The ESV Study Bible on creation — Genesis 1

ESVStudyBibleA few weeks ago, I looked at what the ESV Study Bible had to say about the doctrine of creation in its introduction to the book of Genesis (click here). The ESV Study Bible Introduction to Genesis gives an overview of the various interpretations (calendar-day, day-age, etc.), a discussion about the relationship between Genesis and science, a statement on the historicity of Adam and Eve, and cautionary notes about interpreting the account of Noah’s flood.

The ESV Study Bible is the product of theologically conservative Biblical scholars who are committed to the inerrancy of the Bible, but it clearly does not advocate young-Earth creationism.

Here are some highlights from the notes on Genesis 1:

1:1-11:26 Primeval History — In contrast to the patriarchal stories, however, other ancient nonbiblical stories do exist recounting stories about both creation and the flood. The existence of such stories, however, does not in any way challenge the authority or the inspiration of Genesis. In fact, the nonbiblical stories stand in sharp contrast to the biblical account, and thus help readers appreciate the unique nature and character of the biblical accounts of creation and the flood. In other ancient literary traditions, creation is a great struggle often involving conflict between the gods. […] Reading Genesis, readers can see that it is designed to refute these delusions. There is only one God, whose word is almighty. He has only to speak and the world comes into being. The sun and moon are not gods in their own right, but are created by the one God. This God does not need feeding by man, as the Babylonians believed they did by offering sacrifices, but he supplies man with food. It is human sin, not divine annoyance, that prompts the flood. Far from Babylon’s tower (Babel) reaching heaven, it became a reminder that human pride could neither reach nor manipulate God. These principles, which emerge so clearly in Genesis 1–11, are truths that run through the rest of Scripture. The unity of God is fundamental to biblical theology, as is his almighty power, his care for mankind, and his judgment on sin. It may not always be obvious how these chapters relate to geology and archaeology, but their theological message is very clear. Read in their intended sense, they provide the fundamental presuppositions of the rest of Scripture. These chapters should act as eyeglasses, so that readers focus on the points their author is making and go on to read the rest of the Bible in light of them.

1:3-5 — By a simple reading of Genesis, these days must be described as days in the life of God, but how his days relate to human days is more difficult to determine.

1:6-8 — Water plays a crucial role in ancient Near Eastern creation literature. In Egypt, for example, the creator-god Ptah uses the preexistent waters (personified as the god Nun) to create the universe. The same is true in Mesopotamian belief: it is out of the gods of watery chaos—Apsu, Tiamat, and Mummu—that creation comes. The biblical creation account sits in stark contrast to such dark mythological polytheism. In the biblical account, water at creation is no deity; it is simply something God created, and it serves as material in the hands of the sole sovereign Creator.

Gen. 1:14–19 — This section corresponds closely with the ordering of Day and Night on the first day, involving the separation of light and darkness (vv. 3–5). Here the emphasis is on the creation of lights that will govern time, as well as providing light upon the earth (v. 15). By referring to them as the greater light and lesser light (v. 16), the text avoids using terms that were also proper names for pagan deities linked to the sun and the moon. Chapter 1 deliberately undermines pagan ideas regarding nature’s being controlled by different deities. (To the ancient pagans of the Near East, the gods were personified in various elements of nature. Thus, in Egyptian texts, the gods Ra and Thoth are personified in the sun and the moon, respectively.) The term made (Hb. ‘asah, v. 16), as the esv footnote shows, need only mean that God “fashioned” or “worked on” them; it does not of itself imply that they did not exist in any form before this. Rather, the focus here is on the way in which God has ordained the sun and moon to order and define the passing of time according to his purposes.

1:27 — There has been debate about the expression image of God. Many scholars point out the idea, commonly used in the ancient Near East, of the king who was the visible representative of the deity; thus the king ruled on behalf of the god. Since v. 26 links the image of God with the exercise of dominion over all the other creatures of the seas, heavens, and earth, one can see that humanity is endowed here with authority to rule the earth as God’s representatives or vice-regents (see note on v. 28). Other scholars, seeing the pattern of male and female, have concluded that humanity expresses God’s image in relationship, particularly in well-functioning human community, both in marriage and in wider society. Traditionally, the image has been seen as the capacities that set man apart from the other animals—ways in which humans resemble God, such as in the characteristics of reason, morality, language, a capacity for relationships governed by love and commitment, and creativity in all forms of art. All these insights can be put together by observing that the resemblances (man is like God in a series of ways) allow mankind to represent God in ruling, and to establish worthy relationships with God, with one another, and with the rest of the creation. This “image” and this dignity apply to both “male and female” human beings. (This view is unique in the context of the ancient Near East. In Mesopotamia, e.g., the gods created humans merely to carry out work for them.)

1:28 — God’s creation plan is that the whole earth should be populated by those who know him and who serve wisely as his vice-regents or representatives. subdue it and have dominion. The term “subdue” (Hb. kabash) elsewhere means to bring a people or a land into subjection so that it will yield service to the one subduing it (Num. 32:22, 29). Here the idea is that the man and woman are to make the earth’s resources beneficial for themselves, which implies that they would investigate and develop the earth’s resources to make them useful for human beings generally. This command provides a foundation for wise scientific and technological development; the evil uses to which people have put their dominion come as a result of Genesis 3. over every living thing. As God’s representatives, human beings are to rule over every living thing on the earth. These commands are not, however, a mandate to exploit the earth and its creatures to satisfy human greed, for the fact that Adam and Eve were “in the image of God” (1:27) implies God’s expectation that human beings will use the earth wisely and govern it with the same sense of responsibility and care that God has toward the whole of his creation.

My purpose here  is primarily to look at the ESV Study Bible as it relates to topics such as Earth history. It is certainly an excellent study resource, no matter where one stands on the age of the Earth issue, and will help anyone to grow in their knowledge of God and his Word.

Grace and Peace


6 thoughts on “The ESV Study Bible on creation — Genesis 1

  1. Richard


    You have any thoughts–have you read yet John Walton’s book, “The Lost World of Genesis One”? I want to borrow my pastor’s copy of it and go through it; he did not think highly of it at all, but then, he is a YEC-type. Actually, he was pretty vocal in dismissing his arguments.


  2. geochristian


    I just purchased The Lost World of Genesis One yesterday, and don’t know when I’ll get around to reading it. I’ve seen good reviews of it among the theistic evolution crowd. I imagine one who is a fan of Hugh Ross wouldn’t like it. And as you said, the YECs will be pretty vocal in their opposition.


  3. Josh

    There are many clear reasons that show us the original Hebrew (inerrant autograph) meant no other than literal 24 hour days. I will not discuss these but there can be no other meaning. In English, however, the words morning and evening each day also could not make it any more clear. The real issue, though, is that if you drop the ball at Genesis 1, where do you start believing the Bible as meaning what it says? Yes, there is figurative speech in the Bible, well identified by good hermeneutics (rules of interpretation). But Genesis 1 is very literal. Two questions to ponder:

    1. If you can’t believe Genesis 1, where do you start believing the Bible?

    2. More clearly, if evolution is allowed even a possibility (in opposition to good interpretation)…how do you deal with death before sin? If the Bible didn’t mean six literal days, then it didn’t mean sin is the reason for death either, because for evolution to occur, older “versions” of everything died. ESV is a great translation. Their Study Bible dropped the ball.


  4. Hey Josh, I can’t speak for the geochristian on this matter, but I can give you my own interpretation as its something I have had to think a lot about recently.

    I first have to tell you that I am not an expert in Ancient Hebrew and so must make judgments based on the conclusions and interpretations of others, generally Hebrew experts, who have their owns biases. I believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, but I am a bit hesitant to apply that inerrancy to only the original Hebrew, or as you call it the inerrant autograph. I mean I agree with it in theory and believe in the importance of getting to the exact cultural context and exact meaning of the Word but ultimately I will have to interpret those findings in the language of my mind in which I most readily understand things in English. I believe the Bible transcends languages, but to understand it a proper examination of the original languages is extremely useful. I think if you don’t except this kind of thinking you will arrive at the conclusion that all interpretations of the Bible are inferior to the original languages and that therefore those are the only true ways of reading the Bible- ala the arabic Qur’an.

    However if you are a Hebrew scholar than this could be a little more interesting to here your exact reasons for why you think the meaning is rigid in Genesis. But until you tell me yours I will have to leave you with the comment that I do not understand why you so adamantly believe that it means “literal 24 hour days” when at best you can hope for an interpretation of something approximating a roughly 24 hour period… a period of light followed by a period of context

    As to your questions:
    1. I would argue, having a similar interpretation to geochristian’s, that I am not disbelieving Genesis 1, I am just interpreting it, in a similar inerrant way that you are. So I start believing Bible at the exact same place you do… Genesis 1.

    2. I, like the geochristian I believe, am up in the air as to how evolution fits in with God’s plan and creationism, however I am not completely dismissive to its potentiality for the origin of man. At the moment I would say that I believe in a literal Adam and Eve and a literal garden of Eden living without death before sin for themselves. However I do believe that there was death before sin… animal death. And I would say that good and honest interpretation of the Bible shows that there is plenty of evidence for their being animal death before sin, the geochristian has examined this in previous posts. It is only a rather narrow, but traditional, interpretation that arrives at the conclusion that death of animals was part of the fall. While commendable this is the kind of argument I would expect from animal rights activists and is not necessarily a strict and literal interpretation of scripture. I assume it stems from a view that animal death is something God wouldn’t put in a perfect creation, but I don’t understand where that would come from except from preconceptions, it is basically equating animal death to human death. This train of thought compels me to attempt to provide symmetry to the situation and facetiously ask did Jesus die to conquer the deaths of animals as well? In my understanding sin is still the reason of death its just how the Bible is actually describing it… human sin and human death. Just as Christ’s death is the reason for humanity’s resurrection, not animals’ as well.



  5. geochristian


    Thanks for your comment.

    “Day” is used in a non-literal sense at least once in the opening creation passage. Genesis 2:4 reads

    “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. (ESV)

    Here “day” refers to the entire creation period. If it is used in a non-literal sense here, perhaps it is used in a non-literal sense throughout the passage.

    You state that from the Hebrew there is no other way to understand Genesis 1 than a literal 24-hour day interpretation. This depends on what the genre of Genesis 1 is. Is it historical narrative? Not in the sense that most of Genesis 12-50 is. Is it poetry? It has structure, but not like that of the Psalms. The case can be made that the literary structure is nothing quite like anything else in the Hebrew Old Testament, and this should affect its interpretation. John Walton (see the first comment in this post) argues that the genre is related to the dedication of a Near Eastern temple, and in this case the temple is the entire Cosmos. How does this affect our understanding of “day?”

    There is, of course, much more to a Biblical case for an old Earth, but I’ll make the point that it is a Biblical case. It is not a question of whether or not old-Earth creationists believe the Bible, but a question of what the Bible actually does and does not say about creation. I think a strong case can be made that the young-Earth creationists read a lot into some of the passages, and then hold their interpretations up as the standard of orthodoxy for everyone else.

    I am not committed to a day-age interpretation, but a nice presentation of it is found on the chart from Reasons to Believe that I posted here: Day-age time chart. The correlations between the days of Genesis 1 and Earth history are amazing.

    I have dealt with the issue of death before the Fall elsewhere: Death before the fall — an old-Earth Biblical perspective. This is an example of the young-Earth creationists making the Bible say far more than what it actually says.

    Grace and Peace


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