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The Literature of Creation: Peshat and Poetry

A Literary Look at Creation in the Bible and Apocrypha

By Jeffrey Dweck

The common denominators throughout the first chapters of Genesis, and later Biblical
accounts of the creation, are that creation begins with God. One God. (Malachi 2: 10).
Moses, even, would remind his people during his last stand, that “God created man upon the
earth.” (Deut. 4: 32). And God not only creates -- forming beings -- but names and places
them, and assigns them roles. God sets the stage and “prepares the earth for all time.”
(Baruch 3: 32). God is a producer and a director. God would later be called “the living God,
who created heaven and earth and has dominion over all flesh.” (Bel and the Dragon, 1: 5).

God’s spirit is then given to the living beings, defining, or characterizing, what it means to be
alive. Thus, and finally, God not only creates, but sets creation in motion, taking a back seat
to secondary (in the case of plant-life), even voluntary (in the case of man), further acts of

Later, God’s acts of creation will be invoked by Biblical texts to underscore God’s wonder and

The still beginning to creation opens the Bible’s paradox of tranquil chaos -- The written
Bible opens with the familiar but dramatic creation account in Genesis 1 (and part of 2). The
day by day detail of creation is introduced with a catch-all “In the beginning God created the
heavens and the earth – the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face
of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Gen. 1: 1-2).
Mentioned here in the text are

(a) a general statement about the creation of the “heavens and the earth” (“heaven”
is mentioned again in verse 8 (Day Two)),
(b) a description of the earth’s primordial makeup, including shapelessness and
“darkness” (which finds its place and name in verse 5), and
(c) that a “Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (waters appear and
find their place in Day Two’s creation). Some presence on the scene takes the
form of the “Spirit of God.”

The general statement, opening the creation account, also forms its closing: “the heavens
and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.” (Gen. 2: 1). The creative act is
simple. It is decisive. It is also “hands on” -- we encounter God “saying” things into
creation, but also “seeing” that creation through. The idea of God’s continuing active role in
creation and in His creations will be developed in later Biblical texts.

The days of creation follow, with repeating phrases and quiet drama. Creation is brought
about by God’s “magic” words, and appears simple: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and
there was light.” (Gen 1: 3). Following the vocalization (later termed “commands”; Psalms

33:9; 148: 5), God “sees” that His creations are “good,” and God positions His creations,
“separating the light from the darkness.” (Gen. 1: 4). Finally, God names “the light Day, and
the darkness he called Night.” (Gen. 1: 5). Following the Day One creation of “light,” the
narrative closes up all of this Godly work of commanding, affirming, arranging and naming:
“And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” (Gen. 1: 5). This phrase would be
repeated by the Biblical narrative at the close of every day.

On Day Three, God does some rearranging; He is gathering “the waters under the heavens …
together into one place,” so that “the dry land [would] appear.” Naturally, “it was so.” (Gen.
1: 9). God does the typical naming (“God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were
gathered together he called Seas”), and validation: “And God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1:
10). Then, again by God’s word: “let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed,
and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the
earth.” (Gen. 1: 11). And it was so. Interestingly, unlike on Day Two, God is one step
removed from creation, allowing the earth and the plants to yield their product. God’s word,
however, still reigns.

Later, Psalms will take creation and afford it a poetic rendering. According to the Psalmist,
“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his
mouth. He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses…
He spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth.” (Psalms 33: 6-9).

Returning to celestial creation (as on Days One and Two), on Day Four God creates “two great
lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the
stars also.” (Genesis 1: 16). God creates “lights” of a different kind now, “in the firmament
of the heavens to separate the day from the night,” and “for signs and for seasons and for
days and years.” (Gen. 1: 14). The later poetic rendition of Psalms is more rhythmic: “Thou
hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.” (Psalms 104:
19). Their other stated purpose is to “be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light
upon the earth.” (Gen. 1: 15). He then “set[s] them in the firmament of the heavens to give
light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from
the darkness.” (Gen. 1: 17-18). The new addition here is God’s “setting,” akin to his
arranging or separating the firmament and its content. On Day Five, God will similarly
declare: “and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens,” at once
creating and assigning a place to the birds. The other addition on Day Four is that God
empowers his creations, in this case, to “rule.”

By Day Five, God moves from the celestial bodies and vegetation to other living beings. God
continues to direct the creation with his word. But God also continues to remain a step
removed. In the case of “swarms of living creatures,” God lets the waters bring them forth,
(Gen. 1: 20), and in the case of “living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping
things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds,” those are brought forth by the earth.
(Gen. 1: 24). The text does clarify, though, that “So, God created the great sea monsters and
every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and
every winged bird according to its kind,” (Gen. 1: 21), and that “God made the beasts of the
earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that

creeps upon the ground according to its kind.” (Gen. 1: 25). And again, God’s word is what
initiates being.

As an interlude, the first Biblical blessing is chanted, with God saying “Be fruitful and
multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” (Gen. 1: 22).
Where chaos once held sway, it has become clear that “the LORD … created the heavens (he
is God!), … formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he
formed it to be inhabited!).” (Isaiah 45: 18).

In the final day’s act of creation, God, for the first time, summons “us” to “make man in our
image, after our likeness.” (Gen. 1: 26). Again, the text clarifies that: “So God created man
in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
God assigns man’s role, and he is to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the
birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing
that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen. 1: 26). And like amid the animals, God casts the blessing

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the
fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves
upon the earth. And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed
which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall
have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and
to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have
given every green plant for food.”

(Gen. 1: 28-30). And man’s place among the creations is thus set.

In closing, the “hallowed” Seventh Day arrives, where God finishes his work and rests. Twice,
the Bible states that God “rested {on the seventh day} from all his work which he had done
[in creation.]” (Gen. 2: 2-3). God’s acts of speaking beings into creation, all with naming
them, planning their roles and arranging their places, is the “work of creation.” But make no
mistake. For all the rigor the Seventh Day proclaims God was engaged in, the creation
account remains a quiet drama, with its tranquil refrains. And other than God’s mysterious
presence in the opening verses and the “us” on Day Sixth, the drama is uninterrupted by
other causes.

The Second Account. In Genesis 2, where a parallel account of creation appears, God’s role
as a “behind the scenes” creator (seen with the living creatures in the first account) is
emphasized. The introduction uses the passive voice: These are the generations of the
heavens and the earth when they were created,” (Gen 2: 4) instead of the active “In the
beginning God created…” And while the succeeding verse does indicate that “the LORD God
made the earth and the heavens,” it is only as a segue to the verse’s key point, that: “no
plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up -- for the
LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground.”
(Gen. 1: 4-5). In this account, the earth and heaven may have been God’s brain children, but
the plants and herbs were a product of rain and working the land.

Sudden appearances are made-- “a mist [goes] up from the earth and water[s] the whole face
of the ground.” Following this activity “the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground,1
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:

The contradiction of herbal life taking on a cycle of its own, yet man getting God’s special
attention, takes the creation of man in “His own image,” and livens it. Man, like plant-life, is
made of the ground. But man is formed, and man’s being is realized through a direct “mouth
to mouth” act of God. And, although the living creatures do have the “breath of life,”
according to the first creation account, God’s role is never more real and more close to man
than here -- Later Biblical texts will exploit this picture in a variety of contexts. Consistently
God’s works are made via the Spirit, or to include the Spirit, or both. The Psalmist would
have King David plead, in his repentant moments following the Bathsheba affair: “Hide thy
face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put
a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy
Spirit from me.”2 (Psalm 51: 9-11)

In this account, God later finds that “It is not good that the man should be alone” and
resolves to “make him a helper fit for him.” (Gen. 2: 18). “So out of the ground the LORD
God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man
to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was
its name. “ (Gen. 2: 19). Here, God relegates naming to Man. God’s goal is to find a “helper
fit for” man. (Gen. 1: 20). Man, here, is slowly becoming the subject of the Biblical narrative
and, after the making of Woman, a key actor. Woman’s role, too, will increase in time to the
point where her raison d’etre will be termed man’s “protector.” (Jeremiah, 31: 22).

The Chronicle. Following the second account is a summary of creation which focuses on man
only. It makes up Chapter 5 and opens in a fashion that evokes the often seen Biblical form
of chronicle: “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” (Gen. 5: 1). Here, the narrative
is quick:

In Genesis 3: 19, when God chastises Adam for the transgression of eating of the tree, God will remind man that
“In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust
and to the dust you shall return.”
Abraham, in his plea on behalf of Sodom, proclaims: “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who
am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18: 27).
In Exodus 31, the (same?) Spirit would be given by God to the builders of His Mishkan, and would be equated
with “ability” and “intelligence”: “See, I have called by name Bez’alel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of
Judah and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all
craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in
carving wood, for work in every craft. (Exodus 31: 2-5; 35: 30-33).

Moses’ prophesy would also be termed “spirit” and Moses, in responding to Joshua in Joshua’s well-known
grievance says to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the
LORD would put his spirit upon them!” (Exodus 11: 29) (The same would be true of Balaam’s oracle in Numbers
24.) Later, in Joshua’s appointment as Moses’ successor, Joshua himself would have the (same?) spirit: “And the
LORD said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him.’”
(Numbers 27: 18).

When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he
created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.

True to the first creation account, God creates, blesses and names. Following, and through
the end of the chapter is a list of names, lifting the Genesis focus from the act of creation to
its progeny.

The Interlude and the Regret. At this point, new characters are added to the narrative, and
God, for the first time, expresses a feeling.

When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to
them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife
such of them as they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for
ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of
God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the
mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every
imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was
sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the
LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man
and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made

(Gen. 6: 1-7). The story brings with it innumerable commentaries. Exegetes address the
nature and reasons for its insertion, an explanation of who the players are, and several other
questions. For our purposes, though, the following is brought to light: God’s “spirit” abides
in man. Man’s “flesh” (his mortality?) dictates that this spirit cannot abide in man forever.
(This spirit, then, is what man houses when he is alive, or can be equated with life.) Man still
has “choice,” though, with respect to taking wives and the ability to multiply. God has done
more than create – God has set creation in motion. And God has done so beyond His comfort

Later literature in the Bible will clarify God’s role with respect to man’s progeny – countless
Biblical texts will reclaim God’s control. The prophets will remind Israel that “God, the
LORD, … created the heavens and stretched them out, … spread forth the earth and what
comes from it, … gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it.” (Isaiah
42: 5). More stirring are the words spoken by mother to children amidst the Maccabean

I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life
and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the
Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all
things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget
yourselves for the sake of his laws.

(2 Maccabees 7: 22-23). The last phrase, concerning God’s laws, gives way to an aside. God’s
creation of man is joined with man’s reciprocation in the form of service to God. While not
mentioned in Genesis, the Bible later will refer to God, in the act of creation, as “King of
great power, Almighty God Most High, governing all creation with mercy.” 3 Maccabees 6: 2.
In Judith, the proclamation is made: “Hear, O hear me, … Lord of heaven and earth, Creator
of the waters, King of all thy creation, hear my prayer!” (Judith 9, 12). “Let all thy creatures
serve thee.” (Judith 16: 14). In other passages, the Creator is also likened to a parent.

The Poetry of Creation

It is not until later books of the Bible that creation is revisited in poetic form. Narrated from
various perspectives (that of Wisdom (personified), in one instance) the elements of creation
combine with praise to form an account of creation adorned with notions of God’s glory and

In opening the latter half of Chapter 8 of Proverbs, Wisdom predates herself to the time of
creation. She also dates creation to a time long past, reiterating that the hands of God were
at work: “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages
ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” (Proverbs 8: 22-23).
Wisdom proclaims that she was brought forth “when there were no depths” and “when there
were no springs abounding with water.” (Proverbs 8: 24). Aside from Wisdom’s presence on
the scene, God’s creation of the heavens and earth now includes “depths,” “springs
abounding with water,” fields, the shaping of mountains and making of hills, the “dust of the
world,” (Proverbs 8: 25-26), and the wind (Amos 4: 13).

God establishes the heavens by “drawing a circle on the face of the deep.” (Proverbs 8: 27).
The “skies above” are made “firm.” The “deep” is decorated with “fountains.” The sea has
a limit, and is personified “so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he
marked out the foundations of the earth.” (Proverbs 8: 28-29).

One cannot pare the verses of Psalm 104:

Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, thou art very great! Thou art clothed
with honor and majesty, who coverest thyself with light as with a garment, who hast
stretched out the heavens like a tent, who hast laid the beams of thy chambers on the
waters, who makest the clouds thy chariot, who ridest on the wings of the wind, who
makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers.
Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken. Thou
didst cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
At thy rebuke they fled; at the sound of thy thunder they took to flight. The
mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place which thou didst appoint for them.
Thou didst set a bound which they should not pass, so that they might not again cover
the earth. Thou makest springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,
they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst. By them
the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. From thy

lofty abode thou waterest the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy
work. Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to
cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart
of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon which he
planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the badgers.
Thou hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep forth.
The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises,
they get them away and lie down in their dens.
Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening.
O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is
full of thy creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things
innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan
which thou didst form to sport in it. These all look to thee, to give them their food in
due season.
When thou givest to them, they gather it up; when thou openest thy hand, they are
filled with good things.
When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath,
they die and return to their dust.
When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of
the ground.
May the glory of the LORD endure for ever, may the LORD rejoice in his works, who
looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke!
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD. Let sinners be
consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more! Bless the LORD, O my soul!
Praise the LORD!

(Psalms 104: 1-35). Much more that animal and plant-life is included among God’s works.
Metaphor abounds. Similes of light as God’s garment and of heaven’s spreading as a tent
provide both with purpose. Creations are animated. Creations respond and they speak and,
while not necessarily part of the act of creation, they involve themselves, assuming and time,
a place, a role, or a purpose. God’s creations are abundant and manifold. God, from his high
post, feeds and shelters and has a continuing role in the life of His creatures. The image of
the Psalm is one of God’s power, but also beauty; that God is awesome, but caring.

Not to exclude God’s finest creation from the exquisite detail showered on the others, the
prophet Ezekiel ascribes the following lullaby to God:

You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in
Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, carnelian, topaz,
and jasper, chrysolite, beryl, and onyx, sapphire, carbuncle, and emerald; and
wrought in gold were your settings and your engravings.
On the day that you were created they were prepared. With an anointed guardian

cherub I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones
of fire you walked. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created …

(Ezek. 28: 12-15)

With Wisdom placing herself in the scene, “beside him, like a master workman,” the mantra
“And God saw that it was good,” now becomes a scene of rejoicing: “and I was daily his
delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the
sons of men.” (Proverbs 8: 30-31).3 The seven days of creation, themselves, will later “move
in choral dance.” 4 Maccabees 14: 7).

At last, creation becomes not an act of director and actor, with its daily affirmation of
“good,” but an act of sculpture and fashioning, and a time of celebration. And lest we take
lightly that God did impart life and activity to His work, the apocryphal book of Baruch
(Chapter 3) also revisits the scene of creation, this time painting a more vivid and active
picture. God “sends forth the light, and it goes, … and it obeyed him in fear; the stars shone
in their watches, and were glad; he called them, and they said, ‘Here we are!’ They shone
with gladness for Him who made them.” (Baruch 3: 33-34). God, having spoken His creation,
elicits response. “[T]hou didst speak, and [thy creatures] were made. Thou didst send forth
thy Spirit, and it formed them; there is none that can resist thy voice.” (Judith 16: 14, Song
of Thanksgiving). The reader, before this point, is made to think that God’s works barely
acknowledge their Creator. Yet, “the mountains shall be shaken to their foundations with the
waters; at thy presence the rocks shall melt like wax …” (Judith 16: 15, Song of Thanksgiving)

Again, the Psalmist’s verses cannot be taken apart:

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens, praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host! Praise him, sun and moon, praise
him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the
heavens! Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were
And he established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds which cannot be
passed. Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail,
snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees
and all cedars! Beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and
maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for
his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a
horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to
him. Praise the LORD!

As an aside, Wisdom becomes not only an onlooker, but an actual tool in the making of man: “O God of my
fathers and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things by thy word, and by thy wisdom hast formed man, to have
dominion over the creatures thou hast made, and rule the world in holiness and righteousness …” (Wisdom of
Solomon 9: 1-3). Psalm 104 and numerous other Biblical verses are as sure of the suggestion.

(Psalms 148: 1-14). God’s creations themselves are called upon to praise Him. In all its
detail, Psalm 148 is a poetic reminder of how what seemed like seven days of simple creation
yielded works of beauty of all sorts and sizes. As subjects of God, Psalm 148 enumerates and
calls upon “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth; Young men
and maidens together, old men and children.”

That God the Creator commands glory and respect is most fully developed in the prophets,
who implore the people of Israel and their leaders, to return to God’s way. In Isaiah 45, the
prophet’s account of God’s word is stirring:

I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the LORD, who do
all these things. Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down
righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth, and let it cause
righteousness to spring up also; I the LORD have created it.
Woe to him who strives with his Maker, an earthen vessel with the potter! Does the
clay say to him who fashions it, ‘What are you making’? or ‘Your work has no handles’?
Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what
are you in travail?’

(Isaiah 45: 7-10). Rare, this first-person oration is more alive and direct than other
descriptions of creation. An intangible “righteousness” is now made part of God’s creative
portfolio. The prophet’s quotation continues, and God’s role in the act of creation is likened
to a parent, as in the famous song of Ha’azinu (Deut. 32), where the rhetorical question is
asked: “Is not [the LORD] your father, who created you, who made you and established you?”
(Deut. 32: 6):

Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my

hands? I made the earth, and created man upon it; it was my hands that stretched out
the heavens, and I commanded all their host. I have aroused him in righteousness, and
I will make straight all his ways …

(Isaiah 45: 11-13). The prophet delivers God’s ultimate self-declaration – His role is not only
that of Creator, but of Master and Father.