APOCALYPSE OF CREATION
The Book of Genesis, as we now possess it, is a composition without real parallel or counterpart in the literature of the world. And it is, moreover, noteworthy that, in the canonical arrangement of the books of the Old and New Testaments, the first and last books of our Bible treat respectively of what was first and what shall be last. The early chapters of Genesis and the entire Book of Revelation have been most variously interpreted, and there is little probability of general, much less of universal, agreement for generations to come. A peculiar haze of uncertainty has accordingly settled over the first and last books of the Bible, suggestive of the impenetrable mystery which, to finite minds, must ever hang over the beginning and the end of all things.
Criticism has very thoroughly established the composite character of the Book of Genesis. And even the ordinary reader can hardly fail to observe that ancient poems, genealogical tables, primeval traditions, and various religious ideas have been appropriated by the writer and incorporated in one continuous narrative. This composite character of the book is not to be considered a disparagement of its value. In fact, the real value of such an ancient production maybe in several ways enhanced by reason of its use of the testimony of various witnesses. Scientific criticism may legitimately busy itself with minute study of the constituent documents, and determine if possible their probable origin and date. It may discover in the original sources matters of great archaeological importance quite independent of the purpose for which the compiler of Genesis put the book in its present form. How far he appropriated poems or genealogies without abridgment or change, and to what extent subsequent editorial revision may have modified the composition as a whole, are open questions which may never be finally settled. Our present contention is that the religious value of the Book of Genesis, as an inspired scripture, is independent of all such questions of scientific research. Whatever the authorship and purpose of its original constituent elements, the book as it now lies before us exhibits a well-defined plan and purpose. It opens with a sublime sevenfold picture of creation by the word of God (chaps. 1:1-2:3), and thence proceeds with a more or less detailed series of “generations,” descriptive of the beginnings of nations and of “the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Any satisfactory interpretation of Genesis must be preceded by a DETERMINATION OF THE CLASS OF LITERATURE TO WHICH IT BELONGS. It has been quite generally assumed that the book is a plain prosaic narrative, and that it should be read and understood as any other historical record of facts. The lives of the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are described in a manner so simple and lifelike, and touch incidentally so many facts related to well-known cities and nations of antiquity, that there appears at first sight no reason to question their genuine historical character. But When we examine the earlier chapters of the book (1-11) we observe a number of things which at once suggest doubts as to the real character of the composition. The story of the serpent conversing with the woman; the cherubim and flaming sword at the east of the garden of Eden; the punishment of Cain and his marriage and city building; the astonishing longevity of the descendants of Seth, and the carnal intercourse of the sons of God with the daughters of men, are not of a character that naturally commands confidence in their historicalness. In no other literature of the world would such compositions as these be accepted to-day as genuine history. We may and do hold our entire Bible to be unique in comparison with all other books—and the Book of Genesis is exceptionally unique among the various portions of the Bible; but do these facts justify the conclusion that all the contents must be historical?
If, however, the Book of Genesis is a compilation of various documents, it is very presumable that some of the documents may and others may not have historical value. Sound sense and scientific criticism may unite in saying that each part or distinguishable section of such a book is entitled to be judged by its own peculiar nature and style. The dogmatic assertion, sometimes made, that if one part is historical all is historical, and if one part is unhistorical all is unhistorical, cannot possibly determine a matter of this kind. Who would allow such a principle of judgment to control him in the study of the Book of Ezekiel or one of the historical dramas of Shakespeare?
It has from ancient times been felt by the most devout and thoughtful interpreters that much in the earlier chapters of Genesis must be understood in some other than a literal sense. St. Augustine spoke of the “ineffable days” of creation, and all the common readers since his time have wondered that light should have been separately created three days before the sun. But the discoveries of science have effectually exploded the old notion of the creation of earth and heavens in six ordinary days, and for more than a hundred years expositors have been striving to adjust the statements of the first chapter of Genesis to the well-ascertained facts of geology and astronomy.
But while men were striving to “reconcile Genesis and geology” a great side-light was thrown upon the whole subject of the biblical cosmogony by the discoveries of Assyriology. The creation tablets procured from the ruins of Nineveh give us the Assyrian account of the beginning of all things, and we are impressed with what seems a very remarkable correspondence, in general outline, with the sevenfold picture of the first of Genesis. The first tablet opens thus:
The second tablet has not been found, but from some fragments it appears to have described some preparations for insuring the triumph of light over darkness. The, third and fourth tablets describe the victory of light, and the formation of the heavens and the sea out of the Chaos Tiamat. The fifth tells of the establishing of the sun, moon, and stars in the heavens to determine the measure of the days, months, and years. No portion of the sixth tablet has yet been found, but a mutilated part of the seventh speaks of the creation of living creatures, such as the cattle of the field and creeping things.
In addition to this Assyrian record there has also been discovered a Cuthaean or Babylonian legend. It appears on the fragments of two tablets from Cutha in Babylonia, and differs from the Assyrian account as much as the second chapter of Genesis differs from the first. It names Tiamat as the great mother, and speaks of seven kings who were brothers, and appeared as begetters, and their armies were six thousand in number. These tablets portray no successive acts of creation, but seem to have been designed to record some of the primordial struggles of nature to emerge from the original chaos.
These discoveries of Assyriology have given additional interest to the traditions of other ancient peoples concerning the origin of things. The Greek and Latin poets, the old Norse mythology, and the Persian legends have their analogies. The Vedic Song of Creation probably embodies the earliest speculations of the kind among the Indo-European races. The following lines are especially worthy of note:
In view of these corresponding ideals of creation among the great nations of antiquity, brought into conspicuous notice by specialists in comparative philology, the modern expositor of Genesis is called upon to show what relations, if any, these different cosmogonies hold to each other. The superiority of the Hebrew narrative is conceded. “We are accustomed,” says Wellhausen, “to regard this first leaf of the Bible as surrounded with all the charm that can be derived from the combination of high antiquity and childlike form. It would be vain to deny the exalted ease and the uniform greatness that gives the narrative its character. The beginning especially (verses 2 and 3) is incomparable.” But it is not so easy to determine the relative date of this Hebrew narrative and to say whether its author made use of, or was independent of, the cosmological traditions of other nations than his own.
There are those who insist that the biblical cosmogony is a divine revelation, given miraculously to some one of the earliest fathers of our race, and thence transmitted without error until it received through Moses its present setting at the beginning of the Pentateuch. But is it not evident, upon sober reflection, that this hypothesis is in its very nature an assumption which no man is competent to prove? Where is there a shred of evidence to show that any such piece of composition was ever transmitted through generations existing thousands of years before the dawn of well-attested history? Who is he who presumes to know so much about the uncorrupted traditions of the twenty centuries and more before Moses? The same old statement of the Jewish Talmud which tells us that “Moses wrote his own book, and the section about Balaam and Job,” says also in the same paragraph that “David wrote the Book of Psalms by the aid of the ten ancients, Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Jeduthun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah!” What value can the intelligent student of history put upon such rabbinical conjectures? The hypothesis in question rests upon a priori presumptions of what a divine revelation ought to be, and can adduce no other sort of evidence in its favor.
Another hypothesis is that the biblical story of creation holds a relation to corresponding conceptions among other nations analogous to the relation which the Israelitish religion holds to other ancient religions. Of its literary origin and history we have no positive knowledge. Whether it were carried as an ancestral tradition by Abraham when he migrated out of Ur of the Chaldees, and whether it were developed or modified during the subsequent history of the Hebrews in Palestine; or whether it first took definite form at the time of Israel’s later contact with Assyria and Babylon, and was put in writing as we now have it by some contemporary of Ezekiel—on any one of these suppositions it may still be regarded as a portion of the divine revelation with which the Hebrew people were intrusted. In whatever sense it is accepted as a revelation or apocalypse of God’s creative relation to the world, the date of its composition is one question and its character as a revelation is another. It was just as competent for the God of Israel to communicate the revelations of Genesis to a contemporary of Ezra as to a contemporary of Moses.
But to what extent and in what way may we believe the first chapters of Genesis to be a revelation of God? In no other way, we may answer in general terms, than the Book of Joshua, and Judges, and Samuel, and Kings, and Chronicles, and Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs, and Job are revelations of God. None of these books make any claim to be supernatural compositions, but we accept them all as written embodiments of various religious doctrines, and to that extent as revelations of truths which it is important for man to know. We do not believe that Genesis, more than these other books, was given to instruct men in astronomy, or geology, or chemistry, or any other department of natural science. The numerous attempts that have been made to harmonize science and the Bible by showing that the “days” of Genesis accord with the periods of geology, or with aeonic phases of cosmological development, have been proven fallacious, and have reacted damagingly upon the mistaken apologists of the Bible. We gain nothing for the honor of the Scriptures by attempting to force upon them a meaning they were never intended to convey.
But if these opening chapters of the Bible are a revelation of God’s creative relation to the world, may they not be apocalyptical in character? Is it not fitting that the canon of Scripture should open as well as close with an apocalypse? The ideal character of Gen. 1:1-2:3, may be quite naturally inferred as much from its artificial symmetry of structure as from the peculiar style of its contents. The six days are set over against each other in two sets of triads, the first day corresponding noticeably with the fourth, the second with the fifth, and the third with the sixth. The sevenfold structure may be thus outlined:
Not a few eminent scholars have called this first section of Genesis a poem. Rorison, in his essay on “The Creative Week,” calls it “the inspired Psalm of Creation.” It has indeed its monotonous repetitions of statement, its artificial periods, and its sevenfold structure; but these qualities are hardly sufficient to entitle the composition to the rank of poetry. They belong rather to the formality of apocalyptics, where the narrative may be of the most simple and prosaic style, and yet present an ideal picture. The same observation holds true of the narratives of allegory and parable.
We prefer, accordingly, to call this first section of the Hebrew Scriptures an apocalypse of creation. It is as truly a sevenfold revelation of a beginning as the Apocalypse of John is a mystic revelation of an end. Both of these writings inculcate in emphatic form that the Lord God of Israel is the first and the last, the beginning and the end. The seven days of the cosmogony are no more to be interpreted literally than are the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse. Indeed, the repetitions of “God said” in Genesis suggest some analogies to be found in the sounding of the seven trumpets. At the sounding of the first trumpet the earth was smitten; at the second, the sea; at the third, the rivers and fountains; at the fourth, the sun; at the fifth, the abyss; at the sixth, the armies of Euphrates were set loose, and, at the seventh, “great voices in heaven” announced the advent and reign of the Lord and his Anointed. The days of Genesis are as symbolical as the trumpets of the Apocalypse, and can no more successfully be identified (or shown to correspond) with ascertained aeons of geology and cosmical evolution than can the trumpets with successive historical events.
In the correspondency of the two sets of triads, as shown above, we observe the method of apocalyptic repetition. Such correspondency presents an idealism of conception rather than a record of physical facts, and suggests by its varied repetitions an order of progress in the work of God. The repetition points to the organic as following the inorganic, and the higher forms of life come last.
Our interpretation of this remarkable composition cannot therefore proceed on any method of literal correspondencies. The narrative is no more a treatise on natural science than it is an almanac. It is rather a pictorial object lesson, as profitable for the present age as for any period in the past. It is conceded that, as an ideal cosmogony, this record surpasses immeasurably all the analogous compositions of the nations. Whatever words, phrases, or allusions in it may have sprung from ancient ethnic mythologies the Hebrew writer has so far eliminated the polytheistic elements as to give its fundamental ideas a most definite theistic setting. The poets and prophets of the Hebrew nation are full of expressions which in doctrinal import are identical with the main lessons which all classes of readers may readily find in this ideal picture of creation.
Among the great truths which this apocalyptic picture is adapted to inculcate, and which the first readers as well as the last, the unlearned as well as the learned, have ever recognized, we emphasize the following:
1. God is at the beginning of all things, and is himself without beginning. He is the source of light, and has brought forth by the word of his power the things which are seen out of that which was not seen; for he is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Comp. Heb. 11:3; 2nd Cor. 4:6; 1st John 1:5.
2. God is a Being of infinite wisdom, power, and goodness. He is revealed in his creation as the supreme Personality, the intelligent ground or reason of the order of nature, comprehending, dividing, disposing the elements of the universe according to his will. Comp. Psalm 33:9; 148:5, 6; Job 38:4-11; Rom. 1:20.
3. All the growths of nature are products of his wisdom and energy, and their countless kinds and classes are perfectly known to him. And all the swarms of living things, in the waters or in the air, as truly as the higher orders of creation, subserve in some way the purposes of his will. Comp. Psalm 104:14; 142:8; 148:10; Matt. 10:29.
4. This infinite Intelligence not only brought the heavens and the earth and all their hosts into organic forms, but he also rules them by established laws and determines their movements and periods. Comp. Isa. 46:9, 10; Psalm 104:19.
5. The creation exhibits an ordered progress from the lower to the higher, and the animal series culminates in man, who is made in the image of God, and who stands forth as God’s highest representative in the visible world. Comp. Psalm 8:4-8.
6. The Creator is depicted as a Being of benevolence. His good will toward all creatures possessed of sentient life is manifest in that he blessed them and willed their increase so as to fill the earth and possess it. Comp. Psalm 104:14, 27; 106:25; 155:15, 16; 157:9.
7. God is also revealed as having an aesthetic nature. He is conceived as having delight in the things which he brings into visible form. And it is indicated at the close of the word-picture that no good work of heaven and earth is truly finished without the blessed consummation of repose after action. Into such blessedness of the aesthetic contemplative rest of God, man and his divine Creator may come very close to each other. Comp. Heb. 4:10; Isa. 56:2; 58:13.
All these and other similar lessons of religious value have been apparent in this record from the time of its origin. Why should we be anxious to make it mean more, or something different?
Passing now to the second chapter of Genesis (verses 4‑25), we observe, in the first place, that it differs from the preceding in scope and outline very much as the Babylonian record of creation differs from the Assyrian. The point of view is different, the subject-matter is special, and the style of concept and composition is all that one could expect of two different writers. A most reasonable hypothesis is that the author of the Book of Genesis appropriated this document of unknown origin, modified it, perhaps, in some places, and added it as a supplementary picture of the creation of man. It is not, strictly speaking, a duplicate account of the creation, for it is not a cosmogony, but an ideal picture of the introduction of the first human pair into the world. With the exception of a few incidental allusions to natural growths the narrative is concerned solely with the first man, and is in substance an amplification of what has been already depicted in apocalyptic style in chap. 1:26-28. It accords with the habit of biblical apocalyptics to enhance the leading features of an ideal picture by artificial repetition, and so our author deemed it important to take up again that part of the work of the sixth day which referred to man, and show more fully how “he created them male and female.”
1. In exhibiting this correspondence we observe the apocalyptic form and style of Gen. 1:26: “Let us make man in our image.” Here God speaks as in the presence of a heavenly council, and the plural form of utterance is best explained as part and parcel of a vivid word-picture. Compare the similar style in Gen. 3:22; 11:7, and Isa. 6:8. The Almighty is conceived as taking counsel with the holy ones who stand about his throne (comp. 1st Kings 22:19), and announcing to them the purpose of a higher order of created life on earth. That purpose was accomplished by creating man in the image of God. But the first picture furnished no details, and the scope of the second and supplementary narrative is, after the manner of apocalyptic repetition, to enlarge the concept already given, and also to exalt and emphasize the relative importance of man in God’s creation. The supplemental scenes of this second and more anthropomorphic picture are no more inconsistent with the statements of Gen. 1:26-31, than the eighth chapter of Daniel is inconsistent with the seventh.
2. Understanding the passage as an apocalyptic repetition and enlargement of Gen. 1:26-28, we should next attend to the correct translation of Gen. 2:4-6. The first part of verse 4 is the author’s heading of the section which ends with chap. 4:26. Like all the other similar headings of the subsequent sections, it refers to what follows, not to what precedes. As a title it should stand by itself, and the passage introductory to the account of the formation of man (verses 4-6) should be read thus:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
In this poetic passage we evidently have a purely ideal conception. The imaginative element is even more conspicuous than in the previous chapter, and the successive statements fall quite naturally into the form of Hebrew parallelisms. The poetical author presents a peculiar ideal of the desolateness of the earth before the appearance of man. His waste and empty land is a prehuman chaos as compared with the precosmogonic chaos of chap. 1:2. He conceives all growths of nature and all lower orders of living things as somehow subordinate to man, and subservient to his needs. No plant or herb seems to have existence or significance for him except as it exists for man’s sake. We do not understand the writer as intending to show that the creation of man preceded all growths of nature. Nor are we to suppose, from the order of statements in verses 7 and 8, that the preparation of the garden of Eden was subsequent to the formation of man. The chronological order of the events described should have no prominence in such a series of poetic pictures, but the different parts of the one great picture may best be seen when arranged in apocalyptic correspondency, as follows:
These are the five great features of the picture, and their relations are ideal rather than chronological. The planting and watering, of the Edenic garden is as truly symbolical as the formation of the woman from the man’s rib. The divine origin of man, created male and female, is no less a truth of revelation because symbolically portrayed; and the enlarged and varied picture of this second chapter adds very greatly to that of chap. 1:26-31. As the crowning feature of the six days’ work was the concluding Sabbath rest, so the concluding feature of this second and supplemental revelation is the hallowed marriage covenant. The creation of man as male and female has its physical and moral conditions, its outer and inner aspects, suggestive of holy mysteries. Its consummation, in God’s plan, is the uniting of the twain in one flesh, one heart, one blended life. This hallowed union is beautifully conceived in Ruth 1:9, and 3:1, as a state of rest (_____ and _____). And the rabbins have a saying that the man is restless while he misses the rib that was taken out of his side; and the woman is also restless until she gets under the man’s arm, whence she was taken. Man is thus seen to be incomplete without woman, and the marriage relation is the normal condition of human life. Monogamy is the true primeval law, written in the deepest intuitions of the heart (Mark 10:5-9), and the moral basis of hallowed family life. The woman appears in the picture as having been originally formed from the man, and so impliedly dependent upon him. He accordingly holds the normal headship in the marriage covenant (1st Cor. 11:3; 1st Tim. 2:11, 12; 1st Peter 3:1). But there is an ancient interpretation of the Symbolism of the rib, which speaks on this wise: “The part of man of which the woman was formed was not taken from his head, as if she were to be a lord over him; nor from his feet, as if he might tread upon her; but from his side, to Show that she was to be his companion and equal.”
Both these chapters, therefore, and both sets of delineations are of the nature of an apocalypse. Their value is to be seen in their religious and ethical suggestions, not in supposed statements of historic or scientific facts. The highest and purest conception of the marriage relation is revealed in a symbolical picture. It is enhanced in our thought as an Edenic state of rest and happy companionship, confirmed by a moral law of monogamy, and typical of the mystic but real union that exists between Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:23-32; comp. Matt. 19:4-8). Furthermore, as God’s ideal hexaemeron of work is consummated in divine repose, so all earthly life and labor look to a like blessed issue. The whole creation yearns and travails for “the liberty of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-22), and “there remaineth a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). That will be the ultimate union of Christ and his bride—the Lamb’s wife.
The statements about the trees of the garden, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are an important part of the symbolic picture. They serve in the most simple way to show that man was created with clear intimations of immortality and in the most positive conditions of moral responsibility. The great truth enunciated is that man was made a moral being, subject to the restraints and tests of moral law. We look in none of the details of the composite picture for mystic or recondite meanings. The rivers and gold and onyx of the garden are merely incidental drapery of an ideal scene, having no more separate significance in themselves than the minor details of the New Jerusalem in John’s Apocalypse.
Perhaps the most remarkable statement in the whole chapter is that of verse 7: “Jehovah God formed the man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul.” Here the man is represented as a product of the heavens and the earth by the breath of God. But how the earth and the heavens united in the forming of the first man is left in mystery. The language is as well adapted to the concept of a long period of evolution as to that of an instantaneous creation.
The result of our study thus far is the conviction that in these opening chapters of Genesis we are not to look for historic narrative, nor contributions to natural science, but to recognize a symbolic apocalypse of God’s relation to the world and to man. The great fundamental truths herein set forth have been apprehended by all bygone generations of readers, and are as apparent to the common reader as to the learned philosopher.