“In the beginning, God created the sky and the land”: A visual layout of the Genesis creation account

I thought it would be good to start the new year with a fresh look at the start of the Bible.

As I explain in this post, one of my keen interests is to explore how we can illustrate the structure and composition of biblical writings by the way we lay out their text on the page.  Here’s another one of my recent endeavors: a layout in twin columns of the Days of Creation from the beginning of Genesis.  Click on the link just below to view or download a PDF of this layout so that you can follow my discussion of it in the rest of the post.

Click here to see layout

When we lay out the text in this way, we get a number of insights into it. (These features of the account have long been noted by interpreters, but I try to illustrate them visually here.)

First, we see that the account begins with a summary heading and ends with a summary conclusion.  Each epitomizes the basic project of creation, which is to make “a place for everything” and then put “everything in its place.”  At the start, the land has no “shape” (or structure)–no place to put anything.  It has no “substance”–nothing upon it.  But by the end, “the sky and the land” (realms of habitation) have been created, as well as “everything in them” (their inhabitants).

This layout uses my own personal translation of the Genesis creation account, which first appeared in the book I co-authored with Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation (now available free online through the link provided).  I use the terms “sky” and “land” in the introduction and conclusion because these are the very same Hebrew terms used for the “sky” when it is created on the second day and the “land” when it is created on the third day, and for these locations everywhere else in the account.  This translation brings out the fact that creation is being described from the perspective of an earth-bound observer.

I also follow the textual choices recommended in Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia, which are supported by ancient versions and some Hebrew manuscripts. These make the account much more regular and consistent in terms of what happens on each day and in what order. With slight variations along the way, this is basically:
Divine creative command:  “God said”
Compliance report (summary): “It was so”
Compliance report (detailed):  “God made . . .”
Divine approval: “God saw that it was good”
Refrain: “There was evening, and there was morning . . .”

This is, in other words, a royal command and compliance chronicle, much like the other places in the Old Testament where God’s commands are recorded and then the narrative is very careful to document how so-and-so did exactly what God had commanded.

This is what we see when we read each column down.  When we read across, we see the parallels between opposite days.  On Day 1, God makes day and night; on Day 4, God populates the day and the night.  The language of Day 4 echoes that of Day 1:  “God separated the light from the darkness”; “to separate the light from the darkness.” The same process of first creating realms and then populating them, with similar echoes of language, also happens on Days 2 and 5, and on Days 3 and 6.

When we read across the columns we also see that the first two pairs of days have one divine command, while Days 3 and 6 have double commands.  This is a nice echo of a feature of Hebrew poetry: a third line, when used, typically is “weighty” and has an anchoring effect.

I’ve used italics to show how each day ends with the same refrain.

As you look at the text in this translation and layout, what else do you notice that you might not have seen in a more traditional presentation?

A reader interacts with the layout and I respond in this post.

Winslow Homer, “Eastern Point.” For me this painting captures well the elemental realms of creation: sea, sky, and land.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

5 thoughts on ““In the beginning, God created the sky and the land”: A visual layout of the Genesis creation account”

  1. I like the alignment, but you could also offer a page where it is even more aligned, so that each type of statement as you stated above is given its own space. This would show more of the deep structure.

  2. I like that you translate verse one as saying “sky” and “land” since most people assume what’s being mentioned there is the creation of the universe.

    Several people I’ve read have been fairly critical of the Framework view of Genesis 1 mainly because they don’t see the parallelism between the days. I would tend to agree that it does seem like day 2 is the better parallel for day 4 than day 1 (since, if I’m not mistaken, the Hebrews thought that the sun, moon, and stars were in the dome). It also seems like day 3 describes the space created for the sea creatures in day 5, not day 6. Finally, in day 3, there isn’t just a domain created for something to fill but there is also the simultaneous creation of plants to fill the land.

    How would you interpret these observations?

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