genesis 1 in visionary form.
Now, what would such a vision have looked like? Would Moses have been whisked into the depths of the solar system to witness the sun up close as it was created; and then out into the far reaches of the cosmos to see the stars being born; and then back to earth and down into the sea to view the fish and whales frisking in the deep? One suspects not. It is more likely that the vision would accommodate the terrestrial perspective of himself and—especially—of readers like Miriam. How could he make sense of a Star Trek visionary experience for people like her?
I expect that if Moses witnessed Genesis 1 in a vision, he would have witnessed it perhaps from “between earth and heaven” as Ezekiel found himself (Ezek 8:3); or possibly from a “high mountain” like that which Satan showed Jesus (Matthew 4:8). If this is the case, and if the clouds that were probably present only parted on day four to reveal the luminaries already there, then he would be completely truthful to record that God made the luminaries on that day, inasmuch as that is precisely what he saw—just as I would be completely truthful to record that the sun rose into the sky this morning. We can hardly object that God didn’t really make them then, on the basis that we imputed to Moses unwarranted assumptions about what he was recording in the first place, and therefore misunderstood him.
(Of course, the same can be said about those who take Genesis 1 completely metaphorically—but there seems no good reason to take it metaphorically, and reasons make all the difference.)
Creation of aquatic and flying creatures
20 And God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly over the land across the face of the dome of heaven. 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kind, and every bird with wings according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning, a fifth day.
One supposes that if the viewpoint is terrestrial, Miriam would primarily picture sea creatures as they broke the surface of the water. Not that she was incapable of imagining fish swimming in the deep, but the whole scene so far has been terrestrial, so that is the natural anchor point. Moreover, since the sea creatures and the flying creatures are mentioned together, it’s natural to imagine them together—which requires something of a mediating position from which to view them, like a sea-shore.
Miriam would have had very little knowledge of the kinds of creatures that live in the sea. She was no doubt familiar with fish, crabs, shellfish and the like, especially having lived in Egypt on the Nile. Possibly she knew of sharks and whales—though surely not in much detail. One interesting extra source of information for her is raised by the crossing of the Red Sea. In The Prince of Egypt there’s an evocative scene with walls of water rising above the Hebrews. Lightning flashes in the distance—revealing the silhouettes of sea creatures. What did Miriam see when crossing the Red Sea? We don’t know—so we shouldn’t assume. But even if she saw a profusion of sea beasts, most of Moses’ ancient readers—namely anyone after that generation—would not have had such experiences. Even today, the sea remains mysterious, and there are probably huge numbers of aquatic species yet to be discovered.
Given its mysteriousness and danger, it was not without reason that in ancient times it was associated with chaos and evil. In most ANE cultures, the sea was primordial, and the domain of a great coiled sea monster. In Canaan, its name was Yam, the adversary of Ba’al. By the same token, in Scripture it came to represent the gentile nations, ruled by Satan. To the ancient mind—and really to a large extent still—the sea was a wild, unpredictable, inscrutable abyss.
Which gives us a hefty contextual clue for understanding why the term translated “sea creatures” here is tanninim—referring not to fish, but to powerful creatures like serpents, crocodiles, and sea monsters (cf Jeremiah 51:34; Isaiah 27:1; Job 41:1–34), in addition perhaps to whales and sharks. (As with vegetation, this doesn’t necessarily suggest that fish weren’t created here; just that this is not Moses’ focus.)
Knowing that, broadly speaking, reptilian monstrosities are in view—rather than Nemo and Dory—sheds a great deal of light on how Miriam would have read this. Whereas in other ancient Near Eastern creation myths the sea serpent was a pre-existent, terrifying god or goddess, here in Genesis no such divine being is present. So the point Moses is making is perhaps not so much about the natural world as the supernatural one. There is no epic battle here, where Yahweh must subdue a great monster in the deep. He does not create anything divine here. There is no great, threatening chaos deity. There is not even a single creature at all—the entire force of the text is on the multitude of creatures created. Not only is leviathan is under God’s dominion—and by extension under ours (cf Genesis 1:28)—but there is nothing unique or special about him at all. He is not just one creature; he is just one of a great, swarming multitude. So this is a polemic against pagan creation myths, and a reassurance that even the seemingly mysterious and untamable sea is entirely under God’s control. By association, it is also a reassurance that the tumultuous and unknowable spirit-world is under God’s thumb too.
As with the sea creatures, the verb describing the flight of the birds in the Hebrew is one which connotes swarming. Verse 21 also emphasizes, through the use of the verb bara (“create”) that God himself was the one who made all the creatures. The overall point is that they are not deities, they are not pre-existent; they are all creatures entirely under God’s dominion, and they are exceedingly fruitful. Yet despite their fruitfulness, God bids them multiply even more. The world is thus swarming with life, and this is how God wants it. The theme of multiplication and fruitfulness as the intention and blessing of God prefigures the rise of Israel from one man into a great nation, as numerous as the stars or the sand on the seashore.
Creation of terrestrial creatures
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind: cattle and creeping things, and wild animals according to their kind.” And it was so. 25 So God made wild animals according to their kind and the cattle according to their kind, and every creeping thing of the earth according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
As with vegetation, the list of animals is presumably not exhaustive, but representative; though here there is less focus on what is specifically useful to man. Possibly this is to offset any inclination of Miriam’s to treat some creatures as not good, given the dietary laws concerning clean and unclean animals.
Also as with the creation of vegetation, God commands the earth to bring the animals forth. We might argue he does the same with regard to the sea creatures and birds (“let the waters teem…let birds fly…”), but the phrasing is somewhat different. God commands the earth to literally produce the animals, whereas the waters and the sky are more passively commanded to be merely filled with them. There’s also a different verb here: asah rather than bara, thus translated “made” rather than “created”. This could simply be for stylistic variation, as the fact remains that God is still the cause of the animals’ existence; but the overall effect of the language seems more passive. I get the impression that God made the sea creatures and birds directly, but the terrestrial creatures indirectly, by means of their being produced from the earth.
Whatever the case, we are left with the intriguing question of how Miriam would have pictured the earth “producing” animals.
Again, evolution is often raised here, and again I have no broad problem with the idea, except inasmuch as (i) common ancestry seems wildly mistaken given the ad hoc hypothesis of convergent evolution, the circular reasoning of morphological relationships etc; and (ii) translating the word yom in Genesis 1 as anything other than a normal workday or day/night period is awkward.
But Miriam, as I’ve mentioned, had no concept of evolution that we know of, and so would have imagined this scene quite differently.
Unlike with plants, there is no natural way for the earth itself to produce animals. Animals produce animals; they don’t come from the earth. So how would Miriam picture this?
The obvious way, I think, is by reference to Genesis 2:7. Whereas God personally created Adam from the dirt, he simply commanded the earth to produce animals; it’s natural to picture their creation as an indirect version of man’s. The soil simply produced them.
Creation of mankind
26 And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image and according to our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of heaven, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every moving thing that moves upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the likeness of God he created him, male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of heaven, and over every animal that moves upon the earth.”
Before we ask how Miriam pictured the creation of man, it might be sensible to ask how she pictured the deliberation of God. To whom is he speaking when he says, “Let us create man in our image”?
Christians I’ve spoken to tend to assume that this is trinitarian language, or possibly an expression similar to, “We are not amused.” But Hebrew has no royal we, and Miriam would have been unlikely to expect God to be speaking to himself. Although binitarianism is present in the Hebrew Bible, it is not clearly developed, and wouldn’t be the natural place for Miriam’s mind to go.
She would be much more likely to assume that God was talking to a council of other, created divine beings—what the Bible often calls the “heavenly host”. This, too, is corroborated in God’s description of creation in Job:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Job 38:4-7
“Morning stars” and “sons of God” are stock expressions to describe the heavenly host, not just in the Hebrew Bible, but widely in the ancient Near East. These were spiritual beings who ruled with God and administered the cosmos. They were, in the Bible’s own words, gods (Psalm 82:1)—under whom the unbelieving nations were placed at Babel (Deuteronomy 32:8-9). They were present with God at creation, and God consulted with them on the creation of man.
You notice that we are created in the image of both God and this divine council. This is not to say we are created in two different images; rather, God’s image is already reflected in the spiritual creatures he has created; now he plans to confer it on a physical creature also.
What is the image of God?
Verse 27 says that God created man in his image and his likeness. This is a very typical parallelism—the image and the likeness are one and the same thing. We image God by being like him. But in what way?
As Christians, we tend to say things like, “By being moral agents,” or, “By sharing in his communicable attributes.” We assume the image of God is basically ontological—that it is something in our being. This is not wrong, but it is also not what the text says, or how Miriam would have read it. The image of God in Genesis 1 is not something we are, but something we do.
Notice how Moses frames it. Let’s abbreviate with the word “rule” every instance of a repetition about having dominion over the earth—as in verse 26 where we are to rule over the fish, and rule over the birds, and rule over the animals etc. See how the text emphasizes and frames the image of God:
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, and let them rule, rule rule, rule, rule.” So God created man in his image, male and female, blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and fill the earth, and rule, rule, rule, rule.”
Does the image of God perhaps have something to do with ruling?
The term translated “rule” or “have dominion” means to reign—it refers to kingly authority, often backed up by the might of an army, and often with messianic overtones (cf Numbers 24:19; Psalm 72:8-9). And the term translated “subdue” is elsewhere used of enslavement and conquering (cf 2 Chronicles 28:10; Numbers 32:22, 29, for instance).
This isn’t to say that God created us to have a combative relationship with the world, but rather that he created the world wild and needful of taming. This is particularly clear in the use of the word tanninim of the sea creatures (Gen 1:21)—Moses does not suggest that ferocious and fearsome critters are a result of the fall, but rather that they were created from the beginning. The same is true of the “wild animals”—there is no hint in Genesis of a peaceful, harmonious creation where the wolf lies down with the lamb. That is an image imposed on Genesis by theologians with certain presuppositions. Eden was a sanctuary—but Moses does not suggest the rest of creation was similar. Theologically and scientifically it seems, at best, dubious to imagine that because God created the world good this must mean he created it gentle or soft. There’s no textual reason to think predation and death did not occur in the world of Genesis 1, and some good evidence to think it did. If you balk, believing that Romans 5:12 says otherwise, you are making some assumptions which aren’t in Paul’s actual words, and which Moses seems likely to have disagreed with.
This point needs serious emphasis in the West, where to be Christian has almost become synonymous with being effeminate. Many Christians seem to have an image of Jesus himself as a gentle, fey hippie who always had a kind word, never returned an insult, and would rather cut off a piece of his robe than disturb a dog sleeping on it. That’s not the Jesus I know, who brandished a whip, overturned temple stalls in a righteous fury, and routinely thrashed and insulted the Jewish intellectual elite in verbal sparring. And it’s certainly not the Jesus who is returning on a white horse. That Jesus is a conquering king—and that is the essence of the image God communicated to humankind in Genesis 1. The natural aggression and competitiveness of men, in particular, is not a design flaw resulting from the fall, but a design feature aimed at fulfilling our commission of striving with, overcoming, and harnessing the world God created for us.
Put in crude, anachronistic terms, the image of God is in no small way the image of an alpha predator.
But more carefully-articulated, the image is exercised in being viceroys of God. We are his royal representatives on earth, under his delegation as regents over creation. In the context of Genesis 1, this is cashed out in terms of inheriting from God the continuing work he started in ordering and controlling creation. That obviously requires us to have certain attributes, like moral agency and so on—but the image of God emphasized in Genesis 1 is not something we are, but something we do.
Male and female
Like the creatures he created before us, God’s purpose for man is that we multiply. Agent Smith hits the nail surprisingly close to the head—but of course draws the wrong conclusion (he’s the bad guy; what else can he do?)
Given the framing of Genesis 1:26-28, it’s tempting to say that being fruitful is also part of the image of God. We image his boundless potency (in the Aristotelian sense) by reproducing ourselves. Perhaps this is in view, but it would seem to suggest that the various animals have the image of God also in that case—which obviously cuts heavily against the grain of the text. It seems better to understand the image in terms of dominion, while being fruitful is a blessing for all creatures—but no less for us (cf Genesis 17:16; 48:16; Deuteronomy 7:13), and of course especially for Israel (Genesis 12:1-2 etc).
Some commentators see here the creation of many people, rather than Adam and Eve specifically. They suggest that the rapid building of cities, plus Cain’s concern in Genesis 4:14, indicates that more people than just Adam and Eve were made from the beginning. Plus, who did their children marry? While I have no particular problem with that theory—if Jesus can represent people past, present, and future, why not Adam?—it is rather difficult to square with Paul’s plain words in Acts 17:26 that God made from one man every nation on the earth.
In light of Genesis 2, and the lack of any clear implication here that more than Adam and Eve were created, it seems natural for Miriam to imagine the creation of man out of the ground, as with the animals. But knowing about Genesis 2, she would know that the land did not produce them itself; rather, God was personally involved in the process. Since Genesis is of a piece, and God seems to take human form in the garden (Genesis 3:8) as well as many other times,* we might infer that he physically scooped and molded the soil into the shape of Adam (cf John 9:6). Of course, this is not stated in Genesis 1; but it’s hard to imagine Miriam picturing these events without referring to Genesis 2.
Provision for all creatures
29 And God said, “Look—I am giving to you every plant that bears seed which is on the face of the whole earth, and every kind of tree that bears fruit. They shall be yours as food. 30 And to every kind of animal of the earth and to every bird of heaven, and to everything that moves upon the earth in which there is life I am giving every green plant as food.” And it was so.
I think we naturally read this as a statement of vegetarianism. God gives all plants to all animals for food. And since all animals don’t eat plants now, and since we dubiously interpret Romans 5:12 to refer to all biological death rather than human spiritual death—of which our mortality is a result—we take a hop, skip and a jump to the conclusion that prior to the fall, all animals were vegetarian and there was no predation.
This may be true. But we are trying to read the text like an ancient Hebrew contemporary with Moses. How would Miriam, for whom the Pentateuch was possibly the only revelation yet given; and for whom the danger of wild animals was a serious reality; and who didn’t read anything about animal death in the warning given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2; and who thought there was a categorical contrast between the roles and privileges of animals and humans, living as she did in a hard-not-soft world where animals were tools, not pets; and for whom animal sacrifice was also a regular and remorseless feature of life; and who ate meat regularly that she had to butcher herself…how would she have understood this passage?
Well, the first thing that would have struck her, I think, is that many animals do not have vegetarian diets. So on the face of it, this is a strange thing for God to say.
Then she would probably have skipped ahead to Genesis 9:2-5, and confirmed her suspicion that in that passage God didn’t give the animals each other to eat; he only gave them to humans as food. So Genesis doesn’t index animal predation to the postdiluvian world.
That in turn would have perhaps prompted her to notice that God does not prohibit eating meat here in Genesis 1. Indeed, the focus is on terrestrial plants and animals, but what of the sea creatures? Were they also vegetarian? The text doesn’t say, but Miriam probably knows that sharks don’t eat seaweed. And in terms of animal death more generally, the flying creatures of verse 21, and the creeping things of verse 24, included insects and spiders and slugs which even today no one imagines should live forever.
Moreover, the connotations of “dominating” and “subduing” the earth would certainly not exclude killing animals—not to her, living in a time and place where wild animals were serious threats that had to be firmly dealt with (cf Exodus 23:29). Indeed, how could an ecosystem even function, let alone be brought into submission, without death? She had seen with her own eyes the effects of unchecked reproduction in Egypt, with frogs and gnats and locusts. And if the story of Job were already an oral tradition for her—which is possible since he was a patriarch who lived long before her time—then she know that God even boasts in predation. (And even if she didn’t know this, we do.) To Job he says:
Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in their thicket? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food? Job 38:39-41
If predation was an evil introduced at the fall, why does God use it as an example of how great he is, and claim to be directly involved in it to the point of hunting the prey for the lion (cf Psalm 104:21)? And why does he create tanninim in the sea, which Miriam knows are frequently meat-eaters? And why does the text never suggest that the wild animals created on day six are different from the wild animals Miriam knows, which often eat meat? And why does God make animal-skin garments just a couple of chapters later, without the slightest indication that this was upsetting or problematic or sacrificial, as some modern Christians suppose (Genesis 3:21)? And why does Abel bring an offering from his flock to God in chapter 4? What was God going to do with animals? Miriam, as an Israelite, would automatically read an animal offering as a sacrifice; Abel wasn’t gifting sheep or goats to God as pets—he was slaughtering them. If it was acceptable to kill animals prior to the Flood, why not eat them also?
So these are the kinds of questions that seem to strongly attenuate the idea that God is sanctioning vegetarianism in Genesis 1:29, and that he only authorized meat in our diet after the Flood. It seems to make more sense that he is instead emphasizing his great provision of food in general—“All of this is for you.” That doesn’t imply that lions weren’t to eat antelope, or that they were made non-carnivorous and only became meat-eaters later. I don’t think that’s impossible, but I also don’t think this would even have occurred to Miriam.
Such a view misses the point of the passages in Genesis 1 and 9, which work in tandem. With regard to the provision of meat in Genesis 9, there are at least two purposes to it: Firstly, it removes the prohibition on certain kinds of animals. For Noah, there are no unclean animals after the flood; yet there were before. The emphasis is not on the contrast between eating plants and eating animals, but on eating clean animals and eating unclean ones. Secondly, it reiterates the provision in Genesis 1, but in a way accommodated to the circumstance of a world which, having just been flooded, had little to no usable vegetation immediately available—but a boatload of animals present for the eating.
The provision in Genesis 1, by contrast, is accommodated to a quite different situation: it is implicitly backed into Genesis 2. God is giving all plants for food because he is speaking to someone living in a garden. And since the garden was a sanctuary, it would be incongruous to speak in terms of predation here.
Moreover, the extremely broad emphasis of provision in Genesis 1 creates a conceptual backdrop for the special prohibition God gives in Genesis 2, on eating from the tree in the midst of the garden. The point is twofold: (i) God has richly provided absolutely all kinds of things to eat, and so the restriction on a single tree is in no wise onerous; (ii) by singling out that tree from all the others, God clearly emphasizes its importance.
God surveys his work
31 And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, a sixth day.
This is the seventh time God assesses creation; but whereas the previous six times it was “good”, it is now “very good”. His using the superlative, plus it being the seventh time, indicates to Miriam that the world is now complete—it is as good as it is going to get, and that is extremely good. Unfortunately, I feel compelled to point out that “good” does not mean “in accordance with our parochial intuitions and prejudices”, but rather, “in accordance with God’s design”. The creation is exactly as God intended it; it is ordered and functioning rightly.
Those who may object that predation and animal death are not good are simply assuming the exact thing they need to prove: namely, that predation and animal death were not intended as part of God’s design for creation. As I’ve shown, this is exegetically unsustainable, and certainly not how Miriam would have understood things.
“Evening and morning”
It seems exceedingly clear to me that the repeated use of the phrase “evening and morning” to explain the word yom (“day”) via illustration makes hypotheses like the day-age theory painfully implausible from the outset. Obviously the word yom can mean things other than sunrise to sunset (or sunset to sunrise if you were a Jew), as it does in the very next chapter (Genesis 2:4). But we figure out meaning from context, and it is difficult to imagine how Moses could have made it more clear that the days of creation were calendar days. So I am completely unpersuaded that these were epochs or ages. Is that possible? Sure. Is it what the text seems to say? No. Don’t be silly.
In any case, absent any additional information, Miriam would presumably have pictured these yamim as calendar days that started with the first giving of light on the earth and its separation from night.
2:1 And heaven and earth and all their array were finished. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 And God blessed the seventh day, and he sanctified it, because on it he rested from all his work of creating that there was to do.
The fellow who carved the Bible into chapters didn’t get off to a good start—these should be verses 32-33 of chapter 1. A couple of quick comments to finish off:
Firstly, Moses invites Miriam to picture the world as fully made. There is nothing that needs to be added to it. There is nothing else God needs to make. It is complete, and God now rests.
Secondly, Moses makes no comment about any additional days. Some theologians opine that the seventh day continues on the basis of Hebrews 4:4-11, and therefore this suggests that all the days of Genesis are very long. But Hebrews does not say the seventh day continues; it says that God’s rest continues. Moreover, this conflates the spiritual with the physical; the rest in Hebrews is rest in God, and not earthly rest. If it were earthly rest, and the seventh day continues, we should all be resting! So this argument simply confuses the Sabbath with what it symbolizes. Naturally God’s rest continues, but his rest is not, itself, the seventh day. Rather, his rest continues on the eighth, ninth, tenth etc days also.
Thirdly, God sets apart the seventh day for himself, but he blesses it for us. Indeed, it is a day of blessing precisely because it is set apart for him. This obviously models the Sabbath that Miriam kept; but it is also a model for anyone who is faithful to God. It is a blessing to set aside one day in seven to separate work from rest—and specifically rest in God.
Finally, notice how this is the final division that God makes. He starts by dividing night from day; he concludes by dividing work from rest. This creates a symmetry in the creation account and brings it to a satisfying conclusion.
* God takes offerings from Cain and Abel and speaks with them in Genesis 4; he “walks with” Enoch and Noah in Genesis 5:22, 24; 6:9; he shuts Noah into the ark in Genesis 7:16; he comes down to Babel in Genesis 11:5; he appears as the Word of Yahweh in a vision in Genesis 15:1 (and we know from John 1 that the Word is Jesus); he speaks to Abraham seemingly man to man in Genesis 17; he appears as three men in Genesis 18; etc.