I have probably read it hundreds of times – far more than any other passage of scripture – yet it still blows my mind.
To this day, Genesis 1 remains number one on my list of go-to re-reads. If you haven’t read it lately, you should.
Not only is it one of the most mysterious, enigmatic chapters in Genesis – or any other book of the Bible, for that matter – it is filled with more literary devices, symbolic references and layers of meaning than you can ever get your head around.
Take its use of numbers, for example.
You don’t have to be an expert in Ancient Near Eastern literature to be aware of the great significance numbers had in the culture. Today, we primarily use numbers to calculate; to measure; to compute. Ancient Semitic languages, however (like Hebrew, the original language this passage was written in), often didn’t even have numerical characters. Numbers were written in words. Their main function was not to calculate, but to convey symbolic meaning. Their numerological significance was the basis for their use – not their value as figures with which to count or do math.
Admittedly, looking at numbers in that way is quite a stretch for those of us (all of us!) who are used to encountering them mainly in a mathematical context; nevertheless, understanding references to numbers in a symbolic sense would have been quite straight forward for any of the original readers – it would have been the default approach to the text.
And that’s just one of the reasons why Genesis 1 is so special.
Take the use of the number seven, for example, which was widely recognized during the time as a symbol of divine completion. It alluded to wholeness, or Godly perfection. Encountering the number seven in a text was considered a pointer to this idea of divine completion.
Now, open up a Hebrew copy of Genesis 1. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be able to read it – you just need to be able to count.
Notice, for a start, that the entire narrative is divided into seven days.
Now check out the first verse.
You’ll notice it contains seven words. That first verse also contains 28 letters. Which is 4 times 7, of course.
The second verse contains 14 words. Which is 2 times 7.
The word “heaven” occurs 21 times. That’s 3 times 7. Ditto for the word “earth”.
The word Elohim, the word for God in this passage, occurs 35 times. Which is 5 times 7.
That theme of sevens is carried through in other key phrases.
The phrase “and it was so” occurs seven times.
The phrase “and God saw that it was good” occurs seven times.
Then, finally, God’s perfect work reaches its conclusion on, you guessed it… the seventh day.
To the ancient readers, it would have been a no-brainer. Clearly, this passage is more than just a simple tale – it is about drawing attention to God’s perfect creative work. That is why you encounter symbolism like this built right into the structure of the narrative – before you even look at the text itself!
Of course, that is only superficially scraping the surface of a passage that is so rich in meaning that it has perplexed scholars and laymen alike for centuries.
Nevertheless, I hope it encourages you to learn just a bit more about one of the most misunderstood passages of scripture ever written.