Rotation.org Writing Team
The Story of Creation
Bible Background and Lesson Objectives
Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 (NIV)
Key Verse: Genesis 1:27 (NIV)
"So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them."
(See note at end of this Bible Background about the choice of the NIV)
Lesson Set Learning Objectives:
- To know the "story" of Genesis 1:1-2:3—which is not merely a list of days and things created, but a wonderful description of who God is, what God is like, and what God wants.
- To understand what it means to be created in the image of God, that we are made to love and care for God's Creation and each other.
- To express your own joy toward God for the loving gift of Creation and life.
What is the “story” of Creation?
It’s not uncommon to reduce a lesson about Genesis 1 to a list of what happened each day, have the kids color it in, and call it “good.” But that doesn't teach the lesson of the Creation story.
The story of Creation that emerges from the words, images, and drama of Genesis 1 is the story of who God is, what God is like, and what God wants—and therefore, who WE are.
God loves to create.
God loves Creation.
God loves us.
God wants us to be creative.
God wants us to love all Creation and its creatures.
And God wants us to love him and each other.
This is who God is and who God wants us to be.
And this is what it means to be made in God’s "image" (Genesis 1:27) that each of us has been lovingly and joyfully created with the capacity to love and care just like our Creator loves and cares.
Made in the image or "likeness" of God means each of us has been specially made to bring light to the world, create and care for it, and celebrate the good in every day and every person. (For everyone was created by God and they too have God's image within them.)
It has been said that the rest of Genesis and the Old Testament “merely” describe how we ignored the lessons of the Creation story by denying who God is and refusing to do what God wants. Starting with the prophets and Gospels, we learn what God is going to do about this denial and refusal. Rather than abandon Creation and those created in his image, God will choose to restore Creation and its creatures by redeeming them through the story of Jesus.
Jesus literally and figuratively embodies the God we first meet in the story of Creation (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is the full image of God, showing us what God is like, and living the way God wants us to live. Jesus called this vision for Creation, “The Kingdom of God” and called us to participate in its creation.
A look at the interesting text of the story
The central focus of the story of Creation is God. The story's seven-day structure and repeated phrases, such as "and God saw that it was good," are dramatic storytelling techniques that help us remember God's acts of creative love.
Scholars tell us that Genesis 1's form, phrasing, and vocabulary are not like those we find in a typical Bible narrative or history, such as the stories of Exodus or Judges. Rather, the language, structure, and use of repetition in the Creation story are more like a Hebrew psalm—a song or poem designed to inspire awe and wonder.
Studying the text and structure of the passage reminds us that we are reading something more than what some would call "history." The text itself signals that a deeper truth is being spoken here, a truth that transcends arguments about the "factual" accuracy of the text, or what happened on what day, or how long a "day" was. You don't have to believe in a literal seven-day creation to understand the deeper truth being spoken in Genesis 1, any more than you have to believe you are a sheep to understand the truth of Psalm 23.
For more about the structure and meaning of this story, watch this excellent overview of Genesis 1 from the Bible Project. It's downloadable from their website and suitable for use with older students too. They've also posted their video on YouTube.
A few of the surprising words in Genesis 1
When we look at all the possible English translations of Genesis 1:1-2:3, we are quickly reminded that this scripture is a rich and ancient Hebrew text that holds many possible nuances and even the occasional surprise. Below are some of the more interesting words that will not only expand your own understanding but can be shared with students when the opportunity presents itself.
"Hover" ("Rechalph" in Hebrew) Was God hovering or dancing over the waters?
Genesis 1:2 uses the Hebrew word "rechalph" to describe the movement of God's Spirit over the waters of Creation. Various Bibles translate "rechalph" as “hover,” "moved," or “swept.” But in Hebrew, the word "rechalph" literally means “to shake, flutter, or relax.”
Thesauruses suggest "rock," "sway," and even "shimmy" as English synonyms for what God was doing at the moment of creation. So... was God dancing at the moment of Creation? What an exciting possibility! And if you grew up with the hymn "Lord of the Dance," it's not out of the realm of possibilities.
I danced in the morning
When the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven
And I danced on the earth,
I had my birth.
Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he
Lyrics 1963, Sydney Carter.
The melody is from the song "Simple Gifts."
Listen at https://youtu.be/4db0yvt7aZ0?t=14.
Hear a congregation singing it: https://youtu.be/7mgvzwXTpM4
"Image" ("Selem" in Hebrew) We are made in the Image, shade, character of God.
In Genesis 1:27, we are created in the "selem" of God. "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them..."
Selem can also mean "shade," or "phantom," or "likeness." We are the "shade" of God? Phantom! This single word reminds us that we are in the realm of the figurative, not the literal. Shade is a wonderfully cool and peaceful place to be—especially if it is coming from God. We truly "got it made in the shade!"
What is God's Image? What are God's character and purpose? It's love. (See below for the extended word study on "image.")
"Good" ("Tov" in Hebrew) Good, Beautiful!
"...and God saw that it was TOV!"
The word "good" in Hebrew is "tov" (pronounced like "cove.") Its pronunciation has also come down through history as "tob." ("v" and "b" are often interchangeable). "Tov" doesn't just mean "good" in Hebrew; it can also mean "beautiful," "better," even "precious" or "rich." Imagine God saying, "that's beautiful!" instead of merely "good." Or, "that's better! as God added more and more to Creation.
This emphasis on the "goodness" of Creation stands in stark contrast to some of the other creation stories told by other cultures, or how we sometimes feel when nature's power is on display. Our God and the world he created for us is FOR us, not against us, "even when the waters roar and foam" (Ps 46), we are not afraid because we know God is our refuge and shade
Saying the Hebrew words "very good" is fun and sonorific: "meh-ode tov." (Hear meh-ode and tov.)
"Rested" ("Shabat" or "Sabbath" in Hebrew) Did God rest or celebrate on the 7th Day?
The Hebrew word for what God did on the seventh day is “shabat.” We commonly translate this word as “sabbath rest,” but it can also mean “celebrate.” Was God celebrating on the seventh day? And what would that look like? Rest and celebrate are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they form the basis for why we worship and sing on our "day of rest."
"Done" ("Asa" in Hebrew) God rested from all he had done, made, prepared, offered(!)
"Asa," the very last Hebrew word in the Genesis story (Gen 2:3), is usually translated as "done" or "made." However, the Hebrew word used here can also be translated as God rested from (or celebrated) what he had "offered" or “prepared.”
Prepared for what? Offered to who? Celebrating for what reason? Because God is not merely satisfied with setting Creation in motion and standing back. Rather, God knows what's coming. God can see the whole arc of the story—the Fall and God's saving Advent into the world. On the seventh day of Creation, God the gift-giver pauses in anticipation and celebration not merely about what has been accomplished, but about the gift that is about to be opened, the dance that will "still go on."
Is Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 a Psalm (Song) of Joy?
Any way you translate it, the first description of God in the Bible is one of creative joy, the kind of joy that loves to paint with light and sky and fishies.
The kind of joy that makes fruit and calls the days "beautiful”—even Monday and even bad days because we still belong to God.
The kind of joy that makes people from stardust, infuses them with its likeness and then teaches their heart to sing the song of life.
Joyful, joyful, we adore You,*
God of glory, Lord of love
Hearts unfold like flow'rs before You,
Op'ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!
All Your works with joy surround You,
Earth and heav'n reflect Your rays...
Mortals, join the mighty chorus,**
Which the morning stars began...
(Excerpts from the hymn "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee")
*If you think of "Joyful" as God's name, it changes the song in a neat way.
**"Mighty" chorus was Henry Van Dyke's original lyric. Some hymnals use "happy."
Notes on the "Image" of God
"So God created mankind in his own image..." (Gen 1:27)
Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, as well as the early "Church Fathers," wrote a lot about what it means to be created in the image of God and the image of Christ. Generally speaking, they defined "image" as that part of us that is "like" God's character: rational, moral, and having the capacity to love and be loved. This image is given to everyone, can grow through faith, is designed to do "good works" (Eph 2:10), and is eventually made "full" through resurrection. We are earthen vessels of this image.
Jesus both literally and figuratively embodied the "image" of God. He taught us that God is the shepherd who goes looking for every last sheep, is the parent who rejoices when the child returns, and is the one who stills storms and heals. Jesus taught us that to be made in the loving image of God means being willing to lay down your life for a friend (John 15:13). And he did just that by going to the cross for our lives and breaking open the tomb so that the love of God for each of us as individuals could continue.
The Bible Project has a wonderful 6-minute video about what the image of God means and how Jesus came to restore and renew that image. (It's a good resource for grades 3 and up too).
How to Explain the How God Created the Universe in Six Days
Few subjects can spark as much debate as to whether or not to read our Genesis 1 story literally, i.e., as a "historical" account describing how God created the universe in six actual days. It is a Rotation Model philosophy and Rotation.org policy that each church is responsible for adapting resources and the theology within to their own needs. Rotation.org has its roots in the Reformed and "mainline" church whose theology does not read Genesis 1 as literal history. The following explanation is for those of us who come from this tradition. If you do not agree with it, talk to your pastor.
1. It will come up! Children will naturally wonder, and marvel and ask questions about "how" God could have created the universe in just six days, which a "concrete" view of the text suggests. Keep your answer age-appropriate and simple. Remind them that the most important question is who and why.
2. One classic answer is to simply explain that the word "day" in Hebrew doesn't always mean 24 hours but can more poetically (figuratively) mean a period of time or "age" (epoch). This argument, however, misses the point that the text is not meant to be read technically, but devotionally.
3. Another answer is to teach children that some parts of the Bible were written as stories or poems, not history or eyewitness accounts. Jonah and the Whale, for example, or Psalm 23, or the Prodigal Son. They were written to inspire and help us remember important truths.
4. Another answer is that some scriptures reflect how ancient people understood the world differently than we do today. They didn't have science like we have today. They didn't know about the "Big Bang," or the age of rocks, or about dinosaurs, or the processes of evolution, or about bacteria and the cause of disease. We don't make fun of them, but instead, we listen for the truth God continues to speak through their ancient understanding.
Some lessons get into the weeds describing how the ancient Hebrews thought the earth, sky, and heavens/space were constructed, and you can see some of that info in the suggested videos.
The POINT of the six days poem is to tell us that the world is a precious gift, you are not an accident or mistake, and that God is still in charge. Or like the old hymn says:
This is my father's world
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres*
...and though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet!
*It was once believed that orbiting planets emitted harmonious sounds which were poetically thought to be a sort of "song of creation." Today we understand that sound cannot travel through a vacuum, but the "song of Creation" still inspires.
Did God tell us to "rule over" animals and "plow" on the Earth?
In Genesis 1:26, our English translations tell us we were created to "rule over" the animals. "Have dominion" is how some older translations say it. In Genesis 1:28, our English translations tell us we are to "subdue the earth." Both "rule" and "subdue" are interesting words to consider.
The Hebrew word for "rule" is "radah" which can mean "subjugate, tread down, take." To a farmer or shepherd, "rule" would mean "take care of."
The Hebrew for "subduing" the ground is the word 'kabash," from which we get the colorful slang "kibosh" as in "put the kibosh" on someone (i.e., stop them). When that word is used elsewhere in the Old Testament it means to "conquer, tread upon, stop, whip into submission." To conquer, stop and whip the ground, doesn't make much sense! Interestingly, in Aramaic and Arabic (two closely related languages to Hebrew), "kabash" means to "press, knead, plow, beat a path." Given that this is something we do with earth and not people, Genesis 1:28 isn't telling us to beat the dirt. It's very likely telling us to "plow the earth and plant it."
Not so coincidently, in the "second" Creation story in Genesis, Adam and Eve are put in the Garden to "abad" and "shamar," which mean “to serve or cultivate” and “to care, guard, and protect.” In other words, like God, we are to prepare, sow, grow, and harvest. This "God is a farmer" imagery was used by Jesus quite a bit.
Notes on Other Creation Stories
The Hebrew Creation story stands in stark contrast to many other creation myths scholars have unearthed in the cultures and kingdoms that surrounded Israel throughout its history. Many of those myths involve battles, brokenness, and worlds and creatures created from the parts of gods or mythic animals. Interestingly, many creation stories share the imagery of water and darkness, but that is where the Hebrew Creation story diverges into its unique description—God takes charge of the chaos, he doesn't create more chaos. Scholars also believe that the Book of Genesis preserves two different Creation stories: Genesis 1:1 thru 2:3, and the Genesis 2 story of Adam and Eve.
For further reading: NPR's interview with a Creation "myth" scholar. A description of the Egyptian Creation myth. And a comparison of the two Creations stories in Genesis at Bible Odyssey.
Why We Chose the NIV for this Lesson Set
The words and images of Genesis 1 are famous. They are frequently quoted in church, literature, movies, and across the culture. The NIV's wording and phrasing of Genesis 1:1-2:3 are traditional, similar to most other English translations, and will very likely be similar to what students will hear in the world and from other translations they may read or hear.
This Background was written by the Rev. Neil MacQueen a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) where the dancing usually takes place only in our own minds.
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