The Creation Stories in their Cultural Context

In my last blog piece, I suggested that the first thing one must do before reading a book is to recognize from which library shelf it came—that is, its literary genre. Or, put another way, one must ask oneself how the original readers of an ancient text would have understood it. In the case of Holy Scripture one must also continue to mine the text for meanings not originally grasped by the original hearers. St. Paul had an eye on this deeper meaning when he referred to the (Old Testament) Scriptures as prophetikos (Romans 16:26), since its deeper meaning referred to Christ. But though a deeper reading of the meaning ends with Christ, exegesis must begin with the meaning as understood by the original hearers. If it fails to do this, it is not exegesis. It might be brilliant, true, and valuable in its interpretation of the prophetic significance, but it still is not exegesis. Exegesis takes account of the culture in which a text was written and asks how the original target audience would have understood it.

We may ask therefore how the original readers of the creation story in Genesis 1 would have understood it. A full examination of the first chapter of Genesis is beyond what is possible in a blog post. For this blog post, examining the first two verses will be sufficient. The Hebrew reads: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (NRSV). Or, if one prefers, the Hebrew might be rendered: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (RSV). I will ignore for now the question of whether one should translate the Hebrew ruach as “spirit” or “wind” (the Hebrew can mean both), as well as the (questionable) translation of the Hebrew tohu we-bohu as “without form and void”. For now I would like to concentrate on those waters. Note that before the first day of creation when God said, “Let there be light!” water existed. Darkness was upon the face of the tehom or deep, and God’s ruach moved over the face of the ma-im (or waters). The words indicate water, and sea-water in particular. Tehom is used in Exodus 15:5 to describe the Red Sea, and both words are used in Psalm 77:16 to describe the Red Sea as well. The question is: what’s the idea with sea-water existing before the first day of creation?

The narrative that follows makes it crystal clear that we are talking about sea-water. First there was the water (v. 1-2), which God separated, pushing some of the water up above the firmament, leaving some of the water below the firmament (v. 6-7). Then God gathered all the water below the firmament together so that dry land appeared in the place where the waters had been, and He called the waters that were thus gathered “Seas” (v. 9-10). Note: there is no record of any change in the nature of the waters, simply a change of its location. Before it covered everything; now it was pushed above and below and the waters below were gathered together so dry land could appear. These waters were not some kind of mystical waters; the text clearly says they were the ordinary seas we all know. Again please note: if one reads the text for what it actually says and does not read into it what we know or imagine from science, the text is quite clear that before God began to create anything, everything was sea-water.

Some people try to squirm out of this conclusion by suggesting that when the text says, “God created heaven and earth” in v. 1 He then made all this sea-water (and presumably the land submerged beneath it). According to this reading, before God created the sea-water, nothing existed, and God created the sea-water (and land) and then began to work with this unformed material to create everything else. Unfortunately the attempt will not work.

If one goes on to read the text, it describes the entire work of creation—seas, land, and all—as having been done during the six days of creation mentioned beginning with verse 3. Thus Exodus 20:11: “In six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all this is in them”. This is obviously a reference back to the Genesis text we are considering, which says that after six days of creation, God rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done (Genesis 2:2-3). We see therefore that everything that was made was created during those six days. It will not do to amend the Exodus text to read, “In six days plus some indeterminate time before the six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea and all this is in them”. Genesis is quite clear: creation took place during those six days, beginning with the first day of creation when God said, “Let there be light!”, and not with a creative act before this. There is nothing for it—the text says that before the creation of the heaven and earth and everything else in them, everything was sea.

This is a problem only if one insists on wrenching the text from its original cultural context and insisting on reading it as if it were a literal or scientific account. The ancients all believed that prior to the creation of the world they knew and functioned in, everything was sea. That is because they defined creation as not simply something coming into existence, but also as coming into functional existence. If it had no function (i.e. if it had no name) then it didn’t fully exist—hence the naming of the all the things created. And the sea was a place where human society could not function. The sea therefore was an image of chaos, of non-functionality. Thus all the mythologies of the ancient world assume that prior to creation, all was sea. We see this in such works as the Enuma Elish: “When above the heaven had not been named, and below earth had not yet been called by a name…the waters mingled together”. The same cultural common-place is found in another creation story: “A house of the gods had not been made, a reed had not come forth, a tree had not been created, a brick had not been laid…all the lands were sea”.

This does not mean that Genesis was somehow derived from these stories. It does mean that the original readers of Genesis shared a common cultural world-view along with others who read those stories. A pre-creation sea was a cultural commonplace, and that is why we find it in Genesis 1:1-2.
What is the upshot of all this? That Genesis must not be read as a scientific or literal account of the creation of the world. The lessons of Genesis, true and necessary as they were and remain, pertain to theological virtue, not to scientific history. If we read them as science, we find ourselves plunked down in the middle of ancient cosmology and stuck with their ancient view of the universe, and we therefore need to explain to earnest inquirers how sea-water can have existed before the creation of the world. Fortunately, sound exegesis saves us from such an uncomfortable dilemma.


    1. No, we believe in a creation ex nihilo. This doctrine would only be threatened if Genesis 1 were a historical account of what happened scientifically. Reading it in its cultural context means that Genesis 1 does not teach that there was a sea before creation, but that before creation nothing could be found that was useful to man. The question answered by the doctrine, “What actually physically existed prior to creation?” is not addressed, since none of the ancients asked this question. We moderns think of creation in terms of “physically existing”; the ancients of Genesis 1 thought in terms usefulness and utility. I examine the whole question in my upcoming book In the Beginning, published by Sebastian Press.

  1. Fr Lawrence,

    Thank you for these helpful words! Should I then not use the early vss of Genesis when speaking of creation ex nihilo? Or lean more on Hebrews 11:3?

  2. When you say Genesis is not a historical account, are you suggesting that none of the events recorded in it actually occurred in space and time?

    1. Yes, I am suggesting that the first chapters be read as their original hearers would have read it–as meta-history, and not as history.

    1. Most scholars acknowledge that the first 11 chapters are different than the rest of the narrative. As I explain in my book In the Beginning (soon to be published by Sebastian Press), the text gradually moves from meta-history to history throughout those chapters, so that by the time we reach the story of Abraham we are reading history. By “meta-history” I mean a non-historical narrative, which may contain elements common to the mythologies of the ancient Near East. The purpose of “meta-history” is to make a point through telling a story, not to record historical facts.

  3. Thank you for the replies 🙂

    Does this mean you reject the fall of the first people as a historical event? If so, do you also reject Christ’s death and resurrection as historical?

    It would seem that if there were no literal, historical fall from grace, Jesus’s death and resurrection become redundant. Indeed, this is the argument made by many atheists who reject the creation account in genesis as you seem to.

    1. Yes, I accept the story in Genesis 3 as meta-history, and I accept the death and resurrection of Christ as historical. I refer you to my book for the details. Here I will only say that Genesis 1-3 bears the clear marks of meta-history, while the Gospel narratives bear the marks of history. It is a question of identifying historical genre.

    2. Israel had two fall stories to explain the depravity of man, Adam and Eve, and that of the Watchers in Genesis 6 (you can see this in Church Fathers prior to Augustine, even St. Cyril of Jerusalem). Since Orthodox do not believe, or should not believe in Augustinian Original Sin, this is not so crucial as is it for Protestants and Catholics – this is the whole motivation for Creation Science, they have to figure out how to uphold Original Sin because their whole salvation theology depends on it.

      It seems to me that the Adam and Eve meta-narrative is both literal and non-literal – that their sin is analogous to a real fall, Israel’s fall, Satan’s fall, our fall. Something like that. It doesn’t mean they didn’t exist but that they may be analogous to another situation. Lewis imagined a huge population of hominids that the fall could have referred to. Many other possibilities exist.

      No threat to salvation because we don’t belive in Original Sin.

  4. As a former Protestant who once argued nail and tooth for the ‘literal’ interpretation of Genesis (six 24 hour days etc), I have come to understand (and am still learning) that truth does not necessarily equate actual historical events. I am now much more comfortable with allegorical interpretations etc. However, IMHO, one of biggest problems with the commonly accepted evolutionary worldview (and I am not saying you agree or do not agree with this Father, I am simply making an observation that fits into the bigger context of this topic) is that it becomes really hard to defend Biblical statements like “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good”. I remember a debate the late Christopher Hitchens did with someone (think it was Frank Turek), and he (Christopher) pointed out: “Humans have been around for at least 75,000 years. Most of them died during infancy or around the age of 20, due to their teeth in most cases. They battled to survive, fought with each other and other species and almost joined the other 99.8% of species that has since gone extinct. That is some design” (he also asked how a loving God could sit idly and let that happen). I am not arguing for a literal interpretation of Genesis, but really hard questions are asked once you accept millions of years of suffering and death.

    1. It all depends upon how one interprets the word “good”. In its cultural context, “good” in Genesis 1 described not morality, but functionality. Something was “good” if it was functioning properly as it was designed to function. I would recommend John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, especially chapter 4.

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