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Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 1

 

 

Verses 1-5

Genesis 1:1-5.—Since the formula "These are the generations of" is usually placed by P at the beginning of a section, whereas here it occurs at the end (Genesis 2:4 a), it is thought by many that its present position is due to its removal from the beginning of this chapter, and that the story opened with the words "These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth." But this implies a different use of "generations" from what we find elsewhere in P, who employs it to express what is produced by the person mentioned. The clause may be an addition. Several scholars connect Genesis 1:1 with Genesis 1:3, rendering "In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth (now the earth . . . the waters), then God said, Let there be light: and there was light." This makes the creation of light the main point, the creation of heaven and earth serving simply to date God's command "Let there be light." But surely the creation of light thus receives an excessive emphasis, while the placing of Genesis 1:2 in a parenthesis makes the sentence very awkward and involved. It is better to retain the RV rendering, according to which Genesis 1:1 is an independent sentence. It is possible that this verse narrates the creation of the primæval chaos, described in Genesis 1:2; but, since heaven and earth are cosmos rather than chaos, it is far more likely that it gives in a summary form what is to be told in detail in the rest of the chapter. To us the word "created" most naturally suggests to create out of nothing. But whether this was the writer's view or not, the term probably does not express it. Its meaning is uncertain; most usually it is given as "to cut" or "to carve." It is characteristic of, and is generally, though not invariably, found in late writings, but it does not follow that it must be a comparatively late word. Neither here nor elsewhere is Scripture committed to the doctrine of absolute creation. Hebrews 11:3* does not assert creation out of nothing; it denies creation from "things which do appear," i.e. out of the phenomenal. Basilides the Gnostic, who taught in the former part of the second century A.D., was perhaps the first to teach it (see Hatch, Hibbert Lectures, pp. 195f.); earlier statements often quoted may be otherwise explained. Genesis 1:2 describes the condition of things before this Divine action began. "The earth," as we know it, had not come into being, but the writer uses the word to describe the formless mass, in which were confused together the elements God would disentangle to make the ordered universe. This chaos was illumined by no ray of light, the deep lay under a thick pall of darkness, and over its surface the spirit of God was already brooding (mg.), as a bird on the eggs in its nest. Are we to suppose that the brooding has a similar result? Milton's invocation to the Spirit :

"Thou from the first

Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread,

Dove-like satst brooding on the vast abyss,

And mad'st it pregnant:"

corresponds to the impression made on the modern reader; but it is questionable whether it is that intended by the writer, who regards creation as achieved simply by God's word. The term "spirit of God" is not to be interpreted through later theological usage and identified with the Holy Spirit; more probably it is an expression for the life-giving energy of God. Perhaps we have here a relic of a mythological feature in the original story, which may have told how the gods came into existence through this brooding over the world-egg, a thought which the severe monotheism of Israel could not tolerate.

Such, then, was this dark chaotic confusion before God Himself began to act upon it. There are eight creative acts, each introduced with the formula "And God said." There is no manipulation of matter by God's fingers, but all is achieved by God's word, which is living and active, and instinct with Divine power. "By this effortless word God called the various orders of creation into existence and carried to completion His stupendous task. Here there is no conflict with the hostile demon of darkness and chaos as in the Babylonian myth, no struggle to bend the reluctant matter to His will, no laborious shaping and moulding of raw stuff into the finished product, but the mere utterance of the word achieves at once and perfectly the Divine intention" (Peake, Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, pp. 27f.). And just as, after darkness and sleep, the light comes that man may go forth to his work till the night closes in when no man can work, so after the eternal night which has rested on the abyss, light comes, to be followed by God's creative work. For the Hebrews light and darkness were "physical essences" (Cheyne), each having its own abode (Job 38:19 f.), from which each in turn issued to illumine or darken the world. When light was first created, it streamed out into the darkness, and mingled with it as one fluid with another. But such a confusion it is the purpose of creation to overcome, so God separates the light from the darkness. This separation is partly temporal, as Genesis 1:5 indicates; each has a period in the twenty-four hours in which to function, yielding then the field to the other. But the temporal rests on a local separation. The two are disentangled, and then each is assigned first its local habitation (Job 38:19 f.), then its period of operation. Light is thus not due to the heavenly bodies, which come into being only on the fourth day; it has an independent existence. And it is entirely adequate to its purpose, for God pronounces it "good," by which He means that it corresponded to His design, the result was precisely what He had intended. To the light He gives the name of Day, to the darkness the name Night. The temporal mingling of light and darkness, which we call twilight, is much briefer in Palestine or Babylonia than in our northern climes. Thus the work of the first day, reckoned probably from morning to morning, is accomplished. The period of light is followed by evening and darkness, which comes to an end with the next morning, when the second day begins. Render, "And evening came, and morning came, one day" (Driver), and similarly throughout the chapter.


Verses 1-31

Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:4 a. The Priestly Story of Creation.—This section belongs to the Priestly Document (P). This is shown by the use of several of its characteristic terms, by the constant repetition of the formulæ, and by the formal arrangement. P's interest in the origin of religious institutions is displayed in the explanation of the origin of the Sabbath. The lofty monotheism of the section is also characteristic of his theological position.

The story rests upon a much older tradition, mainly, it would seem, Babylonian in its origin. There are several striking parallels with the Babylonian creation legend. The "deep" or watery chaos (tehom) (Genesis 1:12) corresponds to the Babylonian Tiamat. Darkness is over this chaos. There is a rending of sky and earth from each other, and the creation of a solid expanse or firmament which divides the upper waters from the waters of the earth, and in which the heavenly bodies are placed. There are also serious differences, due largely to the absence of the polytheistic and mythological element from the Biblical account (p. 51). Even if the Spirit of God that broods over the abyss is a remnant of mythology, yet the Hebrew account represents God as existing before the creative process begins, and as willing and controlling it, whereas in the Babylonian legend the gods come into existence during the process. Nor is there any trace of opposition between the abyss and the creative power in Genesis; though it is not said that chaos was created by God, it rather seems to have an independent existence beside Him. The Phœnician cosmogony presents striking parallels, such as the existence at first of chaos and spirit, and the egg, from which the universe was produced, which seems to be implied in the Hebrew narrative in the reference to the brooding of the Spirit. It is probable, in spite of the striking differences, that the Biblical account has its ultimate origin in the Babylonian mythology rather than that both are, as Dillmann thinks, independent developments of a primitive Semitic myth. Gunkel has argued forcibly that the work of creation was explained by analogy from the rebirth of the world in spring after the winter, or in the morning after the night, and that the phenomena depicted can have been suggested only in an alluvial country like Babylonia. But it has derived elements from other sources, especially Phœnician and possibly Egyptian. It appears to have been formed in Palestine, for the purification of the story would involve a long process, and one which would be complete only at a late point in the pre-exilic period. In its present form it is probably not earlier than the exile, and was presumably written on Babylonian soil. But it is most unlikely that the Priestly writer, belonging, as he did, to the rigid school of Ezekiel, should have borrowed consciously from Babylonian mythology.

At what time this myth reached Israel is much disputed. Some think the Hebrews brought it with them from Mesopotamia; others place it in the period known to us from the Tell el-Amarna tablets (about 1450 B.C.) when Babylonian culture exerted great influence on Western Asia and Egypt; others again think of the period of Assyrian rule over Judah. It is unlikely that the Hebrews, even if they brought the Babylonian legend with them from Mesopotamia, would preserve it through all their subsequent experiences. More probably they derived it from the Canaanites, who may have learnt it from the Babylonians in the Tell el-Amarna period (see p. 51). We can thus account for the Canaanite elements that appear to have been incorporated. Some scholars hold that the Hebrews elaborated the creation doctrine at a late period. This does not at all follow from the silence of the earlier prophets, even if, as is not unlikely, the creation passages in Amos are a later addition (pp. 551, 554). For these prophets had little occasion to speak of it. And there are references in the other literature which seem to be early. This is specially true of the creation story in Genesis 2. And in Solomon's dedication words at the consecration of the Temple, restored by Wellhausen from the LXX (p. 298), we read "Yahweh hath set the sun in the heavens." So also in Exodus 20:11, which, even if a later addition to the Decalogue, is probably pre-exilic, we read that "in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth." It would be strange if, when the surrounding peoples had creation narratives, Israel had none.

Whether the Priestly writer himself originated the division into six days is uncertain. It is clearly later than the enumeration of the works as eight. For in order to get eight works into six days it has been necessary to put two works on the third and two on the sixth day; and in neither case is the pair well matched; in the former we have the separation of land and water combined with the creation of vegetation, in the latter land-animals and man are created on the same day, though from the lofty position assigned to man, we should have expected his creation to have taken place on a day reserved for it. But the six days' work and the seventh day's rest are probably not due to the Priestly writer. The Sabbath rest for God is so anthropomorphic an idea, that P, who does not represent God as subject to human limitations and affections, must have borrowed it from an older source. Both the six days' work and seventh day's rest are found in Exodus 20:11. If this is dependent on our passage, it yields no evidence for an earlier origin of the six days' scheme. But although it does not occur in the Deuteronomic version of the Decalogue, the reason for the commandment substituted in Deuteronomy 5:15 probably had its origin in the humane spirit of the Deuteronomic legislation. The differences between Exodus 20:11 and Genesis 2:2 are also of a kind to exclude the dependence of the former on the latter. It may, therefore, be assumed that not only the division of creation into eight works but the period of six days lay ready to the author's hand. As it is not found in the Babylonian or Phœnician cosmogonies, it seems probable that the six days' scheme is of Israelitish origin. The eight works may have been borrowed ultimately from a foreign source.

Those who are interested in the once burning question as to the relation between this narrative and modern science should consult the very thorough discussion in Driver's Commentary. Here it must suffice to say that the value of the narrative is not scientific but religious; that it imperils faith to insist on literal accuracy in a story which can only by unjustifiable forcing be made to yield it; that it was more in harmony with the method of inspiration to take current views and purify them so that they might be fit vehicles of religious truth than to anticipate the progress of research by revealing prematurely what men could in due time discover for themselves; and finally that even if this narrative could be harmonised with our present knowledge, we should have the task of harmonising the very different narrative in the second chapter both with the present story and with modern science, (See further p. 12.)


Verses 6-8

Genesis 1:6-8. When, on the second morning, light resumes the sway which had been interrupted by the night, God begins the task of evolving order out of chaos. First He makes a "firmament," by which is meant a solid vault over-arching the earth. Then the waters of the abyss are divided into two portions, one of which is placed above this firmament, to constitute the waters of the upper or heavenly ocean, the other left where it was, to form "the deep that coucheth beneath" (Genesis 49:25). This, it must be understood, is not identical with the ocean, though the ocean issued from it (Job 38:8-11); it is beneath both sea and land. It feeds the sea through openings in the bed of the ocean, "the springs of the sea" (Job 38:16*) or "the fountains of the great deep" (Genesis 7:11). In the vault of the sky there are "windows" (Genesis 7:11) or sluices ("the channel for the waterflood," Job 38:25 *); when these are opened the waters of the heavenly ocean stream down on the earth in the form of torrential rain. The representation of the division of the waters of the abyss probably goes back to the Babylonian account of the division of the corpse of Tiamat by Marduk after that deity had vanquished her. We are told that he split her in two like a flat fish, and made one half a covering for the heaven; then he fixed a bar and set a watchman, bidding them not let her waters escape. The other half of the corpse is said by Berossus (third century B.C.) to have been made into the earth; and we can hardly doubt that, though this is not explicitly stated in our cuneiform sources, it correctly represents the authentic Babylonian view. The formula "and it was so" has been accidentally transferred from its proper place at the end of Genesis 6, where the LXX reads it, to the end of Genesis 7. The omission of the clause "and God saw that it was good" may be accidental, the LXX reads it after heaven."


Verses 9-13

Genesis 1:9-13. Two acts are assigned to the third day, the separation of land and water, and the creation of vegetation. The former was apparently effected by the draining of the waters which covered the land into a receptacle (for "one place" LXX reads "one gathering"), so that the dry land emerged into view. It was now possible for it to be clothed with vegetation, first the tender grass, then the herbs or larger plants, and finally trees, especially those that bore fruit. Thus the way is prepared for the creation of man and animal, their food-supply being now provided (Genesis 1:29 f.). Possibly, however, the term "grass" may be intended to cover "herb" and "tree," in which case it means not grass but all vegetation in its earliest stage. The herb yields seed, the tree yields seed enclosed in fruit. Each genus remains fixed, and reproduces "after its kinds" (render by the plural here and in Genesis 1:12; Genesis 1:24 f.), i.e. the various species embraced in it.


Verses 14-19

Genesis 1:14-19. The second set of four works on the last three days corresponds to the set of four on the first three. Thus we have the creation of light and of the luminaries; the firmament separating the upper from the lower waters, and the birds which fly across the firmament and the fish in the sea; the appearance of the land and creation of land animals; finally the creation of herbs and fruit, and the creation of man, who till the Flood subsists entirely upon these.

The heavenly bodies are described as they appear to us. hence the stars are a mere appendix to the "two great lights," added almost as an after-thought, possibly by some scribe or reader. The plain meaning of the passage is that the lights were created on the fourth day, not that they had been created before and only then became visible! They are attached to the firmament, and serve as lamps for the earth. They also regulate the festivals and other occasions, secular as well as sacred, and the divisions between day and night, and they determine the length of the year. They serve, moreover, as "signs," perhaps in the astrological sense as foreshadowing the future. But they are not to be worshipped, nor are they even represented here, as often in Scripture, as animated beings (Genesis 1:21*).


Verses 20-23

Genesis 1:20-23. On the fifth day were created the denizens of the water and the atmosphere; the creatures that move in swarms in the water, all winged creatures, including insects, and the sea monsters, especially, perhaps, such as belong to mythology, and fishes. The rendering "bring forth abundantly" is inaccurate; the margin gives the sense, though it would be better to translate with Driver. "Let the waters swarm with swarming things (even) living souls." The term is used of creatures that move in swarms whether in the water (as here) or out of it. The RV often renders it "creeping things" (similarly the verb), which is the proper rendering of a noun (remes) Genesis 1:24, the verb of which is translated "moveth" in Genesis 1:21. On the distinction see Driver's article, Creeping Things, in HDB. The rendering "creature that hath life" is more tolerable to the English ear than "living souls," but it conceals the interesting fact that the term "souls" could be used of the lower creation as well as of men. There is no necessity to infer that the author regarded the winged creatures as derived from the water. The fact that they fly in "front of the firmament," i.e. skim the surface of the sky turned towards the earth, shows that the writer regarded it as quite near.


Verses 24-31

Genesis 1:24-31. The sixth day is occupied with the creation of the land animals and of man. It is natural that a much fuller space than usual should be accorded to the latter. And the solemnity of the act is marked by the formula of deliberation, "Let us make man." The plural has been variously explained. Setting aside as beyond the range of the OT the view that the Father addresses the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the view that God speaks of Himself in the plural since He is the fulness of energies and powers, as too artificial, the most obvious explanation is that God is addressing the heavenly assembly (cf. 1 Kings 22:19-22, Isaiah 6:8). Yet there is difficulty in this view, for P ignores angels altogether; nor would he regard them as sharing in the work of creation: nor, probably, would he think of man as made in their image as well as in God's; cf. Genesis 1:27, "in his own image, in the image of God." The original sense was perhaps polytheistic; naturally this was impossible to the author, and if he reflected on the formula he would presumably interpret it of the heavenly council. No distinction seems to be intended between the image and the likeness. Originally this may have been physically conceived; man was thought to be like God in external appearance. But the author presumably would be drawn rather to a spiritual and intellectual interpretation, laying stress on man's community of nature with God. Creation in the image of God differentiates man from all other creatures on the earth (cf. Genesis 9:6), hence he is fitted to rule over them (for "over all the earth" in Genesis 1:26 read over every living creature of the earth," with the Syriac); cf. the fine development of the theme in Psalms 8, and the deeper discussion in Hebrews 2:5-9. The reference to the creation of both sexes most naturally suggests that they originated at the same time, a view very different from that followed in the other creation story, Genesis 2:18-23. Men and animals are regarded as living on a vegetarian diet in the period before the Flood (Genesis 9:3 f.). There would thus be peace between men and animals, and in the animal world itself. To man is allotted the seed and fruit, to beasts and birds "the greenness of herbs" (Genesis 1:30), i.e. the leafage.

Genesis 1:24. Render, "Let the earth bring forth living soul after its kinds."—

Genesis 1:28. The change from "fill" in Genesis 1:22 to "replenish" here is misleading to the modern reader, who is unaware that at an earlier period the words were equivalent in sense. The same Heb. word is used in both places and in Genesis 9:1.

Genesis 1:29 f. meat: i.e. food, not animal food merely.

 


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Bibliography Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Genesis 1:4". "Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pfc/genesis-1.html. 1919.

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