This is Part 3 of 20 in a series about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In it we will explore the context of the book, specifically its relationship to the Egyptian culture of its day.
Click here to read the entire series.
When we introduced this series, we mentioned that Moses was not present for any of the actions in the book of Genesis. Indeed, writing did not even exist during the majority of the events in the book of Genesis. He receives these ancient stories as tales told over the years, around campfires and in songs, and under God’s divine inspiration he chooses the stories which are true and records them sometime around 1400 BC.
There are in fact eleven such ancient sagas recorded by Moses, which we will study in the coming weeks. Each needs to be viewed separately, for they are separate sagas which Moses received. (Undoubtedly, there were also probably dozens more sagas which Moses did not record, either because they were not true or because God did not inspire him to do so.)
The first saga Moses records is the Creation Song (Genesis 1:1-2:3).
The Creation Song is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in history, and one of the most critical pieces of Scripture. It has also become a lightning rod for criticism in the past few centuries, as scholars and Christians and Jews have argued greatly over how to interpet the seven yowm (days) of Genesis 1: did the acts of Genesis 1 take 7 days, or 7 periods to complete? Is the earth therefore a few thousand years old (a view called “Young Earth Creationism”) or very old (a view called “Old Earth Creationism”)? (It is worth noting that these are both Christian ideas: secular scientists do not really even see the difference between the two, as both deny random evolution.)
Confounding the analysis is the fact that the ancient Hebrews were not modern scientists, and as such had little interest in measuring things in the same way that we do. We see this reflected in our language. We English-speakers have many words for measuring the passage of time: nanosecond, second, moment, minute, hour, day, week, fortnight, month, quarter, half, year, decade, century, millennium, age, era, period, epoch, eon…that’s twenty I can think of off the top of my head. The Hebrews, however, were very vague, and used only five words to handle all of those situations: they had a word for a “part” of a day (heleq), a word for an hour (sha’ah), a word for a day (yowm), a word for a week (shabuwa), and a word for a year (shaneh). In cases where they were referring to long periods of time, they might refer to it either as "many years," or as a yowm (day/period). So for example, all of Solomon's reign (40 years) is referred to as a single "yowm" (day) in 1 Kings 11:42.
Due to this difference in culture and language, Jews and Christians have had polite disagreements about the age of the earth for many centuries. Many ancients saw them as literal days, others saw it all happening instantly (translating yowm as "moments"), and others believe that they are long eras (as Origen called them, "God-divided days", since the sun did not exist to divide the days for the first half of the Creation Song). The debate remained polite until the last two hundred years or so, when science began saying that the earth was very old, and that this helps evolutionary theory. Christians, opposing the atheistic undertones of evolutionism, also opposed the scientific age of the earth—-even though one does not lead to the other. (It is a bit of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” in this case.)
Regardless, I will not be discussing my opinions on the interpretation of the passage of time in Genesis 1, both because it is outside my area of expertise and because as you shall see, the entire debate misses the point. In all of the constant debates about Genesis 1, the real key point of the passage is almost always missed: that Genesis 1 is a direct condemnation of the Egyptian cosmology.
Let’s jump in and see why.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen 1:1)
The Creation Song of the Hebrews starts off with a (Big?) bang. There was nothing in the universe, and God created everything ("heavens and the earth"). This is a direct opposition to the Egyptian worldview, where the earth pre-existed creation in a state of chaos. In the Hebrew cosmology, there was no primordial ocean of disorder that He arose out of. God pre-existed, and when He created, He created everything.
Also note that God is specifically not named here. This isn’t one of several gods vying for primacy: this is the One God, the only one. And He created everything, all at once.
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the deep. (Gen 1:2)
Again, Moses is clear that God is the only creator, and that there was nothingness—not chaos, but void. There was no light, no sun, nothing. All we had was a formless universe and empty space, and God created the heavens and the earth out of it.
Then, beginning in verse 3 and going until 31, we see the details of how God created the universe. He starts with light, and then separates light from darkness. He then creates an atmosphere with water in it, and has water on the surface of the earth. Next the dry land appears and the waters form into seas. Next, plants start growing and shortly thereafter life spreads throughout the sea. After that, life spreads onto land and then, eventually, God creates man.
This process is radically different from any Egyptian mythology, purposefully so. Time and again, the text tells us the same three things over and over: (1) the things in nature are things, not gods; (2) the One God created those things; and (3) God did it on purpose and calls them good, not accidents or mistakes (as was often the case in Egyptian cosmology).
Then, in Genesis 2:1-3 (which is part of this same story, and should not be grouped in with chapter 2 as it often is), we are told that God stopped all creative activity at this point and rested, and blessed this day and made it holy.
If you understand the Egyptian cosmology and then read Genesis 1, it is frankly hard to see Genesis as anything other than an insult and point-by-point refutation of the standard Egyptian worldview. The Hebrews had been under Egyptian authority for longer than America was a country; it is likely then that many accepted the Egyptian view of creation. God inspires Moses here to refute the Egyptian view, and place Him back at the center of Creation. When we spend our energy arguing over how to translate the word yowm, we miss the entire point that God is trying to make in the passage!
The points that God inspired Moses to make to the Hebrews were:
1. There was a beginning to time and the universe.
(Egyptians believed a chaotic sea existed eternally before creation.)
2. God—-the God of the Hebrews—-did the creating.
(Egyptians believed one or more of their gods created.)
3. God created simply by willpower and the word of His mouth.
(Egyptians believed that creation happened through sexual reproduction of gods and/or violence.)
4. God created everything on purpose and declared it “good.”
(Egyptians believed some creations were accidents and/or inherently evil.)
5. The sun, moon, stars, plants, and animals are things God created, and are not themselves spirits or gods.
(Egyptians believed that much of nature were deities.)
6. Mankind is not an accident, but is the crowning jewel of creation and made in the image of God.
(Egyptians believed that men were not in the image of the gods, and were either accidents or byproducts of creation.)
7. God no longer creates new things, but rests. The natural world He created can now proceed naturally. God is resting from His activity-—there is no chaos to conquer, because He created everything as it was meant to be, and all of nature was ‘good.’
(Egyptians saw their gods as engaged in a constant act of aggression against the forces of chaos—-not resting but holding everything together; failure to sacrifice to them might result in them allowing chaos to come back out.)
8. God made mankind as His vizier serving to administrate life on Earth.
(Egyptians saw the Pharaoh as the vizier of earth.)
Do you see the silliness then of spending so much time and energy discussing translation of ancient Hebrew words? We miss the entire point of the passage! And this is important, because modern secular science is attacking the Genesis account--not in terms of age of the earth (which as I mentioned, is debatable among Hebrew scholars), but in terms of evolutionary concepts. Secular science argues that the Big Bang happened randomly, that the earth and stars formed randomly, and that man evolved randomly. Genesis 1 is very important to battling and clarifying our anti-evolutionary standpoint, by showing that man did not evolve randomly but was created on purpose. But to argue about 'age of the earth' is complete silliness, as we are missing the ACTUAL point God made, which also happens to be the ACTUAL point we need today: that He was in control at all stages, and man is not here by accident.
Moses, in about 1400 BC, having led his people out of slavery in Egypt, was writing down on five scrolls the things he was inspired by God to write. For the book of Genesis he is serving in an editorial role, having received the stories and songs and sagas handed down from around campfires for generations, and under God’s inspiration is ensuring that they are recorded correctly and in the right way.
And to Moses-—and his readers—-the thing which stood out the most about Genesis 1 would not have been an argument about how long it took, but rather the wonder at the absolutely groundbreaking views espoused within. Chances are pretty good that most of the Jews who first heard this believed in an Egyptian cosmology, and (like all other Egyptians at the time) just saw their God as one of many gods, the one who tamed chaos.
But Genesis 1 boldly states the opposite. It claims that all of the gods of Egypt are not gods at all, just things God made: stars and suns and trees are nothing but dead inanimate objects that God made. They have no power, only He does. Pharaoh is nothing but a man, with no more God-given authority than any of us have. God is not holding back the forces of chaos, because there are no forces of chaos: everything had a beginning, everything was made “good” by God during the creative act, and He is now resting from His work.
Picture yourself as a Jew at Moses’ time. The Egyptians have been in power for a millennia and a half. Your family has been in slavery for 10-15 generations...literally every person listed in your family tree was an Egyptian slave. You have grown up assuming that the Egyptian cosmology was correct, but being told that your tribe has its own God (the “God of Abraham and Jacob”). But you have no religious life right now, no laws or temples or shrines. So you probably just worship along with the other Egyptians at their gods' feast days, and see your God as the one who did the taming of chaos and appointed Ra to travel across the sky, Khnum to keep flooding the Nile, etc. You believe that the sky is a goddess’ skin and that the seas are chaotic monstrous villains trying to conquer you, just like other Egyptians.
Now read Gen 1:1-2:3, and for the first time you will see it as it was intended. Do you see how the seven day structure is by far not the purpose of the text? Do you see how the primary point is to hammer home that God was (and is) in control, and to blatantly deny the very existence of all of the gods of the Egyptian pantheon?
Now you read it as Moses read it.