temple halls

In much of modern, western Christendom the first chapter of Genesis has been at the heart of the ideological battle between atheistic evolution and biblical creation. While this battle against secular understandings of human origins is a worthy venture, there is a problem with attempting to interpret Genesis 1 through modern scientific paradigms. Trying to force an ancient Near Eastern text such as Genesis 1 to speak to current understandings of astrophysics or quantum mechanics is to miss the rich theological forest through the trees. Truly, it misses the trees as well.

In order to arrive at a proper reading of Genesis 1 and mine its incredible theological riches, we must keep in mind that Genesis, along with the entirety of the Old Testament, was written for us, but it was not written to us. Rather, it was written to Israel.[1] Thus, when reading Genesis 1, we need to ask the question of how an ancient Israelite would have heard the text and not how 21st century western American Christians hear the text. In doing so, we’ll discover than an ancient Israelite would not have brought the questions of how and when to the text of Genesis 1, but rather the questions of who and why.[2] More importantly, we’ll discover that they would have undoubtedly heard the text reverberating that all of creation is meant to be Yahweh’s temple.

The seven days of Genesis 1 are likely best understood in relation to the seven days associated with temple inauguration in the ancient Near East.[3] The number seven was associated with temples across the ancient Near Eastern world. For instance, an ancient inscription (ca. 2100 B.C.) by Gudea, the Sumerian king of Lagash, describes a seven-day dedication festival for one of his temples.[4] Also, a famous Ugaritic text relays that Baal’s temple took seven days to build.[5] Perhaps more significantly, the Old Testament itself says that Solomon’s temple took seven years to build (1 Kgs 6:37-38) and included an inauguration ceremony that included a seven-day dedication and a seven-day feast (1 Kgs 8:65; 2 Chron 7:9).[6] Further, besides the seven days of creation, sevens are quite prominent in Genesis 1 – 2:3, including seven occurrences of “and it was so”, seven “and God saw that it was good”, and many other occurrences of multiples of seven.[7] This connection between the use of seven in Genesis 1, specifically the seven days of creation, and the seven days of a temple inauguration ceremony would not have been merely coincidental to an ancient Israelite reader. Rather, it would have been very evident that the text of Genesis 1 describes the seven-day inauguration of the cosmos as Yahweh’s temple.

This connection between Genesis 1 and an ancient Near Eastern temple inauguration ceremony is further highlighted when considering the structure of the ancient temple ceremony itself. The aforementioned Sumerian inscription by Gudea describes how, during the ceremony, the “’destiny’ and powers of the temple are assigned…[l]ikewise the roles of the functionaries are proclaimed and they are installed.”[8] Note that this precisely what happens during the Genesis days, as God Himself names and installs the functionaries of His cosmic temple; for example, on the fourth day, “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night’… And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth.” (Gen 1:15-17).

More important for our study is the way in which a deity of the ancient Near East took up rest inside his temple at the end of the temple inauguration ceremony. Humans are described as being created in the “image” of God (Gen 1:26, 27). This word (Heb. selem), in the ancient Near East, predominately refers to a cultic statue of a false god, that is, to a carved idol.[9] These idols were thought to contain the “essence” of the god and their primary purpose was to manifest the gods’ presence, whom were thought to be truly present within the cultic statue.[10] During the seven day temple inauguration ceremony, the image of the god, that is an idol of the deity, would be brought to the temple.[11] In an elaborate ceremony, the statue would have been consecrated through incantations and a ritual known as mis pi, pit pi (Washing of the Mouth and Opening of the Mouth[12]) in ancient Mesopotamia.[13] During this ritual, the statue was made, brought to “life” through the various symbolic acts (such as washing and “opening” the mouth; much of which took place in a garden), and then installed in the temple.[14] Once in the cella, or inner sanctuary (think Holy of Holies), the statue, as a “living, manifestation of the divine”[15] represented that the deity itself had now taken up rest inside the temple and the temple itself was fully functional.[16]

The connection between the above and the creation of humankind in the image of God in Genesis 1 and 2 should now be clear. At the end of inaugurating all creation to be His cosmic temple, Yahweh comes to the point in which it is time to install His image, His idol, inside the inner sanctuary. However, rather than creating a statue, processioning it through a garden, and bringing it to “life” through elaborate rituals, Yahweh creates His image by forming man from the dust of the earth, bringing him to life through breathing the breath of life into his nostrils, and placing man in the inner sanctuary (the “holy of holies”) of the cosmic temple, the garden of Eden.[17]

With His image installed in the cosmic temple, God now can take up rest inside.[18] It’s important to note that the “rest” that God takes up on day seven isn’t such that God is taking a nap or something like that. Rather, this kind of divine rest means that God has “ceased” from His divine, creative work in the first chapter of Genesis[19], and now the cosmos has achieved stability, now the cosmic temple is ready to begin operation. Yahweh can now become enthroned in His cosmic temple as ruler of the universe.[20]


How does this reading of Genesis 1 intersect with family and work as human purpose? That question will be explored in the next in part 5.



[1] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), 9.

[2] Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 203: “Knowledge about biology including dinosaurs, about physics including the relativity of time, space and energy, and about myriad other scientific facts and laws in our possession would not improve the biblical writers’ aim.”

[3] Walton, Lost World, 87.

[4] J Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005), 83.

[5] Middleton, Liberating Image, 84,

[6] See Walton, Lost World, 89.

[7] Middleton notes that both “God and “earth” occur 35 and 21 times, respectively. Additionally, the entirety of the text contains 469 words, the seventh day 35 words, and the preamble of 1:1-2 21 words. All of these are multiples of seven. See Middleton, Liberating Image, 82.

[8] Walton, Lost World, 88.

[9] Middleton, Liberating Image, 45.

[10] John Walton. Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns), 2016, 82-83.

[11] John H. Walton, Genesis (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2001), 151

[12] Whether or not these two were thought to be two distinct ritual or two parts of a larger ritual is unclear to scholars. See Catherine L. McDowell, The Image of God in the Garden of Eden: The Creation of Humankind in Genesis 2 (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 45

[13] There is a similar ritual in ancient Egypt known as wpt-r, or “Opening of the Mouth”. McDowell, Image, 43. See also Middleton, Liberating Image, 127.

[14] McDowell, Image, 84.

[15] McDowell, Image, 84

[16] McBride Jr., “Divine Protocol: Genesis 1:2-2:3 as Prologue in the Pentateuch.” in God Who Creates: Essays in Honor of W. Sibley Towner, ed. William Brown and S. Dean McBride Jr. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2000), 16; Walton, Lost World, 75, 84.

[17] Exploring the notion that the garden of Eden represents an inner-sanctuary or a temple goes beyond the scope of this class. For a good defense of this observation, however, see G K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Apollos: 2004), 66-79.

[18] This would have been obvious to an ancient Israelite reader since, in the ancient Near East, gods take up rests only inside temples. Walton, Lost World, 72.

[19] Walton, Lost World, 72.

[20] Walton, Genesis, 148