Teacher Resource - Genesis
Genesis: Background Information
In order to begin a biblical study it is essential to describe exactly what the Bible is. According to Burnette-Bletsch (2007) ‘the Bible is actually an anthology of religious texts, whose contents and order vary for different religious communities’ (Burnette-Bletsch, 2007, pp. ix-x).
Genesis, the first Book of the Old Testament, together with Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are known collectively as ‘The Pentateuch’ (Casamento, et. al 2003). The books of the Pentateuch make up the Jewish Torah, also called The Books of Law.
For the purposes of this area of study the first Creation Story, Genesis 1:1-2:4a, will be used. The translation included for use in this area of study is the New Revised Standard Catholic Edition.
Genesis 1:1-2:4a describes the creation of the world, from a ‘formless void’ (Genesis Chapters 1-2, New Revised Standard Catholic Edition) until the seventh day of creation, when ‘God rested from all the work that he had done in creation’ (Genesis 2:3, New Revised Standard Catholic Edition).
Historical Context of Genesis 1:1-2:4a
The text we now know of as Genesis, was penned, according to Harold Bloom in The Introduction of J (Bloom, cited in Wright, 2007), ‘In Jerusalem, nearly three thousand years ago’ (Bloom cited in Wright, 2007). This means that Genesis, like so many other biblical stories was written a significant amount of time after the fact. The year 9 religious education text book To Know, Worship and Love (Casamento, et. al 2003) has more to offer on this, stating that ‘The books of the Torah, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were finally put together in 587 B.C.’ (Casamento, et. al 2003). while the Jewish people were in exile.
Literary Form and Authorship
The basis of the Genesis text we have was penned by ‘an unknown author [who] composed a work that has formed the spiritual consciousness of much of the world ever since.’ (Bloom, cited in Wright, 2007.)
However, according to Burnette-Bletsch because biblical texts were communicated orally they have ‘no single author’ (Burnette-Bletsch, 2007, p. 8), but ‘grew out of the life of Israelite communities that continually shaped these traditions with each retelling’ (Burnette-Bletsch, 2007, p. 8). Despite this, it is possible to glean enough pieces of information to explain the authors of different sections of biblical texts as being written by specific kinds of writers. Genesis 1:1-2:4a, is explained as being written by a ‘priestly author,’ by Scullion (1992), characterised by the author’s use of the words ‘‘ēlohîm,’ translated as ‘God, and ‘hâ’âdam,’translated as ‘Man’ (Scullion, 1997).
During this unit of work we will take the position that Genesis is a creation myth. In order to do so, we will open the unit with a session looking at what a myth is. For the purposes of this unit we intend to examine the myths and their conventions from a literary perspective, rather than an anthropological perspective. Therefore, we intend to describe a myth as ‘A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events’ (Baldick, Chris. "Myth." Oxford Reference. Accessed April 02, 2013). In addition to this the idea of the Cosmogonic myth, described in this unit as the ‘philosophical and theological elaboration of the primal myth of creation within a religious community’ ("Creation Myth." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed April 03, 2013), the very definition of Cosmogonic myth is that they ‘refer to the beginning of things, whether by the will and act of a transcendent being, by emanation from some ultimate source, or in any other way…’ ("Creation Myth." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed April 03, 2013), students will have the opportunity to examine three other sources of Cosmogonic myths from three different cultures, with the aim of drawing parallels between them in order to further students understanding of how humans have perceived the creation of the world.
The Genesis creation story contains layers of literary techniques, including vast amounts of repetition, juxtapositions and patterning.
The repetition present is multi-layered and evident on each day of creation, from repetition during each ‘day’ to repetition that runs across the days.
To show the beginning of days, from the second day, each day begins with the words ‘And God said,’ (Genesis Chapters 1-2, New Revised Standard Catholic Edition), in addition to this, many of the days conclude with the words ‘And there was evening and there was morning, the day’ (Genesis Chapters 1-2, New Revised Standard Catholic Edition). It makes the story feel repetitive, but this repetition across days provides structure for the reader, showing clearly where one day ends and the next will begin.
On each day God names the things he has created, for example: ‘God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night’ (Genesis Chapters 1-2, New Revised Standard Catholic Edition). The author’s insistence on God’s repeated naming of the things he has created demonstrates God’s power as the supreme ruler of all things – his naming of objects dictates what humans call them. In addition to this, the objects that God creates and then names form oppositions – in this case, darkness and light, or night and day. The pairing of these oppositions serves two functions. The first is to call attention to the oppositions in nature that exist in harmony, the second is to ‘chunk’ the information together, a function that would have made the story easier to remember, and so to retell, from the time before Genesis was presented in written form, and was instead presented as oral traditional poetry.
In addition to the repetition evidence is a pattern found in the text that correlates the days according to what has been created on each.
The patterning is as follows:
Ø Day one and day 4 are both about light. On day one, God calls the light into existence (Genesis 1:3), and on day four God calls into existence the sun and the moon to light the day and the night (Genesis 1:14-18).
Ø Day two and day five herald the separation of water and sky (Genesis 1:6-8) and then the creation of the birds and water creatures that populate each of these domains (Genesis 1:20-22).
Ø Day three and day six both concern the Earth. On day three of creation, God gathers the waters and instructs that dry land appear (Genesis 1:9), and calls vegetation into existence (Genesis 1:11-12). Then on the sixth day, just like the pairing of days two and five, God populates the space he has created, this time with land animals, including humans (Genesis 1:24-27).
The repetition and patterning evident cannot just be found on one ‘day’ but are widespread throughout the days of creation. For more examples, and perhaps a clearer visual representation of the repetition and patterning evident in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, please refer to the accompanying Genesis Annotation.
Portrayal of People and God
In this version of the creation story God is portrayed as omnipotent: all-powerful, all seeing, and all giving.
With the words ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26) the audience can infer that because He created humans in his image, that God is, to some extent, humanoid in appearance.
Humans were given dominion over the rest of God’s creations – this story shows humans being created in God’s image and as being given dominion over everything to assure humans that this is the natural order of things.
According to Burnette-Bletsch (2007) one of the most common misconceptions surrounding the Bible is that ‘many people… assume that the Bible simply fell from heaven bound between leather covers and printed in King James English’ (Burnette-Bletsch, 2007, p. 7).
Another common misconception about the Genesis creation story is that Christians believe that the Genesis creation story is an exact explanation of the beginnings of the world. That God created the world in six days by calling forth various components, and forming other with his hands. In Genesis: A Commentary for Parents, Students and Preachers (1992), Scullion uses Leopold von Ranke’s claim that Genesis 1:1-2:4a is not a claim of ‘how it actually happened’ (von Ranke in Scullion, 1992), but rather ‘to reflect on the state of the human race in and from its beginnings’ (Scullion, 1992). By discussing the Genesis story as a myth to explain more than simply the creation of the world, we open up ourselves, and the minds of our students to examine various explanations and possibilities regarding the creation of the world. Of course there are select religious groups who would passionately disagree with the teaching method we have selected for this area of study, and according to Burnette-Bletsch ‘Very conservative Christians insist that the Bible is factually accurate in every way’ (Burnette-Bletsch, 2007). Instead of taking this position, we will instead be taking the view of moderate Christians, that ‘the Bible is inspired, but not inerrant’ (Burnette-Bletsch, 2007, which enables us to view the Genesis story as a myth which demonstrates God’s omnipotence and affection for mankind in this area of study.
Baldick, Chris. "Myth." Oxford Reference. Accessed April 02, 2013. http://www.oxfordreference.com/search?siteToSearch=aup.
Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. Studying the Old Testament: A Companion. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.
Casamento, John, Lynne Muir, Kathleen Engebretson, and Shaun Britton. To Know, Worship and Love. Melbourne: James Goold House, 2003.
"Creation Myth." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed April 03, 2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/142144/creation-myth.
"Genesis Chapters 1-2, New Revised Standard Catholic Edition." BibleGateway.com. Accessed April 1, 2013. www.biblegateway.com.
Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982.
Scullion, John. Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992.
Wright, Terry R. The Genesis of Fiction: Modern Novelists as Biblical Interpreters. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007.