As I discussed in the previous post of the Christianity and Science series, much of the controversy surrounding Genesis 1 revolves around two issues: the timing of the events of creation and the mechanism of creation. Did God create over a period of 6 literal days or did creation occur over a much longer period of time? Did God create through a series of miraculous acts or through a natural process which he created? While these are interesting issues, the focus on this controversy can cause us to miss the main message of Genesis 1 which revolves around four great themes:
- God and God alone created all things,
- God is sovereign over his creation,
- God created with wisdom and order,
- God created man as the pinnacle of his creation.
Genesis 1 gives an overview of what God has created. We see God creating living thing (plants, animals and man) as well as non-living things (heaven and earth, the sun, moon and stars to give light and mark the passage of time as well as the sky, dry land and seas as dwelling places for living things).
God’s sovereignty is shown by the fact that when God spoke what he commanded occurred. For example verse 3 states, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” This pattern is also seen for the creation of sky, dry land, plants, heavenly bodies, fish, birds, land animals and man (verses 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). God’s sovereignty is also seen in the naming of parts of creation (verses 5, 8, 10). For example the statement, “God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night” (verse 5)
That God created with wisdom and order is shown by his declarations that what he created was good (6 times) or very good (1 time at the end of the creation account). We also see this in the gradual giving of structure to a universe that was originally without form and void (verse 2). Finally, the creation is presented as an ordered series of events. For example the creation of spaces for creatures to dwell in (sky, land and seas) before the creation of the creatures themselves. Genesis 1:26 states,
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, and after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing the creeps on the earth.”
This places man at the pinnacle of creation since none of the other parts of creation are referred to in this way. Moreover man was given the responsibility of ruling over creation as God’s representative on earth (verses 26, 28-30).
One of the purposes of Genesis 1 was to serve as a polemic against pagan religions. The people of Israel were surrounded by pagan cultures in Egypt, where the people spent 400 years as slaves, in Canaan the promised land and in Mesopotamia. One of God’s major concerns was that the people of Israel would begin to worship the pagan gods of these cultures. We see this explicitly stated in God’s first two commandments in Exodus 20:3-4.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
The four themes of Genesis 1 are in marked contrast to these pagan beliefs. Whereas Genesis 1 teaches that there is one God who is creator of all, the pagan cultures worshiped multiple gods that mostly represented the forces and elements of nature. In the pagan creation stories the earth and man were created out of the chaos of war between the gods. This is in contrast to the Genesis 1 theme of God creating with wisdom and order. Genesis 1 teaches that creation occurred at God’s command whereas in the pagan creation stories creation resulted from a power struggle among the gods. Finally Genesis 1 teaches that man is the pinnacle of creation, created in God’s image to serve as God’s regents on earth. By contrast in the pagan creation stories had a low view of man. Mankind was created as an afterthought to do the menial work that gods did not want to do.
The importance of the four main themes of Genesis 1 is further indicated by the fact that they appear over and over again in creation passages in both the Old and New Testament (Genesis 2, Job 38-41, Psalms 8, 19, 33, 74, 104, 148, Proverbs 8, Isaiah 40, John 1, Romans 1, Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1). All the passages point to God as the creator of all things. The passages in John, Colossians and Hebrews expand on this by proclaiming Jesus as the member of the Godhead who was the agent and sustainer of creation. He not only created the universe but he keeps it running in a consistent, orderly and faithful manner.
Isaiah 40 emphasizes God’s sovereignty in his creation. God speaks words of comfort for his people in exile in Babylon. He reminds them of his power and sovereignty demonstrated by his work in creation.
Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing (verse 26).
Proverbs 8:22-31 and Job 38-41 emphasize God’s wisdom and order in his creation. In Proverbs 8:22-31 God’s wisdom is personified as a woman who was with God at the beginning and throughout all of the events of creation.
The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old . . . When he established the heavens I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man. (Verses 22, 27-31).
In Job 38-41, God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind in response to Job’s complaints about his suffering. The passage also speaks about God’s wisdom in creation in contrast to man’s limited understanding. It also speaks about God’s sovereignty and power in creation.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding who determined its measurements — surely you know (38:4–5)?
Genesis 2 and Psalm 8 emphasize and expand on the theme of man as the pinnacle of creation. Genesis 2 is a second account of creation which focuses on man, his covenant relationship with God and his relationship with other humans in contrast to the cosmic perspective of Genesis 1. The Genesis 2 account sees man as the pinnacle of creation, created with loving care by God from the dust of the earth. The passage elaborates on man’s role as God’s regent on earth.
In Psalm 8 David questions man’s significance when compared with the magnificence of the rest of God’s creation, what is man that you are mindful of him (verse 4)? But then he realized that man is significant because he was created in God’s image with a purpose:
you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet . . . (Verses 5-6)
To summarize, there are four great themes that represent the main message of Genesis 1 both for the original audience and for today. These themes are found throughout the other creation passages in the Old and New Testament. One of the purposes of the creation themes in Genesis 1 is to serve as a polemic against the pagan beliefs of the cultures that surrounded the people of Israel in the promised-land. While there is controversy among Christians about the timing and mechanism of the events of creation there is no controversy about the main message of Genesis 1.
Next in the Christianity and Science series: Does Genesis 1 Teach Modern Science? When we read Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 we are tempted to view and try to interpret the text using modern, 21st century eyes. But Genesis was written to an ancient, pre-scientific people, the Hebrews.
Questions for further reflection:
- Is the message of Genesis 1 important in a modern scientific world?
- If God created the universe with wisdom and order why do we see death, destruction and chaos in nature today?
- What does Genesis 1 mean by the statement that man was created in the “image of God”?
- Genesis 1 states the man was given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”. What does this mean for Christians today?
Suggestions for further reading:
- How to Read Genesis, Tremper Longman III. InterVarsity Press, 2005.
- Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins, Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III. InterVarsity Press, 2010.
- Added by the editor: PDF with the titles and links to the posts in Tom Ingebritsen‘s Christianity and Science series. Yes, this was created to meet the requests of readers and will be updated. Your interest in and encouragement of this series is much appreciated.
Notes added by the editor
- Tremper Longman III (Ph.D., Yale University) is Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is also Visiting Professor of Old Testament at Mars Hill Graduate School, Visiting Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary and adjunct of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He lectures regularly at Mars Hill, Regent College in Vancouver and the Canadian Theological Seminary in Calgary.Longman is the author or coauthor of over twenty books, including How to Read Genesis, How to Read the Psalms, How to Read Proverbs and Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, and coeditor of A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He and Dan Allender have coauthored Bold Love, Cry of the Soul, Intimate Allies, The Intimate Mystery and the Intimate Marriage Bible studies. — From http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/author.pl/author_id=667. For Tremper Longman’s contributions to BioLogos visit http://biologos.org/blog/author/longman-tremper. ↩
Update (1/14/2014, 10:49 am): How to Read Genesis cover and Notes.
I am a retired Iowa State University biology professor and part-time staff person with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries. I am the husband of Denise, the father of Eric, Tracy and Isaac and the grandfather of Savannah and Emma.