Trinity Journal 5 NS (1984) 73-82.
Copyright © 1984 by Trinity Journal, cited with permission;
These Exegetical Notes do not aim at a detailed verse-by-verse
explanation. Their purpose rather is to look at the first chapter of
Genesis from a wider perspective the perspective of the whole of the
Pentateuch. A secondary purpose of these Notes is to explore in a
general way the broader question of the meaning of biblical narrative
texts. How do we go about finding what the biblical writers were teach-
ing in their carefully wrought narratives? In light of this second pur-
pose, the Notes will be presented in the form of a general description of
biblical narrative and the comments on Gen 1:1-2:4a will serve as
examples. It will be assumed that what is said may be applied generally
to all biblical narratives in the same way that it is here applied to
Historical narrative is the re-presentation of past events for the pur-
pose of instruction. Two dimensions are always at work in shaping
such narrative: 1) the course of the historical event itself and 2) the
viewpoint of the author who recounts the event. This dual aspect of
historical narrative means that one must not only look at the course of
the event in its historical setting but one must also look for the purpose
and intention of the author in recounting the event.
The ideas of looking beyond the historical event to the author's ver-
sion of it does not imply that the author's version is different than the
event as it actually happened. Rather, in historical narrative what is
given is the inspired author's evaluation of the meaning and signifi-
cance of the event. In historical narrative we may be told less than all
that happened; but we are also told much more than simply that the
event happened--although we are always being told at least that. We
are also being told the purpose and significance of the event within the
broader context of God's revelation in his word.
In what follows, we will outline briefly some general principles on
how to go about the task of finding the author's intent and purpose in
recounting the events in historical narrative.
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Assessing the Structure of the Narrative Account
The most influential yet subtle feature of an author's work in relat-
ing historical events is the overall framework within which he arranges
his account. Some would call this the literary context. Perhaps a more
usable term would be the structure of the passage. What this means is
that there is always an internal relationship of each segment of a narra-
tive to the other segments of the narrative and to the narrative viewed
as a whole. When we speak of structure, then, we are speaking of "the
total set of relationships within a given narrative unit."
General structural elements to look for in every historical narrative
are simple, but nonetheless important. They include an introduction, a
conclusion, sequence, disjuncture, repetition, deletion, description and
dialogue. These elements combine to form the building blocks or seg-
ments of the larger narrative units.
For example, Gen 1:1-2:4a is clearly recognizable as a unit of histor-
ical narrative. It has an introduction (1:1), a body (1:2-2:3) and a con-
clusion (2:4a). With these three segments a unit is formed. Within this
unit several structural elements combine to tie this passage (Gen
1:1-2:4a) together and give it a specific meaning. One of the more
obvious elements is the repetition of the phrase "evening and morning"
which divides the passage into a 7-day scheme. Creation forms a
period of one work week concluding with a rest day. Already in this
simple structural framework there is the tilting of the account that
betrays the interests of the author creation is viewed in terms of
man's own work week.
Another, more subtle, structural element tying the passage together
is the tight sentence pattern (or sequence) within which the events of
creation are recorded. This is apparent in the almost monotonous
string of "ands" in the English Versions of chapter one. In contrast to
this smooth sequence, however, there is an abrupt disjuncture at 1:2, in
effect, shoving this verse outside the regular sequence of the chapter. A
study of the author's style in Genesis shows that when he wants to
begin a specific topic much narrower than the preceding subject mat-
ter, he uses such a technique of disjuncture (see Gen 3:1). Here, then, at
the beginning of the account the structure reveals the aim of the
author: to narrow the scope of his narrative from the universe (1:1) to
that of the land (I :2ff.). This is quite a remarkable turning point in the
account of creation and should not be overlooked by anyone attempt-
ing to follow the author's intent in this chapter.
Structure, then, implies purpose and that in turn suggests a central
concern or integration point which gives a passage its meaning and
direction. In the two examples just cited, the central concern of Gen 1
focuses on man and the land. Certainly we need more than these two
examples to be convinced that this is the central concern, but the
cumulative effect of further observations confirms that this is the direc-
tion or purpose behind the framework of the account.
When we have observed the internal structure of a passage, as we
have briefly done with Gen 1:1-2:4a, we have not completed the task of
assessing the total structural relationship of the passage to the broader
SAILHAMER: GENESIS 1:1-2:4a 75
context within which it is found. There may indeed be a whole series of
further structural ties between the passage and its literary environment.
Here we are faced with the problem of where to fix the outside limits
to a passage within an historical narrative. It is very often the case in
the Old Testament narrative sections that the division of the narrative
into "books" cuts across very tightly constructed units (e.g. Gen 1-
Exod 1:7 is a structurally complete unit not recognized by those who
divided the Pentateuch into five parts). Beyond these literary units
there lie, as well, the larger borders of the Old Testament canon and
the subsequent canon of the Old and New Testaments. These borders
must be respected as well if we desire to go beyond exegesis to biblical
In working with Gen 1:1-2:4a, we can safely set our perimeters
around the Pentateuch (Gen--Deut) as the largest meaningful unit
(literarily). Since it comes first, it also seems safe to say that Gen 1:1-
2:4a is to be considered an introduction to the Pentateuch.
Once the largest unit of historical narrative has been drawn, a two-
fold task remains: 1) to determine the central concern of this unit and
2) to develop the contribution of the smaller unit (Gen 1:1-2:4a) to the
concern of the whole.
The central concern of the large narrative unit is not always imme-
diately apparent but usually becomes clearer with a trial and error
effort to relate the parts to the whole. This amounts, in practice, to
reading through the entire unit and formulating a general statement of
the overall theme. This theme is then checked against further readings
of the text. Each reading should produce a clearer idea of the whole,
which in turn should cast more light on the parts or segments.
Since we have drawn the Pentateuch as the largest unit with a mean-
ingful structural relationship to Gen 1:1-2:4a, the question we should
now ask is whether there is a center to the Pentateuch. From our study
we would suggest that the central concern of the Pentateuch should be
described in the following way.
First, it should be pointed out that the most prominent event and the
most far-reaching theme in the Pentateuch, viewed entirely 'on its own,
the covenant between Yahweh and
The meaning of this event as it is described in the Pentateuch can be
summarized in the following cluster of themes:
1) God comes to dwell with
3) God gives
5) Salvation or judgment is contingent on
If we leave these ideas in their original dress, we find that they are
clothed in the metaphor of the ancient Near Eastern monarch: God,
the Great King, grants to his obedient vassal-prince the right to dwell
in his land and promises protection from their enemies. Somewhat
more generally, this cluster of ideas goes by the name theocracy or the
76 TRINITY JOURNAL
There is, however, more to be said about the intention of the author
of the Pentateuch. We need to say, secondly, something about what the
author of the Pentateuch is telling his readers about the covenant at
Sinai. This can be summarized in the following three points:
1) The author of the Pentateuch wants to draw a connecting link
between God's original plan of blessing for mankind and his establish-
of the covenant with
the covenant at Sinai as God's plan to restore his blessing to mankind
through the descendants of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; Exod 2:24).
2) The author of the Pentateuch wants to show that the Covenant at
failed to restore God's blessing to mankind because
to trust God and obey his will.
3) The author of the Pentateuch wants to show that God's promise
to restore the blessing would ultimately succeed because God himself
one day give to
The outlook of the Pentateuch, then, might be described as "eschato-
logical," in that it looks to the future as the time when God's faithful
(blessing) will be fulfilled. The past,
failure from the author's (Moses') perspective. The message of the Pen-
tateuch, however, is hope: God's people should trust and obey God
and, like Abraham, have faith in his promises.
The primary subject matter of the Pentateuch, then, is the Sinai
The author sees God's election of
ment of a covenant at Sinai as a central religious and theological prob-
lem. The Pentateuch is his answer to the problem raised by the coven-
ant in the same way that Gal is the Apostle Paul's answer to the same
problem. It is his explanation of the place Sinai occupies in God's plan
and his explication of the lessons to be drawn from the experience.
It is of great importance to see that while the Pentateuch is about the
Sinai Covenant, it is not the document of that covenant. The Penta-
teuch contains documents of the Sinai Covenant, e.g., the ten com-
mandments, the covenant code, tabernacle instruction and laws of sac-
rifice, but the Pentateuch, as a literary document, is fundamentally
different from a document of the Sinai covenant. What this means is
that the Pentateuch is a document that looks at the Sinai covenant as
an object under investigation. It is attempting to evaluate the Sinai
covenant from a perspective that is not the same as that of the coven-
ant itself. Like the other historical books of the Old Testament, the
Prophets and the New Testament, the Pentateuch represents a look
back at the failure of Sinai and a look forward to a time of fulfillment
It now remains to develop the contribution of the smaller narrative
unit (Gen 1:1-2:4a) to the central concern of the whole (Pentateuch).
In other words, if we are right in saying Genesis 1 is an introduction to
the Pentateuch, then we should ask what it introduces about the cen-
tral concern of the Pentateuch: the covenant at Sinai.
The following principles are intended to show how a segment of his-
torical narrative can contribute to the central concern of the larger
narrative of which it is a part.
SAILHAM ER: GENESIS 1:1-2:4a 77
The Principle of Selectivity
No historical narrative is a complete account of all that occurred in a
given event or series of events. The author must select those events that
most effectively relate not only what happened but also the meaning
and significance of what happened.
We can formulate a working description of this principle of selection
in this way: The author selects and arranges those features of an histor-
ical event that most characteristically portray the meaning of the event
as conceived by the author.
A close study of Gen 1:1-2:4a shows that a careful and purposeful
selection has been made in the composition of the creation account and
that the features selected do, in fact, provide an introduction to the
Sinai covenant--that is, the creation account tells the reader informa-
tion that makes the author's view of the Sinai covenant understandable.
One way to ferret out this selection is to ask: What general features
of creation (the subject matter) would I expect to find in Gen 1:1-2:4a,
but which I don't find? Where, for example, is the account of the crea-
tion of the angels? Where, for that matter, is the account of the crea-
tion of the stars and the galaxies? Certainly the creation of these bodies
is stated as a brute fact in v 1 and is editorially alluded to in v 16; but
relative to the detail of the rest of the account in chap. 1, we could
almost say the author has passed them by. He has chosen rather to
concentrate on the creation. and preparation of the land. If we judge
from the topics selected in Gen 1:1-2:4a, we can say the author has
only three preferred subjects in his account of creation: God, man and
Having said there is little mention of the creation of the rest of the
universe, we should note that the creation of the sun and moon is given
considerable attention. But we should be quick to note, as well, that
neither of these celestial bodies is mentioned in its own right. Rather,
their creation is recounted in terms of the role they play in the affairs
of men on the land: "to divide the day and night and be for signs for
the seasons and for days and years." (1:14ff.).
At this point we need to show how the two principles of Structure
and selectivity work together to give a narrative passage its meaning.
First, we have already noted that an internal structural element has
defined the scope of the Gen 1:1-2:4a creation account. That is, the
disjuncture at v 2 is employed by the author to focus his creation
account upon the land. This is consistent with what our analysis of the
selection showed: one of the author's three preferential topics is the
Now we can turn to the external structural relationship of Gen
I:1-2:4a to the Pentateuch and ask: What does the land as a subject
have to do with the Sinai covenant? Or, more precisely stated: How
does what Gen 1:1-2:4a records about the land serve as an introduc-
tion to the author's view of the covenant at Sinai? When Gen 1:1-2:4a
speaks of God's creation and preparation of the land we are, in fact,
introduced to one of the central elements of the Sinai Covenant: the
of God to give the land to
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and keep my covenant you will be to me a prize possession among all
the nations because all the land is mine" (Exod 19:5; cf. Jer 27:5).
What, then, does Gen 1:1-2:4a tell us about the land? It tells us that
God is its owner. He created it and prepared it, and he can give it to
whomever he chooses (Jer 27:5). In the ancient world, and our own,
the right to own land and grant it to others formed the basis of an
ordered society. The author of the Pentateuch, then, is quick to point
that the promise of the land to
covenant, was in every way a right justly belonging to God.
Another example of the interrelationship between structure and
selection can be seen in the view of God in Gen 1:1-2:4a. When viewed
as an introduction (structure) to the covenant at Sinai, we can see that
Gen I presents a very important view of the covenant God: he is the
Creator of the universe (Gen 1:1) Because Israel had come to know
God through the covenant in a close and personal way, a certain theo-
logical pressure existed which, if left unchecked could, and at times
did, erode a proper view of God. This pressure was the tendency to
localize and nationalize God as the God of Israel alone (Mic 3:11)--a
who exists solely for
this lesser view of God, however, stands the message of Gen 1 with its
clear introduction to the God who created the universe and who has
blessed all mankind. From the point of view of the author of the Pen-
tateuch, the God of the Covenant is the Creator of the universe; and he
has a plan of blessing for all men. Here lies the theological foundation
of all subsequent missionary statements in the Bible.
We can conclude this section with a summary of Gen 1:1-2:4a. The
author of the Pentateuch intends his creation account to relate to his
readers that God, the Creator of the universe, has prepared the land as
a home for his special creature, man, and has a plan of blessing for all
The Discourse Principles of Theme and Rheme
An historical narrative is a form of discourse between the author and
his audience. The author must always write with his audience in view
and he must assume certain common knowledge and shared experi-
ences with this audience. On its most basic level this means that the
author has to use a language that his audience will understand. The
Old Testament was written in Hebrew not simply because that was the
writer's language but more importantly because that was the language
of those to whom the books were written.
At a level of interpretation, however, this idea of an audience means
the author can and must assume that he can use certain terms which
are already known on the basis of his common experience with his
audience. It also means, in the case of literature, that the author can
use terms which will take on specific sense in the course of the literary
work itself. We should expect, then, to come across two different kinds
of terms in any given narrative unit: those terms which the author
assumes his reader will already know or will subsequently come to
more fully understand in the work itself (theme) and those terms which
the author must elaborate himself in the passage at hand (rheme).
SAILHAMER: GENESIS 1:1--2:4a 79
Since the author will develop the meaning of rheme terms in the
passage at hand, there is little difficulty in dealing with them in narra-
tive. All that is really necessary is a sensitivity to the author's help in
developing the meaning of these terms for his reader.
When the author assumes that his readers already have an under-
standing of a term he uses (theme) the question at once faces the mod-
ern reader: Where does one look for the meaning of a term that is not
explained by the ancient writer? We may have to go outside the text
altogether for a general understanding of the term and then attempt to
fit this within the specific text at hand. Usually, however, there is a
As a working guide we might suggest that in searching for the mean-
ing of a term not explained in a given passage (theme), we follow the
external structural relationships back to a passage where the term in
question is in fact developed (if such a passage does exist). An example
from Gen 1:1-2:4a may help to clarify this point.
The author of Gen. 1:1-2:4a uses several terms with the full expecta-
tion that his audience will comprehend them without explanation: "the
deep," "the expanse," tohu wahohu ("formless and void"), "signs,"
"seasons," "the great sea monsters," and so on. How do we find the
meaning intended by the author for these terms? If we follow the struc-
tural ties already delineated above, being careful to remain within the
boundaries of the Pentateuch (structure), the meaning of these terms,
as used by the author, is close at hand.
The term "signs," for example, calls to mind many things to a mod-
ern reader; most recently, to many, the terms may recall the signs of
the zodiac. Could this have been the meaning intended by the author
when he recounted that the sun and moon are put in the heavens as
"signs"? If we look at the use of this term in the broader structural
context (Pentateuch), we can readily see that such a meaning would
have been completely inappropriate to the author and his original
audience. The term "signs" has been given special attention by the
author elsewhere in the Pentateuch. For example, the so-called
Pentateuch (e.g., Deut 29:2-3). The meaning given this term in the
Exod account (here the term is rheme, not theme) is that the acts of
God in the bringing of disorder upon the Egyptians were "signs" that
God was more powerful and majestic than the Egyptians' gods. This
sense of the term "signs" fits well in Gen 1:14. The author says that not
only are the sun and moon to give light upon the land but they are to
be visual reminders of the power and majesty of God. They are "signs"
of who the God of the covenant is. They are "telling of the glory of
God," as the psalmist puts it (Ps 19:1). Not only does the term "signs"
serve as a reminder of the greatness and glory of God for the author of
the Pentateuch, "signs" are also a frequent reminder in the Pentateuch
of his grace and mercy (Gen 4, 9, 17).
Another example of a theme term in Gen 1:1-2:4a is the term "sea-
sons." Here our English word "season" suggests something like "win-
ter, fall, etc.," but again, the broader context of the Pentateuch gives a
80 TRINITY JOURNAL
more precise meaning. In Lev, in fact, there is an entire chapter
devoted to the term "seasons." This is not easy to see in some English
versions because the term is rendered "feasts" in Lev. Strictly speaking
the term means "appointments." These appointments were the annual
covenant and celebrate the covenant relationship (Lev 23). If this is the
meaning of the term in Gen 1, we see that the author had something
very specific in his mind when he wrote of the creation of the sun and
moon. They were not mere lights or reminders of God's glory, they
were, as well, calendars for the celebration of the covenant. The world
is made for the covenant. Already at creation, the land was being pre-
for the covenant.
In Gen 1:1--2:4a there is also the development of new terms (rheme)
in the narrative. In fact, the concept of man's creation in the "image"
of God finds its only explanation in this narrative. The explanation of
the term comes from the way in which the author selects two features
in man's creation: the deliberation of God before creating man and
God's blessing of man after his creation. Both features have an impor-
tant bearing on the author's view of the Sinai covenant.
First, God's deliberation shows that he has decided to create man
differently from any of the other creatures--in his image and likeness.
God and man share a likeness that is not shared by other creatures.
This apparently means that a relationship of close fellowship can exist
between God and man that is unlike the relationship of God with the
rest of his creation. What more important fact about God and man
would be necessary if the covenant at Sinai were, in fact, to be a real
relationship? Remove this and the covenant is unthinkable.
Secondly, in Gen 1, man, the image bearer, is the object of God's
blessing. According to the account of creation in Gen 1, the chief pur-
pose of God in creating man is to bless him. The impact of this point
on the remainder of the Pentateuch and the author's view of Sinai is
restored to all mankind.
The Principle of Contemporization
Often in the writing of historical narrative, events of the past find
new meaning and significance in relation to certain issues and ideas
present in the author's own day. Thus the author views past events
with a certain eye to the present, and he would assume his narrative
would be read in that way. From this fact a principle emerges: look for
thematic development of ideas and issues current during the author's
own time. This presupposes that we have some indication of when the
narrative was written and that we know something of the historical-
cultural setting of the narrative's composition. If we do not know when
or to whom a book is written, it may mean that the book has been
intentionally generalized as well as contemporized so that it may speak
to many succeeding audiences in many different contexts.
This principle can be detected in Gen 1 by the way in which the
author of the Pentateuch uses terms in unusual contexts. For example,
SAILHAMER: GENESIS 1:1-2:4a 81
he calls the global ocean (the "deep") in 1:2 a "desert." This is not
apparent in the English translation "formless," but the NASB notes it
in the margin as a "wasteland." If we again use the notion of theme
terms and search for the meaning of this word within the Pentateuch
itself, we can see its typological significance. Moses uses this term
32:10) to describe the desert wasteland where
for forty years. Why call an ocean a desert? What better way to teach
the people that the God who will lead them out of the wilderness and
give them the promised land is the same God who once prepared the
land for them by dividing the waters and producing the "dry land"?
The God of the Pentateuch is One who leads his people from the waste-
land to the promised land.
We close with one further example of the role of structure and selec-
tion in determining the meaning of a unit of historical narrative like
Gen 1:1-2:4a. This example should serve also as a summary of the
approach taken in this paper.
We have already seen that the overall purpose of the author of the
Pentateuch seems to be to show that the Sinai covenant failed for lack
an obedient heart on the part of God's people
seen that his intention in writing the Pentateuch is not to look back in
despair at the failure of man but to point in hope to the faithfulness of
God. The hope of the writer of the Pentateuch is clearly focused on
what God will do to bring his covenant promises to fulfillment.
Nowhere is he more clear on this than at the (structural) conclusion to
work: Deut 30:1-10, where Moses tells the people of
they will fail and that they will be cursed, but God's work with them
not end there. The Lord will again bring them into the land,
ering them from all the lands where they have been exiled. But this
things will be different.
to give them a heart that will obey, a heart that will love the Lord and
keep his commandments. It is on this high note that the Pentateuch
finally draws to a close.
If we go beyond the Pentateuch to the other historical books, the
Prophets and finally to the New Testament, the fulfillment of Moses'
hope is made certain. It is also clear in these later books how God is
going to give his people a new heart: "I will give you a new heart, a
new Spirit I will put within you; I will turn away the heart of stone
from your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh. My Spirit I will put
within you and I will make you walk in my statutes and my judgments
you will keep" (Ezek 36:26, 27). It is by means of God's Spirit that his
people are able to do his will. No one is clearer on this point than the
apostle Paul (Rom 8:4). What is often overlooked, however, is that we
needn't go beyond the Pentateuch itself for exactly the same conclu-
sion. The author of the Pentateuch has as one of his central purposes
to show that God's work must always be done in God's way: by means
of the Spirit of God. To show the centrality of this idea in the Penta-
teuch we need only compare the author's description of God's own
82 TRINITY JOURNAL
carrying out of his will (Gen 1:2b) with that of man's obedience to
God's will (Exod 31:1-5).
Viewed on its own, the description of the Spirit of God in Gen 1:2
has often been only remotely related to the rest of the chapter. Some
interpreters have even chosen to eliminate this reference to God's Spirit
altogether and render the passage simply as "a mighty wind was blow-
ing over the surface of the waters." When viewed as structurally related
to Exod 31, however, this brief notice regarding the Spirit of God takes
on a whole new importance for the meaning of the Pentateuch.
In Exod 31:1-5, God has chosen Bezalel to do the work of building
the tabernacle. What God has commanded Moses, Bezalel is to per-
form. In order to insure his accomplishment of the work, the author of
the Pentateuch tells us, the Lord filled Bezalel with the Spirit of God
"to do all of the work . . . which I have commanded you." For the
author of the Pentateuch, to do the work of God successfully (with
wisdom), one must be filled with the Spirit of God. We may recall
what Moses says to Joshua when he complains that someone "unoffi-
cial" may have received the Spirit of the Lord: "Would that the Lord
would put his Spirit upon all of them [his people]" (Nurn 11:29).
If this is one point that the author of the Pentateuch is intending to
make throughout this major biblical book, then his comment at the
beginning (Gen 1:2b) makes perfectly good sense. Even God the Crea-
tor, when he does his work of creating, does so by means of the Spirit
of God. How much more then should his people do his will by means
of his Spirit.
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