Chaos — The Story of Adam, Pt 1a (Genesis 1)

The temple is a mind-blowing concept that you will find everywhere throughout the Bible. In short, it is the place where God dwells and he is worshipped by his priests, where sin is atoned, from where he rules as king and his rule is mediated to the world by his royal people.

Sound cool to you? Well, it gets even better, because we are the priests, and we are the royal people, and, even more mindblowing — we are the temple, as the body of Christ. But to get there, we need to start at the beginning: Genesis 1–3.

The Worldview of Israel

First a note on worldview. We need to resist the thought that the way we tend to understand the text is the right way, and need to be critical of our own worldview and interpretative grids. If we want to understand stories like Genesis 1–3 of an ancient book like the Bible, we need to be aware of our own worldview and adopt the worldview of the original authors/editors and the first readers. [1] In the case of Genesis, the primary editor was Moses, and the first readers were people, descendants from Abraham, just rescued from Egypt by their God, Yahweh. He is the only God, the Creator of the universe, the ruler of all the nations. He has committed to a covenant relationship with Israel because he has elected them to play a central role in his plan for the world. And in order for them to understand this role and the whole plan, the story of Adam would be fundamental.

If we want to understand the Bible, we need to adopt the worldview of the original authors/editors and the first readers.

The Five-Staged Pattern

We can discern five stages in the story of Adam: [2]

  1. Chaos
  2. New Creation
  3. Covenant
  4. Unfaithfulness
  5. Exile

These stages can be traced throughout Scripture in the stories of Noah, the patriarchs and Israel. The first readers would most likely discern these very themes, as they play central roles in their very own story.

The pattern can be variously described. This is the way I will most often refer to it, but I can use different names for the same stage (i.e. ‘kingdom’ instead of ‘covenant’), thus highlighting a different aspect of the stage but still referring to the same pattern. In this article I want to discuss the first part of the story of Adam. The relation between the first part (‘Chaos’) and second part (‘New Creation’) can be described in various manners, such as ‘Death — Life’, or ‘Slavery — Liberation’; in this article I want to focus on ‘Chaos — Order’.

The Chaos of Genesis 1:1–2

‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’

Everyone knows the very famous opening sentences of the Bible in Genesis 1. Nonetheless, there’s a lot more to it than a modern mind would discern on a first reading. Let’s start with the opening phrase.

‘In the beginning’ (Heb.: bereshit) is a status constructus (a kind of genitive construction), which means that the text could be translated literally as: ‘In the beginning of … God created the heavens and the earth.’ It is not uncommon for this construction to have a regular sentence (subject, verb, etc.) as its object. [3] The text would then read: ‘In the beginning of [God creating the heavens and the earth]’, or, more readable, ‘When God began creating the heavens and the earth’. This also forms a nice inclusio with Gen. 2:1: ‘The heavens and the earth were completed with everything that was in them.’

‘Heavens and earth’ are a merism, which means that it’s an expression using two words to refer to a single distinct concept. In this case, it uses two extremes to refer to everything between them. Thus, ‘heavens and earth’ (or: ‘skies and land’) refers to all created order as the Israelites would know it. [4] The Israelites knew, from daily experience, Day and Night, Sky, Land and Sea, the animals, and of course man himself, and the author wants to describe the origins of these from a monotheistic viewpoint. So, to conclude this linguistic background, we could paraphrase verse 1 as: ‘When God began creating everything.’ With this translation, verse 2 would then serve as background, and verse 3 as the main sentence. [5]

‘Now the land was without shape and empty…’

When God began creating everything, there was the ‘land’. The Hebrew word for ‘land’, erets, would evoke associations with the promised land. The ‘land’ of 1:2 is not clearly defined, but when we compare chapter 1 to 2, we could infer that it refers here broadly to the area in which God would put Adam and the animals to live and from which they were to multiply and fill the earth. [6] The author presupposes the existence of this piece of land. The first hearers would not be primarily concerned with the exact age of the earth. A more important question, however, would be, ‘How did the story begin?’ and ‘What is our role in it?’. Well, it began with chaos.

To be precise, the land was ‘without shape’ and ‘empty’ (i.e. uninhabited). [7] This is not a neutral phrase; it carries a notion of an uninhabitable wilderness, a state of being non-‘tov’. There are exactly two other places in the Bible where we find the combination of these phrases: Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23. Both describe a state of judgment. [8] Judgment in the Bible often entailed ‘de-creation’, that is to say, the reversal of the created order back to this original state of being formless and uninhabited. [9] In practice, this would mean that, when the particular nation would be judged, the land would be destroyed and its inhabitants would be killed. The opposite state of judgment, i.e. salvation, is described in the Prophets in terms of new creation, when the land would blossom and its people multiply and flourish. To return to Genesis 1, the land is uninhabitable and without vegetation, a wilderness.

‘…and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep…’

Darkness is introduced. It anticipates God’s creating action in verse 3. Darkness denotes the absence of God, who is full of glory and light. Again, darkness is associated with judgment later on in the Bible, with the disaster God brings upon nations, even his own people, for their sins, especially in the context of the ‘day of the Lord’, when God would be judge (cf., among others, Amos 5:18, 20; Zeph. 1:15). It’s significant that the first thing God would create is light (vs. 3). Later on in the Bible, ‘light’, ‘shine’, etc. would be associated with new creation and salvation (see, among many others, Isaiah 9:2; 42:16; 49:6; 60:1–3; John 8:12; and the explicit reference in 2 Corinthians 6:14).

The darkness was over the ‘deep’. The Israelites thought that land was one giant mass, with waters (‘the deep’ or ‘abyss’) surrounding and underlying it. [10] Later ‘the deep’ came, in some instances, to connote the realm of the dead or the grave (cf., e.g. the highly metaphorical language of Psa. 71:20; Ezek. 26:19). So, when God began creating the land, the land was uninhabitable, and there is no God and no life. But wait…

‘…but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.’

The Spirit of God is introduced. The Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ is the same as ‘breath’. In 2:7, God is said to ‘breathe into his [the man’s] nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living spirit.’ Later on in the Bible, the ‘Spirit’ would be associated with giving life in general (e.g. Job 33:4) and in particular in regard with salvation in the form of new creation/resurrection, as, e.g., in Ezekiel 37:1ff.

Note also that ‘the deep’, sometimes connected with death, has given way for ‘water’, which has a life-giving function, especially considering the desert surroundings with which the Israelite people would be familiar. In the prophetic writings, ‘Spirit’ and ‘water’ would both be used as images to describe the change from death to new creation (see in particular Isa. 32:15; 44:3–4). [11]

Conclusion

Let’s connect the dots between these verses and the worldview of Israel. Israel’s God, Yahweh, is the only God. There is no other competing god beside him. In the Babylonian account, the god Marduk killed the goddess Tiamat of the salty sea, and from her carcass created the cosmos. [12] Not so with Yahweh: he has no competition. He has every sovereignty over chaos, and so also over the forces of death and darkness that the people of Israel would encounter as they wandered through the desert and marched into the promised land, a land inhabited by other nations ‘more numerous and powerful’ than they (Deut. 7:1). But, ‘when you go to war against your enemies and see chariotry and troops who outnumber you, do not be afraid of them, for the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt [and, we can add, who is sovereign over chaos] is with you’ (Deut. 20:1).

Endnotes

[1] The concept of ‘worldview’ is developed by N.T. Wright in The New Testament and the People of God (SPCK 1992). He uses this concept to describe first-century Jews and the early Christians, and, in his subsequent works, Jesus and Paul.

[2] This is based on G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology (Baker Publishing Group 2011). I owe much to his detailed exegesis of the Old Testament as used in the New. His book gave me the idea to start this series to expand on some of the ideas he proposed.

[3] To be precise, the grammatical construct in Genesis 1:1 would be a status constructus with an asyndetic substantivated sentence as its object. Examples are Isaiah 29:1 and 1 Samuel 25:15. I owe these references and the grammatical details to M.F.J. Baasten, ‘Beginnen bij het begin. Over Genesis 1:1’, Alef Beet. Tijdschrift van de Vereniging tot Bevordering van Kennis van Hebreeuws 12/1 (2002), 13–26.

[4] It’s tempting to say, the whole world, or cosmos, but it’s important to keep in mind the Israelite worldview, which certainly did not imagine a round globe spinning around the sun. It’s interesting, to say the least, that phrases like the ‘whole world’ (Hebr. kol erets) can refer in the Old Testament to limited areas in the ‘world’ as we know it. See e.g. Gen. 13:9; 41:57; Lev. 25:9, 24; Judg. 6:37; 1 Sam. 13:3; 2 Sam. 24:8. I owe these references to Heiser, The Unseen Realm. Even Paul in the New Testament can serve as a good example of having a more limited definition of ‘world’ than we do (cf., in particular, Col. 1:6; 23; also Romans 1:8; 16:26).

[5] Other views, connected to the traditional translation are, firstly, that verse 1 describes how God originally created the heavens and the earth (on day 1 presumably, or some time before that?). However, the following narrative describes how God created the heaven on day 2 and the earth/dry land on day 3, thus that would be repetitive. Secondly, verse 1 can be taken as a title or summary of the entire account, with ‘heavens and earth’ taken as a merism. This broadly accords with our view, although the grammatical-linguistic data speak against taking verse 1 separately as a title or summary. The title used multiple times in Genesis is ‘these are the generations of’, which is used in Genesis 2:4 (see subsequent article on Genesis 2). Also, it’s not logical that a title is followed by ‘and’ in Hebrew and a subsequent descriptive sentence.

[6] Cf. e.g. 1:29: ‘And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the land, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food’ with 2:16: ‘And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden.”’

This would mean that the land surrounding Eden and the garden would be uninhabitable and was to be ‘subdued’ by Adam so that mankind could fill the earth. If God already made the whole earth inhabitable with trees and rivers, there was no mission for man; all earth would be garden already. I will return to this interpretation in a next article.

[7] This could also form an inclusio with Gen. 2:1: ‘The heavens and the earth were completed with everything that was in them’, i.e. the earth has turned from formless and uninhabited to ordered and inhabited by animals and human beings. This also describes the two-fold movement of creation, namely forming and filling, as we will see in another article.

[8] Isaiah describes Edom being judged on the the ‘day of the Lord’ when God takes revenge on them for the sake of Israel. Jeremiah describes how the land of Israel will be judged for the unfaithfulness of its people.

[9] This is not to say that Genesis 1:2 describes a state of judgment; rather, that later in the story of the Bible, judgment would be compared to a return to this original state of chaos. I say this with regard to the ‘Gap Theory’, which states that, in the gap between verse 1 and 2, Satan and his demons fell, were expelled to earth, and made the original ‘good’ creation of verse 1 into the chaos of verse 2 (thus making way for an ‘old earth’ while still maintaining the six-day creation week). This, however, is faulty, not only because of grammatical-linguistic reasons stated above (also cf. endnote [5]), but also because it is way more plausible that later biblical writers used the chaos of verse 2 as metaphorical imagery to describe the state of judgment, than the other way around (that the Genesis writer used judgment imagery to describe chaos).

[10] NET Bible, Full-notes Edition, in loc.

[11] Later on, as we will see with Israel, ‘waters’, ‘deep’ and ‘wind’ (Spirit) would be highly associated with the exodus, but for now it’s enough to state that the account of Genesis 1 would evoke the contrast of judgment and salvation as de-creation and new creation.

[12] NET Bible, Full-notes Edition, in loc.

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