Glossary of Terms

The Book of Genesis & creation


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition, edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Creation, creation, the act of God by which the universe came into being. The Bible’s chief account of creation is that in Gen. 1:1-2:3 (or 2:4a). This text is generally attributed to a sixth-century b.c. Priestly author (P), who radically changed (demythologized) the origin of the cosmos depicted in the poetic accounts current in the ancient Near East (esp. the Ugaritic Baal epic and Babylonian Enuma Elish). Instead of divine combat and struggle with a willful primordial matter—motifs otherwise abundant in biblical poetry—we find a sole, sovereign master of the universe directing the work of creation by verbal command and a freely determined plan. God is here shown making the world in six days and resting on the seventh (cf. Exod. 20:11).

On the first day God created light and darkness, night and day; on the second, the firmament separating earthly and heavenly waters; on the third, dry land and vegetation; on the fourth, the heavenly luminaries of the sun (‘greater luminary’) for ruling the day and the moon (chief ‘lesser luminary’) for ruling the night; on the fifth, sea creatures and birds; and on the sixth, land creatures and humans. The first three days present frameworks of the cosmos, the last three their respective inhabitants. God names the works of the first three days, the humans presumably (cf. 2:19-20) the rest.

The creation story’s verbal structure is artful. The verb ‘created’ (Heb. bara) appears in poetic parallel to the verb ‘made’ (Heb. asah) in 2:4 (the verse’s two halves are usually ascribed to separate authors), and the two alternate throughout 1:1-2:3: ‘created’ generally on odd-numbered days (1:1, 21), ‘made’ generally on even-numbered (1:7, 16, 25); both are together in the creation of man and woman (1:26-27) and sanctification of the Sabbath (2:3). Creation by verbal command occurs throughout the six days but seems to alternate with more physical and artisanlike depictions reflecting older poetic conceptions about divine activities.

The first half of the Garden story (Gen. 2) presents another, probably older, view of creation. The order of creation is here reversed: man appears first (2:7), plants and animals later (19-20). Woman is created separately (2:22), instead of simultaneously with the male as in 1:26-27. Whereas 1:26-28 places humans as rulers over earthly creation (cf. Ps. 8:5-9), 2:15-17 makes man a cloistered servant of divinity, assigned menial labors and token responsibilities—though the underlying story is probably one of royal investiture.

Canaanite and Babylonian creation accounts, often associated with New Year festivals, depicted a divine struggle with primordial foes, culminating in the protagonist’s victory, triumphal procession, enthronement, promulgation of law, and dedication of a sanctuary. Often, as in Marduk’s battle (Enuma Elish 4. 28ff.) with Tiamat (cf. Heb. Tehom, ‘the Deep,’ Gen. 1:2), the protagonist struggles to contain and delimit primordial waters. Divine struggle with waters, victory over chaos, and cosmogonic promulgation of law/wisdom are found throughout biblical poetry (cf. Exod. 15; Isa. 40-42; 45; Heb. 3:8; Pss. 18; 19; 24; 29; 33; 68; 93; 95; 104; Prov. 8:22-33; Job 38-41), and are closely associated with God’s saving actions on behalf of Israel and its leaders. Creation accounts also occur in apocryphal sources (2 Esd. 6; Ecclus. 43). Christian authors introduced the idea of Christ as mediator and agent of creation (e.g., Col. 1:15-16). In doing this they were drawing on earlier traditions that said that divine Wisdom was the agent of creation, a tradition that appears both in the ot (e.g., Prov. 8:25-27) and in apocryphal writings (e.g., Wisd. of Sol. 7:24-25; Ecclus. 24:3, 9). Jewish and Christian apocalyptic (esp. 1 Enoch; Revelation) also project creation motifs onto end time.

Genesis, the first book in the Bible; it is the narrative account of beginnings—of the world, of the community of Israel, of faith. It is a theological statement, claiming that all real beginnings are wrought by the purpose and speech of Yahweh, the God of Israel.



Content: The beginnings concern the theological ground of the created world and the origin of Israel among the peoples of the world. Gen. 1-11 is a collection of materials presenting a particular notion of the character of the cosmos. It is clear that while Israel borrows and utilizes the common deposit of ancient Near Eastern traditions in this material, Israel has shaped these appropriated materials to make a particular statement about the character of the world in relation to God. This statement does not concern scientific origins. It asserts that the world is formed by, accountable to, and destined for Yahweh’s purposes but is recalcitrant, refusing to be God’s obedient creature. The narrative concerns the theological issues of fidelity and disobedience.

The remainder of the book concerns Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 12-25), Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 25-26), Jacob and Rachel (Gen. 25-36), and Joseph (Gen. 37-50). Again diverse materials are used. The completed tradition makes a theological claim that Israel is formed by Yahweh’s summoning, promising purpose to be a vehicle for God’s way in the world. Israel becomes the arena in which God’s remarkable deeds of fidelity are enacted.

The origin of the world and the origin of Israel are expressed in different modes and different textures. The connection of the two is decisive for understanding the intent of the book. On the one hand, it is frequently suggested that Gen. 12:1-4a (with its mention of ‘blessing for the nations’) is the key link that looks back to a created world under curse and looks forward to Israel as a source of blessing among the nations. On the other hand, the goodness of the world (1:31) and Joseph’s verdict on God’s good providence (50:20) provide a way of holding together both origins under God’s promise.

Critical Study: The critical study of Genesis has included three approaches in the last several centuries: work on the oral tradition, the written sources, and the history behind the text. There is no doubt that Genesis includes many materials that were shaped and transmitted orally. A study of Genesis thus attends to oral narrative, the forms and modes of such transmission. Reference to Hermann Gunkel’s work is of crucial importance, as well as more recent studies in literary and rhetorical analysis.

Extensive study has been given to the editorial work done on the written sources. The scholarly consensus (associated with the name of Julius Wellhausen) is the four-document hypothesis (the Pentateuch is composed of four sources J, E, D, and P), which is an attempt to deal with problems discerned in the text. That hypothesis is now under severe attack from several quarters, but so far no compelling alternative has been proposed.

Historical study (using linguistic and archaeological methods, with particular reference to the work of W. F. Albright) has sought to establish the historical realities behind the text. While important gains have been made, there is currently a great reticence about claiming too much. Whatever there is that is historical, it is now available to us only in a form that is the result of an inventive, constructive literary process.

Theological Statement: For the communities of faith that have valued the book of Genesis, it is finally a theological statement. The world and Israel belong to God, exist because of God’s intention, and are called to live toward God’s hope. Every scientific, historical, or literary analysis that misses this claim misunderstands the text.

For Jews, the book of Genesis asserts the decisive vocation of Israel among the nations as a people under promise. For Christians, the book of Genesis is understood as the source of a promissory process that leads from this community to the community gathered around Jesus. For both Jews and Christians, Genesis functions to keep the world open for God’s hope against every ideological and technological effort to close the world and end the historical process.

Bibliography Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1982. Brueggemann, Walter, and Hans Walter Wolff. The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions. 2nd edition. Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1982. Coats, George W. Genesis with an Introduction to Narrative Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983.

Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Genesis, meaning "origin" or "in the beginning." O.T. book about the beginnings of the universe and of history, and about the fathers of the Hebrew people, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The stories in the first part of the book are more legend than history. That is, they are answers to certain deep questions, such as, "How did life begin?" and "Why is there evil in the world?" But they are not records of actual persons and events. Genealogies and lists in the first few chapters of Genesis show ancient beliefs about the origin of different peoples. Beginning with the material about Abraham, however, the stories are considered to have a historical basis.

The first five books of the Bible, often called the Pentateuch, had a common origin made up of many different parts. One part consists of a history of Israel written in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, shortly after the death of Solomon. The writer used stories that had been passed down orally from generation to generation, songs and poems, lists, and some written material. A writer in the Northern Kingdom, Israel, composed a similar history using the same traditions and perhaps some other material, but seeing them from a slightly different point of view. The two histories were put together in such a way as to preserve both. This fact explains why some stories are told twice in different ways. Later, at the time of the exile in Babylon, a third writer or writers added still another version of the history and re-edited all that had been written before. The five books reached their final form about 400 B.C.

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All glossary terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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