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The first chapter of Genesis is one of the most hotly debated passages of Scripture -- even amongst Biblical scholars. It is often at the center of debates about the age of the earth, the accuracy of Scripture, and the importance of good exegesis. For this question though, I'm simply wondering, What can be said about the authorial intent of this passage?

For this question I want to look specifically at exegetical evidence of authorial intent. (I.e. I am not so much interested in the apparent accuracy of historical claims, what mechanical process the cosmos came into existence by, or whether it is similar to other creation stories.)

What can we determine exegetically about the authorial intent of Genesis 1? (An excellent answer might touch on topics like authorship, original intended audience, provenance, genre, structure, and literary function, but would focus on theme and purpose.) Feel free to bring in extra-Biblical evidence as support, but I am primarily looking for exegetical support.

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John Sailhamer sees many Pentateuch-wide links between the language of Gen. 1 and the language of the Promised Land. I thought that was very interesting. –  Jas 3.1 Dec 5 '13 at 20:38
    
I am not sure what you intend by 'exegetical' support. Is it not obvious that it is intending to explain how everything came to be at the beggining? I think the intent of the author is almost always to communicate what children would naturally understand when reading it. Exegetical hair splicing is more needed when the passages appears incomprehensible. Cultural or historical investigation, where something commonly understood by the audience now lost in our language. More or less, Genesis Chapter 1 seems to be free of both complications apart from physical views of how the universe looks. –  Mike Dec 7 '13 at 4:56
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3 Answers 3

In two of his books (listed below), John H. Walton examines Genesis 1.1-2.3 according to its similarities to other 'creation myths' in the ancient near east (ANE from here onward), verbal cues with contemporary or related Hebrew scriptures, and so on. He doesn't go much in the way of authorship or the originally intended audience, although possibilities can be gleaned from what he has to say about the structure, genre, and purpose of the text. I'll summarize below Walton's major points, but I would of course recommend reading his books.


Structure

Genesis 1.1-2.3 is based, of course, around its seven days. In days 1-3 God establishes 'realms': day and night, sky and sea, and land (with vegetation). Following this, in days 4-6 God establishes the residents of those realms: the sun, moon, and stars for day and night, the birds and sea creatures for sky and sea, and land animals and humans for the land and vegetation.

It is often suggested the verbal repetitions, in addition to the thematic parallels of the days, would make the text easier to remember for oral tradition.

However, Walton writes, 'Days four through six are literarily parallel to days one through three, as has long been recognized, but the literary structure is secondary' to the intended purpose of the text.

Verses 1.1 and 2.3 are best understood as an inclusio. An inclusio is when a given text begins and ends on the same points by way of verbal repetition. Those two points thus become a summary of everything that is described between them. Genesis 1 begins 'In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth', and ends with 'Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them'.


Ancient Near Eastern Thought

Keeping the text rooted in the ancient world, Walton is not alone in arguing that the cosmology - the shape of the universe - in Genesis 1 is very similar to other ANE cosmologies, especially that of various Mesopotamian cultures.

The inclusio mentioned above shows that Genesis 1.1 is not actually a part of the creation act, but a summary preface of what is about to happen. As such, verse 1.2 presents the pre-creation existence as 'the deep' and 'the waters'. Portraying the pre-creation existence as a sea of chaos was typical in ANE cosmologies. Sometimes this chaotic sea is personified as a monster: the Babylonian creation myth calls this chaos monster Tiamat, and the world is created out of her remains when the gods kill her. The name 'Tiamat' is etymologically related to the Hebrew word for 'the deep', tehom (תהום), which we find in Genesis 1.2.

So similar to other ANE thought, Genesis 1 depicts pre-creation existence as a chaotic sea. When God begins his act of creation (1.3), it is understood as creating out of tehom, bringing order to the pre-creation chaos.1

Another obvious similarity to ANE cosmologies is the firmament from Genesis 1.6. While some contemporary translations call it the 'expanse', which implies a vast openness more compatible with modern understandings of the sky and space, the word is raqiya (רקיע), which is always in the Hebrew scriptures to describe something that has been hammered and spread out. What is being described is a solid, dome-like structure that covers over the earth and holds back the waters, just like we find in other ANE cosmologies.2


Purpose 1

Walton argues that the purpose of the text is twofold.

First, he argues the focus of the text is not necessarily on the physical origin of the universe, but of the origin of 'functions' and 'functionaries'. He begins this by clarifying the meaning of 'formless and void' in Genesis 1.2, from the Hebrew tohu va-bohu (תהו ובהו). By following how these two words are used elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, Walton notes they are never specifically used for the physical non-existence of the objects they describe, but rather the non-functional quality of those objects. About half of the occasions tohu is used, it describes the desolate nature of the wilderness or a ruined city.

Because of this, Walton argues Genesis 1 is intended to be understood as God 'creating' by assigning functions to objects (i.e. the events of days 1-3), and filling those functions with functionaries (the events of days 4-6). He shows once more that there are significant parallels to other ANE creation myths. Days 1-3 in Genesis 1 can be summarized as the creation of time functions (day 1), weather functions (day 2), and food functions (3). In the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, the gods slay Tiamat, and begin to create worldly functions: night and day (tabler 5, lines 38-40), clouds, wind, rain, and fog (lines 47-52), and 'harnessing the waters of Tiamat for the purpose of providing the basis of agriculture' (lines 53-58). The order in which these things are created is the same as days 1-3 in Genesis 1.


Purpose 2

The other purpose of the text can once more be determined by verbal cues and literary parallels to other ANE creation myths.

Walton notes that Enuma Elish – after Tiamat is slain, after the functions of the world are established from her remains, after humanity has been created – concludes with the creation of a temple for the god Marduk: 'Below the firmament, whose grounding I have made firm, A house I shall build, let it be the abode of my pleasure. Within it I shall establish its holy place, I shall appoint my holy chambers, I shall establish my kingship' (5.121-124). Later, 'We will make a shrine, whose name will be a byword, your chamber that shall be our stopping place, we shall find rest therein' (6.51-52).

The climax of the creation of the world was the creation of a temple, which would serve as the place of 'rest' for the supreme god-king Marduk.

Genesis 2.2-3 describes day 7. At this point, 'the heavens and the earth were finished' already, so day 7 is not an act of creating anything. Instead, day 7 gives meaning to what has just been created: God comes to 'rest'. Appealing to other Hebrew texts, Walton states that 'divine rest' in ANE thought always occurs in a temple. One key text that substantiates this claim is Psalm 132, verses 7-8 and 13-14, which describes the temple in Jerusalem as the 'resting place' and 'dwelling' of God. Taking this temple concept back to day 6, we find humanity is created as 'the image of God'.

The necessary conclusion then becomes that the universe that has been created on days 1-6 is the temple that God comes to 'rest' in on day 7, with humanity acting as the temple image.

In other words, the Genesis 1 creation myth is simultaneously a 'temple text', as several other ANE creation myths were. As a 'temple text', Genesis 1 illustrates two things. First, it describes humanity's intended function: the temple icon that reflects God into the rest of the temple. Second, it presents how God should be perceived: the supreme creator god-king.


Resources

John H. Walton. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible.

John H. Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One.


Footnotes

1 Other creation texts in the Hebrew scriptures do have more direct parallels to the concept of the gods slaying a sea-monster that personifies chaos. Psalm 74.14-17, 89.9-11, and Job 26.7-13 are each creation texts, with a special focus on God slaying a sea serpent and holding back the waters.

2 Job 37.18 uses the verb form raqa (רקע) to describe how God 'spread out the sky, like a molten mirror', clearly portraying the boundary of the sky as a completely solid object.

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Genesis is different from any other creation story in that it absolutely separates God from his creation with the introduction that 'in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.' As far as I am aware all other creation stories consider the universe as always existing and part of God or emanations of God, or some other confused admixture but not absolutely created by an independent all-powerful creator. This means it is probably better, in terms of authorial intent to imagine something more sublime and simple then a cultural myth and we can thus dismiss much effort in looking for similarities and differences among them.

It is true one can find many similarities among pagan creation myths but this does not support the idea that Israel copied any of its beliefs from others. On the contrary the similarities, even when the simple glory of the Genesis account has been replaced by obvious absurdities of pagan myths, serve to support the Genesis claim of original single parents. Naturally the word-of-mouth testimony from Adam and Eve would find some undistorted threads to every race who descended from them.

Another striking feature noticed by Donald MacDonald in a book entitled 'Creation and the Fall' is that mythical, culture based stories tend to show themselves by referring to geographic features of their surroundings in the story, while introducing a ‘power involved’ which is invariably insignificant in dignity compared to the Genesis account, where ‘all of creation’ instantly obeys his commanding anthropomorphic words. Genesis does not bring into the story elements of Palestine, like dates and desserts scenes. It could have easily been written by any culture anywhere in the earth, aside from the north and south poles, I guess. It is almost culturally anonymous in its simplicity and elegance.

Simplicity and elegance are hard to transport into exact exegetical terms, yet this is a striking feature of the style, genre, language, or whatever else one can label. The simplicity and elegance is incomparable and immediately arrests our attention when reading it. It seems to surpass any consideration of structure or even literary features transporting the reader into an awe of a magnificent creator more than a curiosity that literature might produce if borrowing philosophical and detailed scientific postulations of any given generation or people. Its style is simply ‘transcending’, if that can be used as a 'technical' term. This leads to the authorial intent.

What I find unique about the Genesis account is that it originally had literal interpretations by both Jewish and Christian histories, while being attacked by highly symbolic exegetes later on. Also it has withstood endless argument, by scientific exploits, by grammatical seizures on the words chosen for God and pretended shifts in style, yet unlike any other account, is still believed by many reasonable people too numerous to guess, as a fully reliable literal story. True some take the days to be symbolic and some do not, but all in all it is unlike any mythical story in that people still believe it as a child would when first reading it. Genesis does transition slightly in style as different subjects often produce different 'styles' and the names chosen for God can as easily be understood as fitting different subjects as can be imagined to arise from supposed different sources.

Though my above observations can be disputed just as I can dispute any one else's observations, regarding authorial intent it is plain. Unlike creation myths Genesis clearly makes God the all mighty powerful one to whom all creation was made and thus must obey. It makes all moral creatures morally obliged to worship God on this account, above the creation and to obey his will fully under just threat of punishment. Furthermore, this introduction of the creator of all things quickly proceeds to account for the implied nature of evil and how men fell into sin requiring a future redemption, implying that God is loving; finding his creation 'good' according to a benevolent glory. The fact that the rest of the Bible traces this redemption makes the intent indisputable by any objective argument. Actually a child can get what Genesis is saying. It takes an adult to overly complicate it and one with a PHD to utterly confuse oneself with it.

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This answer is not exclusive to the creation narrative, but here are some thoughts on how the creation narrative (and other stories in Genesis and Exodus) may fit into the broader literary context and purpose of the Pentateuch.

From a broad literary perspective, the creation narrative is the first of a series of stories in the Pentateuch that lay out Israel’s history. It starts by describing the origins of the earth (the so called primeval history), then shifts to the patriarchs, and eventually the captivity in and exodus from Egypt. The Pentateuch then describes the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, which includes the giving of the law, and finally ends with the people of Israel on the verge of entering the Promised Land.

It is interesting to notice the amount of space the author of the Pentateuch devoted to these different topics. Although today sometimes is seems we tend to focus more time on the various stories in Genesis and Exodus (eg the creation story, the flood, the exodus, Noah getting drunk and naked, etc.), the author of the Pentateuch devoted the majority of the space to the law. If word count is any indication of importance, it would appear the most important thing to the author of the Pentateuch was the law.

If it is correct that the primary focus of the Pentateuch is in fact the law, then it could be that the stories leading up to the law (including the creation narrative) are meant to serve as a sort of preface or introduction to the law. Instead of immediately laying out a list of rules and regulations, the author instead starts with an explanation of who YHWH is and how YHWH relates to the people who are expected to follow this law. The purpose then could be to provide a reason that the Israelites should follow these laws. This type of construct can be seen in the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:2,3; RSV).

Traditionally the Pentateuch was said to be written by Moses himself. If this is correct, historically it means the Pentateuch would have been completed around the death of Moses (as it ends with the story of his death) and given to the Israelites who were about to enter the Promised Land. Given this context, it seems possible that the Pentateuch was written both so the Israelites would have the law, but also to help persuade them to actually follow it. The previous generation had all died off, so there were no surviving eyewitnesses of the exodus. This new generation has known nothing but a life of (seemingly meaningless) wandering through the wilderness. It does not seem unreasonable to think that Moses would have had a sense of concern that the new generation may turn away from YHWH, just as the previous generation did (eg the song of Moses in Deut 32 and Josh 1).

Another view on authorship is that the books of Genesis through Kings were complied into their final form sometime during the Babylonian exile. If this is correct, it would mean the Pentateuch was written/compiled for the exiled Israelites who were (or would soon be) allowed to return to the land. At the end of the exile many years had passed since Jerusalem was destroyed and many from the older generation who had experienced a sovereign Israel and temple worship had passed away. The new generation, some of whom only knew exile, was now facing the task of rebuilding the temple and reinstituting the law and worship of YHWH. As with the Israelites in the wilderness about to enter the land, it is not unreasonable to think that they would not only need to be provided a list of the laws they needed to follow, but would also need an explanation as to why they should follow them. After all, it might be easy to assume the exile even proved that YHWH was not able to protect them from other gods and not deserving of their allegiance, instead of understanding that the exile was brought on by Israel’s lack of faithfulness.

In either context, the creation narrative may have served as a part of the authors attempt to address concerns of unfaithfulness for a new generation of Israelites about to take hold of the Promised Land. It is the first in a series of stories designed to tell the story of YHWH, explain the kind of God that YHWH is and how YHWH chose the people of Israel, and also show the Israelites why YHWH alone is worthy of their worship and allegiance. The creation narrative explains that YHWH is not just any god, but is the Creator. Even from the first moments of the existence of the universe, YHWH was in control and had a plan for humanity as a whole and Israel specifically. The creation narrative also starts off a theme of the world as God intended, humankind’s failure, and God’s redemption. Even though it may appear YHWH is weak or has abandon Israel (eg during the wilderness wondering or the exile), it is in fact Israel who abandoned YHWH. YHWH created the world, YHWH created them, YHWH chose them for a people, and YHWH destined them for that very day, to receive the land before them. In light of this, Israel must respond through faithfulness to YHWH’s law, the instructions by which they will maintain their relationship as God’s people.

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Hi there! This was a great answer. Thank you for taking the time to contribute to the site. When you get a chance, check out our tour page to get a bit more familiar with how our site operates. I hope you stick around and keep up the good work. We are always happy to have new contributors who can provide the level of reliable scholarship that you have provided here. –  Jas 3.1 Dec 11 '13 at 18:31
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