A Theological and Anthropological Understanding of Creation: On the Focus of Genesis 1-2
Ky-Chun So, Ph.D.
Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary
Creation in Gen. 1-2 cannot be separated from Israelite appreciation of God and particularly of God’s action as savior in their midst. Therefore, it is
more appropriate to focus upon “Creator” than “creation,” upon the personality and motivation of the Creator than upon the origin and form of the created world. This emphasis upon Creator brings up another important distinction. The word “Creator” in Hebrew is a participle, literally “the one [who is] creating.” Also God the Creator in the sense of the Hebrew Bible is present with the other action. The Hebrew word “Creator,” therefore, deals primarily with the present moment and its promise for the future, and only secondarily with the past. Because the Creator is acting now within the contemporary world, the Hebrew Bible will not normally attend to creatio ex nihilo as a single, unique event of the past. The closest that the Hebrew Bible to the idea of “nothing” is the “chaos” out of which the Creator brings life, good order, balance, harmony, and security.
Over the centuries the traditions about creation in Gen. 1-2 have been understood and explained in many ways. One can presume that Ancient Israel shared many of the cosmological perceptions of neighboring people. However, the framework and content of the accounts about creation may reflect the primary theological focus, not cosmological. Also one must remember that these accounts are narrative symbols for anthropological realities and are not to be understood literally. This means that the narratives in Genesis 1-2 are not only served as a statement of their theological understanding, but characterized as a statement of their anthropological understanding.
The creation narratives found within Gen. 1-2 are examples of Priestly and Yahwistic theology respectively. Each is a product of a different period of Israelite history. Each has its own specific concerns and needs.
2. Genesis 2
This account is the literary and theological product of a much earlier generation. It reflects the concerns of the united kingdom of David and his successor Solomon. This tradition reveals biblical Israel’s appropriation of royal ideology and its development as a national entity. The traditions of the founding of the Israelite describe the gradual integration of a federation of loosely knit tribes. The threats from a common enemy convinced them that centralization was their only hope for survival. Such a position was judged by some as apostasy. Had not their God protected them in the past? Had they lost all hope for continued protection in the future? Besides, royal ideology itself was sacrilegious. In it the sovereign was presumed divine, with power over both heaven and earth. No loyal worshipper of the God of the tribes of Israel could entertain such a view.
The theology that emerged from tenth-century Israel contains a refashioning of royal ideology that both legitimized the monarchy and at the same time held it accountable to the Mosaic Law and the Deuteronomistic Law. The creation narratives found within these traditions are an anthropological and theological rather than a cosmological statement.
The narrative in the Yahwist consists of various distinct related primordial themes. Apparent inconsistencies and presence of doubts are evidence of this. There are two descriptions of the earth. First, in 2:5-6 the earth is arid, with only a mist coming up from the ground. Second, in 2:8-10 the earth contains a garden with trees and a river that branches out in four directions. Twice the Lord God places the human creature in the garden; twice the man names the woman (2:23, 3:29); twice he is driven from the garden (3:23, 24). Surely, this was not meant to provide an explanation of the origin of the world.
Here the man is brought into a world depicted as a wilderness. Without rain and human toil the earth cannot bring forth vegetation (2:5). The Yahwist proposes a terrestrial, not a celestial. “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and heavens” (2:4b) is followed by an explanation for the barrenness of that earth.
The desolation of the land is due to the lack of rain and the absence of a human being to serve the ground. Rain, so necessary for life, is supplied by God alone. It seems, however, the earth is incomplete without someone to work the land and thereby enable the herb of the field to sprout forth. The verb that expresses this working is ‘abad, which also means “to serve,” and which implies a certain kind of relationship. This server of the ground is not its servant but is serving it for another. The selection of this world highlights the Yahwist’s anthropological understanding. The human serves God by serving the ground.
V. 7 is often called the locus classicus of ancient Israelite anthropology. After God caused the mist coming up from the earth and give drink to the ground, God took some of the dust from the ground and formed a human creature as a potter would form an object. In the Yahwist tradition the word used to describe this creation is yasar, a verb that denotes the activity of a potter. The human creature is formed or fashioned as a piece of pottery is fashioned. Likewise, as pottery is molded from clay material, so this creature is molded from clay of the ground. ‘apar (dust) denotes the dry surface of the ground. It also refers to the ground of the grave and thus has the added nuance of commonness or worthlessness.
The relationship between this creature of the ground and the ground itself can be seen from the account of the creative act (being formed), from the material employed therein (dust from the ground), and from the play on words between ’adam (man or humankind) and adama (ground). The human creature who has been taken from the ground will in turn work the ground that has now been watered by God. Thus the herbs of the field will be able to sprout forth.
This human creature is not yet a nepes hayya (a living being). Only by means of a second creative act is this accomplished. It is when God breathes the breath of life into the nostrils that the creature comes alive. One must remember that these accounts are narrative symbols for anthropological realities and are not to be understood literally. The author has set out to show both the affinity between human beings and other earth-creatures and the special character of the former in respect to the latter. The author chose this way of accomplishing that twofold goal.
In the present narrative no life existed before the human creature, and this creature did not live before receiving the breath of life from God. God is the source of life, but life comes to the earth through human agency. Such a theology has profound implications for the people Israel struggling to incorporate elements of royal ideology into their theological view. It can be seen as a polemic against those who would cast the human ruler in the role of divine benefactor. At the same time it leaves no doubt about the indispensability of human instrumentality.
The reason given for the creation of the animals is that the human creation is not alone (2:18). However, these animals are unfit to serve as
(helper) for this unique being. The word ‘ezer appears in other biblical passages where the context is usually one of blessing after deliverance, and where the ‘ezer, or mediator of blessing, is God. In this creation account, since no animal was found fit to serve as a source of blessing, God made the woman. The word ‘alone’ comes from the verb badad and means “to separate” or “to divide” and, therefore, carries the meaning “incomplete” rather than “by oneself.” It is not good that the man remains incomplete, and so God will make someone like this man who will act as a mediator of blessing for him.
It is in the woman that the man finds a helper. She is like the man because since taken from him, she is made of the same substance. Her origin is from him as his origin is from the ground. The play on words ’is (man)/
’issa (woman) and ’adama (ground)/ ’adam (man) illustrate this. Here the Yahwist has retained the link between the woman and the man in the view of the woman of the rib of the man.
V. 23 is an obvious poetic construction. The word pair “bone and flesh” are of the type that is characteristically coupled. While this expression probably originated in the ancient idea of the family or kinship, its use in the Hebrew tradition is not limited to this context. The bond is deeper than a merely physical tie. There is a conventional implication. This nuance carries the added connotation of loyalty and responsibility stemming from choice. The very words “bone” and “flesh” have psychological as well as physiological meanings. The first has the root meaning of “power,” while the second refers to “weakness.” When coupled, they embrace the two extremes and everything between. This antithetical construction is a comprehensive expression and is used to speak of a person’s total range of interaction with another. The man recognizes that the woman is one with whom he can interact in his totality: he is no longer incomplete.
3. Genesis 1
The Exile was a devastating experience for Israel both politically and theologically. The Priestly writer has a version of earlier Ancient Near Eastern myth, Enuma elish. However, this account reshaped the creation in such a way as to portray the God of Israel establishing the cosmos in an orderly fashion for the elect people Israel in Genesis 1. The rekindling of confidence in this God rather than the reporting of the history of primordial times was the intent of this narrative. Theology and anthropology, not cosmology, underlie the account.
From a careful look at the tradition I am sure that this is not an account of creatio ex nihilo nor is it a summary of some evolutionary process. The text itself illustrates this. Light appears on the first day (1:3-5). From whence does it emanate? There are no luminaries until the fourth day (1:14-19). On the second day God made the firmament to separate the waters (1:6-8). There has been no mention of the creation of these waters. Instead, they seem to have been present before the creative activity began (1:2). On the third day God gathered the waters, and thus the dry land appeared (1:9-10). This cannot mean that the earth was created then, for the earth had already been in existence, but void and without form before the light appeared (1:2). These few examples show that the intent of the account was not cosmological. Rather, its purpose was to remind the people of God’s ability to bring order out of disorder and to establish the regularity and harmony of the universe. This may be represented as follows:
1st day Light 〓 4th day Luminaries
2nd day Sky 〓 5th day Birds and fish
3rd day Land 〓 6th day Animals and Men
(plants) (Plants for food)
7th day Sabbath
Dramatically this structure has two poles finishing with a close-up on Sabbath.
It also served as a statement of their anthropological understanding. The structure of the document has carefully been arranged in order to set forth the Priestly teaching about the restoration of Israel. The sequence of the acts of creation seems to proceed from what is farthest from God to what is closest, beginning with chaos and continuing to the appearance of humankind. The anthropological passage is Gen. 1:26-28. A simple analysis of the structure of vv. 20-28 enables one to see the place of humanity within the entire plan of creation:
narrative description v. 20 “and God said...”
of creation of water v. 21 “and God created...”
animals v. 22 “and God blessed...”
narrative description v. 24 “and God said...”
of creation of land v. 25 “and God made...”
narrative description v. 26 “and God said...”
of creation of humans v. 27 “and God created...”
v. 28 “and God blessed...”
Vv. 20-28 described three different acts of God. All of these actions are directed toward the nepes hayya (living beings) of the waters and the birds of the air. Vv. 24-25 pertain in the same way to the nepes hayya of the earth. One would expect v. 26 to relate the blessing of the land animals, but it does not. The pattern is resumed in vv. 26-28. Whether this pattern was original with the writer or was a reworking of an older creation account, the fact remains that the final form contains the pattern, and it is this form that has been handed down as Priestly teaching.
A significant point to note is the expression used to refer to the entire group of animals. That designation (nepes hayya) is not applied directly to humans (v. 26). Since the blessing that completes the pattern (vv. 22,29) is missing after v. 25, the account of the creation of the land animals either has been cut short by the account of human creation or has been extended to include it. My concern is that the pattern has been adjusted in order that humankind be included with the nepes hayya of the land, thereby indicating the existence of a bond between them. Humans are a kind of beings of the earth.
Further, the nepes hayya of the waters and birds are created “according to their kind” (v. 21). The nepes hayya of the earth, further classified as cattle, creeping things, and living things of the earth, are also made “according to their kind” (v. 25). This phrase is absent in the account of human creation. In its place we read that humankind is created in God’s image and according to God’s likeness. In keeping with the rest of the interpretation of Genesis 1, this point should also be understood as an anthropological rather than a biological statement. While acknowledging human affinity with the creatures of the earth, the early Israelites recognized that there was a dimension to this earth creature that transcended the purely material.
The blessing of the nepes hayya of the waters and birds is “increase and multiply and fill the waters... and the earth” (v. 22). The blessing that one might associate with the nepes hayya of the earth is found in the blessing of the humans along with the commission to “should it (the earth) and dominate the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and all the living, the creeping things of the earth” (v. 28). By incorporating the blessing of the land animals with that of the humans the author has linked the two species. At the same time and in the same verse the commission to subdue and to dominate has bestowed upon the humans the distinction of rulers over the land and animals, thereby indicating human superiority.
The use of the technical creation verb bara’ is another indication of the uniqueness of the human creature. The verb denotes extraordinary divine activity and contains the notion of newness and of awesome or epochal production. The word indicates God’s creation activity through the Word.
Vv. 26-27 also speak of creation in God’s image and according to God’s likeness. Immediately after the mention of this image and likeness the commission is stated. It would seem that there is a relationship between the image and likeness and ability to bring the earth into submission and to rule over the animals. selem is the word used to refer to molten images, painted pictures, or some kind of physical representation cut out of material. demut is less concrete in meaning and denotes a likeness or similarity in exterior appearance. It would seem that the Priestly writer found the connotations of selem too physical in meaning to express their anthropology, and so they coupled it with a word having a less concrete nuance. This does not mean that the image/likeness of God is restricted to a spiritual entity. Rather, it transcends the physical/spiritual alternative without denying either. Hebrew thought seldom separated the physical and spiritual but considered the human in its entirety.
More attention is given to the purpose of the image/likeness of God. It appears that Israel, like its neighbors, understood image/likeness in relational terms. The primary significance of this notion was divine relationship, not the possession of a divine element. This image/likeness explains not only the human relationship with God but also their relationship with the animals and the land.
If the people in exile understood their national humiliation and spiritual desolation as due punishment for their infidelity to the solemn covenant with God and for their prostitution of the land that had been given to them as a gift, then this anthropological interpretation might serve several purposes. It could reinforce Israel’s faith in God’s ability to bring order and life out of chaos, even a chaos such as they were experiencing. It could remind them of their fundamental but violated relationships and forgotten responsibilities. And it could instill in them a hope that the creative power God would once again form them into faithful people, assuming responsibility for the rest of the created world. These ideas converged in forming the theology of the Priestly account of creation. Creation has been interpreted in the light of God’s covenant with Israel and the promise of Land; thus, creation theology is found close to the heart of Israel’s religion.
The first account of creation in Genesis 1 was attributed to the Priestly tradition; the second account in Genesis 2 to the Yahwist tradition. Each drew upon ancient myths, not to repeat the myth or to copy the mythological religion. Rather, Each offered insights into the central, “inside” theological synthesis that Yahwist chose Israel and remained faithful to divine covenant with Israel. The Priestly account in Genesis 1 reached its final form during the exile, or immediately afterward, and served to strengthen the faith of Israel in the re-creation of their land, thoroughly destroyed and reduced to chaos by the Babylonian conquerors in 587 B.C.E. The Yahwist account of creation in Genesis 2 reached its final form much earlier and was intended to support and direct the concept of royalty within Israel. Israel’s king was never to be considered divinely equal to Yahweh, but the king was God’s instrument for securing unity, stability, and fertility in the land and among its people. The king symbolized God’s continuous presence as Creator and preserver of life.
It is clear from this brief look at the traditions of biblical Israel that the sacred authors were well acquainted with the myths of Ancient Near Eastern world. Imbued with faith in their own God and occupied with national as well as theological matters, they refashioned these myths so as to address their own particular concerns. Political, sociological, biological, physiological, and cosmological references are discernible, but they serve the theological and anthropological interests of the covenant between God and Israel and should be appreciated as such.