The first book of the Pentateuch, Genesis, gives an account of the origin of all created things and acts, as it were, as an elaborate introduction to God’s later revelation to Israel through Moses. It summarizes the early stages in the history of mankind from the creation to the death of Joseph the patriarch.
Unlike the book of Exodus, which follows it and in which the history of Israel as a people begins, Genesis contains the history of Israel’s ancestors, the great patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph—and therefore is the history of a family, Abraham’s, from which the chosen people stemmed. Before concentrating on this family, in order to explain its background, the first eleven chapters deal with the history of the world and of man, the history of civilization and culture, tracing the early outlines of God’s plan of salvation and the role Israel is to play in it.
These early chapters, written in popular language, rich in imagery, provide answers to the kind of questions every human being, in any age, is inclined to ask: Who made me? Where does the world come from? What is life all about? What is the meaning of suffering, sickness, and death? What explanation is there for war and human strife? Man wants answers to these questions. He wants to know how he can re-establish peace, how and by whom can he be restored to spiritual health. He realizes his limitations and those of others,and yet in the depths of his soul he feels an infinite capacity for peace and happiness which no one and nothing on earth can satisfy.
Opening the Bible and reading these first chapters is like having a huge family album, full of color and life, in which God shows us not only the origin of the universe but also the causes of man’s unhappiness, the reason for his sense of loneliness, and the origin of suffering and death. But we find more than that; we find that creation results from God’s love and that it is love which leads him to announce man’s future salvation.
Readers may be surprised to find that there is a lot left unsaid and that some of the explanations contained in these early chapters seem inadequate or far-fetched. For example, what does the Bible mean by saying that God created the world in just seven days? What is this about God creating man from dust? Is it not rather childish to say that the first woman was made out of man’s rib?
Surely God had no hands for shaping man’s body; he did not work like a surgeon to take out his rib and sew him up again. Objections of this sort mean that a person does not understand biblical language, particularly not the literary genre of the first three chapters of Genesis. The inspired writers were using the language of their time, which was culturally backward. It was the only language available to them and the only one their audience could understand.
We will remember that, in making himself known, it was not God’s intention to give us scientific statements; he was giving us only what we needed to grasp basic religious truths. We should not expect to find here a scientific explanation of the creation of the universe or the origin of man. The Bible has nothing to say about when the world was created, or about various geological periods, nor, let it be said, does it provide any proof of the theory of evolution.
The teaching authority of the Church has rejected “absolute” evolutionary theory, which says that man—all of man—is descended from one of the higher animals. But, as Humani Generis put it, “The Magisterium of the Church leaves the doctrine of evolution an open question, as long as it confines its speculations to the development, from other living matter already in existence, of the human body. (That souls are immediately created by God is a view which the Catholic faith imposes on us.) In the present state of scientific and theological opinion, this question may be legitimately canvassed by research and by discussion between experts on both sides. At the same time, the reasons for and against either view must be weighed and adjudged with all seriousness, fairness, and restraint, and there must be readiness on all sides to accept the arbitrament of the Church, as being entrusted by Christ with the task of interpreting the Scriptures aright, and the duty of safeguarding the doctrines of the faith. There are some who take rash advantage of this liberty of debate, by treating the subject as if the whole matter were closed—as if the discoveries hitherto made, and the arguments based on them, were sufficiently certain to prove, beyond doubt, the development of the human body from other living matter already in existence. They forget, too, that there are certain references to the subject in the source of divine revelation which call for the greatest caution and prudence in discussing it.”
What the sacred text provides, therefore, is revealed doctrine about the basic principles of our faith, clothed in primitive literary language. The main principles it contains are these:
In a sober style, which is quite theological and almost ritual, in a logical order, and in the kind of way a teacher puts things to make it easy for his pupils to remember them, the first creation narrative (Gen. 1:12:4a) describes the creation of the universe in ascending order, that is, working up from less perfect things (earth, sky, animals) to the most perfect (man).
In describing creation as happening over a seven-day period the sacred writer has a mainly didactic purpose. He wants to show the people of Israel that it was God’s express will that they should observe the sabbath rest and treat that day as especially holy, and therefore he says that God himself “rested on the seventh day.”
His purpose is also didactic (and in this he was inspired by God) in setting out the stages in which God went about creation after his initial act of creation, which consisted in creating out of nothing the chaotic mass described in Genesis 1:2.
First he introduces order into this chaos, dividing light from darkness dividing the higher waters from the lower waters, distributing land, sea, plants. Then he ornaments creation: sun, moon, stars; fish, birds; animals; man.
A careful reading of the verses shows that it was not God’s intention to give exact scientific information about the creation of each of these separate beings. His purpose was primarily one of teaching religious truths which we might summarize as follows:
1. All creation is the work of God alone. With creation time begins as a means of measuring physical phenomena. Creation therefore occurs without there being any pre-existing matter. Hence the first effect of creation is the appearance of the chaotic mass previously mentioned.
2. This shows that only God is eternal. Everything else owes its existence to God, that is, is God’s creature, which means that God is distinct from the world and prior to it; he neither proceeds from nor depends on that initial chaos, as Babylonian or Assyrian cosmogonies make out: he transcends and is distinct from matter.
3. This creating, eternal, and totally transcendent being is the only true God; he cannot be confused with the polytheistic and pantheistic gods believed in at the time Genesis was written and to which the Israelites themselves were very inclined. Since God was separate and distinct from the universe he created, the Israelites were shown, in this new light of revelation, that God could not be confused with the sun or the moon or with the gods of the Assyrians: anything other than the transcendental God, the one true God, was his creation and therefore unworthy of worship.
4. Finally, God appears in this first creation account as almighty: “God said” . . . “and so it was.” Creation calls for no effort on his part, full of power and majesty, he provides everything with existence; and, furthermore, he maintains in existence everything he has created, by an act of his will. In creating things he communicates to them his goodness: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). It could not be otherwise, because there is only one Creator, God, who is an infinite being and therefore infinitely good.
Archaeological excavations in the Near East have unearthed cosmogonical texts connected with mythological traditions about the origin of the world—Syro-Babylonian,Egyptian, Phoenician, etc. When these are deciphered and compared with Genesis, we find that they contain analogies and also basic differences. For example:
1. These are really theogonies—accounts of the origins of the gods.
2. They assign no origin to the chaotic mass, the first product of creation.
3. They have no concept of the unity of the human race: the gods created more than one human couple and a multitude of cities.
4. They know nothing of any sabbath day of rest.
1. This is the only cosmogony (theory of the origin of the universe) proper that is theocentric in character.
2. God the Creator is one, almighty, transcendent, producing everything from nothing.
3. God formed only one human couple; the rest of the race came from them in a process of generation.
4. Genesis teaches the sabbath rest.
The analogies to be found between Sacred Scripture and non-biblical documents can be explained by reference to the existence of an initial revelation to our first parents, which was passed on and was still echoed, though in an adulterated form, in the cultures of Israel’s neighbors. However, aberrations in these accounts must be attributed to man’s imagination. Whereas the people of Israel were kept free of error, thanks to new revelations to Abraham and to Moses, other peoples retained vestiges of primitive truth, mixed in with their various myths.
One created being stands out among all the rest as enjoying particular dignity—man. He was created in a special way: God made him in his own image (Gen. 1:27). This creation of man is described in more detail in Genesis 2:”Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).
Gregory of Nyssa noticed the indefiniteness of the phrase used in the text, when it says that “God created man,” and “by using this indeterminate phrase the text is saying that God created mankind.” However, even though the word adam (= man, carrying no article) is indefinite, its content is then specified: “male and female he created them,” which indicates that initially there were only two individuals in the species, man and woman, whom God endowed with reproductive organs to enable them to carry out the sublime task of continuing God’s work, by multiplying the individuals in the human race, generation after generation. Adam and Eve were the first couple and therefore all other humans have a common origin.
As far as man’s body is concerned, man derives from the earth, but his soul—the breath of life—is created directly by God. To create it God does not use any pre-existing matter. Man’s soul is completely spiritual. This means that man has certain spiritual faculties which not only ensure his dominion over the rest of creation, but also enable him to be gratuitously raised by God from his natural level onto a level—the level of grace, a supernatural level—to which his nature gives him no right.
In addition to creating Adam, God wished him to have others of his kind: “Then the Lord God said: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ . . . So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of Man (Gen. 2:18-23).
It is interesting to note that the sacred text points up the difference between woman and the animals. Once she is formed out of the man’s “rib” and man is awakened from his deep sleep, he remembers that he is different from all the animals. But now he has the being he has dreamed about, who is completely like him: He exclaims enthusiastically and gratefully: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23). He recognizes the woman as a human being, identical in nature to himself. The sacred writer simply reports this; as in the case of man, nothing specific is said about the matter which God used in shaping woman. The only thing which is made clear is that God worked in a direct and special way in creating both our first parents.
The main points in this teaching about the creation of man are:
1. Man was created in a special way. God took a pre-existing piece of matter (in this respect the creation of man was done in the same way as that of animals), but he infused a soul into it–the breath of life–which meant that man was enabled to share in God’s own life by means of grace.
2. Created in this way, man is higher than all the animals, whose lord he is, as he is over all other creatures, but man himself is subordinate to God, his Creator.
3. The dignity of woman, also created by God, stems from her being like man, exactly the same in nature as he, created to complement man, but in no sense to be his slave. The image of the rib in fact confirms that God has given man and woman the same nature and the same purpose.
4. In addition to telling us about the creation of man and woman, the sacred text also asserts the divine origin of the institution of marriage; marriage is one and indissoluble. The text specifically states that: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Later on, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ authoritatively adds, “So they are no longer two but one” (Matt. 19:6).
5. God specifically states that the primary purpose of marriage is its fruitfulness, the generation of children. He blesses the couple and says, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). He thereby makes them cooperators in the tremendous task of generating each single, unrepeatable human being.
6. The second chapter of Genesis also states that there was no concupiscence of the flesh, due to the state of innocence in which our first parents were created; it tells us that after man and woman were married they “were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). Their reason had perfect control over their external and internal senses, and all their faculties were perfectly synchronized.
7. Man’s original happiness and his elevation to the supernatural order are indicated by the images, so meaningful to Orientals, of the peaceful garden and the rivers watering it, and by the ease with which Adam and Eve related to God, speaking to him face to face; they were truly God’s friends.
God laid one commandment on man: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” ; (Gen. 2:16-17). This was a reasonable commandment, and man at first accepted it without raising any objection.However, the devil, who appears in the third chapter of Genesis in the form of a serpent, tempted the woman: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). He, who had already fallen, seeks to seduce the woman to imitate him by also disobeying God. He begins by exaggerating God’s commandment; he questions God’s justice and honesty and tries to undermine our first parents’ trust in God.
The woman falls into his trap and begins to dialogue with the devil. At first she defends God, but she soon becomes less sure of herself as she listens to what the devil has to say. As soon as she begins to think about the forbidden tree, her sensuality is awakened and it rapidly becomes more intense. At last she reaches the point where she feels herself totally attracted to the apple and mistakenly sees it as the key to contentment. The woman’s disobedience and then that of her husband constitute the first sin in the history of mankind–what we, their descendants, call the “original sin,” a sin which affects all of us–the basic cause of the breakdown of man’s friendship with God.
By abusing their freedom in this way, our first parents suffered death with respect to the life of grace to which God had gratuitously raised them, and they also lost what are termed their preternatural gifts. God had created them to be immortal, but one sin was enough to deprive them of this gift–as he had warned them (Gen. 2:17). Through their sin death entered the world and, as Paul affirms (Rom. 5:12), it spread to all men because all are descended from Adam and Eve and all of us sinned in them.
Physical death brought with it a whole cumulation of evils–diseases, effort demanded by work, pains, anxieties, unrestrained concupiscence. In the spiritual sphere, in addition to the loss of sanctifying grace, it brought disorder in man’s higher faculties, resulting in pride, sloth, ambition, envy, and self-assertion: in other words, estrangement from God, man’s Creator.
Paul VI sums up this teaching in these words: “We believe that in Adam all have sinned. From this it follows that on account of the original offense committed by him, human nature, which is common to all men, is reduced to that condition in which it must suffer the consequences of that fall. This condition is not the same as that of our first parents, for they were constituted in holiness and justice, and man had no experience of either evil or death. Consequently, fallen human nature is deprived of the economy of grace which it formerly enjoyed. It is wounded in its natural powers and subjected to the dominion of death, which is transmitted to all men. It is in this sense that every man is born in sin. We hold, therefore, in accordance with the Council of Trent, that original sin is transmitted along with human nature, not by imitation but by propagation and is, therefore, incurred by each individually” (Credo of the People of God 16).
In spite of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, God still acts as a true Father to them. He knows what they have done, but he still seeks them out, as Genesis describes in this way: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, `Where are you’?” (Gen. 3:89).
Man’s first reaction after committing sin is to feel totally ashamed and afraid of God’s presence. He finds it difficult to recognize his sin. But, even so, God comes to his aid; he wants man to be happy, which is why he wants him to admit the truth. But man makes excuses; he does not want to take responsibility for his own free act, and at last he resorts to putting the blame on his wife.
She, in turn, is also reluctant to recognize that she has offended God, and she blames the serpent, who “beguiled me and I ate.” Eventually man loses the state of happiness in which he was created, and there is nothing he can do to recover it.
Just when Satan thought that he had totally defeated man—which he saw as a victory over God himself—a great light shines out, the promise of a future Messiah: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” God tells Satan, “and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
From this point onward, when our first parents are still in paradise, God’s infinite mercy shines out on man. After punishing Satan in the serpent (Gen. 3:14), God announces a relentless struggle between the devil and the woman’s offspring. The final outcome of this struggle will be the victory of man over Satan: It will be one of Adam and Eve’s descendants who will crush the head of the serpent.
The message of salvation which God gives us in Sacred Scripture is the working out in history of this promise made in paradise. It starts in the Old Testament and reaches its climax in the New with the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, our Savior. All the events recounted in the Bible symbolize or foreshadow the Savior to be born to the Blessed Virgin in Bethlehem.
Genesis has nothing to say about the long period between Noah and his family, the survivors of the great flood, and the appearance of the quite outstanding figure of Abraham, who marks the beginning of the unfolding of God’s plans of salvation. We know nothing until we come up to around the year 2000 B.C., the historically dated period in which Abraham lived. This silence is easy to understand if we remember, as Augustine points out, that Sacred Scripture is not a scientific treatise; the Holy Spirit—who speaks through the inspired writers—did not wish to tell men things which had no part to play in the attainment of eternal salvation.
After the fall of our first parents, God announced that a Savior would redeem man from the power of Satan. The first step toward the fulfillment of this promise was God’s choice of Abraham, whose faith would make him the father of a great people. God tells Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:12).
From this text and from non-biblical documents we learn that around 1850 B.C. a man by the name of Abraham, the son of polytheist parents, a shepherd living in Ur of the Chaldees, moved with his family to a new land, Canaan. He did so because of his unconditional faith in a calling he received from God, a calling which had nothing to do with any merit on his part.
The same thing happens when God chooses Isaac rather than Ishmael and Jacob rather than Esau. He calls whomever he wants to use as an instrument of his grace. Being chosen by God in this way is an honor but it is also something very demanding.
In contrast to Adam’s disobedience, Abraham responds to God’s call in total obedience. His faith is the cause of the very existence of the chosen people, just as Mary’s act of faith marks the start of the New Testament.
In response to Abraham’s faith God makes further promises. He promises him an innumerable posterity, despite the fact that he has no children and his wife is barren and past childbearing age: “Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:5). He further promises to give the land of Canaan to his posterity: “To your descendants I will give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18).
In return for this God asks Abraham and all his offspring to believe in him, the one God. This monotheistic faith will now grow vigorously in the midst of the reigning polytheism. Circumcision will act as the mark to show that one belongs to God and obeys his commandments. From now on Abraham belongs completely to God, who changes his name from Abram to Abraham (= father of a multitude) (Gen. 17:5), and God describes himself as “El Shaddai” (Gen. 17:1), God Almighty.
This build-up of relations between God and Abraham is concluded by a covenant, which seals their promises to one another. This alliance or pact is made in the manner typical of the culture. The contracting parties immolate animals which have previously been divided into two sets of pieces; they face one another and then pass between the bloody pieces of the sacrificed animals; this shows that they are tying themselves to contractual obligations and that if they break them they accept that they will suffer the same fate.
In Abraham’s case, to show God’s transcendence there is a variation from the normal procedure: God shows his presence in the form of fire. “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces . . . ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you through their generations’.” (Gen. 15:17, 17:9). It is only God who passes between the pieces, because only he commits himself totally, since man cannot provide anything to balance what God promises.
The covenant made here with Abraham is personal and individual; later on God will make it again with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai, with Moses acting as their representative. All these covenants, sealed with the blood of animals, symbolize the definitive covenant which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will seal with his own blood, when he gives himself up on the cross to redeem mankind eternally (cf. Heb. 9:12).
God’s pact with Abraham is the first stage in this definitive covenant. Hence the extraordinary importance of Abraham in the history of our salvation. The gospel proclaims this at the beginning of the messianic era in the Benedictus, the canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:72-73) and in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:54-55). The Church’s liturgy invokes Abraham in the first canon of the Mass, in the ceremony of adult baptism, in the Mass for marriage and the Mass for the dead.
A little further on God will renew the same covenant with Abraham’s son Isaac (Gen. 26) and with his grandson Jacob (Gen. 28:12).