Symbols In Genesis: Creation Story or Temple Inauguration?
We live in the 21st century and see the world through a very unique perspective compared to most of human history.
We have visited the moon and seen the world from outer space. We can travel around the entire globe in a commercial airplane in just 47 hours. And yet, just a few hundred years ago, the world was still believed to be flat!
Imagine living in a world with no cars, where your day-to-day existence was constricted to a few miles and the furthest you’d ever travel was probably just a few towns over. It’s difficult to imagine how fundamentally different your perspective would be, and at this point, we’re talking about barely over 100 years ago. It becomes increasingly difficult to place ourselves in the shoes of our predecessors the further back we go.
And yet, when we open up the Bible, that’s exactly what we have to do… at least, if we hope to genuinely understand its message.
It is with this in mind that we are going to look back 3,000 years to when the author of Genesis gave us the creation story. We are going to seek to understand what the recipients of this book believed about the world and how they would have received the creation story.
How we will we accomplish this? By using the symbols and language used during this time period.
Symbols In Genesis Have Time-Specific Meanings
What did the near east think about the world? We see that similar symbols were used throughout all near eastern religions. If we look at many near eastern texts, we will find consistent trends.
In all ancient near eastern religions, water always represented chaos and disorder. We see the Old Testament refer to monsters, sea serpents and dragons dwelling in water and wreaking havoc and chaos. Tannin was a sea monster in Canaanite, Phoenician, and Hebrew mythology, used as a symbol of chaos and evil in many texts, including the Old Testament. Yahweh in the book of Job has the power to destroy these sea creatures and establish order. In the Babylonian creation story there is a god named Marduk who is considered the storm god. In early Canaan, Yam is the god of the water. In ancient Sumer, Tiamat is the goddess of the sea.
I think you get it. Near eastern people groups placed significance in water (chaos) and the importance of having power over the water (chaos).
So when we read Genesis 1, we can’t impose our understanding of what the ocean or sea is while reading the story. The sea for us is just a natural body of water with tides, marine animals, and coral reefs providing oxygen. The sea does not necessarily represent something sinister to us or hold power over us as modern humans.
Similarly, when we talk about the sun with our modern lens, we are talking about a large gaseous ball that stimulates oxygen production through the photosynthesis of plants. We know that without the sun, humanity could not exist!
Ancient Israelites, on the other hand, understood the sun, moon and stars to be lights that helped humans distinguish time rather than the source of life on earth. This was the primary function of the sun for ancient near eastern people groups! They did not understand time to be linear but cyclical. The sun, stars, and moon provided them with the ability to understand the cycle of seasons. The sun wasn’t necessarily important in and of itself, but it enabled people to track time which was very important.
We could look at dozens and dozens of these symbols but for now let’s delve into Genesis 1 and see if we can begin to understand what the writers focus was without imposing a modern worldview on the author’s words.
The Story of A Temple
In the ancient near east, the gods dwelled in temples and that’s where they were to be worshiped. This was no different in ancient Israel. The place where Yahweh dwelled was in the temple. We see this in Isaiah 66:1 “This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?” The house of the lord is where God rested.
As we read through Genesis 1, we see that on the 7th day “God rested”. This suggests that the creation story should be read like a temple narrative.
You ask why?
Once a temple was erected, there was a process to be followed so that the gods would actually enter the temple and rest inside to be worshiped. After the temple was built, it didn’t mean it was ready for use. A temple was just a regular building until the functions were established so that the god could come and dwell/rest within the temple.
This gives us a clue on how to read Genesis 1. When a temple was built, it became functional not when all of the physical work had been done (building, furniture, the priests’ garments) but after a special inauguration ceremony. Several ancient texts chronicle this ceremony as lasting seven days. During those seven days, the functions of the temple were identified, the functionaries installed, the priests commissioned and most importantly, that which represented the god was brought into the center of the sacred space so that he could rest and be worshiped.
At that point, and only at that point, was the temple finally functional. At the point, the temple existed as an actual temple.
We think the creation story is a story about material creation, but I would propose that it is intended as a designation of purpose and function. The word Bara in Hebrew is translated to English as “create” but it is better understood as “to choose” or “assign”. The function of something was more important than the substance. When Adam names the animals, he is choosing them and giving them a purpose or function. This is after they already existed materially.
The temple inauguration was the same way. The beginning of Genesis doesn’t start with nothing. Rather, it starts with something that is purposeless and chaotic (tohu wa-bohu), but then God says, “Let there be light.” As I mentioned earlier, the earth was formless and void, meaning it was lacking purpose and was nothing more than empty chaos. Nearly every creation story in ancient history starts with a state of chaos rather than nothingness. This concept is known by religious scholars as cosmogony.
So if Genesis 1 is in fact a cosmic temple inauguration, then through that lens, we can finally start to understand the significance of each day of creation.
The 6 Days of Creation
The 6 days of creation can be split into two sections. In the first 3 days, Yahweh establishes the functions, and in the second 3 days, Yahweh establishes the functionaries. This may sound confusing at first, but it’s actually pretty simple when broken down.
On Day 1, God shows us the function of the heavens and the earth. He calls the light “Day” and the darkness “Night”. He is establishing the function of time, which was very important to those living in the ancient near east, so they could survive by planning their harvests.
On Day 2, God establishes the function of weather by separating the waters in the sky from the waters on the earth, which allows for seasons with and without rain.
On Day 3, God establishes the function of growth and fertility and the ability for agriculture by establishing the functions of both seas and areas of dry land.
The first three days show us the functions and the next three days show us the detailed functionaries found in the first three days.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth. God made two great lights the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”
Day 4 shows us day 1’s purpose, which is that the lights (sun & moon) decided what days were to be holidays, feasts and so on. Notice the purpose of the sun and moon were to govern night and day. This is only true for those living between the arctic and antarctic circles. There is no strict day and night in arctic zones. The north pole has 6 months of continual darkness and 6 months of continual light.
The creation narrative isn’t establishing a modern scientific narrative but a functionary narrative for those living in the ancient near east. According to this narrative, the sun isn’t created until day 4, while light is created on day 1. Is the story just wrong? No, because it’s not trying to describe material origins. It’s purpose is to define functional origins.
Since Day 2 established areas of water and dry land, the seas are now filled with sea creatures and the land with birds and walking creatures. You can start to see the narrative is not concerned with establishing material origins (how animals were created) but rather the function of these animals and their place in the world. Some live in the ocean, some on the dry land, and some in the sky.
While God may very well have been involved in physically creating these creatures, the Genesis 1 narrative is not concerned with this. Its purpose is to show Yahweh’s cosmic order in this giant cosmic temple of heaven and earth.
Man enters the picture on Day 6 and is given his function “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
We see a pattern of Yahweh giving order to the earth in order that it may not be ruled by chaos and emptiness. Man is placed into the Garden of Eden and “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.” So we see that order was completed and established so that God could rest/dwell on the earth on the 7th day.
Just as the temple needed to be inaugurated before God could dwell, so did the heavens and earth. The 6 days of creation are not about material creation but rather the functions and order necessary for God to dwell with his people in the garden.
If cosmic origins are described here in functional terms and follow the pattern of temple building texts, then the point is made that the cosmic temple is here being made functional. If this is the paradigm in Genesis 1, then the seven days can easily be understood as regular days and the account can be understood as an inauguration of the cosmic temple that initiates the functions by which it operates.
It’s hard for us as modern readers to read the story and not assume it’s speaking about the creation of the material world but we must realize that Genesis 1 was written to ancient readers rather than those in the 21st century.