We often refer to Genesis as the first of the five "books of Moses". Tradition holds that it was written by Moses during the Exodus or wanderings in the desert. The audience, then, was Israelites who had grown up in Egypt. They knew tales of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and had some conception of a God who had made a promise to them, but they had also knew about the Egyptian gods, and had their perceptions of what it means to be a god shaped by Egyptian mythology. For many generations after Moses, the Israelites struggled to understand that God was not merely a particularly powerful creature of the same type as the Egyptian gods, but something entirely different.
Understanding the Egyptian creation story gives us a greater understanding of the key lessons of Genesis 1:
-In the beginning, God. In Egyptian mythology, there was what we might think of as the void or the undifferentiated infinite waters. Swimming within that void were deities of the infinite, the watery abyss, darkness, and the invisible, and those gods oversaw the hatching of the egg that contained the creator-god Amen-Re. In Genesis, God is already there in the beginning, before the void or darkness or water. God is eternal.
-God created... and it was good. In Egyptian mythology, the waters are divided when the creator's egg hatches, as an unintentional side-effect. Amen-Re creates for himself a wife, the star goddess, who has an affair with the earth, so he separates stars from earth and puts the air between them as a guardian, declaring that the stars cannot bear children on any day of the year. This created a loophole for another god to add days to the year using light won from the moon, which allowed the stars to birth five more gods. Finally, humans are created by yet another god, as Amen-Re creates a place for them to live (Egypt) and other creatures to fill the land. Different segments of creation are unintentional or even against the will of the creator. In Genesis, God creates the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, animals, plants, rivers, oceans, and eventually humans, all according to His own plan. Everything within creation is intentional, and it is what God wanted.
- God is sovereign. In Egyptian mythology, the creator loses track of some of his creations through the mist, gets fooled by loopholes and deception, and every night is "hidden" as the great primordial lotus closes up. Amen-Re often has no choice or no power; he is subject to his own environment and the doings of other gods. In Genesis, God is not subject to chance or environment or other creatures; He acts according to His will alone.
- God is separate from the universe. In Egyptian mythology, the gods are things like the sun, moon, stars, air, and moisture, and people are expected to revere those things. In Genesis, God creates each of those things, and none of them are treated as though they have their own personality or desire. They are treated as objects, not as agents; the sun and moon are not even mentioned by name. Similarly, livestock, the Nile, and Pharaoh were considered gods in Egyptian mythology, but God overwhelms those things during the plagues in Exodus. This leaves no room to worship any part of the universe.
When we read Genesis 1 in light of the Egyptian mythology that would have been familiar to its original audience, the main lesson becomes clear: unlike the Egyptian gods, Yahweh is eternal, sovereign over the universe, separate from the universe, and created the whole universe according to His plan and desires. Genesis 1 is not meant primarily as an introduction to history, but rather, as an introduction to Theology -- to what God fundamentally is and is not.