Genesis chapter 1 has got to be the most-read chapter in all of the Bible. I say that with a complete lack of any kind of objective data, but with a strong hunch that it's correct. Just think about it. When someone who isn't schooled up on the Christian faith says, "I want to understand more about this Bible thing everyone talks about, where do you think they turn? Malachi? Job? Revelation? They probably turn to the first page of the book and start there.
Then the New Year comes along and Christians left and right make their spiritual New Year's resolution that they're going to read through the Bible this next year, where they do start? The beginning of the book—the book of Genesis. And the next year? When they make that New Year's resolution again, convinced that this time they're going to stick it out past the book of Deuteronomy, do you think they start their reading where they left off? They probably start at the very beginning again.
I know there are outliers in this little hypothesis of mine, but I'm still holding out that Genesis 1 is the most read and perhaps most recognizable text of the Bible. And because of that, it's probably not one we spend a whole lot of time thinking about. After all, what's there to really get into the weeds with? Isn't it just an elongated way of saying, "God created everything?" Well, not so much.
There are some important words scattered throughout the first chapter of Genesis. Really, we should include chapter 2, verses one through three in this discussion because it's part of the first creation account. Whenever a biblical writer uses the same word a number of times, it should get our attention and make us ask why.
For instance, the word "create" (bara) appears in this passage 6 times. It's an important word, and many commentators have noted that it's a term only used when God is the subject. Man doesn't create. Only God does. In Genesis 1, God creates the heavens and the earth (1:1) and the sea creatures (1:21). The word is used three times in one verse to describe Gods creation of human beings (1:27), and it appears in the very last verse of this passage to describe God's creative activity from which God then rested on the seventh day (2:3).
Another oft-repeated word is "make" ('asah). It's a little more general of a word than "create" is. It's used much more extensively in the rest of the OT with a wider swatch of meanings. In Genesis 1, it occurs three times where God is narrated as making heaven (1:7), the celestial bodies (v. 16), and the land-dwelling creatures (v. 25). In this context, there's no real different in meaning between "create" and "make." It's being used as a synonym and should not be given a strong theologically-distinct meaning.
Of course, the most frequent term found in Genesis 1-2:3 is the word "God" ('elohim). And that's understandable. This is the account of the creation of time and space. Before this point, nothing existed but God. He is the only actor in this creative drama and the cosmos becomes his glorious stage. The term "God" appears a total of 35 times in this passage of 34 verses. Interestingly, the divine name "Yahweh" does not appear at all in this text. It enters in the next passage, where it is combined with the term "God" to link the God of creation ('elohim) with the the God of the covenant (Yahweh). But more on that in a moment.
There's one other term that appears frequently throughout this text. It's the word "said" ('amar). There's a lot of speaking going on in Genesis 1:1-2:3. In fact, this word occurs a total of 10 times in this passage (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29). If you're doing the math, that's more than the other two words ("create" and "make") combined. So it must be an important word. Every new create act God does proceeds from God's articulation of his will do create that thing. That's why that word "let" appears so much. "Let there be light . . ." (1:3); "Let there be an expanse . . ." (1:6); "Let the waters be gathered . . ." (1:9); "Let the earth sprout vegetation . . ." (1:11). You get the idea. Every time God speaks, we hear God speaking volitionally. There's divine intent; divine desire; divine will. But why? Why does God do so much talking in the opening passage of the Bible? Why does every creative act of God initiate with God speaking? It really is an intriguing question. Moses could have written a very succinct account of the creation of the cosmos by simply narrating how God "created" and "made" everything. Yet he doesn't do that.
The reason for this emphasis on God speaking comes from the larger purpose of Moses in the Pentateuch, and it's a very good lesson for us on how to interpret biblical texts within their larger literary contexts.
Most of us think about Genesis as one of the sixty-six books of the Christian Bible. But that's kind of misleading. Yes it's a "book" in the sense that it is a literary unit. But it doesn't appear in early Jewish thinking as a literary unit of its own. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, this book isn't even called "Genesis." That title appears in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint [LXX]). But the Jewish tradition simply gives it the title, "In the beginning," after the opening phrase of the book. That's because the Jews didn't look at Genesis as a story of its own—a book of origins, as the name "Genesis" implies. Rather, they viewed it as the introduction to a larger story . . . to the story of Israel as a nation. In their view, Genesis was simply the opening act of a five-part story that begins at the creation of the cosmos and ends on the plains of Moab where Moses is addressing a new generation of Israelites on the eve of their conquest into Canaan (cf. Deut. 1:1).
That's a really helpful point to remember when we're reading and thinking about the meaning of Genesis. The entire narrative, from chapter 1 to chapter 50, is the opening act in the creation of a nation about to enter into a new land. They have entered into a special covenant relationship with Yahweh at Sinai; it is a relationship that rests on God's purposes and God's promises. God has chosen one man—Abraham—through whom he will bless all the peoples of the earth (Gen. 12:3), and his offspring will be a special people, grown and cultivated under the tyranny of an oppressive dictator, and then liberated and redeemed by Yahweh himself and made his own unique people, his special, treasured possession, a priestly kingdom set apart from all the other nations of the earth in order to accomplish his redemptive agenda for mankind (Exod. 19:5–6).
And here they are. A new generation. Waiting on the plains of Moab. Across the Jordan river is the land promised to them by covenant. Their parents have all died during their forty-year sojourning through the wilderness, consequences of their collective unbelief concerning God's promises to protect them as they fulfill their covenant obligations to drive out the inhabitants of the land and possess it as their own (cf. Num. 14; Deut 1:19–40). Now Moses, with this new generation, addresses them one final time in a series of homilies on the key covenant text that defines Israel's relationship to Yahweh: the Ten Commandments.
Deuteronomy has its own unique theological feature set—its own set of terms and phrases that make it stand out in style and language from the other books of the Pentateuch. But one of the prominent themes found throughout Deuteronomy is Israel's need to hear and obey Yahweh:
- "And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you . . ." (4:1)
- "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today . . ." (5:1)
- "Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one" (6:4)
- "Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today . . ." (9:1)
- "And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today . . ." (11:13)
- "Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of Yahweh your God" (27:9)
- Cf. also 28:1, 15; 30:2; 31:12, 13
You get the idea. Key to Israel's success in the land was their ability to listen to Yahweh, hear him speak through his revealed law, and obey him faithfully.
Another theme featured prominently in Deuteronomy is the theme of Yahweh's faithfulness. In Genesis, we see time after time the fact that God is a God who speaks. He makes promises—promises to Abraham; promises to Isaac; promises to Jacob. These promises form the foundation for Israel's hope as a nation. These promises are those to which Israel must look to and cling to 600 years after those promises are made when Yahweh leads them across the Jordan into the land of promise. Thus, Moses repeatedly emphasizes the fact that Yahweh is faithful to his promises, particularly the promise that he will protect them as they enter the land and encounter hostile forces:
- "Know therefore that Yahweh your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who live him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations" (7:9)
- "And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, Yahweh your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers" (7:12)
- "Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is Yahweh your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you" (31:6)
- "The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniequity, just and upright is he" (32:4)
Now, with that literary context set, let's go back to the opening chapter of Genesis and ask the question we asked initially. Why is there so much emphasis in the very first chapter of the Pentateuch on God speaking during his creative work? By now the answer should be apparent. The creator God ('elohim) of Genesis 1:1–2:3 is the covenant God of Genesis 2:4–Deuteronomy 34. He is the God who speaks and things happen just as he says. In fact, six times the phrase "and it was so" occur in the creation narrative (1:7, 9, 11, 15, 24, 30), which is a way of saying, "And it happened just that way."
You see, Moses is working very hard in the opening chapter of the story of Israel to paint a clear portrait of God as one who speaks with absolute power and authority. His volition—his will—is always accomplished exactly as he intends. The entire cosmos is the result not simply of his creative action but of his spoken word, or as the writer to the Hebrews puts it: "He upholds the universe by the word of his power" (Heb. 1:3).
"That's your God," Moses is saying to Israel. And that God who spoke the universe into existence is the same God who as spoken to you. How, then, should Israel respond to God's spoken word? Quite simply, by the very things he has urged them to do throughout Deuteronomy: listen to him, obey him, and trust his promises. The one who does those things are on solid footing. They will be the people who will not be shaken in the midst of adversity, because they know that when Yahweh speaks, it's the God of the universe who speaks. The God of covenant relationship and covenant promise. And if he can speak light into existence, he can realize every promise to his people.
If you're struggling to trust God right now; if you're finding it difficult to believe that God will pull through on what he's promised in his word; if you're tempted to question whether obedience to God's word is really that important; perhaps it's time to revisit Genesis 1. Perhaps it's time to be reminded of the power and the might and the reliability of God's spoken word.