God: What Do The Opening Chapters of Genesis Tell Us
Jim West, ThD
The following short study is intended to provoke the reader of Genesis to consider again the picture of God presented in the opening passages of the Bible. Normally the text is read in such a way that the Creator is viewed as benevolent and kind. But is that the picture of God the final editor of the Biblical text wishes us to take home, or is there another possible way of reading the text? A way that is neither pious nor acceptable to the circles of piety to which the Bible generally belongs? To save the reader some time, I offer here the entirety of chapters 1-3 of Genesis so that they are fresh in his or her mind as the study unfolds.
Gen 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
2 And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
9 And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, Let the earth put forth grass, herbs yielding seed, [and] fruit-trees bearing fruit after their kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth: and it was so.
12 And the earth brought forth grass, herbs yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after their kind: and God saw that it was good.
13 And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years:
15 and let them be for lights in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16 And God made the two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: [he made] the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19 And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
20 And God said, Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
21 And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that moveth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind: and God saw that it was good.
22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.
23 And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their kind: and it was so.
25 And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the ground after its kind: and God saw that it was good.
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
28 And God blessed them: and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food:
30 and to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the heavens, and to everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, [I have given] every green herb for food: and it was so.
31 And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
2:1 And the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.
2 And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.
3 And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it he rested from all his work which God had created and made.
4 These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that Jehovah God made earth and heaven.
5 And no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for Jehovah God had not caused it to rain upon the earth: and there was not a man to till the ground;
6 but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.
7 And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
8 And Jehovah God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
9 And out of the ground made Jehovah God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads.
11 The name of the first is Pishon: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;
12 and the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.
13 And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Cush.
14 And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth in front of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 And Jehovah God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
16 And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
18 And Jehovah God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.
19 And out of the ground Jehovah God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the heavens; and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them: and whatsoever the man called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
20 And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the heavens, and to every beast of the field; but for man there was not found a help meet for him.
21 And Jehovah God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof:
22 and the rib, which Jehovah God had taken from the man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
23 And the man said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.
3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which Jehovah God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden?
2 And the woman said unto the serpent, Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat:
3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
5 for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.
6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.
7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
8 And they heard the voice of Jehovah God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Jehovah God amongst the trees of the garden.
9 And Jehovah God called unto the man, and said unto him, Where art thou?
10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?
12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
13 And Jehovah God said unto the woman, What is this thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.
14 And Jehovah God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
15 and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
18 thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
19 in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
20 And the man called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.
21 And Jehovah God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skins, and clothed them.
22 And Jehovah God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever--
23 therefore Jehovah God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden the Cherubim, and the flame of a sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
In this passage God is portrayed as the powerful creator who sets boundaries and limits. God makes things and immediately limits them. His control is complete and absolute. The heavens are limited, the earth, the seas, the creatures, and especially humans. The astute reader will notice quite immediately that the whole driving force of God’s creative activity is the division, separation, and distinguishing of various objects and things.
God, in particular, is interested in limiting human freedom
and in order to carry out this task He set in the midst of the garden a
tree that is both delightful and pleasant- i.e., desirable.
Something that is desirable is so because of something innate in
the one who desires it.
In other words, God only not makes the tree desirable- He makes the
humans He has made desire it.
He has placed desire for it in their hearts.
Once that is done, God next moves to prohibit the humans from
taking of the very thing He has made them desire.
How curious, and how problematic this is!
Why would God place a desire in a person’s heart and then issue an
edict, which prohibits that desire from being satisfied?
What parent holds a candy bar in front of a child and waves it
around and when the child reaches for it sternly says- “NO!”
Would we not consider the behavior of such a parent at best a bit
odd and at worst cruel?
This passage begs for, nay, demands a theodicy; an explanation
regarding the righteousness and justice of God.
Yet that is the very thing that the passage does not offer!
Is the author unaware of the problem?
Perhaps he was as unaware of the implication of his text as some
modern readers are unaware that a problem exists here.
Nevertheless the text raises the question as to why God would place
such a desire in humankind’s heart and then make it a crime to satisfy
that same God given need.
To summarize to this point: holding the carrot in front of their noses, God places within their hearts the desire to have it and then tells them that they cannot. When they take that which He has made them desire He applies the stick to their back and drives them from the garden. Why?
The Rabbi’s recognized the dilemma before us and offer the
following maxim regarding mankind’s ability (or lack thereof) to act in
freedom: “Everything is foreseen but free will is given and the world is
judged by goodness and everything is according to the preponderance of
action” (Aboth III,19).
Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, also accepted this notion and
pointed to Psalm 33:15 which reinforces it- “He that fashions the hearts
of them all, He that considers all their works”.
The rabbis consistently understood this to mean that mankind is not
a puppet of the divine will.
Rather, “He who wishes to purify himself is assisted by heaven to
do so whilst he who wishes to defile himself will find the means open to
him” (Yoma 38b).
In sum, then, the rabbis retreat from the question at hand and
suggest that we recall the words of Isaiah (55:8)- “My ways are not your
ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord”.
For all the reasoning laid to bear, there is not, in rabbinic or
Christian literature, a satisfactory answer (that I have been able to
uncover) to the question as to why God implants certain desires in our
hearts and then forbids us to act to satisfy those desires.
My question then, continues to be- is the author of Genesis telling us that God is good here? Or is he telling us that God is evil, cruel, heartless, and spiteful? To place desire in the heart of a person and then to beat them when they actually attempt to obtain the happiness that they are driven to obtain by their very essence and nature, seems to be the utter pinnacle of heartlessness. It is as though God were playing a game, as he did with Job, to see how much he could take and then when he could not take it any more God appears in a whirlwind and tells him to stop whining because he does not know what is going on. But what kind of God is this?
Again, what is the author of Genesis trying to say about God? Does he love Him (as piety teaches us) or does he have grave problems with His very nature of cruel pitiless control?
Jim West, ThD
Adjunct Professor of
Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hudson College
Adjunct Professor of
Bible, Quartz Hill School of Theology