Meditating on the Book of Genesis: 1.1-5

As I prepare for my summer class on ‘The Hebrew Scriptures’, it’s time to do some reading through the Book of Genesis. The course is fifteen days long and three of those days focus on Genesis. That’s 20% of the entire course. This will be true in the fall when the class is fifteen or sixteen weeks long.

I’m not planning on reading through the entirety of Genesis. I’ll do a few verses here and there during the week. We’ll see how far I get over the summer.

As I work through this text, I’ll post translations from the New Revised Standard Version and newer Common English Bible as well as the Hebrew from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia.

Today, I’ll begin with 1.1-5.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 

‘When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night.

There was evening and there was morning: the first day.


1.1 –
The NRSV and CEB take divergent paths with בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א. Several years ago, during my previous incarnation in the blogosphere, I pondered whether ‘In the beginning when God…’ or ‘When God began…’ was the best translation. Joel Hoffman responded by sharing his own helpful post: ‘On Genesis 1:1’. See also, Robert Holmstedt’s Vetus Testamentum article (available as a free PDF), ‘The Restrictive Syntax of Genesis i.1’. I’m not Hebrew grammarian, so I’ll only note that Holmstedt’s view was more aligned with the CEB while Hoffman’s was more aligned with the NRSV.

Robert Alter translates as תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ ‘welter and waste’ for the following reason (from the Kindle version of The Hebrew Bible):

Notably, both the NRSV and CEB agree that וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים should be interpreted as a ‘wind of God’ rather than ‘the S/spirit of God’.

God’s interpretation of his own creation as ‘good’ is important to this chapter. God approves of his work. But what does it mean for it to be good? Does this mean it functions as intended? That it’s aesthetically pleasing in some way? Is there a moral element at all (it’s good but after humans disobey it will lose this goodness)?

I’ve wondered: Did the ancient scribes mean ‘Day…Night’ literally? They had to have understood the role of the sun, moon, and stars, even if only in an elementary sense, as concerns the ‘arrival’ of the ‘Day’. Did they think that ‘Light’ and ‘Day’ existed in some sense beyond the function of the sun, moon, and stars? Is this just a polemic against worshipping heavenly bodies?

Theological Interpretation

Modern debates regarding the relationship of this text to active cosmologies aren’t irrelevant but they can be distracting. Our author(s) clearly don’t know what we know about the universe. What they did know from other ancient cultures like the Egyptians and Babylonians were stories where the gods create the world, often using violence, and rarely for reasons that are broadly beneficial to humanity (e.g., the Enuma Elish; the Memphite Theology). Here we have a singular deity (though maybe not alone; see v. 26). This god creates for the purposes of housing humanity in a cosmic temple. This god takes chaos—tohu wabohu—and organizes it into a place that’s inhabitable.

Theologically, this where modern and ancient cosmologies can overlap. If the divine presence is assumed, a modern religious thinker may not interpret the forthcoming ‘seven days’ literarily, seeing the process of the cosmos as being instead billions of years in the making, but this doesn’t mean the divine presence wasn’t active in this process.

Day and Night are a framework, as are ‘days’, and this framework is sabbatarian in nature, as god takes a six days to work then rests as humans ought (according to the Torah).


Jon D. Levenson on the paradoxes of Abraham and Sarah

I know I’m decades late to reading Jon D. Levenson’s 1993 classic The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity but I’m glad I’m finally reading it! In ‘Chapter Ten, “Let me not look on as the child dies”‘, Levenson makes some enlightening observations about the paradoxical characters of Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah in the Book of Genesis. I want to share a few of them from pages 84-85 based on Genesis 12.1-3:

For Abram to be made into “a great nation” is, in the course of nature, impossible, at least if he is to remain in faithful monogamy with Sarai…For the man curse with a sterile wife to “be a blessing”—indeed, a universal byword of blessing—is equally preposterous. Yet “Abram went forth as the LORD had commanded him” (v 4), breaking with family and homeland to start—against all odds—a new family in a new and yet undesignated land.

These paradoxes are wonderful. Abram seeks to become a great nation by leaving his family. Abram will be a blessing, though he and his wife can’t have children. Here’s another excerpt:

The man without a country will inherit a whole land; the man with a barren wife will have plenteous offspring; and the man who has cut himself off from kith and kin will be pronounced blessed by all the families of the earth.

His comments on Genesis 12.10-16—when Abram has to go to Egypt soon after arriving in his promised land because there’s a famine and then gives Sarai to the Pharaoh in order to avoid trouble—are eye-opening as well.

The man to whom a land is promised is in exile; the man who is to beget a nation is without a wife; and the man whom God has promised that he will curse whoever curses him now takes extreme measures out of fear for his very life. And yet, just as our conviction seems confirmed that Abram has staked his life on an unrealizable, nay, absurd promise, we hear that “because of [Sarai], it went well with Abram,” and he acquired a massive estate (v 16)—evidence that the blessing, however diverted, has not been canceled.

These are examples of why I enjoy returning the the literature of the Bible again and again. They layers, even just narratively, are many. They’re profound.