I find two approaches to Genesis 1 & 2 very satisfying. The first looks at creation in itself; the second looks at it with respect to humanity’s relationship with God. But, a notable thing is that Gen 1:1 says that God created the universe. He simply created it. No fanfare. No counting of 24 hour cycles. No light, no firmaments. No nothing. He simply created it. All of it, apparently; there is no elaboration. Then it says the earth was empty and without form. I understand this to give meaning to the idea of form and matter – very peripatetic of God. We are led to imagine a world without form and without things. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the deep; this deep being the primordial chaos – water without a container. This is a good image of formlessness. This deep, this primordial water is chaos, which is the opposite of cosmos – a universe with order and form. God will now establish cosmos. But we must remember that this implies a dichotomy, a universe where there is cosmos and there is chaos, where there is life and death. The ancient water is symbol of chaos, the world before life began, a symbol of death. But then the Spirit moved upon that symbol of death…
And cosmos began, order, life. A reasonable understanding of these days of creation is that there are two sets of three days and they correspond to each other. Days one through three establish form and days four through six establish things, or content. The creation of light on day one is also the creation of time – the first day and night. The creation of the firmament on day two is also the creation of space, of waters above and waters below. The creation of the dry land with its living plants on day three is also the creation of life. These three – time, space and life – are the basic forms of the cosmos.
Next these forms are filled with things. Day four fills the time created on day one with time keepers: the lights that rule the day and night. Day five fills the space created on day 2 with things above (birds) and things below (fish). Day six fills the life created on day 3 with beasts that live on the dry land. And now the universe has order – chaos has been transformed into cosmos. This idea of creation is meaningful and provides us with a philosophic basis for understanding the macrocosmic world. But there is also a hint of the microcosmic, as we humans can spiritually pass from our own chaos to cosmos; the universe has already done it – now it's our turn.
A second approach to this story that I also find satisfying is the covenantal understanding. A covenant, simply put, is the establishment of a kinship bond between two people who are otherwise not related. Marriage would be the best example: a man and a woman who are unrelated swear a covenant oath and they are established as kin, the closest relationship of family in our society. In the ancient middle east, covenant bonds were established for other reasons as well. The key characteristics of the covenant is a permanent relationship, same as that of family, and the swearing of an oath, that is, the calling upon God to bear witness to the covenant. The result is a binding relationship that is as strong as family kinship. Kinship relationships are innate to humans, as Anthropology 101 will tell you.
In the story of the six days of creation, day six is the crux. That’s the day that the beasts are created, among whom are the humans. We are beasts, by and large. But those humans were created “in the image and likeness of God.” That expression, image and likeness, is an old Hebrew idiom that refers to a father and his child. You can find it elsewhere in the bible, in some of the genealogies (e.g., Gen 5:3). This beast called a human was made a child of God. A kinship bond was established between persons who were otherwise not related to one another: God and man. A covenant was sworn.
In Hebrew, to swear a covenant oath is expressed using an idiom that refers to the number seven. So, God swears this covenant oath via a seven day creation of the cosmos. We, for our part, remember it via a seven day cycle of worship. The number seven is often described in Christian books as the number of perfection, but that isn’t right: it’s the number of the covenant. The covenant separates us from the other animals and makes us divine.
But if we are children of God, then we are in a family with Him. That is true. What is the cosmos that God made in those six days? He made a house for us to live in, as families live in houses. The world has a roof over our head and food for us to eat. We have brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, because He made us male and female. The language of Genesis is family imagery.
On the seventh day, the day of the covenant, God rests. Perhaps more accurately, God and man rest in each other, for the family bond brings peace. Immediately after this covenant is established, the Hebrew name of God used in Genesis changed from Elohim to Yahweh Elohim. Elohim is simply the word “God.” (Interestingly, it is plural.) As God builds our cosmos, He has no name, just a noun to describe Him. Yahweh is, however, the name of God, as revealed to Moses in the burning bush (Ex 3:13-14). Once the family is established, this family name is announced, as all families have a family name. A kinship bond requires familiarity, which in turn requires knowing each other by name.
And why is the relationship with God a family relationship? Because He is Himself already a family, a Trinity of Persons who live together in a bond of love. (Perhaps this is why the plural Elohim is used for God, instead of the singular El.) Their love is so abounding that God created us just to share that love. He teaches us this by creating family, which is meant to be a school of such love. It is unfortunate that so many families have failed to provide this instruction; the children of these damaged families are at a disadvantage to learn that basic lesson of God’s love.
Back to Genesis: Now that we have a covenant and our Father has a family name, there begins a second creation story. This second story carries the context of marriage. The man – Adam – is to give names to every animal. Through this process, he discovers that he is different from all of them. There can be no covenant between them and him, even though they all have names! Now that he discovers this, God creates Eve, and Adam recognizes that here is one with whom he can form a covenant – that of marriage. This second story repeats the same covenantal motifs as the first story, but using matrimonial imagery to reinforce the concept. It’s really brilliant pedagogy.
Another note: As St. Paul recognized Adam as a type of Christ, so the Fathers of the Church recognized Eve as a type of the church. The sleep of Adam was symbolic of the sleep of Christ on the cross, where Jesus’ side was opened and blood and water came forth, symbols of the sacraments, symbols of the church, typified by Eve who came from the side of sleeping Adam. As Eve was the “Mother of all the living,” so is the church a spiritual mother of Christians. Again, brilliant.