Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

2nd October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Genesis 1:20-31
20God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind; and God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth;” 23and there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind;” and it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind, and God saw that it was good.

26Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created mankind in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

29God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30To every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food:” and it was so.

31God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good; and there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.

Some parishes in Australia have been celebrating “Pet Sunday” in keeping with a tradition associated with St Francis’ Day, 4th October. A Prayer Book for Australia notes that readings for Rogation Days are suitable for this occasion, and one of the Hebrew Scripture readings is Genesis 1:24-31a, but vv20-23 fit in with St Francis, and it’s good to complete the section of this creation story, rather than miss off the last comment.

Readers may note a few minor alterations to the NSRV text quoted above, mainly to address punctuation and grammatical issues. Pronouns relating to God have been capitalised to show the gender is grammatical, not sexual, and “mankind” has been restored as it has never had a non-generic meaning.

This passage from Genesis is just part of the first creation story, which starts at verse 1. I have yet to see an English translation which is faithful to the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1. Because Hebrew has no indefinite article – ‘a’ or ‘an’ to English speakers – and because 1:1 does not contain the Hebrew equivalent of ‘the’, the opening words of Genesis should really be translated “In a beginning …”, and that opens up a wealth of interpretations of this passage. Other cultures of the time, and from much later, have their own versions of the creation of the world, and they are remarkably similar, despite their origins being from quite different eras and locations. Australian Aboriginal creation stories fit in with this “in a beginning” theme. Could we gain by listening to them?

Rarely heard is that the sense in the Hebrew text is not of a 24-hour day, but a period of time, so the creation can be seen as taking a long time, but, according to this passage, with certain developments at certain times, rather than some random order.

It seems a little incongruous to us, in the 21st century, that “swarms of living creatures, … birds, … sea monsters and every living creature that moves” (vv20-21) should not be classed as “living creatures” (v24), but that is the suggestion if we take the story too literally. It’s too tempting to force our way of thinking onto a quite different culture, which was without all the scientific understanding we now have. Instead, I see the story as a way of describing what happened long before anyone was around to record the events. This, like the similar stories in other cultures, is the way the Hebrew people understood how the God whom they worshipped had created the world in which they lived. I would challenge anyone to describe the creation of the world in a way which provides all the answers. Huge sums of money are spent investigating the universe in an attempt to fill in all the blanks, instead of just accepting that some things are beyond our knowledge.

We shouldn’t miss the reference to God saying “let US make” mankind “in OUR image” and “OUR likeness”. Who are the “us”? At the time of my own study of Genesis it was thought that amalgamation of texts written by a number of authors or editors had resulted in some of the pluralism of early forms of Judaism, influenced by outside cultures, being allowed into the text, because this is one of many places where there is apparent disagreement. Other ways of looking at this are that God consulted with the heavenly host before creating humans, and that there is great solemnity in pronouncing things in the plural – much as the Queen might say “we are not amused.” I don’t know, and it doesn’t really bother me.

God created mankind in His image. Well clearly God can’t be sexually male, or women wouldn’t be in God’s image; neither can God be sexually female, as is suggested by using feminine adjectives and pronouns, as men would then not be in God’s image. It is thus quite clear that God is neither male nor female, but that doesn’t rule out being both. Now that’s a thought which some people might like to follow. More importantly, though, in this passage there is no indication that women are less important, or subordinate to men, or vice versa. Men and women are to be fruitful, to multiply, to “fill the earth and subdue it” – not run roughshod over it, and to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” In other words, we are to look after the earth, and after all the animals, even if we do eat some of them as part of our food. God also gave us plenty of food in the form of plants and fruit. Are we satisfied with what has been provided for us? Are we good stewards of the earth, caring for the animals and plants which live on it with us? When we are given dominion over something there is a responsibility to care for it. Do we take that responsibility seriously?

It’s a well-known, possibly too well-known, passage, but it conjures up many questions. Feel free to add more.


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