The genesis of Genesis

The need to present the God of Israel as strong and powerful in a time of Jewish adversity sparked the writing of chapter one, long after chapter two had become common currency.

The genesis of Genesis Archdiocese of Wellington Neighbours

The earlier composed but later presented Genesis story of chapter 2, the Yahwist account, clearly indicates that its author valued the tales of neighbouring civilisations, notably Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt, for they, too, composed their own narratives concerning the beginning of the universe.  Extensive archeological excavations give clear proof of similarities between their stories and that of the bible.

Basic to virtually all accounts is a three-tiered universe: the heavens with the waters above; the earth with its humans and animals; and the seas with the fishes and the depths of the earth.  To the popular traditions and scientific concepts of the times, the author added a religious message, the only thing that really mattered to him.


Four hundred years later, after the composition of the above account, a catastrophe altered the life and faith of Israel – the Babylonian captivity, with its loss of the land, the Temple, the monarchy, and the inescapable haunting question: Had they lost their God, too? The Israelites felt themselves to be the chosen nation, made great by Yahweh in Judea. But passing into captivity through the magnificent gates of Ishtar, and facing the splendour that was Babylon of old, they felt that their homeland was but a modest town of scarce resources in comparison with the might of Babylon.

The Temple at Jerusalem was but a poor reflection of the impressive cultic centres of the victorious god, Marduk, the goddess, Sin, and escort Ningal. Jerusalem, city of national pride, was little in comparison to Babylon and its walls. The king, Nebuchadnezzar, was the right hand of the god Marduk, victor over Israel’s king. All of this was a great disillusionment to the Hebrews. Their ideas of a powerful Yahweh were shattered. It was inevitable that many converted to the gods of the conquerors; few retained the will and desire to return to their homeland.

Faith in a foreign land

Into the crisis stepped a group of priests, also captives, who responded to the depression of the people. They began to catechize anew. Babylonian religion was dualistic; it presented two gods, one the good creator of all that was beautiful and positive, the other was bad, maker of evil and responsible for all that was evil and imperfect. To these two were added many minor goddesses, sun, moon, stars, sea and land.  Israel’s sabbath rest, the time of remembrance of God’s saving action in delivering from Egypt, faded from observance.

A new story is born

The priests realised the old story of creation that the people knew so well (Gen 2) had been overcome and had lost its power.  A new story was needed that presented the God of Israel as strong and powerful, supreme, and exalted above all creatures. This was how Genesis 1 was conceived. That is why the first thing we notice is the detailed description of each being in the universe (plants, animals, waters, lands, stars) and that, as creations, these are not gods, but in the service of humanity.

Against the idea of a good and bad god, the priests insisted repeatedly that God saw that it was good. The message hidden in the insistence is that there is no such thing as a bad God/creator in the universe. Human beings are very good and that strongly refutes any belief that the human person is under the control of an evil deity.  And finally, God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, an example to the Hebrews to observe the sabbath.

A renewed faith was given to Israel of a God solemnly and transcendentally different from the potter who formed creatures from clay; God’s all powerful word was enough to create, even from a distance.


A hundred years later when the Bible editor preferred the Genesis 1 account, he gave it first place but did not want to omit the older story, even though inconsistencies were created. Interestingly a recent survey in the USA revealed a 44 percent belief that creation happened just as given in the bible. Many are scandalised by new theories about the origin of the universe and the appearance of humankind and evolution. The lesson we learn from the two accounts in Genesis is that a ‘scientific’ aspect is but an accessory in the explanation of things.

The Genesis writer would not be upset by the more probable model of the Big Bang and evolution theories. The flexibility shown in having two creation accounts shows an open mind that challenges narrowness today. The ‘scientific’ details do not pertain to the biblical message; they are just a means without which the message could not be announced.

The world was not created twice – only once.  But even if we tell it in 100 different ways we will never finish drawing out the deep mystery of the lovable work of God that is our threatened creation.