I think that this chapter is so difficult that it alone is responsible for more people ignoring the Torah than almost any other chapter. At the beginning of almost every Bible class I teach there are some present that tell me that they tried to read the Torah from the beginning and got so confused from the creation story that they put down the book in disgust. How could they take seriously a book that begins with a story that clearly has no relationship to the reality of the world?
In a different way, this question has been asked for thousands of years, even before there was a Darwin and a theory of evolution. The first question Rashi, the great 12thcentury commentator asks is “Why does the Torah begin here rather than with Exodus Chapter 12?” The real issue that underlies all the questions is: Just what is the purpose of the Torah? Why was it “written” at all? What is it supposed to do? If we don’t understand what this book is about, then how can we ever understand what it contains. If we are reading a novel, we understand what a novel is so we know what to expect. If we are reading an astronomy textbook, we have an understanding of what we will find inside. If we are reading a history book, we assume that it is about interpreting the historical facts that have come down to us. The reason Rashi asks his question is because, for most Jews, the Torah is a law book. It contains the fundamentals of Jewish law. But if that is the only thing that the Torah is about, then it would indeed have started with Exodus chapter 12, the place where the mitzvot, the commandments, the laws really begin to be stated and explained.
Since the Torah begins with Genesis, chapter 1, then there must be another purpose for Torah. There are some who think that it is a science text; that it is teaching us the real history of the world. These people think that Genesis is opposed to the theory of evolution, rather chapter 1 is the factual account of how the world was created.There certainly are many fundamentalists who believe this is the purpose of the story. It is hard for me to agree with them. The story of creation is way too muddled to call it a history of the creation of this world. It is, first of all, very hard to know how long it took to create the world. The text tells us the world was created in six days and on the seventh day God rested. How are we supposed to define what a “day” is when the sun and moon are not created until day four! I am sure that there are many who believe that if this is what the Bible says, then this is what it means. I am not one of them. If you are a person who takes the Bible at face value and hold whatever it says as “true” then this commentary of the Torah is not for you. I am not going to try and change your mind so you don’t have to try and change my mind. We can agree to disagree and you can follow some other blog on the Bible.
If you are trying to come to some understanding of the Torah and a fundamentalist approach is not for you then I hope you will continue to participate in this study. If the Torah is not a law book; if the Torah is not a science text; if the Torah is not a history of the world, then what is it?
My take on the Torah is that this book is a morality text. The creation story is a story about the beginning of morality. God creates a world. It does not exist forever. Only God is forever. The creation story is to prove that God is the only real power in the universe. Each of the items that God creates should be considered as if the item is a proper name, the name of a pagan god. I believe the creation story is a story about how God created even the things that other nations called “god” to show that all the other “gods” were really the creation of the one God. The creation story was never meant to be a history of the world; it was meant to explain why the one God was the true creator and the other gods were false. If you want to hold the theory of evolution, the Torah is not contradicting you. If you want to hold that the universe was created with a big bang and is billions of years old, there is nothing here to contradict you. If you want to believe that “light and darkness” the “sun and moon” or any of the animals are really gods, then the Torah is here to tell you that you are wrong. However all these things got here, it was not because they are separate powers in the universe. They are all parts of the natural world and thus “created” by the one God. That is why I think this story is here, to declare the mythology of other pagan religions as false.
Now that we have put that issue to rest, let us take up the text and examine some of the other textual issues it raises…