Welcome to the launching of the TubeTestament Commentary Series. Below is the first installment of what I hope to develop into a reading and commentary of the Book of Genesis. The purpose of this series is straightforward: I want to encourage people to be engaged with the literature of the Bible and to discover the richness of its stories. We often read the Bible in bits and pieces: as bite-sized verses or isolated stories removed from their context. When we do this, we end up missing out on the richness of the whole, and the Bible is reduced to some sort of moral source book or ‘manual for life.’ And who wants to read a manual when you can read a story?
The format of this series is simple. I will read through Genesis perhaps 10-15 verses at a time and then try to draw the viewer’s attention to some of the literary and theological themes. Many of these stories were transmitted orally before they were written down, and then later read aloud in an assembly, so often you’ll find (especially at the beginning of Genesis) that there is a lot of repetition or verbal cues that help the hearers connect one bit of a story to another. These cues are more apparent in the Hebrew than in our English Bibles and so I have chosen to read from a translation that tries to render these nuances in English. For example: the name ‘Adam’ just means ‘Human’ — so the translator either translates the word as ‘human’ or ‘the human,’ or places the word ‘human’ alongside the word ‘Adam.’
Reading: Genesis 1:1-13
Genesis 1:1-13: Commentary
As a child, I thought of these first descriptions of the days of creation as the boring bits before the exciting parts of the story like the creation of human beings and their later temptation by the crafty serpent. This part was a laborious list of what God made by sort of snapping his fingers and causing things appear: “Let’s get some lights in here! Oh, and we’ll need some land and sea and maybe some sprouts…”
But pause for a moment and imagine the earth before God begins to create. Imagine the world is a vast room: an empty room sapped of light, drained of sound. Or think of the deepest part of the ocean that’s so large and black you can’t see anything else. Imagine being locked away in an infinite chasm of nothingness.
The phrase used to describe the earth prior to creation is tohu wa-bohu, ‘wild and waste’ or, as some translations have it, ‘formless and void.’ The word tohu is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe situations where a people has turned away from God and subsequently their land has become tohu, a devastated wasteland. It is also used to describe the futility of idols or idol worship, and may be glossed as ‘purposeless,’ ‘nothingness,’ ‘chaos,’ and ‘vapor’ (just to name a few). And the text says that darkness was over the face of tehom (often translated ‘deep’) and here it is rendered as ‘Ocean,’ which tries to convey this idea of primordial waters. The Septuagint, a later Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible renders this word as abyssos, which can be translated as ‘abyss’ or even ‘place of the dead.’ That doesn’t mean that this is exactly what’s meant in the Hebrew text, but it does give us a sense for how later interpreters might of understood the word.
But the spirit of God is rushing, churning, breathing over the surface of the primordial waters, until suddenly — a voice!: “Let there be light!” And there is light. God sees the light: that it is good. This is a pattern set throughout the text. When God says, “Let there be X…” he is using the kind of regal language a king in the ancient Near East might use to issue an edict. He is summoning the various parts of the creation, naming them and (as we’ll see in the next installment) giving them various tasks or areas over which to rule, giving them purpose.
And God ‘sees’ each part of his creation, that it is ‘good.’ This is a phrase that comes up repeatedly and it’s important for a number of reasons. First, there is a ‘seeing’ motif in the first three chapters of Genesis. As we’ll see later on in the series, when Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit (3:6), the text says (italics mine):
The woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to contemplate.
Eve’s vision of the fruit that she is not supposed to eat serves as an ironic contrast between God’s vision of what is ‘good.’ But we’ll unpack that motif more later.
What does ‘good’ mean in this context? We often think of ‘good’ as being used in a moral sense. The word may have moral connotations, but it may also mean simply ‘pleasant,’ ‘advantageous,’ ‘profitable,’ ‘excellent of its kind,’ or similar adjectives.
We see God summoning light and separating it from the darkness, giving them the respective names ‘Day’ and ‘Night.’ He creates an expanse or ‘dome’ in the waters and causes land to appear in the waters and then summons the earth to produce vegetation.
What’s shown on the screen in this video is one artist’s rendering of how the earth was conceived in the ancient Near East. As you can see, the waters below are the sea from which dry land emerges and above it is the dome of the heavens (or simply ‘sky’), and there are also waters above the dome (or ‘firmament’). Above that is the highest heaven where God lives – but we’ll dig more into that later.
We’ve gone through the first three days of creation. In order to find out what happens next, you’ll have to wait for the next installment — or go read Genesis for yourself.