Christians usually focus on the story of the physical creation when they read the first few chapters of Genesis. We miss the fact that these critical chapters are teaching revolutionary truths, which to us seem so basic we can hardly think in any other terms. Yet until Judaism and Christianity brought them to the world, they were not a part of mankind’s thinking. Not only are they important, they are wonderful news once you think about it!
We need to understand how utterly unique the biblical account is compared to all other creation stories, and what the differences say. Most creation myths from the ancient world revolved around the wars and sexual relationships of human-like gods and goddesses. As they imagined it, various parts of creation (like the sky, the earth or the sea) were formed through the sexual acts of the gods or by one god slaying another and dismembering the body.
Humankind was created to be the slaves the gods, to relieve them of daily drudgery. In the Ancient Near East, gods were assumed to be limited in power and not interested in morality, just how to gain power over the other gods. Humans appeased their anger through magical incantations and religious ceremonies, but they didn’t atone for wrongs done to others. it was fine to be quick-witted, devious and underhanded because the gods simply didn’t care.
The assumption of the Ancient Near East was that the world was arbitrary, unpredictable and cruel. Humans had no guarantee that their lives were meaningful in any way. This dismal, pessimistic worldview pervades the writings of these societies.
In contrast, the Genesis account of creation offers tremendous hope. Here are some of the wonderful things it says:
One eternal God created everything and is apart from the creation. Because God is all powerful, he sets a universal standard of ethics that applies to all humanity. He is the foundation of all good and he cares about what is good, and is concerned about humanity. What good news compared to the immoral, unconcerned pagan deities!
Not only does God care about what is good, he created the world very good. His creation (including humanity) is a wonderful thing, and even when marred by sin, it will ultimately redeemed for a great purpose. This should make us optimistic about our existence.
Man is uniquely precious. He is made from dust like the rest of creation, but he alone receives the breath of life from God himself. We are made in the image of God, and are related to him in a unique way. Because of that, God is our kinsman-redeemer, our protector and savior.
Later in Genesis we read about the Fall and how mankind quickly slips into depravity — first the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, then Lamech who would kill a man for wounding him (Gen 4:23), then the entire wicked generation of the flood (Gen. 6). A little bit of rebellion grows and grows until it permeates the whole human race. Salvation will come later through Christ, but the hope for the world ultimately begins back in Genesis, as we see the character of the God who created us and look forward to what he will do to redeem us.
How would the original audience of the Bible have understood the first chapters of Genesis? What meaning did they find in the creation accounts? Could it have been different than how modern Christians read the Bible?
Our Western culture places a high value on scientific data, chronological order, abstract ideas and philosophical reasoning. In contrast, Eastern societies emphasize relationships and use stories and concrete physical images to describe reality.1 Because of this, we expect our Bibles to speak in sophisticated abstractions about eternity and the nature of God.
Old Testament stories about eating apples, building arks and talking to burning bushes seem silly and childish to us. Until we learn to grasp the Bible’s very different way of communicating, we’ll struggle to fully appreciate the profound meaning it relays in a different cultural language.
Nowhere is this more true than in the book of Genesis. When we focus only on the physical details, we completely miss the point. For instance, the flood account is often discussed in terms of its impact on geology. Completely forgotten are its profound ideas about the sinfulness of humanity and God’s response. We overlook the important theological statements about the universal corruption of man, and how through the covenant with Noah, God committed himself to find a way to redeem humankind rather than to condemn it.2 If you don’t realize that the biblical writers were explaining theology through story, you’ll miss the fact that the flood narrative actually points ahead toward the work of Christ.
What if we took another look at the creation account of Genesis 1, considering that it is a deeply Hebraic text? Let’s consider what would have been important and meaningful to listener of Abraham’s time.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
How would Abraham have reacted to this first line of the Bible? It may surprise you that the account in the Bible was likely not the first story he would have heard about the creation of the world. Several myths are known from the Ancient Near East that circulated in his time.3
Most creation stories featured wars and relationships between human-like gods and goddesses. These myths taught that through sexual procreation, or by acts of violence and murder the creation was formed: the seas, the sky, the land. The gods were limited in power and intent on gaining dominance over the other gods, and the world was created as a product of their wars. Humans were created to serve as their slaves, to cater to their whims.4
The biblical account is utterly unique among the creation stories of its time. The revolutionary idea that all that exists was the handiwork of one vast, powerful God was almost unbelievable to polytheists, who imagined that many small gods reigned over the earth.
The idea that the creation was “very good” and that humankind was special to God was also completely unheard of. In pagan cultures, humankind was a minor afterthought of the gods, and humanity lived in fear of the capricious gods who cared nothing for them. It is important to realize how many foundational ideas are contained in this first chapter of the Bible, and how radical they would have been in their time.5
In Abraham’s world, it would have been obvious that the biblical creation account was deliberately contradicting the pagan myths that were widespread in that day. It would have shocked them to hear that the things that most people worshipped, like the sun and the moon, were simply inanimate objects that were created by the true God (Gen. 1:16).
Neither the sun or moon are even named, except to call them the “greater light” and “lesser light,” in order to hint at their insignificance. Similarly, magical sea monsters like the tannin (a large reptile) and leviathan were regarded as gods in many myths. Genesis specifically says that God made the tannin along with other animals of the sea (v. 21), thereby stripping it of its divinity. In this way, the Bible was “demythologizing” the world and teaching that there is only one God, creator of all things.6
What is not said in the creation account
Another contrast between the biblical creation account and other ancient stories is that the Bible makes not attempt to explain the origins of God. A goal of many creation myths was to tell the origins of the gods themselves, as an apologetic to convince people of their existence.
In contrast, from the very first sentence of Genesis the reality of God is assumed. This awesome God simply felt no need to explain his own origins. This a prominent characteristic of God that we see throughout the Bible– that in his majesty he simply does not answer every question humans have.
We see this same characteristic later in God’s conversation with Job. Job asked God why he allows innocent people to suffer, and God didn’t give him an answer. Instead, he responds by asking him questions, and challenging him to explain the mysteries of creation: where the snow and hail come from, and how the foundations of the earth were laid (Job 38-40).
Through this response, God was showing Job that he could not answer his questions because the human mind simply cannot comprehend God’s reasoning. We forget that God created and designed everything: from neutrinos to bacteria to ecosystems to galaxies. As Isaiah 55:9 says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
When God wanted to show Job something that is utterly beyond human understanding he chose the creation, with the assumption is that humans can never completely comprehend its design. This is good to keep in mind as we read Genesis: God’s infinite knowledge simply cannot be brought down into human terms.
The Grand Symmetry of Creation
The creation accounts in Genesis are an extreme simplification of God’s activity into statements that all of humanity could understand. For instance, it says that “man was created from the dust of the earth” but it says nothing about how God designed organs and tissues and cells. Other passages also employ poetic “telescoping” of God’s activity, like the phrase that says that God “brings forth bread from the earth” (Ps. 104:14). This doesn’t mean that bread loaves magically arise out of the soil, but that through a complex series of events, God causes grain to grow that we can harvest and make into bread.
Looking more in depth at the story of the first six days reveals amazing beauty and order in God’s creative activity. Most Christians are unaware of the symmetry of the design over the days, and the delightful imagery that the Hebrew words employ. At first the earth is formless and empty. The phrase “formless and empty” is very poetic in Hebrew: tohu va vohu. Interestingly, God addresses the “formlessness,” tohu, on the first three days by separating the various elements each day:
Day 1: God separates light from dark, and creates day and night.
Day 2: God separates the “waters above” from the “waters below” and creates sky and sea.
Day 3: God separates the waters below from the dry areas and creates land and oceans. He also creates a garden.
Then, God addresses the “emptiness,” bohu, of creation by filling the domains created in the first three days.
Day 4: God creates lights — the sun, moon and stars — to “fill” and reign over the day and the night (note that day and night were made on Day 1)
Day 5: God creates birds to fill the skies, and sea creatures to fill the sea (both created on Day 2)
Day 6: God creates land animals to fill the dry land, and he creates humans to live in the garden (created on Day 3).
Clearly, the structure of the days is meant to show the amazing orderliness and grand design of God.7 He first creates the space itself, names it, and then later fills it in an orderly manner.
The Message in the Creation Account
A key to understanding the creation account is to see that its goal is to explain the meaning of all things in God’s sight, rather than the mechanical way in which they were created. As Genesis 2:4 says, “These are the toledot (“begats,” generations) of the heavens and the earth: their being created.”8 In the same way genealogies are given to explain the relationships of people, the Genesis accounts are meant to explain the relationships between the parts of the creation.
One implication is that chronological order is not the point of the creation story. We can see this by comparing the account in Genesis 1 to the second story in Genesis 2, where everything is made in a different sequence. Humans are created first, then plants, and then animals (Gen. 2:4-20).
To us, it is a problem that the two accounts are not in the same order, but chronology was not an overriding concern in the ancient world.9 Even though the sequences and timing are different, both stories have the same extremely important conclusion — that humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation. We are unique in bearing the image of God and deriving our life from God himself.
In the Image of God
It is hard to overemphasize the revolutionary impact of the idea that humans are made in the “image of God.” Human life is uniquely precious to God, and each person is infinitely valuable to him. This powerful idea was behind many humanitarian laws of the Torah compared to other law codes of the time.10
Through the statement that “God created man from the dust and breathed the breath of life into him,” we can see the amazing paradox that unlike the rest of creation, we are the work of God’s own hands, yet unlike animals, we receive our spirit from God himself. We are as insignificant as dust, and yet we bear the imprint of God himself!
We can even see the basics of the Gospel in embryonic form in these first passages of Genesis. We see the power and majesty of the True God of the universe, his incredible creativity and infinite wisdom, and his elegant design of the cosmos.
More importantly, we see his great concern about life and what is good, and even more than that, his precious children, the human race. By understanding our enormous value in the eyes of God, we can see the reason why even when humanity falls into sin and rebels against him, he will go to amazing lengths to redeem us and bring us back to himself.
3 Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), pp. 4-18. Note: Much of the article above is based on the first chapter of this classic book by Sarna, which is highly recommended for further study.
4 The idea of slavery to God or other gods comes up throughout the Bible, and shows the enormous difference between the true God and all others. See the article “Who Are You Going to Work For?“.
9 Some books of the Old Testament were written out of chronological order because it just wasn’t a priority as we see it (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for instance). This may also be why some of the stories of Jesus’ life are also in a different order in different gospels. See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin, (En-Gedi, 2005) pp. 35-38.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
In examining the creation account, we see that many of its profound ideas are only clear when read within its Eastern cultural way of communicating truth through images and relationships.1 A main point of the epic is to describe the creation of mankind, and to describe man’s unique relationship to God and to his world. Understanding this idea, as well as the revolutionary concept that we are made “in the image of God” is foundational to many later teachings in the Scriptures, including those of Jesus.
The Significance of Man
Reading Genesis in Hebrew reveals many wonderful wordplays that show the relationship of man to the rest of creation. The word for ground is adamah, and of course the first human is called Adam.
The name perfectly fits the scene because God formed Adam from the adamah, and Adam’s skin is red (adom, in Hebrew), like the ground. Adam is given the task of working the adamah, and when Adam dies, he will return to the adamah. God declared that because he sinned, “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).
What does the idea mean that we were made “in the image of God,” b’tzelem elohim? To an ancient person, a god’s “image” was its physical representation on earth. Idols were the images of the gods, as well as physical objects of worship like the sun and moon.
Kings were also often said to be the “images” of gods — they were the representative of a god on earth, with the belief that the gods reigned over their people through the king’s commands. This idea seems to be a part of the intent of Genesis, because right after humanity was said to be in the image of God, humanity was given the task of ruling over the earth (Gen. 1:28). We were given the job of being God’s caring presence, fulfilling his will toward the rest of creation.
From these two ideas, that Adam comes from the adamah, but is the representative of God on earth, one rabbi made a perceptive observation. He said, “A person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one should be written, ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ and the other, ‘All of creation was made for my sake.'”2
We should see both our frailness and short life on this earth, and our “feet of clay” — our tendency to sin — but yet we should also remind ourselves that we have a unique relationship to God and authority over all the earth. Acknowledging both truths in balance will keep us from feeling either too arrogant or too insignificant.
All Humans Bear the Image of God
The implications of man as the “image of God” comes up repeatedly in the Bible. After the flood, God made new pronouncements about the penalty for violence and said, “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:5-6). The idea here is that an assault on any human is an affront on God himself, and God will be sure to hold the perpetrator accountable.
All violence and even insults are ultimately against the God who made us. One amusing rabbinic parable points this out:
A famous rabbi was out riding and was feeling elated because he had studied much Torah. There he chanced to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, rabbi.” He, however, did not return his greeting but instead said to him, “Racca! (empty one or good for nothing) How ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?”
The man replied, “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel that you made.'” When the rabbi realized that he had sinned, he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you, forgive me!”3
The point of the parable is that any time we insult someone, we are not just defaming that person, but the God who made him. After all, he is the one who fashioned him according to his specifications. Even more importantly, if our creator made each human to reflect his own image, when we call another “ugly,” we are insulting God as well. We actually are sinning twice, by calling God not only a poor artist, but ugly too!
James also uses the idea of the “image of God” to point out the incongruity of worshipping God while insulting others:
With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (Ja. 3:9-10)
Every human being should be treated as a special creation of God, because all are precious to him. This idea of the enormous value of human life also was part of the teaching of the rabbis:
Every individual is equally significant before God, since every man was created in his image. Therefore man was created on his own, to teach you that whoever destroys one soul is regarded by the Torah as if he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves one soul, is regarded as if he had saved a whole world.4
Male and Female He Created Them
Another wonderful idea about humanity can be found in a Hebraic reading of the story of the creation of Eve from Adam. The word we have traditionally translated as “rib,” tzela, is never used this way in the rest of the Bible. Rather, it always means “side” and when the phrase “one side” of something is used, it means one half, or one face of a building or object. (See Ex. 25:12, Ex. 26:26 or Ex. 37:3.)
When God takes out of Adam echat mitzelotav — literally “one of his sides” — the picture is really that somehow God split Adam in half and formed one half into Eve. Adam then calls her “flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone,” not just “one of my bones.” The image is that one human was separated into man and woman so that they could have companionship with each other. The complementarity between men and women is inherent in the way they were formed by being taken apart from each other, so that one supplies what the other one lacks.
This actually solves a mystery in the text. In Genesis 1:27, God created both male and female, but in Genesis 2:24, it appears that Eve is created after Adam. How could this be so? Because both were present in the first person, and the woman appears after being separated from the man.
Supporting this, throughout the entire story, the word “adam” is a generic term meaning “human,” not specifically male. In Genesis 5:2, it says so explicitly: “He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them adam.”
In the original Hebrew text, all references to the first human are neutral until God takes some of Adam’s flesh and makes a woman — ishah, in Hebrew. Only at that point is Adam called ish, a man. The Hebrew word ishah hints at her origins from within the ish, something that we can mimic in English, with the words “man” and “woman.” Interestingly, Adam is never called an ish until the ishah has been separated from him. The text seems to imply that male and female cannot define themselves fully as human without the other.5
God’s Intention for Marriage
The next verse about marriage deepens this metaphor even more. By saying, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and dabaq (be united, cleave) to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). It is describing how in marriage, a man and a woman together become what God intended from the very beginning, when the separation of one half from the other half is reversed.
Even the word we translate as “cleave” or “hold fast” in this verse, dabaq, has a lovely picture behind it. The word dabaq also can mean “to fall in love with” as when Shechem “was deeply attracted to,” dabaq, Dinah in Genesis 34:3.
1 Kings 11:2 also says that “Solomon dabaq his foreign wives in love,” which one version renders, “Solomon was irresistibly attracted to them” (New English Translation). Putting all of this together, Genesis 2:24 is saying that the reason women and men fall in love and marry is from their desire to return to this first oneness, both physically and spiritually, that was in God’s design from the very beginning.
This clarifies Jesus’ words about God’s intentions for marriage:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mt. 19:3-6)
Jesus is describing God’s original desire for marriage, that it would be a permanent union, giving companionship and completion to both persons. When he says about divorce that “it was not this way from the beginning,” he is looking beyond the law of Moses and seeing God’s perfect plan in Genesis. He concludes that when God himself puts together what he separated at first, no one should try to tear it apart.6
Imitating the One Whose Image We Bear
If all of us have God’s image within us, how should it impact the way we live? One rabbinic commentary on Genesis answers this question with a delightful story:
When creation was all but ended, only humanity was left to be created. God began to say, ‘Let us make man in our likeness,’ but some protests arose in heaven! First Truth came and fell before God’s throne, and in humility exclaimed, “Please, O God, do not call into being a creature who is beset with the vice of lying, who will tread truth under his feet!” Peace also agreed, and said, “Why, O Lord, shall this creature appear on earth, a creature so full of strife and contention, to disturb the peace and harmony of thy creation? He will carry the flame of quarrel and ill-will in his trail; he will bring about war and destruction in his eagerness for gain and conquest.”
While they were pleading against the creation of man, another voice was heard, the soft voice of Mercy. “King of the universe,” the voice exclaimed in all its mildness, “if you create a being in thy likeness, it will be a noble creature striving to imitate thy attributes by its actions. I see man now with God’s breath in his nostrils, seeking to perform his great mission, to do his noble work. I see him approaching the humble hut, seeking out those who are distressed and wretched to comfort them, drying the tears of the afflicted and despondent, raising up them that are bowed down in spirit, reaching his helping hand to those who are in need of help, speaking peace to the heart of the widow, and giving shelter to the fatherless. Such a creature cannot fail to be a glory to his maker.’ The Creator approved of the pleadings of Mercy, and called man into being.7
This story is saying that when humans show the kindness and compassion of our creator, then we reach our true potential as his creation by reflecting his image on earth. It points out man’s potential for good, even while acknowledging man’s potential for evil.
Of course the only person who truly lived up to this was Jesus: he completely reflected the image of God without succumbing to evil. Interestingly, Paul says that he was the “very image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Because he is the Son of God, he reflected the character and nature of God in a way unparalleled by any mere man.
Through his work on earth, God’s sacrificial love and desire to forgive was revealed like never before, when it was portrayed in human form. He is our model for life as it was meant to be lived. By becoming transformed into his image, we achieve our true potential for reflecting the glory of God.
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom. 8:29)
[We] are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24)
6 David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998) p. 71-76. One saying went so far as to say that “A man without a wife is half a man” stressing the importance of marriage. Jesus, however, says that not all are called to it, and some put it aside out of dedication to God’s work (Matt. 19:11). See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, Holland, MI, 2005) for more.
7 Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 8, which dates from the 5-6th centuries AD.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
– Genesis 1:26-27
What is the significance of saying we are made in God’s image? It’s clear that it means that we share something in common with God that nothing else in creation does. Human life is uniquely precious to God. According to Genesis 9:6, because God made man in his image, murder is a crime that always calls for the death penalty, because murder is an affront to God himself. This was a new and revolutionary idea in its time. Other cultures had death penalties for stealing and other property crimes, but biblical law considered life too precious to require it as a penalty for a material loss.
In rabbinic literature, the contrast was often made of man, made in the image of God, compared to idols and statues made in the image of earthly kings. One rabbi said that “A king mints a thousand coins with his image on them, and every one is exactly the same. But the Lord makes multitudes of human beings that all bear his image, and they are all different!” It shows the infinite glory of God that he can represent himself in so many ways.
One scholar1 believes that Jesus was also using the contrast between the images of kings on coins and humans which are in God’s image.
When people who wanted to trap him were questioning him in the temple as to whether people should pay tax or not, he asked for a coin and then asked whose image was on it. The questioners replied, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then concluded, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s!”
The implication is that because Caesar made the coins and stamped his image on them, they belonged to him, but that because God made humans and stamped his image on us, we belong to him! So Jesus was brilliantly evading their trap about paying taxes and issuing an “altar call” at the same time – reminding us that God is our maker, and has stamped his own image on us, and for that very reason, we should give what he has made, ourselves, back to him.
1 See Your Money or Your Life, by Randall Buth, at www.jerusalemperspective.com.
Now the serpent … said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, `You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’? The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, `You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’ The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. – Genesis 3:1-5
An interesting lesson that we can learn from Eve is the way that she got in trouble and opened a door for Satan to “win” in her conversation with him.
Eve was probably trying to be faithful to God in her conversation with Satan, but when she told the serpent God’s regulations regarding the tree, she overstated what God had said by saying that they must not even touch it or they will die. She was exaggerating for God’s sake, by making his rule more strict than it really was.
Satan probably smirked when he heard her say something untrue, because he knew it was an opportunity for him to gain an advantage. When he said, “You surely will not die,” he had spoken the truth about touching the tree. At that point, his temptations gained credibility in her mind because he corrected her own misstatement.
The thing we can learn from this is the great damage we can do when we over-speak for God and misrepresent his word to other people. This happens in several ways: Well-meaning people make God’s rules more strict than they really are, and put burdens on other’s shoulders to keep impossible, legalistic rules. By insisting on extra requirements that are not central to salvation, well-meaning people often put up barriers to sincere seekers to follow Christ.
Or, sometimes a person claims a certain scientific discovery proves the Bible, and when it is disproved, people doubt the truth of the whole thing. Or, when a person says that one specific doctrine is absolutely necessary for salvation, people are forced to choose sides in battles that divide the church. We can almost see the serpent smirking at all the unnecessary anguish and lost faith that has come from the misrepresentation of God’s word.
We must be ever mindful that our own zeal does not cause us to go beyond God, as we put words in God’s mouth. We need to always speak to let God’s truth be known.
The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. – Genesis 1:2
There is a really fascinating theme that runs through all of the Bible – the picture of God beginning a new creation. Genesis begins the story of creation with the Spirit of God “hovering over” the deep (Tehom), and one of God’s first acts of creation is the separation of water from water. This picture is a theme that recurs over and over in the scriptures, every time God starts something new.
There is a little of a poetic motif there, because the word for “the deep” is Tehom, which was symbolic of chaos. It is a picture of God conquering evil and chaos to bring order and a beautiful new thing into existence. The word for Spirit in Hebrew is ruach, which also means wind or breath, so when God parts the waters by a great wind it is a picture of God in the act of creating.
Where do we see this? First we see it in Genesis 1:1 of course, but only a few chapters later, after the flood destroyed all of life on earth, we read in Genesis 8:1-3 that God caused a wind (ruach) to pass over the earth, and restrained the waters of the deep (Tehom), and the flood waters receded, giving the world a new, clean beginning.
We next see this in the parting of the Red Sea, as the wind (ruach) blows to separate the waters so that the Israelites can pass through. This marks the beginning of God’s new nation of Israel, who now would have their own sovereignty and identity as the people of God. Later, as they pass through the river Jordan, once again God was parting the waters, and in a sense, re-creating them as his people and cleansing them of their sin in the desert. After their entrance into the land they took on the covenant again, just like they did at Sinai, and made a clean beginning as God’s people.
There is one more place significant scene in the Bible when we see this imagery of God at the waters – at the baptism of Jesus. Here the heavens are parted (reminiscent of the waters being parted) and we see the Spirit of God “hovering” over, in the form of a dove, just as it hovered over the first waters of creation. Here is God’s new creation, God on earth in the form of the Son of Man.
God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. – Genesis 1:31-2:1
The creation story in Genesis teaches some revolutionary truths which are so basic that we can hardly think in any other terms. But, until Judaism and Christianity brought them to the world, they were not a part of mankind’s thinking. Not only are they important, they are wonderful news once you think about it!
The biblical account was utterly unique in comparison to all other ancient stories about creation, and the differences were a powerful challenge to the world-view of its time. Most creation myths featured wars between human-like gods and goddesses. Through sex and violence, various parts of the creation were formed. According to these myths, the gods were limited in power and not at all interested in morality – just how to gain power over the other gods. They did not care about humanity, but instead created humans as slaves to serve their own desires. Humans were to appease these gods through magical incantations and religious ceremonies, but there was no moral standard – the goal of life was to survive by being quick-witted and devious. People saw the world as unpredictable and cruel, and didn’t see that their lives were meaningful in any way. Humans had no hope of anything beyond survival in a callous, immoral world.
In contrast, the first few chapters of Genesis flip our thinking upside-down and offer tremendous hope. One eternal God created everything and is apart from creation. Because God is unique and all powerful, he can set a universal standard of ethics that applies to all humanity. He is the foundation of all good, created a good world, and is concerned about humanity. Man is uniquely precious to him – he was made from dust, but he alone received the breath of life from God himself. God made us in his image, and because of that, God is our “kinsman-redeemer” who is our protector and savior. What good news compared to the immoral, unconcerned pagan gods!
We hardly appreciate these truths that are important fundamentals even before we get to the story of Christ. But the Bible begins with good news, and it only gets better from there.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. – Genesis 1:26-28
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. – Genesis 2:4-7
Numerous volumes have been written attempting to explain the creation account in the book of Genesis. There have been all kinds of discussions about its purpose, its meaning, and the “science” of it. But certainly most of us would agree, whatever our theology, that many questions remain with room for debate.
Lay aside any debate for a while, and ponder the magnificence of the story and the beauty of the pictures in front of us. We have in the first two chapters of the Bible an account of history that could not have been generated by human memory, because it comes from a time before mankind existed. Either the Lord revealed these things directly to Moses, or He told someone who had gone before and it was passed down from generation to generation.
In any case, Moses relates two adjacent versions of creation which are different in order, content, and emphasis. Chapter 1 emphasizes the transcendent God who is supreme over the universe, while chapter 2 focuses on his very special creation and his relationship to the one created in his own image. It is in this connection (Gen 2:4) that we have the first use of God’s Holy Name, used nineteen times in chapters 2 and 3, but not once in chapter 1, — and seldom throughout the rest of the Torah.
Can you comprehend a God big enough to create something in his image with the ability to choose not to follow instructions? Can you feel the hurt in the Lord’s heart when we choose not honor him? Can you imagine the joy in his heart when we do so choose?
The Lord has given us full dominion over all his creation, will you choose to serve him?