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Creation according to Genesis

Creation according to Genesis refers to the Hebrew narrative of the creation of the heavens and the earth as told in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch.

The text

The modern division of the Bible into chapters dates from c.1200 AD, and the division into verses somewhat later. The distinction between Genesis 1 and 2 is therefore a relatively recent development. Many Biblical scholars regard Genesis as beginning with two accounts of the creation, 1:1-2:3 and 2:4b-2:25, each with its own focus of attention, with 2:4a forming a bridge between them. Others view the "second account" as simply a continuation of the story.

First account - "Creation week"


The creation week narrative consists of eight divine commands executed over six days, followed by a seventh day of rest: "When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, 'Let there be light.' and there was light"

  • First day: God creates light ("Let there be light!") - the first divine command. The light is divided from the darkness, and "day" and "night" are named.
  • Second day: God creates a firmament ("Let a firmament be...!") - the second command - to divide the waters above from the waters below. The firmament is named "heavens".
  • Third day: God commands the waters below to be gathered together in one place, and dry land to appear (the third command). "Earth" and "sea" are named. God commands the earth to bring forth grass, plants, and fruit-bearing trees (the fourth command).
  • Fourth day: God creates lights in the firmament (the fifth command) to separate light from darkness and to mark days, seasons and years. Two great lights are made (most likely the Sun and Moon, but not named), and the stars.
  • Fifth day: God commands the sea to "teem with living creatures", and birds to fly across the heavens (sixth command); He creates birds and sea creatures, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply.
  • Sixth day: God commands the land to bring forth living creatures (seventh command); He makes wild beasts, livestock and reptiles. He then creates Man and Woman in His "image" and "likeness" (eighth command). They are told to "be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it." Humans and animals are given plants to eat. The totality of creation is described by God as "very good."
  • Seventh day: God, having completed the heavens and the earth, rests from His work, and blesses and sanctifies the seventh day.


2:4a These are the tôledôt of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

The phrase "These are the tôledôt ('generations') of the heavens and the earth when they were created" lies between the "creation week" account and the account of Eden which follows. It is the first of ten "tôledôt" phrases used by the author to provide structure to the book of Genesis. Since the phrase always precedes the "generation" to which it belongs, the "generations of the heavens and the earth" should logically be taken to refer to Genesis 2; a position taken by several commentators. Nevertheless, other commentators from Rashi to the present day (e.g., Driver) have argued that in this case it should apply to what precedes.

Second account (Eden narrative)


The Eden narrative addresses the creation of the first man and woman:

  • Genesis 2:4b - the second half of the bridge formed by the "generations" formula, and the beginning of the Eden narrative - places the events of the narrative "in the day when YHWH Elohim made the earth and the heavens...
  • Before any plant has appeared, before any rain has fallen, while a mist waters the earth, Yahweh forms the man (Heb. adam) from dust of the ground (Heb. adamah), and breathes the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man becomes a "living being" (Heb. nephesh).
  • Yahweh plants a garden in Eden and sets the man in it, and causes pleasant trees to spout from the ground, and trees necessary for food, and the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (An unnamed river is described: it goes out from Eden to water the garden, after which it parts into four named streams.) He takes the man who is to tend His garden and tells him he may eat of the fruit of all the trees except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "for in that day thou shalt surely die."
  • Yahweh resolves to make a help-mate for the man. He makes domestic animals and birds, and the man gives them their names, but none of them is a fitting help-mate. Yahweh causes the man to sleep, and takes a rib, and forms a woman. The man names her "Woman" (Heb. ishah), "for from a man (Heb. ish) has this been taken." A statement instituting marriage follows: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
  • The man and his wife are naked, and feel no shame.

Genesis 1-11 – the “Primeval History”

Genesis 1-2 opens the “primeval history,” a unit Genesis forming an introduction to the stories of Abraham and the Patriarchs. It contains the first mention of many themes which are continued throughout the book of Genesis and the Torah, including fruitfulness, God's election of Israel, and his ongoing forgiveness of man's rebellious nature. It is therefore impossible to understand either Genesis 1-2 or the Torah as a whole without reference to this introductory history.

Ancient Near East context

The world whose creation is described in Genesis 1 was the standard universe conceived in ancient Middle Eastern cosmology: a flat disk, with infinite water both above and below. The "firmament", the dome of the sky, was a solid metal bowl - tin according to the Sumerians, iron for the Egyptians - separating the surrounding water from the habitable world of men; the stars were embedded in its surface, and it was fitted with gates to allow the passage of the Sun and Moon. The habitable earth formed a single island-continent surrounded by a circular ocean, of which the known seas - the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea - were inlets. Beneath the earth was a fresh-water sea, the source of rivers and wells.

In addition to their cosmology the ancient Israelites shared with their neighbours a common inheritance of religious beliefs, from which Yahwistic monotheism emerged only gradually. This shared heritage can be traced in Genesis 1-11, which "appears to be a reformatting of motifs and characters from four Mesopotamian myths, Adapa and the South Wind, Atrahasis, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish.

According to the Enuma Elish, which has the closest parallels with Genesis, the original state of the universe was a chaos formed by the mingling of two primeval waters, the female saltwater god Tiamat and the male freshwater god Apsu. The two waters engendered six successive generations of gods, at the end of which the god Marduk slew Tiamat, cut her hide in two, and used one half to form the earth and the other half to form the firmament of the heavens. (The Euphrates and the Tigris were believed to emerge from the eye-sockets of the slain Tiamat - a faint trace of this can perhaps be seen in the river which emerges to water Eden in Genesis 2). The gods then consulted and decided to form mankind, whom they made - in seven pairs, male and female - from clay mingled with their own spit and the blood of another slaughtered god. Mankind was set on earth to be the servant of the gods, while Marduk was enthroned in Babylon in the Esagila temple, "the house with its head in heaven," near his ziggurat of Etemenanki, the Bible's Tower of Babel.

Genesis is not, however, a simple re-telling of the Babylonian myths: instead, the myths are inverted to serve a theological purpose. For example, the Babylonian serpent-god Ningishzida is a friend of mankind who helps the human hero Adapa in his search for immortality, while Genesis' serpent is man's enemy, seeking to trick Adam out of the chance to attain immortality. The inversions represent a rejection of the power of Babylon's gods in favour of the might of Yahweh; more than this, they replace the essentially optimistic world-view of the Mesopotamians - "things were not nearly as good to begin with as they have become since" - with a world-view in which the world was created perfect but grew steadily worse, until God finally had to do away with all mankind except for the pious Noah who would beget a new and better stock.

Exegetical points

"In the beginning..."

The first word of Genesis 1 in Hebrew, "in the beginning" (Heb. berēšît), provides the traditional Jewish title for the book. The ambiguity of the Hebrew grammar in this verse gives rise to two alternative translations, the first implying that God's first act of creation was the heavens and the earth, the second that "the heavens and the Earth" already existed in a "formless and void" state, to which God brings form and order:

  1. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void...God said, Let there be light!" (King James Version).
  2. "At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth, when the earth was (or the earth being) unformed and void . . . God said, Let there be light!" (Rashi, also with variations Ibn Ezra and Bereshith Rabba).

The name of God

Two names of God are used, Elohim in the first account and Yahweh Elohim in the second account. This difference, plus differences in the styles of the two chapters and a number of discrepancies between them, formed one of the earliest pieces of evidence that the Pentateuch had multiple origins, and was instrumental in the development of source criticism and the documentary hypothesis.

"Formless and Void"

The phrase traditionally translated in English "formless and void" is tōhû wābōhû (תהו ובהו). In most Bibles the phrase is translated by various combinations of adjectives with which translators attempt to capture the flavor of the primeval terrestrial moment which tōhû wābōhû describes. This phrase is shrouded in ancient obscurity, and although it has some limited traffic in Modern Hebrew, is deemed to be a deeply mystical concept.. The Greek Septuagint (LXX) rendered this term as "unsightly and unfurnished" (Greek: ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος), paralleling the Greek concept of Chaos.

The rûach of God

Some English translations have "the spirit of God," others "a wind from God." The Hebrew rûach has the meanings "wind, spirit, breath," but the traditional Jewish interpretation here is "wind," as "spirit" would imply a living supernatural presence co-extent with yet separate from God at Creation. This, however, is the sense in which rûach was understood by the early Christian church in developing the doctrine of the Trinity, in which this passage plays a central role.

The "deep"

The "deep" (Heb. tehôm), is the formless body of primeval water surrounding the habitable world. These waters are later released during the great flood, when "all the fountains of the great deep burst forth" from under the earth and from the "windows" of the sky.(). The word is cognate with the Babylonian Tiamat, and its occurrence here without the definite article ha (i.e., the literal translation of the Hebrew is that "darkness lay on the face of tehôm) indicates its mythical origins.

The firmament of heaven

The "firmament" (Heb. rāqîa) of heaven, created on the second day of creation and populated by luminaries on the fourth day, denotes a solid ceiling which separated the earth below from the heavens and their waters above. The term is etymologically derived from the verb rāqa, used for the act of beating metal into thin plates.

Great sea monsters

Heb. tanninim is the classification of creatures to which the chaos-monsters Leviathan and Rahab belong (cf. , , ).] In Gen 1.21, the proper noun Leviathan is missing and only the class noun tanninim appears. The tannînim are associated with mythological sea creatures such as Lotan (the Ugaritic counterpart of the biblical Leviathan) which were considered deities by other ancient near eastern cultures; the author of Genesis 1 asserts the sovereignty of Elohim over such entities. The NJV translates it as "sea monsters".

The number seven

Seven was regarded as a significant number in the ancient Near East. It has been argued that the author of has intentionally embedded it into the text in a number of ways, besides the obvious seven-day framework: the word "God" occurs 35 times (7 × 5) and "earth" 21 times (7 × 3). The phrases "and it was so" and "God saw that it was good" occur 7 times each. The first sentence of contains 7 Hebrew words, and the second sentence contains 14 words, while the verses about the seventh day contain 35 words in total.

Man and the image of God

The meaning of the phrase "image and likeness of God" has been much debated. The great medieval Jewish scholar Rashi believed it referred to "a sort of conceptual archetype, model, or blueprint that God had previously made for man;" his colleague Maimonides suggested it referred to man's free will. Modern scholarship still debates whether the image of God was represented symmetrically in Adam and Eve, or whether Adam possessed the image more fully than the woman.

Structure and composition


Genesis 1 consists of eight acts of creation within a six day framework. Each of the first three days is an act of division: dark/light, waters/skies, sea/land & plants. In the next three days this framework is populated: heavenly bodies for the dark and light, fish and birds for the seas and skies, animals and (finally) man for the land. This six-day structure is symmetrically bracketed by day zero when primeval chaos reigns and day seven representing cosmic order.

Genesis 2 is a simple linear narrative, with the exception of the parenthesis about the four rivers at Genesis 2:10-14. This interrupts the forward movement of the narrative and might therefore be an insertion based on the spring or stream at Genesis 2:6 which waters the ground "on the day when Yahweh Elohim formed earth and heavens.

The “Primeval History” mimics Genesis 1’s intricate structure of parallel halves. The first half runs from Creation to Noah, the second from the Flood to Abraham. Each half is marked by the passage of ten generations (ten from Adam to Noah, another ten from Noah to Abraham). Like Genesis 1, each half has a six-part structure, and the content of each half exactly mirrors the other. Each follows the same themes, but with very different results: in the first half, God creates a perfect world for man, but man sins and God eventually returns his creation to its original state of chaos (i.e., the water of tehom); in the second, man finds himself in a newly created post-Flood world, as if given a chance to start again, but sins again (the Tower). But the result the second time is different: God choses Abram and makes his name (Heb. shem) great. The word shem appears to have structural significance: in Genesis 1, God names the elements of his Creation; in Genesis 2, “the man” (not at this stage named Adam), names the creatures over which he has been given dominion; Noah’s eldest son is “Shem”, and Yahweh is identified as “the God of Shem,” ancestor of Abraham and the Chosen People.


According to Jewish tradition the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses. Opinions differed among the rabbis on just how Genesis fitted into the picture, some saying God revealed it to Moses on Sinai, others holding that Moses compiled it in Egypt from writings left by the Patriarchs, with an account from Adam providing details on the Creation. The tradition of Mosaic authorship was adopted by the earliest Christians and is still held by many believers today, most notably among Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians.

Today virtually all scholars accept that the Pentateuch "was in reality a composite work, the product of many hands and periods.” In the first half of the 20th century the dominant theory regarding the origins of the Pentateuch was the documentary hypothesis. This supposes that the Torah was produced about 450 BC by combining four distinct, complete and coherent documents, known as the Yahwist (“Y” or “J”, from the German spelling of Yahweh), the Elohist (“E”), the Deuteronomist (“D”), and the Priestly source (“P”). Genesis 1 is from P, and Genesis 2 from J.

Some scholars believe that the Genesis account is a single report of creation, which is divided into two parts, written from different perspectives: the first part, from , describes the creation of the Earth from God's perspective; the second part, from , describes the creation of the Garden of Eden from Humanity's perspective. One such scholar wrote, "[T]he strictly complementary nature of the accounts is plain enough: Genesis 1 mentions the creation of man as the last of a series, and without any details, whereas in Genesis 2 man is the center of interest and more specific details are given about him and his setting" (Kitchen 116-117).

Other scholars, particularly those ascribing to textual criticism and the Documentary hypothesis, believe that the first two chapters of Genesis are two separate accounts of the creation. (They agree that the "first chapter" should include the first three verses and the first half of the fourth verse of chapter 2.) One such scholar wrote: "The book of Genesis, like the other books of the Hexateuch, was not the production of one author. A definite plan may be traced in the book, but the structure of the work forbids us to consider it as the production of one writer." (Spurell xv). For some religious writers, such as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the existence of two separate creation stories is beyond doubt, and thus needs to be interpreted as having divine importance.

Some of the issues involved in the single vs. dual account debate include:

  • Genesis 1 has creation in the order: plants; sea creatures and birds; land animals; man and woman (together); in Genesis 2 the sequence is: man; plants; land animals and birds; woman.
  • Genesis 1 refers to God as Elohim, Genesis 2 uses the composite name Yahweh Elohim (Yahweh is often translated "LORD," but does not have this meaning in Hebrew - it is, rather, the name of the God of Israel). Single account advocates assert that Hebrew scriptures use different names for God throughout, depending on the characteristics of God which the author wished to emphasize. They argue that across the Hebrew scriptures, the use of Elohim in the first segment suggests "strength," focusing on God as the mighty Creator of the universe, while the use of Yahweh in the second segment suggested moral and spiritual natures of deity, particularly in relationship to the man. Dual account advocates assert that the two segments using different words for God indicates different authorship and two distinct narratives, in accord with the Documentary hypothesis.
  • Though not so obvious in translation, the Hebrew text of the two sections differ both in the type of words used and in stylistic qualities. The first section flows smoothly, whereas the second is more interested in pointing out side details, and does so in a more point of fact style. One of the principles of textual criticism is that large differences in the type of words used, and in the stylistic qualities of the text, should be taken as support for the existence of two different authors. Proponents of the two-account hypothesis point to the attempts (e.g., The Book of J, by Harold Bloom, translated by David Rosenberg) to separate the various authors of the Torah claimed by the Documentary Hypothesis into distinct and sometimes contradictory accounts.

Proponents of the single account argue that style differences need not be indicative of multiple authors, but may simply indicate the purpose of different passages. For example, Kenneth Kitchen, a retired Archaeology Professor of the University of Liverpool, has argued (1966) that stylistic differences are meaningless, and reflect different subject matter. He supports this with the evidence of a biographical inscription of an Egyptian official in 2400 B.C., which reflects at least four different styles, but which is uniformly supposed to possess unity of authorship.

Theology and interpretation

The theology of Genesis

According to Professor Klaus Nurnberger, the motive of the biblical authors was not to put forward a coherent statement of their theology, but "to reassure fellow believers...of the strict, but benevolent, commitment of their God to his people." The rationale which holds together the "vastly divergent" biblical materials can therefore only be understood through studying the evolutionary process by which the texts were created.

The vast majority of modern scholars agree that "primeval history" within the Torah (Genesis 1-11) is composed of two distinct sources, the Yahwist and the Priestly (best understood today as bodies of texts with distinctive markers, rather than as distinct documents). The Priestly source "emphasizes the continuity of God's care for Israel as demonstrated in its history." This is expressed in certain pervasive themes: God's blessing (Genesis 1:28 provides the first of four important blessings within the overall Priestly narrative: "And 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.'"); God's word (God's important involvements with the world are expressed through his spoken words, throughout the "And God said" Creation sequence of Genesis 1, and through the three subsequent major covenants with Noah at Genesis 9, Abraham at Genesis 17, and Israel at Exodus 20); and God's continuing presence among the Chosen People.

The Yahwist writer tends to express his theology through speeches of Yahweh placed at decisive points in the story. Six of the eight major speeches in Genesis occur in the "primeval history," the first being the speech at Genesis 2:16-17 prohibiting the fruit of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil. The import of these stories is that man will fail if he tries to become as God (the Eden story, repeated in the Flood story and again in the Tower of Babel story). But God is merciful, (each attempt produces a progressively more merciful response from God), and selects a people who will be his own (the promise to Abraham at Genesis 12, which is the fulcrum of the Yahwist history - Abraham is the ancestor of David, the culmination of God's promise). "Abraham, and hence David and all Israel, were chosen to be an instrument of blessing: 'Through you all families of the earth shall bless themselves/be blessed.'" The universal promise was planted when the Yahwist prefaced the national story of Israel with the "all-world" Primeval history.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other theologians suggest that the disobedience of Adam and Eve (taking the knowledge of good and evil for themselves) was the beginning of judgmentalism and remains an obstacle to our intended unconditional love for others.

Interpretative approaches

Biblical literalists believe that the seven "days" of Genesis 1 correspond to normal 24-hour days of history during which God created the world in eight divine acts, or "fiats" - hence the view is also referred to as "fiat creation. Young Earth creationism holds that the creation week occurred a mere six to ten thousands years ago. Other literalists have attempted to reconcile their literal reading with the findings of modern geology regarding the age of the Earth. Gap creationism inserts a "gap" between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 into which geologic time can be inserted, during which the world of a presumed pre-Adamite race was destroyed and then rebuilt – a position called the "Ruin-Reconstruction Interpretation". Arthur C. Custance has documented numerous precursors to "gap creationism" centuries before literalists found themselves debating scientists, and has suggested that it may be more accurate to think of this view as a textual debate among literalists first, and a debate topic versus evolution second. Another response, the day-age theory, holds that each "day" (Heb. yom) of Genesis 1 represents an "age" of perhaps millions or even billions of years.

The "framework interpretation" of Genesis 1, advanced by biblical scholars Meredith G. Kline and Henri Blocher, and with antecedents in St. Augustine of Hippo, argues that the "Creation week" should be read as a monotheistic polemic on creation theology directed against pagan creation myths. Klein and others have pointed out that Genesis 1 is built upon a literary framework where the sequence of events is topical rather than chronological, and builds to the establishment of the Sabbath commandment as its climax - the Sabbath being a prime concern of the Priestly source of the Torah.

A similar spectrum of views is encountered in relation to . Many biblical literalists and fundamentalist Christians read this as strictly literal and historical - that God literally breathed into the nostrils of a being formed out of dust, turning it into a living man; there was a literal Garden of Eden with a literal Tree of Life; a literal couple (Adam and Eve) ate a literal forbidden fruit at the urging of a talking serpent; Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden and barred from re-entering it by a literal flaming sword. Other conservative Christians and Jews read it as a record of real events, but consider that the actual details are re-cast as symbols - thus the forbidden fruit, the serpent, the fig leaves and so forth, possibly even the Garden itself, are metaphors for religious or spiritual concepts that underlie the original sin of Adam, and/or an allegory describing the creation and sin of each individual human being. Many modern commentators note that "architecture" and depiction of the Garden of Eden resembles that of the Temple in Jerusalem, suggesting religious symbolism.



  • Rouvière, Jean-Marc, (2006), Brèves méditations sur la création du monde L'Harmattan, Paris.
  • Anderson, Bernhard W. Creation in the Old Testament (editor) (ISBN 0-8006-1768-1)
  • Anderson, Bernhard W. Creation Ver Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament (ISBN 0-13-948399-3)
  • Reis, Pamela Tamarkin (2001). Genesis as Rashomon: The creation as told by God and man. Bible Review '17' (3).
  • Kitchen, Kenneth, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, London: Tyndale, 1966, p. 118
  • G.J. Spurrell, Notes on the Text of the Book of Genesis, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896.
  • Davis, John, Paradise to Prison - Studies in Genesis, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975, p. 23
  • P.N. Benware, "Survey of the Old Testament," Moody Press, Chicago IL, (1993).
  • Bloom, Harold and Rosenberg, David The Book of J, Random House, NY, USA 1990.
  • Friedman, Richard E. Who Wrote The Bible?, Harper and Row, NY, USA, 1987.
  • Stone, Nathan, Names of God, Chicago: Moody Press, 1944, p. 17.
  • Nicholson, E. The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Tigay, Jeffrey, Ed. Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, USA 1986
  • J.D. Douglas et al, "Old Testament Volume: New Commentary on the Whole Bible," Tyndale, Wheaton, IL, (1990)

See also

External links

Sources for the Biblical text

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