Why Genesis 1 was written

Not that I have all the answers, of course.

I thought I’d reproduce a summary of my current thoughts on the issue that I formulated in an interesting comment exchange under a post on another site.

I asked what sort of question the authors of Genesis 1 etiology intended to answer:

[1] why the world exists,
[2] how it got made, or
[3] both.

One commenter (whose opinion I highly respect) essentially agreed with me that the answer is [3], but added that Genesis 1 only answered [1] by implication of its primary goal of answering who is responsible, namely YHWH. I have sympathy for this, but I explained why I wrote [1] as I did.

I think Genesis 1 primarily attempts to answer the question of why everything is here as it is by instructing the Israelites/Jews that YHWH tamed chaos in order to subjugate and commission creation for His purposes. Things work as they do (=are “functional” in Walton’s terms) because it was He who intended the sun to shine, the fish to inhabit the ocean, man to hold dominion over nature, etc. The reason the world works as it does is because it was intended to work that way (“God saw that it was good”). There is certainly a strong element of the “who” answer intimately integrated into this, but I think another key aspect of Genesis 1 is a worldview shift toward the common Judeo-Christian belief that the chaos we see in our world is somewhat apparent rather than real.

What I mean is that God is in control of all creation and does not have to periodically journey to Jotunheim to grapple with his mortal enemies the frost giants—the frost giants are well under His jurisdiction. As I explained before, the gods of the ANE are typically not supreme rulers (although they are sometimes called this): they are simply the forces who are in a unique position to keep order in the universe, a responsibility they frequently shirk and indeed often circumvent by their own or other gods’ reckless actions. In contrast with the dualism of gods vs. forces of chaos (often including other gods) seen in so many other world cultures, Genesis 1 describes a deity who is supreme over nature and not in eternal competition with it. YHWH is pictured elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible in continuing contention with chaos and other insurgents, but He settles these incidents from a position of authority rather than as a merely marginally stronger force.

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  • Or it may be that Genesis 1 is Israel’s answer to the Babylonian version. If you posit that Genesis 1 (traditionally P) was written from the Exile, while under the influence of the Enuma Elish, etc., it may be a way of asserting the supremacy of Israel’s god over that of Babylon. That might be why Genesis 1 was written?
    .-= Steve Wiggins´s last blog ..Gray New World =-.

    • Hi, Steve, and welcome to my blog. I enjoy your blog and podcasts!

      Actually, I fully agree with your answer and find it to be a much better answer to “why Genesis was written”. Despite the (inapt) name for this post, my point above was to answer what I was asked by Pete Enns: how do I think Genesis 1 answers the question of why God made the world as He did.

      Genesis 1 was certainly polemic (as you point out), but I think it was more generally didactic as well. One thing I omitted from the post was my comment to Dr. Enns that affirmed more clearly why I think it wasn’t just a matter of saying, “Israel’s god can whup up on Babylon’s gods.”

      It’s a complex literary work, using an ingenious framework to describe the creation/institution of primary categories of nature. To say that the entire piece was intended simply to describe “who did it” really makes all that rather superfluous. Rather, along with answering “who” by making the indispensable claim that Elohim is the author of the world, I think the author(s) intend to describe the meaning behind the entire construct. It makes the best sense of the three-day/three-day parallelism. Succinctly, we don’t need thirty-some-odd verses of beautifully constructed literature to say what could have been claimed quite simply, “God is the supreme maker and ruler of all creation.”

      Do you agree?

      • I find it interesting to think about that in as much as Genesis 1 is a polemic it is also worship. It’s kind of a moot point – *of course* it’s worship! But there’s something compelling the scribes coming up with such a strong image of the supreme God after exile and all that.
        .-= Arni Zachariassen´s last blog ..Fighting the Anti Christ in Virginia =-.

        • Hi Arni,

          Excellent thought – I hadn’t considered it quite like that before. I would add that “worship” is the right word only if we strip away most of the modern evangelical, emotional, “kiss-towards” aspects.

          But then again (in full disclosure), there are really a few different ways of explaining the writers’ intent to establish Elohim/YHWH as the supreme deity post-exile. One, perhaps they really thought Elohim/YHWH was dominant and had judged their people through the exile; this supposition is prematurely discarded by many scholars, from what I’ve seen. The main alternative would be to say they were eager to (re)establish a local cultus that would by its regimented, ritualistic nature provide order for the fledgling society. Some would say it’s about getting the jump on competing religions so they as religious leaders could have a monopoly; cynicism aside, it should be noted that it inasmuch as this came into play it wouldn’t necessarily have been a result of a self-interested power play but because of the order such monopoly would bring. Perhaps some healthy mix of it all (my guess).

  • Or it may be that Genesis 1 is Israel’s answer to the Babylonian version. If you posit that Genesis 1 (traditionally P) was written from the Exile, while under the influence of the Enuma Elish, etc., it may be a way of asserting the supremacy of Israel’s god over that of Babylon. That might be why Genesis 1 was written?
    .-= Steve Wiggins´s last blog ..Gray New World =-.

    • Hi, Steve, and welcome to my blog. I enjoy your blog and podcasts!

      Actually, I fully agree with your answer and find it to be a much better answer to “why Genesis was written”. Despite the (inapt) name for this post, my point above was to answer what I was asked by Pete Enns: how do I think Genesis 1 answers the question of why God made the world as He did.

      Genesis 1 was certainly polemic (as you point out), but I think it was more generally didactic as well. One thing I omitted from the post was my comment to Dr. Enns that affirmed more clearly why I think it wasn’t just a matter of saying, “Israel’s god can whup up on Babylon’s gods.”

      It’s a complex literary work, using an ingenious framework to describe the creation/institution of primary categories of nature. To say that the entire piece was intended simply to describe “who did it” really makes all that rather superfluous. Rather, along with answering “who” by making the indispensable claim that Elohim is the author of the world, I think the author(s) intend to describe the meaning behind the entire construct. It makes the best sense of the three-day/three-day parallelism. Succinctly, we don’t need thirty-some-odd verses of beautifully constructed literature to say what could have been claimed quite simply, “God is the supreme maker and ruler of all creation.”

      Do you agree?

      • I find it interesting to think about that in as much as Genesis 1 is a polemic it is also worship. It’s kind of a moot point – *of course* it’s worship! But there’s something compelling the scribes coming up with such a strong image of the supreme God after exile and all that.
        .-= Arni Zachariassen´s last blog ..Fighting the Anti Christ in Virginia =-.

        • Hi Arni,

          Excellent thought – I hadn’t considered it quite like that before. I would add that “worship” is the right word only if we strip away most of the modern evangelical, emotional, “kiss-towards” aspects.

          But then again (in full disclosure), there are really a few different ways of explaining the writers’ intent to establish Elohim/YHWH as the supreme deity post-exile. One, perhaps they really thought Elohim/YHWH was dominant and had judged their people through the exile; this supposition is prematurely discarded by many scholars, from what I’ve seen. The main alternative would be to say they were eager to (re)establish a local cultus that would by its regimented, ritualistic nature provide order for the fledgling society. Some would say it’s about getting the jump on competing religions so they as religious leaders could have a monopoly; cynicism aside, it should be noted that it inasmuch as this came into play it wouldn’t necessarily have been a result of a self-interested power play but because of the order such monopoly would bring. Perhaps some healthy mix of it all (my guess).

  • Bucky Ball

    Genesis was written by the Judean priests post Exile, to create a “national story”. The 4 Source Hypothesis is accepted by all legitimate scholars, including the most conservative. The literacy rate was < 2 %. No one read it. It never EVER was a organizing factor in Hebrew life, until AFTER the Diaspora.

    • Bucky,

      You’ve made several bold claims that extend beyond the evidence and scholarly consensus. For one, the multiple sources hypothesis is indeed accepted by most scholars, and for good reason. But the Wellhausian four-source formulation of it is much rarer these days since it has come under attack from many directions (and I’m not talking conservative religious people). Moreover, the answer that it was a “national story” is a just-so answer that doesn’t grapple with the question of why they chose this particular story to formulate, and worse, it seems to undermine your claim about its not being an “organizing factor in Hebrew life”, which surely defeats the typical main purpose of national stories. Or maybe you mean something different by “national story” or “organizing factor” than I have gathered.

      Be that as it may, I have no problem with the idea of P being responsible for Genesis 1. Do you have a problem with anything I wrote in the OP?

  • Richard Goulette

    Steve, i see allusions to the Babylonian influences in Genesis below, but i have heard quite a few from the Egyptian side as well, a la Rikk Watts at Regent. His angle has a great deal of merit considering the 400 years of captivity.

    • Hi Richard,

      I have heard similar arguments before, notably from John Walton. It makes sense that the authors/redactors, especially if composing Genesis after the exile, would try to hit back at as many competing cosmologies and mythologies from neighboring influential cultures as possible.