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In the beginning was . . . what?

19 February 2016

Andrew Davison and Jacob Sherman look at creation from the perspective of Biblical studies


Cosmic battle: the fight between the monster Tiamat (the personification of chaos, darkness, disorder, and evil) and Marduk (the god of light, armed with thunderbolts). From a bas-relief on the walls of the palace of Assur-nasir-pal, king of Assyria (885-860 BC), now in the British Museum

Cosmic battle: the fight between the monster Tiamat (the personification of chaos, darkness, disorder, and evil) and Marduk (the god of light, armed w...

THERE are at least two sensible ways to read the Bible “in order”. One starts with Genesis and ends with Revelation: from creation to new creation. The other involves following, as best we can, the historical order in which the biblical texts were most likely written.

Although the business of dating the various layers of writing and editing within the Bible is not clear-cut, scholars tend to agree that the creation accounts as we have them in Genesis 1.1-2.3 are not the earliest. They might be not the inception, but rather the consummation, of a Hebrew way of thinking about creation.

So how was creation imagined in early Hebrew traditions? To gauge that, we have to look at what survives: not so much complete accounts as snippets of creation stories, or allusions to creation traditions that may no longer enjoy currency, but which linger in the common imagination.

Those earlier Hebrew accounts envisage “creation” as a defeat and restraint of chaos, a chaos that is often represented by the sea (or “the waters”) and its monsters (Leviathan and Rahab). Examples are found, for instance, in Psalms 74, 89, and 104, and in Job 9, 26 and 38.

This theme of imposing form and order on chaos is an ancient one, and accounts of creation as a cosmic battle are found throughout other Ancient Near Eastern religions. Somewhat surprisingly, the account in Genesis 1 echoes many of the same themes. At the very least, those “six days” are all about ordering the cosmos: about setting bounds, dividing “the waters”, and making sure that each type of creature is in the region where it belongs.

But Genesis also contains much that is different from other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths (and their parallels in older Biblical traditions) — not least a certain “demythologisation”, apparent in the marked absence from Genesis of a genealogy of gods, or of a battle.

Although the Earth is initially pictured in Genesis 1 as “formless and void”, and darkness covers the waters, these images are not personified into a chaos monster that must be tamed or slain. There is no cosmic battle here. Genesis 1’s account of the creation of the world involves no struggle, nor is the world born from the body of a god or the corpse of a dragon; instead, God simply speaks.

He makes the heavens, too: even the sun and the moon — considered gods by Ancient Israel’s neighbours — are shown to be mere creatures, “the greater and lesser lights”.

In one sense, the Genesis account dethrones the gods of the Ancient Near East, but we need to be careful not to read this demythologisation as a disenchantment of the world. For the biblical authors, the world is still a sacred and wonderful place, filled with beings visible and invisible, and porous to the presence of God.

For instance, recent exegeses have noticed how thoroughly the Genesis account parallels Ancient Near Eastern narratives of temple construction. In Isaiah 66.1, God asks, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting-place?”

The opening chapters of Genesis seem to provide an answer. God’s temple is not built with human hands; God’s temple is the cosmos. Where will God’s resting place be? Where else but the Sabbath, the seventh day, the day of rest, when the good things of creation are offered back to God with thanksgiving by the human beings — his own created image — that he set in the centre of his cosmic temple.


THE Old and New Testaments are constantly attentive to a God who acts. In creation, God acts to call the world into order and beauty, just as in redemption God acts to call His people and the nations into peace.

Here, we might note a shift in biblical scholarship away from an early 20th-century tendency to contrast scriptural accounts of creation and redemption. Those earlier accounts often treated creation as if it were merely the necessary stage-setting for redemption. The Bible’s real concern, so it was said, is with salvation history, not with the (supposedly) static theologies of creation that the scriptures largely share with the rest of the ancient world.

More recently, however, scholars have recognised that that separation of creation and redemption reflects modern philosophical assumptions far more than it reflects the vision either of ancient Israel, or of the authors of the New Testament. The life and faith of ancient Israel was as profoundly interested in the world of creation as it was in history (think of Job, and the Psalms). Indeed, the religion of ancient Israel did not divide these two terms as we do, but understood God to be intimately present and active in both human history and the more-than-human creation.

For Israel, to confess that God was creator was also to confess that God was Redeemer. Because God was the creator of the heavens and the earth, Israel could trust in God to redeem His people from slavery, from exile, from oppression.

This is why exilic prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah were so committed to remembering and elaborating the twinned themes of creation and redemption in the midst of a foreign land. Because Yahweh was the creator, not just of Israel, but of heaven and earth, Israel could trust in Yahweh to bring her out of exile, and to restore her according to God’s great promises.


TURNING back to the opening of Genesis, we face a question about how to understand and translate the first two verses. Older English translations tended to follow the interpretation offered by the ancient Greek and Latin translations. The Authorised Version is typical: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void.”

This way of translating the Hebrew leaves no doubt about God’s role as the creator of all things from the very start. Contrast this with the subtle difference that one finds in the more recent NRSV: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void.” The new translation seems to picture the formless void as there, like God, from the very start. Creation, accordingly, is what God does to that void.

The older translations suggest that creation out of nothing is taught from the very first verses of the Bible: God used no raw materials; everything — including matter — comes from him, and would not exist otherwise. The newer translations treat things differently, not so much denying creation out of nothing as denying that this sort of question exercised the mind and culture of the author of Genesis 1.

Here, a historical perspective on the order of the writing of scripture becomes useful again. The impetus to identify God as the sole author of everything is a later feature of the Hebrew traditions of thought, but it does emerge (Isaiah 44-45 is a rich source). The idea that God made everything, all the way down, became increasingly important in the period between the writing of the Testaments (see 2 Maccabees 7.28), and is reflected in the New Testament, e.g. Romans 4.17.

Whether we think creation out of nothing is evident in scripture will depend in part on how we phrase the question. Recast “creation out of nothing” as its corollary — that God made everything, including matter — and we find it even more clearly than if we look for God as creator “out of nothing” (e.g. in John 1.3, Collosians 1.16, and Hebrews 1.2).

As a final example of the connection of the doctrine to so much else, those passages also illustrate a point that has come to new prominence among theologians, namely the Trinitarian dimension to creation — not least because, in each of those three passages, creation is made “in” or “through” the Son or Word of God.


Andrew Davison is Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences, and Jacob Sherman is Lecturer in Philosophical Theology, both at the University of Cambridge.

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