Last updated on 24 Nov 2022
We’re in the third day, and Elohim has made dry land, but no sun or stars or moon. Still, he’s keen to see something growing, so he tells the land to produce, by spontaneous generation as it was later known, “seed bearing plants and plants bearing fruit with their proper seed inside”. Seed here is crucial – God creates things that reproduce themselves through some innate generative power, but at first they come out of the land. Augustine, in De Genesi ad litteram declared that God acted out of a secondary power here – he didn’t create these plants directly, but indirectly, by putting a potentiality in the soil. This resonates for the next 2500 years after Genesis, with naturalists like Wallace and writers in the late nineteenth century declaring that the soil, the habitat, or the climatic conditions cause things to become what they were indirectly.
Some have tried to make Augustine an evolutionist on this basis, but in fact he’s not, if only because the distinction between species fixity and species mutability is not possible until we first have a concept of living kinds (species), and this is not really the case until the 16th century. In any event, Genesis 1 is about things coming out of prior materielle via the direct magical command of Elohim.
Next morning, Elohim notices that he has left something out. Okay, he doesn’t, but the text has him add to the cosmos the Sun, the Moon and the stars. Of course in most ANE mythologies these were deities, so they aren’t named, but they clearly follow the illumination of the world. According to the P story, light does not come from these objects, but just is. Now that he has made the land, he gives the sun to give light to it, though, and the moon to (occasionally – even an urban Babylonian must have known that the moon is not always out at night) illuminate the night.
The relative effort involved in creating these light bearers must have been greater than that to create the land and plants, for that is all he does that day. This arrangement is also good, apparently. Notice that only angiosperms, or flowering plants, are created. Obviously Elohim didn’t bother with ferns, cryptogams and other plants.
So next day, day five, Elohim creates, this time directly (?), fishes and birds. What’s interesting here is that the folk taxonomy of things that live on land, things that live in water and things that live in the air is repeated here just as it is in Aristotle’s works written shortly after this was finalised. Not that there was any direct influence either way, it’s a common folk biological classification. In ancient times, crocodiles, whales and eels are all fishes, because anything that lives in water must be a fish. So when Elohim creates giant sea-creatures, this must include the rumours of whales and other giant fishes.
In our verse 21, we see the first use of a term (in English) that translates “meen” in Hebrew – “kind”. It is basically a term that applies to organisms that breed true, and so may be fairly called species in our sense. This is repeated thereafter, and of course is one of the reasons that creationists think that evolution doesn’t happen. Of course, noting that organisms breed progeny like themselves is something that evolutionists and creationists alike share, so in itself it doesn’t involve fixism. In fact, our text is completely ignorant of that possibility, either way. The real point is that once the earth, and the sea possibly, has been made to spring forth these kinds, they reproduce by their seed (whether plants or animals).
This view of species is shared across the ancient world, and in fact I would say is shared across the modern world too. Species, in this “folk biological” conception, are groups of organisms that breed progeny that resemble their parents. This was essentially the view of Cuvier at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
So our text and the J author do not have any sense of the fixity of species. Nor should they, as this wasn’t even an issue until this very text was interpreted in the seventeenth century, by John Ray, who took the theological interpretation of the day to mean that these kinds had not changed. Ironically, that reading is not forced by the text itself.
The notion that things arise, either naturally or by divine input, from non-living stuff (soil, water, rotting material) is known as spontaneous generation. In later days it came to be known as generatio aequivoca, meaning that generation occurred from something that was not the thing that got generated. It was the standard view of the origins of some species all through the classical and Christian period, and is found, for example, also in Judges 14:8, where Sampson slays a lion and bees are generated from the lion’s head. If you want a historical review of spontaneous generation, see my essay here.
So Elohim makes fishes and birds. Next day, he moves on to that which is more interesting to the ANE herder and farmer – the cattle. We’re back to the land producing these kinds (so we probably didn’t change that for the fishes and birds either). Elohim causes the land to issue forth in that which hereafter will breed true. Given the significance in these societies of their livestock, and the role that breeding later plays in the Joseph story, it can be assumed that the readers, both in J’s time and in R’s time, knew that animals bred true, more or less.
So, what’s left? Humans, of course, although I am going to make a bit of a conjecture later that not all humans are made on the sixth day. Now, Elohim makes these humans as adults, and in his own image, and in this story he makes both male and female at the same time and on the same day. Again, this is like many other creation stories.
What is particularly interesting is the political language used after they are created. Elohim says that these humans have the ownership of all seed bearing plants, that they rule over the land, the fishes and the birds and all moving land-dwelling animals. He gives these things as a kind of bounty. In a justly influential commentary on Genesis, Gerhard von Rad suggested that this language, and later language in the book, reflects the “treaty language” of the HIttites and other ANE powers, in which the great king generously gives his vassal kings a particular piece of territory to rule over in his name. But Elohim also gives the “subjects” of human dominion a gift – green plants are food for them.
End of the day, everything is doing what it should (thov), etc. The heavens and the earth/land are completed in their “array” (a term used for a mass of serving soldiers or servants).
So let’s review. The entire universe consists, biologically, of green plants, some of which give seed, fishes, birds, and livestock. They breed more or less true. Humans were created in a single day as two sexes. Then, we get a sudden shift, and the second creation story begins, with a bridging sentence. Now we are dealing with YHWH Elohim, in Christian Bibles translated as LORD God. And this story is very different both in sequence and in cosmology…