In the beginning
- Neither the peoples of the ancient world in general nor the Scriptures in particular assert innumerable beginnings. Only one beginning is in view, and it is that which commences in the first verse of the Bible. The concept of the beginning is not limited to a singular point of time, but rather includes the span of events that are described through Genesis 2:4.
- The Hebrew word translated God is actually plural in form. Some well-meaning believers, knowing that Scripture clearly teaches there is only one true God (Isaiah 46:9; etc.), assert that this plural form demonstrates that God is a trinity. Unbelievers claim that this plural form indicates that the Old Testament teaches the existence of many gods.
- Neither view is necessarily supported by this plural form, for two reasons. First, though a plural noun in Hebrew may indicate “more than one,” a noun may be plural to signify honor; this is similar to the royal “we” spoken by a king or queen. Second, the Hebrew behind the verb created is singular, indicating only one subject. The best explanation is that God is viewed as a single essence who is honored above all other beings.
The heaven and the earth.
- This expression is roughly equivalent to our term universe. In Hebrew, two words with opposite senses are often paired to indicate a totality. For example, “great and small” in 2 Chronicles 34:30 means all kinds of people. Therefore Genesis 1:1 is expressing quite clearly that all we call “matter” today is not coeternal with God. Rather, God brought it into existence.
And the earth was without form, and void.
- We move to the description of the situation after the creation of matter in verse 1. The exact phrase (in the original Hebrew) of earth’s description without form, and void also occurs in Jeremiah 4:23. There it describes the moral chaos of a chosen people who do not know the Lord, who do not know how to do good, and who are wise only in knowing how to do evil. The phrase seems to describe a situation that is without moral boundaries. In parallel, Genesis 1:2 implies that physical boundaries are not yet fully defined (compare 1:4).
And darkness was upon the face of the deep.
- Here, the word darkness communicates the absence of light in a physical sense. Later writers and Jesus himself will use this word to communicate the absence of light in a moral sense (Isaiah 9:2; 50:10; Matthew 4:16; John 1:5; 12:46; etc.). It also comes to be used in contexts that call for the punitive acts of God (Amos 5:20; Zephaniah 1:15).
- Regarding Genesis 1, the literal, physical sense is clear. But as we read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, our understanding of figurative uses of the word darkness is enhanced.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
- The word translated Spirit is elsewhere translated “breath” (Genesis 6:17), “wind” (8:1), “spirit” (45:27), “courage” (Joshua 2:11), and others. Regarding a choice between translations of Spirit or spirit, the translators were faced with a difficulty in that the Hebrew language does not distinguish between uppercase and lowercase letters. So translators must interpret the meaning, and they capitalize when the reference is to God personally as divine being.
- As a result, the phrases Spirit of God and spirit of God occur 10 and 4 times respectively in the King James Version of the Old Testament. Many Christians think the phrase Spirit of God always refers to the Holy Spirit. But passages where the identical Hebrew is properly not translated that way are 1 Samuel 16:15, 16, 23; 18:10.
- The phrase Spirit of God in the passage before us refers to the same one known as “the Spirit of the Lord.” This Spirit can be present (Judges 11:29), take action (13:25), speak messages (2 Samuel 23:2), and depart (1 Samuel 16:14). These are the qualities of a personal being, not an impersonal force.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
- Creation begins! The phrase And God said occurs at the beginning of each day of creation, and here it serves to separate Genesis 1:3 and following from 1:1, 2. Let there be is a command or desire for something to take place. Presumably those hearing this command are the inhabitants of Heaven, the abode of God.
- The first thing created is light. Since the sun, moon, and stars are not created until the fourth day, some think that the light referred to here may be what scientists call energy. Perhaps this light-as-energy, if that is what it is, is a new creation out of nothing. Or perhaps matter that God previously created is now turned into energy, a concept absent from the ancient mind. Addressing such an issue is not the aim of the book of Genesis. The stress, rather, is that light stands in positive contrast to darkness (next verse).
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
- God acts in and on His creation, and His light pushes back the darkness. The word good describes the value of the light. It may also include the excellence of figurative ideas associated with light. The Scripture may be using the acts of creation to teach a spiritual lesson in addition to the material events of creation. If that’s the case, then the lesson is that there is a difference between good and evil just as clearly as there is a difference between physical light and darkness. Foolish, sinful humans will later blur those distinctions. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
- From the perspective of the ancient world, naming brings things into existence; unnamed things do not exist. Modern, scientific ideas about the nature of light are not in view. Just as darkness is merely the absence of light, and light is the creation of God, so also Day and Night are portrayed as impersonal creations rather than as rival gods or the forces used by other gods. In naming light and darkness, God exercises His authority and power as Creator.
- The meaning of day has been interpreted in various ways to calculate the age of the earth. The word day in some contexts refers to the part of a 24-hour period that has light (Exodus 13:21). In other contexts it refers to entire 24-hour periods of time (Genesis 7:10). In still other contexts, day refers to a longer period of time (Genesis 2:4). The proposal that the phrase the evening and the morning naturally suggests a 24-hour day is met with the observation that the sun—the rising and setting of which establish evening and morning—is not created until the fourth day.
- One commentator has identified 20 creation accounts in the Bible. In so doing, he notes that the main emphasis across these is “the who” of creation—namely God. Secondarily, the Bible writers address “the how” of creation. Of least importance to them is “the when.” The goal of the authors is not to
- describe the age of the earth, but rather to describe the orderliness of creation and the lordship of the Creator over all that exists.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.
- The word firmament refers to the bowl-like dome.
Genesis 1:6b, 7
and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
- Of particular interest here is the firmament’s function as a boundary to divide the waters from the waters. Those waters which were under the firmament are all the bodies of water on the earth and below the earth (rivers, lakes, oceans, aquifers). The waters which were above the firmament refer to the clouds from which rain falls.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
- The word translated Heaven can be used for the air where the birds fly (Genesis 1:20); the location of sun, moon, and stars (Deuteronomy 4:19); or the abode of God and other heavenly beings (1 Kings 22:19; compare 2 Corinthians 12:2). In any case, again God asserts His authority by naming.
- Paul Kissling notes that this serves to oppose the ancient Near East belief that creation of the firmament is a battle between warring gods. Instead, the Bible depicts the unique Creator God calmly forming everything as He alone wills.
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
- The gathering of the waters . . . unto one place refers to the seas on the surface of the earth. The result is that land-forms appear. Again, the account does not say how, or how quickly, God does this. It simply happens at His command.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called He Seas: and God saw that it was good.
- One of the deities of the ancient world was Yam, a name equivalent to the Hebrew word for seas. The verse before us stands in sharp contrast with such a myth as it credits the one, true God as Creator of the seas. The seas are simply inanimate water, neither sentient nor divine.
Genesis 1:11, 12a
And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. 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.
- Various kinds of plant life appear. This continues the preparation of the earth for human habitation, for now there is renewable sustenance of the earth necessary for survival of humans and animals.
- The phrase after his kind is important and remarkable in indicating that watermelon seeds result in watermelons, etc. If we pause to consider the consistency of this, it is remarkable yet today.
12b, 13. And God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.
- The account of the third day concludes with a refrain found throughout the first chapter of Genesis: God approves of what He has created (1:4, 10, 18, 21, 25, 31).
And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night.
- As with the other days of creation, this one, the fourth, begins with God speaking. Having created “light” (singular) on the first day, God now creates lights (plural; compare Psalms 74:16; 136:7). These are physical objects that serve specific purposes. For them to divide the day from the night speaks to the need for cyclical illumination of the earth.
And let them be for signs.
- This illumination goes hand in hand with the lights’ being signs: things that attest to divine power at work. The idea is to give credit to God for His active role in the world. This is the word used to state the significance of the rainbow, given as a sign in the sky that God will not again destroy the earth by a flood (Genesis 9:12–15, same Hebrew word translated “token”). While there might be the occasional extraordinary sign, the ordered nature of earthly cycles is a daily reminder of God’s provision and presence.
And for seasons, and for days, and years.
- Beyond the signs, we now see three derivative manifestations of God’s order. First, the celestial lights also give us seasons. We may naturally think of seasons in terms of spring, summer, fall, and winter. That idea may be included (see below), but the idea as it develops throughout the Old Testament is more along the lines of time periods longer than 24 hours in general and the religious festivals of Israel’s calendar in particular. These become appointed times (example: Exodus 23:15) as determined by phases of the moon (compare Psalms 81:3; 104:19.)
- Hand in hand with such periods of time are the days and years. These are the familiar periods of 24 hours and 365 days, respectively. The yearly cycle is what gives us the seasons of fall, winter, spring, and summer (or, in some areas, the rainy season and the dry season).
- All these provide order and regularity. We are created to thrive within this system. For example, astronauts who leave the earth still try to regulate their activities in 24-hour cycles. God has designed a world to fit us and created us to fit His world.
And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
- We should catch a little of the wonder and awe of the ancient author here. He understands the value and purpose of light (created on day one), of heavenly lights (created on day four), and of the need for light upon the earth. We are created to be creatures of light, both physically and spiritually. The more science learns about sunlight, the more we realize our dependence on it for life.
- Without the God-provided light that bathes our world on a regular basis, we would lead a sad existence—if any existence at all. The lighting of our world is a testimony to God’s love and care for us. It is an exciting comparison, then, for Jesus to take the role of “light of the world” (John 8:12), God’s loving answer to our spiritual darkness.
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.
- The created order has three classifications of observable heavenly lights. First we have the greater light, the sun, which rules the day. This does not imply that the sun comes out when there is daylight. Rather, it’s the other way around: the sun defines and causes the day.
- Likewise, the lesser light, the moon, defines a darker period, the night. Nights are not without some light, given the shadows we observe when the moon is bright. Even on nights of a new moon, the stars provide light, although dimly.
- While we see God’s intentional patterns in creation here, we should also notice that the descriptions are observational, from the perspective of the author or any other human. It is silly to criticize this portrayal by saying that some of the stars we see are far bigger and brighter than our sun. It doesn’t appear that way from the author’s viewpoint, nor from any other unaided human viewpoint today. Stars are tiny in the amount of light they shed on the earth. This is the point.
Genesis 1:17, 18
And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
- These celestial lights—sun, moon, and stars—are placed in the firmament of the heaven by God to provide various degrees of light upon the earth. Their intensity causes the distinction between daytime and nighttime. All of them counteract darkness, the absence of light. In this sense, they are testimonies to the presence of God in our world, for we are never without a heavenly light source.
- As at the end of the previous day of creation, the author notes that God observes what He has created and approves by designating it as good. It is pleasing to Him and beneficial to us.
And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
- As before, the cycle of what makes up a day is noted. The Bible’s way of marking a day begins with sundown, a pattern still observed by Jews. It is not so much that night commences the new day as that the setting of the sun ends the old day. On the various possible meanings of day, see commentary on Genesis 1:5 in lesson 1.
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
- The ancient person sees the world in three parts: the watery world of seas, lakes, and rivers; the habitable world of dry ground; and the above-ground world of the atmosphere. Day five of creation begins, as the others have, with God speaking. On this day, God speaks into existence the living animals for the watery world and the sky. As before, this is presented from an observational perspective—what the author or any reader could see.
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
- The unpolluted and unfished waters of the ancient world teem with life. This includes water creatures of massive size, something the author (Moses) is aware of on some level. Has he heard of great whales that have breached the surface of the ocean or washed up on a beach? God’s creation has variety that is barely imaginable for us. After hundreds of years of study, scientists are still discovering and classifying new water creatures (compare Psalm 104:25).
- The author also acknowledges creation of the creatures of the atmospheric world, the birds. He knows that most creatures do not have the capability of flight—only those with wings. These make up a special and wonderful category of God’s good created animals.
- The author also gives another insight into the wonder and awe of the ancient person when it comes to beholding God’s created order: the reproductive capability of water creatures and birds. This is their ability to produce offspring after his/their kind. Why does a sparrow always reproduce sparrows, not eagles sometimes? Why does a trout always reproduce trout, not barracudas sometimes? This is part of God’s created order as observed by the author, and it is marvelous for him. As we appreciate the enormous variety of God’s creatures, we should also understand the boundaries for variation He has built into each one.
And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
- How many of each type of fish or bird does God create to get things started? We don’t know, but we do see that His plan includes multiplication of these creatures. He intends that the salt waters and fresh waters be filled with appropriate creatures. God intends that His created variety of birds multiply and spread throughout the earth (compare Genesis 8:17). It is a tragedy when a species becomes extinct because of human behavior.
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
- As the day ends by marking the cycle of the evening and the morning, the sustaining earth has been stocked in its waters and its air.
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind.
- God speaks again, on day six, to call into existence specific components of His overall created order. On this day God addresses the dry land, the earth itself. This will be the home of God’s ultimate creation, human beings, later in this same day (Genesis 1:26–30).
Cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
- There are three general categories of land animals presented. The first, cattle, is a generic term that means more than cows. It generally refers to herded animals, and here it has the sense of domesticated livestock as distinct from wild animals (see below; also see the distinction in Leviticus 25:7). This may include goats and sheep, which are popular choices among cultures dependent on herding. Later in the history of Israel, it will be animals from this category that are considered ritually clean for food or sacrifice (see Leviticus 11).
- The second category, the creeping thing, refers to creatures that live on the ground, including reptiles and snakes. Such animals will not be considered clean when the food laws are instituted for Israel (Leviticus 11:42). It is also likely that the tempting serpent of a coming story (Genesis 3:1) is included in this category.
- The third category, the beast of the earth, refers to wild animals. We might divide these into carnivores (example: lions), herbivores (example: gazelles), and omnivores (example: bears). Such animals might be hunted for food, but they are not part of a nomadic herd or a located farm.
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.
- As with the creatures of the sea and air, the land creatures are made with the capacity to reproduce after his/their kind. Again, God finishes creating these three categories and sees His work as good.
- We should notice there are many missing, undiscussed animals. These categories are quite general and not intended to be exhaustive. What about rodents—are they creeping things? What about insects? What about worms? Or, some might ask, what about dinosaurs?
- The silence of the text on such matters is just that: no information. It does not imply ignorance or avoidance. The author tells the story he wants to tell; and just as he does not divide the “stars” into planets, comets, meteors, and distant suns, he does not give more than a brief description of the creative activities of God on each of the days.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
- Something new and significant is happening as God now speaks in a new manner. Up to this point, His words on each new day have begun with “Let there be . . .” (Genesis 1:3, 6, 14) or “Let the . . .” (1:9, 11, 20, 24). But now His creation declaration is more reflective in nature: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
- Many new-covenant believers have understood these plural pronouns as trinitarian in nature. But the original audience lacked the revelation we have to understand them that way. The Old Testament is essentially silent on the triune nature of God.
- It is the New Testament record that ultimately reveals God as being three-in-one (John 1; etc.). That record will make it possible for believers in the first century and later to contemplate a plurality in the oneness of God’s essence (compare Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 44:8; 45:5, 14).
- That leaves open the question of how the earliest readers interpret the plural pronouns. One proposal is that God is speaking to angelic beings in His heavenly court. Another view is that the plurals are to be understood as a “plural of majesty” by which God refers to the fullness of His power and identity. An illustration of this type of plural is the quotation “We are not amused,” supposedly uttered by Queen Victoria after hearing a story that was not as funny as the storyteller thought it to be (compare Genesis 11:7; Isaiah 6:8).
- An enduring issue is determining what it means to be created in God’s image, after His likeness. That the words image and likeness refer to different things is unlikely. First, there is no and between image and likeness in the original text. Second, the same Hebrew words translated image and likeness appear in Genesis 5:3 to refer to the same thing. Thus the two words should be seen as synonyms combined to add intensity.
- It is problematic to identify the image of God with one of God’s specific qualities. God is complex, so His image must also be complex. But we are able to get a better grasp if we approach the topic from two angles: those of form and content.
- The form of the image of God is person-hood. This speaks to the intellectual, volitional, moral, creative, and religious capacities that animals do not have. As God exercises His creative will, so also human beings alone among earth’s creatures have the ability to think of complex things that don’t exist, then take deliberate steps to make them a reality. A beaver may go through a sequence of steps to make a dam, but stacking a pile of sticks is not the same as building a hospital!
- Content, for its part, speaks to relationship with God (in terms of servants-in-fellowship) and relationship to the world (in terms of dominion-in-stewardship). It is the form part of the image that makes the content part of the image possible.
- Regarding the servant aspect, the portrayal of God in the creation narrative highlights a certain correspondence between humans and God that allows us to have a relationship with Him. Regarding the dominion part of the content part of the image, that’s addressed in our next verse.
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.
- God bids us to rule over His creation, a task elegantly described as having dominion. David will reflect further on this centuries later in Psalm 8:6–8. In creating, the Lord worked and exercised dominion, and He invites us to participate with Him in exercising that dominion as we ourselves work. This is an issue of stewardship. (On understandings of cattle and creeping thing, see commentary on Genesis 1:24 in lesson 2).
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
- The image of God in which humanity is created includes male and female. That we exist in community reflects the communal nature of God that we see taught more clearly in the New Testament. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one, yet they are clearly distinct persons. And though male and female together form one humanity, there is a clear, God-intended distinction between male and female.
- God’s statement identifying us as being in His image points to humanity’s exalted place. Some students also see the triple-usage of the verb created as significant. The word in the original language being translated thus occurs only eight times between Genesis 1:1 and 5:1, and fully half of those are connected with the final and most significant aspect of creation: the creation of God’s image bearers (three times here and once in 5:1).
- It is difficult to overstate the significance of “the image of God” within Judeo-Christian ethics. Without the belief that humans are morally endowed creations of a morally good God, there is nothing to ensure the dignity and value of any and every person—born or unborn, healthy or ill.
- Whatever value humans possess comes from the sovereign Creator, to whom we are accountable and responsible. The physical, economic, social, and cultural criteria by which secular humanism establishes and defends person-hood are arbitrary, changing, and unreliable. Christians must shape their response to moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and racism on the foundation of humanity’s value and special status of being made in the image of God.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
- God’s blessing-command spoken over humanity reflects what He has already spoken over creatures of sea and sky (Genesis 1:22). It resembles a number of other fruitfulness-blessing statements found throughout this book (9:1, 7; 17:20; 28:3; 35:11; 48:4). Together these demonstrate that rearing children is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity. God desires that the whole earth be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18) and experience His glory (40:5; 42:10–13).
- To the notion of dominion used earlier, God now adds the verb subdue. The word in the original language appears elsewhere in a positive sense in contexts of order and security resulting from the subjugation of enemies (Numbers 32:20–22; 1 Chronicles 22:18; etc.). It also occurs in a negative sense of bondage and enslavement (2 Chronicles 28:10; Jeremiah 34:11). All this suggests that the focus is the idea of control. Those who are granted this control are, naturally, accountable to God for stewardship in ordering and developing the resources available.
- What has come to be called “the dominion mandate” forms a basis for science and technology; it should never be thought a license for careless and abusive use of natural resources. We exercise dominion only as the image or representatives of God in the world, not as creation’s owners. Because we don’t own creation (Psalm 95:5), we have no right to exploit it in such a way that brings discredit on God. We should exercise the responsibility toward the environment that God expects (contrast Deuteronomy 20:19, 20 with 2 Kings 3:18, 19; God’s expectations are different because of subsequent uses anticipated for the resources).
- The extent to which we are able to exercise this dominion is now limited because of sin (see lesson 5). However, Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15), has come as the last Adam to achieve dominion (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45–49; compare Hebrews 2:5–18). In Him we have put on the new self and are growing into the image and likeness of God (Colossians 1:15; 3:9, 10).
Genesis 1:29, 30
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
- The repetition of every highlights the fact that God is the faithful and generous provider of sustenance to both man and animals. Humans will eat from seed-bearing plants and fruit trees, and animals will consume every green plant. After the flood, people will receive authority from God to eat animal flesh as well (Genesis 9:3), a new source of protein.
- The crown of God’s creation is a new creature, a creature that can sound the heartbeat of its Creator. That creature, made male and female, reflects God’s own relational richness. The human family is to join God in the ongoing work of creation.
- The earth below and the sky above with all their inhabitants are too beautiful and too good to be left alone. They need the tender care and close attention that only God’s favored creature can give.
31. And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
- God had previously assessed elements of creation as “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). He now evaluates His creation in light of the addition of humanity, and He pronounces it very good. The exclamation behold both expresses God’s excitement and invites the reader also to view creation from God’s perspective. Creation, before the intrusion of human sin in Genesis 3, fully reflected God’s intent. Humanity now awaits the new heaven and new earth, to appear when God’s redemptive purposes, initiated in the work of Christ, are consummated (Revelation 21:1–5).
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