Reading the Genesis creation account

June 17, 2020

Reading the Genesis creation account

Andrew G. Shead

Genesis 1–3 is a theological text about the physical cosmos. It is a theological text because its aims are to explain who God is, what human beings are, what the world is like, and why everything exists. It is the opening scene of a drama of sin and redemption whose closing scene (Revelation 21-22) symbolically depicts a new creation. To tell this story, Genesis 1–3 describes people, places, and events, and these descriptions have become controversial. How should we read them? Are they theological inventions that serve the theological story, i.e. natural objects that represent spiritual truths? Are they ancient stories that explain the significance of the world rather than its workings or history? Are they effectively empirical descriptions of what an observer would have seen? Or are they all (or none) of the above? These questions concern the relationship of the narrative to cosmology—a relationship that has changed over time.

Pre-modern readings

In every age readers have received Genesis 1–3 through the lens of their own cosmology, or world picture. For most of human history since Genesis was written, the reader’s world picture has not been radically different from that of the ancient Near East, and so it was not a focus of exegesis. When Augustine, for example, insisted on reading Genesis 1 ‘literally’ he simply meant that it was actually about creation, and not merely an allegory about something else. Specifically, he believed that all things came into being together, and that the six days represented the progressive comprehension of God’s work by angels when God told them what he was going to do beforehand. And yet he could call Genesis 1 ‘a faithful record of what happened … according to the plain meaning of the historical facts’. This was because the spiritual realm was more real for Augustine than the physical, and a creative act that happened in an angelic mind was ‘truer’ than one which took place materially. When ancient writers did bring the mechanics of creation into focus, their concerns and beliefs were of their time, not ours. Those whose believed God actually took six whole days to create had to defend themselves against arguments that God would not be so incompetent and inefficient as to require this much time.

As technology magnified human powers of observation, our world picture underwent radical change. From the first outlines of a heliocentric universe revealed by 16th century telescopes a detailed cosmology has emerged, which has brought the background of Genesis 1–3 into the foreground of interpretation. Over the same period, a detailed picture of the ancient world also emerged, through the excavation of countless texts and other artefacts. This leaves modern readers with the option of foregrounding new information about the ancient world, the modern world, both, or neither. Reducing the ensuing debate to ‘three approaches’ is, of course, an over-simplification. Most approaches share elements of others, and all approaches are theological to some extent.

I have selected just one or two examples from across the spectrum of opinion, enough to illustrate the range of basic assumptions and methods, but not enough to cover every variation or do full justice to the positions covered. The suggested resources (see p??) paint a fuller picture. The positive reasons for adopting each approach are inevitably the main challenges to the others, as each approach claims, over against the others, to be the best method of reading Genesis. To avoid repetition, considerations which are both positive reasons for one approach and challenges for another, are only mentioned positively in the approach they support. They are not listed again in the ‘objections’ sections of the other approaches (which include mainly concerns not mentioned elsewhere in the article), but should nonetheless be understood as constituting the most significant challenges to each approach. 

1. Empirical approaches

Assumption: The text describes what an observer would have seen if they had been there. More precisely, the biblical text takes basically the same approach to describing the observable world that a modern scientist would; the relation of description to reality is the same in each case. Empirical readers are of two types.

Method 1a. Look for the observed world in the world of the text, and seek to conform the descriptions of Genesis to modern science.

Proponents: ‘Old Earth’ creationists, e.g. Hugh Ross, Joseph Stallings.

Outline: There is great variety within this category.

The Gap Theory, popularised in the Scofield Reference Bible, postulated that Genesis 1:1 describes an original and ancient creation, ruled by Satan and destroyed at his fall. After many eons ‘the world became formless and void’, and God recreated the world in six days. Anything science uncovers from too long ago (such as dinosaurs) comes from the first creation.

Day-Age theories read ‘day’ as ‘era’ (cf. Psalm 90:4), and take the text to be describing modern cosmogony, from stellar evolution to the evolution of life. Light (Genesis 1:3) before luminaries (Genesis 1:14) corresponds to the early solar system, when interplanetary dust obscured the sun. Day Two describes the formation of the atmosphere; Day Three covers plate tectonics and volcanism; and so on. In addition, some suggest that many millions of years elapsed between the creation of hominids (Genesis 1:26) and the Neolithic Revolution, in which two individuals were made into Homo Sapiens (Genesis 2–3). More unusually, Stallings argues that the corruption of the Fall affected all of spacetime—including the past, which was changed as a result, introducing sin, death, and the fossil record into the ancient universe.

Objections: Careful work on the syntax of Genesis 1:1–3 has rendered the gap theory virtually extinct. Context (‘morning and evening’) requires the days of Genesis 1 to refer to 24-hour periods. The genre of Genesis 1–3 does not encode information in a way that can be correlated with science. Stallings’s views have troublesome implications for eschatology (if the Fall is undone in the new creation, will the sin for which Christ died never have happened?).

Method 1b. Look for the world of the text in the observed world, and seek to conform modern science to the descriptions of Genesis.

Proponents: ‘Young Earth’ creationists, e.g. Henry M. Morris, Donald DeYoung.

Outline: On this reading, since Genesis 1–3 is historical prose, its order of events must be the correct one. Genesis 1 describes God’s word instantly creating mature adults ready to reproduce ‘after their kinds’. The six Creation Days are linked to the work week in Exodus 20:8–11, and Jesus, who believed Genesis 1–11 relates ‘literal’, also created instantly by word in his miracles. There was no death before the Fall. The tight, gapless genealogies of Genesis 5 and 10 pinpoint creation around 4,000 BC. Noah’s flood, around 2,300 BC, covered the whole world. This is what orthodox Christians always believed, and the alternative is that God made a world of suffering and mass extinctions, requiring millions of years of mutations to produce humans, and called it ‘good’.

To support this reading in the face of mainstream scientific theories, a discipline known as creation science has developed, according to which the Flood created most rock layers and fossils, and washed the tectonic plates into current positions.

Variations in this approach include genealogies with gaps, by which creation is pushed back to 10,000 BC and the Flood to 3,300 BC; and the omphalos theory, now rarely held, in which the universe was created complete with signs of apparent age. However, most creation science tries to account for evidence of age more specifically, e.g. explaining the apparent age of rocks by postulating a billion-fold increase in radioactive decay rates during the Flood Year (the RATE Project).

Objections: The appeal to miracle and the unobservable is inconsistent with the discipline of science. Hypotheses about the impact of unrepeatable past events upon the observed world can never be falsified: for example, the RATE Project concluded that its proposal would heat the earth’s surface to 22,000˚C, but unknown mechanisms must have prevented it from melting.[1] Theologically, creation science restricts the Bible’s confidence that the world’s regularities are predictable (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:4–10) to the post-Flood world, despite the continuity implied by the genealogies of Genesis 4. Creation in Genesis 1 is presented in terms of the daily patterns of divine providence that we observe today.

2. Cultural approaches

Assumptions: Genesis 1–11 is ancient cosmology, and should be read as such. It views the world through the eyes of the peoples of its time.

Method: Establish the genre of the text from comparative literature and read Genesis 1–3 as a product of its pre-scientific time, by which God truly reveals himself.

Proponents: Walter Moberly, Kenton Sparks, John Walton.

Outline: Mesopotamian creation myths, epic tales, and legendary histories, such as Enuma Elish, the Eridu Genesis, the Gilgamesh Epic, and the Sumerian King List, bear such striking similarities to the primeval narratives of Genesis that their dependence on this material (which predates Moses) is beyond question. The effect of these similarities is to throw the theological differences of Genesis into high relief, especially its monotheism, which is unique in the ancient world. The biblical God is Creator, not creature, and this difference alone radically alters Israel’s world picture by draining divinity out of the cosmos, so that the natural world becomes a thing to be used, not a person to be placated. The God of Genesis 1–3 creates effortlessly by speaking. He appoints humanity as agents of his rule and reveals his will to them, because his sovereignty is moral as well as physical.

Cultural readings consider it likely, therefore, that Israelite borrowing of these accounts served a polemical purpose, setting God over against the gods. What we should not do is treat these accounts as scientific. Not once in the Bible does God correct Israel’s ideas about the way the world works (e.g. that the moon is a reflector, not a light like the sun).

So far there is broad agreement, but at this point scholars divide. Genesis 1–11 contains much that does not appear to be either polemical or borrowed—so what, precisely, is the genre of this unique account? Myth? History? Parable or allegory? In a real sense it is sui generis (its own genre), but its similarities to other genres evidently communicated something specific to its readers.

For some scholars the Old Testament’s creation texts cannot be distanced from myth. If we cast our net wider to include Job and Psalms (e.g. Psalms 74, 89, 104), we see a conceptual world that is less distinct from that of Israel’s neighbours, including conflict between God and the gods. The author of Genesis 2–3 has borrowed from Mesopotamian myths to create a new myth, which he did not imagine was historical, but by which he showed his readers that humanity was always bent on evil.[2] Genesis 1 is ‘demythologised’ to an extent, in that it is monotheistic, but is designed as a liturgical text by which Israel celebrates the present world and contributes to the maintaining of its order.[3] At the same time, myth is not entirely divorced from history, and the authors believed that some of what they wrote did happen. The text therefore makes incidental false assertions about the world, but its intended message remains true and authoritative.

For Walton, Genesis 1 should not be seen as an account of material origins, because the word translated ‘created’ (bara’) means ‘to assign a function to’, and the story begins in verse 2 with formless, functionless, material. Days One to Three describe the functions of life: time, weather, and food; and in Days Four to Six the occupants of the world are given their functions and spheres of operation. ‘It is good’ means that everything functions well for God’s human creatures. God’s ‘resting’ on Day Seven is the key to the genre: gods ‘rest’ in temples, and Genesis 1 describes a seven-day dedication of creation as God’s cosmic temple (cf. 1 Kings 8:65). This inauguration text gives humans their function as God’s servants and co-rulers. What Genesis 1 does for the cosmos, Genesis 2 does for the blessing of Genesis 1:28: by granting the man a way of getting food and offspring, God makes the blessing operational. On this view the text makes no false assertions about the world, because it makes no assertions about mechanism at all.

Objections: Unlike ancient myths, Genesis 1–11 is a prose narrative, and together with the genealogies this points to a text grounded in history. Walton’s views have been criticised for failing to recognise ancient interest in material origins. The use of comparative evidence to determine the meaning of the OT is more complex, and its conclusions more doubtful, than these arguments suggest.[4] There are real parallels between Genesis 1–11 and other ANE literature, but this does not make for a shared culture; the ideological context of the OT shapes the meaning of its parts.

 3. Theological approaches[5]

Assumptions: Genesis 1–3 is a narrative of historical events, created from non-historical materials to function as prophecy, whose claims are theological, not empirical.

Method: Discern the message of the text in terms of genre (human culture) and whole-Bible context (divine revelation); discern its historical truth claims through a conversation between God’s word and God’s world.

Proponents: Henri Blocher, Bruce Waltke, John Lennox, C. John Collins, Vern Poythress.

Outline: Genesis 1–3 is an historical narrative which aims to tell the truth about the past. However, the materials it uses to tell this truth are not records based on empirical observation, but draw upon universal stories told about cosmic origins in every culture. The ‘observer’ was God, and these are historical events as seen through his eyes. This is not history in the ordinary sense, but prophetic history—a vision of actual events revealed to Israel so that they would know the truth (though not every truth) about what happened. At one level there is a deep continuity with the rest of the OT’s history, which is also fundamentally prophetic, with its explanations of history’s causes often untestable. At another level the choice of medium—universal stories—makes Genesis 1–11 unique. Through what an ancient reader instantly recognises as an origin story, the author is saying, ‘Let me tell you how the world really began.’ That reality is theological; its mechanisms (e.g. the divine word) lie behind those accessible to science, but are no less real.

At the same time, Genesis 1–3 describes the observed world. ‘General revelation in creation, as well as the special revelation of Scripture, is also the voice of God. We live in a ‘universe,’ and all truth speaks with one voice’.[6] The challenge for the reader is to bring these two voices into proper relationship. We may ask whether the observed world can help us read the text better, just as it does in the case of inscriptions that clarify the meaning of Hebrew words. But we must also discern what the text is telling us about the world, and believe it. We must hear the voice of Scripture first, understanding its witness before we turn to the voice of creation, lest we misconstrue the text. Real points of convergence may thereby be discerned, but the text’s genre, and science’s provisionality, prevent dogmatism when it comes to any information about the past which the text was not written to convey.

This tension may be expressed in the form of two cautionary words. First, don’t make theories about the past which the text refutes. Lennox, a scientist, is prepared to allow that a ‘singularity’ (comparable to Christ’s incarnation) brought humans into existence by special creation, because of the truth claims he believes Genesis 1–3 to be making.[7] Secondly, though Scripture’s voice must be discerned first, don’t assert truths from the text which the world refutes. Poythress, a theologian, in keeping with his exegetical conclusion that the ‘days’ of Genesis 1 represent interactive time and not clock time, is prepared to allow that the world was created over billions of elapsed years.[8]

The theological approach also illuminates the truths that drive each of the other approaches. With pre-modern readers, the theological message of the text is both its primary subject matter and the aspect that has priority over the others. With young-earth creationists, the text has an irreducible historicity. With old-earth creationists, the pre-flood world of Genesis 1–4, despite discontinuities implied by (for example) the lifespans of Genesis 5, is essentially the world that we live in today, so that text and world may potentially illuminate one another. With cultural readers, the literary genres of Israel’s time must be the key to understanding what the text is saying and how those statements relate to the real world.[9]

Objections: To many empirical readers this approach does not feel like a ‘plain reading’ of Scripture: it seems complex and unintuitive. To some cultural readers it takes the face-value descriptions of the text too seriously as descriptions of reality. To modern readers, trained to view the world empirically and culturally, the idea of a theological text which describes a theological reality is strange and difficult.

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[1] Andrew A. Snelling, ‘Radiohalos in Granites: Evidence for Accelerated Nuclear Decay’. L. Vardiman et al., eds., Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth: Results of a Young-Earth Creationist Research Initiative (Institute for Creation Research, 2005), pp183f.

[2] Cf.  K. L. Sparks, ‘Genesis 1–11 as Ancient Historiography’. In J. K. Hoffmeier, G. W. Wenham, and K. L. Sparks, Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? (Zondervan, 2015).

[3] Cf. R. W. L. Moberly, The Theology of the Book of Genesis (CUP, 2009).

[4] Cf. Noel Weeks, ‘Problems with the Comparative Method in Old Testament Studies’. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol.62.2, 2019, pp287–306..

[5] For examples of how theological approaches work in practice, see chapters 4–6 of C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well (Zondervan, 2018)

[6] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan, 2001), p77.

[7] J. C. Lennox, Seven Days that Divide the World (Zondervan, 2011), pp167-71.

[8] V. S. Poythress, Interpreting Eden (Crossway, 2019), pp265-75.

[9] cf. H. Blocher, In the Beginning, trans. D. G. Preston (IVP, 1984), pp15-27.

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