Genesis 1: Structure

October 31, 2009 — 2 Comments

[This post is part of the Genesis series]

At this point we are actually getting a bit closer to moving through the narrative. This hopefully will be a shorter post that highlights the structure of the account before we move into looking at the actual days, probably grouped together 1-3 and then 4-6.

Genesis 1 itself is a form of prose, although it is not quite like the historical narratives encountered elsewhere in the Bible. Collins (in Genesis 1-4, mentioned last post) sees it as exalted prose narrative, which I think is rather fitting given the literary structure of the passage. The literary agenda of Moses helps form how the narrative is structured, which in turn implies that is not account strict historical fact. This is not necessarily saying the events in Genesis 1 didn’t happen, but it is saying that Moses’ agenda in authorship was not necessarily a chronological rendering of the events of creation. The high level of patterning we will see as we break this text out seems to demonstrate that the six day work week and ordering of events is part of a larger literary device rather than an attempt to explain to us just exactly how God created the heavens and the earth.

Now, as Collins also notes, and if you can read Hebrew, you could note just as well, we can tell this is a narrative because Hebrew narratives rely on a chain of verbs called preterites to make the backbone of the progression of events. These verbs can alternately be called wayyiqtols, but I like preterites better and that was what Dr. Webster called them in Hebrew 1 and 2. Also, the name preterite implies what the verbs themselves are, basically past tense verbs of action.

What is interesting about all of this is that this chain of verbs does not start until v. 3, so this makes vv. 1-2 background material. In this sense, if one were going to insert a gap into things, it would be between vv. 2-3 not vv. 1-2 as the gap-theory usually argues for. This argument also relies on seeing v.1 as an initial creation event, and then the world falling into ruin somehow/somewhere before the start of v. 2. Besides the fact that this is rather speculative, it in large part depends on an understanding of v.1-2 that is hard to sustain in light of the ANE background.

Rather than seeing the phrase, “without form and void” as meaning some kind of disrepair had fallen upon the initial creation, a semi-thorough reading of other creation accounts would reveal that this is the general motif that they most always start with. That is to say, all creation accounts tend to start with a state of disorder and formlessness from which the deity then establishes order and functionality to a previously disordered unformed universe.

Notice, this has nothing to do with material creation. While v.1 can still stand as an initial creation event if you want to see creation ex nihilo in this passage, the rest of the account then is a matter of God “creating” the universe in the sense of establishing the functions it will have and then appointing functionaries, all to provide a suitable place for man to inhabit.

In this sense, we are not in any way denying creation and would still affirm God created everything that is in existence as that is affirmed thoroughly throughout the rest of the OT and into the NT, with the places in my mind being Paul’s apologetic defense in Acts 14 and 17 and then his letter to the Colossians, in the 1st chapter.

The question is not whether God created, the question we are asking is whether Genesis 1 is describing “how” God created in a material sense, or whether it is a literary account describing God’s creative acts in more of an establishing sense. This would mean God is being depicted as creating the universe much in the same way a person creates a college, to use Walton’s analogy. Interestingly enough, this is also seen in Exodus 40 where Moses “creates” the tabernacle, but we’ll come back to that once we’re done. (If you wanna set the stage a bit, read Genesis 1 and Exodus 40 side by side and see what you think).

As to the actual structure of the account, “in the beginning” is most likely referring to the first moment, although it could also give our sense of “once upon a time,” although really, if we are seeing it as the first moment of real time creation, then “once upon a time” doesn’t work. The Egyptian account we’ll see below starts with “the first occasion.” Not just for this reason, but from the other parallels as well, it seems best to see Genesis 1 as using the structure of the Egyptian creation accounts but in a way that undermines them and advances their concepts. What follows below comes from observations that Dr. Johnston made in his ETS paper, and is relying on Egyptologists work in examining Genesis 1.

They are a total of 4 different cultic centers in Egypt that had a creation account: Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Memphis, Thebes. You might could make a case for 5 and add Elephantine, but the relevant ones we’ll look at briefly are Hermopolis and Memphis. I’m gonna just put the parallels below and you can examine for yourself whether or not it might be likely that Moses, after just leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, might like to supplement the oral tradition with a polemic against the Egyptian deities.

Here is how Hermopolis tradition goes, as reflected in their Coffin Texts and Pyramid Texts:

  • Starts with lifeless chaotic watery deep
  • Breath/wind (the god Amun) moves upon the waters
  • Creation of supernatural light (generates god Atum)
  • Emergence of a primordial hill in the midst of Nun (the water goddess)
  • Procreation of sky (god Shu) when Nun raise over earth
  • Formation of heavenly ocean (goddess Nut) by separation
  • Formation of dry ground (god Geb) by separation
  • Humanity accidentally created by tears of Atum
  • Sun created to rule the world as image of Re (or Ra)

Note the similarities, dis-similarities in this account. Realize as well that Enuma Elish, while providing some thematic/conceptual parallels does not provide any sort of structural parallel at all to see as a backdrop for Genesis 1.

It gets more intense though, as you can see when we compare the events narrated in the Shabaka Stone, which represents the Memphite theology from the New Kingdom period of Egypt:

  • Pre-creation condition: lifeless chaotic watery deep
  • Breath/wind (the god Amun) moves upon the waters
  • Thought and word of Ptah creates light (god Atum)
  • Emergence of a primordial hill in the midst of Nun (the water goddess)
  • Procreation of sky (god Shu) when Nun raise over earth
  • Formation of heavenly ocean (goddess Nut) by separation
  • Formation of dry ground (god Geb) by separation
  • Sun created to rule the world as image of Re (or Ra)
  • Earth sprouts plants, fish, birds, reptiles, animals
  • Creation of god’s statutes, cult sites, food offerings
  • Ptah completes activity and rests in satisfaction

Now what is interesting in these accounts is that the Egyptians could never get to a “First Cause.” So in this account, Ptah is the creator god, but the origin of Ptah is not accounted for, and he likewise creates other gods which are manifest through the natural elements (remember our last discussion about backgrounds). We do not have time and space here to investigate Egyptian theogony (origins of the gods) but just realize they were unable to explain the ultimate origins of the gods, much in the same way that current evolutionary biologists and physicists can explain the progression and devlopment of life, and can even get to within several thousandths of a second prior to a supposed Big Bang, but cannot explain how it started.

The genius then of Moses, or rather, the glory of God in inspiration through the Holy Spirit, is manifested in the highly developed narrative in Genesis 1 that presents God as the ultimate first cause who was uncreated by another god and who then creates the entire universe. We’ll come back to this point later as we wrap up Genesis 1, but given the parallels with the Egyptian accounts, we are arguing not that Genesis borrowed the Egyptian account, but that Moses used their structure for describing creation, entered into their cultic dialogues about creation and one-upped them in a way that they could not recover from.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to Genesis 1: Structure

  1. Randall Johnson February 4, 2012 at 7:37 am

    Nate, I am quite enjoying your reviews of the books on Adam and your related articles. You are providing me a valuable service as I seek to understand and teach the Scriptures. Thank you.

    • Randall,

      Thanks for the encouragement, I’m glad I’m able to help. I really am starting to feel like this is critical issue that needs some very nuanced navigation. Hopefully I’ll be able to provide it in the coming weeks!


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