“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
By starting “in the beginning,” the author already betrays an eschatological (speaking of last things) focus. When we read “in the beginning” the expectation would be that eventually we will get to its antonym “in the latter days” (and we are not disappointed, cf. Gen 49:1). But that the author is speaking of both the beginning and the end in these opening verses of Genesis is confirmed by the seventh day of Sabbath rest where God sits on His throne in the invisible heavens (Gen 2:1-3). This Sabbath rest is the goal of humanity. After completing their task, God would usher in new heavens and earth where the Sabbath rest of the previously invisible heavens would come to earth.
The task given to humanity “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” itself has an eschatological focus.
I take this as a chiasm with be fruitful and subdue it referring to the land and multiply and fill the earth referring to seed/offspring. But the point is that there is a goal or end in mind – an earth-wide garden that is full of people. When complete, there would be a final judgment by God, to the effect of, “and it was very good,” and then humanity would enjoy everlasting Sabbath rest.
This consummation of creation, we will call the new heavens and earth, is not to be simply a restoration of “in the beginning” but to go to a whole new level. The Book of Revelation symbolically shows this by saying there will be no darkness (cf. Day 1), no sea (cf. Day 2), and no tree of testing (cf. Day 3, Gen 2-3). Ultimately this is because “in the beginning” refers to the first creation and “in the latter days” refers to the start of a new creation. The new creation is foreshadowed by the verses of Genesis 1. The point being that “in the beginning” spurs us on to think about “in the latter days” and beyond.
Before we continue, it is worth observing a few ways that Gen 1 foreshadows the new creation or types of it. One type of it is the new creation following the flood. The flood narrative makes a number of allusions to Gen 1. When you think about it, the mountaintops are the land one would see first in both stories as the waters receded. Another type of the new creation is Israel coming through the sea. This is why the description of creation sounds a lot like the parting of the Sea of Reeds: the waters are parted (Gen 1:7) and dry land appears (Gen 1:9). Moreover, in both the Spirit or the cloud hovers over. This is true in the new creation as well as the new Jerusalem or the Glory-Spirit-Cloud hovers over the lower register. The new Jerusalem is also on a mountaintop. More can be said…
And while we will not analyze every major word in this opening clause (to the consternation of at least one commentator we are not going to enter a discussion on the meaning of the verb “to create” here), I want to look at two more before we continue: the heavens and the earth. I assume that Scripture is a better interpreter of Scripture than we are of it. Paul says concerning the Son, “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him” (Col 1:16). Heaven and earth, visible and invisible is a chiasm. The earth in Gen 1:1 is all that which is visible and heaven is all that which is invisible. The heaven of heavens is not co-eternal with God but part of His creation. The focus of the verses that follow will be the center of the chiasm – the earth, the visible creation.
It is worth noting that these terms of visible and invisible are from our perspective – God sees both – though the rest of Gen 1 is written to show us the perspective of God in the normally invisible heavens. Meredith Kline calls the invisible creation the upper register and the visible creation the lower register. Nehemiah reflects on Gen 1:1 in prayer as following: “You are YHWH, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve them all; and the host of heaven worships you” (Neh 9:6). Here Nehemiah identifies the heavens in Gen 1:1 with the upper register where the angels worship God.
This interpretation is the only one that makes sense of the text of Gen 1:1 as it is further developed in the verses to follow. This because Gen 1:2 begins, “the earth was…” The lower register (the “earth” of Gen 1:2) includes the visible heavens (with the sun, moon, and stars), the sky (also called heavens) and the sea, and the land. The pattern is one of upper register (heaven) and lower register (earth). And this is then replicated in the lower register, which is divided into an upper level (called heaven) and a lower level (called earth). Kline notes that this is a pattern that the author of Gen 1 takes as an organizing principle for the structure of the days. The parallel days of 1 & 4 concern the upper level called heaven. The parallel days of 2 & 5 concern the upper level called heaven (the sky with birds) and the lower level called earth (the seas with fish). And the parallel days of 3 & 6 concern the lower level called earth. The name-sharing of both “heaven” and “earth” are significant.
Nevertheless, each of the lower register realms of Days 1-3 include replicas of the upper register temple. The light (the sun) should remind one of the glory of the upper register. We call this heaven by analogy. The firmament created on Day 2 also reflects the glory of heaven. The picture in the ANE was one where the sun, moon, and stars were affixed to a hard surface called the firmament. It is a star-studded canopy. It had windows, as you see they are opened for the flood (Gen 7:11). This is a poetic way of speaking, which we do not understand literally and neither did the Hebrew people considering that they knew what clouds are (cf Gen 2:5 properly translated). And for the land created on Day 3 you would see the mountaintops first as the waters receded – mountaintops, especially when they are in the clouds, are commonly understood as heavenly sanctuaries. Scripture also describes the tops of trees in like manner (for the latter half of Day 3).
In any case, this replication of the upper register sanctuary in the lower register reminds us that the whole of creation (upper and lower register) are set apart as a cosmic temple, courtroom, and palace.
Since the lower register points us to the upper register in so many ways – including the name-sharing and replica discussion we have touched on above – the question should be whether the “days” be understood as referring to the lower register or the upper register. If the days are in reference to the lower register and to be understood literally and sequentially then one runs up against the parallelism of Days 1 & 4 as I noted in an earlier post on the Kingdom Prologue. It is difficult to defend understanding the words “and there was evening and there was morning, day [number]” literally since the Sun is not created until Day 4. Instead, chronologically speaking from an earthly perspective Days 1&4 take place at the same time.
If the “days” belong to the upper register, then we understand it as an extended metaphor. The name-sharing and replica discussion above should have prepared us to see the possibility that lower register days are used to describe an upper register reality. Saying, “and there was evening and there was morning, day [number]” is thus using a lower register phenomenon to describe the heavenly calendar (by which I mean the upper register calendar – the Sun, moon and stars were given as a “heavenly” calendar to people in the lower register). Thus the firmament is therefore not the only thing understood figuratively in Genesis 1:1-2:3. [One of my professors at WTS was fond of saying that those who believe in the 24-hour day creation theory are not consistently literal enough because they do not see the firmament as a hard structure.] Let me be clear, though, the only things here we are taking poetically or figuratively are the firmament and the day framework (“and there was evening…”).
I stumbled onto this observation almost on accident but the author is attempting to be transparent about the framework he is employing. Not only does he do this through all of the hints to show us the parallelism of the days, but he gives us the hint that we use a “heavenly” calendar (the sun, moon and stars are for signs, seasons, days and years). It is like he is saying, and you thought I was talking about an “earthly” calendar when I said “and there was evening and there was morning…” but I was really speaking figuratively of the upper register heavenly calendar, and so that you do not miss the point you use a lower register “heavenly” calendar on earth. Moreover, if you were to understand the days of the creation week as lower register days then you would be at a loss as to explain why the author went out of his way to say that you did not have a way to measure lower register days until the creation of the sun, moon, and stars for signs, seasons, days and years.
In fact, the day framework is meant to refer by analogy to the upper register. This is obvious when one notes that Day 7, without the ending formula, takes place in the upper register. Moreover, the passage opened “in the beginning God created the heavens…” Thus the whole prologue to Genesis begins and ends in the heavenly upper register. Psalm 104, about creation, also begins in the upper register, recounts the creation in the lower register, and then ends in the upper register. But in Genesis 1, this is also true for each day. Each day begins with God speaking from the upper register and each day ends with the day framework of the upper register calendar. The upper register calendar and the lower register calendar are analogous – thus man living in the lower register is expected to observe the Sabbath because God rested on the seventh upper register day.
One final observation about Genesis 1. I have noted before that Days 1-3 are about moving from a desert to a garden and that Days 4-6 are about moving from being deserted (empty) to having kings (on the way to being full). But we can be even more specific. The two central promises in Genesis are the land and seed. The word translated earth is the word for the land. Thus Days 1-3 is about the Promised Land – described as like the Garden of Eden. [The Exile is described as a reversal of Days 1-3 (and a return to a desolate desert – Jeremiah 4:23 quotes from Gen 1:2).] And Days 4-6 are about the seed – prophet-priest-kings. Genesis 1 is about a kingdom of priests — a royal priesthood. It is about seed numbering as the sand or the stars.