When I started this blog, one of the first things I said that I would write about was what the things are that have helped me continue as a Christian despite the challenges that Christianity faces. One of those items was the unanswered questions in the field of science, a post that I made a while ago. While this post doesn’t add anything to the scientific discussion there, it does look at the Biblical side of things, and why I think that the biblical account of creation is misread and is in no danger of being irrelevant, regardless of what scientific discoveries might arise in the future.
When I was a kid, the first chapter of Genesis was amazing. That God would create the world in seven days just by speaking was completely believable and a fascinating story. I see the same fascination with it in my kids’ Sunday School classes. It gives a simple, clear explanation for how the world (including us) came to be and even explains why we have a seven day week.
Of course, growing up has a tendency to altar our understanding of life, making it far less simple, but often far more interesting. This has been the case for my understanding of the first chapter of Genesis. Although I spent many years studying young earth creationism (and I still find many of their arguments interesting), I eventually began to feel like there was something missing from all their discussions and theories of creation. In particular, especially as I studied more about how to interpret the Bible, I began to wonder if we were reading it correctly. We are far removed from the original writers and audience of Scripture, and I began to wonder how they would have understood this passage, and what point it was trying to make. As I have worked through these types of questions, I have begun to understand and interpret the first chapter of Genesis much differently than I did as a child. To be honest, it is a view that has very little to say about the age of the earth or the method of it’s creation. Instead, I believe Genesis 1 was presenting an alternative worldview for the ancient Israelites, one that is still relevant to us today, and one that lays aside the arguments about the age of the earth to focus on some concepts that are much more important to our life.
While there have been a variety of influences in this journey, I must especially highlight the influence of John C. Lennox1 and John H. Walton. In particular, many of the ideas below come from Walton’s commentary on Genesis.2 If you want a much more detailed explanation of some of these concepts, I highly encourage you to read it.
Audience and Author
To start with, we ask the simple questions of who wrote this account and to whom were they writing? Tradition (and the books themselves) has it that Moses wrote the majority of the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Old Testament) and completed it before the Israelites entered the Promised Land (by 1200 BCE3 at the latest). Others argue, based on internal manuscript details and language, that it wasn’t written until later, some even saying as late as the Persian period when the Israelites returned from exile. I struggle to believe that it was that late, personally. Since we have virtually no clear evidence one way or the other, I lean toward it being primarily an account that came from Moses, although the exact timing of when it was committed to writing and how various accounts may have been blended into one are certainly up for discussion.4 Regardless, though, there are some characteristics that we need to take into account as we read Genesis:
- It was written in the Ancient Near East (ANE) in a broader cultural setting that had a way of explaining the creation of the world, as evidenced by works such as the Enuma Elish, an ancient Babylonian creation myth. While nobody has convincingly showed that the creation story in Genesis directly derived from other ancient works from Babylon, Egypt or other places, it is reasonable to assume that the Israelites were aware of how other cultures explained the world, just as we are aware of the culture around us. It is also evident that a variety of common ANE concepts are present in the book of Genesis, although with a significant twist that differentiates them from their contemporaries.
- It was written with the Israelite’s context in mind – their recent departure from Egypt, their slavery there, and all the Gods and beliefs that they had known in that context, as well as the broader ANE context I just mentioned.
- Obviously, no person was present during the actual creation, except for the very last few verses when Adam and Eve were created.5 This means that this story is only available through the revelation of God. Whether He revealed it to Adam and Eve and it was passed down from there, or whether it was revealed to Moses, there’s no way to tell. That means that God could have revealed the act of creation precisely (what we view as scientifically), or literarily (in a story form that would capture the main concepts in a way the people would understand given their context and culture). While either one is possible, I lean towards the second for a variety of reasons that will be explained as we go.
As mentioned in that last point, we must decide what type of literature Genesis 1 is to be able to understand it properly. Like many, my default while growing up was to read it as history. It’s a story, so it must be historical. However, it doesn’t take much to realize that there’s more to this story than just a simple account of history. Days 1-3 are mirrored by days 4-6. Either God was very poetic in his creation act (which is definitely possible), or it was deliberately arranged to make it flow smoothly and sound very poetic. Add to that the repetition of various expressions (“It was good”, “there was evening and morning the nth day”, etc,) and we suddenly are faced with a very poetic creation account. After having a brief exchange with a creation scientist who swore up and down that it was pure history, I called up my seminary’s linguistic professor, and he calmly and quickly defined Genesis 1 as poetic narrative, similar (although much shorter) to other creation accounts such as the aforementioned Enuma Elish. That makes sense to me and seems to fit well with the poetic elements present.6 That means that it is moved out of the category of “pure” history. While obviously not everyone will agree with me, I have yet to find an argument that convinces me that it has to be history and can’t possibly be poetic.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to get inside the author’s mind to determine exactly what his intended purpose was. The best we can do is try to understand the general flow of what he was communicating and understand the literary and cultural purposes of the time when he was writing. While we might not get it perfectly right, it’s probably going to be a lot closer than if we start from our own culture and literary understanding, which is a minimum of 2500 years removed from the original context.
With that caveat in mind, I am persuaded by Walton’s argument that the focus of Genesis 1 is not on structure (the parts and material), but rather on function (the purpose and role) of the cosmos. In particular, he points out that the Hebrew term used for “create” in Genesis 1 brings out more of the concept of “arrange and organize” rather than “manufacture”. In saying this, neither he nor I is trying to claim that God did not, at some point in some way, create the universe from nothing – rather, that is not the focus of Genesis 1. It appears, both in the broader culture and the Israelite context, that the question on everybody’s mind was not “How did God make this all?” (which is what we ask), but rather, “What is it’s purpose, and how does it work?” They wanted to know how it was organized, not how it came to exist. As we shall see, this impacts our understanding of the passage considerably.
I could spend forever detailing all the complexities of the passage, but instead I refer you again to Walton’s commentary on the matter for an in-depth explanation. Here, I just want to highlight some of the key factors that stand out to me.
- Have you ever noticed the description of the state of the world in verse 2? That it was “formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”? The description is one of a lack of order, not lack of existence. This fits in well with the ancient concept of darkness and water as conveying chaos and lack of purpose much better than our concept of nothing existing and God calling it into being from nothing.
- There is a distinct lack of personification here that stands in marked contrast to other ancient worldviews. In other words, the water, the darkness and chaos are not gods and goddesses (such as Tiamat, the goddess of water who was cut in two to form the seas and the sky in the Enuma Elish). This continues throughout the whole account. The greater and lesser lights (sun and moon) are just lights, not gods or goddesses. They’re not even named directly! The entire account shifts the focus from a group of gods who gave function to the earth (and thereby needed to be given sacrifices to control these areas) to a single God who was in charge of everything.
- Related to that, the concept of chaos is different than what is seen in other ancient accounts. Instead of being evil, it simply is. As Walton says, “There is nothing sinister or menacing about this chaos in Genesis; it is simply the indication that God has not yet done his work.”7 In these two points, we see that the author is using familiar concepts, but changing them to develop a new, different worldview.
- Day one of creation is what I find most fascinating and sets the tone for the rest of the passage. There have been many attempted scientific explanations of how God created light on day one, but waited until day 4 to create what we accept and view as the sources of light. However, Walton argues that the focus is not on the creation of waves and particles, but on establishing the function of the world. In other words, when God separated the night from the day, the focus is on the fact that night would follow day, then day would follow night, and so on. In other words, he was establishing a pattern of time – day, night, day, night, day, night, etc. This is the foundational concept for how we measure time – the passage of days. Interestingly, when we read the definitions from verse five (God called the light “day” and the darkness “night”) back into verses 3 and 4, we get a totally different feel for this: “And God said, ‘Let there be day!’ And there was day. God saw that the day was good, and he separated the day from the night.” I don’t know if that’s legitimate linguistically in the original language, but I think it helps us get a good grasp on God’s focus here. He established time as the basis of our life on earth.
One other note worth making here before moving on is how God calls it all good. This again seems to contradict the worldview of that time, which seemed to view darkness as one of the sources of chaos and something to be feared. Instead, God says time is good – both day and night. We see a similar reality in some of the other days, in particular day 2 (the expanse of water was also seen at that time as chaotic and sinister) and days 5 and 6 where both wild animals and sea monsters are seen as good, not as evil.
- Day 2 sees God dividing the water above from the water below. I remember studying creationist literature in high school that argued, based on this verse, that the earth used to be surrounded by a canopy of water that created a greenhouse effect, causing things to grow bigger (dinosaurs), live longer (accounts in the Bible and other ancient cultures) and be generally warmer. I haven’t seen that argument for a while… At any rate, in the ancient world, they did not share our understanding of the sky, space, stars, etc. They literally thought the sky was a hard dome. And that the water in its various forms (hail, snow, rain) was somehow let into the dome by God (or gods), and that the stars were somehow in or above the dome, but certainly not way off into space like we understand them. Their understanding was completely logical given the observational evidence that they had. What’s more, the purpose of the firmament was to regulate the weather system. When we read day 2 in light of this, it makes far more sense. God made a firmament (or vault or dome) that he called the sky. He left some water below and put some above (rain, snow, etc.). Basically, he set up the weather system.
- On day 3, we see God gathering the water into one place (which matches with their understanding of one land mass surrounded by water) to create dry ground. He then causes plants to grow and reproduce after their own kind. Once again, rather than focusing on the specific items that God created (plants, ocean, dry ground), it is helpful to view this as organizing the chaos into a working system – in this case, the agricultural system. At the end of day 3, rather than unorganized chaos, we have a functioning world: time has been established and called good, and the world is ready for its inhabitants – what Walton refers to as the functionaries, or those things/beings that govern and fill these different spaces.
- On day 4, returning to the concept or sphere outlined in day 1, we see the arrival and purpose of the lights – to govern the day and night, to separate night from day, to serve as signs for sacred times, and to mark days and years. It is an explanation of their function, not their fabrication.
- Day 5 also mirrors day 2, this time filling the firmament and waters with their respective functionaries – birds, fish, etc. These are not creatures that are enemies (in particular since the word used seems to indicate the large sea animals, i.e. chaos monsters) – they serve a function and were put there by God.
- Finally day 6 mirrors day 3, presenting the various animals (domesticated, wild herds and wild predators) as the functionaries (inhabitants) of this sphere.
- Most notable on day 6, of course, are the humans, who are created in God’s image and given the role of ruling the world God has created. The focus is on the image of humanity – that they in some way carry the essence of God and his character – as well as their role of acting as God’s representatives to rule and subdue the earth. Once again, this role and concept of humanity differs notably from the worldviews of the day, where humans were usually created out of some sort of conflict or sexual relationship between the gods, where they could be an annoyance to the gods (too noisy), and where they served the role of providing food for the gods through their myriad sacrifices. To once again quote Walton, “Whereas Mesopotamian literature is concerned about the jurisdiction of the various gods in the cosmos with humankind at the bottom of the heap, the Genesis account is interested in the jurisdiction of humankind over the rest of creation as a result of the image of God in which people were created.”8
So where does all this leave us? (I won’t get into day 7, since most of the disagreement about interpretation focuses on the creation part, not the resting part.) I think that there are a few things that Genesis 1 is not, and a few things that it teaches us that we have often lost sight of.
First, it is not a straight history text as we often have considered it. Second, it is not concerned primarily with structural creation (things), but rather with a focus on function – how the universe works. As such, it really has almost nothing to say about scientific matters or the creation method and timeline. It is not focused on teaching the age of the earth and the physical steps in creation. In this sense, we are free to follow wherever science leads – a discussion that is far from settled.
What this account does still teach us is a variety of truths that are important for our lives. First, it was created (made to function) by God. In our time, this contradicts the purely naturalistic view that says everything happened without God, just as it contradicted the ancient worldview that a bunch of different Gods were the source of this world. We can debate long and hard about the details of how God created the world (structurally), but those disagreements and debates should not derail our conviction that God created it.
Second, it proclaims that the world is good and functions the way it is supposed to. This was a huge message in a time when there were so many chaotic forces of nature (wild animals, darkness, the ocean) that were to be feared rather than celebrated. In our day, most of these things do not hold the same element of fear that they once did. Instead, our culture is more likely to view the world either as a resource to be used and abused or as an entity to be worshiped. The creation story charts a middle course. The world is good and to be understood and appreciated, but not to be worshiped. The cosmos is to be subdued and ruled by humanity, but not abused. It is good, and we should treat it with the respect and care it deserves. What’s more, it teaches us that even time was a creation of God, and the passage of time is a natural and good reality. We struggle with this as we strive to halt the hands of time (or at least our own aging!), but time itself is a creation of God for this world.
Finally, the value of humanity as created in the image of God is upheld, with all its ramifications. We are valuable and separate from the animals, who were not created in God’s image. We have a purpose in this world, and it is a significant and, dare I even say it, noble purpose – to steward the world that God has made. This has huge implications for how we view ourselves, our work, and our place in this world.
Genesis 1 is a beautiful passage of Scripture. I love it. I think it does a lot for setting the tone of Scripture, for who God is, for who we are, and for how amazing this world is. And I think that we do a serious injustice to both this passage and to our understanding of our role in this world when we spend all of our time focusing primarily on a debate about scientific ideas that most of us don’t fully understand and that detract from the primary messages of the chapter. While I don’t insist that everyone has to convert to my (and Walton’s) interpretation of this passage, I do think that we need to set aside the debate about how creation happened and work together to proclaim the presence of God, the value and purpose of humanity, and the wonder of this world that God has given us.
1 Especially his book Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science. Zondervan, 2011.↩
2 NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. Zondervan, 2001. I have found this commentary fascinating. It is one of the few commentaries that I have read like a book.↩
3 I’m going to use BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) as my dating abbreviations. Don’t read anything into it one way or another. Some Christians will get annoyed at the removal of Jesus by changing Before Christ (BC) and Anno Domini (AD – Year of our Lord). Non-Christians can get annoyed at leaving Jesus in the terms. Since someone is going to be mad no matter what, I’m trusting in the grace and maturity of Christians to not make this a big deal. Prove me right.↩
4 It is entirely possible that the accounts found in the first five books were passed on orally or in written form from Moses, and even prior to Moses, before being collected and synthesized into one account. It is even possible that there were multiple different times of collation, done at different times. This does not have to negate the primacy of Moses as the “author”. As Christians who believe God’s word was inspired, it is possible to extend that inspiration to the subsequent editors as well as to Moses. Paul said that all Scripture is inspired, not that one particular person or method of writing it down was inspired. It was a human-divine partnership, and I think too often we needlessly restrict that partnership to a specific belief about how it happened.↩
5 For the sake of this post, we won’t get into the debate about whether Adam and Eve were real people or are literary figures to convey a truth about humanity.↩
6 Some argue that Genesis 1 does not fit into traditional Hebrew poetry such as that found in the Psalms or prophets, that uses parallelism, chiasm, etc. I would argue that while it might not match exactly a lot of the poetry found in other parts of Scripture, I hardly think it makes sense to ignore the poetic elements of this passage because they aren’t exactly the same as other poetry, especially if we consider that Genesis may have been written hundreds of years before much of the other poetry.↩
7 Walton. Genesis. p. 74.↩
8 Walton. Genesis. p. 134.↩