Pentateuch is considered to be the most important part in the Old Testament. It recorded the account of creation, the fall of man, the Law Code as well as the experience of the Ancient Israel. Among them Genesis is the first book recorded incidents happened from the creation of the world to Joseph’s time. In chapter one to eleven, the origin of the world and human race are introduced and in chapter twelve onwards are the stories of the Ancestors. In this passage, we will concentrate in discussing the theology of chapter one to eleven which contained much valuable and important message for the readers who were probably Israelites in post-exilic period (which would be discussed later).
In order to understand the text it is important to have some knowledge about the background of the readers as the author should compose his work under their background so that they may understand easily. Hence brief introduction of the background of Ancient Israelites and Genesis as well as its authorship would be given before we go into discussing its theology.
Background of Canaanites’ Religion and Ancient Israelites
Both Biblical record and archeological evidence showed that beside the Israelites, there were many other people living in Palestine. They included Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girga*censored*es and Jebusites. In this passage, they are all regarded as Canaanites. Basically, the Canaanites’ religions are polytheistic. They believed in many gods in many different levels including those national god, functional gods and family gods or ancestors. In the following paragraphs, a brief introduction of Canaanites’ religions would be given as a background for the studies of religion of ancient Israelites.
Although the gods they worshipped were different, tribes in Ancient Near East did have similar although not exactly the same doctrines. As mentioned above, their religions are polytheistic. Each god in their religion had different function and statues. They had different characters and might fight among themselves. We are going to discuss the religion in Canaan and Babylon as examples.
One point must be noted is that the functions of the gods in Canaan are closely related to natural phenomena . For example, Baal Hadad was known as the thunder god who was responsible for raining. Other examples included El Elyon who was known as the sun god , Yamm who was the god of the sea and Mot who was the god of death . Some of the gods were related to daily life. For instant, Anath was the goddess of war and Astarte was known as the goddess of love and fertility and also of war. Another function of Baal was related to fertility.
The Canaanites always explained natural phenomena using myths. The alternation of the seasons and the death and renewal of vegetation were believed to be explained through the following myth. When Baal had his temple built, he sent a message to the god of death Mot in which he threatened Mot’s life. After that there was a struggle between Mot and Baal and Baal was killed in the battle. After some times Baal’s sister Anath went down to the underworld and defeated Mot. Baal was resurrected from death and returned to his power to bring about raining to the Earth.
The Canaanites believed that the death and resurrection of Baal happened every year. The defeat of Baal indicated the death of vegetation due to winter frosts or summer drought. The resurrection of Baal revealed the vegetation grew because of annual or seasonal flooding. In this myth, one could easily observe that other that a thunder god, Baal was also a god of fertility.
In the sight of the people in Ancient Near East, men were just the slaves of gods. For instance, in Babylon, people believed that mankind was created only because of the laziness of gods . The gods created men so that they could take over their work and serve them. The gods needed the sacrifice of men.
However, due to the noise and din of men, Enlil, the King of the lands wanted to destroy men. Another god Ea brought about deliverance to Atrahasis in a series of plagues. Finally, Enlil sent a flood and again Ea warned Atrahasis who made a ship to save himself later. The Gilgamesh Epic had another record of the flood story. When the gods sent a flood to the Earth, Ea warned Utanapishtim in Shuruppak and Utanapishtim built a ship to save himself and his family, together with all sorts of animals. The rain and storm continued up to the seventh day.
The story told that the gods became hungry without sacrifice and repent for their decision. Utanapishtim sent out respectively a dove, a swallow and finally a raven. When the raven did not returned which indicated that the flood was gone, Utanapishtim went out and made a sacrifice. The gods then gather around him immediately indicated that they really needed the sacrifice from men. The flood story was very popular in the ancient Near East. One interesting point must be noted was that the record in the Gilgamesh was in a large extent similar to that in the Biblical account. We will go back to the story in Section E.
The Canaanites, as usual, using myth to explain the origin of the world. In the creation story of Canaanites’ religion , the sea god Yam got the approval of El to attack Baal. However, Baal victor over Yam and seized his royal power. Sea was thought to be evil in the sight of Babylonians, Canaanites as well as Israelites. We could find examples in the Old Testament describing the struggle between Yahweh and the sea, for instance, Ps 77 : 16 – 19 and also Isa 27 : 1. One of the creation myth stated that El was drunk during creation and so some deaf, blind and disabled people was created. The Canaanites might use this kind of myth to explain the imperfection of human being.
When one read through the Old Testament, the text seems to tell us that Israelites were descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who worshipped Yahweh as their God. Gen 12 : 1 stated that Yahweh told Abraham to leave his own country to where He would show him. It was strange that Abraham would know the name “Yahweh” in Haran in the North East of Canaan. There was no archeological fact showing that the name Yahweh was known in Haran, Ur as well as Canaan. The Biblical text also showed that God appeared to Abraham was not using the name “Yahweh”. For instant, in Ex. 6: 3 we find “To Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai”, a general name of gods, El, was used. Living among the Canaanites, Abraham himself was no doubt full of their concept in religion.
As mentioned above, the Canaanites were polytheistic and there was no idea about monotheistic, Abraham himself would not be exceptional. His religious practices, for example, in making the covenant with God in Gen 15, Abraham split the animals down the middle was a common practice of the Canaanites when they made a covenant with their gods. Moreover, when Yahweh told Abraham to have his son sacrificed, he did not bargain with God since sacrificing sons was common in Canaanites’ religion.
As we read through the Bible from Judges to Kings, we may find that the Israelites would turn away from Yahweh and worshipped other gods easily. It would be strange if the concept of monotheism has been well developed. For instant, when a believer turned away from God nowadays, usually he would just believe in himself or simply not believe any religion. Cases in which believers turned to believe in religions which are polytheistic were not frequent.
The point was that once the idea of monotheism was fully developed, turning to worship gods like Baal, Asherah etc would mean to have a complete change in the concept of belief. It would not be so easy to change one’s concept that has been developed since his childhood. However, it would be easily to explain the fact of Israelites turning away from God easily in Judges if their concept of religion were still polytheistic and Yahweh was only one of the god they worshipped. In such a hypothesis it was logical that they worshipped gods such as Baal and Astarte who were god of fertility in Canaanite religion.
The idea of polytheism of the Israelites before the exile could be clearly seen in Psalms, for example, in Ps 82 we found that Yahweh was giving judgement in the divine assembly, which was similar to El Elyon to rule over other gods in Canaanites religion. In Deu 32: 8 – 9, the text described Israel was Yahweh’s portion when the Most High (El Elyon) distributed the land among his sons. The king Manasseh had his son sacrificed through fire and built up image of Asherah (2 Kgs 21 :1ff). All these show that before exile the Israelites’ mind was full of concept of Canaanites religions that are polytheistic.
Background of Genesis and Yahwists
The origin and authorship of the Pentateuch has been discussed over past few centuries. Many scholars had different point of views and no final conclusion has been made. In this section, the writer is not attempting to argue and compare the reasons proposed by different scholars in this issue but to give his own viewpoint and reasons supporting for the sake of convenient in the discussion of the theology of Genesis in the later part of this passage.
As we read through Pentateuch, the books seem to telling its readers that there are one and only one God ruling over the Earth. In other word, they are presenting a religion that is monotheistic. As we mentioned before, the Israelites had no idea about monotheism before the exile or at least till the late pre-exilic period. It would be strange that such a monotheistic material was widely accepted and being kept if it was written in the period of monarchy during which people were full of idea of polytheism.
Rolf Rendtorff rejected the idea of the traditional source criticism (JEDP) but he regarded the Pentateuch as basically the composition of Deuteronomists together with some priestly contribution. Erhard Blum views the priestly material as a correction of certain part of the Deuteronomistic theology. Unlike Rendtorff, he accepted the possibilities of some stories as tradition before the period of monarchy. Blum then drew a conclusion that the Pentateuch was a postexilic compromise between the thought of Deuteronomists and Priestly Reformers.
In Leviticus and Numbers, the holiness and uniqueness of God were stressed. The Israelites did not have such ideas until the return from exile in Ezra and Nehemiah’s time. Together with the monotheism presented in the books mentioned above, the writer supports the viewpoint of Rendtorff and Blum that the Pentateuch we have now was actually finished in postexilic period. However, concerning about the authorship the writer has different viewpoint. In Genesis, we found many stories that are similar to those in religions of Ancient Near East, for example, the creation story and the flooding story (we will investigate in more detail in later part of the passage).
However, in Deuteronomy no elements from Canaanites religion can be found whereas the identity of the Israelites as Yahweh’s chosen one was stressed. Moreover, direct warning to Israelites was used when explaining the laws and urging them to observe the law instead of using stories. Deuteronomy and Genesis is quite different literally and the way the witness was made, the writer agrees to the point of view of Van Seters that “Yahwist “did exist and participate in the composition of the Pentateuch. Among the five books, Genesis to a large extend was the witness of the Yahwists.
One strong evidence showing that the Pentateuch was a post-exilic composition was that some story in Genesis is similar to Babylonia stories but with modification. The flooding story is one of the examples. The author and readers should know nothing about Babylonia culture till the exile. The implication was that its composition should not be earlier than the exilic period.
In conclusion, the writers believed that the witness in Genesis was done by Yahwists which was later composite in the book Genesis we have today by some redactors. Nevertheless, the book as well as the witness itself should not be earlier than the late pre-exilic period after the discovery of Deuteronomy law in Josiah’s time. The theology of Genesis discuss below is based on this hypothesis.
Under the background of polytheism, people living in ancient Near East, including Israelites believed that each nation had her own national god. To the people of Judah, their national god was Yahweh (Deu 32: 8-9). Wars between nations were understood as the struggle between the national gods.
Under the hypothesis of Pentateuch being exilic or post-exilic composition, ideas such as Yahweh was defeated by gods of Babylon and that Yahweh was powerless in protecting them would by all means appear in the mind of the Israelites. In this circumstance, gods in Persia and their religions, which to the Israelites seems more powerful would be much attractive to them. In fact, in Nehemiah we can find Jews married wives from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab and their children even knew nothing about language of Judah. One of the priest even married the daughter of their enemy Sanballat the Horonites (Ne 13: 28). Marrying foreign wives and teaching children foreign language revealed invasion by foreign culture and religion.
The author of Genesis tried to give a correct understanding of Yahweh to the Israelites at that time. The authority and power of God over the whole world could be seen in the witness. Moreover, attitude of God towards human being was also presented which differed to those in Canaanites and Babylonia religions. The explanation of man’s suffering due to human’s sin was also introduced. The message was clear — the poor experience of Israelites of being exiled was due to their sin but not that God was powerless. Furthermore, God’s grace came upon usually following the punishment giving a hope to the post-exilic Israelites that God would never forsake them. Finally, the purposes of creation and the process were also described in Genesis 1 – 11.
As we have discussed above, the religion in Canaan was polytheistic and different gods had different function in their concept. Monotheism began to develop in Exilic and Post-exilic period. As monotheism was a new idea towards the audience, the author has used many stories and myths that were well known to present his idea. Sometimes myths from Canaanites or Babylonia religions with modification have been applied. In some occasion, we found that the story told in Genesis was speaking again some concept in Canaanites or Babylonia religions, the creation story was one of the examples.
We have seen in Section B that in Canaanites religion, there was struggle between Baal and Yam in the creation story. It seemed to tell us that Yam had power comparable to the creator Baal. The implication was that although Baal was the creator, he did not seize supreme power. However, in Genesis 1: 2, we found “a divine wind sweeping over the waters”. When one read through chapter one, one could find that God did divided the waters under the vault and above the vault, made the water under heaven to become a single mass and created different kinds of animals and plants living in waters, we could hardly find an evidence to show that waters was directly created by God. However, the main different from Baal’s creation story was that God did have power over the water.
Instead of a struggle with the waters, God’s wind sweeping over the waters which revealed His supreme power. The text seemed to tell us that the waters were actually co-exist with God before the world was created. One may doubt that should the waters created by God. However, in the concept of the readers at that time, the sea represent evil which existed before creation and hence the story presented in such a way could be easily accepted and understood by the Israelites at that time. The writer believes that the author was trying to stress the supreme power over the waters as against Baal’s story. The waters were actually under God’s rule and control.
Another point must be noted is that in the creation story in Genesis, we could find that God caused plants to grow, which revealed that fertility was in the hands of God. The sun, the moon and the stars were just creation of God and were not gods as presented in Canaanites religion. Throughout the creation, all kind of creature was made by God’s word. The word of God was powerful in the creation so does his promise to the Israelites. It was an encouragement towards the Israelites in the post-exilic period that God would remember them as he had “promise” and brought about salvation.
In section B we found that the gods in Babylonia religion needed man’s sacrifices. The gods repent for sending flood because they were hungry and needed sacrifice. Utanapishtim in the story acquired eternal life only for the sake of the gods. We could find similar account in Noah’s flooding story. However, at the end of the story, it recorded that when Yahweh smelt the pleasing smell of the sacrifice from Noah He promised that He would never curse the earth and destroyed all living thing in such a way again because humans’ heart contrives evil from their infancy. In other words, God’s promise was due to His mercy that He understood the weakness of man and not a need of sacrifice!
Through the creation story and Noah’s story, we could find Yahweh is the one who owned supreme power. He was the Lord of the whole land and has authority over all creatures. He did not share some power with other gods as in Canaanites and Babyonia religions.
“God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” The Bible used only one verse to describe the nature of man. This verse also reveals the importance of man in God’s creation plan. The purpose of man’s being created is also explained. In this section, we are going to discuss the rights of man as God’s image and his limitations.
As we have mentioned in Section B, a creation story in Babylon gave definition to man as gods’ slave and mankind was created due to the laziness of God. People living in ancient Near East believe that gods would use them to serve their own needs, for instance, offering to them, to fight for them etc. The author at the beginning of his witness gave a new understanding of God’s view towards mankind. The purpose was clear—to correct their attitude about the relationship between God and mankind.
First of all, let us look at what actually mean for the word “the image of God”.Michael D. Guinan explained in his book “The Pentateuch” that the living God of Israel can be imaged only by living beings who do what God does. The writer agreed to his explanation due to the following reasons. Firstly, we could hardly find any sound argument to support if we treat the image of God as really physical appearance like God.
In the concept of the Israelites, they believed that they would die when they saw God. Hence no one should have seen God and recognized that man was actually had God’s appearance. Secondly the verse following 1: 27 gave some support to Guinan’s argument. “God blessed them, saying to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living creatures that move on the earth.” Fertility and being master of creatures were originally what God did. At that very moment people were told to do what God should do. In other words, mankind should cooperate with God and take part in creation of God. This also explained the purpose of creating man.
We could find an example to see how mankind participates in the creation of God. Yahweh allowed man to name all sort of animal. Naming throughout the Old Testament usually revealed one’s situation and character. For example, Moses named his son Gershom which mean he was an alien in a foreign land, Gideon named one of his sons Abimelech meaning his father was king in certain degree revealing his hope to become a king. In Genesis, naming of animals means fixing their character. God allow man to fix the character of animals which should be a part of God’s creation.
God’s love and concern of human could be seen as he would go to find mankind in Eden but not leaving them on their own. When man sinned against God, his gracious love and grace was presented in the clothes he made for them. Yahweh loved and concerned man but not treating man as his slave as those gods in Babylonia religion.
One point must be noted was that being image of God does not mean being identical to God. In the creation plan of God, man had his own limitations. We must accept and recognize ourselves being image and that God had power and authority over us. Moreover, we should live in God’s purposes of creating man (Gen. 1: 28)
Mankind was forbidden to eat the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as well as the tree of life that were also limitations to mankind. The writer believed that it did not mean man should not have the ability to judge right and wrong but that man did not have the power to fix the rule of which things were good which were bad. For example, we all know that murder is something wrong according to the rules that originally set in our heart. However, we have no authority to set rules to say that murder is something good.
Moreover, in God’s plan man did not have eternal life in his physical body (but not the spirit). These two were what God preserved for himself. However, mankind was not willing to accept his limitation imposed by God. In other words, they wanted to become God themselves thus sinned again God. We will go into detail on man’s failure in the next section.
Mankind’s Failure and God’s Reaction
Throughout the history one may find that human being would try to explain the “imperfection” and suffering of man. Different nation has different explanation towards such kind of problems. In ancient Near East, as discussed before, man may blame their national god for his lack of ability in protecting them when they got lost before their enemies. Concerning about the “imperfection” of man such as deaf, blind and lame, people usually thought that that was due to their sin or simply blame the creation god that his creation was imperfect. For instance, in the creation story of Canaan, “imperfection” of man was because of El Elyon who was drunk during his creation and creating some people who were blind, deaf and lame.
The author was trying to defense for Yahweh and correct the wrong concept of the Israelites about God. In Gen. 1 – 11, one may have an impact after reading that Yahweh is a God owned all sort of power and authority and work following his own will. The author tried to explain the poor experience of Israelites was due to their owned sin and not the disability of Yahweh to bring about salvation. Moreover, although there were punishments God was still love and concern His chosen people as he usually did in the story in Genesis.
First of all, the Bible used the word “very good” to describe God’s creation. The word “very good” in Hebrew actually means perfect. Hence the “imperfection” of man was clearly not of God’s fault in creation. However, the author did not give a clear explanation about the “imperfection” which did really existed. Nevertheless, implication of suffering due to man’s failure to serve as God’s image could be found in Gen. 3: 16ff
The consequence of failure of being God’s image was recorded in Genesis. The instruction from Yahweh was that man would die if they ate the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. One may misunderstand that God is telling a lie as Adam lived for 930 years but not died immediately as God said after eating the tree.
Guinan explained that in God’s creation everything existed in right relationships. Death means breaking and collapse of such relationships. Such an explanation was valid as we can see different relationships were broken after man’s failure. For instance, the partnership of God and man in creation (Gen. 2), the relationship between humans themselves (the story of Cain and Abel), the relationship between animals and humans (offspring of woman and snake) as well as the relationship between men and women were all broken due to man’s failure. In other words, they did died under this explanation.
Despite the provision of clothes when God drove them away from Eden, we may find many other vocations that God’s grace came upon following the punishments. When Cain killed Abel, God’s judgement came upon him that he should became a restless wanderer but Yahweh promised that no one could killed him as “whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance” . Due to mankind’s corruption and immorality, Yahweh decided to destroy the generation at that time by sending a flood. However, God’s grace could be seen through Noah’s salvation and the covenant that made with Noah after the flood that he would never destroy human beings and other creatures in such a way.
Such a witness was important to the people in the post-exilic period under the circumstances that many people doubted the ability of Yahweh in protecting them as mentioned in section D. Not only it was remind to them that their poor experience was their own fault but not Yahweh’s disability but also the hope of salvation that even at that moment God did not cast out his people. Instead Yahweh was an infinite patient and forgiveness God and waiting for the repentance of Israel. The Israelites at that very moment should trust in God who was the origin of all power and authority instead of turning to other gods. Following the punishment God’s grace would come upon.
“God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good. Evening came and morning came: the sixth day. Thus heaven and earth were completed with all their array. On the seventh day God had completed the work he had been doing. He rested on the seventh day after all the work he had been doing. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on that day he rested after all his work of creating.” In God’s creation plan, every creature was perfect and that the seventh day would come after his perfect creation. As we have seen due to man’s failure to act as am image of God, relationships between God and mankind has been broken.
In other words, the perfection of the creation has been broken. This leads to a question that whether the creation has been finished? Whether the seventh day has come? From the Bible, it seems to tell us that the creation of God has been finished. However, the purpose of which, i.e. the perfection of the creation, seemed has not been attained. Furthermore, we could see that God continued to participate in the history of man from Old Testament to New Testament and even until now. God has never took a rest!
If we take perfection as God’s final purpose for his creation, the creation is clearly still in process. We are now still in the sixth day of creation. God would really take a rest when the creation work is really finished i.e. every thing returned to the perfect situation when world has been created. The coming of the seventh day is under God’s plan and so it must come after every thing returned to order. Actually, creation is a process through which formless become having order.
Throughout the history, God has used different methods try to return the situation to perfect. He chose a people Israel for himself and hope that through creation of that particular nation can bring all other nations back to the original relationships. Seeing the corruption of the Israelites, it seemed that through humans themselves can make no help to complete his creation, he himself walked into the history by sending his son Jesus Christ becoming flesh. Through him the relationship between God and man is repaired. Through acceptance to be image of God, we could become partners of God in creation, by bringing people back to the Lord. The Lord will come and that all creation would have been completed and then the seventh day arrives.
Genesis 1 – 11 sometimes is classified as prologue of the Pentateuch. More than that it contains much valuable message that reminded and encouraged the Israelites in the post-exilic period. The center of which is in the creation story. The failure of mankind is a result of unwillingness to accept our position as image of God. Adam and Eve behaved in such a way, the ancient Israelites behaved in such a way and even people nowadays behave in such a way when they are self-centered. The message is clear that God is the one who owned power and authority and he loves and concerns and waiting us to return. “There is nothing new under the sun” The message is for the post-exilic reader as well as all of us today.
- Helmer Ringgren. Religions of the Ancient Near East. London : The Camelot Press Ltd., 1973.
- Isaac Mendelsohn. ed. Religions of the Ancient Near East : Sumero-Akkadian Religious Texts and Ugaritic Epics. New York : The Liberal Arts Press, 1955.
- R. Norman Whybray. Introduction to the Pentateuch. Michigan : Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1995.
- Michael D. Guinan. The Pentateuch. The United state of America: The Liturgical Press, 1990.