In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
A short while ago, scientists recently discovered what is believed to be the oldest human fossil in Morocco. Scientists believe these fossils to be about 300,000 years old. This is a big deal for the scientific community because, previously, the oldest known human remains were thought to be about 200,000 years old. This discovery is causing scientists to reconstruct the narrative of human origins.
For some Christians, this presents problems, or at least represents a challenge to their interpretation of the biblical account. Those who are labelled “Young Earth Creationists” typically view the earth (and universe) as being about 6000 years old. So what do Christians do with the evidence of the scientific community?
Now I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole and this isn’t really what I want to talk about so let me just say this:
- I don’t personally believe that a 7-day (with days representing 24 hour periods) of creation is the best understanding of this text. And when I say that I don’t believe in a 7-day creation, what I mean is that I don’t believe that the Bible is telling us that the earth was created in seven 24 hour periods.
- I do, however, believe that it’s entirely possible that God did create the world in 7 days.
- But, as I said, I believe that this is not the actual point of this biblical account.
So then, what is the point of Genesis 1:1 – 2:3? What is this story meant to tell us?
A lot of study has been done on this passage and we don’t have the space to go into all of it (nor is it remotely accurate to suggest that I’ve gone over all of it) so there are likely to be some gaps in the discussion, and therefore there are likely to be some questions that arise. As we consider these thoughts, I would encourage you to be both inquisitive and critical.
One of the first things that we have to recognize is that the Hebrews were not alone in their world. The Hebrews were neither the oldest civilization nor (remotely) the most powerful among their neighbours. By the same token, the Hebrews were not the first to think about the origins of the world.
The creation account probably most often discussed in relation to the Genesis account is the Enuma Elish. The Enuma Elish is the Babylonian creation myth which originates in possibly the 16th to 18th centuries BCE, though possibly as late as the 11th century BCE. The Genesis account we’re looking at today is usually thought to date to around the 7th or 8th century BCE (keep in mind, these dates have to do with the recording of the stories (i.e. written down) as opposed to the origins of the stories proper). In truth, it’s probably impossible to determine the exact origin of the stories (and related stories) and which came first. Even if we ascribe all of Genesis to Moses, the date of writing would be somewhere in the 13th or 14th centuries BCE.
Other creations accounts that are sometimes considered in relation to the Genesis account include those arising out of Syria and Egypt.
The questions of whether or not any of these cultures borrowed from others and to what extent is not useful for our discussion (ultimately, though scholars have a much better understanding of these things than I). What we do want to consider, however, is what set the Hebrews apart? What does the Genesis account reveal about the Israelite understanding of the cosmos that set them apart from their contemporaries?
First of all, this account shows us that creation is from the one God alone (God is one and not many). Comparison with similar stories in the ancient Near East (ANE) usually demonstrate a pantheon of gods of some sort. Oftentimes, this pantheon of gods was in conflict for supremacy – they fought one another for ultimate rule. In contrast, the Hebrews understood that there was only one God responsible for the universe.
Furthermore, ANE accounts usually demonstrate an understanding of the gods as a representation of some aspect of nature (i.e. the ocean or the sun = a god). The Hebrew, however, understood that God is transcendent – not a part of the creation order, not some aspect of the universe, but above and beyond it. Therefore, unlike other religions of the time (and many philosophies today), God is not answerable to creation nor subject to the limitations of creation but rules completely over it.
There is, therefore, nothing to fear from creation. God is in control. It is not pure chaos. Which leads us to our second point.
The creation is good. Unlike its counterparts, the biblical account of creation demonstrates that the created world (the universe or cosmos) is good. It is not the result of conflict among the pantheon of gods nor does it exist as an on-going struggle between the gods (which those cultures often used as an explanation for the apparent chaos or unpredictability of life).
Bruce Waltke, in his examination of this passage demonstrates this very well in his explanation of the literary construction of Genesis 1:1-2:3. Waltke demonstrates that the creative activity progresses in two triads (days 1-3; days 4-6). The first three days sees God separating light from darkness; the separating the sky from the seas; separating the waters from the dry land. The second set of three days sees God filling those boundaries that He has created. (Waltke, Bruce. Genesis: A Commentary. Zondervan).
In other words, what we can see is God giving order and providing purpose for the world. Unlike what some may say, the world is not chaotic or random. There is both reason and intention behind it.
Thirdly, what we see from our passage is that God is present in or with His creation.
A relatively recent movement in biblical scholarship is to see in this creation story the creation of a cosmic temple. (John Walton, Iain Provan) In the ANE, a temple was often built to describe or reflect the cosmos. They were designed to signify particular deities’ rules in the world. Some see similar references in the biblical account. Though it is impossible to be thorough in this discussion, there are various possible references to temple worship in the Genesis account:
- Lights placed in the heavens – The word for lights is the word most often used for the lights placed in the temple.
- Gathering of the chaotic waters – 1 Kings gives us a picture of a molten sea (representing the bounding of the water in the cosmos).
- Image of God – most convincingly (to my mind), the image of God placed in creation on the sixth day parallels the final element which would be placed in the temple, the image of the deity for whom the temple is created.
- All human beings, both male and female, are made in God’s image. Unlike Israel’s contemporaries, it’s not just the king is like the god, or represents the god. In Israel’s understanding, we are all created in the image of God. There is a massive democratization of humanity in the biblical account of creation. We are all image bearers.
This understanding then has to do with the building of a cosmic temple in which God Himself resides. John Walton argues that the seventh day, where God rests from His work, as representing God inhabiting his creation. And, without getting too deep into his reasoning, this resting of the deity has not to do with stopping (how does God stop being God?), but rather ruling. Now that the business of creating is finished, God enters into His temple to “begin” His rule. (for more on this, you can visit this site and this one)
So What Now…?
As you can see, and as I have said, I don’t believe that a literal interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the best understanding of this account. Which doesn’t discount completely the possibility that it is (literal). Regardless of your position on this, I believe that the most important thing we learn is not how God created the heavens and the earth but that He did!
It’s not surprising that ancient people thought of the world as chaotic and cruel. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, thousands of years later, we too often find that the world is nasty, brutish, and short. But the God of the Bible has a different message.
- To those who think that the world is all chaos and there’s no meaning to any of it except to endure, the bible tells us that God is in control.
- To those who think that the world is all harsh and hard, the bible tells us that God has made it to be good.
- To those who think that you’re all alone, the bible tell us that God is with you.
I hope that we all hear what God is saying to us.