At one level, Genesis 1 is not so hard to understand; at another, of course, it is deeply profound. The text starts by saying God made the world and created everything in it – that he is the one and only creator. At first, the earth was entirely empty (Isa 34:10; Jer 4:23-26), a desert, barren place, but the Spirit hovers to create (as in Psalm 104:30 creating animals, and creating human life in Job 33:4).
The point the word makes after it states that God made the entire world is that this world has boundaries: light/darkness, waters above/waters below (sky/sea), day/night, etc., etc. That is not to say there is some mystery as to these borders; a sort of perichoresis, for if you were to simply look at the sky and the sea, you would see the clouds and the sky grow out of each other, as Poythress explains.
“In phenomenal terms ‘appearance’ a cloud starts a long way off, not clearly separated from the sea. It rises (1 Kgs 18:44; Luke 12:54) as it approaches, and there is an increasing separation betiveen the cloud above and the sea beneath. In between the cloud and the sea is a horizontal line that grows into a space.”
Yet, despite this, there is a division between creator/creature, sky and sea; borders do exist. Subjects and objects are separate, part of the basic foundationof love. Even the phrase, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth“,1 operates by analogy (for it means all creation – visible and invisible), but is a phrase based upon borders.
So, borders are important, but what else does Genesis have to say? Well, according to Poythress, let us be warned not to read Genesis in the following ways: (1) according to the myth of scientistic metaphysics (2) thinking our accumulation of facts and benefits of previous cultures makes us superior (3) assuming if we know enough facts about someone or something we ‘understand’ it.
Poythress details these myths in more depth.
(1) “The myth of scientistic metaphysics says that science gives us the most ultimate metaphysical analysis of the world and that it offers “reality” as opposed to the “unreality” of appearances.
(2) The myth of progress says that the growth of scientific knowledge and technological gadgets makes us superior in our knowledge of the universe to “primitive” cultures.
(3) The myth of understanding cultures from facts says that if we accumulate enough facts about another culture we can understand it.2
So, what are we to think of this world that God creates, the garden mankind is put, where the man and woman are to feed the animals, tend the trees, to name the animals?3 We are to act like God does – not above him, but as him, within his created order.
Of course, many of the ‘enlightened’ (often self-described) think that man is just putting characteristics humanity onto God. But in the Bible it works in reverse as well. Man was created in “God’s image”,4 and therefore we are described in reverse.
Theologians say that the Bible describes God “anthropomorphically,” that is, by analogy with human nature and human activities. That is true. But the analogy works because God first of all made man “theomorphically,” in the image of God.
So you see (1) the foundation of Genesis is that there is a Creator-creature distinction. Boundaries are a reality of life and demonstrate an intricate order. (2) Scientific metaphysics do not mean we are superior to the ancients. (3) The image of God is a two way street. The Bible writes of God anthropomorphically, and we are to live as in the image-of-God, a reflection of his divinity.
The relation of Genesis 1 to Ancient Myths
Yes, Genesis 1 does seem similar to other ancient myths, and this is not without accident.
First, Gen 1 is providing for Israelites an alternative to the myths within their environment. It is natural that it should address at least some of the same subjects.5
Second, the thinking of the ancient Near East tended to correlate present-day patterns with origins. That is, it correlated providence with creation…6
…Third, because of cross-cultural communication in the ancient Near East, distinct cultures and subcultures may have shared some stock images, analogies, and themes, such as analogies between the cosmos and a house or between the cosmos and a tent, or the thematic contrast between chaos and order or between darkness and light…7
So, what are the differences between Genesis and these myths?
(1) From all eternity God had a plan for creation and providence, involving unity and analogies between the two.
(2) God brought his plan into execution by the actual events of creation and providence.
(3) Ancient Near Eastern polytheists observed providence, and inferred analogues in their mythic accounts of origins.
(4) God spoke in Gen 1 to instruct the Israelites on creation, using an account that draws on analogical correlations between creation and providence, and that offers an alternative to polytheistic accounts.
- I fall upon the side of those that this first verse denotes the initial act of creation, not just as an introduction for the story to come.
- Poythress, Vern S. “Correlations with providence in Genesis 1.” The Westminster Theological Journal 77, no. 1 (2015 2015): 71-99. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 2, 2018).
- Naming is in some sense a term for all language – all of our ‘calling’ things such and such can related back to speech.
- Interesting tidbit, here is an excerpt of Athanasius I discover defending the ‘Let us make’ phrase in 1:26 from a Christian point of view,
“If God were giving commands to impending beings, then he should have said: ‘Become, heaven, and become, earth, and come forth, plants, and be made, man.’Now he did not do that, but commanded in these words: ‘Let us make man, and let plants come forth’, whereby God is shown to be speaking about these things to someone near by. So there was necessarily someone with him, to whom he spoke when making the universe. Who then could it be except his own Word, for to whom could one say God speaks except to his own Word?”
- God offers in Gen 1 an alternative to the confused polytheistic stories of the ancient Near East, and more broadly to the confused myths in cultures throughout the world…God addresses themes that he has already planted in the cultures of the ancient Near East.
- All people have common access to providential patterns…God has permanently established correlations between creation and providence.
- God highlights these correlations as he calls people out of darkness into light.