Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Creation and Evolution 2: Gen. 1:1-2:4a

The later creation story in Genesis, the Priestly account of Gen. 1:1-2:4a, is placed first in our Bibles.  It comes from the time of the Exile.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel is gone–destroyed by the Assyrians–and the Southern Kingdom of Judah has seen most of its inhabitants (and all of its leaders) deported into various parts of the Babylonian empire–while peoples from other conquered nations have been moved to the Holy Land of Canaan.  The devastation upon the national psyche of the people is best seen in Psalm 137: a bitterness and grief so deep that the Psalmist actually prays at the end for people kill Babylonian babies by beating their heads against rocks. (The unknown psalmist had probably seen Babylonian soldiers do that very thing to Israelite babies!)

In the ancient world, wars on earth were thought to mirror wars in the heavens between rival gods and goddesses.  We see this, for instance, in Homer’s The Iliad, where the various gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon take sides in the war between Greece and Troy.  The usual interpretation of national defeat by a stronger army was that the invaders’ god had defeated the god of the conquered people.  This was how the Babylonians saw their conquest of Judah: Marduk, the Chief god of the Babylonians, was stronger than YHWH and had defeated YHWH, allowing Babylon to defeat Judah.  The Babylonians encouraged the captive Exiles to see things in the same way so that they would give up Yahwism (i.e., developing Israelite religion, which was growing into what is today Judaism) and give up their identity as Jews and blend in as faithful citizens of Babylonia.

As the years of the Exile dragged on, the temptation to give up and merge (as the Northern Kingdom had given up and merged earlier with Assyria) must have been tremendous.  The Priestly Creation Narrative (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) is one part of a theological resistance to that temptation. 

The Babylonians had their own Creation myth which can be read in their Scripture, the Enuma Elish.  Here, the act of creation is war.  Marduk leads the gods to kill the mother goddess Tiamat (chaos waters–sometimes pictured as a dragon). The heavens and earth are made in some versions of the story out of the body of Kingu, Tiamat’s consort, and, in other versions, out of the body of Tiamat herself.  Humans are then made from this mess to be the slaves of the gods.

Genesis 1, the Priestly creation story is a theological rebuttal to this story–and a bold one.  El (God) creates not by violence, but by simply speaking.  Order appears out of chaos as a result of God’s Word (not as a result of military imposition of order).   Everything has its place and its time.  The language used here is not that of narrative saga, as in the Gen. 2 J story, but a liturgical, almost hymnlike language (“there was an evening and a morning the first day,” etc.) .

The Hebrew terms used for the various portions of creation (and of the watery chaotic “deep” that precedes it) are chosen to be very similar to the Babylonian names for their gods and goddesses:  e.g., t’hom, “the deep,” is very close to “Tiamat.” But in the Gen. 1 account, these are not gods and goddesses or monsters, etc., but just portions of the world that God creates–or from which God creates in the case of the watery deep.  The Priestly writer(s) of Gen. 1, in a very real sense, demythologize Creation–or rather, they provide a counter myth, a truer myth. 

The categories of the created order as the Israelits knew it are created in the first three days:  Heavens and earth, Day and Night,  land, seas.  In the second three days, these are populated: Sun and Moon, stars populate the day and night; birds populate the skies/heavens; fish populate the seas; crawling animals populate the land.  

Now, there is another dimension here which must not be missed: Babylon is the origin of astrology as we know it in the West today. (Other astrological systems were created in China, etc.) To the Babylonians, who already believed that they were slaves of the gods, the sun, moon, and stars ruled over their lives.  They had no free will.  The Priestly writer of Gen. 1 denies this: The sun rules only the day–not humans.  The moon rules only the night, not humans.  And the stars? They don’t get to rule anything.  The Hebrew makes it seem like a divine afterthought, “And he also made stars.”  Poof.  Astrology has no power.  Stars are just part of God’s creation–nothing more and nothing less.  They do not determine human lives.  (Whenever I see Christians today read horoscopes–even “just for fun,” I am horrified that they would submit to this pagan ideology in place of biblical freedom. I have made it a point not to even know my zodiac sign and I stop everyone who tries to tell me what it is.  I have no time for such nonsense.)

Then, at the pinnacle of creation, God makes humans–not as slaves out of the body of some slain god or goddess, but “in the image and likeness of God.” What a bold theological claim for an exiled, conquered people to make! And, in this version, men and women (ish and isha) are made at the same time. Both are made in the image of God. Some have taken the secondary creation of woman in Gen. 2, along with the man’s naming of her, to be an implication of sex subordination. (But, for a rebuttal of such a reading, see Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. ) Even if that is the right way to read Gen. 2, by placing Gen. 1 first, the Priestly writers were emphasizing the equality of the sexes (despite the subordinate position women had in Israelite society and in its cultic life presided over by the Priestly class!)–both equally made in the image and likeness of God!

What a great message! What powerful things we must learn about God and creation from Genesis 1!  But none of those things are scientific.  The P writer did not know that the stars were suns, nor that the sun was created before the earth, etc.  The P writer did not know that the moon was a big hunk of rock torn from the earth, nor that the earth was round.  The P writer thought of the heavens or skies (“firmament”) as a big brass dome with windows for rain to come to earth.  The P writer did place the creation of animals before that of humanity, but he (they?) knew nothing of the evolution of species–nor did he/they CARE!  The interest of the biblical writers was elsewhere:  Affirming the sovereignty of God (despite the claim that God had been defeated by Marduk) over all–a sovereignty exercised in a calm, effortless, nonviolent creation.  Affirming the goodness of all creation with everything in proper order.  Affirming the uniqueness of humanity as a special creation—not because we have no biological connections to other animals, but because God’s universe creating Word has declared us “image and likeness of God.”  As such, we have nothing to fear from the investigations of astronomers, geologists, and biologists.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins can claim that Darwin disproves God, but we have no reason to agree! Darwin’s discoveries–and those of his successors–tell us about our origins from a scientific viewpoint.  But Genesis affirms the theological truth that God is behind it all and God’s providence is the real power in our lives.

November 6, 2007 - Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., progressive faith, science & faith, theology


  1. […] Michael Westmoreland-White added an interesting post today on Creation and Evolution 2: Gen. 1:1-2:4a.Here’s a small reading:The heavens and earth are made in some versions of the story out of the body of Kingu, Tiamat’s consort, and, in other versions, out of the body of Tiamat herself. Humans are then made from this mess to be the slaves of the gods. … […]

    Pingback by www.cellulitediary.info » Creation and Evolution 2: Gen. 1:1-2:4a | November 7, 2007

  2. Hi Michael,

    When you say that this second creation story comes from the time of the exile, are you stating that it is highly unlikely that any of the Gen 1 content existed earlier than the exile? Although almost all OT scholars agree that the final editting of Genesis happened very late, some (maximalists) would argue that most of the content was very ancient, handed down primarily in an oral fashion, and then committed to a written form over a long period of time starting with Moses. Since the Enuma Elish was written in the 12 century or so, I guess Israel’s response to this could have been written much before the 5th century. Is there any evidence one way or the other as to when it was first written down? Or does the story just “make so much more sense” in the context of the Hebrew response to the events surrounding the exile as you posted?


    Comment by Steve Martin | November 8, 2007

  3. Steve, there may well be pre-Exilic material or elements in Gen 1, but it is very difficult to isolate them since the Priestly writer(s) have so thoroughly shaped this material as an anti-Enuma Elish apologetic. The Enuma Elish did first appear in an early version in Sumer. The Babylonian version is later. But I can’t see the P writers being very exposed to it before the Babylonian Exile.

    Either way, the lessons we learn from this creation account are theological and not scientific. The things that P wants to teach us (ultimately, the things that GOD wants to teach us) in this Scripture do not depend on this being anything like a scientific or historical account–and making such a genre mistake causes us to miss most of what the account wants us to learn.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 8, 2007

  4. It seems only an apologetic move made by you and most others to say that the writers weren’t being scientific or historical. They were handing down received notions if not entire accounts of what people thought about the earth and its origins. It was primitive history and not experimentally scientific, sure. But it as not as if their speculations on these matters lie elsewhere – this is it. And if asked, they wouldn’t say this is simply symbolic of gender equality and providence. I think the latter are questionable projections which the text allows but doesn’t demand in any case, something of a salvage operation.

    Comment by slim | November 9, 2007

  5. I’m obliged to agree with Slim. Moreover, your concession elsewhere that the dating of J and P are still quite unresolved matters in scholarship seems to me to undermine the stability of the chronology upon which your reading depends. If P is pre-exilic, or if P is a big mistake altogether, your reading fails. I myself am suspect of JEDP in general, not because I believe the Pentateuch was written all at once by Moses, but because it has always been irresponsibly speculative. Even Brueggemann, who subscribes to some extent to the theory, prefers to treat the text as much as possible as received, for that very reason: deriving alternative readings of the text based upon JEDP speculations is tenuous.

    That’s not all I have to say in response, but those are my initial concerns.

    Comment by Thom Stark | November 9, 2007

  6. I myself am suspicious of JEDP in general, not suspect.

    Comment by Thom Stark | November 9, 2007

  7. Rephrasing what Slim said a bit, it seems a bit anachronistic to impose a neat distinction between “science” and “theology” upon the writers. It is of course very important to point out that what they were up to isn’t what modern scientists tend to be up to (though modern scientists still have their theological agendas on either side of the “debate”), but that is not the same thing as saying that the biblical writers weren’t making, in a different sense, scientific statements.

    Comment by Thom Stark | November 9, 2007

  8. It’s true that the state of flux on the documentary hypothesis is far greater than it used to be–but not on the main outlines. In many cases, it is simply better to use the final form of the text and approach matters from a literary-critical rather than historical-critical approach. But, in this case, I thought the theological message of the Gen. creation accounts more obvious against the historical background of their written form–especially the P account.

    I AM using the modern (post-17th C.) definition of science–as will become clearer later in the series. I am doing so because that kind of definition is also in the background of both Young Earth Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents (although they want to add back in supernatural causes as scientific explanations). My opponents, YECs and I.D.ers, want to claim (a) that evolution is discredited science, (b) that evolution contradicts the biblical creation accounts, and (c) that they are viable alternatives to evolution–in the case of YECs, substituting directly a literal, historical, “scientific” reading of Gen. 1 & 2 and in the case of I.D. accepting an ancient earth and intra-species development, but rejecting inter-species evolution and, especially the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection.

    So, in claiming they are wrong, I am making 2 claims: 1)their science is wrong & 2) they have misunderstood the Bible. In order to make 2) clearly, I have to make it clear that the biblical accounts are not scientific/historical in the way that modern/post-modern people use those terms. I am trying to avoid the anachronistic way that YECs and I.D.ers read the texts.

    Now, Thom’s point that if P is pre-exilic or if there was no P my reading fails is partly correct. The emphases that I stress would certainly be less stark if Gen. 1 was NOT an anti-Babylonian apologetic as I believe it to be. But I think much of reading would still stand: the liturgical structure of the text; the use of El or Elohim for God rather than YHWH; the different orders of creation; the orderliness and peacefulness and goodness of creation; humans as the pinnacle of creation and Sabbath rest as the fulfillment; the creation of men and women simultaneously and both in God’s image and likeness–all would remain, but would not stand out as strong as when contrasted with the violent creation myth of the Enuma Elish.

    BTW, I forgot a feature in the exposition that I remembered just now: the Sabbath. It is introduced to Jews as part of the covenant that God establishes with liberated slaves and the rationale in Exodus is to contrast a rhythym of work and rest (even for animals and land) with the constant work of slavery. Sabbath is a liberation ethic. But in Gen. 1 it is given another rationale:–it is the very pattern that God used in creating the universe and thus has universal, not just Israelite, implications. Now, if Gen. 1 takes its final form in the Exile, this makes an even stronger point: Israelites/Jews should not abandon Sabbath practice simply because they are no longer in the Land of Promise–it is part of the very structure of creation. Indeed, if the pagans knew the truth, they would also observe Sabbath rest; their lives are a mess not because they are slaves to supernatural or astrological forces as they suppose, but because they do not observe the work/rest pattern by which the world was created. Here a “natural law” ethic reinforces and universalizes a history-specific liberation ethic!

    As to whether or not JEDP was/is “irresponsibly speculative,” I am not enough of a Hebrew Bible scholar to comment authoritatively. I know that there were assumptions made by Graf and Wellhausen in the 19th C. that were unwarranted (e.g., when writing began)–but the division of the Torah into sources was made on the basis of noticing narrative “seams,” vocabulary changes, repetitions, etc. Dating those sources is trickier and is why scholars are more cautious than previously–and have turned to other exegetical approaches such as sociological analysis and literary criticism. But the general shape of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis has held up remarkably well for a century now–and was accepted even by the late Brevard Childs who preferred to focus on the final, canonical text.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 9, 2007

  9. Oops. That was me.

    Comment by Thom Stark | November 11, 2007

  10. Hey. This is a great response. I hadn’t stressed our points of agreement, which are many. For instance, I clearly agree that evolution doesn’t contradict the creation accounts. I wonder, however, in what way is it possible even for theistic evolutionists to accept the language of “random mutation and natural selection.” If God is in that picture at all, we’d have to call it deistic evolution.

    I still find elements of your presentation of the creation accounts, compelling. Even if Gen. 1 wasn’t written as an anti-Babylonian apologetic, it certainly wasn’t written in a vacuum. It is obviously interested in countering some view or views. I would just be more cautious about locating that polemic so precisely.

    I agree that the general shape of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis has held up well for the past century, but I wouldn’t agree that that’s justified. I think serious voices of dissent have been largely ignored or obscured.

    Re: the Sabbath, I’ve often tossed it around in my head as a chicken or egg question. What came first — the six day creation account or the practice of the sabbath? Was the six day creation account developed in support of the practice of the sabbath, or did the practice of the sabbath develop out of the six day creation account. The answer depends on how historical we take the exodus account to be. One of the reasons Moses gave Pharaoh for the exodus was that the people needed to practice the sabbath. You’re absolutely right to point out that the sabbath is a liberation ethic; nevertheless, it seems that either a) the practice of the sabbath preceded the slavery in Egypt or b) the tradition of a six day creation preceded the slavery in Egypt. In the former case, the sabbath would have only morphed into a liberation ethic in that concrete historical situation. In the latter case, the six day creation account was not simply created to support the ideology of liberation. It was used for such a purpose, but not created for it.

    Comment by Thom Stark | November 11, 2007

  11. I will address random mutation and natural selection as the driving forces behind evolution in my discussion of the difference between scientific explanations (which focus on penultimate, natural causes) and theological explanations (which focus on Ultimate Causation). There is a similar challenge in Quantum Mechanics–Does our universe allow room for Divine Causation? Does it do so without our resorting to a “God of the gaps” view of creation–in which God is progressively crowded out as we find more and more natural causes.

    As for the Sabbath, I take the Exodus account to be largely historical (in a way very different from Gen. 1-11), but Moses tells Pharoah the Israelites must go into the Wilderness to worship YHWH and sacrifice to YHWH. The Sabbath is not really mentioned until Ex. 20. There God’s Creation rest is emphasized, unlike the parallel account in Deut. 5 which stresses historical/liberating reasons for the Sabbath. Some form of Sabbath keeping may have preceded the Exodus–maybe by the Patriarchs. The Midianites (who appear to have a view of God similar to later Islam–and who are descendants of Esau) whom Moses encountered in his father-in-law, the priest Jepthah, may have practiced some form of Sabbath keeping. But the developed practice in Israelite religion and later Judaism clearly comes from the post-Exodus Covenant.

    This liberating ethic is later given support in the natural order of Creation–I think there has been Priestly editing to Exodus 20 and that Deut. 5 is earlier. The P editing reflects the theology they have articulated more thoroughly in Gen. 1.

    I won’t debate the Documentary Hypothesis simply because this is beyond my expertise. In my view, dissenters have failed to give as far reaching an alternative that accounts for the general shape of the data as well. That is why the Graf-Wellhausen thesis has been modified, but never rejected by biblical scholars as a whole.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 11, 2007

  12. 1) It has been rejected by many biblical scholars, just not a majority. And I’m not sure what I think about requiring dissenters to come up with an alternative that accounts for the general shape of the data, when the crux of their dissent is that no such account is possible given the limitations of the data.

    2) “Random” mutation does not sound scientific to me. Just “mutation” certainly is, but “random” seems to me to be a description of ultimate causation. I can’t see how that kind of language isn’t overstepping the boundaries of science.

    Apart from that, I coming alongside your take on sabbath and exodus. I was mistaken that Moses had used the Sabbath in his appeal to Pharaoh. First occurrence of the word isn’t till Ex 16.

    Comment by Thom Stark | November 11, 2007

  13. There is no reason to suppose that P’s account of creation originated from the time of the exile. Rather owing to other evidence that P preserves many ancient texts we can safely assume that P could infact be very ancient indeed.

    Comment by Richard | August 4, 2008

  14. Richard, I disagree. P may (probably does) preserve far more ancient traditions, but there is strong evidence that P took “final” shape during and after the Exile–and that seems to play into the way Gen. 1 tells the creation story, too. The similarities in terminology to Babylonian gods and goddesses make this seem like a war of myths with Gen. 1, in this form, as a deliberate counter-narrative to Babylon.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 4, 2008

  15. Michael, I am certain open to P having been edited during the exile. Have you read Mowinckel’s Spirit and the Word, he makes some interesting points in this regard. In summary he points out that the ancient traditions are recorded when there is a need to ensure that they be preserved, i.e. it is when there is a danger of these oral traditions are at risk of being “lost” that they are recorded. A deliberate counter-narrative to Babylon indeed!

    The more I think through these issues the more I am convinced that the Sitz im Leben of Genesis 1:1-2:4a should be located in a New Year Festival where it functioned as a festal liturgy. See for example, P. Humbert’s “La relation de Genese I et du Psaum 104 avec la liturgie du Nouvel – An Israelite”.

    Comment by Richard | August 4, 2008

  16. In terms of dating the documents who would you suggest reading?

    Comment by Richard | August 5, 2008

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