Winter 2012

Religion and Spirituality

The Law, the Prophets and the Writings, Part 1

The Book of Origins

David Hulme

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.”

Genesis 1:1–2

The Bible writer Luke tells us that immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to His disciples and spoke to them about the evidence found in the Hebrew Scriptures about Him: “Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me’” (Luke 24:44).

In so doing, Jesus defined the Hebrew Scriptures as comprising three major sections. Today the Jewish faith knows them as the Tanakh, from the first letters of the Hebrew Torah (the Law), Nevi’im (the Prophets) and Kethuvim (the Writings, which begin with the book of Psalms). In other words, Jesus told His followers that His coming had been prophesied throughout the ancient Scriptures that would form the basis of New Testament belief and practice. It is helpful to note that the word torah carries the additional meaning of “instruction” or “teaching” and is not limited to “law”; though the section of the Scriptures known as the Law contains much that relates to the regulation of life, including the Ten Commandments and the rules for living in a land-based economy, it comprises several books that do not contain much law but a great deal of narrative and instruction.

Moses is traditionally thought to be the compiler of the majority of the five books. Though nothing is said directly to support this, there are indications of his authorship in places.

The books that make up the three-part division of Scripture were ordered differently from what we see in today’s Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles. The Tanakh order is the one that will be followed in this series.  

Articles in this series will focus on the highlights of each book rather than provide commentary on every verse. We begin with Genesis, the first book in the five volumes of the Law or Pentateuch.

In the Beginning

It’s said that if you don’t know where you have come from, you can’t know where you’re going. Deceptively simple, profoundly true. The book of Genesis contains much about the origins of the planet we inhabit, of humankind and human society. Yet it has been relegated by most to the realm of myth in the sense of being fanciful or not true. While some would say that myths amount to little in a world largely given over to scientific truths, others emphasize that they teach us important truths with a basis in ancient belief.

In this exploration of the first book of the Bible, we’ll find that Genesis illuminates and informs modern life beyond the use of myth in either sense of the word. For example, it addresses the origins of the heavens and the earth; of chaos; of plant, animal and human life; of marriage, family and destiny; of good and evil; of violence and murder; of society and civilization; and of nations and languages, to name a few.

The rest of the Bible quotes Genesis or mentions its content more than it does any other book. Of the 165 passages quoted or referred to in the New Testament, about 100 are taken from chapters 1 to 11—the section that many want to downplay as unreliable. Yet Jesus mentioned Genesis several times, demonstrating His stand on its content and relevance.  

The book opens with the well-known statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It’s a sentence rich in underlying meaning, especially when we look into some of the Hebrew terms.

Bereshit bara Elohim (“In the beginning God created”): “In the beginning” does not necessarily mean the beginning of the creation we know but the origins of the heavens and the earth at an even earlier time. This will become clear as we continue. Elohim—“God”—is a masculine plural noun connected to a singular form of the verb “created” (bara). Some scholars have proposed that the plural is used to indicate majesty or might (perhaps something like the royal “we”). But a related passage in the New Testament describes Christ as the Word of God (from the Greek word Logos) and the companion of the Father: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1–3). This shows us that more than one member of the God “family” was involved in the Creation of everything. Consistent with the plural Elohim, Genesis 1:26 records God as saying, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” These two beings, then, were responsible for perfectly creating the heavens and the earth. Here is the point of origin of all that follows.

Simply and powerfully, the author first establishes the doctrine that God created the world. No statement in the cosmogonies of other peoples approaches this first statement in the Bible.”

Hermann Gunkel, Genesis (1997)

Without Form and Void

Verse 2 describes a world very different from the perfection indicated by bara, a verb form that is only ever used of God’s creative acts, never of those of human beings. As the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes, “This distinctive use of the word is especially appropriate to the concept of creation by divine fiat.”

Yet verse 2 speaks of the planet as waste, empty and dark: “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.” The Hebrew translated as “without form, and void” is tohu va vohu. But surely what God creates cannot be confused and chaotic. Indeed, the prophet Isaiah tells us that God “did not create [the earth] in vain [or empty, tohu]”(Isaiah 45:18). The apostle Paul wrote, “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33).

A clue may be found in the verb translated as “was”; scholars point out that the Hebrew verb can also read “became” (there are several examples elsewhere in Genesis). Thus the earth became formless and empty. This indicates a gap in time of unknown length between the creation of verse 1 and the desolation of verse 2. In other words, there was an intervening event that caused the earth to be reduced to desolation.

While there are two other major explanations of this section of Genesis, each dependent on differing views of the grammar, this so-called gap theory resolves many questions. It allows that the desolate earth of verse 2 is not speaking of the original creation, since verse 1 establishes the earth’s origin (“In the beginning”).

Further, it allows that the first word of verse 2, ve—part of the compound ve-ha-aretz (“and the earth”)—be translated “now” rather than “and.” Interestingly, many Bibles do not translate the word ve at all. Yet the Masoretic Text provides a notation that the word is disjunctive rather than conjunctive. That is to say, the thoughts expressed are not to be construed as joined together; verse 2 is not the result of verse 1. This is certainly not something to ignore. According to this grammatical point, it should read, “Now the earth was [or became] waste and void.”

What could have caused this condition? It is accepted by some scholars that this is a reference to the result of Satan’s rebellion against God before the creation of humankind, as described in Isaiah 14:12–15 and Ezekiel 28:12–19. The destruction was the result of divine judgment against Satan and his fallen angelic followers. Satan (Hebrew for “adversary”) was previously known as Day Star (in Hebrew, Heylel), an archangel whose role was guardian of the original earth and who sinned by attempting to overthrow God.  

When it comes to the origins of various aspects of the world we now inhabit, this gap theory—or understanding—has great explanatory power. It sheds light on many other scriptures in both Old and New Testaments.

In the ancient Near Eastern world in which Israel emerged, beginnings were deemed to be crucial, for the origins of things were thought to disclose their character and purpose.”

Jon D. Levenson, “Genesis,” in The Jewish Study Bible (2004)

Verse 2 concludes, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Nothing is said here, nor in John 1, about the Spirit as a person. Indeed, here the Spirit is compared to a protective bird that hovers or flutters (in Hebrew, merachephet), waiting for her eggs to hatch. At this point re-creation has not yet begun. But the Spirit or power of God will be utilized, as we read in Psalms: “You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30).

The Creation Week

What is popularly thought of as the biblical creation story begins, then, not with verses 1 and 2 but verse 3: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Here are three steps: God speaking, God’s words, the outcome. Four more steps follow in this particular creative process—evaluation, further action, naming, finalizing: “And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day” (verses 4–5). In contrast to the desolation of verse 2, what God does in the creation week is often pronounced “good” (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), and finally, “very good” (verse 31).

This seven-step pattern continues with slight variation through the six days of creation. Here we need not enter the debate over creation through eons of time but simply observe that the language indicates that days are days as we know them. This is apparent in the reference to each day being numbered and comprising “evening and morning” (from sunset to sunset), and on the fourth day the mention of “signs and seasons, and . . . days and years.” Finally, on the seventh day, God established “the Sabbath”—another calendar term—by resting (Genesis 2:2–3). The system of time as we know it is in process. What we can note with respect to geologic eras is that the gap in time between verses 1 and 2 allows for billions of years.

But there is more to be learned from the description of those first few days. The creative act of the first day in fact resolves one aspect of the confusion and emptiness mentioned in verse 2 by letting light shine and separating darkness from light. Two other acts of resolution by separation on sequential days include the revealing of the expanse we know as the sky (“the firmament”) by dividing the earth’s waters below from the atmosphere’s waters above; and the revealing of land, along with plant life, by dividing it from sea.

In parallel, the fourth, fifth and sixth days see the enriching of the creative acts of the first three days by the addition of light and life. On the fourth day, the sun, moon and stars become visible, filling the sky; next, marine life and birds fill the seas and atmosphere; and on the sixth day, animal and human life fills the land.

When the first human beings are created (Genesis 1:26–27), God makes it clear that this is a distinct and different creation. First, as we have seen, mankind (in Hebrew, adam) is made in God’s image and likeness. This is not said of any other part of creation. It is a unique aspect of human origins and speaks not only to the present but also to human destiny. Human beings, male and female, were created of physical material (Genesis 2:7, 21–22), limited by time, but with the potential of receiving eternal spiritual life from God.

Humanity exists in community, as one beside the other, and there can only be anything like humanity and human relations where the human species exists in twos.”

Claus Westermann, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (1994)

They were also given a position of dominance over the rest of creation (Genesis 1:28). But they were to nurture and care for the creation around them in the Garden of Eden. We learn this in chapter 2, which provides further detail about the origins of humanity. It’s significant that this foundational book has a statement about how humans should relate to the natural world around. The Hebrew words for dress (abad) and keep (shamar) indicate working and guarding, cultivating and protecting. Certainly there is no suggestion of exploiting and ruining.

Recall that this chapter begins with the establishment of the Sabbath rest, time made holy by God’s cessation from work. It provided the first humans with an example to follow of taking time to rest and recuperate once a week as they focused on the Creator and His work. Jesus would later explain that the Sabbath was created as a benefit for humanity and not a burden as some had made it. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Genesis continues with a backward glance at the creation of Adam and Eve on the preceding day and forward with the entry of evil. The intrusion of Satan into human history occurs in Eden. He was dominant on earth as the guardian angelic power until his opposition to God brought his downfall. Now the object of his deception became Adam and Eve, the potential new rulers of the domain he once protected.

Next time, Satan’s great deception and the beginning of humanity’s pathway to the present.