November 10, 2014

Atheist Bible Study: Genesis 1, Part 1

I'm back with that promised Atheist Bible Study. I hope it is worth the wait and all my promises that it was coming, definitely coming! ;)

We're starting today with Genesis 1:1-2:3, and we are going to be going into some depth, so this will be a considerably lengthy post. Just warning you upfront!

I'll be touching on the similarities that the narrative presented in this section has with other cultures of the time period and era. We'll look at some of the unique wording, and I'll introduce common atheistic/agnostic arguments and their Christian counter-responses where appropriate.

All of the verses pulled from Genesis are taken from my New King James Version translation. I used a website with Hebrew translations where appropriate, and you can visit that site in the resources listed at the end of this post. This is not meant to be a guide to argument and counter-arguments and apologetics, but more an exploration of the text itself. It was fun to write. I hope it will be fun to read!

So let's dig in. It's going to be a bit of a ride. ;)

What do you need to know about Genesis (and chapter one in particular) to get started?

Genesis is, of course, the very first book of the Christian bible. It details the origins of mankind, and the cosmos as a whole, as well as the beginnings of the nation of Israel.

It also introduces the concept of a "covenant", something most Christian sects agree exists, although the nature of the covenant often differs among the denominations. In the evangelical tradition, there is an old covenant, which begins in Genesis, and a new covenant, which begins with Christ, who fulfills the terms of the old covenant and welcomes all people into the fold to have a personal relationship with him.

Genesis 1 is a "logos" creation model, in that God speaks the world into existence. This is a distinct departure from the creation-by-combat models that you tend to find in the cultures of the area. In fact, the myth that it is said to most resemble, the Enuma Elish of Babylon, is of the latter category, featuring distinctive creation-by-combat. Genesis 1 may not, be however, the only creation model in the bible, and there's some suggestion in Isaiah 51 that there may have been a creation-by-combat model also:

9 Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord! Awake as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Are You not the arm that cut Rahab apart, and wounded the serpent? 
10 Are You not the One who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that made the depths of the sea a road for the redeemed to cross over?

Some contend that this speaks only of the exodus out of Egypt detailed in the Book of the Exodus, but there's some debate because of the imagery used, which draws strongly on creation myths of the era that often put creator gods in contest with chaotic forces such as sea-serpents. Terminology like "the great deep" also draws on those same concepts, which are paralleled in the first chapter of Genesis, that the earth contains a great amount of water put there when God drew back the the seas to make dry land.

There were no chapters in the original text, which accounts for why we are today looking at 1:1 through 2:3.

The Genesis creation narrative in 1:1-2:3 bears a striking resemblance to the construction of the Tabernacle details in Exodus 35-40. This isn't so surprising when you look at other Middle Eastern creation stories that also culminate in the construction of a dwelling for the creator god. Genesis, then, can be seen as the construction of the cosmos as a housing for God, with the Tabernacle or Temple on earth as a mere representation of that greater dwelling. This connection makes the most sense when you consider the source that the verses are believed to have come from.

Who wrote Genesis 1:1-2:3 and when?

Traditionally, Genesis is assumed to have been written by Moses. This is the authorship indicated in the bible itself. Traditional scholars date genesis at the 13th century BCE.

However, there's some debate on the topic, with many biblical scholars accepting that authorship post-dated Moses considerably. These scholars put the dating in the 8th or 9th century BCE, to an unknown scholar.

When we're looking at the authorship of the Pentateuch, we want to touch on the documentary hypothesis (again), and for Genesis 1:1-2:3 the Priestly source widely accepted as the source material. This really makes sense when you consider some of the word choices, and the way that the narrative lines up with the creation of the Tabernacle, things a priest would be innately aware of and interested in justifying.

Does Genesis parallel other creation myths?

Yes and no.

The example cited most often is Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation myth, and there are compelling comparisons that can be made. The rough order of creation, for instance, is similar to Genesis 1:

  • The world begins in desolation or chaos and darkness.
  • Light is created.
  • Firmament is created.
  • Dry land is created.
  • The sun, moon, and stars are created.
  • God (or gods) rest.

While not an uncommon creation scheme, it's striking because of the geographical approximation of the cultures, and the dating of the Genesis narrative to a later era by some liberal scholars, which would put it perhaps during or after the Israelites Babylonian captivity.

There are other parallels we will talk about in more detail as we go through, but consider the idea of the firmament, which Genesis presents as a rigid dome holding back waters above us, in light of this quote from Tablet IV of the Enuma Elish:
Then the lord paused to view her dead body,
That he might divide the form and do artful works.
He split her like a shellfish into two parts:
Half of her he set up as a covering for heaven,
Pulldown down the bar and posted guards.
He bade them not to allow her waters to escape. 3

This is a concept--the idea of waters being prevents from escaping--that is key in Genesis. Not only does the separation occur in Genesis 1, during the initial creation, but it is God's decision to release those waters that causes the Flood.

The Enuma Elish was written in the 12th century BCE. Liberal scholars thus can draw the conclusion that it influenced the Genesis narrative, while traditional scholars assert the reverse: It is Genesis, they say, that influences Enuma Elish.

I tend to fall into the former camp. I believe that the Enuma Elish influenced Genesis, because, believe it or not, of the ways that they differ distinctly. These seem deliberate deviations, to me, that indicate an author that was aware of another source, but wanted it to reflect their own beliefs.

For instance, the idea of God as a priest and king is established in Genesis by the "logos" model we talked about. This is a distinct difference from the Babylonian tradition, which is distinctly creation-by-combat.

There's also the evolution from many chaotic gods to one singular being (yes, I accept that Genesis is referring to a singular being, and we'll touch on that momentarily). This is a distinct departure from prior myths, which I think points to a later origin for the Genesis narrative, personally.

I think we have an author here who had source material his audience was already familiar with, who adjusted it to reflect their cultural values, and I do not believe this deviates from Hebrew traditions--the Jewish faith has often adjusted to reflect a myriad of circumstances. It's a beautifully adaptable tradition.

Back to my original yes and no: While there are strong parallels, it's also quite the unique narrative. It's been a really interesting study to see how it compares and how it diverges.

Genesis 1:1-1:2
Setting the Scene for Creation

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 
2 The earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

Waters tend to feature prominently in creation myths. Here as in the Enuma Elish we see that before there was anything (but the gods), there was water. However, the departure here is that God exists separately from the water in the Genesis narrative, while in the Babylonian, we see that the god Apsu and the goddess Tiamat are the waters themselves.

The Hebrew translation of the verses above is somewhat more tenuous than the accepted Christian verses I've shared from my New King James Version. Three different translations are possible:

1. as a statement that the cosmos had an absolute beginning ("In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.");
2. as a statement describing the condition of the world when God began creating ("When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was untamed and shapeless."); and
3. essentially similar to the second version but taking all of Genesis 1:2 as background information ("When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth being untamed and shapeless, God said, Let there be light!"). 1

The second meaning is particularly interesting when you consider a few relevant facts.

First, the word for "created" in 1:1 is unique. The Hebrew bara is used. Rather than representing creation as we imagine it in the modern term, it reflects a much more complicated idea--the idea of "fixing destinies", a concept that is unique to God in the Hebrew rendering of the verses. To that effect, God is not creating the material universe so much as he is setting the destinies by "organizing and assigning roles and functions"--an idea that opens Genesis up to a variety of interpretations. 1

Second, if you accept that Genesis 1:1-2 derive from the Priestly source, the idea that God is assigning roles and functions makes sense. Israelite culture seemed to revolved around almost a priestly caste, who controlled worship--such a concept is reinforced by the idea that God assigned roles and functions from the beginning. " other words, the power of God is being shown not by the creation of matter but by the fixing of destinies." 1

"The heavens and the earth" is a set phrase that is typically interpreted to mean everything, so rather than referring to just the literal earth and what we can see from it, it means the entire cosmos.

It seems apparent from this verse (and others) that there are three levels of the world in this scenario:

  • A middle level, which is habitable
  • A heavenly level above
  • An underworld below

All three levels are enveloped by an ocean of chaos, which parallels the Enuma Elish.

The idea of formless and void comes from the HEbrew tohu wa-bohu--a unique phrase that means the opposite of bara. Essentially, this state refers to the idea of being uncreated. We find another reference to it in Jeremiah 4:

23 I beheld the earth, and indeed it was without form and void; and the heavens, they had no light.

This verse is not about creation. It's Jeremiah observing what will happen if Israel rebels against the Lord--it will return to a state pre-creation.

"Spirit of God" in verse 2 is from the Hebrew ruach elohim, which has two potential translations.

The first translation is as "wind or breath of God", and this is represented in the Flood narrative, as well as in Pslams 18:15. In the NKJV, it translates as:

Then the channels of the sea were seen, the foundations of the world were uncovered at Your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.

It also translates as God's spirit. Victor Hamilton accepted "spirit of God" as the correct translation, but rejected the idea that it is the Holy Spirit of Christian theology.

This verse is the first verse of the bible, and some folks will point to it as a contradiction within the bible, because the actual Hebrew word for God here is elohim, which is plural. "In the beginning, gods created the heavens and the earth" does seem pretty damning, doesn't it?

However, we have two potential theories that are applicable to both Jewish and Christians, and of course, on put forth by Christians themselves. This is one of those instances where it is important to weight the existing doctrine against the argument before highlighting this contradiction. We'll talk more about these theories as we expand our ABS on Genesis 1 tomorrow.

Genesis 1:3-1:5
Creation of Light and Time

3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 
4 And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. 
5 God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.

Here, we get into the unique "logos" model part of the Genesis narrative--God speaks and the universe responds.

The concept of naming as an intrinsic part of creating is deeply rooted in the mythology of the area. Egyptian creation literature has the creator god pronounce the name of everything, and the Enuma Elish also begins when all things are nameless:

When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name,
When primordial Apsu, their begetter,
And Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all,
Their waters mingled as a single body,
No reed hut had sprung forth, no marshland had appeared,
None of the gods had been brought into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies determined--
Then it was that the gods were formed in the midst of heaven.
Lahmu and Lahamu were brought forth, by name they were called. 3

Genesis 1:6-1:8
Creation of the Firmament

6 Then God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." 
7 Thus 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. 
8 And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.

The imagery here is indisputable: Rāqîa is the word for firmament, which comes from the verb rāqa, used for the act of beating metal into thin plates. The firmament, then, is visualized as a flat surface, hung between two waters--that above, and that below.

The idea of a solid, rigid dome which separates the earth from the heavens and their waters above, and this idea is mirrored in Egyptian and Mesopotamian beliefs that were concurrent with the creation of the Genesis narrative.

Genesis 1:7 has interesting implications when compared to the Babylonian myth: While Genesis sees the stars set in the firmament, the Babylonian narrative has heavens that are made of precious stones, with the stars engraved in the surface. While this doesn’t seem to parallel in the Genesis narrative itself, you can see a parallel with Exodus 24:9-10:

9 Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 
10 and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity.

So it is not entirely without parallel in the Old Testament.

Genesis 1:9-1:13
Creation of Dry Land and Plants

9 Then God said, "Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear"; and it was so. 
10 And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 
11 Then God said, "Let the Earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth", and it was so. 
12 And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 
13 So the evening and the morning were the third day.

A single circular continent is created as the waters withdraw.

We finally have the foundation for life: light, heavens, sea, and earth. In the next verses, the three will be populated in the same order.

Genesis 1:14-1:19
Creation of Heavenly Bodies of Light

14 Then God said, "Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; 
15 "and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth"; and it was so. 
16 Then 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. 
17 God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth. 
18 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. 
19 So the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

The most important aspect of this passage is the introduction of language of "ruling over"--this makes sense when you accept the Priestly source authorship for this chapter. The religious festivals were governed by the cycles of the sun and the moon, so establishing the 'authority' of these celestial bodies would be important.

However, naming them "sun" and "moon" would tap into an already culturally relevant tradition of considering those bodies as deities in and of themselves--something our author would not want. Establishing them as "lights" then is actually a more naturalistic interpretation--it strips them of any divine implications, rendering them mere bodies in the sky that do the bidding of the creator.

Genesis 1: 20-1:23
Creation of Sea and Bird Life

20 Then God said, "Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth and across the face of the firmament of the heavens." 
21 So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 
22 And God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." 
23 So the evening and the morning were the fifth day. 

We're up to day 5! Yay!

Here, we find ourselves with some differences in translation. What we translate as "great sea creatures" here, can also translate as "great sea-monsters". This too seems like a deliberate choice on the part of the author--many creation narratives had gods battling sea-monsters at their inception, but this author flips the scripts. These monsters are not battled; they are created by God to do his bidding.

The word in question in verse 21 is tanin, which also appears in Psalms 74:13 and Isaiah 27:1 and 51:9. In those three instances, it translates as "monster" or "serpent"--not "creature".

It does not, however, mean that there's an inconsistency, as any translation requires you to understand the context and find the best fit--so while it indicates multiple potential meanings, it's still a weak basis for contradiction arguments. It is, however, interesting to note the parallel and yet deviation from other myths that's inherent in the verse.

Genesis 1:24-1:31
Creation of Animals and Humanity
24 Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind"; and it was so. 
25 And God made the beast of the earth according to its kind, cattle according to its kind, and everything that creeps on the earth according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 
26 Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." 
27 So God made man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 
28 Then God blessed them, and God said, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that move on the earth." 
29 And God said, "See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you, it shall be for food. 
30 "Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food"' and it was so. 
31 Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

I must admit, I find it amazing that a special creation story also has animals created on the same day as humanity. It's almost evolutionary, I say! ;)

You may also notice that here, versus what we saw in 1:1, the translator has acknowledge Elohim as a plural form. I mentioned that there are three theories. Here's one from Jesus Plus Nothing, which we will talk about in more depth tomorrow.

You will notice that in reference to the creation of mankind, the Bible reveals God saying 'Let US make man in our image.' God is a trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit and from some of the verses quoted already in this study we can see all three at work in creation. 4

In 1:26, the word translated as man is the Hebrew adam, which is actually a generic term for humanity or mankind--not just for man. It would seem that this is reinforced by the very next verse, which uses the same term, and yet means "men and women". But this is effectively written out of the bible--even in a newer translation.

Image of God is another unclear concept with a variety of interpretations. Which interpretation someone clings to can give you a good idea of their basic understanding and beliefs of Genesis and perhaps Christianity (and humanity) as a whole. It can mean:

  • Having spiritual qualities of God
  • Having physical form of God
  • Having a combination of the above
  • Being God's counterpart on earth and able to enter into a relationship with him
  • Being God's representative or viceroy on earth
Here we see a vegetarian order established--eating meat is only permitted following the Flood. This would seem to be a result of the Priestly source's influence. This is a perfect, harmonious divine order that could potentially be rediscovered if only everyone would live an appropriately reverent and sacrificial life.

We also have the basis for widely divergent scripturally-based environmental perspectives in the concept of "dominion".

On one hand, this has been taken as a mandate for humanity to do whatever we wish with our planet and its bounty. The belief is that, because God declared us to have dominion, he also ensured that there is enough to meet our needs until the end of the world. Thus there is no need for conservation, and aspects like "global warming" are pointless to even address, at best, or fake diversions of the devil trying to get us to doubt God's divine order, at worst.

On the flip side, it can also be used to justify the concept of stewardship--that we have been gifted this planet and thus should do our best to maintain and better it, while still taking care of humanity.

These widely different interpretations of the same handful of verses are a perfect example of how so many different mindsets can be fairly easily justified scripturally.

Genesis 2:1-2:3
God Rests

1 Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. 
2 And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. 
3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

These three verses also parallel a Near Eastern mythic structure. In these myths, the rest is only achieved because the god or gods have finished their work and brought order to the chaos.

While it is the end of this active work, it's the beginning of the god being present in his temple for worship and attendance.

We have the idea of a day of rest, which is found in both Jewish and Christian tradition (although on different days), here, at the very beginning.

Wrapping It Up

Wowsers. We covered a HELL of a lot of material, I think.

This was just a basic breakdown of the verses themselves. We also took a look at some of the doctrines that are rooted in them--doctrines that even affect topics like environmentalism, which is kind of amazing in its own way.

I simply could not cover everything in one post. It wasn't happening. Sorry. But tomorrow we will work our way through Part 2, which will detail some of the theories that reconcile the idea of plural gods in Genesis (and other places in the bible) and we will talk some about the importance of studying Genesis as its author intended--which is quite differently from the way we often hear it talked about.

We'll talk about why some Christians are so readily willing to shut down any talk that contradicts Genesis too.

That about sums it up. I hope this was as informative for you as it was for me reading up and researching on it!

I don't think there will be any additional posts today--I'm working this evening. BLAH! But I look forward to rejoining the discussion tomorrow! Have a wonderful day!


1 "Genesis Creation Narrative" Wikipedia. <>
2 "The Account of God's Creation" Blue Letter Bible. <>
3 "Enuma Elish" The Voice. <>
4 "Genesis Chapter 1: In The Beginning...Was the Word" Jesus Plus Nothing. <>

All of these resources were accessed today, November 10, 2014.


This is a list of additional resources that I found useful while compiling this.

Those last two are Hebrew translations of the verses we talked about above, which was pretty cool.

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