Commentary on Genesis 1 & 2

Doug McManaman
July 1, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

The first two chapters of the first book of the bible concern themselves with the genesis of creation. Bear in mind that these chapters are theological, not historical. As such, they reveal theological truths, that is, truths about God and His relationship to creation. They do not concern themselves with the historical and scientific facts of the genesis of the universe, at least not primarily. Rather, the text makes use of the primitive and of course outdated science of the time only as a vehicle to communicate profounder truths of a theological nature that are never outdated. It is these deeper truths asserted through the vehicle of the story that constitute the word of God. In this light, the creation stories are a kind of allegory.

An allegory is a piece of writing or work of art that contains a deeper meaning besides the literal meaning. If we overlook this distinction, we inevitably miss the rich theological meaning contained in these chapters. Those who set up a false dichotomy between "creation versus evolution", for example, whether they be creationists or evolutionists, ultimately miss the allegorical nature of the Genesis account. Exactly how the universe and all that is in it came about and by what specific mechanisms is not the concern of the book of Genesis. The bible's primary concern is theological, and so no matter what a person discovers about the age of the universe or the development and evolutionary patterns of biological existence, it does not affect in any way the underlying truths contained within the text of the two stories of creation.

In the beginning God created heaven and earth.

The first revealed truth found in scripture is that God is the creator of all that is seen and unseen. God is the origin of all things, the origin of the existence and order of the universe. Keep in mind that faith and reason are different modes of knowing. What is strictly a matter of faith is beyond the power of human reason to grasp, and thus there is nothing left for us but to choose either to believe it or not to believe it, for instance, that God revealed Himself to Abraham, or that He revealed Himself as Trinity. But sometimes what is revealed by the word of God is at the same time accessible to the grasp of human reason. The existence of God as the First Cause of all that exists is not, strictly speaking, a matter of faith. For reason can demonstrate that there is a First Cause of the existence of beings. Even if we suppose the eternity of the universe, it is still necessary to posit the existence of a non-contingent being (God) in order to account for the very act of existing of contingent beings (beings that need not be, that is, beings whose natures are distinct from their acts of existing).

Here in Genesis, it is revealed that God exists (even though this is accessible to human reason) and that the universe had an absolute beginning. It is this latter point that is a matter of faith for us.

God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light 'day', and darkness he called 'night'. Evening came and morning came: the first day.

The first thing a person does when he decides to produce anything is to make time for producing it. Here in Genesis we have the image of light and darkness, or evening succeeded by morning. In other words, God is the author of duration or time.

Now we already know that God is the origin of everything that is, including time. So what exactly does this text reveal that hasn't already been revealed? Since this text, as we said, is theological in nature, it must tell us something about God. If God is the creator of time, it follows that He has dominion over time and thus is not subject to time. In other words, God is eternal, not temporal. This is precisely what is meant by eternity. Eternity is the present alone. It is, as Boethius taught, "the simultaneously whole and complete possession of interminable life." All of time, the totality of human history, is present to God simultaneously. Nothing is past, and nothing is yet to be. To us, our funeral and the day of our birth are not simultaneous; to God, however, they are simultaneous. They are indeed different moments in time, but He is not in time, but outside of it.

Time is the measure of motion according to a before and an after. If God has dominion over time and is thus not subject to time, it follows that God is unchanging. And since change is the fulfillment of what exists potentially, it follows that there is no potentiality in God. He is unchanging because there is no perfection that He lacks. Hence, there is no perfection that He is open to acquiring.

God said, 'Let there be a vault through the middle of the waters to divide the waters in two. And so it was. God made the vault, and it divided the waters under the vault from the waters above the vault. God called the vault 'heaven'. Evening came and morning came: the second day.

Once a person has the time for what it is he wants to build, he needs the space to build it. While the "first day" provided us with an image of succession or temporal extension, the "second day" provides us with an image of spatial extension. God is the creator of space. But what does this tell us about God? It tells us He has dominion over space and is thus not subject to space or spatial extension. And so God is not a quantity. He is incorporeal. God is a Spirit (Jn 4, 24). In other words, God is immaterial. And it is because He is not subject to place that He can be everywhere. You and I cannot be everywhere because we are somewhere, subject to the three dimensions of space. But God is everywhere because He is nowhere. He is intimately present to everything that He causes to be, just as the foot is present to the footprint that it causes to be. If we think about this, it should be obvious that God is closer to you and I than we are to ourselves; for you and I are not present to ourselves as cause of ourselves.

God said, 'Let the waters under heaven come together into a single mass, and let dry land appear.' And so it was. God called the dry land 'earth' and the mass of waters 'seas',...

Once a person makes the time and finds the space to build, he begins his work. The first step in the building process is to lay the foundation. Already, it seems that scripture is depicting God as building a house. In Hebrew, 'father's house' (bet'ab) is the word for 'family'. If God, the Father of creation, is depicted as building a house--which He will furnish within the next "four days"--, it means that God is creating a family (bet' ab).

Now the origin and foundation of the family is marriage, which is a covenant. Establishing a covenant, however, requires an oath on the part of those entering into covenant. The Hebrew word for oath is saba, which comes from the root which means "seven." In depicting God creating the earth in six days and resting on the seventh day (sabbath), far from suggesting that the earth was literally created in a seven day period, scripture is in fact revealing that God has entered into covenant with creation and that creation is his 'palace' (Ps 104, 3), His house, His family, and that human beings are His children.

...and God saw that it was good.

After each "day" of creation, it is revealed that God regards what He has made as good. Thus, creation is good. Matter is not evil; existence in the body is not evil. But what does the goodness of creation tell us about God? Evidently, that God is the source of what is good. Now it is impossible for any part of creation to enjoy a perfection that is lacking in God; for God is the cause of whatever is. If some aspect of creation possessed a perfection that is not in God pre-eminently and perfectly, then either God is not the cause of all that is, or something has come into existence from nothing. Both alternatives are impossible; from nothing comes nothing. All the perfections of the created order exist in God eternally and supremely. Thus, God is the Supreme Good, and goodness is a property of all existing things.

Goodness is self-diffusive. It reaches out beyond itself to communicate itself to what is 'other'. That is why God creates anything at all, because He is Love (1 Jn 4, 8), and love is effusive. God freely chooses to communicate the goodness of being to what is not Himself. And that is why living things reproduce themselves; they are fruitful and they multiply, for they emulate the goodness of their source.

God said, 'Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to divide day from night, and let them indicate festivals, days and years. Let them be lights in the vault of heaven to shine on the earth.' And so it was. God made the two great lights: the greater light to govern the day, the smaller light to govern the night, and the stars. God set them in the vault of heaven to shine on the earth, to govern the day and the night and to divide light from darkness. God saw that it was good. Evening came and morning came: the fourth day.

Note that the sun and moon are not mentioned by name, but are merely referred to as "the two great lights" which govern the day and the night; they do not govern human beings. The sun and the moon were deified by the surrounding peoples. By omitting their names, scripture asserts that creation is not divine. God is not all things, nor is God any particular part of creation. He is outside the order of creation, distinct from all that exists. For everything in the physical universe is mutable and limited. Nothing in it has dominion over being, but all things are limited in what they can do by virtue of their finite natures.

Furthermore, scripture reveals that God is one, not many. Creation is not the work of the gods, but of God (Elohim). The use of the plural noun Elohim is meant to express the majesty and fullness of the divine essence.

God said, 'Let the waters be alive with a swarm of living creatures, and let birds wing their way above the earth across the vault of heaven. And so it was. God created great sea-monsters and all the creatures that glide and teem in the waters in their own species, and winged birds in their own species. God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, 'Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the waters of the seas; and let the birds multiply on land.' Evening came and morning came: the fifth day. God said, 'Let the earth produce every kind of living creature in its own species: cattle, creeping things and wild animals of all kinds.' And so it was. God made wild animals in their own species, and cattle in theirs, and every creature that crawls along the earth in its own species. God saw that it was good.

The lowest level on the hierarchy of being in the physical universe is the mineral level. Just above the mineral level is the vegetative level (the third day). But superior to both is the animal level (the fifth day). To be an animal is to have more power than a plant; for animals can sense and move from one place to another. The rich variety we discover in creation on each level of the hierarchy, that is, the variety of minerals, vegetative life, and the rich variety of animal life as well as the variety of human personalities and potentialities on the human level together manifest as far as they are able the beauty and inexhaustible goodness of God.

God said, 'Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the ground. God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.

The plural form "Let us make..." is consistent with the plural noun Elohim, which, as we said, expresses the fullness of the divine essence. But "Let us make..." might very well imply a kind of discussion between God and His angels. Note that God did not say: "Let there be darkness", but rather "Let there be light". A possible interpretation of that scripture is that the creation of light refers to the creation of the angelic orders. The darkness was not created by Him, for evil is a deficiency, a lack of due order in an intellectual creature. It is a kind of non-being. God is not the author of the non-being of a disordered choice, but rather of whatever has being (whatever is good). He separates light from the darkness that is suddenly present, but not as a result of God's utterance, but as a result of the free but perverted choice of a portion of those angels.

Angels have a likeness to God in that they are pure spirits, that is, immaterial or intellectual substances. Man too is spirit, but unlike the angels, he is also matter; a unity of spirit and matter. Man is like the animals in that he is a living sentient creature, and he is like the angels insofar as he has intellect and will. It is here, in the image of mind and heart, that he is like them (God and angels). Man is the crown of the physical universe, the highest being on the hierarchy of material existence, but he is the lowest being on the hierarchy of intellectual creatures, for he is less than the angels.

"Let us make man in our own image" could also, at the same time, be regarded as a foretelling of the revelation of the Trinity. There is a plurality in God that is not entirely articulated, but will be with the coming of Christ, who reveals God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And there is in man a likeness of the Trinity in his ability to know himself and things outside of himself through the generation of an interior word (the Son, who is Logos) as well as his ability to love what he knows (the Holy Spirit).

There are two ways to be man: a male way and a female way. Both exist in the image and likeness of God. Both are master of the animal kingdom ("let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, ..."). In other words, the lower is to be subject to what is higher. It is not woman who is subject to man, because a woman is a female man who has equal dominion.

Moreover, it is in his power of reason and will that man is superior to brute animal, and so those powers in man that he has in common with animals, namely sensation and its appetites, are to be subject to the governance of reason. A free and integrated human person is not the one who is governed by his passions, but the one whose passions are disposed to readily obey the command of reason.

God blessed them, saying to them, 'Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.'

Here God commands us to imitate Him. Love is generous, it seeks to communicate the good it possesses to another or others. That is why God creates anything at all, for He is Love, and love is effusive, as was said above.

Creation depicts God swearing and entering into covenant (swear, seven, saba) with man by means of the "seven" day imagery, and He is depicted as building his house or palace, His bet' ab or family. Man's first call is to establish family: "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it." Parenting is man's first vocation, and the family is the starting point, the primary unit of society.

Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on earth. God also said, 'Look, to you I give all the seed-bearing plants everywhere on the surface of the earth, and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this will be your food. And to all the wild animals, all the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that creep along the ground, I give all the foliage of the plants as their food.

Man has dominion over all those creatures that do not exist in God's image and likeness; he does not have dominion over his equals, namely human persons. Only God is Lord (dominus) of all, and the only way man will prevent his dominion from degenerating into a tyrannical rule is by subjecting himself to the rule of divine law. When man begins to exercise dominion over human beings, to use them for his own purposes, he usurps a divine prerogative. He chooses to play God. He ought not to do this until he has learned what it is to be a man; and when he knows what it means to be most fully a man, he will know that he can never exercise dominion over another human person, because to be a man is to be subject to God, not to be God. To be man is to allow God to be God, and no one else.

God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good.

The goodness reflected by the whole is greater than the goodness reflected by a part. The whole universe manifests the divine goodness in a way that a finite individual being or an aspect of creation cannot. The vastness of the universe reflects the inexhaustible grandeur of God. A rock is sturdy, a rose is beautiful, a lion is brave, a gazelle is swift, and man is intelligent. But there is nothing within the order of creation that contains within itself all the perfections found therein. Rather, the beauty and rich and almost inexhaustible diversity of the whole reflects the inexhaustible beauty of its source.

Another point to keep in mind in connection with "God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good" is the following. God is eternal. It follows that God does not "see" within the order of time. He "sees" eternally. In fact, His "seeing" is the cause of what is. God's activity is identical to His act of being, and so if God is eternal, His activity is eternal. From our point of view--a point of view within the order of time--, there is much that has not yet been created. But from God's point of view, all has been done, and all at once; for there is no future with God. And so when God sees that "it was very good", He beholds the entire order of creation, including time and history, and not simply a portion at the beginning of time. Now, God is the First Cause of whatever has being. Human free choices have being. Hence, God is the First Cause of our free choices--even though our free choices are really ours. For we are a real but only secondary cause of those choices. If God "sees" that everything He has made is very good, then it is here revealed that all things work ultimately for good (Rm 8, 28), that goodness has the final word, not evil, and that all things are under the providential hand of God. In other words, in the end, all will be very good because from God's point of view, all is very good.

Thus heaven and earth were completed with all their array. On the seventh day God had completed the work he had been doing. He rested on the seventh day after all the work he had been doing. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on that day he rested after all his work of creating.

The sabbath day is holy, because it has been "set apart" by God as a day of rest (shabat). Human labour is to be ordered towards leisure, which is fundamentally a form of contemplation. Leisure tends to the contemplation of beauty, and ultimately to the contemplation of the beauty of God. Man's ultimate purpose is a contemplative one, that is, his purpose is holiness; for we become what we see or contemplate, and we are destined to contemplate God as He is in Himself. "He rested on the seventh day" does not mean that at some time in the past, God rested. It means that we, who were created on the "sixth day", are destined for the "seventh day", that is, we are destined to enter into His rest, to behold what He beholds and to praise Him and delight in Him eternally.

At the time when Yahweh God made earth and heaven there was as yet no wild bush on the earth, nor was there any man to till the soil. Instead, water flowed out of the ground and watered all the surface of the soil.

This text refers to God as Yahweh, which means He Who Is. When Moses asked God what he is to tell the Israelites when they ask him, "What is his name?", God said to Moses, "I am he who is." Moses is to tell the Israelites, "I am has sent me to you." Names express something of the nature of the one named. Scripture reveals that God's nature is to be, something that reason is able to determine on its own. He is His own Existence. He cannot not exist, because He does not have a received existence, like you and I. We have being, but God is His being. We, who are human, have existence. But God is His existence, and so He exists necessarily, not contingently like all the rest.

Yahweh God shaped man from the soil of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils, and man became a living being.

Man (adam) comes from both the ground and from God. His life principle, that is, his soul, is brought into being directly, by a special act of creation by God. Notice that this is not the case with regard to the life principle of brute animals. What this means is that human life is holy and intrinsically good. Man is both spirit and matter, that is, life that has a divine likeness and ground (earth). As a being lower than the angels (Ps 8, 5), his glory lies in humility, from the Latin humos, which means dirt. To be human is to be part dirt or ground. To forget this is to forget to be human.

Pride is a profoundly inhuman posture. Man was created to laugh, not sardonically, cynically or condescendingly, but at himself. It is through humour (also from the Latin humos) that he returns to the soil. Spirituality and humour are very closely connected; for the person who refuses to laugh refuses to acknowledge his finitude. His prideful heart soars high above the ground thus taking himself too seriously. Man can only be fully the person he is meant to be through humility and humour. In laughter, he accepts his own humanness, his place among the hierarchy of intellectual creatures, which is the lowest place, the one closest to the ground.

Yahweh God planted a garden in Eden, which is in the east, and there he put the man he had fashioned. From the soil, Yahweh God caused to grow every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The garden refers to the state of original justice. Evil has not yet entered into the world. Life, in other words, is paradise. Man knows nothing but the goodness of creation. The tree of life is symbolic of the gift of bodily immortality (Cf. 3, 23), and so death was not part of God's original plan. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is also symbolic, but its symbolism is more difficult to explain. The key to its meaning lies in its specific designation: "knowledge of good and evil". Who among us knows the difference between good and evil? And who among us does not know the difference? The answer is obvious: adults understand the difference between good and evil, while children do not, but need to be told. One may eat of any tree except this tree (2, 16-17). Eating is symbolic of entering into communion with, or experiencing something, thus coming to know it intimately. To eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is to come to know evil intimately. It is to experience a kind of adulthood in relation to God. More specifically, it is the rejection of one's status as child dependent upon God. In many ways it symbolizes the capacity to reject God, to make oneself one's own god, to intimately "know" independence from God. This is to die spiritually, to empty oneself of the life of God (grace). It is to lose one's intimacy with God.

Yahweh God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it.

This means that work is holy and willed by God. Work is a way of imitating God, who is creator. Man shares in God's creative activity by cultivating and producing. Both God and man bring things into being, but in different ways. Through work, man brings into being from already existing matter. God, on the other hand, brings things into being from nothing. He alone has dominion over existence. So unless God creates, man cannot produce. In this way, his work is a sharing in the providence of God.

Then Yahweh God gave the man this command, 'You are free to eat of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat; for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die.

Man's freedom ('You are free...') consists in his subjection to divine law. Man is only free when bound by the restrictions laid down by God. To "free oneself" from those divine restrictions is to court death, which is the destruction of freedom. The decision to make oneself one's own god is to die.

Yahweh God said, 'It is not right that the man should be alone. I shall make him a helper.' So from the soil Yahweh God fashioned all the wild animals and all the birds of heaven. These he brought to the man to see what he would call them; each one was to bear the name the man would give it. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven and all the wild animals. But no helper suitable for the man was found for him.

Man is by nature a social animal. He has a radical need for others. Sociability is a basic human good, something man is naturally inclined to pursue. But animals exist to serve human goods, for he has rightful dominion over them. They are not his equal, and so they have no claim to any inalienable or absolute rights.

Then, Yahweh God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And, while he was asleep, he took one of his ribsand closed the flesh up again forthwith. Yahweh God fashioned the rib he had taken from the man into a woman, and brought her to the man. And the man said: 'This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! She is to be called woman, because she was taken from Man'.

Note that according to the text, man had no active part in the creation of woman. He was asleep, passive, literally inactive. We don't mean to suggest that this is what literally occurred. Rather, it is to assert that man has no dominion over woman and that she is his equal, of the same "stuff" (substance) as man. That is why she alone is "suitable". Man has a radical need to love, and only his equal can freely receive his love and freely love him in return. As was said above, there are two ways to be man: a male way and a female way; for to be man is to be created in the image and likeness of God, in the image of mind and heart.

This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Marriage is a two in one flesh union, an institution of divine origin. Thus, it is holy. The family is prior to the state and is its first principle. Because marriage is divinely instituted and the family is the source of the state, the latter can exercise no dominion over the family, but is bound to serve it through legislation that protects it.

In order for marriage to be valid, it is necessary that both man and woman "leave father and mother". A degree of psychological maturity and independence is required before a person can freely join to another in marriage. As a two in one flesh union, marriage of its very nature requires an openness to children, a willingness to "multiply" from the very substance of their union. A love that refuses to beget new life is not conjugal; for it is a refusal to be reproductively one body. Furthermore, marriage is a permanent and exclusive union; for it is not possible to give one's body entirely to one's wife and at the same time have something left over to give to another woman, and vice versa. And since giving one's body is a total self-giving -- since you are your body -- , once established, it exists till death.

Leaving "father and mother" in order to become "attached to his wife" can also be seen as a foreshadowing of the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. It is possible to speak of a sort of motherhood in God, namely the Holy Spirit, who delights in the union of the Father and the Son, and who is the personified love between the Father and the Son. But the Son "leaves father and mother" in order to become attached to his wife, the Church, to redeem her, to make her holy "by washing her in cleansing water with a form of words" (Eph 5, 26).

This underscores the holiness of marriage as well as its indissoluble nature--for the love that Christ has for his Bride can never be dissolved. Marriage has its origin in God, not in man. The covenant of marriage announces the covenant that exists between God and man, sworn in the creation of the world, and it announces the restoration of the covenant that was broken by man's disobedience and prideful desire to be more than he really is.

Now, both of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they felt no shame before each other.

They felt no shame because they had no sin. They knew not evil, nor inordinate desire. There was no need to cover their depravity with the fabrication of a false self, a facade, or an image. They have not yet become liars, for they have not yet chosen to follow the "father of lies" (Jn 8, 44). Thus, there was was a perfect harmony between them.