The major thematic link of the first eleven chapters is the structuring of the world around a system of parallels and contrasts. Light breaks into the darkness, land separates water, and “the greater light” of the sun opposes “the lesser light” of the moon (1:16). A more complex occurrence of parallel and contrast takes place with the account of man’s creation. Man is not only made in the image of God, paralleling him, but woman, made from the man’s rib, contrasts with man. The Genesis writer uses the poetic device of antistrophe, or the repetition of a line in reverse order, to highlight the parallels and contrasts in the creation of man:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. 1:27–29
The antistrophe suggests that the world is logically organized around binary opposites, or basic opposing forces. Positive and negative, work and rest, and day and night are among the many binary opposites that the first chapters of Genesis describe. Good and evil is probably the most consistently explored binary opposite in the Old Testament, and the story of Cain and Abel initiates a lengthy analysis of the difference between good and evil. Cain’s deception and murder of Abel, as well as his evasive response to God’s questioning, describe his evil as inherent in his character and unmitigated by other good traits. God’s punishment, however, demonstrates both justice and mercy, establishing God as the absolute good that opposes Cain’s absolute evil. God exiles Cain from God’s presence, but marks Cain to protect him from the wrath of other people.
Images of the ground and of the earth recur in these chapters. In Genesis, mankind’s relationship with the ground is often a measure of the quality and fullness of human life. God creates Adam from dust, and Adam’s fate is connected to the earth when God curses him:
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it. . . .
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return. 3:17, 19
Cain is similarly cursed to the ground, for he is exiled from his home and sent to wander in a strange land. The ground is the object of God’s rage when God sends the flood and, in some respects, when he destroys the Tower at Babel. However, the ground is also the symbol of God’s blessing to Noah, for God’s promise of fertility to Noah’s family mirrors the green and plentiful quality of the earth.
In the account of Noah, God himself uses symbols as much as the authors of the story. God explicitly calls the rainbow a “sign,” or symbol, of his covenant with humanity after the flood (9:12–13). God frequently uses physical objects to show his spiritual purposes. But unlike the Greek gods of Homer or other Near-Eastern deities, the Hebrew God is never depicted as limited or defined by these objects. Rather, the authors of Genesis suggest that God is telling an elaborate allegorical story through the act of creation and that as God manages the affairs of the earth, symbolic meaning is one of the primary ways in which he communicates with his creations.
The central purpose of these introductory chapters is to construct a detailed etiology, or explanation of the origins of the world. The author is trying to account for the way that certain unfavorable elements of everyday human life came into being. The etiological concerns are clear enough in these chapters. The writers and the redactors have collected stories that explain how evil and separate nations entered the world, why women must live in a society characterized by male standards, why we as humans must work to survive, and why our daily labor is always so hard.