Saturday, August 8, 2009

Genesis 1: God's plan (updated)

In a previous post, I argued that Genesis 1 teaches important truths that are foundational for living by faith simply by how it differs from pagan cosmologies. Now I want to look at the Genesis 1 account itself.

Structure and emphasis communicate the author's intent. As usual for any Bible passage, the key question to ask is: Why is he telling us this? This question is particularly relevant for Genesis 1, where the account is highly structured and obviously very carefully organized with a minimum of words. Why does he enumerate the days? Why does he mention days at all? And why does he number them? Why does God create in stages, rather than all at once? Why does he tell these things, when so many other details are omitted?

For several generations now, scholars have pointed out the following interesting structure:

Day 1: God made light, and separated light from darkness (making day and night, i.e., time).
Day 4: God made the great light (to preside over the day) and the lesser light and the stars (to preside over the night), in order to mark time.
Day 2: God made the firmament (separating sky and sea).
Day 5: God fills the sea with creatures, and the sky with birds.
Day 3:Day 6:

Part 1: God made the dry land (separating the waters from the waters).
Part 1: God fills the dry land with creatures.
Part 2: God put vegetation on it (to provide for the animals he was going to make, v. 30).
Part 2: God makes man to rule over the creatures and care for them.

So day 4-6 fills the spaces created by days 1-3. The two phases of creation correspond exactly to the description of the original state of earth, "formless and empty" (Genesis 1:2). This narrative is carefully constructed to bring out this structure. (In fact, he keeps to this structure even when it causes apparent difficulties: the sun appears on the fourth day, but day and night on the first. This is bound to raise eyebrows, as much in the ancient world as in the modern.) Why is this structure here?

I do not believe this structure is mere literary ornamentation. Rather, it provides a key to understanding the passage. No one lays a foundation without knowing what the house is going to look like; God did not make the spaces in his creation (days 1-3) without knowing how he planned to fill them (days 4-6). Here is another of the key differences of the Genesis cosmology with essentially all other cosmologies, both ancient and modern: God had a plan from the beginning. In the pagan accounts, the creation of the habitable world is an afterthought of the big battle between the gods and was not planned from the beginning. (See my post on Genesis 1 and pagan cosmologies.) In modern atheistic evolutionary thinking, the creation of the world is an accident and there is no design, no goal, and no purpose.

Why is the account so repetitive?

Repetition is the main device the author uses for emphasis. (Also he sometimes repeats things and then unexpectedly breaks the repetition to provide a contrast.) We therefore must ask ourselves why he chose to emphasize these particular things.

Repeated elementLikely purpose
God said... and it was so (8x)The verbalization of the goal is another indicator that God has a plan. He states what he is doing, and is happy with the result.

Furthermore, when God says something, it happens. This not only emphasizes his power; it also is a key idea in the later parts of scripture, when God says things to the patriarchs and prophets and apostles. The promise to Abraham is as certain as God's statement, "Let there be light." Redemption is as much by the word as creation. A number of passages compare the surety of the word of promise to the stability of the word of creation (e.g., Ps. 89:36-37; Is. 44:24-28; Jer. 32:35-36; Rom. 4:17) and this idea is behind other key passages (e.g., throughout Is. 40)
God saw that it was good (8x)Not only did God have a plan, but he did exactly what he planned. He did not fail in the execution, nor did he conclude after executing his plan that it wasn't a such a good idea after all. (See below on "God's good plan".) Contrast this with the Prometheus/Epimetheus creation myth from Plato (recounted very briefly in, where the resulting creation was not good because Epimetheus lacked foresight.

Also, this strongly emphasizes God's statement in Genesis 2 that "It is not good for the man to be alone."
God separated (3x)This phrase occurs in each of the first three days. It links them together and contrasts them with the second three days, reinforcing the structure above.
God called the ...This is one of the indicators that the passage is intended to be linked closely to Genesis 2, where the concept of naming is key. Naming in the ancient world indicates authority and ownership. God rules the inanimate world because he names it; Adam rules over the creatures because he names them, in agreement with comission to man in Gen. 1:28.
after its kind (10x)
The idea of a "kind" is yet another indicator that God had a blueprint or plan in mind when he made the creatures.

More importantly, there is one creature who is not made after its own kind: man is made after God's kind. The breaking of the monotonous repetition highlights the contrast between man and the animals. See previous post on the image of God for more details.
God blessed (2x) them and said, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill..."
God's plan is a good plan, not just in his own eyes, but for the creatures as well. See below on "good".

"Blessing" is a key word in Genesis (and also later in Scripture), and summarizes what God intends to do.
There was evening and there was morning, day... (6x)
This formula appears for all of the days except day 7, and emphasizes the difference between that day and the others. Hopefully I will write on the theology of the Sabbath later.

Incidentally, the order "evening and morning" sticks out like a sore thumb to a Westerner, because for us the day begins in the morning; but for a Hebrew, the day began at sunset of what we would call the previous day, so for them "evening and morning" is a natural way to describe a day.
the image of God (3x)
This is contrasted with "after its kind", and shows the importance of the special role of man (see previous post on the "image of God").
God rested (2x)
God was finished, having achieved his goals.

Redemption and God's good plan

Genesis 1 lays the foundation for the understanding of redemption in the rest of scripture. Not only did God have a goal in the beginning, but he is once again moving to achieve that same goal. The Bible repeatedly refers to redemption as a new creation which achieves God's goal in the original creation.

No other ancient culture nearby had a concept that history was going anywhere. Either the present situation will continue indefinitely (Babylonian gods will rule the world this way forever, and therefore Babylon will never fall), or there will be continual cycles (e.g., the great cycles of the Stoics or Hindus). Nothing fundamentally different will ever happen. Nowhere is there any sense of eschatology, that the gods will ultimately intervene and fix things up permanently.

But the joining of the creation story to the story of the fall in Genesis 3 shows that the present state of the world is not what God intended (there is curse instead of blessing). Furthermore, the rest of Genesis, especially the themes of promise and future blessing, make it clear that God still has a plan--it is really the same plan of blessing in creation, but now we are looking at it while it is being carried out, not after it has been finished. (At key stages, the author is careful to connect with Genesis 1 by repeating the key ideas of blessing, fruitfulness/seed, and ruling. See Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology.)

Now just as God's initial creation happened in stages, redemption also happens in stages; it is not instantaneous. The old creation climaxed with man and his commission to fill and rule the world; the new creation starts from a new humanity (beginning with Jesus, the new Adam) and will spread to fill the world (the great commission, Matt. 28:18-20) and finally the universe (e.g., Rev. 21:1). The old creation ended with a judgment ("God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good") and a rest ("God rested from everything he had created and made"). The new creation ends with a judgment (the last judgment, after which only what is good will be left) and a rest for the saints (Heb. 4:9-10; Rev. 14:13).