IN THE BEGINNING... WHY?
IN THE BEGINNING… WHY?
The first chapters of Genesis have been dated, debated, disputed, disparaged, dismissed, and defended. The first chapter of Genesis (including and up to Gen 2:3) has proven to be a minefield of hot topics with lines being drawn between Young Earth Creationists (YEC), Old Earth Creationists (OEC), Theistic Evolutionary Creationists (TEC, or just EC), and Intelligent Design advocates (ID). Debates rage, and sadly, critical exegesis gives way to eisegesis and sound hermeneutical principles are overlooked. Still, the debates go on as attempts are made to define and then defend issues of cosmogeny, cosmology, and chronology. We are obsessed with the notion that Genesis 1 must explain all of it—creation science, the length of the creation “days,” immediate or mediate creation methods, creation anomalies and the chronological sequencing of creation events, and so forth.
But is that the purpose of Genesis 1? Is that why it was written? What if the purpose of Genesis 1 is not “scientific,” and was never meant to be scientific? If that is true, then are we willing to admit that all of our scientific and scholarly debates regarding these verses are rather misplaced, and while they use up considerable energy, are not taking us anywhere! Trying to process the creation account(s) recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis through the grid of scientific investigation has proven to be hopelessly frustrating and full of futility.
Exegetically, I am convinced that the only way to properly understand Genesis 1 is to see the text in its ancient setting as a polemic against the polytheism of that time. John Currid reminds us that “the primary purpose of polemical theology is to demonstrate emphatically and graphically the distinctions between the worldview of the Hebrews and the beliefs and practices of the rest of the ancient Near-East.” Throughout the creation narrative, there are numerous polemical statements evident, all of which are intended to undermine pagan religions and mythology at crucial points, especially those of Egypt.
Tyler R. Vela argues that the most sensible and effective understanding of Genesis 1 is not as a scientific account of creation, but rather, “it is a purposeful, literary, and polemical taunting of the religious and cultural foes of the early Israelites as they were about to enter the land of Canaan in order to steer them toward religious fidelity to YHWH alone.”
The first principle in sound biblical exegesis has always been to allow the text to say what the author intended it to say to the original audience to whom he wrote it. Accordingly, do we really believe that the author of Genesis 1 had an array of varied and complex scientific data in mind when he wrote the creation narrative? Vela writes, “I simply cannot understand how anyone believes that the author of Genesis had the hydrologic cycle of the early earth in mind when writing about the separation of the waters above and the waters below in the 2nd millennia BCE.”
Exegesis becomes Eisegesis when we impose upon the text concepts that we are convinced should be present in the text. This is seen in the case of Genesis 1 with the insertion of “scientific” issues that would have been unknown to the original audience, and if not unknown, then certainly concerning the issues we deem important, were for them and the author, issues with which they were unconcerned.
The issue they would have been concerned about, and especially that which occasioned the author to write this amazing narrative would have naturally related to their day and the culture of their time. For the Israelites, that meant where they had come from (Egypt) and where they were going (Canaan). Understanding this further undergirds support for Mosaic authorship, rather than other suggestions of authorship dating to much later in Israel’s history. That is to say, if the purpose of Genesis 1 is a polemic against the polytheistic culture of the day, then the relevance is seen in the fact that the children of Israel had been exposed to 430 years of Egyptian mythology and now they were heading into Canaan, and would be exposed, not only to Canaanite mythology but also to longstanding Mesopotamian influence.
The Egyptians had at least four Creation myths and then there was the Enuma Elish of the Babylonians, an epic that certainly was known throughout the region. Moses was going to make sure that the children of Israel knew that their God was, in fact, the only Creator and that YHWH had no equals or rivals. Need it even be pointed out that all the creation myths are polytheistic, while Genesis 1, in contradistinction, declares an unmistakable monotheism. There are numerous markers in the text of Genesis 1 that suggest a carefully crafted and nuanced distinction being made between what God created and what the creation myths and polytheism produced.
One such example is Genesis 1:16 which informs us that God “made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.” No one doubts that this is a reference to the creation of the Sun and Moon. But why not just say the Sun and the Moon? The reason is significant considering the idolatrous astral worship surrounding the children of Israel. The Hebrew word for sun is shemesh and the word for the moon is yareach, and each could have been confused for the Sun-god and the Moon-god, which were called by the same names—Shamesh was the Mesopotamian Sun-god, and Yerach was the Canaanite Moon-god. The author of Genesis 1 purposely avoids those specific names in favor of the simple and generic description of “greater” and “lesser” lights. This was done, as Hays suggests, “to avoid giving the impression that divinities other than YHWH ruled the day and night.” Hays refers to it as “a demythologization of heavenly bodies.” To this can be added Gerhard von Rad’s observation, that “the entire passage (vs. 14–19) breathes a strongly anti-mythical pathos.”
More scholars today are willing to see Genesis 1 as a polemic against Egyptian mythology, whereas in previous years, the focus was always on Mesopotamia and Babylonian creation epics. But as mentioned above, both polytheistic cultures may be on the mind of the author. In Genesis 1 and Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths, Gordon Johnston states:
Genesis 1 appears to be a literary polemic designed to refute ancient Near Eastern creation mythology in general and ancient Egyptian creation mythology in particular. Although several elements in this passage surely reflect a general Semitic background, the majority of parallel elements are cast against the Egyptian mythologies. This suggests that Genesis 1 was originally composed, not as a scientific treatise, but as a theological polemic against the ancient Egyptian models of creation which competed against Yahwism for the loyalty of the ancient Israelites.
So then, if the purpose of Genesis 1 is not to answer all of our scientific and pseudo-scientific questions, nor provide a framework to outline all our cosmological, philosophical, and theological paradigms, what is its intrinsic purpose? Its purpose (and perhaps sole purpose) is purely polemical. It is a literary assault on the false beliefs, elaborate myths, and fanciful epics of the ancient Near East extant at the time of its writing. In discussing the opening statements of the Bible, John Dickson offers that Genesis 1 appears to have been written to provide truth that debunks the views held by pagan cultures of the time. “In short,” he writes, “Genesis 1 is a piece of subversive theology,” and that “it would be surprising if the Old Testament’s longest statement about creation did not take a swipe at pagan understandings of the universe.” 
Some years ago, Professor Gerhard F. Hasel presented a paper to the Uppsala Congress of the International Organization for Old Testament Studies, entitled The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology. His comments emphasized that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 rather than being dependent on the creation myths of other ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies were intended to polemicize against them. After detailing the numerous issues involved, Hasel offered this assessment: “This investigation of crucial terms and motifs in the creation account of Gen. 1 in conjunction with a comparison of respective ancient Near Eastern analogs has repeatedly pointed into one direction. The cosmology of Gen. 1 exhibits in a number of crucial instances a sharply anti-mythical polemic.” He then concluded by saying, “It appears that the Genesis cosmology represents not only a ‘complete break’ (to quote von Rad) with the ancient Near Eastern mythological cosmologies but represents a parting of the spiritual ways brought about by a conscious and deliberate anti-mythical polemic which meant an undermining of the prevailing mythological cosmologies.”
It is clear that the Old Testament does not deny the existence of the other gods, but at the same time declares them to be 'ĕlîl—worthless, insufficient, incapable of producing anything! It is noteworthy that often in the Old Testament when God’s creative power is being extolled, those comments are put in parallel with equally disparaging remarks about the false gods. That is an important literary formula to notice. Why? Because the references to the works of God in Creation are almost always to be understood as a polemic against idolatry and polytheism.
For example, the most concise demonstration of this is Psalm 96:5, which declares, “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens” (CSB). That could not be any more clear or more concise! Note other passages that do the same thing: Psalm 95:3 with 95:4–5; Isaiah 40:18–20 with 40:21–22; Isaiah 44:9–20 with 44:23–24; Jeremiah 10:11 with 10:12–13 (CSB). Jeremiah’s statement is significant in that he refers to “the gods that did not make the heavens and the earth,” and then follows that by referring to God, saying that “He made the earth by his power, established the world by his wisdom, and spread out the heavens by his understanding.”
This cannot be any more convincing or condemning. Similarly, Isaiah chides the idols and the idolator—“Look, you are nothing and your work is worthless. Anyone who chooses you is detestable” (Isa 41:24 CSB). The comparison between the God who created everything and the worthless 'ĕlîl who cannot produce anything is stunning. The consistent message is that which is nothing can do nothing! Those who are nothing can make nothing! Those who are worthless cannot work the miracles of creation!
Let us not forget that a polemic was a kind of written warfare. It was a verbal challenge; a literary device intended to provoke, persuade, and punish. It was the equivalent, using a modern illustration from our day, of trash-talking! It is seen throughout the Old Testament, especially by the fiery prophets of Israel, as they confronted the polytheism of their day in an attempt to keep the children of Israel devoted to the one, true God. Elijah on Mount Carmel, “trash-talking” the prophets of Baal, is a classic example (1 Ki 18:20-40). And it had the desired effect. Our God is alive! Sorry about yours. Genesis 1 and the inspired, cleverly-worded creation narratives were the first to have the same intended effect. Let’s leave them at that.
So, now, back to where we began this discussion, back to—in the beginning. Hasel does just that: “The Genesis cosmology fixes by the use of the phrase “in the beginning” an absolute beginning for creation. The pregnant expression, “in the beginning,” separates the conception of the world once and for all from the cyclical rhythm of pagan mythology and the speculation of ancient metaphysics. This world, its life, and history is not dependent upon nature’s cyclical rhythm but is brought into existence as the act of creation by a transcendent God.”
Yes, indeed. That’s the Why of the beginning. To simply, yet emphatically say—In the beginning . . . God!
. Currid, Against the Gods, The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, 25. . See Gerhard and Michael Hasel, The Unique Cosmology of Genesis 1 Against Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian Parallels, 28. Gordon H. Johnston, Genesis 1 and Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths. Tony L. Shetter, Genesis 1-2 In Light of Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths. Mikel Del Rosario, Was Genesis 1:1-2:3 Influenced by Egyptian Creation Myths? . Vela, Historical-Grammatical and Polemical Reading of Genesis 1, 3. . Vela, Historical-Grammatical and Polemical Reading of Genesis 1, 2. . Hays, Hidden Riches, 71. . von Rad, Genesis, 53. . Johnson, Genesis 1 and Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths, 194. . Dickson, The Genesis of Everything, 7. . Hasel, Polemic Nature of Genesis Cosmology, 91. . Hasel, The Unique Cosmology of Genesis 1 Against Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian Parallels, 11.