The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah or Law of Moses. Though this does not necessarily mean that Moses wrote every word, most of it came through him, and he is certainly the central figure in the story they tell. The second book, Exodus, tells of Moses' birth and his emergence as the leader through whom God works to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. After that, Moses is in almost every chapter till the end of Deuteronomy. But that accounts for only four of the five books. Where did the first one come from, and why is it included as part of the Law of Moses when it tells a story that happened long before Moses himself was born?
Who Is the "LORD God"?
It probably doesn't matter too much to you that "Michael" is a Hebrew name meaning "(He) who is like God" or that "Craig" is a Gaelic word that means "a rocky outcrop." In our culture, though names are important, we do not often attach special meaning to them. But in the Old Testament world we are preparing to visit in act 1, the meaning of names is often quite significant. And no names are more important than those identifying God in Genesis and the other Old Testament books.In Genesis 1, the Hebrew word Elohim (translated simply as "God" in our English Bibles) is the general name for God used throughout the ancient Near East. And the Bible says that "God" brings the whole creation into existence out of nothing. But in Genesis 2:4, another name begins to be used. "God" is now called "the LORD God" (Yahweh Elohim). This is a highly unusual way of referring to God, and it is meant to reveal some important things about who he is.
Two key passages in the Old Testament (Exodus 3, 6:1-12) shed light on the mysterious name Yahweh1 (or Jehovah, as in some older versions of the Bible).2 These texts tell how God reveals himself to Moses as Yahweh when he calls Moses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. The name Yahweh is the title God chooses to identify himself as the divine Redeemer, the God who rescues his people from slavery and meets with them at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:4).
When the names Yahweh (LORD) and Elohim (God) are joined as in Genesis 2:4, it makes the powerful point that the same God who rescues Israel from slavery is the God who has made all things, the Creator of heaven and earth.3 "Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, is also the God of all the earth over which his lordship shines forth through the hail and thunder."4 The Israelites first come to know God (through Moses) as their Redeemer; only afterward do they learn of his role as the Creator. And it is not so different for us, even though we live so much further along in the biblical story. When we come to know God through the saving work of his Son, Jesus, we are meeting him first as our Savior and Redeemer--but God is still the Creator of all that was or is or shall be: He is the one eternal LORD God, Yahweh Elohim. Thus, the minute we start to witness to our faith and to tell the Christian story (rather than just our own personal story), we are inevitably driven back to the start of it all: the Creation itself. "In the beginning, God..."
The first scene of any story is worth paying attention to, and the first scene of the biblical story is no exception. The first chapters of Genesis, telling the story of creation, were written for the Israelites long ago in a culture quite different from ours. Though some aspects of the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 may seem strange to us, we need to remember that they made perfect sense to the people of Israel when they first heard them. This is so because the writer is using imagery and concepts familiar to his own audience. Once we read the first chapters of Genesis against the backdrop of the ancient world in which they were written, we begin to see the power of the message this story is meant to convey.
Several scholars have pointed out a strong polemical or argumentative aspect to Genesis 1 and 2. The ancient Near East had many competing accounts of how the world came into existence. These stories were common in Egypt when Israel was captive there and in Canaan when Israel began to take it over as its land. It would have been only too easy for the Israelites to adopt the stories of those who lived in the land before them or alongside them and who (after all) supposedly knew the land much better than they did themselves. Many of the gods worshipped by the Canaanites were closely associated with the fertility of the land. The newcomers struggling to learn how to farm there would be tempted to call out to these "gods" rather than to the LORD God.
We know quite a bit about the sort of creation stories circulating in the ancient world. It is fascinating to see how the story told in Genesis 1 and 2 deliberately contradicts certain important elements of them. For example, look at how Genesis 1:16 describes the sun and the moon. The text does not refer to the sun by its normal Hebrew name, but instead merely as "the greater light," which God made for the day. Similarly, it calls the moon "the lesser light." Why? Probably because the sun and moon were so often worshipped as gods by the people among whom the Israelites were now living. In the Genesis story readers cannot mistake the sun as a divinity to be worshipped. The Scripture clearly describes the sun as a created thing, an object placed in the heavens for the simple, practical purpose of giving light. The attention is thus all on the One who has created this marvelous light. The attention is thus all on the One who has created this marvelous light, the One whose power is so great that he can merely say a word, and an entire universe springs into being. No mere "light" in the heavens deserves to be bowed down to. God alone is divine; he alone is to be worshipped. Though the whole of creation is "very good" (Genesis 1:31), it is so because the One who has created it is infinitely superior to anything he has made.
And this transcendent Creator is not like the capricious gods described in the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish), who make humankind merely to serve as the gods' servants, to wait on them and keep them happy. In Genesis, the God who creates the world sets men and women within it as the crowning touch on what he has brought into being. The creation itself is described as a marvelous home prepared for humankind, a place in which they may live and thrive and enjoy the intimate presence and companionship of the Creator himself....