Reading the Bible 3: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

We begin our reading of Genesis with the story of creation Gen 1:1-2:4a where the 2:4a portion of the last verse is “This is the history of the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created”.

One thing today’s passage demonstrates nicely is that the division of the Bible into chapters is fairly arbitrary and has more to do with creating roughly similar sized sections of text to serve as easy reference markers rather than logically contained units. Today’s passage is a logically complete story and yet it consists of the entire first chapter plus the first three and a half verses of chapter two.

Examining the toledoth colophon, we see that the tablet basis of this section would have been entitled “the [toledoth] of the heavens and of the earth” and that the tablet is dated to “when they were created”. Absent is the formula’s typical inclusion of an author or tablet owner. Thus, it would seem that the indicated author is the only possible observer of the events described: God Himself.

Returning to the first verse, straight off the bat, we find something of interest lurking in the original Hebrew. The word that is translated here as ‘God’ is elohim. The first thing to note is that elohim is the plural form of eloah which is the poetic or emphatic form of el roughly meaning “mighty one”. This plural word elohim is the word that we see translated as ‘God’ throughout this entire passage – indeed almost every reference to ‘God’ (as opposed to ‘god’ or ‘God of X’) in the Old Testament is to this word elohim which occurs over 2500 times.

I point out the plural nature of elohim because sometimes people will try to argue that this word really should be translated as ‘gods’ and that this is a suppressed sign of a supposed origin of Hebrew monotheism in polytheism. Such arguments are based upon either ignorance of Hebrew grammar or an overriding desire to find evidence for the a priori assumption that monotheism evolved from polytheism rather than the other way around. While elohim may be plural, it is almost always paired with singular verbs and singular adjectives indicating that the plural is not a plural of number but a plural of majesty or excellence. In the very few cases where elohim is translated as ‘God’ in association with adjectives and verbs that are plural, there are quite reasonable explanations that do not rely upon conjuring up a monotheist conspiracy. Here’s a series of three essays that dig into the details:  Elohim: Plural or Singular Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The second essay referenced above also touches upon another issue that surfaces in today’s passage. In verse 1:26a we have: “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'”. Here, the verb paired with elohim is singular indicating the majestic plural rather than a numerical plural. Also, in verse 1:27, we have “God created man in his own image” and again the verb indicates singular. So to whom then is God referring or  speaking when He says ‘us’ and ‘our’? The consensus is that God is employing the “royal we”, speaking to His heavenly court surrounded by His angels, or doing both. Some writers suggest that this an early hint at the doctrine of the trinity, but I find the other explanation more likely.

I’ll briefly touch upon the matter of how I understand this story. There are various conflicting schools of thought among believers ranging from the more literal approach to the more figurative. I’ve seen good and bad arguments from all across the board – often from the same source. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure where my own understanding lies as I’ve changed positions over the years shifting in different directions based upon further exposure to various evidence and lines of reason and haven’t really found myself stabilizing. I currently lean towards the theory that this tablet was written by Moses from a series of seven prophetic visions of God’s creation of the universe and that God’s intent is a theological statement of His supremacy over the creation in contrast to competing contemporary creation accounts that involved complex battles between gods where heaven, the sea, the sun, and the moon were all divine participants rather than mere creations.

Regardless of the interpretation of the passage, it has many interesting literary aspects such as the pattern of each day beginning with God first decreeing what He will do, then doing it, and finally declaring the result good. The first three days describe the creation of forms through separation, and the next three days parallel the first three by filling their corresponding forms. There is definite emphasis on the final result of God’s creation being very good.

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  1. I recently read an argument that the plurality of “elohim” in that passage is a reference to the Trinity. The argument was based on the fact that the “royal we” is only used by God in four places in the Bible, and therefore not God the Father’s customary way of referring to Himself.

  2. I’ve seen that argument before as well, and while it might be correct, I personally think it’s reading too much into the text. I think the “royal we” together with the heavenly court works better. Also, the use of the “royal we” might not have anything to with how God refers to Himself, but rather more to do with how He was seen in the ancient Hebrew culture. The Prophets often conjured up the image of God as King and Jesus used the image of God as Father – much of our image of God is but a rough understanding imparted through cultural analogy.

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