Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 - Part 1

Most would be aware that there are two creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 which if read literally differ in the length, order, and duration of creation events, not to mention the nature of God’s involvement in creation as either transcendent or immanent, even if that awareness derives from an awareness that fundamentalist Christians vehemently deny this fact and have spent no little energy in patently unconvincing attempts to explain away this problem. [1] Fewer though would be aware of the existence of other creation narratives in the Bible, which while sharing motifs and themes [2] likewise differ from each other. The idea of a single unified creation text in the Bible is one that is not supported by the evidence. There are many creation narratives in the Bible, which share common themes but also differ thematically, and to insist on a single Biblical teaching on creation runs the risk of muting these voices in order to force the polyvalent Biblical teachings on creation both to conform to a fundamentalist concept of inerrancy as well as to function as a crude anti-evolution polemic. The science denialism of contemporary fundamentalists should never be the hermeneutic by which we read the creation narratives.

A few years ago, I ran across Mark Smith’s The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. [3] Smith’s stature as a leading authority on the development of ancient Israelite religion was reason enough for me to obtain his book, but given the size of my to-read pile, it languished for some time until recently when I found the time to read it. Smith’s goal in writing was to understand how the priestly author [4] expressed his vision of creation. As Smith notes, Genesis 1 is only one of many parts of the Bible that discuss creation, and comparing them with Gen 1 allows the reader to see both the differing concerns and worldviews of the other creation narratives, and the particular views of the priestly tradition behind Genesis 1. [5]

I have attempted a review of The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 but it very quickly turned into a summary of its themes which then became an attempt to blog my way through the book. When I realised that it would blow out into something completely unwieldy, I stopped just after working my way through the prelude. There is of course no claim for originality as the ideas and order are completely indebted to Smith. Having said that, there’s enough original content, even of by way of response to Smith’s excellent argument, for me to turn the result into a multi-part series. With a nod to one of the original aims of this exercise, namely as book review, I would unreservedly recommend anyone who wants to understand what the Biblical writers thought about creation (as opposed to what modern fundamentalists want it to say).

Allusions to creation story

The volume of references and allusions to creation in the Bible suggests that the story held great significance for ancient Israel, but when these references and allusions (not to mention the extra-Genesis creation narratives in the wisdom literature) are analysed, we can see that as Smith notes “[i]n ancient Israel, people told the creation story in different ways, as we see in various biblical books.”[6]
Jer 10:12 It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens

Amos 4:13 For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!

Amos 9:6 [The Lord, God of hosts] who builds his upper chambers in the heavens, and founds his vault upon the earth; who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out upon the surface of the earth— the Lord is his name.

Zec 12:1 The word of the LORD concerning Israel: Thus says the LORD, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the human spirit within

Prov 8:22 The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth— when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Job 26:7-13 He stretches out Zaphon over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing. He binds up the waters in his thick clouds, and the cloud is not torn open by them. He covers the face of the full moon, and spreads over it his cloud. He has described a circle on the face of the waters, at the boundary between light and darkness. The pillars of heaven tremble, and are astounded at his rebuke. By his power he stilled the Sea; by his understanding he struck down Rahab. By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.

Job 38:1-11 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
In passing, the reference to 'striking down Rahab' and the 'piercing serpent' in Job 26 alone should remind us that we are not dealing with creation narratives that were meant to be interpreted as historically and scientifically accurate. The allusion to cosmic enemies such as Rahab the chaos-monster [7] reminds us that these texts are participating an ancient world and had far more important issues to discuss than inform people of the age of the universe and the exact mechanism by which it was made.

The importance of the creation stories to ancient Israel can be seen in their liturgical use, as the following texts from Psalms indicate:
Psa 74:12-17 Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams. Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.

Psa 89:11-13 The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it—you have founded them. The north and the south—you created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name. You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand.

Psa 148  Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created. He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!

Just these allusions alone show that, to quote Smith again, “in ancient Israel many different creation accounts existed, not just one single creation story. In fact, these passages indicate that there were various ways of telling the creation story.”[8]

At the beginning of this article, I noted how the two creation narratives in Genesis differed in the length, duration, and sequence of creation events. There are other ways in which creation narratives can differ, and arguably these are more significant. Smith points out that one can identify three major models of creation in the OT, namely creation by divine power, creation by divine wisdom and creation by divine presence. Arguably, thematic differences are more important than differences in creation event length, duration, and order, which differ at a secondary narrative level, rather than a primary thematic one. This makes examining them not just important in showing why the fundamentalist urge to reduce and harmonise the creation narratives and allusions to a single account is fundamentally misguided, but in order to see the different voices on creation that occur in the Biblical text. Different traditions in the Bible saw creation in different ways, and a forced harmonisation must not be allowed to obliterate these voices.

As Smith remarks, these three models (power, wisdom, presence) are not exhaustive, and they are not mutually exclusive given that a creation narrative can draw on one or more of these models.

Creation by Divine Power

The first model, creation via divine power sees creation emerging as a result of God’s victory of cosmic foes. Psa 74:12-17 and Psa 89:11-13 are the best-known examples of this model. God here is a warrior-king marching from his palace temple, vanquishing his cosmic foes (usually either sea monsters or the cosmic waters personified), with God creating the universe from the cosmic waters. For those who worshipped God, the appropriate response was to venerate the warrior-king through approved cultic activities. Just as God had destroyed his cosmic enemies, he would likewise destroy his human enemies with power.

An important aspect of this model was that it helped legitimate royal theology, where the human king acted as a mediator between the people and the deity. The human king as mediator obtained his power from the heavenly king, with passages such as Psa 90:25 “I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers” in which the human king is given power over tbe old cosmic enemies of Sea and River highlighting this fact.

Creation by Divine Wisdom

In this model, best known from Psa 104 and Job 38:1-11, creation is achieved through divine wisdom, with God acting as the divine architect, engineer, and builder. Isa 40:12-14 describes God as the master craftsman of creation, deliberately contrasting with the human craftsmen who as 40:18-20 show create idols.

Whereas in the first model of creation through power, the appropriate response was to venerate God through approved cult, with the divinely-appointed human king acting as mediator, here wisdom – encoded in the world itself – mediates between God and man. This requires humans to learn God’s wisdom either in the world or through the wisdom literature (for example Prov 1-9). Whereas in the first model, the wicked are directly destroyed, here they primarily through lack of wisdom.

Creation by Divine Presence

Creation via the divine presence shares with the first model a view of the universe as God’s presence and draws on a palace-temple motif, but differs in that it emphasises God’s holy temple. Sometimes, power and holiness are emphasised together (Psa 150:1 where the firmament is not just fortress but temple; “Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!”

Key to this model is the universe as a palace-temple. The divine name, the divine word, light, and holiness are aspects of the divine presence in the temple, and this contrasts with creation by power in the first model.

Psalm 8, which is one of the main texts illustrating creation through the divine presence (or name) refers to creation, then discusses the divine name in the universe. The appropriate human response involves serving God in the proper manner, with acknowledging God’s presence through praise.

Each of these creation models warrants more examination which I will cover in the next few posts.


1.See for example Meredith G, Kline “Because It Had Not RainedWestminster Theological Journal 20 (1958):146-157 which shows the impossibility of reconciling a literal reading of Gen 1 and Gen 2 given that such a reading creates contradictory orders of creation.
2. That these motifs are also common to other ancient Near Eastern literature shows that the biblical creation accounts participate in a shared cognitive environment, as well as played off each other, or in the case of Genesis 1 were designed as commentary and correction.
3. Mark Smith The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (2010: Fortress Press)
4. While there remains active discussion and disagreement about the precise details of the composition of the Pentateuch (documentary hypothesis, supplementary hypothesis, or fragmentary hypothesis), there is little real disagreement about the existence of a Priestly source or tradition, whose authors were responsible for the creation of Genesis 1).
5. Smith, op cit, p 1
6. ibid, p 11
7. "In the OT texts relating Rahab to the sea its original character of chaos monster is preserved. They also point to a conception of a battle between →Yahweh and →chaos preceding the creation of →heaven and →earth. Job 26 describes the steadfast order of the universe preserved by God after having struck down Rahab (cf. also Ps 89:7–13). Job 9:13 mentions Rahab’s helpers. This has a parallel in the army of monsters siding with Tiamat according to Enūma eliš I 125ff and also in ‘the Big Ones’, monsters supporting the sea god Yam, the adversary of Baal and Anat in KTU2 1.3 iii:38ff. And the ritual text KTU2 1.109:21 mentions helper-gods among a number of gods residing in the netherworld (TUAT II/3, 317)." K. Spronk, “Rahab,” ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), 685.

7. Smith, op cit. p 11