The World is Charged with the Threeness of God
January 17, 2023

The Missing “It Was Good”

The patterns and repetitions of Genesis 1 are well known: God speaks, it happens, and God sees that it’s good; names are given, and there’s evening and there’s morning: a day. But the patterns of creation, like the patterns throughout Scripture, are marked by variation and exceptions. The first variation to the overall pattern in Genesis 1 comes almost immediately, in the second day. When God makes the firmament and calls it “heavens,” God doesn’t see that it’s good. Why might this be?

Between the “it was good” of Day 1 and the first “it was good” of Day 3 (there are two in Day 3), God makes two separations. On the second day, He makes a firmament to separate the waters above from the waters below. This firmament he calls “heavens.” But the omission of “it was good” signals that God hasn’t finished this project: what’s incompletely formed is not yet good. The first action of the third day is a further separation, this time gathering the waters to their own place, creating the dry land. Now the waters are bona fide “seas,” and the dry land is properly “earth.” Only then is it good.

Thus by the middle of the third day, God has given the creation a threefold order, something unanticipated on Day 0, when creation was introduced—or begun—as a binary: “God created the heavens and the earth.” Before exploring why this might be, consider the interplay of pairs and triads throughout the creation account.

Two’s and Three’s in Genesis 1

As we have just seen, on Days 2 and 3 of creation, two divisions yield three interrelated realms, a 2-in-3, 3-in-2 structure. But if we step back and view the chapter as a whole, we find that the overall structure of the creation account is also an interplay of two’s and three’s. It has frequently been observed the last three days of creation activity correspond with the first three: Day 4 (heavenly luminaries) corresponds to Day 1 (light); Day 5 (creatures of the seas and heavens) to Day 2 (firmament separating waters above and below); and Day 6 (land creatures and man) to Day 3 (dry land and sprouting things). Thus, the days come in three pairs (considered in their correspondences) or a pair of three’s (consider sequentially). Like the creation itself, the account has a 2-in-3, 3-in-2 structure.1

The interplay between two’s and three’s show up throughout Genesis 1 in lists of created things, as well. The light and darkness binary of the first day is filled up by the triad of sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. Plant life, created later on in the third day, also sprouts in three categories: grasses, grains, and fruit trees. (The KJV’s threefold list is preferable to the way modern translations give a two-category division to the general cover term “vegetation.”) From this threefold list, two types of plants are given to man on the sixth day as food.

On the fifth day, two kinds of animal life are created: swarming swarms in the water and flying fowl in the heavens. But in the next verse, the two become three: great sea creatures, teeming swarms, and birds on the wing. The sixth day is, like the third, a two-part day, with land animals being created first, then man. The land animals come in three types: livestock, crawlers, and wild animals.

As God deliberates in preparation for man’s creation, He plans to make man ruler over the animals from the three realms of creation, a plan effected in God’s command of blessing a few verses later.

So what should we make of these two’s and three’s, especially the very first one: the heavens and earth of Day 0, which becomes the heavens, earth, and seas of Days 2 and 3?

The Heavens and the Earth

In other words, why is the creation presented as both a binary and also as a triad? James Jordan reads the twofold heavens and earth distinction in Genesis 1:1 as the distinction between the High Heavens—God’s created space—and the Terrestrial Creation—the visible world, man’s created space. In this scheme, God’s intention from the beginning is to stamp the earth with heaven’s pattern, a progressive task that begins in Genesis 1 and then continues throughout the rest of Scripture.

It is difficult, however, to maintain this distinction absolutely, even in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 2:1, after an account which has been concerned entirely with Terrestrial Creation, Moses summarizes that creation using the heavens and earth pairing of Genesis 1:1, suggesting that the visible heavens—Jordan’s “earthly heavens”—are the primary referent of the “heavens” in Genesis 2:1. And if the heavens of 2:1 are terrestrial, then it’s reasonable to think that the Heavens of 1:1 are too.

But perhaps we don’t have to choose. Even if the heavens of Gen. 1:1 and 2:1 have immediate reference to the visible heavens, the threefold order introduced on Days 2 and 3 suggests that there’s a deeper—no, a higher truth being hinted at (if not asserted) in the binary of 1:1. A consideration of the details of the threefold order strengthens this reading.

Threefold Creation

Why would the earth be given a threefold structure: heavens, earth, and seas? One can imagine a unitary structure, or a simple binary, or (though this is harder) a four-fold or five-fold order. Why threefold? Pre-modern interpreters, I think, wouldn’t have had a hard time answering that question: the threefold creation is a reflection of the Trinity.

This is not a mere numerological connection (“Look! A 3! It must be the Trinity!”). The creation account begins with God’s Spirit hovering over the waters, and throughout the rest of Scripture, the Spirit is especially associated with water—most especially, the waters of baptism in which the Christ and his followers received—and still receive—the Spirit. The Father is everywhere associated with the heavens, especially by his Son, who speaks constantly of His Father, and ours, in heaven. The Son is obviously associated with earth, both in His pre-incarnate ministry and especially in the thirty years or so of what we call His “earthly” ministry. He is a man of heaven, to be sure, but if He hadn’t sojourned on earth, He would never have been a man at all.

These associations are not accidental. Neither are they mere metaphorical impositions with no real bearing on God’s relation to his creation. God ordered the cosmos as He did, so that He could relate to it as He does, and thus reveal Himself as He is.

If this understanding of the threefold order is right, then the earth below does indeed bear the stamp of the Highest Heavens. Viewed this way, the heavens and earth of Genesis 1:1 remind us of the Creator-Creature distinction: God’s transcendence and absoluteness. The heavens, earth, and seas remind us of God’s immanence, His intimate relation to His creation, and the creation’s reflection of its maker. (This formulation owes much to John Frame.)

As Scripture progresses, this threefold order comes to have additional resonances—creation in its fullness, creation in all its realms—but we ought to hear this overtone of Heaven’s order, of the fullness of God in Himself and His relation to his creation, in all subsequent references to the heavens, earth, and seas.

And as I’ve said, this is not a mere metaphor, or a happy correspondence. The threeness of creation is a brute fact about the world itself. The world in which we move and live and have our being is charged with the threeness of God.

Joshua Jensen is a Bible translator in northeast Cambodia, where he lives with his wife Amy (who has always insisted, over his objections, that everything comes in three’s, not two’s) and their six kids (three girls and three boys: a pair of triads).

  1. A somewhat more subtle analogue to the 2-divisions-3-realms of Days 2 and 3 comes in Day 6, not in the mode of creation but in its narrative form. The creation of man is narrated in three parallel clauses which form two “overlapping” couplets: (a) God created man in his own image / (b) in the image of God created he him / (c) male and female created he them. The second line (b) pairs with both the first line (a) and the third (c): it is a grammatical inversion of the semantically identical first line; and it is an exact grammatical parallel with the third line, while introducing new semantic elements, “male and female” and the plural “them.” Thus this three-line, two-couplet poem uses a 3-in-2, 2-in-3 structure to communicate the two binaries which henceforth define the human condition: our created status in relation to God, and our race’s fundamental identity as male-and-female. (A similar phenomenon is found in the folk poetry of some cultures which can rhyme lines forward and backward, such that a single line forms a couplet with the line before it and also with the line after it. I’ve written a bit about it here.) ↩︎
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