Genesis chapter one describes the original creation of the universe and the world around us. All of God’s creation was completed by God’s spoken word, with purpose, in order, and without assistance. In fact, one of the primary lessons of Genesis one is that God is a purposeful and good God. This theme is clearly understood by the structure of the chapter, with each day beginning with God speaking a new thing into existence, the explicit repetition of the thing God spoke actually coming into existence, noted and described as good, and the day ending the same way each time. Genesis 1 goes out of its way to describe and explain order and clarity in God’s creation.
So how can there be a Big Question about the chapter?
To understand Genesis one, you have to think about it from the perspective of the original writer and audience.
The original readers of Genesis were surrounded by stories and myths about creation which involved scores of gods competing, fighting, and conspiring together, with the world coming into existence in a haphazard and accidental kind of way. The Israelites, who would have been taught the stories of Genesis after their time as slaves in Egypt, were very confused about the nature of God. Genesis was written to set them straight.
Egyptian legends said the gods of Egypt created the world by accident, with a god named Atum sneezing, because he was sick, and a male and female god and goddess emerged from his spittle, and eventually gave birth to lesser gods, who waged war and the world was created as spoils from their wars. In one great battle, the god osiris was killed by his brother named set. Osiris went to live in the underworld, where he controlled the Nile river. Each year he would flood the river and destroy the other gods of the land. However, the flooding would replenish the soil with new silt, and would cause the plants to grow up faster and healthier, thus giving the land gods more power and causing a perpetual war that never ends, and the land of Egypt constantly hanging in the balance while the gods have a war, mostly oblivious to what happens to the people of Egypt.
When Moses led Israel out of Egypt, he wanted them to know that God’s creation was orderly and intentional, and that God cared about them. God is in charge of nature, and there is no second place. There is no war of the gods with the world hanging in the balance. There is God, God’s creation, and it is very good. Of course, we know that there is a great war between God and Satan, but that was not the original created order, nor is it central to how God made the earth. The earth is created in an orderly way, by God’s intentional command. This is the primary takeaway from Genesis 1.
However, modern readers of Genesis focus on the theory of evolution and attempt to explain how evolution and the Bible can or cannot accommodate one another. The truth is Genesis was not written from a modern perspective. It was written from an ancient perspective, answering questions the ancients asked, about whether the world was accidental or purposeful, whether the forces of the world (gods) were attentive to the world, or withdrawn from it. The Egyptians believed they were accidental footnotes in the ongoing story of the universe, acted upon by greater forces with little or no concern for their existence.
But, of course, there is nothing new under the sun, and this ancient perspective may actually be closer to the modern way of thinking than it seems. For example, the theory of evolution suggests that the world is the result of a accidental processes and forces of nature, leading, ever so slowly, to the current state. If there is a god, he is uninvolved in our concerns, doing other things while the forces of the world shape and form it. Is that so different from the ancient theory that the earth was an accidental result of god-like forces playing out their parts in the cosmos?
Maybe you see major differences in the ancient and modern beliefs, maybe you don’t. Either way, Genesis 1 remains the same. It says that God spoke the world into existence, he did so intentionally, and he did so with care, making sure to note that each day was good, and concluding that everything was “very good” when he finished. Throughout the Bible we will see that when God speaks, the world snaps to attention and instant obedience, with no delay of time and with no other forces capable of stopping God’s command. God’s creation in Genesis 1 cannot be reconciled with an accidental, haphazard creation. Either Genesis is true and evolution is false, or vice versa. Just as the original readers of Genesis had to decide whether to believe it, or to believe the teachings of their neighbors, so modern readers must make the same decision.
The central question of Genesis 1, is, do you believe in a God who spoke the universe into existence, or not? The Bible starts with this question because everything that follows assumes you believe chapter 1 is true. If you do not believe it, then the Bible becomes a collection of interesting stories, just as the Egyptian myths are interesting, but nothing more. If you do believe it, then the Bible turns into a description of God’s work in the world that he made.
Which do you believe?