Creation Account of Genesis 1: How Would Its Original Audience Hear It?

Basic interpretation principles
One important principle of biblical interpretation is to try to understand Scripture from the point of view of the original audience and then use that as a stepping stone to work out what it means for us. Along with this original audience principle is the principle of original intent: what did the author intend to communicate to that original audience?

If we ask these two questions of chapter 1 of Genesis, the story of creation, we may find the answers surprising. The prophet Moses is presumably the author of Genesis, the first of the five books he wrote while the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. These people, the original audience, had just emerged from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Joshua 24:14 explains that many of them had been idolaters there.

Egyptian pantheon

The Egyptians had a god or goddess for virtually everything: the sun, moon, stars, crocodiles, flies, cats, the Nile--all of these and more were considered divine and were worshiped. But Genesis 1 explains that neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, neither that water nor the sky, nor any plants, nor fish, birds, beasts, or creeping things are divine.

To paraphrase the significance of Genesis 1 for the original audience, it's as if Moses said, "All that you have been worshiping the true Creator spoke into being in the beginning. He alone is worthy of homage; He alone is God, and king over all of His creation."

World shift

This truth would have had a profound effect on the former slaves of Egypt. They had lived in a world in which virtually every object was a spiritual being, whose will had to be accommodated, whose wrath must be placated. But when the one true God revealed His nature through Moses, including His relationship to all that He had made, the world shifted. All of those objects were drained of their spiritual significance. Now they were only objects, things that human beings could handle and manage without fear.

Yet the world that stood in place of the old was not bereft of its spiritual dimension. All of the power, the mystery, and the majesty of the Egyptian pantheon, the Hebrews learned, belonged to the one true God, the king of the universe. And furthermore, and herein lay the good news, The Almighty cared about them, and He was ever faithful and reliable.

Foundation for Judaeo-Christian worldview

Genesis as a whole serves to lay the groundwork for the Law of Moses that is revealed in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Nothing in the Law is more foundational than what is expressed in the Shema, accepted for thousands of years as the credo of Judaism and acknowledged by Jesus Himself as the "Greatest Commandment":

Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. —Deuteronomy 6:4-5

The oneness of God, His sovereignty over all His creation, and His commission of human beings to be His stewards of that creation (see Genesis 1:28-30) is the unmistakable message of the Genesis creation account, as far as the original audience is concerned.

Modern meaning

If that's what it meant for them, what does it mean for us? It has the same significance for modern readers, whoever we might be. Only one God is worthy of the name and deserves our obedience. We willingly offer Him, not just our obedience, but also our love. He deserves it because of who He is, the Ultimate Custom Designer, the Cosmic Engineer, the King who condescends to be our loving Father.

Following His directive, we manage the earth, not to exploit and abuse it, but to care for it, cultivate it, and nourish it (see Genesis 2:15). We are aware that ours is a spiritual world, not because of a pantheon of gods and goddesses, but because He is always present, because He cares what happens to us, because He empowers us to change, to grow, to reflect in our own hearts and lives His nature, His priorities, His concerns. Just like it was before the Rebellion. Just like it was "In the beginning."

Steve Singleton,
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