A New and Different Genesis 1
Have you ever read a book that totally changed the way you thought about something? Or heard an idea that gave you a completely new picture of something you thought you knew well? This essay is about just such a book.
Most of us know the verses of Genesis 1 so well we could recite parts of them from memory. Some have studied them for years and read shelves of books about what the first chapters of Genesis mean. But what if someone suggested that most of what you have thought and pictured and been told about those early chapters might not be quite right? Would you reach for the red tag of “Heresy” to slap on the book? Would you be sure that the author could not possibly be right? In this discussion we are reviewing a new book called Genesis Unbound, and it may well cause you to reexamine what you thought Genesis 1 and 2 are about.
The author, Dr. John Sailhammer, is not a newcomer to theology. Educated at Dallas Theological Seminary and UCLA, Dr. Sailhammer taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He now teaches at Northwestern College. He has written several well-respected books on the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) and is considered an excellent conservative Old Testament scholar. The commentary on Genesis in Zondervan’s Expositor’s Bible Commentary is by Dr. Sailhammer. His recent book gives a surprisingly new, and yet very old, look at the first chapters of Genesis.
To lay the groundwork for any new view, it is important to understand the prevailing view first. Sailhammer helpfully provides five basic assumptions that he says make up the core beliefs of nearly all the current views.
The first of these core assumptions is that the first verse of Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” refers to the creation of some sort of unformed mass that God will make into a universe as the six days progress.
The second assumption that almost all commentators make about Genesis 1 is that the “light” created on day one was something unique and temporary for dividing the days until the fourth day when God would create the sun, moon, and stars.
Third, it is generally assumed that the sun, moon, and stars were actually created on the fourth day.
Fourth, until recent science began to question the assumption, it has been almost universally believed that the days of Genesis 1 were normal, 24-hour days. Some placed a gap between the first and second verses, to place all of the geological ages, but this was not a widely held view. In our century it is common to make the days long ages so the Bible will agree with the consensus of modern geology.
Lastly, the earth that God is making ready for man in Genesis 1 has almost always been seen as the whole planet. Accordingly, verse one is about the creation of the whole universe, and verse two begins a description of how God fashioned the earth for (1) the creatures He was about to make, and (2) a home for the two people He would make in His own image.
But suppose there were some assumptions in this list that we did not need to make? How would that change our view of these first chapters of Genesis? Next we will consider how a Jewish reader of Moses’ time might have understood Genesis 1.
The Forming of the Promised Land
We all make assumptions when we read or hear something; we cannot think without a structure. But sometimes we make unnecessary assumptions that hinder our understanding. Of the five assumptions that many make about Genesis 1, could some be unnecessary baggage? The first assumption was that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” describes an initially chaotic state out of which God would create the material world. But suppose instead that this verse actually described God’s creation of heaven and earth? Dr. Sailhammer carefully develops the view that in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “In the beginning” often describes a period of indeterminate time. Genesis 10:10 says “And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh.” Jeremiah 28:1 describes “The beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year.” Genesis Unbound suggests that we picture God creating the whole universe, “the heavens and the earth,” over some unspecified time in the past.
When we begin verse two, “And the earth was formless and void,” Sailhammer says it is not talking about the whole of planet earth. What are Moses’ five books about? The nation of Israel. What is the whole theme of the Pentateuch? How God chooses a people and takes them to the promised land He has made for them. Why not give “earth” in verse two its other meaning of “land”? And specifically “The Land.” God, through Moses, is telling us how He prepared the Promised Land for the people He already knew He would choose.
Why, then, was the land “formless and void?” It wasn’t! Genesis Unbound contends that this assumption crept in with the first Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint. It translates the Hebrew into Greek as “unseen and unformed” in order to harmonize the Bible with the view of the Greeks, who believed the world was formed out of chaos, so the translators wanted to seem relevant and mirrored that idea! According to Dr. Sailhammer, it would be better to translate the phrase as “an uninhabitable wasteland.” God had not yet prepared it for man, but it was not chaos either. God was preparing to take the “wasteland” and make it the “promised land.”
On day two, God prepares the sky for the land He will soon begin to make ready. The word often translated “firmament” Sailhammer suggests actually refers to what we would call the sky. And the waters above the firmament are the clouds that God sets in the sky. Interestingly, this is exactly what John Calvin thought. He wrote, “To my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy . . . let him go elsewhere.”
On day three, God gathers together the seas and makes the dry land appear. The land is brought out of the water to make a fit place for Adam and Eve. The water settles into rivers and lakes. The Hebrew word for any body of water can be translated “sea.” Here it is plural, while if it referred to the ocean it would be singular.
Then God creates “fruit trees.” In Sailhammer’s understanding, that is what the words describe, not all kinds of vegetation.
At the end of the third day, the Promised Land has been prepared with clouds in the sky, rivers and lakes, and fruit trees for food.
The Filling of the Land
The book Genesis Unbound presents what seems at first a completely new understanding of Genesis 1. But by seeing the chapter as God preparing the Promised Land, first for Adam and Eve, and eventually for His chosen nation Israel, many problems are avoided. Dr. Sailhammer takes the days to be normal 24-hour days, but sees the creation of the whole universe as having taken place in the first verse, over some unstated period of time in the past. Then God focuses in on His preparation of a place for His last creation to live.
Now, on day four, God gives a new purpose to the sun, moon, and stars that have been shining since He created them “in the beginning.” On day four, God declares they are to guide the people He is about to make. They will act as measures of time; they will serve humanity. There have been no people placed on earth yet, so the sun has merely been a star in the sky. Now God speaks, and the host of heaven takes on a new function as celestial markers. On the first three days, God created the land and places for things. Now He is declaring what is to fill each part of the stage, and what their functions will be.
On day five the same word for “create” that was used in verse one occurs again: bara. Why does God use this word again? Dr. Sailhammer suggests that Moses is drawing our attention back to 1:1 to remind us that only God can create things out of nothing. But on day five, when God populates this new land He has made, it is with animals and birds that are descendants of those He made on day one. God speaks, His creation responds, He sees it is good and blesses His creation.
Day six is the climax of the account, and the center of God’s activity. From nothing God has created the universe in Genesis 1:1. He has prepared a special land and populated it with His creations. And then we come to man.
Here God changes His whole approach. He now announces, “Let us make man in Our image.” And in order for the creation to fully bear His image, He makes them male and female. Sailhammer makes an interesting point here as he discusses why the text suddenly says “Let us.” He sees a reflection of God’s character in the fact that it takes both a male and female before God’s image can be born by humans. Just as men and women complement one another, so too the “us” points to the relationships that exist within the Godhead. So, in Dr. Sailhammer’s fascinating argument in Genesis Unbound, when God sets out to create “in His image” for the first time, He first creates a special land for them, then appoints the sun, moon, and stars to a new purpose, fills the land, sky, and waters with creatures, and creates a garden for Adam and Eve to live in.
Some might object that God doesn’t seem to do very much. But, Sailhammer argues that God had already created everything out of nothing in Genesis 1:1. Now, God speaks ten times (just as He spoke the Ten Commandments) and makes a land perfect for humans to live in. He creates for Adam and Eve a garden. And that garden will someday be the very land that God promises to Abraham, and eventually brings the nation of Israel to, for as we will see next, Eden is the land of Israel.
Does Genesis 2 Contradict Genesis 1?
At last we come to day seven. God has created a place for each of His creations, and just as He instructs His creation to do in the Ten Commandments, God Himself is said to “rest.”
He has taken a wild land, unfit for people, and made it into a literal garden spot. Now, in a pattern that He sets for His creation to follow, He takes a day of rest. This becomes deeply significant later on when Moses receives the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:11 God says “For in six days the LORD made the sky, the earth, and the seas and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.” Thus the divine pattern is also to be the human plan. Even now that we are burdened with the effects of the Fall, even in our rebelliousness, God still wants His creation to rest, and take time to bless our Creator.
Then what are we to make of Genesis 2? Many modern scholars have spoken of two creation accounts and seen this as an inconsistency or an error in the Bible. The usual answer has been that the account in Genesis 2 is a narrowing of focus from chapter 1, looking just at the creation of man and woman in detail. If this is so, Dr. Sailhammer asks, then why not see Genesis 1 as describing the same place as Genesis 2, Eden? Thus he continues his argument into chapter 2.
In Genesis 2:5-6, some have seen a contradiction with the first chapter. How can there be no shrubs or plants or rain? What Genesis Unbound sees in these verses is a comparison being set up between before and after the Fall. There are no “shrubs of the field” or “plants of the field” because these would come as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. These are the “thorns and thistles” and “plants of the field” that Adam is told he must work to cultivate in Genesis 3:18-19.
When the text says “it had not rained on the earth,” it is a contrast to when God will “send rain on the earth” during the Flood. And there was “no man to cultivate the ground” because this too would come as a result of the Fall in Genesis 3:23. So the text is already preparing us for what the results of man’s disobedience will be, even as the Garden is being made.
Dr. Sailhammer also finds the large amount of space devoted to locating Eden of considerable significance. While modern commentators have despaired of ever locating the exact place, he sees the length of the description as indicative that at least Moses expected people to recognize where Eden was located.
The primary way that Eden is located is by the rivers that flow from it. And what are those rivers? One of them is the Pishon, a river now unknown. But the second is the Gihon, which flows around the land of Cush. Since Cush is roughly the same as Egypt, might not the river Gihon be the Nile River of Egypt? And the other two rivers are the Tigres and the Euphrates. Sailhammer thinks it is not coincidence that two of these rivers are exactly the ones that God uses to explain to Abraham where the promised land will be (Gen. 15:18).
Next we will consider why Eden and Israel are so closely connected, and whether Genesis should be read as poetry or not.
Genesis Unbound and the Rest of Scripture
Dr. John Sailhammer’s new book Genesis Unbound has many novel explanations of Genesis 1 and 2. But at the same time, it both helps us see how a Hebrew reader might have understood what Moses wrote and answers a number of puzzling questions that most of us have had about the text. One of these questions is, “What became of Eden after God devoted so much care to making it?”
Earlier we looked at how the rivers God uses to describe where Eden was, are much the same as the ones He uses to tell Abraham where the promised land was to be. Think of the parallels. In the same way that God prepares a special place for Adam and Eve, a place they will be driven out of if they are disobedient, so too, He promises first Abraham, and then the whole nation of Israel a special place, that they will be driven out of if they are disobedient. In fact, both are sent the same direction, to the east, when they do disobey. And then, where will the Messiah come to? Exactly the same area as the first Adam lived! And where is the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 located? Just where God placed the first Jerusalem, which was in the same place that He created for Adam and Eve: Eden!
In this view, the whole Bible ties together in a way that makes complete sense and has God wasting nothing as He prepares a land for His people. The blessings and curses that form so much a part of the later books of the Pentateuch, can now be seen as being foreshadowed in God’s initial command to Adam and Eve.
But should we even be reading Genesis so literally? After all, isn’t Genesis really poetry? As an Old Testament scholar, Sailhammer makes short work of the argument. What is it that characterizes all Hebrew poetry? Parallelism and meter. Parallelism is the use of two lines to express the same idea in two ways. For example:
The Lord is a great God
And a great king above all gods.
These express the same thought in two related ways. Hebrew poetry also has a certain meter, where either the number of words or symbols will be approximately the same between two lines. Does Genesis 1 or 2 fit that pattern? Absolutely not. And in fact, Sailhammer chides Evangelicals, who, to try to take these chapters less literally, speak of “poetry-like” language. As he says, this seems like “little more than an attempt to dismiss the obvious intent of these narratives to tell us, in literal terms, what actually happened at creation.”
In conclusion, he considers the question, “Is the Big Bang being described in Genesis 1:1?” Interestingly enough, his answer is a fairly firm, “No.” As he pointedly comments, “When understood as the Big Bang, creation becomes just another example of the forces of the physical world we see around us today. . . . Our world, however, cannot be traced back to the divine act of creation. Science and history will always be separated from the divine acts of creation.”
You will have to read all of Dr. Sailhammer’s provocative book to make up your own mind. But at least give him the chance to make his case directly from the text. Genesis Unbound is a book to stir your thinking, and should be read slowly. But go back and read Genesis to be reminded of God’s greatness in His creation.
©1996 Probe Ministries