Why You’re (Probably) Reading Genesis 1 Wrong

If you made the universe, how would you describe your masterpiece to people? Seriously. Think about it for a second. This blog will be here all day, so I’ll be around when you’re done.

Most of you would probably describe it a bit like a recipe. You’d explain which ingredients you added, what order you added them, and outline how long it took to bring it all together. If you’re more scientific, you describe more about laws and particles. If you’re more of a creative person, you explain your vision of the aesthetic. Regardless, though, we’d all give a play-by-play, because that’s how we think. And, if we’re honest, we would assume that’s exactly what God was going for in Genesis 1.

Now, do me the favor of reading through Genesis 1. Once again, I’ll wait. I know you’ve read it before, but tell me, does it look like a play-by-play to you? If you had phenomenal, cosmic powers, could you do what God did based on His “recipe?” Creation is a miracle and all, so it’s not going to be totally understandable, but God left a lot of things out, and He said some things that don’t make a whole lot of sense to us. How do you make light without a light source (Day 1 vs Day 4), and since when is it possible to make light by separating it from darkness? Isn’t “darkness” the absence of light anyway? Where did the water come from, and what is the water above the “Expanse”? What’s the deal with God resting?

I’m just thinking out loud here, but maybe we’re reading the thing wrong. Maybe we’re unconsciously biased. Maybe the creationism we’ve come to know and love is actually just materialism of a different sort. When we read Genesis 1, we see a list of ingredients needed to make our universe: light, water, plant life, a solar system, galaxies, animals, and- of course- people. We become even more committed to this worldview when faced with the daunting challenge of proclaiming Creationism in the face of the Darwinian establishment. There’s a very real possibility of losing credibility in the public sphere by criticizing evolutionism or claiming a belief in a Creator God. And, perhaps, in becoming so entrenched we’ve lost the real point of Genesis 1-3. Oh, don’t worry, I’m not trying to dredge up some theistic evolution nonsense, and I’m not talking about compromise. I am saying that God didn’t have Moses pen Genesis so we’d have a response to the Richard Dawkins’ of the world.

Think for a moment about who God had Moses write the book of Genesis to. He wrote to recently-freed slaves leaving Egypt for Canaan. They were stubborn and rebellious, given to paganism and pride….and they were God’s chosen people. Like us, they had a rich cultural heritage and identity. They had a worldview, a framework for how they viewed reality. Some of that background was far superior to our own, actually. So how does God introduce Himself in the text to an “unscientific” people surrounded by pagan belief, to a people who need to know Who they were supposed to be trusting? In a way most unexpected to the modern reader, but completely in line with His revealed character.

Rather than dump a bunch of scientific knowledge into the laps of a people unprepared to handle it, God answered the burning questions of the day in Genesis 1. God did not write an account to answer the question: “What is the universe made of, and how does it work?”; rather He answered a question intrinsic to the worldview of the Ancient Near East: “What is the purpose of the universe, and who runs the show?” You see, rather than view the cosmos as a vast machine to be inspected, ancient peoples thought of the universe as a kingdom to be ruled. We wonder what stars are; the Ancients wondered why stars are. So, in Genesis 1, we discover that the heavenly bodies are for orderliness in creation, the good of living things, and- ultimately- the glory of God. We discover that God made land to help plants grow to feed mankind. This theme of God’s creation revealing God’s nature is found throughout the rest of Scripture.

God also lovingly accommodates His people in His description of the universe. Like every other cosmogony (creation account) the Israelites had ever been exposed to, God names, separates, and establishes functionality. This demonstrates His right to rule, and establishes the meaning, purpose, and value of His creation. In Hittite, Egyptian, and Canaanite mythologies, the “gods” began their work by defeating chaos, organizing the world, and establishing their reigns. In the Bible, though, Yahweh is no contender among equal deities. Unlike the gods of pagan cults, Yahweh has no competition. He doesn’t fight off a Chaos Monster, though other Old Testament books allude to the monsters Rahab and Leviathan to highlight God’s might and provision. Chaos in Genesis 1:2 is simply a condition of non-functionality, not a creature to be defeated. Furthermore, Yahweh establishes inanimate Nature as a blessing for living things and further revelation of Himself. Scripture makes clear that there is no pantheon of gods ruling alongside Yahweh. The sun (shemesh) and moon (chodesh) aren’t even named in the account to avoid being mistaken for the names of gods. (Shemesh, at least, is the Akkadian sun god.) Instead, they are merely referred to as the greater and lesser lights. In Genesis 1 the entire pantheon of every pagan cult is reduced to nothingness. God has completely subverted every element of the pagan worldview and given it a new, redeemed significance in light of a genuine creation account. Genesis 1 really just sets the stage for a theology of redemption.

You see, there is a direct connection in Scripture between God’s creative work and His covenants. Consider the words of both Psalmist and Prophet with regard to the Mosaic Covenant:

Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
 You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You split open springs and brooks;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.
You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth;
you have made summer and winter. (Psalm 74)

Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
 Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over?

 You have forgotten the Lord, your Maker,

    who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth,

 I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name.
 And I have put my words in your mouth
and covered you in the shadow of my hand,
establishing the heavens
and laying the foundations of the earth,
and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” (Isaiah 51)

So, yes, there is a clear connection between God’s covenant with Israel and God’s creation of the cosmos. The One Who calmed primeval seas to create a universe filled with His purpose had parted the Red Sea to redeem and establish a people for Himself. In Psalm 89, the seas- not just the physical land of Israel- are given to David’s Descendent in the Davidic Covenant. In Isaiah 27, God reveals the consummation of Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants by using similar terminology: “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea…. In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit…. And in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem.”

If the creation of the Cosmos is identified with the covenants, what happens when God’s covenant people- or any people- rebel? De-creation imagery, my friends, and it isn’t pretty. Rather than create the heavens and the earth, God will “shake” the heavens and the earth to bring ruin to pagan nations (Haggai 2). Jeremiah describes Jerusalem’s doom as a de-creation event in Jeremiah 4:

I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
 I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and behold, there was no man,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
 I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

In sharp contrast, the connection between Covenant and Cosmos comes up again in prophecies of the Age to Come. In Isaiah 65, a new heaven and earth are predicted in conjunction with the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenants. This is underscored again by the end of John’s vision in Revelation 21: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” The Age to Come is a world of restoration and redemption fulfilled, in which God dwells with mankind, and the sea- the symbol of Chaos for nearly every ancient culture, a chaos and evil personified by serpents and dragons- is no more.

So why did God rest on the 7th day? He wasn’t tired. Moses wasn’t simply saying God stopped making new things, because Moses wasn’t writing to a people concerned with the manufacture of material elements. God finished His creation and moved on to reigning. It’s all about a kingdom, remember? Unlike the pagan gods who dwell in various temples made by man’s hands– gods who are limited in power outside of their own small patches of sacred ground, Yahweh immediately begins ruling and reigning- without contest- His universe. Deity rests in a temple, and the universe is Yahweh’s domain. His kingdom-temple is under His complete control, and He organizes and orchestrates everything in it. Unlike every human kingdom in history and the heavens and earth, which are susceptible to “de-creation”, His  true kingdom remains unshakeable, the writer of Hebrews 12 reminds us. So while our God rests in the temple of His cosmos, reigning in wisdom and goodness and majesty, we can rest– Sabbath– in the knowledge that He has conquered every foe and is working all things perfectly for His glory and our good.

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