The Nature of Genesis One

In this article Dr. Young, well known Old Testament scholar, explains what should be the Christian’s approach to the first chapter of Genesis. Such a treatment must precede the believing scholars’ interpretation of the various sections and verses of this chapter. The writer encouraged us to entertain the hope that he will give us a more detailed explanation at a later date. Ed.

What kind of writing is the first chapter of Genesis? Is it history or fiction? Is it legend or is it factual? Is it mythological? Is it straightforward prose? It is an account of the creation of heaven and earth. There are in existence, however, other accounts. One such we find in the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid. Another is that which has come down to us from the Sumerians and the Babylonians. Are we to interpret Genesis One in the light of these latter accounts? Do they provide a pattern by which it is to be judged and evaluated?


One view of the nature of Genesis One, espoused now by some German writers, may be stated somewhat as follows. In ancient Israel there grew up over the course of the years certain views concerning the origin of the world and of man. These views were taught by the priests in the villages. Originally, they were probably introduced into Israel from Babylon itself. As the years passed by these views were worked over and refined, until finally the result was the first chapter of Genesis, a chapter which represents purely priestly doctrine.

Such an account of the nature of Genesis One would seem to deny to the chapter any very great historical basis. One could never be sure whether he was reading an account of what had actually transpired or whether he was simply dealing with the views of priestly men of religious insight. It is to be feared that the latter is the case. If the first chapter of the Bible is for the most part simply the creation of priests of Israel, then we may believe that it truly represents their own views, no more. We cannot rely upon it to give us an accurate account. At the best one would have to assume that throughout the course of Israel’s history God revealed the truth concerning the creation piece by piece. There is nothing in the Bible that would lead one to the conclusion that that is actually what transpired.



A second view, very similar to the first one mentioned, would find in Genesis One demythologized literature. This is said to be the case particularly with respect to the second verse (“And the earth was waste and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”), a verse which has been spoken of as a veritable treasure-house of mythological expressions. At one time these mythological expressions were said to have been full of meaning, but as they are employed here in the second verse, this meaning has been taken from them. They are here used simply to describe “nothing.”

This thought may be expanded as follows. “We do not have to demythologize the first chapter of Genesis,” it is said, “because this chapter has already been demythologized.” In the second verse there are several old mythological expressions which have lost their meaning. They are no longer mythological expressions, and indeed their old mythological meaning might even have been unknown to the author of Genesis. This author of Genesis, however, so the argument goes, wanted to describe the “nothing” from which God created heaven and earth. Now, it is impossible to describe nothing, and so the author used these old mythological expressions in their demythologized form, and in so doing sought to describe the “nothing” from which God created.

In reply to this it must be said that the purpose of the author of Genesis is not .to describe “nothing.” In the second verse he is seeking to describe the earth as it was before God created light. To accomplish this end he employs three descriptive clauses, each one describing the condition of the earth and the waters which covered it. Nor is it correct to say that the language which he employs has been demythologized. That the language of Genesis 1:2 was once mythological in its significance is an assertion which cannot be proved. However, even if the language had at one time possessed a mythological connotation, that mythological connotation does in no wise help in the understanding of the language as it now stands before us. And certainly the author of Genesis has not demythologized the language. The burden of proof would seem to lie upon those who claim the contrary.


It is merely by way of introduction to the subject that we have briefly mentioned two approaches to the study of the first chapter of Genesis. Their consideration compels us to face more clearly and directly the question, “What type of writing do we find in this chapter? Does it truly belong to a particular literary genre or style?” The first point which we must take into consideration is the obvious fact that Genesis One is a portion of the Holy Scripture. Like all Scripture, therefore, it is God-breathed, written by a man who was borne of the Holy Spirit, and “cannot be broken.” In other words it is infallible Scripture. This fact lifts it up out of the category of ordinary human compositions. It is really beside the point to speak of the literary genre of Genesis One.

There are of course, other accounts of creation, and one of the best known of these is the one which has come down to us from the Babylonians and the Sumerians. Where does Genesis One stand in relation to this and other similar accounts? Do all these accounts form a particular class or genre, and does the first chapter of the Bible belong in this class? Are we to determine the genre of Genesis One by making such a comparative study? We believe that such a procedure is mistaken. There will be certain formal similarities between the first chapter of Genesis and other accounts of creation, but it is not correct to say that Genesis belongs to the same literary genre as these other accounts. These other accounts, and we may mention the Babylonian document, because of its prominence, represent the superstitions of the people who composed them. It is true that some of them follow a somewhat similar pattern, and that they may in a broad sense be classified as “creation” documents. Genesis One, however, does not belong with them. It does not give us the thoughts of men with respect to the creation; it gives us rather a revelation from the one living and true God. It is this that constitutes the difference, and how profound that difference is! Genesis One tells us how things actually took place; it gives us accurate, reliable, authentic information concerning those subjects about which it speaks. There is no other account of creation with which it can be compared. It stands alone, unique, entirely sui generis—of its own kind.


If Genesis is truly a revelation from God, how are we to interpret it? It is clear enough that no man was present when the events described in the first chapter occurred. Can these events therefore be rightly regarded as historical? Can we not assume that inasmuch as the contents of the first chapter of Genesis were revealed to man in vision that tlley must on that account possess somewhat of ‘ a visionary character? May we not be in gross error if we seek to interpret the content of the first chapter as though that chapter were describing or relating what had actually occurred?

In answer to this question it should be noted that God did indeed reveal to man his messages in vision. There was however, one exception, and that was to Moses. To Moses God did not speak in a vIsion, but plainly, and not in dark, enigmatic sayings. Was the first chapter of Genesis revealed to Moses? we may ask. Perhaps the answer to this question is difficult, but the following line of thought may be of help. May not God have revealed to Adam in the garden the truth concerning the manner in which he brought the world into existence? Possibly he made that truth known to the first man before the Fall, but he may also have revealed it after the Fall. Adam would have taught that truth to his sons and daughters, and they in turn would have passed it on to their children. Hence in course of time the truth would become intermingled with superstition, and there would appear accounts of the creation which would be as grotesque and far removed from the truth as is the Babylonian account. And yet, despite their grotesqueness, these accounts would have preserved some semblance at least of what had actually transpired.

Among the men of the promised line, however, the descendants of Seth, the same truth would have been handed down from father to son. In tIllS line there would have been a reverent acceptance of the truth and a desire to keep that truth pure, to guard it and to protect it from admixture with error. All the patriarchs, then, would have known the truth revealed in the first chapter of Genesis. In time Moses came to write down that truth. Is it not quite likely that he had before him written documents in which this truth was expressed? How would Moses know, however, what to write down and what to reject? At this point we enter the field of mystery. We can only appeal to what is explicitly taught in the New Testament, namely, that the holy men of old who wrote the Scriptures were men who were borne of the Holy Spirit (I Peter 1:21). Moses wrote as an inspired writer, and in his writing the Spirit of Truth saw to it that he wrote down just what the Spirit desired him to write down. Although parts of Genesis One may have been before Moses in written form, and although we may never know who first committed the truths expressed in that chapter to writing, nevertheless, when the human author of the Pentateuch, namely Moses, wrote the chapter in the form in which it now appears, he was writing infallible Scripture.

It may be, of course, that when God first made known the truths contained in the first chapter of Genesis to Adam, he revealed them in a vision. We do not know. It would seem that the visionary form of revelation was reserved for post-lapsarian times (after the Fall), and that the pre-Iapsarian revelation (before the Fall) was by means of a theophany. If, however, these truths were revealed after the Fall to Adam in a vision, it does not follow at all that these truths have a visionary character and not to be interpreted in a historical manner, as having occurred just as the chapter says that they occurred. In all probability the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah was revealed to the prophet in a vision, but it does not follow that the chapter has a visionally character and that it is not prophesying something which was to be a truly historical event. It simply does not follow that what has been revealed in vision must itself be visionary in character.

All of this leads to the conclusion that in Genesis One we have a factual account of what actually took place. We may speak of the events described in this chapter as genuinely historical, even though there was no man on the scene to record those events. We have an infallible report of what took place. To be more specific, we may say that at one time, for example, this earth was entirely covered with water. The water which covered the earth was separated, the oceans and seas were formed and the dry land appeared. This dry land then became clothed with grass, with herbs, and with fruit trees. When we assert that this chapter records what actually occurred, we are on safe ground. This is not to say that there are not difficult problems involved in the study of Genesis One. There are indeed difficult problems, but if we approach that chapter in the belief that we shall encounter a factual record of what occurred, we shall not go astray.