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Some Reflections on Genesis 1:1 in Relation to Genesis 1 and Beyond

In the initial posts of the Insights series I began by examining the principal Hebrew words of Genesis 1:1. The series of posts focused on whether Gen. 1:1 was a grammatically independent statement or whether it was subordinate to 1:2 or 1:3. I outlined four reasons for favoring traditional understanding of Gen. 1:1 as a grammatically independent statement, signifying an absolute beginning (“In-the-beginning God created the-heavens and-the-earth”). In the past two posts, I gave various reasons for taking Gen. 1:1 to be sequentially related to what follows, not merely a chapter summary or a book title. In the present post, I’d like to offer some brief reflections on the opening statement of Genesis in relation to the remainder of Genesis, the Torah (first five books), the Old Testament (Tanak), and the Bible as a whole.

Beyond grammatical and syntactical questions like those pursued to this point, the remarkably concise opening statement of Genesis (“In-the-beginning God created the-heavens and-the-earth”) raises interesting questions about its broader relation to what follows. The question is more complex than it may at first appear, for Gen. 1:1 serves not only as the opening sequential statement for the initial account of creation (1:1–2:3), but also as the opening for the book of Genesis as a whole. We can think beyond Genesis too, for Genesis is the first book of the Torah or Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), the first book of the Old Testament (which our Jewish friends call the Tanak or Tanakh), and, more broadly still, the first book of the whole Bible (Old and New Testaments).

In an insightful volume entitled, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), author John Sailhamer suggests that Gen. 1:1 serves a threefold purpose: “to identify the Creator, to explain the origin of the world, and to tie the work of God in the past to the work of God in the future” (82). Genesis 1:1 indicates that the heavens and earth were purposely intended. Creation implies not only purpose and intentionality, but also teleology (goal). Following this initial assertion, God’s creative activities are set forth in the framework of six days that follow in Gen. 1:3–1:31. These creative days can, in terms of content, be divided into two broad categories: days of forming (days 1–3) and days of filling (days 4–6). This account culminates with the institution of Sabbath (Gen. 2:1–3).

In relation to the broader narrative of Genesis, moreover, Walter Brueggemann insightfully included the creation as part one of a broader structure of four sovereign calls of God: (1) The “Pre-History”: The Sovereign Call of God (Genesis 1:1—11:29); (2) The Abraham Narrative: The Embraced Call of God (Genesis 11:30—25:18); (3) The Jacob Narrative: The Conflicted Call of God (Genesis 25:19—36:43); and (4) The Joseph Narrative: The Hidden Call of God (Genesis 37:1—50:26) (Genesis, Interpretation [Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1982], 8–9). In relation to this first call, which Brueggemann correlates with Eph. 1:9–10, he posits an implied question which the Genesis narrative seeks to address, “Will God bring his creation to the unity he intends?” (ibid., 10) An even more germane question might be, “Will God the Creator bring the creation to God’s intended goal?”

In terms of the Torah or Pentateuch (Gen. – Deut.), God’s creatorship (Gen. 1) remains a conspicuous theme (see Gen. 5:1–2; 6:7; 14:19, 22; Deut. 32:6) and the theological rationale for the Sinai covenant’s command to observe the Sabbath. Note how the Sabbath is explicitly correlated with the Creator’s actions modeled in Gen. 1:3–2:3: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exod. 20:8–11)

In terms of the Old Testament (Jewish Tanak or Tanakh), God’s creatorship (Gen. 1) remains a central part of the theological reflection beyond the Torah (Pentateuch) (see Ps. 136:5–9; Eccl. 12:1; Isa. 27:11; 40:28; 43:15). God’s effective word (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28–29) and related deeds (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14–15, 20, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29–30) reflected in the opening chapter of Genesis were also celebrated in worship. Psalm 33:6–9 indicates this in compelling, poetic fashion. The psalmist not only celebrates creation, but reminds his hearers that God’s creative activity calls for an appropriate human response (v. 8):

{Powerful Word (v. 6)} By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.

{Powerful Deeds (v. 7)} He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses.

{Appropriate Human Response (v. 8)} Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the people of the world revere him.

{Powerful Word (v. 9)} For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

In terms of the Bible as a whole, God’s creatorship (Gen. 1) is presumed and reiterated in the New Testament by Jesus and the New Testament authors (see Matt. 19:4; Mark 13:19; Rom. 1:25; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:16; 3:10; 1 Tim. 4:3–4; 1 Pet. 4:19; Rev. 4:11; 10:6). It also is integrally related to the likewise important Christian doctrine of providence. Scripture reveals a personal, self-existent God who created the universe at a specific point in time (special creation), and did not leave the created order to itself (as in the rationalism of Deism), but upholds, directs, disposes, and governs it (to use the language of several post-Reformational Confessions in defining providence) toward the culmination of the present order and the ushering in of a new order. God sovereignly guides the entire process, but is not a part the process itself (this is the error of the pagan notion of pantheism, where God is identified as a part or the sum total of the created order). Rather, God is the Sovereign Lord over the created order, whether the present order or the coming new order. God’s superintending activity encompasses both the present created order (creation to culmination) and the coming new creation (new heavens & new earth).

In Nehemiah 9:6 Ezra the scribe offers a moving prayer in which he acknowledges the reality of the sovereign Lord’s creatorship over the original creation and continuous preservation of it (providence), “You alone are the Lord. You made the skies and the heavens and all the stars. You made the earth and the seas and everything in them. You preserve them all, and the angels of heaven worship you.” (NLT) In a topsy-turvy world of uncertainty and daily challenges, it is important for God’s people to be reminded that the God who created and sustains the universe is the same God who can and does sustain them too!

James P. Sweeney, Ph.D.
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament
Director of the Master of Divinity Program

Photo by Jean Blackmer on Unsplash