1:1. In the beginning. An Egyptian creation text from Thebes speaks of the god Amun who evolved in the beginning, or “on the first occasion.” Egyptologists interpret this not as an abstract idea but as a reference to a first-time event. In the same manner, the Hebrew word translated “beginning” usually refers not to a point in time but to an initial period. This suggests that the beginning period is the seven days of chapter one.
1:2. formless and empty. In Egyptian views of origins there is the concept of the “nonexistent” that may be very close to what is expressed here in Genesis. It is viewed as that which has not yet been differentiated and assigned function. No boundaries or definitions have been established. The Egyptian concept, however, also carries with it the idea of potentiality and a quality of being absolute.
1:2. Spirit of God. Some interpreters have translated this as a supernatural or mighty wind (the Hebrew word translated “Spirit” is sometimes translated “wind” in other passages), which has a parallel in the Babylonian Enuma Elish. There the sky god, Anu, creates the four winds that stir up the deep and its goddess, Tiamat. There it is a disruptive wind bringing unrest. The same phenomena can be seen in Daniel’s vision of the four beasts where “the four winds of heaven were churning up the great sea” (7:2), a situation that disturbs the beasts there. If this is correct, then the wind would be part of the negative description of verse 2, paralleled by the darkness.
1:1–5. evening and morning. The account of creation does not intend to give a modern scientific explanation of the origin of all natural phenomena, but rather to address the more practical aspects of creation that surround our experiences of living and surviving. In the course of this chapter the author relates how God set up alternating periods of light and darkness—the basis for time. The narrative speaks of evening first because the first time period of light is just coming to a close. The author does not attempt an analysis of the physical properties of light, nor is he concerned about its source or generation. Light is the regulator of time.
1:3–5. light. The people of the ancient world did not believe that all light came from the sun. There was no knowledge that the moon simply reflected the light of the sun. Moreover, there is no hint in the text that “daylight” was caused by sunlight. The sun, moon and stars were all seen as bearers of light, but daylight was present even when the sun was behind a cloud or eclipsed. It made its appearance before the sun rose, and remained after the sun set.
1:6–8. firmament. In a similar way the expanse (sometimes called “the firmament”) set up in day two is the regulator of climate. The ancient Near Eastern cultures viewed the cosmos as featuring a three-tiered structure consisting of the heavens, the earth and the underworld. Climate originated from the heavens, and the expanse was seen as the mechanism that regulated moisture and sunlight. Though in the ancient world the expanse was generally viewed as more solid than we would understand it today, it is not the physical composition that is important but the function. In the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, the goddess representing this cosmic ocean, Tiamat, is divided in half by Marduk to make the waters above and the waters below.
1:9–19. function of the cosmos. Just as God is the One who set time in motion and set up the climate, he is likewise responsible for setting up all the other aspects of human existence. The availability of water and the ability of the land to grow vegetation; the laws of agriculture and the seasonal cycles; each of God’s creatures, created with a role to play—all of this was ordered by God and was good, not tyrannical or threatening. This reflects the ancient understanding that the gods were responsible for setting up a system of operations. The functioning of the cosmos was much more important to the people of the ancient world than was its physical makeup or chemical composition. They described what they saw and, more important, what they experienced of the world as having been created by God. That it was all “good” reflects God’s wisdom and justice. At the same time the text shows subtle ways of disagreeing with the perspective of the ancient Near East. Most notable is the fact that it avoids using names for the sun and moon, which to the neighbors of the Israelites were also the names of the corresponding deities, and refers instead to the greater light and the lesser light.
1:14. signs and seasons. In a prologue to a Sumerian astrological treatise, the major gods, An, Enlil and Enki, put the moon and stars in place to regulate days, months and omens. In the famous Babylonian Hymn to Shamash, the sun god, reference is also made to his role in regulating the seasons and the calendar in general. It is intriguing that he is also the patron of divination. The Hebrew word used for “sign” has a cognate in Akkadian that is used for omens. The Hebrew word, however, has a more neutral sense, and again the author has emptied the elements of the cosmos of their more personal traits.
1:20. great creatures of the sea. In the Babylonian Hymn to Shamash, the sun god is said to receive praise and reverence even from the worst groups. Included in the list are the fearsome monsters of the sea. The hymn thus suggests that there is a total submission of all creatures to Shamash, just as the Genesis creation texts shows all creatures created by, and therefore submitted to, Yahweh. The Labbu Myth records the creation of the sea viper, whose length was sixty leagues.
1:20–25. zoological categories. The zoological categories include various species of (1) sea creatures, (2) birds, (3) land-based creatures, which are divided into domestic and wild animals and “creatures that move along the ground” (perhaps the reptiles and/or amphibians), and (4) humans. Insects and the microscopic world of creatures are not mentioned, but the categories are broad enough to include them.
1:26–31. function of people. While the organizational or functional focus of the account may have similarities with the ancient Near Eastern perspective, the reason for it all is quite different. In the ancient Near East, the gods created for themselves—the world was their environment for their enjoyment and existence. People were created only as an afterthought, when the gods needed slave labor to help provide the conveniences of life (such as irrigation trenches). In the Bible the cosmos was created and organized to function on behalf of the people that God planned as the centerpiece of his creation.
1:26–31. creation of people in ancient Near Eastern myths. In creation accounts from Mesopotamia an entire population of people is created, already civilized, using a mixture of clay and the blood of a slain rebel god. This creation comes about as the result of conflict among the gods, and the god organizing the cosmos had to overcome the forces of chaos to bring order to his created world. The Genesis account portrays God’s creation not as part of a conflict with opposing forces but as a serene and controlled process.
1:26–27. image of God. When God created people, he put them in charge of all of his creation. He endowed them with his own image. In the ancient world an image was believed to carry the essence of that which it represented. An idol image of deity, the same terminology as used here, would be used in the worship of that deity because it contained the deity’s essence. This would not suggest that the image could do what the deity could do, nor that it looked the same as the deity. Rather, the deity’s work was thought to be accomplished through the idol. In similar ways the governing work of God was seen to be accomplished by people. But that is not all there is to the image of God. Genesis 5:1–3 likens the image of God in Adam to the image of Adam in Seth. This goes beyond the comment about plants and animals reproducing after their own kind, though certainly children share physical characteristics and basic nature (genetically) with their parents. What draws the idol imagery and the child imagery together is the concept that the image provides the capacity not only to serve in the place of God (his representative containing his essence) but also to be and act like him. The tools he provided so that we may accomplish that task include conscience, self-awareness and spiritual discernment. Mesopotamian traditions speak of sons being in the image of their fathers (Enuma Elish) but do not speak of humans created in the image of God; but the Egyptian Instructions of Merikare identifies humankind as the god’s images who came from his body. In Mesopotamia a significance of the image can be seen in the practice of kings setting up images of themselves in places where they want to establish their authority. Other than that, it is only other gods who are made in the image of gods. (See comment on 5:3.)
2:1–3. seventh-day rest. In the Egyptian creation account from Memphis, the creator god Ptah rests after the completion of his work. Likewise the creation of humans is followed by rest for the Mesopotamian gods. In Mesopotamia, however, the rest is a result of the fact that people have been created to do the work that the gods were tired of doing. Nonetheless, the desire for rest is one of the motivating elements driving these creation narratives. The containment or destruction of chaotic cosmic forces that is often a central part of ancient creation narratives leads to rest, peace or repose for the gods. Likewise it is the gods’ inability to find rest from the noise and disturbance of humankind that leads to the flood. In all it is clear that ancient ideologies considered rest to be one of the principal objectives of the gods. In Israelite theology, God does not require rest from either cosmic or human disturbances but seeks rest in a dwelling place (see especially Ps 132:7–8, 13–14).
2:1. sabbath divisions. Dividing time into seven-day periods was a practice that is so far unattested in the other cultures of the ancient Near East, though there were particular days of the month in Mesopotamia that were considered unlucky, and they were often seven days apart (that is, the seventh day of the month, the fourteenth day of the month, etc.). Israel’s sabbath was not celebrated on certain days of the month and was not linked to the cycles of the moon or to any other cycle of nature; it was simply observed every seventh day.