Eco-Justice Ministries
   Eco-Justice: "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth"

Preaching on Genesis 1
A Structural Exegesis

There are six pages related to the "Preaching on Genesis 1" resources:
Index &
Two Different
Creation Stories
Exegesis of
the Text
NRSV Formatted
to Show Structure
Sermon Themes &
Worship Tips

NOTE: If you have not read the section of these materials that discusses the presence of two different creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis, with their sharply different messages, please do so now! You will not be able to make full sense of this discussion about Genesis 1 without that background information.

Some commentators have noted that the Priestly creation story found in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is one of the most intricately crafted chapters of the entire Bible. It is filled with symbolism, meaning, numerological significance and careful structure. This short examination of the chapter will not be able to unpack all of that meaning.

One of the ways that we'll approach this text is by looking at the structure of the entire story. The way the story is told gives valuable indicators about the overall meaning of the account for the Priestly writers.

If the text is thought of as a linear account, going straight through the sequence of days, the order of creation seems very odd. If, however, we recognize that there are pairs of days dealing with similar topics, the flow of the story becomes much more understandable. The general arrangement looks like this:

Start with chaos & the movement of the Spirit
1. Separate light from darkness4. Populate lights and give them authority
2. Separate the waters above and below
the firmament
5. Populate the waters and the air
3a. Separate water and dry land

3b. Bring forth vegetation

6a. Populate the land, and
create humans and give them authority

6b. Give vegetation for food

7. Sabbath

On another page, the entire text from the New Revised Standard Version
is formatted into the structure of this chart for your convenience.

The opening verse begins with a setting of chaos and confusion, with darkness and jumbled waters. The Spirit of God (the ruach Elohim) sweeps over the chaos, and begins the creative process. For Trinity Sunday, the workings of the Spirit in creation are a clear tie to the working of the Spirit in the Pentecost story of a week before.

"The heavens and the earth" -- by the way -- is a fairly common term in Hebrew that refers to "everything".

The process of creation begins with three days where God separates the various parts of the chaos into orderly realms.

  1. Light is created -- without any identified source! -- and separated from darkness.

  2. A dome, a "firmament", is created that divides the waters into two parts: sky and the waters below the dome.

  3. The waters below the dome are gathered into one place, and dry land appears.

    Then the earth "puts forth" diverse vegetation, each according to its own kind. (In the ancient Hebrew mindset, plants were not considered to be "alive" since -- to those observers -- they did not breathe, have blood, or move.)

Then each of those three realms is populated, and given particular authority or meaning.
  1. The realm of light and darkness is filled with lights on the dome of the sky -- the "greater" and "lesser lights" and the stars. (Commentators suggest that the sun and moon are not named here so that it is clear that they are simply parts of the creation, and not minor dieties.) These lights in the sky are given dominion (a different word in the Hebrew than is used when describing the role of humans, but still a ruling function), and commanded to keep the order of the calendar: the days, the months that form the Hebrew lunar calendar, and the annual cycles of festivals and observances that were of great importance to the Priestly observances.

  2. The waters above and below are populated, with the waters "bringing forth" all of the different kinds of life --fish to swim in the waters below, and birds to "swim" in the waters above the earth. The great sea monsters, again, are not powers or gods that stand in conflict to the creator God, but parts of the goodness of the creation. Note, too, that all of these creatures receive the blessing/command to be fruitful and multiply.

  3. From the earth, too, life comes forth: cattle (the domestic animals), the varieties of "creeping things" and the wild animals -- each according to their kind.

    Then comes the section where humans are created and given their authority. We'll deal with this in more detail soon, but it is significant to note that the earth does not "bring forth" the humans as it has the other kinds of life.

    Still within the sixth day, there is a section that many people don't notice or remember. This is a non-violent creation, and the humans are given the green plants for food -- and all of the other animals are also given the green plants for food.

At many places in the story, God proclaims that what has been created is good (on days 1, 3a, 3b, 4, 5 and 6a). At the end of the sixth day, the wholeness of the creation is called "very good". (The goodness is named a total of seven times, one of many ways in which that powerful number is woven into the fabric of the story.) It is the well-ordered arrangement of "everything" that God made that brings the sense of being "very good". Coming after the instructions about the plants, it is obvious that the "very good" is not a reference to the humans in isolation.

The heavens and the earth were finished, but the story of creation is not done yet. (The confusion about where this story ends is amplified by the way the Priestly account flops over into the first three verses of chapter 2.)

On the seventh day, God "creates" the Sabbath by resting. God rests, not because of being tired from all this hard work, but because what has been created is complete and sufficient, it is whole as it is. The Sabbath says that creativity and productivity are not the ultimate goal or the end. Rest, enjoyment and praise are at the end of creation. The Sabbath is not good, or very good -- it is holy.

It is also interesting to observe that the Sabbath, as a ritual practice distinctive to the Hebrew people, separates them from all of the other people and nations. The theme of separation that was at the core of the first three days is echoed by the presence of the Sabbath.

Before we get to the humans, and the problematic parts about dominion and subduing, a few other general observations are in order.

  • This story does not describe the modern scientific universe! There are no galaxies in the vastness of space, there is a dome over the earth, and the sun, moon and stars are points of light that move across the dome. In this cosmology, the earth is not the center of the universe -- it is the universe. We don't value the Priestly story when we try to transform it into a parable of the billions of years of galactic and planetary formation.

    Neither do we respect the Priestly story if we try to fit evolutionary processes into the text. In the Priestly view, the orderliness of the creation is eternal and unchanging. Those who first told the story would have been horrified by the idea that the "kinds" of plants and animals might change into new forms. Evolution is a marvelous process -- but it is not what this story describes.

  • The separation within the various realms -- light and dark, waters above and below the dome, water and dry land -- and the separation into the various "kinds" of plants and animals is at the core of this story, and of the Priestly worldview. The same people who told this story were profoundly concerned with the ritual laws that are found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, laws that maintain the separations of the creation. So, for example, two kinds of seed should not be planted in the same field, or wool and linen mixed in a garment.

    This story is not trying to answer the sorts of questions raised by modern science:   What are stars made of? When were they made? How did life come into being? Rather, this story is concerned about how the most important separations of the universe came into being:   Why are things divided up they way that they are?

    A short-hand way of describing the whole Priestly creation story is with the phrase: "A place for everything and everything in its place."

  • The world that is created is bubbling over with life. Life springs forth from the land and the waters. The hope, promise and command is that all life is to be fruitful, "fertile" and to multiply. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the Spirit is a life-giving power that stimulates the fecundity of the whole of creation -- soil and plants, and all kinds of animals. (That theme, using Joel 2 as a bridge between Genesis and Pentecost, is one of the suggested sermon ideas.)

  • The creation that is described is entirely peaceful. In contrast to the creation stories of the surrounding cultures, the earth does not come into being through long, drawn-out and violent conflict between various gods and powers. The entire creation story flows along smoothly and without upset; it is good at every stage. What's more, there is no killing, predation or violence in this earth. All of the creatures are vegetarian. This is the same peaceable realm that Isaiah hopes for where the wolf shall live with the lamb.

    NOTE: The flood narrative in Genesis 6-9 is important because it describes how this perfect and peaceful world is destroyed and re-created, in order to allow the presence of violence and killing. The world that is created in Genesis 1 is a peaceable ideal, not the current reality. The re-created world after the flood is the less-than-perfect world in which we live. In the covenant that God sets out with all of creation after the flood, there is no mention of humanity's dominion!

The overall sense that emerges from the Priestly creation story is of a carefully structured, harmonious whole. It is good -- very good! -- in its completeness and peaceableness.

The three sentences about the creation and the authority of humans must be read within the context of the whole creation story. Taking that paragraph out of context is guarateed to give a distorted meaning.

Within the orderly, structured, peaceable realm that God has created, the dominion of humans should be seen as roughly parallel to the dominion, the ruling authority, given to the lights in the sky. The task is preserve the order and the goodness of what has been made.

God has created a "very good" universe, a peaceable cosmic environment. When violence appears, or when the things that were separate get mixed together, then the earth becomes "corrupt" or polluted. (Note that Genesis 6:11-- "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence." -- is the prelude to the flood).

When we put the Priestly worldview into those terms of environment and pollution, it is not distorting the meaning of this story to say that the human role of dominion has to do with "environmental protection and pollution control" -- especially with regard to all the other living things.

To address a few of the key terms from that paragraph:

  • "Let us make humankind" -- God is speaking in "the royal we". The Hebrew term used for "God" throughout this account, Elohim, is a plural word.

  • "In the image of God" -- the biblical scholars have a hard time studying this word because there are no parallel uses in the Bible to use in building a context. Archeologists say that it was fairly common for kings of that time to set up posts around the boundaries of their realms, with "the image of the king" carved into the post. In that historical sense, "the image of God" may imply that humans are the visible reminders of God's rule and authority. (The quotation from Hauerwas & Berman in these resources addresses the "image of God" in a Christian context that obviously goes beyond the original meaning of the story.)

  • "Dominion" and "subdue" -- these are harsh and violent words in the Hebrew. Clearly, humans are seen to have a powerful and very special place in the creation. The charge to "subdue the earth" may be an explicit contrast to the charge given to the earthling, the Adam, in the older creation story about Eden, where the instruction is to "serve the earth" (that's a better translation of the Hebrew than "to till".)

    The language about human dominion over the rest of creation is found only in this passage, and in Psalm 8 (which is also in the Lectionary for this date). In the political usage of the Hebrew term for dominion elsewhere in the Bible, there is a very clear sense of control and power -- and the frequent overtone of how much that control is resented by those who are opressed.

    In determining the meaning of authority and rule in this story, remember that, on the fourth day, authority is given to the lights in the sky to maintain the order of the calendar. That dominion is a for a caretaking, stabilizing function. It prohibits any sort of change or exploitation. Within the context of the story, the dominion of the sun and stars is the closest parallel that we have to the dominion of the humans.

The creation is "very good" when it is filled with the abundance of life, and when all living things have sufficient plants for their food.

It is hard to imagine that this story creates a beautiful, elabotate, intricately structured and very fragile "china shop" and then turns the humans loose into it to do whatever they want. It is hard to believe that the destruction and the disordering and the diminishing of life that humans have claimed based on this text is in any way consistent with the intention of God within this story.

Indeed, when violence does creep into this peaceable realm (the Priestly writer never explains how that happens!), it is such a violation of the intention of God that the "the heavens and the earth" -- the whole thing -- must be taken back to the intitial chaos, and re-established in a way that makes very tightly regulated provisions for violence and the shedding of blood.

The Priestly creation story is a closely structured whole, and the entire passage must be taken seriously to understand the meaning of any part of it, especially the paragraph that speaks of humanity's place and purpose in the creation.

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