No Contest - Why the Argument Over Genesis?

One doesn’t have to be religious to know that a great controversy surrounds the first chapter in the Bible. The way it is written seems to suggest that the whole universe, including the Earth and all life, was made by God in just six days. Some Protestant Christians insist on taking this literally. Genealogies in succeeding chapters are then supposed to lead us to the conclusion that all this happened 10,000 years ago, more or less.

GenesisThis creationist viewpoint has been forcefully asserted, especially during the latter part of the 20th century, and the media have been very effective in reporting it. There is, therefore, a general sense among the biblically illiterate general public (and even many Christians) that the majority of Christians have always held such a view. This is not the case.

According to Conrad Hyers, author of The Meaning of Creation, allegorical interpretations of Genesis 1 were common in the Patristic (early) and Medieval Church, whereas Protestant Reformers leaned toward a literal approach. Martin Luther, for example, criticized Augustine (A.D. 354–430) for Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of the six days of Creation.

Today, there are numerous religious books about the Genesis Creation written by evangelical or fundamentalist scientists who ridicule evolution and rewrite geological history, meanwhile demanding that the Genesis accounts can be interpreted only and wholly literally. Wedded to a particular paradigm, they fail to consider carefully what type of literature it is, why it was written, who the audience was, and what were the historical/cultural and religious settings in which Genesis was written.

The fact is, a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 has nothing to do with science, and it is poor theology to suggest it does. "Young earth" creationists have overlooked the first principles of exegesis. Exegesis is the systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning.

Translation of the fifth tablet
of the Enuma Elish

Compare the order of deities with that of the celestial bodies in Genesis 1:16, in which the order is deliberately reversed.

tabletsHe [Marduk] made the stations for the great gods; The stars, their images, as the stars of the Zodiac, he fixed. He ordained the year and into sections he divided it; For the twelve months he fixed three stars. The Moon-god he caused to shine forth, the night he entrusted to him. He appointed him, a being of the night, to determine the days; Every month without ceasing with the crown he covered him, saying: "At the beginning of the month, when thou shinest upon the land, Thou commandest the horns to determine six days, And on the seventh day to divide the crown." When the Sun-god on the foundation of heaven… thee,…[tablet here damaged]

When exegesis is done properly, Genesis 1 is seen for what it is — a literary masterpiece, an intelligent, carefully crafted assertion of monotheism against polytheism (many gods), a matter of great significance for the people who were alive when Genesis 1 was written. Many chapters of the Old Testament record how the people of Israel preferred to "go whoring after other gods" than follow the one true God.

Cosmogony or cosmology?

Moses wrote the Creation account as a cosmogony that was intended to counter the well-known cosmogonies of the pagans.1

A cosmogony is a story of the genesis or development of the universe and the creation of the world, whereas cosmology is strictly a formal branch of philosophy dealing with the origin and general structure of the universe. We know what the commonest pagan cosmogonies were because they are preserved in cuneiform script on clay tablets.

The best-known cosmogony, the famous Babylonian creation epic known as the Enuma Elish, itself based on earlier, pre-Mosaic versions, was written some time after Moses. When you read a translation of it (see box), you can see what the Israelites were up against. It describes a struggle between cosmic order and cosmic chaos. There are great sea monsters, and the chief divinities, in order of pre-eminence, are the stars, the moon, and the sun. Other gods abound in the cosmogonies — gods of darkness, water, vegetation, various animals, and so on.

"Exegesis is the systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. When this task is done properly, Genesis 1 is seen for what it is — a careful, intelligent, extraordinarily crafted assertion of monotheism against polytheism. It is stunning in its brevity and effectiveness."

The Enuma Elish and earlier cosmogonies help us understand why the Genesis account is written as it is. As one archaeologist has written, Genesis freely uses the metaphors and symbolism drawn from a common cultural pool to assert its own theology about God.

In the beginning…

Let’s now look at the structure of Genesis 1 to see how this works (for this you might want to consult a Bible). It starts out with a summary statement: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [the universe]."

Most of the verses in the chapter hinge upon the next statement, in verse 2: "The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." The following verses explain how God respectively structured and "filled" the conditions of formlessness and emptiness. The six days are arranged in two parallel sets of three (noted as early as Augustine in his City of God), such that what is created on days four through six populates the appropriate realm structured in days one through three.

Problem Preparation Population
Verse 2 Days 1-3 Days 4-6
darkness day 1a - creation of light (day)
day 1b - separation from darkness (night)
day 4a - creation of sun
day 4b - creation of moon and stars
watery abyss day 2a - creation of firmament (sky)
day 2b - separation of waters above from waters below
day 5a - creation of birds
days 5b - creation of fish
formless earth day 3a - separation of earth from sea
day 3b - creation of vegetation
day 6a - creation of land animals
day 6b - creation of humanity
without form and void tohu (formlessness) is formed bohu (the void) is filled

The point of this symmetry in Genesis 1 is that the form of the presentation is at least as important as the content. With this perspective, it is clear that the structural framework is artificial and therefore was never intended by the author to be taken literally as a seven-day historical account (with God resting on the seventh day). The fact of God’s creative authority over everything is certainly intended literally, but the seven-day framework is just that — a framework.

As Victor Hamilton in his 1990 commentary on Genesis 1 wrote, "A literary reading of Genesis 1…understands ‘day’ not as a chronological account of how many hours God invested in his creating project, but as an analogy of God’s creative activity. God reveals himself to his people in a medium [a seven-day week] with which they can identify and which they can comprehend."

How the ancients saw the world

We need to understand that, for most peoples of the ancient world, all the various regions of nature were divine. There were sky gods, earth gods and water gods, gods of light and darkness, rivers and vegetation, animals and fertility. Everywhere the ancients turned, there were divinities to be petitioned, appeased, or pacified.

Each day of Creation in Genesis 1 takes on two principal categories of divinity and declares that these are not gods at all but creations of the one and only true God. This includes humans, none of whom — not even kings or pharaohs — are to be worshipped as gods.2

 gods
From the Egyptian book of the dead, the god Shu separates Nut (the sky) from Geb (the earth).

Hebrew monotheism (one God) was a unique and hard-won faith. The temptations of idolatry and syncretism (blended religion) were everywhere. Later in history, it came to be understood just how liberating was the concept of monotheism. From time immemorial, superstitious people have attributed natural phenomena, or calamities like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, to gods who were beyond understanding (except by a priestly elite) and had to be appeased and not questioned. Genesis 1, on the other hand, asserts that there are no gods but God and that his creation is comprehensible and amenable to investigation. This perspective made possible the scientific study of nature.

Verse 16 of Genesis 1, when understood, is amusing. As an intentional put-down, it deliberately reverses the order of the chief deities of a well-known cosmogony. The sun — called the "greater light" to avoid using the only available Semitic names for the sun, which were names of deities — comes first, then the moon, the "lesser light." The stars — the highest deities — are barely mentioned in a throw-away line: "He made the stars also"! Not only that, Genesis 1 makes it plain that they are not to be worshipped; they were made to serve — daily, seasonally, and calendrically. And none is accorded astrological significance.

You see the contrast? In this chapter, God overcomes darkness, makes order out of chaos, and even makes the great sea creatures, which, as it happens, are not monstrous. The impressive orderliness of Genesis 1 and its patterned structure are a deliberate response to pagan mythologies. The Hebrew God has no competitor and there is no cosmic battle going on. Everything is under control.

No contest

Genesis 1 is not at odds with modern geology and biological science. This is not an issue here. To insist that it is does violence both to Scripture and to science. As Victor Hamilton wrote, "This is a word from God addressed to a group of people who are surrounded by nations whose cosmology is informed by polytheism and the mythology that flows out of that polytheism. Much in Genesis 1 is patently anti-pagan…. The writer’s concerns were theological."

For more information, see our three video interviews with Dr. Gordon: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and our other articles about Genesis 1.

Both Henri Blocher and Rick Watts (see Further Reading) have highlighted the similarities and differences between the Genesis account and some themes apparent in Egyptian cosmogonies (something relatively few scholars have attempted). In short, Genesis 1 is a corrective against polytheistic concepts encountered by the Israelites in their old land as well as in their new.

Dennis Gordon is a biologist in a government research organization in New Zealand and an Associate Member of the U.K.-based Society of Ordained Scientists. He obtained his PhD in 1973 (Dalhousie University, Canada), was baptized in the same year, and was ordained in 1980.

Further reading

Blocher, H., and R. Preston. In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis. InterVarsity Press, 1984. 240 pages.

Gibson, J.C. Genesis (volume 1). The Daily Bible Study Series. Westminster John Knox, 1981. 228 pages.

Hamilton, V.P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Eerdmans, 1990. 522 pages.

Hyers, M.C. The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science. Westminster John Knox, 1984. 216 pages.

Watts, R. "Making Sense of Genesis 1." Stimulus 12(4) (2004): 2–12. www.stimulus.org.nz/index_files/Stim12_4RikkWatts.pdf.

Endnotes

1 Moses is taken to be the author of Genesis. As Henri Blocher, Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, Illinois, has written: "We stand…with the contemporary specialists who maintain the traditional positions, those suggested by the Bible itself, which associate Genesis with the work of Israel’s most powerful thinker, ‘our Teacher,’ as the Jews call him, Moses." And for good reason — his training in Egypt and his later pastoral life uniquely equipped him intellectually and spiritually, as one who was "instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7: 22) and who was filled with the Spirit of wisdom, which he later passed on to Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9)

2 All humans, men and women equally, not just pharaohs and kings, are said to be made in the likeness of God, with the royal prerogative of rulership (properly, stewardship) over the earth. This equality of men and women, extended to common folk, was revolutionary teaching!

Bible photo: iStockphoto.com

Illustration: ResonanceImages

void and empty, so what was formless was now formed. So that solves that problem on the first three days.

What God then does in the second set of three days is solve the second problem, of emptiness, and then 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 three, the land animals and human beings populating that realm that was formed on day three, and that solves the problem of emptiness.

And so in that account, Moses is showing that the God of Israel is the God who is greater than all forces and life and everything. But incidentally, as you’ve pointed out, on each of those days 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. We see that six plus one or, in fact, three plus three plus one framework is just that, it’s a structural framework on which to hang that story.

JMF: So, in Genesis, the God of Israel is actually creating, structuring, and manipulating to his own pleasure everything that the pagan cosmogonies are actually holding up as gods — the still water, the canopy of the sky, down to the crocodiles and everything that Egyptians worshiped, the rivers, the sweet waters, and the non-sweet waters, and all those things that become the gods of the ancient cosmogonies. It’s really a very theological statement, a declaration as opposed to some kind of scientific day-by-day “here’s how God created”…

DG: [A scientific description] is not at all the point of it. The issue is polytheism, many gods, versus monotheism or one God. That’s the issue. That was the issue for Israel, because when they were to come into the promised land and beyond. So many times we read in the Old Testament how the prophets lamented that the people of God kept whoring after other gods. It seems that they constantly had to be reminded that there was one God, the one true God of Israel, not a whole host of gods. It was an issue, a critical issue for them.

In Genesis 1 God is establishing from the outset that the God of Israel is the Creator God. That’s the issue, that’s the context. Again, the Exodus is the context in which we read Genesis. And then, in the first 11 chapters and beyond, what else does Moses do? Well, there are lots of genealogies. The genealogies connect Israel with Adam, to show that they have an origination.

And then Genesis 12-50, the larger part of the book of Genesis, deals with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then this story of Joseph and the 12 tribes of Israel, and that then takes you up to the Exodus story. That’s what Moses is doing – he is making that connection from the beginning to the end. But again, it’s set in the context of the Exodus. God is a God who is bringing about redemption and salvation, and he’s the Creator God, what is more.

JMF: So you’ve got a declaration of who God is, you’ve got then a declaration of who Israel is in light of who God is, and that is all leading, of course, to the matrix from which the Messiah would come, and we move into John 1:1 and we find that behind all this all along, the Son of God himself is this Messiah who emerges out of Israel, who God formed from the beginning, and the whole story adheres together in a way that you really can’t see if you’re focused on trying to make Genesis 1 a science book.

DG: Precisely. And it does a great disservice to Genesis to do that, because we’re bringing in our own 21st-century issues and mindset and orientation, and imposing it in the Scripture or context where it doesn’t belong. So, in fact, a young earth and insistence on a literal day-by-day interpretation does violence both to Scripture and to science. But in any case, going back to this whole issue of addressing monotheism versus polytheism in Genesis 1, in many ways it’s actually quite amusing.

The Mesopotamian cosmogonies held the stars or the deities associated with the stars to be the highest of all deities next to the moon and next to the sun. On day four in Genesis 1:16 we have this line, “And God created the greater light to rule by day and the lesser light to rule by night, and he made the stars too.” When you understand what’s going on, that’s actually a very amusing verse because it deliberately reverses the importance of those divinities that’s in the pagan gods’ cosmologies. Instead of the stars being the most important deities in this pantheon, he presented them in a throw-away line, oh and God made the stars, too…

JMF: An afterthought (both laughing).

DG: But we may also ask, why does Moses use this curious expression, the greater light and the lesser light?

JMF: Well, let’s hold that thought and we’ll be back with part two, and we’ll carry on from there.

DG: Okay.

JMF: Thanks.

DG: You’re welcome.

Dennis P. Gordon2007
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