Understanding Genesis for All It's Worth

Interview with Christian Minister and Marine Biologist Dr. Dennis Gordon

I’ve always, ever since a child, been interested in nature. There’s something about the living environment that is beautiful and interesting and attractive, and it just draws you in. So I went to university and I eventually majored in zoology, and then I focused narrowly again into marine zoology. I did my doctorate looking at the anatomy and aging process in a marine fouling invertebrate.

Dennis Gordon
Faith and evolution

You can’t study fossils for very long without having to consider the very hard questions. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring the difficult questions. So I had to confront the issue, what is the fossil record telling me? I began gradually to see that the evidence for evolution was really quite compelling and indisputable. It didn’t affect my faith at all. My faith has grown over the years because in the end my faith is in Jesus Christ, and one’s faith and commitment to Jesus is a consequence of the action of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.

Genesis 1

In approaching Genesis, one has to ask the question, is there more than one way of reading the book? There’s nothing new about that concept—it’s at least as old as Augustine, who said that we should be careful how we read the Bible lest we read into it, in fact, what is not there.

The Bible is a remarkable book written over more than a period of 1000 years by 40 different authors, and it constitutes many different forms of literature as well. We tend to read Genesis 1 superficially, unaware of the structure that’s actually in the chapter. It really comes down to the whole issue of exegesis—the art of biblical interpretation.

Exegesis asks certain questions concerning the Bible. We want to know, for example, why a particular passage was written. What was the historical or cultural context? What was the city? What were the issues? Who was the writer? Who was the audience? Why was it written?

Right context

If we really want to understand Genesis 1 or indeed the whole book of Genesis, we have to read it in the light of the Exodus. That’s the context. We take Moses as the traditional author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible … . He’s writing this at the time when a people who were formally in bondage to slavery are now in the process of being redeemed and on their way to salvation and the promised land.

God, through Moses, is giving them a future in relation to their present. He’s also giving them a past. How do they come to be where they are? Moses is connecting Israel with a past as well as giving them a future. So what is the context of Genesis in relation to their past?

Genesis is divided into two major parts. The first 11 chapters deal with what we might call primeval history, largely based on oral traditions and things that Moses may have learned when he was taught in Egypt in an academic way, traditions that may have been communicated through the patriarchs.

So Moses connects Israel with the ultimate origins—that the God whom they worship, the God of the Hebrews, is the God who is the Creator.

In Egypt, there were gods of the sun and gods of darkness and gods for animals and vegetation and rivers and so on. Well, the God of the Hebrews is the God who created all the things that the pagans worship. The chief point of Genesis 1 is to show that there is one God, not many.

Carefully crafted

Genesis 1 is a superb piece of literature. It is very carefully crafted. The pagan creation stories are very complex and convoluted. Genesis 1 uses some of the language of the pagan cosmogonies, drawing upon a common tale that people were familiar with, but recasting it to tell a proper theology about the God of Israel.

What was created on days one through six is the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:2 is very interesting, because it says, “And the earth was without form and void,” and this is in the old King James Version of the Bible. Formless and empty—that’s the starting condition. It says, “And darkness was on the face of the deep.” Even before you have the creation of the six days, you have something that already exists, maybe a watery surface, and the Spirit of God is brooding over that. That’s your starting point.

It says specifically that it was “formless and empty.” Why is Moses writing that? He’s writing that because Moses wants to show that the God of the Hebrews, God of Israel, is able to structure [to solve the problem of being formless] the cosmos and then populate [to solve the problem of being empty] the cosmos. The first three days have to do with structuring.

On day one, God separates the light from the dark. On day two, he separates the waters above from the waters below, and on day three he separates the land from the waters. So we have the structuring. So what was formless (in Hebrew, tohu vav bohu, void and empty) is now formed.

What God does in the second set of three days is solve the second problem, of emptiness—God populates each of the realms that he structured on the first three days. So on the first day we have the separation of day from night, and what do we populate that realm with, if not the sun and the moon and the stars? Then on day two we separate the waters above from the waters below, and what do we see populating those realms, but the birds in the upper atmosphere and the fish in the sea? Then on day six, the land animals and human beings populating the realm that was formed on day three, and that solves the problem of emptiness.

The one true God

Moses is taking elements that the pagans worship and showing that things that the pagans worship were, in fact, creations of the one true God. There’s a definite structure in there. A scientific description is not at all the point of it. The issue is polytheism, many gods, versus monotheism or one God.

 


To view or listen to all three interviews with Dennis Gordon, visit Dimensions in Ministry at https://www.gci.org/media/dimensions. The interviews can be streamed or downloaded in video or audio format. A downloadable transcript is also available. 

 

Dennis Gordon
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