The text we are studying for Sunday, September 16 is Genesis 1:26-31 + 2:4-7. This is that portion of the creation story or stories in Genesis 1 & 2 that deals with the creation of adam, which is variously translated (in the NRSV, anyway) as “humankind” (Genesis 1:26 & 27) and as “man” (Genesis 2:7). This means we’re skipping over the institution of the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3), and stopping short of the specific account of the creation of gendered humanity (which it appears we will be taking up next week – so we don’t have much of a reprieve from that).

Here are my notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We have arrived almost at the end of the Genesis 1 creation narrative; God has created three material realms, and then proceeded to fill them with living creatures, both plants and animals.

[I have at long last noticed that there hasn’t been any explicit mention of underwater plants. Like kelp. But it seems safe to assume that the earth under the seas has been working on this since v11.]

There are several different traditions of interpretation that deal with the differences of detail and tone that appear between the narrative in Genesis 1 and that in Genesis 2. “Source critics” have been attributing two different accounts to two different authors (P and J) for a long time now. According to my Jewish study Bible[1], the rabbinic tradition has for even longer harmonized any discrepancies “by intertwining the stories, using the details of one to fill in the details of the other.” Some Christian interpreters read this text the same way, so, ultimately as a single account that focuses on distinct aspects of the creation.

[I had a student in the very first class I taught who objected strenuously to my casual reference to Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as “two” creation stories; his view was that this was a single story, and saying anything else seemed to feel like an attack on the text. After that, I have been a little more self-conscious about identifying the “two stories” view as “the source critical understanding of this text.” Even so, it really is a lot easier to talk about chapter 1 and chapter 2 as two distinct narratives, and readers have talked about them that way since ancient times. I don’t experience the source critical understanding of the text as an attack on the text, myself. Why wouldn’t we have more than one perspective on creation? We have more than one perspective on Jesus. Still, I didn’t mind giving a little hermeneutical shelter to that student; if he needed it to be one story, I wasn’t going to insist that he agree with me and the source critics. Not in that class, anyway.]

CLOSER READING: The NRSV and the JPS put the big break between the two narratives (or, in the narrative) at the end of 2:3. According to the commentary, this preserves some of the important symmetries in the narrative that begins in Genesis 1:1.

Doing that inserts a little introductory chiasm right at the beginning of the storytelling that begins in 2:4. (“Such is the story of heaven (a) and earth (b) when they were created (c). When YHWH God made (c’) earth (b’) and heaven (a’) – ”), a chiasm that hinges on YHWH God.

The word image repeats three times in Genesis 1 – always a reference to the image of God, in which humankind is made. The very notion of the divine image in which humankind is made is mysterious, since elsewhere God’s people are forbidden to make images of God, and because we usually think of an image as visual, but we don’t think of God as visible.

How “male and female” relates to “image” may also be mysterious; that is, it would be possible to read human individuals, who are both male and female, as individually made in the divine image; it would also be possible to read gendered humankind as corporately made in the divine image. It seems to be far more common to read it the first way, though.

The formula dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, etc. appears twice, once as the prelude to the creation of humankind (v26), as a statement of purpose, and then again as the blessing following the creation (v28), as part of the blessing formula; the designation of animals differs slightly from v26 to v28.

[All the commentators I have read mention that this language has become problematic – in the sense that it makes modern readers uncomfortable. A lot seems to depend on what we understand the word “dominion” to mean. The word studies I’ve seen don’t seem to give much support for softening the reading, for instance by picking a less authoritative and “in charge” kind of verb.

On the other hand, I must confess, there is something about the charge that reminds me of babysitting. I did a fair amount of babysitting when I was in high school. As I recall, I was definitely left “in charge” – it wouldn’t have been too far-fetched to say I had dominion over the baby. But it was completely clear that the whole point of being left in charge was so that the baby would be safe and well and fed and quietly asleep and alive when her parents came home from the movies. This seems relevant.]

In chapter 1 the humans are given plants that contain seeds for food (v29), while the animals are given “every green plant” – presumably, the ones that contain seed plus any others. [This may take us back to the underwater plants, since what plants don’t contain seed? I’m not a biologist, but maybe algae …?]

[So many other people have spent so much time comparing 2:4-6 with 1:6-13, it seems like reinventing the wheel to go into that here.]

The image language does not show up in chapter 2. Instead, what the human explicitly receives from, and thus shares with, God is “the breath of life” that makes the earth creature, the adam, a living soul.

That is a lot. Invisible as it is.

[1] The Jewish Study Bible. Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. Oxford UP, 1999.

Torah scroll