How was Genesis 1 understood by the writers of the OT?

How was the creation account in Genesis 1 written? Was it meant as literal history to be understood as God’s timetable of creation, or was it a parable or poetic framework whose purpose was to teach truths other than a literal six day creation? While there is much to be learned by studying Ancient Near East (ANE) culture that the writers and audience shared, we have a closer perspective we can look at too, how other writers and other creation accounts in the bible interpreted Genesis.

Does Genesis 1 contradict Genesis 2?
If you look at Genesis 2, it presents a completely different sequence of creation events to Genesis 1.
In Genesis 1, God created plants first, then sea creatures and birds, the land animals, then finally man and woman.
Genesis 2 starts off with the creation of a man before there were any plants created, then land animals and birds created together, then finally creating a woman.

Creationists go to great lengths to try to avoid the plain straightforward meaning of the narrative, but it is there, both in the storyline, and in the use of the waw consecutive, a syntactical construction used in Hebrew to indicate consecutive events in a narrative. Genesis 2 portrays the creation as a series of event in a narrative, but it gives a different series of events to a literal reading of Genesis 1. We can try to make them fit if we change the meaning of Genesis 2 to fit what we think it should say, how can scripture ever challenge our view point so we can learn what it does say and how God is speaking to us though it?

It is worth pointing out that while the waw consecutive shows Genesis 2 is a narrative it does not mean it is a historical narrative as waw consecutives were also used in non literal narratives like Nathan’s parable of the lamb 1Samuel 12.

But if Genesis presents two contradictory sequences of Creation, does that mean the bible is wrong and contradicts itself in the very first pages? It is only contradictory if you read the two accounts of creation literally. Whatever your ideas of how Genesis was written and compiled, whether by one writer or were written by different people over time and compiled by an editor, the person who put these two stories together cannot have been concerned by the literal sequences of creation they present or they would not have put two contradictory timetables together. The point of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, at least when they were compiled together as the book of Genesis, was not as literal history, but the deeper lessons the stories taught.

The accommodation explanation assumes that both creation accounts were written and understood as literal history, but that contradictions between the creation accounts and science, and between the two accounts themselves don’t matter since it is the spiritual and theological teachings that are important part, what God was inspiring in Genesis accommodated to the Ancient Near East world views of the Israelites. But it is one thing to say the writers didn’t understand modern science and it wasn’t God’s intention to teach them, but I would think if the writers or editor put together two contradictory creation stories, they weren’t thinking of them as literal history to start with.

Did Moses interpret Genesis 1 literally?
There are plenty of creation accounts in the bible, Genesis 1:1-2:3, the rest of Genesis 2, Job 38, Psalm 104 and Proverbs 8. But only the first account in Genesis mentions the six day creation followed by God resting on the seventh day in Genesis 2:1-3. We find the reason for the seven day description in the Ten Commandments in Exodus where it is used to teach Sabbath observance. Exodus 20:9  Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, 10  but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11  For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Creationists often take this as proof Moses interpreted the six days literally. It is the Ten Commandments of course they are meant literally. But while the commands themselves were to be observed to the letter, the explanations of the commandments could use metaphors. Exodus 20:2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. Did the whole nation live in one big house? The house of slavery wasn’t a literal house, even if the command not to worship any other gods meant exactly what it said.

Or look at the Sabbath command when we are given the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day Deuteronomy 5:15. This isn’t literal either, God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm is a another metaphor, an anthropomorphism describing God in human terms. Clearly Moses had no problem using metaphors in illustrations and explanation of the Ten Commandments. He had no problem describing history in metaphor either, we see this in Deuteronomy in the song of Jeshurun where the history of Israel is described in the metaphor of a small child the Lord finds in the wilderness. There is nothing in Moses’ use of a six day creation in Exodus 20 that say he interpreted the six day creation literally.

In fact is we look at the Sabbath pattern in the OT law, it wasn’t tied to a literal seven day week. Instead it is repeated on bigger and bigger scales, a weeks of weeks from the Passover to the feast of first fruits (Pentecost), every seventh year was a sabbatical year and a week of weeks of years was the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25).

Psalm 90
In Psalm 90, we find highly allegorical interpretations of Genesis ascribed to Moses, the man of God verse 1. Psalm 90 is a meditation on the creation and Genesis. Unlike the literal six day interpretation of Young Earth Creationists, in Psalm 90 Moses throws us into God’s deep time, Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

In the context of a Psalm on the creation and Genesis we are warned against thinking God’s view of time is anything like our own verse 4 For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past [Lit: a day gone by], or as a watch in the night. We see time scale of evening and morning stretched out into human life span. Verse 5b they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: 6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.

It is not just the timescale the writer doesn’t take literally. The Psalm is full of allusions to Genesis interpreted allegorically to apply to the human race. God’s judgement on Adam in Genesis 3:19 is spoken to all mankind. Psalm 90:3 You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” From God’s perspective of time, each generation is swept away by the flood. Verse 4 For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. 5 You sweep them away as with a flood. With all this other imagery being taken from Genesis, it is possible the evening and morning imagery in verses 5&6 may also be drawn from the evening and mornings of Genesis 1. In trying to understand the Creation account in Genesis we should not underestimate the how comfortable and familiar biblical writers, and Moses himself, were with metaphor and allegory.

Did six day’s creating tire God out?
Coming back to Exodus and the Sabbath command, it is not just that God rested after the six days creating the world, Moses tells us he was refreshed after his rest. Exodus 31:17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. Refreshed is a very strong word, used only three times in the OT. It literally means to get your breath back and was used of David and his men stopping at the Jordan to catch their breath after fleeing Absolom. 2Samuel 16:14 And the king, and all the people who were with him, arrived weary at the Jordan. And there he refreshed himself. Was God exhausted by the effort of creating the universe in six days? Was the Israelites’ concept of God no better than the prophets of Ba’al whom Elijah mocked perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened 1Kings 18:27?

I said the word refreshed was used three times in the OT. The other time it is used is back in Exodus and it is also used discussing the Sabbath, only this time it is weary labourers in the field who can rest and be refreshed by the Sabbath. Exodus 23:12 Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.

In Genesis 1 creation is described in terms of God as a labourer creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh to teach the Sabbath rest. We usually look no further than Exodus 23 to understand the Sabbath, it is holy because God made it holy. But as we read through Exodus, and look at the Sabbath command in Deuteronomy, we see the reason God set this day aside, it wasn’t because he needed the rest to catch his breath, there was a deeper reason than commemorating creation. God ordained the  Sabbath out of his compassion for weary workers, for child labourers and migrants out in the field under the hot sun. We know God does not grow weary. Psalm 121:4 Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Moses, who met the unchanging I AM in the burning bush and wrote in awe of the God of eternity in Psalm 90, would hardly think God was worn out by creation or would be refreshed after a day’s rest.

The other option is that the picture in Genesis of God working for six days and resting on the seventh is a metaphor, an anthropomorphism, to show God’s identification with humanity, especially the downtrodden weary labourers. Instead of showing us God’s work schedule, it show us God’s heart. We see the fulfilment of God’s identification with humanity in the incarnation, where God became man and shared our weakness, bearing our sin and suffering on the cross. If you really want to follow this picture the only time God rested and was refreshed, where God literally got his breath back, was when God the Son lay dead in the tomb and then rose from the dead. Interestingly, in the NT, God’s seventh day rest is interpreted not as a 24 hour rest at the end of creation, but as the rest we are commanded to enter into through the Gospel in Hebrews 3&4. It is a picture in shadows of the rest we will share in Christ in eternity Col 2:17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

God the builder in other creation accounts
This picture of God as a workman making the heavens and the earth is taken and expanded in other creation accounts in the bible. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is the master craftsman working alongside God, Proverbs 8:30 then I was beside him as a master craftsman (NET),
when he marked out the foundations of the earth (like a building site) verse 29, and
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep verse 27 (with a compass according to the AV).

In Psalm 104 God set the earth on foundations verse 4 and builds his own chambers by laying down beams (of timber elsewhere in scripture) on the waters Psalm 104:3 He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters.

In Job 38 God the master builder calculates the measurements for the earth and checks them with a measuring line. He lays a foundation for the earth, and builds it with a corner stone and bases (for the pillars of the earth) Job 38:4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5  Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6  On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone,

All of these creation accounts take the Genesis description of God creating the earth in six days and resting on the seventh, the imagery God as a labourer, and they run with it. They show God as a builder building a house, His house, complete with tools and building material. But according to John Walton that is how ancient Hebrew would have understood Genesis 1, not as a six day work schedule but as a picture of God building temple, to rest and ruling from it.

Psalm 104 where lions work the night shift.
Psalm 104 is the nearest we have in scripture to a Framework Interpretation of Genesis 1. While the modern Framework Interpretation concentrate on the structural patterns Genesis 1, the Psalmist takes the structure of the days of Genesis and reads it as a meditation on God’s work of creation that he sees in the world around him. The psalmist does not interpret the days as a chronological timetable but as a framework to describe the different aspects of creation.

Look at the structure of Psalm 104 compared to order of the days in Genesis 1.
Verses 1-6 describe the creation of the heavens and the earth: Genesis 1 Days 1&2.
Verses 7-18 look at God separating dry land from seas and creating grass, plants and trees: Day 3.
Verses 19-23 God creates the sun and moon day and night: Day 4.
Verses 24-26 God makes all the swarming sea creatures and whales: Day 5.

But instead of the creation of man and animals on Day 6 we see animals and people throughout Days 3, 4 and 5. On Day 3 we see wild goats living in the mountains created, along with storks nesting in the fir trees, livestock eating grass, man growing plants and making wine. On Day 4 when the sun goes down young lions come out looking for the prey God provides. When the sun rises, the shift changes, lions go back to bed and man (or should the Hebrew adm be translated Adam?) comes out to work until evening. Day 6, and the whales and sea creatures aren’t alone in the sea, there are people in ships there too.

Instead of reading the days of creation in Genesis 1 as a chronological sequence of events before God created man, the Psalmist reads them as a framework to describe the wonders of creation he sees around him today.

Ancient New East worldviews
We do see God speaking through people in terms of their understanding of ancient cosmology, in Job 38:6 On what were its bases sunk?, the word base meant the plinth on which the a pillar stood. This is an ANE view of the world where the earth was supported on pillars. 1Sam 2:8 For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world. In Genesis we see the waters above the earth supported and separated form the sea water by a solid firmament. Genesis 1:7 RSV 6 And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.

But while there are aspect of Ancient New East in the biblical creation accounts, and I agree with the Accommodation view that God was speaking through his people in terms they understood teaching them deeper more important truths than ANE cosmology, I don’t think the writers intended to present a scientific description of creation, ANE or otherwise. These were people who knew and understood the richness of metaphor and parable. They described the truth of God’s amazing work of creation in a metaphor of God as a builder, a master workman constructing a temple where he would rule and be worshipped by his creation, where God identified in the deepest ways with the weariness, griefs and sorrows of the humblest and weakest of his people. Isn’t this the heart of God we see revealed through his Son? Matt 25:40 HCSB Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’


5 thoughts on “How was Genesis 1 understood by the writers of the OT?

  1. Pingback: Simian in the Temple - Christian Forums

  2. Darach, this is a wonderful insightful analysis and post and a worthy read. I agree with you.

    I’m not an expert theologian, of course, but from what I’ve studied over the years and having recently gone through the online web lectures and college of course of Denis O. Lamoureux DDS PhD PhD who is and whose view I subscribe to, I understand that you reach essentially the same conclusions.

    But I think you’ve come at it from an angle that adds to the case that scientific concordism never was a feature of the Bible as has long been the assumption of evangelicals, just as I assumed for 34 yrs before I knew 4 yrs ago that it wasn’t the only interpretation or even the right one.

    Seems there are quite a few reasons to reject scientific concordism.

    I also agree that the authors of Genesis and other scripture moved by the Holy Spirit did NOT intend “to present a scientific description of creation” but, rather, went with the flow or parroted the motifs or thinking/understanding of the day (what Denis refers to as the “science” of the day, for lack of a better term) as it touched upon what science addresses today with the benefit of modern scientific instruments. The Holy Spirit, working through ancient authors, simply Accommodated to that thinking/understanding of the day as incidental vessels in order to most effectively communicate to an ancient people the inerrant messages of faith that you’ve helped to delineate.

    These messages where often Holy Spirit inspired reinterpretations of the those thinking/understandings of the day. For instance, as I expect you are aware, the Mesopotamians and other ancient cultures had global flood accounts (the thinking/understanding of the day) including some with boats used to save some. But the reason for the global flood, according to the Mesopotamians, was because the mortals made too much noise and the gods couldn’t sleep. The account of Noah in scripture reinterprets what the Mesopotamian’s reasons — God judges sin and saves the righteous. That’s if I accurately recapitulated the gist of Lamoureux’s course (flood geology beginning in Episode 118, BTW). So the revelation from God was NOT that there was a global flood (that’s what every “informed” person then already believed).

    We’re blessed to live in a time when we can be informed with both evidence about ANE culture and evidence from modern scientific instruments and to know that your analysis, for instance, is the how to interpret scripture rather than holding to scientific concordism that we should have stopped assuming hundreds of years ago. You know what you get when you assume…?

    Thank you for pulling all those thoughts together into such a coherent case.

    Have you looked into the separate authors view for Genesis 1 vs. 2, apparently combined into one work by a redactor (e.g., see Episode 138)? Perhaps that is one reason for the discrepancy in the order of events — but really wouldn’t change your argument that the order simply wasn’t important or what it was about. But it does bode well for the idea that much of the revelation in Genesis is largely Holy Spirit inspired RE-CYCLED & RE-INTERPRETED ANCIENT NEAR EAST MOTIFS. Denis would say that is what most theologians believe about the flood, for example.

    • Thanks for the long and thoughtful reply

      “Have you looked into the separate authors view for Genesis 1 vs. 2, apparently combined into one work by a redactor”

      Yes, I touched on the idea in the blog, but framed my argument so that it applies whether you believe Genesis 1 and 2 were both written by a single writer (traditionally Moses) or were older texts combined by an editor. Interestingly, even among many creationists you have the idea that Genesis is composed of different texts edited together by a redactor. They just think the original writers were people like Adam and Noah and the redactor was Moses (Wiseman’s tablet theory). It is fascinating to see creationists come to the same conclusion about the composition of Genesis, identifying basically the same texts, as the Documentary Hypothesis. I like Wiseman, even though I no longer agree with him. He was the first person to show me there were other ways to read Genesis than straightforward young earth literalism.

      But I wrote the argument so that it applies whoever is reading the blog, whether young earth creationist, theistic evolutionist, or even an agnostic or atheist who might chance by. Whoever it was combined Genesis 1 and 2 together, whether Moses as writer of both texts, Moses as editor, or some anonymous post exilic redactor, they can’t have been reading the stories literally If they combined two creation accounts whose literal readings contradict each other.

      With the flood account, I think the language really is local. If you search for the phrases used to describe flood you will see them used to describe local events like the plague of locusts Exodus 10:15 “they covered the face of the whole earth”. I suspect the concept of a global flood is also reading a modern (post Eratosthenes) concept of the world back into a much more ancient text.


  3. Great post; thanks for all the work you put into it. The description of how Psalm 90 can be seen as allegorical application of Adam’s judgement to all mankind reminded me of Genesis 5:1-2, in which the name “Adam” is bestowed upon both men and women.

    • Thanks Jim, I like way Genesis 5:2 isn’t just naming a people after their ancestor like Israel, but refers back to the creation, that Adam was God’s name for humans male and female from the beginning.

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