Let’s Start at the Beginning [Genesis 1-2]

Hello, Scroll Eaters!  Welcome to the first reading of the year, and it’s no surprise we start with “In the beginning….”  The amount of theology and history packed into these two chapters would supply six months worth of sermons without even stretching it!  Just an off-the-top-of-my-head list of things this passages speaks to: the origin of man, the origin of the universe, the role of God in creation, the role of the Spirit in creation*, the nature of man, the age of the earth, the image of God, the nature of marriage, the role of work, the purpose of man, and the list goes on.

Just how theologically rich are the first 11 chapters?  Well, have you ever really looked at a commentary on Genesis?  The best commentary on Genesis is in the New American Commentary by Kenneth Mathews, and it’s in two volumes:  1 – 11:26 and 11:27-50:26.  The first volume is 528 pages, and the second is 960 pages (1488 total).  Think about that for a second – 50 chapters in Genesis, so 1-11:26 is roughly 22% of the book, but is over 35% of the commentary.  That means 11:27-50:26 is roughly 78% of Genesis, but only 65% of the commentary.  Yes, dear Scroll Eaters, that’s how dense and foundational the first 11 chapters of Genesis are!

So, of the thousands of potentials, what to talk about on Day 1? I’d like to take a shot at two common misconceptions in these two chapters.  First, let’s look at the wording of Genesis 1:26.  The New American Standard translates it “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness….” This has been used innumerable times as “proof” of the Trinity, the Triune nature of God.  However, this is explicitly not the case.  The idea proffered is that God the Father is talking to God the Son and God the Spirit, and thus making man in “their” image means a triune nature for mankind.  Well, let’s look more closely and we’ll see that nowhere in this verse, or chapter, or in Genesis, or in the entire Old Testament for that matter, do we see any evidence that God has revealed himself as Triune.  That won’t happen until the New Testament. “Let Us” could just just as easily “prove” a seven-person Godhead, or a twelve-person, or an eighty-one person.  This verse allows for that trinitarian interpretation, but it does not demand it.

Well, then, if it’s not proof of the Trinity, what in the world is God saying?  The answer is less theological than literary.  Look closely at the wording of the entire first chapter.  God is depicted as a King giving orders, but he’s doing it in “third person imperative.”  You’ll recall the imperative is telling someone to do something, and it’s always (in English, anyway) second person: “Bill, turn on the porch light,” or “(you) Eat your vegetables.” In Hebrew, there is a third person imperative, meaning giving orders to a he, she, or it.  We can’t do that in English; the closest we can translate it is “Let the/he/she/it” or “May the/he/she.”  For example, “Let there be light,” “May the Force be with you,” “Let it be,” or “May he find what he’s looking for.”

So, in Genesis 1:26 we see “Let Us** make man in Our image…” and while it allows for the Trinity, what is actually going on here is what we call the “Royal We,” meaning a King is speaking in the second person, discussing his orders, his commands, to his people.  Well known examples of a king speaking this way include, “Let there be singing and dancing,” “Let us have a banquet,” or “Let him hang by his neck for this treachery.”  Now, when the king says “Let us have a banquet,” he’s not actually making a suggestion; he’s telling his royal cook to start boiling some water.  The words of God in Genesis 1 have the same import.  Consider: “Let there be light,” “Let the earth sprout vegetation,” “Let there be a firmament,” and “Let Us make man in our image.”  Am I saying that the Bible doesn’t teach the doctrine of the Trinity?  Absolutely not, but I am saying it doesn’t teach it here.

The second common misconception in these chapters I’d like to address is one of the bigger misconceptions in modern Christianity, and it is the idea that man has a soul.  Rather, man is a soul.  Man has will, body, and spirit, and all of these combined are what we call “soul.” This is explicit in Scripture, but unfortunately Scripture isn’t read as closely as it should be at times, and this is often missed.  Let’s start with what is commonly believed, but inaccurate, and then look at what Genesis actually states.

What most people believe: Man has a body, and “trapped” within this body is a “soul” that upon death is released to be with God. Sometimes this belief includes the idea that the fleshly body is inherently evil and the soul is inherently good, and the soul is released from the body.  There are only one problem with that: it’s not in the Bible, and it comes from pagan Greek philosophy, mostly from Plato.  An example of this is in third line of the U2 song “Yahweh” where Bono sings, “Take this soul, stranded in some skin and bones, … and make it sing.” (While I love how subversive the Christianity of U2 is to our anti-Christian culture, Bono gets this part wrong!)

If your first reaction is something along the lines of “I know the Bible talks about something being released at death,” you’re correct – but it’s not the soul; it’s the spirit. In John 19:30 [NASB] we read, “[Jesus] said, ‘It is finished!’ And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit.” The King James Version uses the famous phrase “He gave up the ghost.”  The spirit is not the soul; they are not synonyms.

Let’s look at Genesis now.  In 2:7 we read in the KJV “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”  I emphasized those four words to point out two things.  First, it does not say man was given a soul, it says man became a soul.  Second, it says man became what? A soul.  The Hebrew word נָֽפֶשׁ (nephesh) is used here and is translated soul in the KJV. In the NIV it says “…and man became a living being.” The ESV uses “man became a living creature.” We use “soul” this way still, in certain contexts.  When a ship sinks at sea, it’s common to read something like “473 souls were lost.”  While S.O.S. was chosen for distress signals because in Morse Code it’s easy to both send and to recognize (· · · — — — · · ·), it soon became the acronym “Save Our Souls.”  When a ship was going down, did they mean “give us eternal salvation?” No, the meant “Help us not to drown right now.”  In other words, save our lives.

You’ve probably heard said something like “Animals don’t have souls like humans do,” and this would be a correct statement if “spirits” were substituted for “souls.”  In fact, animals, like humans, are souls.  The Hebrew נָֽפֶשׁ (nephesh) is used for humans, various animals, even fish.  A great example is in Leviticus 24:18, where נָֽפֶשׁ (nephesh) is used twice, once translated “beast” in the KJV and “animal” in the modern English versions, and once translated as the generic “life.”  Here is an excellent page for those really wanting to dig into נָֽפֶשׁ (nephesh) more fully.

It’s interesting to see in the Psalms how often David uses “soul” self-reflexively – to speak of himself in the third person.  For example, in Psalm 17:13 he prays “Deliver my soul from the wicked with Thy sword” (NASB).  Compare that to the HCSB: “With Your sword, save me from the wicked.”  Throughout the Old Testament, you’ll see “My soul” in some translations, and in others it’ll be rendered “me,” “my life,” or something similar.

So, in short, you are a soul, a living creature, and you have a mind/will, a body, and a spirit. Every non-human soul on this planet has a body, and some have a primitive mind (dogs, for instance), but none have a spirit except mankind.

Well, how’s that for a nice, long opening day post!  I promise that the majority will not be anywhere near this long, but as I stated earlier, the opening chapters of Genesis are extremely rich and important, for they set up all that follows.

Tomorrow, we read John 1:1-3; Psalm 8; Psalm 104. See you then, Scroll Eaters!

The Lord bless you and keep you.

*We don’t see Christ’s role in creation until Colossians and John.
**Yes, “Us” in first person, not third, but it flows in context with lots of third persons, like “there be X” and “the Y.”

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