By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’: so begins the Book of Genesis and, with it, the Old Testament, and, with that, the Bible. But where did this Creation story come from, ‘in the beginning’? How was it shaped? Did it rely on earlier accounts? And is there really one Creation story in the Book of Genesis, or are there, in fact, two? And how many gods, after all, did the creating, according to the Bible?
Let’s take a closer look at the Creation story – or rather, stories – in the Book of Genesis, offering a close analysis of their meaning and origins.
Genesis creation story: summary
The Book of Genesis famously opens with the words:
1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
Although we know the first book of the Bible as the Book of Genesis, in Hebrew, where this book begins the Torah, the book is known as Bereshith, which literally means ‘in the beginning’, as the Hebrew practice was to call each book after its opening words.
‘Genesis’ is from the Greek translation of the Hebrew book, and means literally ‘coming into being’ or, if you will, ‘origins’.
Curiously, although the English translation of this Greek translation uses the word ‘God’, the Hebrew word used is Elohim, which is actually a plural form: so ‘gods’, rather then God. The earliest version of the Book of Genesis (as it’s now known), then, may well have begun with a polytheistic rather than monotheistic account of Creation.
Even when the authors of these early books of the Bible came to co-opt this earlier account for a monotheistic vision of the world, the term Elohim was, as Isaac Asimov notes in his Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament, too familiar and too firmly ingrained to change.
Indeed, as Asimov goes on to observe, some traces of this polytheism may have remained in later passages from Genesis. So, for instance, when Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, God says, ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us’ (Genesis 3:22). And when God sees the Tower of Babel, he says, ‘Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language’ (Genesis 11:7).
Even if we grant the use of the royal ‘we’ (and surely God, if anyone, is allowed to use that), in this second passage we’d also have to accept that he was talking to himself and telling himself to go down there. It makes more sense to think of ‘Elohim’ as addressing each other and deciding to act collectively.
1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Once the writers have established God as the Creator of everything, they then describe the early state of the earth as soon as God (or gods) had brought it into being. There is no light as yet.
1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
In a famous quotation, God merely has to command that light should exist, and light exists. Night and day are quickly established:
1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Now night and day have been created, as a time-division between the two halves of the day, God creates the sky or ‘firmament’:
1:8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
On the third day, grass and flowers and trees are created at God’s command:
1:12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
Next, on the fourth day, he creates a ‘greater light’ for the day (the sun), and a ‘lesser light’ for the night (the moon), as well as all the stars:
1:16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
On the fifth day, the creatures of the sea and the birds in the sky are brought into being:
1:22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
On the sixth day, God creates cattle, ‘creeping’ things, and the various beasts of the earth:
1:24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
1:25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
He also makes man in his own image, and lets him have dominion over all of these animals:
1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
On the seventh day, he rests, and this is the basis of the Sabbath, the ‘seventh day’ of the week (Saturday in Judaism, but this became Sunday in Christianity), on which God’s followers are supposed to rest in honour of the Creation and not work, because God didn’t work on the seventh day.
Genesis creation story: analysis
As Kristin Swenson points out in her engaging book on the Bible, A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible, there are some rather curious inconsistencies between the account of Creation given in chapter 1 of Genesis and the details we find in chapters 2 and 3. In chapter 1, the most familiar version of Creation, God creates man last, on the sixth day, having created the other animals already.
Yet in chapter 2 of Genesis, we are told that God created Adam and then created the animals for Adam to give names to:
2:18 And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
2:19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
Note that in this account, God clearly creates the animals after he has created man, so that man (i.e., Adam) will have some ‘help meet’ and company. Yet in the earlier account in chapter 1, the cattle, creeping things, and beasts are all mentioned first, and then God gives man dominion over them after he has created man.
Some scholars have maintained that this doesn’t necessarily mean God created the animals first in chapter 1: it may be that the authors simply mentioned them before the creation of man. But the wording certainly implies that the creation of man came after the other creatures.
God also had to invent rain, because although he had created the flowers and crops, nothing was growing in the Garden of Eden:
2:4 These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 2:5 And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.
What such inconsistencies suggest is that there were (at least) two slightly different accounts of Creation which the authors of Genesis fused together.
So although the first few chapters of Genesis broadly follow a chronology (God creates the heavens and earth, then he creates man, and then the focus turns to Adam and Eve), some details remain in the second chapter, which is clearly from a different source than chapter 1, and these details contradict what was set out in chapter 1.