We have made the point in earlier entries that there are two focus points in Genesis 1. First, that God created everything (1.1). Second, that within his creation God prepared a special place where he made and put human beings (1.2-31).
English versions obscure this by translating the Hebrew word eretz as "earth" rather than "land," which is its more common meaning. For modern readers, the word "earth" conjures up pictures of the globe that we know as Earth, the planet in its entirety as it exists in outer space among the other heavenly bodies. However, this is not nor could it be the viewpoint of the author of Genesis. We've already noted that verse 1 would be more accurately translated, "In the beginning, God created the skies and the land." In Genesis 1.1, the author's perspective is that of one standing on the ground, looking out across a landscape and thinking about God's creation of all things from that point of view.
Within this comprehensive creation, God prepared a place (a land) where he put the first humans. Beginning at Genesis 1.2, the focus narrows considerably to "the land," and in particular, to the land where he brought forth living creatures and humankind (1.24-31). What land is this?
While it is possible that Moses is describing all the lands on planet Earth and making a general statement about God preparing various land masses for his creatures, I think it more likely that he has a particular land in mind.
- The fundamental argument for seeing a specific land here comes from accepting that Genesis 1-2 contain complementary, parallel accounts of the same events. Genesis 1 says that God formed the land and then created humans as male and female in that land. Genesis 2 identifies the Garden in Eden as the place where God made the man and woman and brought them together. If chapters 1-2 are telling the same story from different perspectives, we must respect the parallels between them and recognize that "the land" where God created humans in ch. 1 correlates with "Eden" and the "Garden" in ch. 2.
- According to the description of the rivers that form the boundaries of the Garden in ch. 2, we can deduce that Moses is identifying Eden with the Promised Land. That is where Adam and Eve received God's blessing. This is the land that God later promised Abraham and his descendants when he entered into a covenant with the patriarch (Genesis 15.18-21).
- This is the same land into which Joshua would lead the Israelites who received the Torah from Moses (Deut 1.7-8; 7.1). Though Israel dwelt in this land for many years, the only time Israel ruled over all of this land was during the reign of Solomon (2Kings 4.21; 2Chron 9.26; 8.7-8).
Other First Testament passages reinforce that it is the Promised Land in view in Genesis 1:
- Jeremiah 4.19-31 is Jeremiah's lament over the fall of Jerusalem. In this passage the prophet pictures the land going back to its pre-preparation state, using language directly from Genesis 1—"I looked on the earth [land], and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light" (v.23). This text is specifically about the "whole land" of Israel (v.20) and not the earth as a planet. In judgment, God returns the land to its Gen. 1.2 condition.
- Jeremiah 27.5 is part of another passage which predicts judgment on the Promised Land. This verse looks back on what God did in Genesis 1 and links it specifically with that particular place—"I have made the earth [land], the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth [land] by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and I will give it to the one who is pleasing in My sight." The passage is clearly about God's right to give the Promised Land to whomever he chooses, and in that light he hearkens back to the fact that in Gen. 1 he formed and filled that land with creatures by his divine strength.
- Some believe that Exodus 20.11 contradicts this view: "For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy." This verse seems to summarize all of Genesis 1, including 1.1, thus saying that the entire universe and not just the Promised Land, is the subject of the six creation days. However, Moses does not use the merism, "the heavens and the earth" in Exodus 20.11 but rather a list of four separate things: (1) the skies, (2) the land, (3) the seas, and (4) all that is in them. This is a summary of what God did in Genesis 1.2-31. During the six days, he did not create the universe; rather, he prepared the skies, the seas and the land for life and then filled them with lights, living creatures and human beings. The ultimate focus is on the Promised Land.
Specific geographical references are nearly absent in Gen. 1-11 until you get to chapter 10. At that point, the author records how the various nations became "separated into their lands" (10.5, 20, 31-32), and then tells the story of how that occurred at Babel (11.1-9). Except for Genesis 1.1, there is NO worldwide focus in Genesis until we begin to read about the nations (ch. 10), the tower of Babel (ch. 11), and the promise of blessing to Abraham (ch. 12).
Instead, what we see in Gen. 1-11 is a series of ever-widening geographic circles.
- We start in "the land," (ch. 1), which correlates with Eden and the Garden (ch. 2-3). The boundaries described are those of the Promised Land.
- Next, Adam and Eve are exiled to the east, out of the Garden, but apparently still in Eden (3. 24).
- Cain kills Abel and is subsequently exiled farther east, to the land of Nod, east of Eden (4.16).
- There are no geographical references in the genealogy of ch. 5, but ch. 6 concludes the account with several references to "the land" in 6.1-8. The land is where the sons of God took the daughters of men for wives, where the Nephilim lived, where the wickedness of humans grew, where God was sorry that he had made man, and where he determined to blot out humans.
- The emphasis on the land continues throughout the story of Noah. At this point in Genesis, all humankind is still dwelling in the vicinity of the land, and therefore it is this land that suffers God's judgment when humans fill it with evil. The flood was a disaster that befell the region of the Promised Land, not the entire earth. It is not until Noah's sons emerge and begin to multiply that humanity begins to spread beyond this locale.
- Genesis 11.1-9 tells the story of how that migration began. Note how the story begins: "Now the whole earth [land]...journeyed east...found a plain in Shinar and settled there" (11.1-2). Noah's descendants stayed in the land until they all decided to move even farther east. The land of "Shinar" is the region of the city of Babylon, which they founded. From there, God scattered them into their own lands around the world.
Thus, the geographical movement in Genesis 1-11 is from the "land" where humans were first created, moving eastward ultimately to "Babylon" and finally, to being scattered "over the face of the whole earth" (11.9). It is in this context that God leads Abram and then later his descendants back to the original land and promises to use them to restore his blessing to all the families spread throughout the earth.
All this reinforces the interpretation that Genesis 1.2-31 is not about the creation of the universe (that is the point of 1.1). Rather, the six days of Gen. 1 describe how God prepared a specific place within his universe where he created humankind and blessed them.