"Three Notes on Genesis
by Paul Humbert
Return to Index or Image of God
(This is an English translation by James M. Gibbs and Clement Marrou of "Trois Notes sur Genèse I" by Paul Humbert in Interpretationes ad Vetus Testamentum Pertinentes Sigmundo Mowinckel Septuagenario Missae edited by N. A. Dahl and A. S. Kapelrud [Olso: Forlaget Land og Kirche, 1955], pp. 83-96. Let the reader be aware that the French original occasionally consists of notes rather than full sentences.)
Three detached notes, but whose connection the reader will easily perceive. The conclusions of the first two contribute as well to the argumentation of the third.
1. The First Word of the Bible
reasons known to every exegete, two constructions and two interpretations have
been proposed for the first word and for the first three verses of the Bible:
absolute construction ("At the beginning God created the heavens and the
earth") from which has been extracted the notion of the creatio ex
nihilo, and the relative construction ("At the beginning of ...",
that is, "When God began to create ...") from which there results a
chaotic state pre-existent at the creation proper.
To solve the debate it is important to analyse without prejudice, for oneself and exhaustively, the use of רֵאשִׁית and בְּרֵאשִׁית in the Old Testament. In this way the element of subjectivism will be reduced to a minimum.
The concordance registers 51 attestations of רֵאשִׁית
in the Old Testament, occurrences which may be classified as follows:
Pre-exilic historical texts: Gen 10.10 (J); 40.3 (J?); Ex 23.19 (R?); 34.26 (J); Num 24.20 (JE); 1 Sam 2.29; 15.21; Deut 33.21.
Pre-exilic prophetic texts: Amos 6.1, 6; Hos 9.10 (gloss?); Mic 1.3; Jer 2.3; 26.1; 28.1; 49.34, 35.
Deuteronomy: Deut 11.12; 18.4 bis; 21.17; 26.2, 10.
Exilic prophetic texts: Ezek 20.40; 44.30 bis; 48.14; Is 46.10.
Priestly code: Gen 1.1; Lev 2.12; 23.10; Num 15.20, 21; 18.12.
Nehemiah-Chronicles: Neh 10.38; 12.44; 2 Chron 31.5.
Wisdom literature: Prov 1.7; 3.9; 4.7; 8.22; 17.14; Job 8.7; 40.19; 42.12; Eccl 7.8.
Psalms: Ps 78.61; 105.36; 111.10.
Daniel: Dan 11.41 (but more likely שְֵׁירִית with S).
If the last passage is removed, where the reading רֵאשִׁית
is in doubt, there remain 50 occurrences in the OT, distributed tolerably
uniformly among all the periods and all the literary groups of the writings.
In six cases at most the substantive is constructed without a complement, that is, without an object: Gen 1.1 (?); Lev 2.12; Deut 33.21 (?); Isa 46.10; Ps 105.36 (?); Neh 12.44.
In all other cases the substantive is in the construct state and the meaning is no longer absolute.
In addition, the meaning of רֵאשִׁית is properly temporal in: Gen 1.1 (P); Deut 11.12; Isa 46.10; Jer 26.1; 27.1; 28.1; 49.34; Prov 17.14; Job 8.7; 40.19; 42.12; Eccl 7.8. These twelve passages are all rather late.
With regard to the temporal sense the meaning moves towards that concerning "Origin of ..." in Ps 111.10; Prov 1.7; 4.7.
Everywhere else רֵאשִׁית designates the first and better part of something. that is to say, most often the first-fruits, with the notion of value itself being joined to that of priority, and this is probably the more ancient sense of the word as WELLHAUSEN noted some time ago1.
Now, out of the twelve passages having an indubitably temporal sense, one alone (Isa 46.10) presents a definitely absolute construction of רֵאשִׁית (again, Isa 46.10). The case of רֵאשִׁית in Gen 1.1 remains in abeyance for the time being.
Consequently, we observe that in a properly temporal sense the substantive רֵאשִׁית does not figure in more than a single instance in the absolute state: Isa 46.10. The theoretical possibility of construing absolutely a temporal רֵאשִׁית therefore exists, but this passage warrants being considered more closely. At first, guided by a sure instinct, the Septuagint translates מֵרֵשִׁית by ἀναγέλλων πρότερον τὰ ἔσχατα , that is, it understands מֵרֵשִׁית adverbially ("beforehand") and, on the whole, relatively (i.e., beforehand with regard to another matter), and does not point at the truly absolute sense of "at the commencing". Afterwards, in the MT itself there is an obvious correlation of מֵרֵשִׁית and אַהֲרִית so that the former indicates a terminus a quo and the latter a terminus ad quem of a certain lapse of time (cp. also the couple רֵאשִׁית ... אַהֲרִית in Job 8.7; 42.12; Ecll 7.8), a time conceived moreover in a fairly concrete manner, in view of the parallelism of אַהֲרִית with נַעֲשו -לֹא . But that which speaks of correlation thereby speaks of relation, implicit at the least: accordingly the very sense of רֵאשִׁית in Isa 46.10 is in the main relative, even if the construction itself is not and רֵאשִׁית is in the absolute state.. The passage Isa 46.10 cannot then be legitimately invoked in favour of an absolute temporal sense for בְּרֵאשִׁית in Gen 1.1, which remains then, finally, without counterpart.
On the other hand, with regard to the twelve cases where רֵאשִׁית is taken in a temporal sense, not one, having set aside the problematic case of Gen 1.1, implies the idea of absolute commencement, whatever be the construction.
Finally the complex בְּרֵאשִׁית is always in the construct case (Jer 26.1; 27.1; 28.1; 49.34), keweping reserved the controversial case of Gen 1.1.
Confronted by the alternatives: construction absolute or construction relative of בְּרֵאשִׁית in Gen 1.1, we are thus led to the conclusion that in the temporal sense רֵאשִׁית is constructed absolutely only in Isa 46.10, but that, in that example as in the others the sense is relative.
Confronted by the alternatives: sense absolute or sense relative in Gen 1.1 we have arrived at the conclusion that in not a single one of the cases where this sense is temporal is it a question of absolute commencement.
It follows then from the OT texts that there the sense of רֵאשִׁית is temporal it is also relative. From a strictly philological point of view, the evidence of the OT does not then weaken but on the contrary confirms the old thesis, advanced by Rachi and Aben Esdras, of the relative construction (cp. Hos 1.1; Deut 4.15) and of the relative sense of the בְּרֵאשִׁית of Gen 1.1.
As for the exegetical arguments, these also militate in favour of the interpretation which admits a chaotic state preceding the properly creative intervention of God. Especially the relative and similar construction of the outset of the Yahwist narrative of the creation, a narrative to which Gen 1 refers and which it corrects, is a very strong confirmation of the construction of Gen 1.1-3 according to Rachi (a subordinate clause of time in v. 1; a parenthesis in v. 2; the principal clause in v. 3).
The only correct translation is thus: "When God began to create the universe, the earth was at that time in a chaotic state. Darkness on the surface of the ocean. But the breath of God moved on the waters and God said: Let there be light! and there was light." The idea of creation from nothing is in consequence foreign to the text. The author is far from conceiving a divine empire of "nothing", but he proclaims and he repeats that from God's first to his ultimate manifestation God reigns through his imperative word, even at the cost of the chaos, and that his is the almighty will.
2. The Image of God
Quite at the other end of the narrative of Gen 1, verses 26 and 27 mention the creation of man "in the image of God". We have shown elsewhere2 that the Imago Dei does niot imply any allusion to the intelligence, the morality or the spirituality which primaeval man would have had in sharing with the divinity, but that it represents uniquely the exterior effigy, without moral or spiritual extension, that is to say, the physical resemblance (cp. דְּמוּת) between man and God, a resemblance which distances him both from the beast and from the divinity. We have likewise disputed that the Imago is expressed in the domination of man over the animals; for this last appears in Gen 1 only as the consequence of the possession of the Imago Dei.
Our second note aims to sharpen our conclusions regarding the scope or compass of the image of God.
The substantive צֶלֶמ is attested 17 times in the OT as follows:
Pre-exilic historical texts: 1 Sam 6.5 bis, 11; 2 Kings 11.18.
Pre-exilic prophetic texts: Amos 5.26.
Ezekiel: Ezek 7.20; 16.17; 23.14.
Priestly code: Gen 1.26, 27 bis; 5.3; 9.6; Num 33.52.
Chronicler: 2 Chron 23.27 (= 2 Kings 11.18).
Psalms: Ps 39.7; 73.20.
The nuances of sense are the following:
1) figured representations of bubonic plagues (1 Sam 6.15 bis, 11), of phalli (Eek 16.17);
2) figured representations of Babylonian personages (Ezek 23.14);
3) images of divinities other than Yahweh (2 Kings 11.8 = 2 Chron 23.17; Amos 6.26; Ezek 7.20; Num 33.52;
4) Imago Dei (Gen 1.26, 27 bis; 5.1; 9.6);
5) evanescent image (Ps 39.7; 73.20).
Now, reserving the case of the Priestly passages which concern 8us here, one is obliged to state that the remaining uses of צֶלֶמ have all a purely morphological sense, designating the form, the exterior figure of an object or a person, without any reference whatsoever to the qualities which are spiritual, moral, or intellectual. There is no warrant then, apart from dogmatic prejudice, for deviating in the Priestly texts from this same exclusively morphological sense, because the P texts do not include one syllable which points to a sense of going beyond the morphological one: צֶלֶמ here designates the figure of God or his figuation; man is created in the physical similitude of the Divinity, but it does not as far as a substantial identity, because דְּמוּת underlines on the contrary that there is no question of a resemblance. For P man is thus in the effigy of God. or rather of the Elohim (cp. the plural suffixes in 1.26).
But what sort of prerogative does this effigy assure to man? The domination over the animal world as many maintain? But the וְיִרְדּוּ of Gen 1.26 under pain of being tautological , expresses the consequence ("so that they dominate") and not the essence of the Imago Dei, to such an extent that after the creation of man in the image of God (v. 27), to confer upon this being who has been created in the effigy of God, the domination over all the animate beings (cp. also 9.2).
One Priestly passage above all is the chief one for the determination of the role and purpose of the Imago, namely Gen 9.5: the prohibition od murder is justified here in effect by the fact that men is in the image of God, that is, in his effigy. To make an attempt on human life would be therefore to make an attempt, not at all on man's domination over nature, but on the property of God; this would be a crime of injuring divine property. The Imago Dei excludes man then from those beings over which he has the right of free disposition, it shows that he is the property, the possession of God, and manifests to all eyes that God is his master, his owner.
The celebrated Gospel text "Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's" (Matt 22.20, 21; Mark 12.16, 17) illustrates admirably the thought of P with regard to the Imago Dei: just as the effigy () of a coin indicates the master in whose name it has currency, he who is the true owner of it and to whom it is necessary to reserve and return that which is due him, likewise the Imago Dei is the mark of a belonging, of possession, imprinted by God on his creature, whom it obligated to protect against every violation by underlining his relation of belonging to God alone. Whereas the beast belongs to man and is subject to him, the latter belongs to God and is subject top him. The notion of the Imago thus crowns the description of the creation; it is the divine seal on the supreme creature, the invitation, not at all to an anarchic autonomy and to autocratic pride, but to dependence, to humility, to submission to the claims of the Creator. Created, struck in the effigy of the Elohim, man will henceforth bear across history the mark of his Sovereign.
At the same time, one understands the motive for the plural "Let us make man in our image"; supposing that God were to say "I wish to make man in my image", this would risk exalting human pride even to hubris; the plural on the contrary, with its more general allusion, is a precaution for preventing total impious assimilation of man to the unique God.
3. The Relation between the Priestly Narrative and the Yahwist Narrative of Creation
This third note is closely connected with the previous ones, because there are elements of precision reached above for Gen 1.1 and 1.26, 27 which are important for a correct understanding of the relation of Gen 1 (P) and Gen 2 (J).
The Priestly narrative of creation sets forth a systematic endeavour of synthesis and a thoughtful reflection on the problem of origins. Undoubtedly in this respect it reflects less the thinking of an individual than the consensus of the reflections of the priestly milieu regarding this very important theme. First of all, there is a need to reduce systematically the whole content of the creation myth to a common denominator (!"God said", that is to say, "God commanded") to the demands of the strictest Israelite monotheism. We have to banish everything concerning this basic subject which would endanger the unique and absolute sovereignty of God. All this is well known.
But we have suggested earlier that Gen 1 represents still more particularly a Priestly realigning of the old Yahwist myth of creation, and, notably, of the creation of man. It is this previous suggestion which we would like to expand here without going into too much detail, and in doing this we shall limit ourselves to only a few important examples.
Rendered in conformity with philological requirements, the onset of Gen 1 shows that there was a chaotic state which preceded the creation of the organised universe, but that from the moment that God initiated his creative work, his will imposed itself without reserve on those confused and passive materials. The text (v. 2) mentions further expressly the presence of the vocal breath (for this sense of רוּהַ cp. the parallelism of פִּיו רוּה and of יְהוֶח דְּבַר in Ps 33.6), that is, of the divine word already on the chaotic ocean, consequently from before the creation. So the author's central concern is not at all for the absolute origin of that which exists and its connection with "nothingness" - which is a purely metaphysical problem -, but his concern is rather with the theological problem of the relation between God and the organised world, the origin of the "cosmos" being attributed to God alone.
Now it seems difficult to disregard the following striking coincidence: Gen 1.1 is, word for word, the tracing and the corrective of Gen 2.4b (J) whose thought it follows but amends, term after term: for the vague and general בְּיוֹם of J ("the day in which ...") P substitutes the precise chronological indication, the terminus a quo, בְּרֵאשִׁית , which harks back to the point of initial departure of the following events ("when God began to create ..."). Then the relatively colourless verb עָשָׁה (to make) is replaced by the verb בָּרָא (to create), characteristic of the divine activity only, and which is used with an exclusively cosmogonic import4. Next the single unique divine name, Elohim, replaces the ambiguous Yahweh Elohim of J. And lastly, the composite expression preceded by the defijite article, "the heavens and the earth", is used to denote the organised universe, as being preferable to the looser and indefinite expression of J, "earth and heavens". The continuous reference to the text of J as well as the subtle and systematic retouching are obviously intentional. Furthermore, the contribution of vv. 1-3 is also a close imitation of the construction of J in Gen 2.4b-9, but is done in such a way as to sublimate the Yahwist theme of creation onto a higher level and to an infinitely larger horizon, namely, the creation of the whole universe. Lastly, in Gen 1.1 there is substitution of the description of the tryuly primordial chaos for the barren but already earthly landscape in Gen 2.5-6. And the וַיֹּאמֶר ("God said ...") of 1.3 neutralises the וַיִּיצֶר ("God shaped ...") of 2.7. At all points in the P narrative one encounters the same care for correspondence to J, additional elements of precision and clarification and also correctives.
Now this characteristic of tacit reference and of clarification for the sake of a more carefully worked out theology leaps out at every point of the Priestly narrative. The following are some examples: (1) Shifting of the narrative of the creation of man fromthe first to the sixth day in order to set up a hierarchy of beings [with man at the top]. (2) Substitution of the creating through the authoritative word (יְהִי וַיֹּאמֶר, v. 3) for the Yahwist conception of God who, like a potter, shapes the clay with his fingers (וַיִּיצֶר, 2.7). (3) Substitution of a true cosmogony for the rudimentary sketch of J. (4) The suppression in P of the mythical and romantic Paradise of J for the much more classical Sabbath of P. (5) In J the beings appear pell-mell, i.e. all in a jumble (man, paradise, animals, birds, woman, extra-paradise flora; cp. 2.7 ff. and 3.17-18): so many categories taken by P but augmented and ordered according to an organic and regular progression: light, day and night, firmament, heavenly and earthly oceans, earth, seas, vegetation (without any reference to the vegetation of Paradise!), astral luminaries (i.e. stars, sun, moon), marine fauna and birds, land fauna, and lastly, man. The intention to reclassify and to re-work the Yahwist narrative material is obvious.
Let's look more closely at the sixth day and at the creation of man: the same correlated parallelism, the same reference, and the same classification of the Yahwist tradition are found here also. Let's compare for instance 1.27 (P) with 2.7 (J). As in 1.1 compared to 2.4b, we find an exact imitation of the J text by P: the J verse is implicitly taken up word by word but carefully altered. The too anthropomorphic and too concrete וַיִּיצֶר is matched by the properly cosmogonic and transcendent וְיִּבְרָא. As 1.1, in 1.27 Elohim takes the place of Yahweh Elohim of 2.7; and if the created object remains obviously the same (ha Adam) in both cases, how different this man is in J and in P! In J he is made of powder and God has to breathe life into him; he is the earthly (âdâm <âdamma) taken out of mother earth and almost externally similar to the animal, since God causes the animals to march past him, so that he might choose a possible partner (2.19-20). In P it is man as "in the image and likeness of God", as his effigy, and thereby the property of God, who signifies this to everyone by his very form.
In P the very onset of the creation of man is as male and female, a sexual couple (1.29). In doing so P cuts directly through the gropings of the Creator and of man in J, where only after a first unsuccessful attempt to provide a mate for man (2.18-20), does God then secondly create the woman (2.21 ff.). Whereas in J the animal is created to serve as a possible sexual partner for man (2.19), the Priestly Code turns away with a silent horror and from the very outset it subordinates animals to man (1.28).
But the reference of P to J and the intentional modification of J by P on the sixth day goes still further. In P the reproductive faculty of man, somehow supernaturally assured by the original divine blessing (1.28), is opposed directly to the naturalist thesis of J according to which the sexual relationships proceed from a physical need, that is to say, from the substantial and original unity of Adam and Eve ( 2.23-24). In P vegetation, constituted by the whole flora, is directly presented for man (1.29-30); this is an obvious modification of the Yahwist conception for which the primal food of man consisted exclusively of the fruits of Paradise, whereas the earthly vegetation generally speaking, wheat included, would only be a consequence of the curse laid on Adam (3.18-19). Moreover if in P all the plants (cp. 1.29: עֵשֶׂב כֶּל, הָעֵץ כֶּל) of the whole earth (cp. 1.29: הָאָרֶץ כֶּל פְּנֵי עַל) are given without any restriction (cp. 1.29: נֶתַתִּי) as food for man, then have we not just seen here again, point-by-point and with insistence, tacit references and conscious modifications of the Yahwist tradition of exclusively Edenic food, but out of which the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (that is to say, of everything) and also the tree of life are formally excluded (2.16-17; 3.22)?
We have seen in the previous note that by the image of God man is constituted and affirmed as being a possession of God, and that the prohibition of murder is based on the endowment of this qualification. Now since in P the image is hereditary (cp. 5.3 with 1.26, 27, and cp. 9.6), that is to say, it cannot be lost, man always abides under this law since its validity is without end. Whereas in J man, cursed after the fall, is hereafter an outlaw exposed to all the attempts on his life (4.8 ff.), [and] Yahweh has to appoint a mark for him after the event which shall protect him from his would-be murderers (4.15), in P this protective sign is anticipated.
We may also note that whereas J places the creation of animals after that of man as an endeavour to provide a sexual partner for man (2.19), in P it is the contrary, but the same verb is used in both sources for the creation [of man]: אָדָם נַעֲשֶׂה (1.26) corresponds to כְּנֶגְדּוֹ עֶוֶר לּוֹ אֶעֶשֶׂה of J (2.18), but it is followed by וַיִּבְרָא in 1.27 (P) and by וַיִּצֶר in 2.19 (J).
We could multiply these examples of reference of P to J and of conscious clarification, not only of the tradition, but also of the Yahwist text itself. We shall mention only one.
The Yahwist narrative of creation ends with a sinister series of curses (2.14 ff.). Now the Priestly Code sets an obviously optimistic conclusion against the pessimistic viewpoint of the Yahwist narrative: the institution of the Sabbath at the end of the first week of the world makes of it a cosmic law that is valid and health-giving forever. Then God blesses this day and sets it apart (2.3), he grants it its own character and consecrates it: thus the creation according to P heads toward the city of God, and in the world man is always in that which is the possession of God by virtue of the imago, whereas in J man is expelled from the Paradise, banned from God's presence into a world which is profane because separated from God. Do we not see from this that the imago dei is the Priestly equivalent for the Yahwist innocence of Adam, as the Sabbatical world of P is substituted for the Paradise of the Yahwist? Through this very fact we understand why P can pass over the Fall which is incompatible with the possession of the ineffaceable image and with the institution of the Sabbath, valid and durable like the cosmos itself of which it is the supreme law.
So from its beginning to its end the Priestly narrative of creation touches lightly the Yahwist tradition and refers itself tacitly to it, but it conveys a conscious and constant intention to clarify the Yahwist tradition on the basis of the requirements (1) of a theology which is more elaborated and which has a stricter attitude toward mythology, (2) of a monotheism which is stricter and more carefully thought out, and (3) of an outlook which is more optimistic than pessimistic, an outlook that is more classical than romantic, and which says as much as possible in as few words as possible.
It is interesting for the history of ideas and of the Pentateuch to note these actions and reactions, and undoubtedly it would be worth considering in the same perspective the correlation of the other narratives of P with the older traditions: the choice between the hypothesis of documents being combined and the alternative hypothesis of complementary additions being made to an existing narrative would perhaps be made easier. We witness in any case in Gen 1 a removal point-by-point of anything that deviates from the line of a transcendent monotheism, a theocratic doctrine that distinguishes very precisely between the Sovereign Creator and all that belongs to the order of created beings. But in doing so the Priestly writers have been very careful not to put a defiling hand upon the venerable Canaanite-cum-Israelite traditions of the origins. They have scrupulously respected the content of these traditions, but they have "neutralised" them, clarified them, filled them out, and on the whole, they have profoundly modified them, indeed, they have abrogated them by means of a kind of Qeré, that is to say in the narrative of Gen 1.1-2.4b, like the Massoretes later, they have subtly combined respect for sacrosanct tradition with the postulates of a more modernising theology, and they have satisfied the need for order and renewal of a time which, dominated by the idea of the Persian Empire, conceived of the creation as a structured order, and this order not any longer in the narrow framework of the Canaanite adámá and of the Garden of Eden, but at the level of the universal and as the organisation of a cosmos.
This "lesson" with which the Priestly writers wanted to cap the old Yahwist narrative, and which from henceforth constitutes the gateway to the Yahwist narrative, obviously had to serve as a doctrine for the instruction and edification of Israel. But when and where could this goal be reached? In the worship obviously, because any idea of a literary work to be read in private was foreign to the Priestly writers for whom all thinking centres on and culminates in the cultus, that is to say, that, as we earlier proposed (being stimulated by Mowinckel's theses which are so innovative and fruitful), this narrative of Gen 1 which constitutes a clearly delimited whole (cp. its concluding formula in 2.4a), may well have been a liturgical text, the specifically theological and monotheistic text which teaches and celebrates, in language as sober as it is imposing, the absolute theocracy of Yahweh over the universe. The predominant place given to the Sabbath in the terminal passage (Gen 2.1-3) is indeed representative of the links of our pericope: the celebration of the Jewish Sabbath and more particularly, undoubtedly the Sabbath ritual of the festivities of the New Year.
But let us note one more characteristic aspect of our Priestly narrative. If it lets us witness the methodological realisation of the organisation of the world, and if it affirms divine teleology to which all living beings are successively subjected, if the theocracy is manifested stage by stage with an even and blinding clarity, then [on the other hand] the author does not really describe the progressive establishment of the sovereignty of Yahweh: sovereignty is posited, affirmed from the outset, already on the chaos. The Heptameron [= 7 days] doesn't demonstrate a slow and gradual triumph of God, a coming into being of the divine sovereignty; it describes only the coming into being of the world. Because the divine sovereignty is from the very beginning absolute and perfect and bursts out without any rival in the flashing: "God said".
"God said", and hence we are through and beyond philology and historical criticism, confronted with Him. But here another history is opened.
1 Wellhausen, Proleg. 3 ed. p.405.
2 Etudes sur le récit du paradis et de la chute dans la Genèse, 1940, pp. 153-175.
3 Cp. ibid., p. 169
4 Cp. our article "La relation de Genèse 1 et du Psaume 104 avec la liturgîe du Nouvel - An israëlite", in the Revue d'Histoirre et de Philosophie religieuses, Strasbourg, 1935. Cp. also the remark if pertinent of Père de Vaux: "These epic narratives serve as commentary to the feasts where are commemorated the interventions of God in the history of the people." (Congress Volume. Suppl. to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 1, 1953, p. 193).