Who created and sustains the universe? Why was it created? What is the nature of the Creator-creature relationship? These are the sorts of questions that the Bible addresses when it treats the topic of creation. Such queries are essentially theological in nature. Therefore, the juxtaposition, by some modern interpreters, of scriptural assertions about creation with scientific evidence and theories regarding origins often results in fruitless comparisons of different, although equally relevant, bodies of knowledge. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, one might say that Scripture deals with the who, why, and what questions posed above, whereas science investigates the problems of when and how the observable universe came into existence and continues to function.
In order to understand what the Bible teaches about creation, one must go beyond delineating the semantic range of relevant words to examine pertinent biblical passages in their historical, literary, and theological contexts. This sort of investigation reveals a degree of similarity between the Bible and antecedent Near Eastern literature. While it is unlikely that biblical authors consulted this corpus directly, they were presumably aware of the various creation traditions of the nations surrounding them. That would account for the similarities. There are also profound differences between the Bible's perspective on the cosmos and its origins and that of contemporaneous literature. The more one compares them, the more evident it becomes that scriptural authors were motivated both to make certain affirmations about creation and to contradict some conceptions about it that were current in their day.
The Eternal Creator Has No Peer. The assertion that the one, eternally existing God of the patriarchs and their descendants is the Creator must surely have been intended, at least in part, as a polemic against the pantheons of gods of other peoples Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Canaanites with whom the Israelites came in contact. The creation myths of these people often included accounts of the origins of the gods and conflicts between the gods. These divine rivalries frequently provided the context for the establishment of the universe and the rhythms of nature.
The Creator Has No Rival. The God of Israel's unchallenged hegemony over the various realms of the cosmos and the creatures that inhabit them further emphasizes his uniqueness in comparison to the gods of other nations. Whereas typically their domains are limited and they must contend with rivals, his rule is uncontested. The author of Genesis 1 takes great pains to demonstrate to his audience that the universe is not populated with deities or demons who need to be subdued or appeased, but that it is all controlled by one Creator. He does not need to struggle with nature in order to make it conform to his plan and purpose. Neither is his creative word the sort of magical incantation that is attributed to Ptah and Re in Egyptian mythology. It is the sovereign God's simple command which, when uttered, produces the desired result. Furthermore, the primeval ocean is not a divine behemoth, like Tiamat, to be butchered in order to fashion earth and sky, but an impersonal part of the universe over which God's potent wind/Spirit broods (v. 2). Indeed, the great sea monsters, which cavort with the myriads of other creatures in the watery depths, are his handiwork (v. 21 cf. Psalm 104:25-26 ). The seas, which are remnants of the original watery chaos, are assigned borders at earth's edges (vv. 9-10 cf. Job 38:8-11 ; Psalm 104:5-9 ; Prov 8:29 ). The sun and moon are not afforded the dignity of their usual Hebrew names (semes [v,m,v] and yareah [;jer"y]) because those designations might bring to mind the sun-god, Shamash, and the moon-god, Yarih. Instead they are referred to as the greater and lesser lights. These luminaries, along with the stars, are not depicted as deities controlling human destiny, but simply as components of God's creation that function in their assigned roles of providing light and the basis for calendrical calculations (vv. 14-18). Fertility is not something to be deified, as it is in Canaanite religion, for example, but a capacity created by God (vv. 11-12, 22, 28).
The Creator Brings Order. In Genesis 1, the drama of creation begins with the same opening scene as in other ancient traditions, the watery chaos (v. 2 cf. Psalm 24:1-2 ). The reference in 1:1 to the creation of the ordered cosmos (which is what the phrase "heavens and earth" connotes) is probably not to be construed as a description of the first act of creation, which is then followed by a chaotic state and then the return to order. Verse 1 may, instead, serve as a dependent, temporal clause (i.e., "In the beginning when God created" or "When God began to create"), with verse 2 then apparently functioning as a parenthetic comment inserted between verses 1 and 3, which would then be understood as the main clause (i.e., " [the earth being formless and empty] God said"). Another possible interpretation is that verse 1 is an independent thematic statement that introduces the content that follows in chapter 1 and that corresponds to the summary statement in 2:1. Verse 2 would then constitute a circumstantial clause modifying verse 3 (i.e., "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth being formless and empty God said ").
In any case, the curtain that veils the primeval past rises at some point after the absolute beginning since watery chaos already exists. Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 has more to do with bringing order to that chaos and populating voids than with generating all matter. That does not mean that this passage is inimical to the idea of God creating all matter. It is just that the issue does not seem to be relevant to this biblical author and his contemporaries. The mystery of ultimate origins is addressed by subsequent revelation that acknowledges that absolutely everything, even the primeval deep, must have its origin in God ( Neh 9:6 ; Psalm 90:2 ; Prov 8:22-31 ; 2 Macc 7:28; Heb 11:3 ). It is upon this fuller understanding of the limitless scope of God's sovereignty that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, may be based.
Creation Week. The portrayal of creation as work accomplished on successive days of the week raises a whole series of literary, chronological, and theological issues that are too involved to explore in any great depth here. Some essential considerations regarding this arrangement should be highlighted.
The first consideration is that the framework of the week of creation is an artistic one designed to convey primarily theological, rather than purely scientific, information. The evidence for this is abundant. First, the concept of the week coincides with the author's focus on the number seven or a multiple thereof in Genesis 1:1-2:3 (e.g., seven words in the original Hebrew version of the introductory verse [ 1:1 ]; seven paragraphs corresponding to the seven days following the introductory verse fourteen words in v. 2 seven instances of the fulfillment formula signifying that what God called for did take place seven examples of the approval formula stating that what God saw was good seven occurrences altogether of the terms "light" and "day" in the first paragraph [ 1:2-5 ]; seven references to water in paragraphs 2 and 3 [ 1:6-13 ]; three consecutive sentences of seven words each in 2:2-3a ; that are part of the seventh paragraph 2:1-3 ]; whose subject is the seventh day thirty-five words in the seventh paragraph thirty-five occurrences of the word "God" and twenty-one of the word "earth" throughout the narrative ). In the Bible, seven and its multiples frequently connote completeness, totality, fulfillment, or perfection.
Second, compressed into six days of work there are eight creative Acts, each introduced by the formula, wayyomer elohim, "And/Then God said." Analogous to this conforming of facts to a predetermined narrative structure is Matthew's arrangement of Jesus' lineage in three sets of fourteen generations. To achieve that sort of symmetry, however, the evangelist does not hesitate to omit names in a manner consistent with Jewish practice in the formation of genealogies (e.g., Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah between Joram/Jehoram and Uzziah/Azariah in 1:8-9 ; [cf. 1 Chron 3:11-12 ]; and Jehoiakim between Josiah and Jechoniah/Jehoiachin in 1:11 ; [cf. 1 Chron 3:15-16 ]).
Third, there are differences with respect to both the sequence and duration of events when Genesis 1:1-2:3 is compared with 2:4-25. Whereas the first account depicts the creation of humans last, the second portrays man's creation first and woman's last. Furthermore, while in the first passage creation is described as a six-day task, in the second the only indication as to how long it takes is given in 2:4: "When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. The juxtaposition of narratives with such obvious chronological differences makes it clear that an absolute chronology of creation events is not at issue here.
Fourth, the deliberate omission, in Genesis 2:1-3, of the refrain regarding the evening and morning for the seventh day would seem to suggest that the author intends to portray it as a day without an end. The fact that he does not explicitly call it the Sabbath may, in part, be his way of highlighting the sense in which it is distinct from the Mosaic Sabbath, although with the references in verses 2-3 to God resting from his work he certainly makes the connection implicitly. The author may also wish to prevent any connections between the Sabbath and sabattu or sapattu, which was what the Babylonians and Assyrians called the day of the full moon the fifteenth of the month a day dedicated to the worship of the moon-god.
The concept of the seventh day as an unending one is presumably part of the background to the discourse by the author of Hebrews on the eschatological Sabbath-rest for the faithful ( 4:1-11 ). Jesus, too, does not seem to regard the seventh day of creation week as a literal one, if his response in John 5:16-19 to charges that he has broken the law by healing a paralytic on the Sabbath is any indication. Jesus legitimizes his actions on the grounds that his Father is still working (v. 17) and that he does nothing but what he sees the Father doing (v. 19). His argument appears to be that his works on the Mosaic Sabbath are lawful because they correspond to the Father's activities on the continuing creation Sabbath. This Sabbath, which marks the end of the week of Genesis 1:1-2:3 but not the cessation of the Father's works, is apparently considered by Jesus to coincide with all of history after the six days of Genesis 1. That view is fully compatible with the understanding of creation week as a literary device.
If the creation week framework is artistic in nature, then what is its significance? The answer to that question is undoubtedly to be found in the linkage between creation and the Sabbath. The anthropomorphic figure of the week furnishes the context for a theology of the Sabbath. It is striking to note that ancient Assyrian calendars identify the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of the month (along with the nineteenth day, which occurs seven weeks after the beginning of the preceding month) as unlucky ones on which important tasks should not be attempted. In contrast, Israel's God designates every seventh day as a holy day, when regular tasks are to be laid aside and there can be pause for refreshment and a renewed focus on the relationship with the Creator ( Gen 2:3 ; Exod 20:8-11 ; 31:12-17 ). The Sabbath thus symbolizes the fact that human worth and purpose are not to be derived from toil but from that relationship. This is not to denigrate human work, for God assigns responsibilities and duties even prior to the fall ( Gen 1:26-29 ; Genesis 2:15 Genesis 2:19-20 ). Nevertheless, it is particularly as humans set themselves apart to commune with their Creator, whether on the Sabbath or some other day ( Rom 14:5-6 ; 1 Cor 16:1-2 ; Rev 1:10 ), that they find fulfillment.
A second consideration pertaining to the creation week structure is that the events of Genesis 1:1-2:3 are arranged in a logical, although not necessarily chronological, order. The accomplishments of the first six days of that week, which are described in parallel triads, remedy the conditions of formlessness and emptiness described in verse 2. The key activity on days 1 to 3 is separation (i.e., light from darkness [vv. 4-5], waters above the firmament from those below it [vv. 6-8], waters under the sky from dry land [vv. 9-10]), and on days 4 to 6 it is population (i.e., luminaries [vv. 14-16], aquatic and winged creatures [vv. 20-21], animals and humans [vv. 24-27]). There are also connections between the triads due to the fact that the regions demarcated on the first three days are filled by creations fashioned on the next three. Thus luminaries (day 4) correspond to light and darkness (day 1), aquatic and winged creatures (day 5) to water and sky (day 2), and animals and humans (day 6) to dry land (day 3). Additional congruence is evident in that the vegetation created on day 3 is given for food to terrestrial and winged creatures on day 6. The author further distinguishes these two days by means of double usage of the creative utterance (vv. 9, 11, 24, 26), fulfillment (vv. 9, 11, 24, 30) and approval (vv. 10, 12, 25, 31) formulas. This kind of symmetrical arrangement shows that the goal of the inspired author is to compose a theological portrait of his subject in a manner reminiscent of the New Testament evangelists, not merely to chronicle events in the order of their occurrence.
The Creator's Crowning Achievement. A central theme of both Genesis creation accounts is that of humanity as the apex of God's creation. This motif stands in contrast to certain mythological depictions of the human species fashioned as an afterthought to relieve the gods of toil and provide them with sustenance. In Genesis 1, the primacy of humans is emphasized through their appearance as the last of God's creatures in the narrative sequence, the reference to their being created in God's image, the threefold use of the verb bara [a'r'B], in the description of their creation (v. 27), and their dominion over the earth and its creatures as God's vice-regents. In Genesis 2, human preeminence is highlighted by the male's creation before all other life, his being entrusted with custody of the garden, his being given the privilege of naming the other creatures, and the female's appearance as the last of God's creatures though, like the male, distinct from all other species.
The significance of references to humans created in God's image has long been debated by biblical scholars. The image of God, whatever it means, clearly distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation. Since it is linked in Genesis 1:26 to the mandate for humans to have dominion over the created order, some have equated it with the role of vice-regent. That role, however, seems to be a consequence or function of the divine image. As intimated earlier in comments about the Sabbath, the capacity for a unique and personal relationship with the Creator is apparently what is intrinsic to the concept of the image of God. This is perhaps signaled most clearly by the appearance in Genesis 2:4-7 where the central theme is human origins of the name by which God typically identifies himself to those with whom he enters into covenant, Yahweh (rendered "Lord" in most English translations). Although the term "covenant" is not found in Genesis 1-2, it is implicit in the reciprocity of God's provisions for the original human couple and their conformity to his expectations of them. Their initial obedience to the command not to partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which allows them to enjoy the benefits of covenant life, constitutes an acknowledgment of the fact that, as Creator, God alone has the prerogative to establish moral absolutes of right and wrong. Their subsequent disobedience, which results in the dissolution of the covenant and death, represents an attempt to usurp that divine prerogative. This whole sequence is typical of relationships between suzerains and their vassals in antiquity. Such relationships are codified in extant treaties whose format is reflected in Old Testament covenant formulations.
Creation Is Good. Another important theme in Genesis 1 is that God's creation is good. Various individual aspects of creation are so designated (vv. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) whereas the whole taken together is called "very good" (v. 31). These statements are intended to show not only that what God has fashioned and made to conform to the rule of law reflects his glory and his very nature (cf. Psalm 19:1-11 ;  97:6 ; Rom 1:20 ), but also that the fall of humanity described in Genesis 3 cannot be attributed to any flaw in creation. Clearly Adam and Eve cannot excuse their transgression on the basis of a deficient environment because it is both perfect and provides bountifully for their every need ( 1:29 ; Genesis 2:8-16 Genesis 2:20-25 ). Neither can God be faulted, for, despite the fact that the serpent which becomes the agent of temptation in this episode is a creature that God has made ( 3:1 ), it is a subordinate creature over which humans are to exercise dominion ( 1:26-28 ; 2:19-20 ). Thus their transgression is a consequence of their failure to fulfill the creation mandate.
Community Is Good. Significantly, the prospect of the man being alone is the only thing in the prefall narrative that is explicitly called not good ( 2:18 ). This is indicative of the fact that humans are social creatures and that they have an innate need for community. The need is remedied when God creates woman eventually named "Eve, " the mother of all living ( 3:20 ) because through her the rest of humanity comes into existence. The marriage relationship ( 2:24-25 ) symbolizes all other forms of human coexistence designed to satisfy the primal yearning for fellowship.
It should be pointed out that Genesis emphasizes the spiritual equality and interdependence of the original human couple ( 1:26-28 ; 2:18-23 ). This is epitomized by the expression, kenegdo, "corresponding to him" ( Genesis 2:18 Genesis 2:20 ), which is used of the partner whom God determines to provide for the man. The term, ezer [r,ze, "helper" ( Genesis 2:18 Genesis 2:20 ), does not inherently connote subordination because it is frequently used of God in relationship to man (e.g., Exod 18:4 ; Deut 33:7 ; Psalm 33:20 ; 70:5 ;  Psalms 115:9 Psalms 115:10 Psalms 115:11 ; 146:5 ; see also 1 Sam 7:12 ; Psalm 27:9 ; 40:17 ;  46:1 ;  63:7 ;  94:17 ). The reference to woman being created from man's rib highlights the kind of affinity between man and woman that is not possible between humans and other creatures. This is reinforced by man's joyful cry of recognition when God presents the woman to him: "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" ( 2:23 ).
Although the preceding touches on the horizontal, human dimension of community, Scripture also emphasizes the vertical, Godward dimension. Both are represented already in Genesis 1:27 in the declaration that humankind is created male and female and in God's image. Indeed, the Bible is essentially a record of God's establishment of, and activity within, the community of faith. The community is expected to respond to him with worship and devotion and to function in an environment characterized by encouragement, instruction, and correction.
Creation and Redemption. A fundamental theme with which creation is combined, particularly in the Book of Isaiah, is redemption. In 43:1, Yahweh asserts that he has both created and redeemed Israel (cf. Isaiah 44:2 Isaiah 44:21 Isaiah 44:24 ; 45:9-11 ; Mal 2:10 ; and Isa 41:14 ; 48:17 ; 49:7 ). The epitome of Yahweh's redemptive Acts in the Old Testament is his deliverance of Israel from Egypt under Moses. It is not surprising, then, that exodus imagery should be used to describe subsequent instances of Yahweh's redeeming work. In Isaiah, the focus in this connection is on a second exodus, the return of the exiles from Babylonian captivity ( 43:14-21 ).
Through the prophet, Yahweh the Creator now declares his absolute sovereignty in the universe and in history. Furthermore, he assures his people that, contrary to what they assume, he is aware of their plight ( 40:12-28 ). Unlike the idols of Babylon, he announces in advance the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire by Cyrus the Persian and the subsequent emancipation of the Judean exiles. He will ransom them by supplying other nations for Persia to subdue. He will lead the erstwhile captives carefully through the wilderness between Babylon and Judah and provide for their every need along the way and in their restored land.
Re-creation. The theme of original creation also gives rise to another important theological concept: re-creation. It is featured in connection with both spiritual regeneration and eschatological renewal. In the former sense, we recall the plea of the psalmist who, burdened with his iniquity, earnestly entreats God to create a clean heart within him ( 51:10 ). In a similar vein, various passages in the New Testament speak of the Christian or the church as a new creation in Christ ( 2 Cor 5:17 ; Gal 6:15 ; Ephesians 2:10 Ephesians 2:15 ). Elsewhere the imagery is of the new self, fashioned according to the likeness or image of the creator ( Eph 4:24 ; Col 3:10 ).
The idea of a new creation in an eschatological sense brings the original theme full circle. What is envisioned for the future is a return to the idyllic state of initial creation nothing less than new heavens and a new earth. The consequences of the fall will be reversed and a renewal of the fruitfulness and vitality that first characterized the cosmos and the garden of Eden will take place ( Isa 65:17-25 ; 66:22 ; Ezek 47:1-12 ; Joel 3:18 ; Amos 9:13 ; Rom 8:18-23 ; 2 Peter 3:7 2 Peter 3:10-13 ; Rev 21:1-22:5 ). However, Scripture cautions that only those who have experienced spiritual re-creation may enjoy the eschatological Eden ( Revelation 21:1-2 Revelation 21:6-8 Revelation 21:27 ; 22:14-15 ).
Robert J. V. Hiebert
Bibliography. B. W. Anderson, Creation in the Old Testament; H. Blocher, In the Beginning; W. Brueggemann, Genesis; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis; H. H. Esser, NIDNTT, 1:378-87; T. Frymer-Kensky, BA 40 (1977): 147-55; J. H. Gronbaek, JSOT 33 (1985): 27-44; G. F. Hasel, Andrews UNIVersity Seminary Studies 10 (1972): 1-20; idem, EvQ 46 (1974): 81-102; C. Hyers, The Meaning of Creation; D. Kidner, Genesis; J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament; A. P. Ross, Creation and Blessing; J. Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis; E. A. Speiser, Genesis; H. J. Van Till, The Fourth Day; H. J. Van Till et al., Portraits of Creation; G. Von Rad, Genesis; B. K. Waltke, BSac 132 (1975): 25-36, 136-44, 216-28, 327-42; 133 (1976): 28-41; G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15; C. Westermann, Genesis: A Practical Commentary.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Create, Creation'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".