Genesis, In the Beginning
Let there be Life
In the Beginning
The Bible begins where it ought to begin.” In the beginning.” are the very first words. This phrase is a translation of the Hebrew word Bereshith Most books of the Old Testament are named, in the original Hebrew, after the first word. So in the Torah the name of the first book is Bereshith. The Old Testament was first translated into a foreign language around the third century. The language was Greek and Greek authors tend to name a book according to its content. The first book being a book of beginnings the Greek scholars named it “Coming into being” or Genesis.
It is a commonly held belief that the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses. However this theory does not hold up. The varying degrees of style, eloquence and presentation all point to a number of authors and Modern scholars are almost unanimous in asserting that multi-authorship is indisputable.
The Bible is centered around God so God is brought in immediately;
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth.”
The Hebrew word, translated here as God, is Elohim A Hebrew word that ends in im or eim is plural so it should be translated as “Gods’ Every ancient religion was polytheistic and it would seem that some remnants of the polytheistic traditions of the early writers of Genesis still survive. For example;
Genesis 3 v22 “Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil”
Another example is when the tower of Babel was being built:
Genesis 11 v7 “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language”
Monotheism is a much later development in human thought.
When the Bible was translated into English in the 17th century it was written using the best literary traditions of that age. The beauty and vigor of that style still inspires today. That same beautiful use of language is found in the creation story comprising the first 34 verses of the Bible. The creation is said to have taken place on six successive days and then God or the Gods, rested. This is the origin of the Sabbath, a day separate and given over to worship instead of work.
The observance of the Sabbath gets scant attention until the Babylonian captivity. We might even suppose that the whole story is simply a version of the Babylonian creation myth with the polytheism, for the most part, taken out.
After the Babylonian captivity the Sabbath takes on extreme importance, as does the rite of circumcision. These traits along with the insistence of one God marked the Jews out during their time in Babylon and kept their national identity secure in the face of a highly sophisticated civilization.
Once the story of creation is ended a different writing style comes into play.
Genesis 2 v4 “These are the generations of the heavens and of the Earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the Earth and the Heavens.”
Two things to note; The Bible begins to use the traditional Hebrew poetic style of saying the same thing twice but in a slightly different way and the use of the term “Lord God” Up until now the word was simply rendered “God”
The Hebrew word here translated as Lord is YHVH four consonants pronounced individually as Yod Hey Vod Hey Hebrew writing did not use vowels and attempts to pronounce those four letters have led to the popular but mistaken Jehovah. When the Hebrew people were spreading out and learning to speak other languages such as Aramaic and Greek, Scholars became concerned that the proper pronunciation of Hebrew words would be lost so they placed diacritical marks under the consonants to indicate how they should be pronounced. These marks were never placed under YHVH because that name was never to be pronounced anyway. Sometime during the middle ages a Christian scholar used the diacritical marks for Adonai a word that could be used and so came up with Jehovah. Most modern Biblical scholars assert that the correct pronunciation should be Yahweh.
Genesis as a whole is very concerned with names and now becomes, with slight exceptions, centered around one God, the Lord God or Yahweh. After naming him, the next to be named is Adam. Adam is the general Hebrew word for “Man” in the sense of “Mankind” Genesis does not make use of Adam as a given name until the 5th chapter; Genesis 5 v1 “And this is the generations of Adam” Adam is given life by God breathing into him, in fact the word translated here as soul is nephesh which means breath.
Genesis is based on very ancient traditions, a collection of tales drawn from different tribes.
The story of Adam and Eve presented in Genesis is the one we are most familiar with but it is not the only one. An alternative tale from Hebrew mythology agrees that when God created all living things he made them male and female. This early tale states that man was no exception, God created Adam (male) and Lilith (Female) as with all other beings. However Lilith rebelled. Not content with taking a back seat she wanted to be at least on equal terms with Adam in all things. Adam complained to God and Lilith was thrown out of Eden. God then made Eve from Adams rib to be his helpmeet and be subject to him. It should not be surprising that in the heavily patriarchal society of Babylon that the story of Lilith would be conveniently dropped. The actual meaning of Eve is uncertain. The Hebrew equivalent is Havvah this is similar in sound to hayah which means “To live” but attempts to equate the two are nothing more than folk etymology. The true meaning is unknown.
These first chapters set the scene for what is apparent throughout the first five books. There appears to have been two strands to early thought. One is the Elohim view, the other is the Jehovah or, more correctly, the Yahweh, view. Eventually the latter would win out but at the time that the Torah was reduced to writing the Elohim tradition was still so strong that the two had to be combined. It is in the combining that we see the hands of the priests. Both views of God present their myth and legend in the style of all primitive cultures. The telling of the tale is personal with details that bring it to life. These legends are brought together by genealogies. After each story comes the listing of the generations between. The style of these listings is obviously that of the cleric compiling the books.
After the creation, including the creation of mankind, come a couple of short verses. These few lines have been held responsible for all that humans have achieved and destroyed in the last two thousand years.
God brought all of his creation to Adam and instructed him to name them and to have dominion over them all. Effectively man was placed apart from nature, it is his to control and to use as he sees fit. Dominion is secured by naming all things. In this light it is worthy of note that where God named Adam, God did not name Eve. That was Adam’s job and secured male domination. This combination of placing male aggression as superior and removing mankind from being a part of nature to being its master, led to the Protestant work ethic and the Industrial revolution. It still dominates the culture and the politics of the world today.
As an example, a contrasting culture would be the Native Americans. Untouched by the notion that they were superior to nature, they cultivated the land but they did not tame it. Had they captured the Bison and trained it to pull the plough then they would have harvested more food with less effort and it would have led inevitably to an industrial revolution in the Americas.
Praise the name of God
After the creation tale comes the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. This well known story is quite un-Biblical. Only here and in the tale of Balaam’s Ass do we find a record of an animal speaking. This is not a Jewish belief but the story was so ingrained that the writers had to leave it in. The concepts presented seem to hark back to an older nature religion.
The tale, as told does not present the serpent as being evil as such. The serpent seems motiveless or at worse acting out of a sense of mischief. However, when Genesis was being put together during the Babylonian captivity it was more convenient to view the serpent as being a manifestation of the adversary. This is the first place where, in Judeao-Christianity, that the notion of Satan comes into play.
The Hebrew word “Satan” means adversary, though not always a supernatural enemy. In the cases where it refers to a human opponent the word is translated as adversary. As in the book of Kings where Rezon of Syria rebels against Solomon;
1 Kings 11 v24 and he was an adversary to Israel all the days of Solomon.”
Around 400BC Persia was the dominant force. Their religion had been systematized by their prophet Zoroaster. Their view was that the universe contained a principle of good Ormuzd and a principle of evil Ahriman. They were viewed as independent of each other and very nearly equal. Satan is not mentioned as a fallen angel and the father of lies etc. until 1 Chronicles. Up until that time he seems to be a reporter of the failings of mankind, slandering man to God. The Greek word for “slanderer” is Diabolos literally; to throw across and from this we get words like Devil and Diabolical. So the adversary is seen as throwing obstacles across man’s path. He does not become the supernatural enemy of God until around the time the Chronicles were written and Judaism was coming under Persian influence.
After being expelled from Eden the man and woman settle down to become farmers. Several thousand years ago people began to learn to farm the land. Because farmland had to be taken care of they stopped wandering and settled down in one place. Now they could produce more and were less dependent on searching for food. Eventually they banded together for mutual protection and cities were formed. There was contention similar to the contention in the American west between the cowboys and the homesteaders. This conflict is presented in Genesis as the fight between Cain and Abel.
Then we have an interesting genealogy. There comes the “generations of Adam” The chroniclers gave long lives to the heroes of their stories. The genealogy gives Adams descendants down to the Israelites. These tales are legendary and are part of Babylonian myth. However, those who take the Bible literally have tried to place the date of creation from these passages. The Jews of the middle ages calculated the date of creation as October 7th 3761 and this date is still used in the Jewish calendar. So September 2010 will be year 5771. The most famous Christian scholar was Bishop James Usher. In 1654 he calculated the date of creation to be 4004 BC. Those aren’t bad dates really. History didn’t begin until writing was invented and that occurred sometime before 3000BC. Though the first cities were built around 8000BC and pre-historic man has left remains well over a million years old.
The naming of sons that occurs throughout the first five books but especially in Genesis, is not to be taken literally. Nor is the order of birth. The chroniclers are presenting eponyms. That is names of different tribes and nations. Where one son is said to have been the first born, it simply means that that tribe achieved initial dominance. Then we see another tribe becoming the dominant force and a tale is written as in the case of Jacob and Esau, where the Edomites, the tribe of Esau, had initial dominance but were overtaken by the tribe of Jacob.
The first part of genesis ends with the flood. If we accept the biblical chronology, Noah was born 1056 after the creation. If we accept Bishop Usher’s calculations that would be about 3000BC, when he was 600 years old, around 2400BC, there came the flood. According to the Bible it was worldwide. There is no record of any such thing; in fact the Pyramids were being built at this time. The Egyptians had no record of any deluge other than the normal flooding of the Nile. There are reports of floods from almost every part of the globe but there is no indication of a worldwide deluge taking place everywhere at the same time. It is far more likely that the use of “World’ was more in the sense that it is used in the New Testament where it says that Caesar ordered the world to be taxed. He obviously wasn’t taxing America or China. It was simply referring to the known world. So the tale of the flood is most likely a Sumerian myth reporting a localized flood
Nevertheless, according to the genesis story, God has wiped the slate clean and can start again.
More by this Author
Odin stands unique amongst Gods. He doesn’t claim to know everything. In fact Odin is always seeking out greater and deeper wisdom and knowledge. Within Germanic, frequently miss-spoken of as Norse, mythology,...
The continent of India has, within its religions and culture many truly epic tales. One of these legends is the Mabharata. It is within this legend that the Bhagavad Gita appears. The Mabharata is the tale of a feud...
This is a video promoting the new interactive game by Bungie. It was released on September 22nd exclusively for the Xbox 360 video game console. The promotional video is notable because live actors are used to make a...