The wayyiqtol narrative structure of Genesis 1 suggests that it was intended by its original author to be intended as history. However, it is worth pointing out that God would have had to have used the language of his time when communicating to the Israelites. The Israelites were a prescientific people who didn’t know the earth was a ball flying through the heavens. They didn’t know the stars were Suns that were much bigger than the earth. They didn’t even know the earth extended much past the Middle East. If God spoke to them using advanced scientific concepts such as the Big Bang and evolution, the Israelites would have been perplexed. This science would seem absurd to ancient people, and they would have seen him as a deceptive creator, unworthy of worship. In order to get his message to spread, God would have had to have spoken in the language of the time.
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. It is understandable that they would have viewed the universe in a similar way. So it was in the scientific language of Egypt that God chose to speak to Moses in. The Egyptians believed that the universe began from a vast watery chaos. Then the flat earth, consisting of a single area of land rose out of the depths. These ideas are found are Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 1:9-10. The Egyptians also believed that the sky was made out of metal. The language used to describe the Raqi’a in Genesis 1:6-7 and Psalm 19:1 suggests that the Hebrews had similar views of the sky. The word ‘Raqi’a’ is derived from the Hebrew word ‘Raqa’, which often means to beat out pieces of metal. The verb used for making the Raqi’a, ‘Asah’ is often used for manufacturing something out of pre-existing materials and the Raqi’a in Psalm 19:1 is said to have been made with God’s hands, in the same way a blacksmith would craft from metal. These facts converge with each other and heavily suggest that the Raqi’a was something crafted out of metal, consistent with Egyptian views of the sky.
The purpose of Genesis 1 (and Genesis 2) was to show that there is a creator who is good and supreme over the gods of Egypt. Hence the constant refrain ‘and it was very good’, to show the goodness of God’s creation. The latter point is shown in the many polemical elements against Egyptian creation myths. Several of the creative actions found in Genesis are also found in Egyptian creation myths:
- Spirit of a god moving over the watery chaos.
- Spoken word creation.
- Division of the waters.
- Humans being formed from the ground.
- Humans being given the breath of life.
The difference is that in Egyptian creation myths these are the actions of different Gods. In Genesis 1-2 it is the result of the actions of a single God. The polemical message is clear. Yahweh is greater than the gods of Egypt combined. Another polemical element is the naming of the sun and moon on day four. With all things considered there is no reason why God couldn’t have just called them ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ rather than ‘greater light’ and ‘lesser light’. It suddenly makes sense however when it is realised that throughout the Biblical world the sun and moon were referred to by the names of the deity associated with them by not calling the heavenly bodies by their names, Genesis 1 is removing any polytheistic notions they may have. The author of Genesis 1 is deliberately insulting the pagan gods by not referring to the sun and stars by their names, merely degrading them to ‘lights’.
In my view it seems that the purpose of Genesis 1-2 is to establish God as the sole creator. It does this by polemically addressing the polytheistic creation myths of the Israelite’s captors.