What is the message of Genesis 1?
This is a rough paraphrase of the explanation from Dr. John Walton on Genesis 1. Dr. John Walton is a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew Studies at Wheaton College. If you would like to read more about Dr. Walton's interpretation, I would strongly urge you to buy The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis.
Cognitive bias on biblical interpretation
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Genesis 1:1 and the Creation Account
What is the message of Genesis 1? What is the message of these seven days of creation? The text asserts that in the seven-day initial period, God brought the cosmos into operation by assigning roles and functions. Now you probably don’t recognize that, but that is the paraphrase of Gen 1:1 that I would offer; that is, the seven-day initial period, that’s bereshith—the beginning. The beginning does not refer to a point in time but to a period of time and that period is the seven days. It’s in that seven days that God did this work of bringing order.
So in the seven-day initial period, we find elsewhere in the OT where this term reshith is used, that it refers to an initial period of time and that’s what it does here as well. So the seven-day initial period, God brought the cosmos into operation—that’s bara' (create)—that’s creating order and functions. So He brings it into operation by assigning roles and functions, the work of bara'. And that’s the work that we see reflected in the seven days, where it focuses on order and functions and God setting up this system to work as our home—our home where He dwells and we have the privilege of dwelling with Him and being His people and being in relationship with Him. And that’s the powerful theology of Gen 1 that we miss when we just make it a story about objects if we think it’s just a house story.
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The Climax of the Creation Account
There's an element to day seven that we were unaware of as modern readers. It’s not just a curiosity, it’s something that is significant enough to be identified as the most important thing in this narrative: the fact that God has made this cosmos His home, where His presence will reside. It’s a very important theological aspect of the text that we miss out if we only think in terms of a material house story. People may be the climax of the six days, and they are because all of the other things in the six days are put together for people and to function on their behalf.
But the fact is that God’s rest is the climax of the creation account (see our blog: Why would God need to rest?). Because this whole idea is that this is going to be God’s place made to work for us. This universe is His place. And so in that sense, God is inviting us as honored guests into His home. And if He’s not there, it’s not a home. If He’s not there the whole focus of these seven days is lost. Rest, God’s rest is the climax of this creation account. Rest, in fact, is the main goal of creation. This is why He has ordered it.
Exercising Control in an Ordered System
Imagine for a moment that you’re moving into a new house or a new apartment or a new dorm room. Okay, and you move in and there are just all boxes. The material place has been there but now you’re ready to move in and make that house your home. At first, it’s all boxes, non-ordered. It’s not evil, it’s not bad, it’s just not ordered yet. So you begin the process of ordering that space so that it can function as your home. So you spend a number of days unpacking the boxes, arranging everything, putting everything where it belongs, filling the cabinets, filling the closets, getting everything set up exactly as you want it.
And when you’re all done, you take a nap. Well you might, but that’s not what you did it for; you didn’t order that new house or that new apartment in order just to take a nap and then leave. You didn’t order it in order to rest, to sleep, to nap. You ordered it to live there and to make it a home. So the reason for all of the ordering was the living, which begins when the ordering is done. Then you can live in that ordered space, and it’s going to function the way that you want it to.
In the same way, God didn’t order the whole cosmos (the house) so that He could take a nap or rest and be done with it all. He ordered it so that He could live in it, so He could exist in it, rule in it, so it could be that place where He relates to us in that space. He had a purpose for it, and that purpose is represented in His resting. And so the home story, His home, and our home. That resting, then, expresses having control over an ordered system, exercising control in an ordered system.
We tend to think of it as if it is disengagement—relaxing, leisure, rest, sleep, naps, disengagement. But for them, in this context, this is engagement. This is so we can engage in the rule of this ordered space. We tend to think of rest as the opposite of activity. In reality, however, the rest God gives is the opposite of unrest.
Making the Cosmos a Temple
So now we’ve talked about the seventh day and how important the seventh day is in this understanding: the relationship between the temple building with its house element and its home element and how that reflects some similarity in Gen 1. So we might ask the question regarding Gen 1: How is it that the house, the cosmos, becomes a home? What process is involved? What happens? What does that look like?
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Let’s think about Solomon’s temple for a moment. Solomon spent seven years constructing the temple, the house, the building. When that seven-year is up and it’s all done, it’s all completed and there is it and you can see it, you can touch it, you … if they let you. There it is. Is it a temple? No! Because the temple expresses a function. If God is not in it, it is not a temple. If rituals are not being performed, worship not being conducted to the God who’s present, it is not a temple. You’ve got the house story. You’ve got the home story.
If we view the temple as a model for understanding the cosmos as sacred space then we ought to ask the question: How did the temple transition from just being a house, a structure, to becoming a temple—a home where God ruled and resided. How did that take place? Well, again, we talked about Solomon spending seven years building the house. So then, how did it become a home? Well, the Bible tells us that there was a celebration, a ceremony, a temple dedication, temple inauguration ceremony. In fact, we know about these from all over the ancient world. Building temples, dedicating temples, inaugurating temples—it was a big thing. There are many texts that talk about it, and so we have a good idea of what takes place. It’s interesting that in these temple inaugurations, we find that one of the activities, one of the main activities, is to proclaim the functions of the temple.
The Seven-Day Inauguration Ceremony
Interesting, of course, that in Gen 1 days one through three, it is proclaiming the functions of the cosmic sacred space (Day 1: time [see our blog: Why did God call the light, day?]; Day 2: weather; Day 3: food). Then in the temple inauguration ceremonies, what happens is that the functionaries are installed. Maybe that’s the furniture. Maybe that’s the various administrative people—the priests—all given their roles. Rituals are begun. The functionaries are installed, and again we saw, in Genesis days four through six, functionaries being installed (Day 4: sun, moon, stars; Day 5: Animal; Day 6: human).
Then we find, of course, that God takes up His rest and that’s when it becomes a temple. Now when we look at these temple inauguration ceremonies, we find then that to transition from a house to a home, from a structure to a temple, takes place in the ceremony that lasts seven days. So if we wondered what the significance is of the seven days in Gen 1, we can find that that is explained perfectly by the idea of a seven-day inauguration ceremony where the house becomes a home.
That is the transition that is important theologically, functionally. Now it is ordered sacred space because God has taken up His dwelling in it. That means that in Gen 1, the seven days do not connect to the house story. The seven days connect to the home story. In Genesis 1, God proclaimed the cosmos as sacred space: the temple, His home.