Genesis 1:20–23 (ESV) — 20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
What are the “great sea creatures”?
Unlike the fourth day, day five doesn’t appear to involve functions, so what is going on?
Did God “let” or actually “create” on day five?
What is the significance of the blessing in verse 22?
Day fives seems simple enough.
- God filled the seas with “great sea creatures” and “every living creature”.
- He filled the “expanse” with birds.
- But there is actually much more going on.
- We will survey our cast of regulars and then explore Walton and Sailhamer.
Great Sea Creatures:
What are the great sea creatures?
- The Hebrew word is “tannin”.
- Many versions of the Bible translate this word in verse 21 as “great sea monsters”.
- Interestingly, it is also translated in other OT appearances as serpent, jackal, crocodile and whale.
It must be noted that the “tannin” are singled out.
- Moses tells us in verse 21 that the “swarms of living creatures” consist of both “living creatures” and “tannin”.
- Wenham suggests that “it is probably significant that ‘sea monsters’ are picked out for special mention”.
The word is used elsewhere in the OT as follows:
- Isaiah 27:1 (ESV) — 1 In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.
- Psalm 74:13 (ESV) — 13 You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.
- Job 7:12 (ESV) — 12 Am I the sea, or a sea monster, that you set a guard over me?
So are we dealing with real live dragons and sea monsters?
It is time to get all “ancient Near Eastern” again.
- Some of Israel’s ANE neighbors had a mythological sea monster of the same name.
- “Tannîn in Ugaritic literature has been shown to be a generic term for the mythical chaos monster” – Kenneth Mathews.
- This god, which was also another name for the sea, “is consistently pictured as an enemy of Baal” – Victor Hamilton.
- Many scholars believe that a number of OT uses of “tannin”, especially the three we just read, are alluding to this mythical pagan sea monster/god.
- In other words, not to a literal animal/creature.
- In fact, Victor Hamilton says that the tannin references we just saw “defy any other explanation”.
In these instances scholars believe:
- The OT writers “apparently use[d] the language of Canaanite myth to describe God’s victory over his foes” – Wenham.
- Or, as Mathews puts it, “for allusion to express their affirmation in the sovereignty of God.”
- In other words, the myths were “thoroughly demythologized” to make a theological point – TWOT.
- Yahweh, metaphorically, controls and thwarts “chaos” and the “sea” for His purposes and glory.
BTW – AiG views “tannin” as a literal creature – some sort of dragon (aka, a dinosaur).
- It is certainly possible that the mythology could have arisen from actual sightings of a large sea creature.
But what is the use of “tannin” in Genesis and why is it singled out?
- Certainly Moses isn’t saying God created a “mythical chaos monster”/sea god?
- Hamilton affirms this, “Curiously, Genesis does not use the language of myth in its narration of the Creation story” – Victor Hamilton.
- Its use in Genesis 1 is for a literal animal or kinds of animals.
- John Sailhamer agrees.
And yet, most agree that the ANE “tannin” is polemically in view.
- In other words, we have ourselves another polemic against ANE cosmology.
How does the polemic play out?
- It plays out by Moses’ deliberate, singled out use of the Hebrew “tannin” and its linguistic relationship to his neighbor’s use of the word “tnn”.
- “The tannîn, so greatly feared, is depicted as no more than a sea creature. Though ‘great’ in size to man’s thinking, our passage shows that these creatures are numbered with the smallest of the sea in God’s eyes” – Kenneth Mathews.
“The primeval monsters, which symbolize rebellion in ancient Near Eastern myths, are here depicted as merely a few of God’s many creatures, depending upon and ultimately serving God” – Bruce Waltke.
- In other words, a “tannin” is a creature made, controlled and under the authority of Yahweh.
- It is not an autonomous “chaos monster” living in opposition to Yahweh’s purposes.
Creation or Letting:
The typical view here is that day five consisted of the material creation of sea life and “expanse” life.
- What gives this view more weight, as compared to day four, are two things.
- 1) There don’t appear to be any functions assigned.
- 2) Verse 21’s “created” is the word “bara”.
“‘So God created’ is the second of only four verses in which bārāʾ (‘created’) occurs in the narrative (1:1, 27; 2:3; also 2:4a). It begins and ends the section, 1:1–2:3, and also is found at the two important junctures in creation: here, the creation of the first animate life, and in 1:27, the creation of human life” – Mathews.
We will shortly see how Walton and Sailhamer deal with this.
- Victor Hamilton provides us with a clue.
- It might be significant that “the reappearance in v. 21 of the verb create, not used since v. 1, underlines this point” concerning “tannin” – Hamilton.
- What point?
- The polemical point that “tannin” is not a god but a mere creature that Yahweh “bara’d”.
“A distinctive feature of the fifth day is the first recorded ‘blessing’ in the Bible” – Mathews.
- “This is the first time the additional divine word takes the form of a blessing (v 22, cf. 28) instead of a naming (vv 5, 8, 10)” – Wenham.
- And who received the first blessing?
- The sea animals and “expanse” animals.
What was the blessing?
- The ability to procreate.
- “This special endowment for living things comes only from God since his word alone brings life” – Kenneth Mathews.
Interestingly this is the same blessing that humanity receives on day six (verse 28).
- “This blessing indicates that the creatures are in a favored position before the Lord” – Kenneth Mathews.
- And the later “…startling reversal of God’s attitude toward his world of creatures by the flood exhibits the enormity of the world’s corruption” – Mathews.
- God preserves some, yes, but He destroys many in His judgment of man.
Create and Blessing:
There is a link, theologically, between the use of “create” and “blessing” in our text.
- Wenham says the link is made due to the “verbal similarity” – “bara” and “barak”.
- “God’s blessing is in one sense a perpetuation of God’s creative activity, it also enables man to imitate God by procreating” – Wenham.
- We will see more made of this connection with Sailhamer.
John Walton’s Take:
Walton says day fives’ functions are to be found in the functionaries.
- So day five is not the creation of the functionaries (sea animals and expanse animals).
- It is the assignment of their functions by God.
- In other words, it is God declaring how the functionaries are to function within creation.
And what are the functions of the functionaries?
- Walton says, “It is their function to fill their respective realms”.
- How? – God says they were to swarm/teem, fly and procreate.
How does Walton deal with the use of “bara”?
- We saw earlier that Hamilton conceded the significance of the use of “bara” in conjunction with “tannin”.
- Walton agrees.
The use of “bara” with “tannin” is the reason why the polemic against ANE cosmology works.
- So “bara” on day five is not about the material creation of the creatures.
- It is a declaration that the “great creatures of the sea” are merely functionaries that God previously created.
Why is this significant?
“In the ancient world the cosmic seas were populated with creatures that operated against the ordered system. Whether antithesis or enemy, they were viewed as threats to order, as they inhabited the region that was itself outside of the ordered system” – John Walton.
This common ANE view is why God/Moses would single them out with “bara”.
- “Since there is no cosmic warfare or conquest in Genesis as is sometimes part of the ancient Near Eastern picture, the text indicates that these creatures are simply part of the ordered system, not enemies that had to be defeated and kept in check. In Genesis these creatures are fully under God’s control” – John Walton.
- The “tannin” function “to fill their respective realms” just as any other creature.
- They don’t function to oppose Yahweh’s order and purpose.
John Sailhamer’s Take:
God has been systematically preparing the Promised Land since day one for image bearers.
- Creation, remember, is solely about God’s setting apart the Promised Land for image bearers.
- Day five is one more step God takes to this end.
- God had previously prepared the expanse and the waters.
- On day five he commands the previously created animals to inhabit the waters and expanse of the Promised Land.
How does Sailhamer deal with the use of “bara”?
- Sailhamer deals with “bara” three ways.
(1) “Bara” is used to delineate three different stages of the preparation of the Promised Land.
- These stages were also alluded to by Mathews in an above section.
- “Each new stage in creation is thus marked by the special Hebrew verb bara, ‘to create’: the universe (1:1); the living creatures (1:20–21); and humanity (1:26–27)” – John Sailhamer.
Sailhamer says this marking of the stages is buttressed by the blessing that appears on day five and day six.
- Like we saw earlier, “bara” is wordplay on “barak”.
- “It is significant that the word ‘to create’ also occurs on the sixth and seventh days, where again it is linked by means of a wordplay to the Hebrew word ‘blessing’” – John Sailhamer.
- By using “bara” with “barak” the author is purposely marking out these stages.
(2) A distinction between God’s words and authorial comments show that “bara” is an allusion to Gen. 1:1 indicating that the animals were created “in the beginning”.
- Sailhamer begins this approach with a question.
“If Genesis 1:1 states that God created the universe ‘in the beginning,’ and if that means God created the plants and animals at the same time, then why does God create more animals on the fifth and sixth days?” – John Sailhamer.
- He notes that this is the same question about the creation of the sun – Genesis 1:1, day one or day four.
What we have going on during the days of creation is this:
- There is a significant pattern of God speaking followed by an authorial comment.
- This is similar to how John would add commentary in his Gospel.
- John 2:21–22 (ESV) — 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
So in our text it plays out like this:
- We have a “God said” coupled with “Let the waters” and “Let birds”.
- This is then followed by the author’s comment, “So God created”.
- The “God said” commands do “not call these creatures into existence, as if they did not exist previously. Rather, they simply assign the creatures to their proper domains, the waters and the sky” – Sailhamer.
- “God is not so much ‘creating’ the birds as He is filling the skies over ‘the land’ which He has just prepared for them” – John Sailhamer.
- Therefore, “Here we see God filling the Promised Land with various kinds of animals that were already created in ‘the beginning’” – John Sailhamer.
So what is the purpose of the author’s comment and use of “bara”?
Its purpose is to remind “the reader of an important part of the overall narrative—God ‘created’ all the animals. The author does not say God created all the animals on the fifth day; he merely says it was God who created all the animals and that now He commands some to fill the waters and the skies over the promised land” – John Sailhamer.
(3) In keeping with his text-centered approach, Sailhamer points out a parallel with Exodus 8.
“The picture of the events of this day [day five] are reminiscent of God’s filling the waters and skies of Egypt with swarms of water creatures in Moses’ day. When Moses extended his staff over the Nile River, as he was commanded by God to do, the text says, ‘the Nile was to swarm with frogs’ (Exodus 8:3). These are the same Hebrew terms which are found in Genesis 1:20. When Moses followed God’s command, the text again says, ‘the frogs came up [from the Nile] and covered the land’ – Sailhamer.
God didn’t create these creatures at that moment, but by His word (like Genesis’ “God said…let”) he called them out.
“God spoke, and frogs, fish, and birds came from somewhere and filled the skies and waters of the land. There is no need to suppose that these creatures did not already exist as a result of God’s work of creation ‘in the beginning.’ On the fifth day God simply populated the ‘land’ with those creatures” – John Sailhamer.