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Commentary: Genesis 1:1-5

It would be wonderful to know who wrote the first verses of Genesis and, as well, when they were written. Most biblical scholars attribute Genesis 1:1-2:4a to the so-called "priestly" tradition or source that has been identified elsewhere in the Pentateuch. This seems a reasonable judgment, since the apex of this account of creation is the Sabbath, a day whose activities were administered by the priests. However, there is no consensus about the date of composition, i.e., whether it was uttered or written during the monarch or in the time of Ezra-Nehemiah.
In addition, knowing that these initial chapters of Genesis, which speak of creation, are not the only source of creation language in the Bible helps the reader. The wisdom literature and Psalms reflect other important resources. Moreover, in order to appreciate the particular angle of vision that ancient Israel had on creation, it is particularly valuable to compare their accounts with other ancient Near Eastern texts that also present versions of the primeval events, e.g., the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis epic from ancient Mespotamia.
Literary Context and Features
What sort of literature is Gen 1-2:4a? Some would say that it is a "scientific" account—hence the misconstruals that have appeared under the label "scientific creationism." Others would construe the text as a creation narrative. But a narrative is a story, something with a plot, i.e., rising action, climax, falling action. I prefer to view these verses as a creation chronicle.
The Pre-Creation Setting
Translations of Gen 1:1-2 vary widely and with good reason. It is possible, as in the Septuagint, to translate v. 1 as an independent and complete sentence (so RSV). However, there is an increasing tendency, so NRSV, to read the first verse (and quite possibly the second verse) as a long clause that reports the way it was before God began to create the universe in which we live. (You may get a sense of this option by reading Gen 1:1-2, putting commas at the end of the first two verses and then the first period at the end of v. 3. Translation note "a" in NRSV attests to the complexity of this issue.)
After one attends to these translation difficulties, it becomes clear that the ancient writer was interested in presenting a picture of the way it was before creation occurred. These verses do not present a view we might label as creatio ex nihilo, "creation out of nothing." There was something: The earth was there, though in an unformed, windy, dark, and watery way. Some interpreters have talked about this notion as creation out of chaos. However, it is probably better to speak of creation as a forming or ordering of primordial elements and forces than it is to read these verses as depicting God in conflict with violent powers. (The Babylonia creation account does depict creation out of chaos.)
Earth and waters have pride of place in both the pre-creation and post-creation states. Though v. 1 notes that there was a time before "the heavens and the earth" was created, v. 2 only refers to the pre-existent earth. As for waters, v. 2 refers to them twice, explicitly by "the waters" and implicitly by "the deep," which is probably a reference to the salt water depths. Later in this chronicle, it is no accident that both the waters and the earth embody generative powers, v. 20, "let the waters bring forth," and v. 24, "let the earth bring forth..."
In this terse description of things before time and cosmic order, the author attests that God was present even in the unformed abyss. There was "a wind from God." This phrase could also be translated "mighty wind" (cf. the various possibilities for translation offered in NRSV note b), which suggests no mild breeze, but a powerful zephyr.
The First Act of Creation
The gust of God now takes verbal form. By divine fiat, there is to be light penetrating that which was dark. That dark covering (v.2) is to be broken by rays of light. The ancient author builds upon the imagery of light by noting that God could see, in this case, that the light was good. Moral qualities now pervade this incipient universe. God observes goodness, but the deity does not create goodness. Morality, like the primordial building blocks, seems to exist prior to the acts of creation.
Verse 4 also chronicles the continuing activity of the deity. The deity works with this watery, windy mixture and with light and dark and separates the light from the dark. What was intermingled now becomes distinct. It is not difficult to imagine two pictures (or one fresco in Michaelangelo's case) — before and an after — to convey the sense of this act of separation.
Divine speech continues but in a different form and with a different force. Whereas in v. 3 God commanded, now God names. One might place quotation marks around "Day" and "Night" to signify that they are direct discourse. With those labels, something new emerges in the cosmic order. Not only has light emerged, but there is a new force: Time, as the vocabulary of evening, morning and day indicates. With light, which allows for the rotation between evening and morning, the divine wind has been replaced by a built-in impetus, which will drive all future human and divine calculations of temporal order.
Two concluding comments and questions remain, First, though we are accustomed to thinking of days beginning early in the morning, i.e., just after midnight, ancient Israelites conceived of the new day beginning just after sundown. How much difference does it make to define the moment when a new day begins? Second, darkness, which existed prior to the acts of creation (v. 2) is now named (v. 5). And though light is named as good, darkness is not given a negative moral quality. It stands in distinction to light, i.e., in providing the necessary night for the newly created day. God takes from that which was and creates that which must be for the world in which humans exist. This night-darkness, which provides respite from human's work during the day, prefigures the sabbath, upon which God rested.
David L. Peterson