The Fifth Day: Genesis 1:20-23

Synopsis:

Animate life is created and the reader is introduced to the meaning of being blessed. Moreover, the great sea monsters of pagan mythology are demoted from the divine to the natural realm. These creatures symbolize evil, misfortune, bad tiding, etc. In these verses, the monsters are relegated to the mortal, natural realm. No longer can mankind ignore evil as the acts of the willful and capricious gods of nature.

In this section, the verse differs from the preceding ones in that it contains a new element – the blessing. This is in accordance with the creation of living beings. If we take as our starting point that in the history of creation stories the creation of the individual precedes that of the whole, it becomes clear that the first verse describing the fifth day is the beginning of something absolutely new – the creation of life. The living beings are to be treated differently the inanimate. Later, in day six (verse 1:28), the difference in how we treat the animate and inanimate is made explicit.

At this point in the story, the creation of life would have been immediately recognized by the audience. A living being, נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה (nephesh hayyah), would have been understood as characterized by breath, flesh, blood, mobility, and sexual reproduction. Plants, by contrast, would not have been viewed as animate although alive and reproductively active, plants lack visible respiration, blood, mobility and (from the ancient point of view) sexual reproduction.

Genesis 1:20-21

And Elohim said, “Let the-waters swarm [with] living creatures. And let flying creatures soar above the earth across the expanse of the skies”. So Elohim created the great ses monsters, and every creeping living thing that swarms [in] the water according to its kind, and every winged flying creature according to its kind. And Elohim saw it was good.

In this verse and unlike that of the earth in 1:11, God does not delegate His creative authority to the waters. Rather, God creates (bara) swarms of living creatures that inhabit the waters1)Oddly, the LXX, like the KJV, RSV, and TNK translate yishrətzu as “bring forth”, echoing 1:11. This translation is simply not warranted. The Hebrew verb here means swarm or teem. Thus, God is describing the motion of the sea creatures. Viewed as a figure of speech, God is describing the abundance and vibrancy of His creation. The author may be expressing an anti-pagan sentiment demythologizing the generative power of water. Water, in Genesis 1, is mere substrate. Unfortunately, the KJV and RSV translations, (“Let the waters bring forth…”), are misleading for two reasons: First, verse 20 is not a creation event. Here, God is announcing His intentions. Second, the verb is not in the causative stem as we read earlier in, for example, verse 1:10 and therefore does not warrant the idea of “bringing forth”. The water is manifestly passive as is clear in the author’s use of the verb יִשְׁרְצוּ (yishrətzu), meaning “it teemed” or “it swarmed”.

This verse also exhibits an common Hebrew literary construction, a form of word play in which the biblical authors delighted. Here, the author uses the verb sharatz side-by-side with its cognate2) In general, cognate means of the same or a similar nature. In linguistic terms a cognate word is one that is related to another word by derivation, borrowing, or descent from another language. noun שֶׁרֶץ (sheretz) – (yeshrətzu hammayeem sheretz). Literally meaning “swarm with swarming things”. Used this way, the author calls our attention to the darting and chaotic movement of groups of small creatures such as swarms of ants, schools of fish. As indicated just above, the author seems to be purposefully calling our attention to the abundant fertility of life.

soar above: The Hebrew text uses an intensive form of the verb meaning to “fly about” (יְעוֹפֵףyəopheph) instead of the simple Qal stem.

living creatures: This phrase, נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה (nephesh hayyah), means literally “animate life”3)Sarna, “JPS Commentary: Genesis”, p 10.  This makes sense since animate life was understood by the ancient Hebrews to be distinct from plant life. While plant life is manifestly alive, the ancient Hebrews considered plants to be inanimate. This term also reoccurs in 1:24, this time in reference to land animals. Here it refers only to water creatures,

across: Literally, “over the face of” (עַל־פְּנֵיal-pənei). The viewpoint is from an observer standing on the surface of the earth looking upward and seeing flying creatures criss-crossing over (or in front of) the face of the skies.

So, Elohim created … (וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים, vayyivra Elohim): once more the author uses the word for divine creation (a form of bara). In this verse, the swarms of living creatures and the rest simply come into being.

On the first day of creation, God began with an undifferentiated world and, by the end of the fourth day had completed His shaping of the inanimate. In this verse, God begins the next phase of creation, the creation of various life forms (in the previous verse, 1:20, He announced what He was about to do, nothing was actually created).

This was not the creation of their physical bodies – those were made from the already existing material. Gerald Schroeder suggests that the creation of life might be better viewed as the creation of a life force that animates and enlivens – a wholly ethereal nefesh, the soul of animate life. The nefesh gives living beings a level of choice and motion not found in plants. The nefesh is totally self-centered, driven toward maximizing pleasure, survival, and progeny. The world, according to the nefesh’s view, is there to be exploited for the self’s own needs.

the great sea monsters: The strange phrase, אֶת־הַתַּנִּינִם הַגְּדֹלִים (et-hattanninim haggədolim) is thought by many Bible scholars to express an antipagan message. The Hebrew word translated as “the monsters” (hattanninim) is the plural form of  תַּנִּין (tannin)4)Compare tannin with נָחָשׁ (nachash), the more common word for serpent. In the Bible, the use of tannin connotes great evil (Job 7:12, Isaiah 51:9, Lam 4:3), where nachash occurs as Eve’s interlocutor in the Garden of Eden, but more often as simply a snake – harmful, but never evil.. This word and its cognates in related languages appear widely in other Canaanite myths, usually as the name of a primeval dragon-god who assisted the sea god, Yam in a losing battle against Baal, the Canaan god of fertility5)See the Wiki entry, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal_Cycle.. The ancient biblical authors coopted these myths and in several biblical poems6)See, for example, Job 7:12, Isaiah 51:9, and Lamentations 4:3 tannin is seen as the embodiment of the chaos and evil that God destroys in Genesis 1.

Its significance in Genesis 1 cannot be underestimated, especially in the context of the ANE. For the first time in any creation myth, evil in the form of the “great sea monsters” is demoted from the divine to the mortal, created order.

Genesis 1:22-23

And Elohim blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth. And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

And Elohim blessed them: The word ‘blessed’ is translated from the Hebrew word יְבָרֶךְ (yəvarekh). The blessing from God is one of the great unifying themes of Genesis. God blesses animals (1:22), mankind (1:28), the Sabbath (2:3), Adam (5:2), Noah (9:1) and frequently the patriarchs (12:3, 17:16, etc.,). God’s blessing is most obvious in the gift of children, as this is often coupled with “being frutiful and multiplying.” But all aspects of biblical life receive and express God’s blessings – crops, families, and nations (Deut 28:1-14). More generally, receiving God’s blessing means to be endowed with the means to achieve fecundity and prosperity in the future7) In general, blessings are given to the lesser by the greater. However, when given by the lesser to the greater, the blessing is often an expression of thanks.. It does not mean, as is often understood, to be made prosperous. The person (or thing) blessed still must do the work using the gifts (e.g., the blessing) God granted them.

Be fruitful and multiply: This is the blessing conferred on the fish and the birds instantiated previously. It is both a command and a promise that if they order their existence to God’s will the blessing will be realized.

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