What did exist — what very much existed — and what pressed on Jewish faith from all sides, and even from within, were the religious problems of idolatry and syncretism. The critical question in the creation account of Genesis 1 was polytheism versus monotheism. That was the burning issue of the day, not some issue which certain Americans 2,500 years later in the midst of the scientific age might imagine that it was. And one of the reasons for its being such a burning issue was that the Jewish monotheism was such a unique and hard-won faith. The temptations of idolatry and syncretism were everywhere. Every nation surrounding Israel, both great and small, was polytheistic; and many Jews themselves held — as they always had — similar inclinations. Hence the frequent prophetic diatribes against altars in high places, the Canaanite cult of Baal, and "whoring after other gods."
Read through the eyes of the people who wrote it, Genesis 1 would seem very different from the way most people today would tend to read it — including evolutionists who may dismiss it as a pre-scientific account of origins, and creationists who may try to defend it as the true science and literal history of origins. For most peoples in the ancient world the various regions of nature were divine. Sun, moon, and stars were gods. There were sky gods and earth gods and water gods. There were gods of light and darkness, rivers and vegetation, animals and fertility. Though for us, nature has been "demythologized" and "naturalized" — in large part because of this very passage of scripture — for ancient Jewish faith a divinized nature posed a fundamental religious problem.
In addition, pharaohs, kings, and heroes were often seen as sons of gods, or at least as special mediators between the divine and human spheres. The greatness and vaunted power and glory of the successive waves of empires that impinged on or conquered Israel (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia) posed an analogous problem of idolatry in the human sphere.
In the light of this historical context it becomes clearer what Genesis 1 is undertaking and accomplishing: a radical and sweeping affirmation of monotheism vis-à-vis polytheism, syncretism and idolatry. Each day of creation takes on two principal categories of divinity in the pantheons of the day, and declares that these are not gods at all, but creatures — creations of the one true God who is the only one, without a second or third. Each day dismisses an additional cluster of deities, arranged in a cosmological and symmetrical order.
On the first day the gods of light and darkness are dismissed. On the second day, the gods of sky and sea. On the third day, earth gods and gods of vegetation. On the fourth day sun, moon, and star gods. The fifth and sixth days take away any associations with divinity from the animal kingdom. And finally human existence, too, is emptied of any intrinsic divinity — while at the same time all human beings, from the greatest to the least, and not just pharaohs, kings and heroes, are granted a divine likeness and mediation.
On each day of creation another set of idols is smashed. These, O Israel, are no gods at all — even the great gods and rulers of conquering superpowers. They are the creations of that transcendent One who is not to be confused with any piece of the furniture of the universe of creaturely habitation. The creation is good, it is very good, but it is not divine.
We are then given a further clue concerning the polemical design of the passage when the final verse (2:4a) concludes: "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created." Why the word "generations," especially if what is being offered is a chronology of days of creation? Now to polytheist and monotheist alike the word "generation" at this point would immediately call one thing to mind. If we should ask how these various divinities were related to one another in the pantheons of the day, the most common answer would be that they were related as members of a family tree. We would be given a genealogy, as in Hesiod's Theogony, where the great tangle of Greek gods and goddesses were sorted out by generations. Ouranos begat Kronos; Kronos begat Zeus; Zeus begat Prometheus.
The Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians all had their "generations of the gods." Thus the priestly account, which had begun with the majestic words, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," now concludes — over against all the impressive and colorful pantheons with their divine pedigrees — " These are the generations of the heavens and the Earth when they were created." It was a final pun on the concept of the divine family tree.
The fundamental question at stake, then, could not have been the scientific question of how things achieved their present form and by what processes, nor even the historical question about time periods and chronological order. The issue was idolatry, not science; syncretism, not natural history; theology, not chronology; affirmations of faith in one transcendent God, not creationist or evolutionist theories of origin. Attempting to be loyal to the Bible by turning the creation accounts into a kind of science or history is like trying to be loyal to the teachings of Jesus by arguing that the parables are actual historical events, and only reliable and trustworthy when taken literally as such.
If one really wishes to appreciate more fully the religious meaning of creation in Genesis 1, one should read not the creationist or anticreationist diatribes but Isaiah 40. For the theology of Genesis 1 is essentially the same as the theology of Deutero-Isaiah. They are also both from the same time period, and therefore part of the same interpretative context. It was a time that had been marked, first, by the conquest of most of Palestine — save Jerusalem — by the Assyrians under Sennacherib (ca. 701 BC). And a century later the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar had in turn conquered the Middle East, Palestine, and even Jerusalem.
The last vestige of Jewish autonomy and Promised Land had been overrun...
Given the awesome might and splendor and triumphs of Assyria and then Babylon, was it not obvious that the shepherd-god of Israel was just a local spirit, a petty tribal god who was hardly a match for the likes of Marduk, god of Babylon? Where was this god... ? Yet despite the littleness and powerlessness of a conquered people
... It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, ...and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.(Isaiah 40:21-23)Had there been a controversy in the Babylonian public schools of the day — and had there been Babylonian public schools — these would have been the issues in debate.
Excerpted and reprinted with permission of the author from "Biblical literalism:constricting the cosmic dance", in Roland Mushat Frye (ed) Is God a creationist? The religious case against creation-science. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983: 100-104. Prof. Hyers explores this matter in detail in his book, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science, John Knox Press, 1984.