On Creation in Genesis

I recently wrote a brief post on why Christianity and science aren’t inherently at odds. Now I aim to explain why I think the beginning chapters of the Bible do not oppose (nor support) any particular scientific theory.

But since there are so many internet monologues on this topic, and since my reasoning gets technical at times, I have asked famed biblical defender and Scopes Monkey Trial lawyer, William Jennings Bryan, to join me in a discussion.

hello

Listen Willie, you were publicly shamed for arguing a scientific position from the Bible. What if I told you that all of that was unnecessary? What if I told you that it is possible for someone to believe the Bible is inspired by God, not dismiss it as mere poetic mythology, and yet keep it away from scientific debates?

go-on

Genesis was written by an ancient person to ancient people through ancient categories. So the problem is not with what we read in the Bible, but what we read into the Bible. Modern science, frankly, has distorted the way Genesis is interpreted.

trustworthy

On the contrary, Will. It actually is trustworthy, but it communicates truth on its own terms. Genesis is written as history, but it was written to people who did not possess our modern historic and scientific conventions. In other words, Genesis is high-context communication, meaning that the author and audience share a lot of assumptions (kind of like with an “inside joke”).

So we need to understand not only what the original Hebrew words meant (because our English translations are already someone’s interpretation), but also what the ancient Hebrew worldview was. This requires us to set Genesis 1-2 in its ancient context before we apply it to our modern one.

context

Good question. There are a couple aspects to consider. First, there is the internal, biblical context. Genesis 1-2 needs to be read in light of the whole Pentateuch (i.e. Genesis through Deuteronomy), because these books were (mostly) written by the same author (i.e. Moses). These five books tell the story of God setting forth a plan through a specific people group (i.e. Israel) to solve the problem of sin (i.e. what’s wrong with the world). This plan includes bringing them to a promised land where he will dwell with his people forever.

so

So when Genesis is read in the context of the Pentateuch, we see how the first few chapters connect to the larger story. Genesis 1 sets the table for Adam’s role as God’s chosen representative of humanity (chapter 2). He fails to fulfill his calling because of disobedience (chapter 3). His story foreshadows Israel’s role as God’s chosen representatives. They fail, too (frequently). Israel’s story foreshadows Jesus as God’s chosen representative. He succeeds (thankfully).

But there’s more. This internal biblical context needs to be placed in the larger cultural context of the Ancient Near East (ANE). This means we need to look at how Genesis compares and contrasts with creation parallels in other ANE literature so we can understand ancient history writing, cosmology, literary conventions, and, most importantly, what sets the Bible apart from them.

wjb5

No, Willie, there’s no reason to think that. But Moses shared far more in common with a Babylonian horse-trainer than he does with 21st century American physicist, so it is beneficial to compare Genesis to other ANE literature.

time

You’re probably too busy losing the presidential election three times. Let me summarize.

When Genesis is compared with other ANE texts (and there are thousands of them) we see that they don’t make scientific arguments as we make them in the modern era. People in the ancient world were far more concerned with why the world functions like it does, not with how it was constructed (although they do at times ponder this). Genesis shares a similar understanding of cosmology, but its theology is unique.

For example, the ancients believed the “expanse” in 1:6 (raqia) was a solid canopy in the sky. However, God is not affirming the existence of the raqia in Genesis 1, but is speaking to the Ancient Israelites through their cosmology. (If God spoke of the ozone layer, they would have no clue what that meant).

But the theology of Genesis stands out by way of contrast with other ANE literature. The Babylonian Enuma Elish and Akkadian Gilgamesh, for example, have a brood of gods who battle for supremacy, and creation is a mere sideshow. Mankind provides food for the gods because they are needy, childish deities. Genesis, however, presents the the vision that there is only one God, that he is control of everything, that the world was designed for human occupancy, and that God provides for mankind, not the other way around.

The point is that the ancients thought about the world differently than we do. So we need to understand the way they conceived of the world before we apply their writing to today’s issues.

age

It says nothing.

explain

Ok, this is where it gets technical. Bear with me, buddy. The Hebrew word in Gen. 1:1 that we translate as “beginning” (reshit) is often used to denote a general time period (see Job 8:7; 42:12; Gen. 10:10; Jer. 26:1; 27:1; 28:1; 49:34). There were other words available that express a specific point in time, so Moses is intentionally leaving the duration of this “beginning” vague. It could’ve lasted billions of years; it could’ve lasted a couple minutes. The text doesn’t specify. But it is during this general time period that God created everything.

explain

The verb for “create” in Genesis 1:1 (bara) is only used with God as the subject, meaning that it denotes a uniquely divine action. (Humans don’t bara anything).

Now, bara does not necessarily indicate the creation of matter (for example, God creates (bara) “disaster” in Isaiah 45:7. Disaster is not a material substance). So to figure out whether bara is describing material creation, we need to look at the direct object of the verb (i.e. what exactly is being created). In Gen. 1:1, this is the “heavens and earth” (ha-shamayim and ha-eretz). This is a figure of speech in Hebrew to express the idea of “entire cosmos.” So bara does include the creation of the material world in Gen. 1:1.

so

So it seems natural to the text to see Genesis 1:1 as describing God’s creation of everything that exists – including planets, dinosaurs, E minor, the Law of gravity, that species of weird looking monkeys, and the Grand Canyon. He did this during the general time period of the reshit.

days 

First off, they’re literal 24-hour days since they are coupled with the phrase “there was evening, and there was morning – the X day.” The attempt to make the “days” represent long ages isn’t supported by the text.

ha

Yes, but this doesn’t mean what you think it means. The 6-day week is not the time frame for God’s creation of the universe. Again, that happened in 1:1. Six says is the time frame for God’s preparation of his earthly abode, which occurs after the creation of the universe in the reshit (“beginning”).

So from 1:2 onward, God is preparing what he already created to be functional. This is kind of like how I am “creating” this blog post by putting words and photos of you into order so they can be understood.

poor-job

Easy, William, or we’ll move on to the topic of you being the basis for the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz.

blank

. . .

close-up

Let’s get back on track. Understanding God’s functional creation also gets technical, so stay focused.

First off, there is an important conjunction between 1:1 and 1:2 – the word “and” (waw). It is much more natural to see this conjunction as furthering the story in Gen. 1:1, not recapping it.

Here’s why.

In Gen. 1:2, the phrase “formless and void” (tohu wabohu) should be translated as “uninhabited wasteland” because that is how this term is most often used in the OT (see Deut. 32:10; Job 6:18; 12:24; Ps. 107:40). This means that at some point after God created the universe in the reshit, it was in a state of (relative) chaos. So if 1:2 is not describing a time period that is subsequent to 1:1, then it would appear that there was preexisting material before God began to create. That is problematic due to other biblical witness to God creating everything from “nothing” (John 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 11:3).

go-on

The first three days describe the preparation of realms (light and darkness, sky and sea, and land). The next three days describe the preparation of things that occupy those realms (“greater” and “lesser” lights, birds and fish, animals and humans). The parallels between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6 are clearly evident.

But nothing is being created during the six days – the realms and entities are being prepared. This is expressed by the verb “made” (asa). asa occurs more than 2,600 times in the OT and is translated in dozens of ways. Causation of any kind can be described by this verb (see Gen 12:5; Ex. 1:21; Ex. 31:16; Num. 8:26; and 1 Kings 12:31). English words like “do,” “provide,” and “prepare” are most often the best translations for asa.  So “God prepared two great lights” would be an appropriate “literal” reading of 1:16.

Now, there is a curveball here. The verb bara appears again after 1:1 – when God “creates” the sea creatures (1:21) and when he “creates” male and female in his image (1:27). This is significant, because, to reiterate what I said earlier, bara can signify material creation.

So what does bara mean in 1:21 and 1:27? Here’s a thought. “Sea creatures” were seen by the ancients as creatures of chaos and adversarial to humans, so the use of bara could signify that they are God’s creation like everything else (and thus under his control). And humans are special creations of God because they bear his image. Again, the use of this verb in 1:21 and 1:27 does not necessarily mean that sea creatures and humans were brought into physical existence during day 5 and 6, respectively, so this doesn’t refute the argument that God created everything in 1:1.

So in sum, in six days God fully prepared a sacred space for him to dwell with the pinnacle of his creation – humanity.

sacred-space 

The sacred space is where God’s presence is manifested, and there are a few suggestions as to the specifics of it. John Sailhamer argues that it is the “promised land” because

  1. the word for “earth” (eretz) used in Gen. 1 is most often confined to the sense of “land” throughout the Old Testament, which localizes the area God is preparing in 1:2-2:1.
  2. The promised land is a major theme of the Pentateuch (see Gen. 15:18), and Genesis 1 is setting up the rest of the Pentateuch, so the land being prepared in Genesis 1 should be seen as the same promised land.
  3. Also, the rivers that marked off the Garden of Eden are the essentially same as in Gen. 15, which describes the land promised to Abraham.
  4. And Jeremiah alludes to Gen. 1 in showing God’s judgment on Israel and the destruction of this specific land (Jer. 4:23-26).

John Walton argues that God is preparing the cosmos as a temple in Genesis 1, but his and Sailhamer’s views aren’t mutually exclusive. The Garden of Eden can be seen as the first sanctuary in the promised land, where God’s glory emanates from. This foreshadows the tabernacle in Exodus, which foreshadows the temple, which foreshadows the living temple of God, which is our bodies.

wjb1

Certainly. The narrative in Genesis sequentially progresses, and covers two distinct creative time periods: 1) Gen. 1:1,  and 2) Gen. 1:2-2:4.

  1. Over a period of time in the distant past, God – the one and only, self-sufficient, benevolent God – uniquely created everything that exists. However, the mechanics and duration of God’s creative activity are unspecified.
  2. Then, at some point in the future God prepared sacred space for him to dwell in harmony with humanity, who is the pinnacle of creation. He did this in six, 24-hour days.
  3. Then God rested. Divine rest in this sacred space is the goal of creation.

new-interpretation

It’s actually not new. The Enlightenment really distorted interpretations of Genesis, so it only seems new to modern readers. Sailhamer argues that this interpretation is actually the oldest (he dubs his particular flavor as historic creationism). Also, this position and approach is (in general) held by esteemed commentators like Tremper Longman III, Gordon J. Wenham, and the aforementioned Walton.

scientific-beliefs

It means that the science used to determine the age and mechanics of creation can be evaluated on its own merit. Evolution might be bogus. It might not be. But Genesis does not automatically place us on any specific team. So Christians can be good scientists without compromising their beliefs.

adam-and-eve

That’s a much more complex issue, and there’s no time to address it now. I’ll cover Adam and Eve in a future post.

resources

Sure thing. Try any of these:

John Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One.

John Sailhamer. Genesis Unbound.

Tremper Longman III. The Story of God Bible Commentary: Genesis.

Gordon J. Wenham. Rethinking Genesis 1-11: Gateway to the Bible.

Christian, husband, pastor, father. Occasionally, I try to arrange words into sequences that make a difference.