The Torah: What Does Genesis 1 Really Teach?

The debate between Christianity and science concerns not just the scientific facts, but how they fit in with the teaching of the Bible, particularly with Genesis 1. So let’s explore that.

I am aware of seven different ways in which Genesis is interpreted. They are not all mutually exclusive, though most are. There are variations on some of these interpretations which I won’t go into. However, as this is so crucial to the debate I think it is important to mention them all. The first four of these interpretations all take the “day” of this chapter to refer to a day of 24 hours.

Scenario 1 — Recent Creationism

There are many Christians today who believe that to take the word “day” to refer to anything other than 24 hours is to be unfaithful to what they believe the Bible says, and therefore unfaithful to God. They would rather be true to what they believe God is saying than accept what appears to be the physical evidence presented by scientists. The world must therefore have been created comparatively recently and within a six-day period, and the scientists have just got it wrong — for whatever reason. A statement of this view is given to us by Dr. Henry Morris of the Creation Research Society, cited by S. G. Brush in Journal of Geological Education, 30.

The only way we can determine the true age of the earth is for God to tell us what it is. And since he has told us, very plainly, in the Holy Scriptures that it is several thousand years in age, and no more, that ought to settle all basic questions of terrestrial chronology.

Scenario 2 — Creation, then chaos, then re-creation

To get around the evidence produced by geologists, some have suggested that “the earth was formless and empty” in verse 2, should be translated “the earth became formless and empty”. (The Hebrew could be translated that way, though I understand from good authority that the grammatical construction is against it here.) That implies that there was an original creation which was good, and the life now represented by fossils flourished. But then something went wrong, perhaps associated with the rebellion of Satan and other spiritual beings. As a result of God’s judgement chaos resulted. The rest of Genesis 1 then speaks of a re-creation which did take place within the six-day period. This view has its roots in early Jewish tradition and has been held by some throughout the history of the church. It was held by some geologists in the nineteenth century and was popularised by the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. However, there are problems with this view on both Biblical and geological grounds, and I am not aware that there are many who would hold it today.

Scenario 3 — Stages of creation revealed in six days

A more reasonable view has been presented by P. J. Wiseman, a British Orientalist and archaeologist. It was first suggested by J. H. Kurtz in the middle of the last century. Wiseman argues quite strongly in Clues to Creation in Genesis (1977) that the six-day period represents six days during which God revealed truths about creation to Moses, or whoever it was who first wrote them down. He points out that the literary structure of the record of each day’s events is very similar to the literary structure of many clay tablets that have been unearthed. The record of each day’s events would be about the right amount of writing to go on one tablet. He also notes that the Babylonian Creation accounts are usually put on six tablets.

In other words, on Day One God revealed the truth about the original creation and the writer inscribed that on one tablet. On Day Two God revealed the truths recorded for that day, and so on. This view has some obvious appeal.

Scenario 4 — God spoke his words of creation over six days

This view suggests that on each of the recorded days God spoke his intention. Thus, on Day One God spoke his intention of creating light, on Day Two of creating the earth’s atmosphere, and so on. After each spoken word a parenthesis is added to show the consequence of that word. This view is based upon two well-established Biblical principles: that when God has foreordained something, it is often spoken of as if it had already happened — though the outworking of it may take considerable time, in this case millions of years; and the widespread use of parentheses in Scripture. This interpretation fits in well enough with the rest of the Bible, and yet allows unlimited time for the outworking of God’s creative words, with some overlapping of the events recorded.

This way of understanding Genesis 1 was published by E H. Capron in 1902, tucked away in the middle of a massive book on other matters. It made little impact and lay forgotten until discovered by Dallas Cain, who published it in a paper Creation and Capron’s Explanatory Interpretation in 1982. It is argued fairly convincingly by Alan Hayward in Creation and Evolution.

Scenario 5 — The “days” represent unspecified ages

Some of the arguments to support this view are spelled out well by Hugh Ross in Creation and Time. I summarize them as follows:

  • Yôm, the Hebrew word for “day”, is “frequently put for time in general, or for a long time, a whole period under consideration… Day is also put for a particular season or time when any extraordinary event happens” (William Wilson, in his Old Testament Word Studies). Some examples would be Genesis 30:14 (yôm = wheat harvest time); Joshua 24:7 (yôm = a long season); Proverbs 25:13 (yôm = harvest time); Isaiah 4:2 (yôm = a future era); Zechariah 14:8 yôm = summer + winter); and many references to the day of the Lord where it means “an occasion when God acts”. A particularly significant verse in this regard is Genesis 2:4, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created in the day of their making” (literal Hebrew translation) where the word is used of the whole creation period. Also, the plural “generations” in this verse implies a lengthy period.
  • The Hebrew word ‘ereb, translated “evening”, also means “sunset”, “night”, or “ending of the day”. And the word boqer, translated “morning”, also means “sunrise”, “coming of light”, “beginning of day”, “break of day”, or “dawning”, with possible metaphoric usage. In other words, evening and morning refer to the beginning and ending components of “day”, however it is used.
  • It doesn’t make sense to see the events of Genesis 2 compressed within a 24-hour-day.
  • The uniqueness of the seventh day. There is no “evening” or “morning” mentioned for the seventh day. This suggests that this day has not yet ended. This is further implied in Psalm 95:7-11 and Hebrews 4:4-11. Though God is obviously still active in his creation, as Jesus indicated (John 5:16-18), his “creative work” of producing new forms of life has ceased. As biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich report: “The production of a new animal species has yet to be documented.” One day this period of rest will end when God creates “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13).
  • In describing the eternity of God’s existence, several Bible writers compare it to the length of the age of the mountains or the “foundations of the earth.” The figures of speech used in passages such as Psalm 90:2-6, Proverbs 8:22-31, Ecclesiastes 1:3-11, and Micah 6:2 depict the immeasurable antiquity of God’s presence and plans. The brief span of a few-thousand-year earth history seems an inadequate metaphor for God’s eternity.
  • The Bible contains explicit statements of the earth’s antiquity, such as Habakkuk 3:6 and 2 Peter 3:5.
The natural world could be described as the 67th book of the Bible.
  • The Bible affirms that God reveals his eternal power and divine nature through his creation (Romans 1:20; Psalm 19:1-4). We are therefore meant to observe it and learn from it. In this sense the natural world could be described as the 67th book of the Bible. Would God want to deceive us by revealing truths through nature that were misleading?
  • The Sabbath day for man, and Sabbath year for the land, are analogous to God’s work week. Exodus 20:10-11 tells us that the seventh day of each week is to be honoured as holy, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…but he rested on the seventh day.” This passage is often cited as proof for the 24-hour-day interpretation. Evangelical Hebrew scholar Gleason Archer disagrees:

By no means does this demonstrate that 24-hour intervals were involved in the first six “days,” any more than the eight-day celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles proves that the wilderness wanderings under Moses occupied only eight days. The rest period for land is a full year (Leviticus 25:4).

Since God is not subject to biological cycles, his rest period is completely flexible. The emphasis in Exodus 20 is on the pattern of one out of seven, not the literal duration of the days of creation. just as the priests served “at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven”(Hebrews 8:5), the days demarked by the rotation of the earth are copies and shadows of the days distinguished by God in the Genesis creation record.

Good biblical argument can be made for assuming that the days of creation represent long periods of time.

The purpose in listing these arguments is not to say that they are necessarily correct, but to show that a good biblical argument can be made for assuming that the days of creation represent long periods of time. Some would say it is a stronger argument than that for 24-hour periods. I have given some space to this as it is a crucial one to the whole debate.

If it is correct to regard the days of Genesis 1 as referring to indeterminate lengths of time, then it is important to ask the question: Does the rest of the chapter fit in with the stages of creation revealed to us in the fossil record? If we allow for some overlapping, then the picture seems to fit in a remarkable way. If verses 1 and 2 can be regarded as an introductory statement, then Day One could refer to the initial creation of light in the big bang, resulting in the contrast of darkness much further down the track. Or maybe it refers to the first rays of light penetrating the earth’s atmosphere. The chapter is written from earth’s perspective, as this is the focus of God’s ultimate purpose.

As the earth cools, then the moisture surrounding it condenses to form a clear division between the oceans and the moisture in the atmosphere. Day Four does not represent the original creation of the sun, moon and stars, but rather the point at which their light shines on the earth sufficiently to create seasons, and therefore to govern the day and night. Previous to that, the amount of carbon dioxide that we know existed in the atmosphere, together with the moisture and other gases thrown up by multiple volcanoes, had prevented this.

The fact that the general picture fits is remarkable, particularly when it is compared with the creation stories of other cultures.

This chapter does not align with the fossil record as precisely as some would require. For instance, reptiles are found lower down in the geological column than birds and fruit trees; sea mammals come after land mammals; and insects come before birds and sea mammals. However, this can be explained by a precise analysis of the Hebrew words used for living things in this chapter and also by the brief nature of the account given. The fact that the general picture fits is remarkable, particularly when it is compared with the creation stories of other cultures, of which we have many. In other accounts the gods create the universe like mere workmen, from pre-existing raw material — sometimes even from the carcases of other slain gods. Or from their own energy or qualities, oozing out to make a world. Or again, by some sexual process, with a consort, or even by masturbation as in some myths. For instance, the Babylonian account goes something like this. Marduk, tall, handsome and powerful, with four eyes and four ears, the loftiest of the gods, goes to battle with Tiamat, another of the gods. Having torn her belly, he cuts through her insides, splitting her heart. With his mace he crushes her skull. He splits her into two parts like a shellfish. With half of her he creates the sky and with the other half the earth!

In contrast to this Genesis 1 is simple, sober and restrained. The progression is orderly and complete. Where will you find another creation account that correctly orders even two of the dozen or so events mentioned here? The whole universe and each part of it owes its existence to the one God. And the general picture fits what is known today. I find it difficult to see how anyone could imagine that a passage such as this, written around 3,000 years ago, could not have been divinely revealed.

Scenario 6 — Prophetic poetry

This view declares that to look for any correlation at all between Genesis 1 and modern science is to miss the whole point of the chapter. Though not strictly poetry, there are certain characteristics which suggest we should regard it more as a “Hymn of Creation” than a factual statement in prose. Some of these characteristics are: a number of alliterations which are lost in translation; the prominent use of repetition; the anthropomorphic treatment of God’s creative acts (he “speaks,” “sees,” “moves,” “breathes”); the use of the numbers three, seven and ten in a very specific and coherent way (groups of 7 are especially significant in the Hebrew arrangement of this chapter); and places in the account where the words rhyme, which is also lost in translation. No scientific literature ever uses these kinds of literary devices. It bears some similarities to more poetic passages on the creation like Job 38:1,4-11 and Psalm 104.

Charles Hummel, in The Galileo Connection, gives an excellent discussion of this. He shows how the original Hebrew text divides up naturally into a series of eight poems, with repetitive endings and beginnings tying them all together into a pattern. Wiley’s Christian Theology also does an excellent job of laying it out in such a way as to clarify its literary character.

Since the time of Herder (c. 1750) students have noted that it naturally falls into two related groups of three, thus:

  • Day 1 LIGHT appears
  • Day 2 WATERS are divided
  • Day 3 LAND appears, with vegetation
  • Day 4 LIGHTS appear
  • Day 5 WATERS bring forth living creatures
  • Day 6 LAND is populated
No scientific literature ever uses these kinds of literary devices.

Poetry was originally intended for saying out loud; what could be more natural than that God’s six great fiats should be proclaimed in poetic form.

There is much more that could be said about the literary structure of this chapter. However, if it is not intended to be compared to a modern scientific document, then what is it intended to convey? The most obvious answer is that it was written to counteract the false mythologies and worldviews that existed in those days. This it does admirably.

Conrad Hyer, in Is God a Creationist? The Religious Case Against Creation-Science, edited by Roland Mushat Frye (1983), says:

In the light of this historical context it becomes clearer what Genesis 1 is undertaking and accomplishing: a radical and sweeping affirmation of monotheism vis-à-vis polytheism, syncretism and idolatry. Each day of creation takes on two principal categories of divinity in the pantheons of the day, and declares that these are not gods at all, but creatures — creations of the one true God who is the only one, without second or third. Each day dismisses an additional cluster of deities arranged in a cosmological and symmetrical order.

On the first day the gods of light and darkness are dismissed On the second day, the gods of sky and sea. On the third day, earth gods and gods of vegetation. On the fourth day, sun, moon and star gods. The fifth and sixth days take away any associations with divinity from the animal kingdom. And finally human existence, too, is emptied of any intrinsic divinity — while at the same time all human beings, from the greatest to the least, and not just pharaohs, kings and heroes, are granted a divine likeness and mediation.

It is significant that the words “God”, or “he” referring to God, occur thirty-eight times in this chapter.

  • God said – 11 times
  • God saw – 7 times
  • God created – 5 times
  • God called – 5 times
  • God made – 4 times
  • God blessed – Twice
  • God divided – Twice
  • God moved – Once
  • God set – Once
In this respect Genesis 1 not only stood against false philosophies of 3,000 years ago, but false philosophies of any age.

In other words, whatever happened, God was behind it all. In this respect Genesis 1 not only stood against false philosophies of 3,000 years ago, but false philosophies of any age. In its God-centredness it contradicts the materialism, secularism and humanism that is rampant today. In its statement of the goodness of creation it contradicts those philosophies that see this material world as something bad from which we must escape. In the distinction it makes between the Creator and his creation it contradicts much that is found in New Ageism and some Eastern religions. In its clear statement of the qualities it gives to humans it contradicts those who would blur the distinction between us and the rest of living things.

Although, as suggested under this heading, Genesis 1 has poetic qualities, in contrast to popular poetry its main purpose is to teach rather than entertain; in contrast to allegory, it has a strong historical element; in contrast to human speculation, it is revelation; and in contrast to legend, it is unembellished. It is a great prophetic message, with roots in eternity and its fruit in history.

Scenario 7 — Symbolic interpretation

This interpretation is not, strictly speaking, relevant to the main issues of this article, but I give it here for those who may find it of interest.

Sometimes, particularly in the Old Testament, we find passages that have a primary historical application, but which display a secondary meaning in picture form, illustrating truths that are expressed more clearly in the New Testament. One has to be careful in giving this kind of secondary meaning, as it is possible to be carried away with all kinds of fanciful interpretations. Usually, however, the Bible itself gives some clear guidelines.

Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, gives us the first clue here by illustrating Christian conversion from Genesis 1:1-3, Day 1: “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The emptiness and lack of fulfilment experienced in the life without Christ are transformed by the light of his presence.

Following on from this the following have been suggested:

Day 2 Once a person has received Christ into their life they begin to breath a new atmosphere, the atmosphere of heaven itself. Also a clearer division comes between those things which are of God and those which are of earth (1 John 2:15,16).

Day 3 Where the third day is mentioned in the Old Testament there is often a picture of resurrection. Here the land appears above the waters and new life springs forth.

Day 4 Jesus is spoken of as the “Sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2). John uses the moon as a symbol of the church (Revelation 12:1). It has no light of its own, only that which it reflects (2 Corinthians 3:18). God declares that those who lead many to righteousness will shine “like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). Our present responsibility is to be “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…” (Philippians 2:15,16).

Day 5 The turmoil and confusion of peoples and nations is sometimes likened to the restless oceans (Isaiah 5:30; 57:20; Revelation 17:1). Christians are supposed to be fishing (Ezekiel 47:10; Matthew 4:19)!

Day 6 The creation of humans prefigures the time when Jesus, the “second man” (1 Corinthians 15:47), will reign over creation restored to its intended glory (Romans 8:21; Revelation 11:15) and the earth will indeed be fruitful (2 Peter 3:13).

Day 7 God’s people enjoy his blessing and all that he has prepared for them in that day which has no evening (Ephesians 2:7).

This way of seeing the completeness of the gospel message anticipated in the Bible’s first chapter may, of course, go along with any of the previous scenarios. It ties in with the divinely revealed character of all the sixty-six books that make up our Bible.

It is necessary to maintain a good deal of humility, both in our efforts to understand the Book of God’s Word and the Book of Nature.

Sorting it all out

With so many different interpretations, how does one choose? That is up to the individual. My own preference is for Scenario 6, though I would also throw in a good deal of Scenario 5. And I like Scenario 7! I would have the greatest problem with Scenario 1. My belief in the legitimate place of modern science, my respect for its methods and the integrity of the great majority of scientists, together with the vast amount of evidence accumulated over 200 years from astronomy, physics, geology and paleontology, precludes me from accepting a recent creation scenario. In Romans 1:20, God declares very clearly that we are accountable to him for the truths we learn about him from the created world. Would he hold us thus accountable and then send us distorted messages from this source?

However, having said this, it is necessary to maintain a good deal of humility, both in our efforts to understand the Book of God’s Word and the Book of Nature. Many, Christians and scientists, have been wrong in the past. Luther declared: “This fool Copernicus wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

If only I could be free from the shackles of my intellectual smallness, then I could understand the universe in which I live.— Albert Einstein

Calvin asked:

Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?

They repeated Augustine’s mistake, putting too much confidence in their own deductions from Scripture. The church would like to forget that it ever denied the roundness of the earth, the races of people on the other side of the planet, the moons around Jupiter, the existence of comets, the reality of fossils — all because it claimed to have a revelation that told them otherwise. Whenever Christians have tied the Bible to any particular scientific theory they have been in trouble.

However, Galileo was also wrong when he insisted that the action of the tides was the clinching argument for the movement of the earth — mistaken in his science and premature in his dogmatism. Science has been correcting its views ever since it began. That is what it is all about. Some of the greatest scientists have been the most humble of people. Newton declared when an old man:

I am as a child on the seashore picking up a pebble here and a shell there, but the great ocean of truth still lies before me.

Einstein said shortly before he died:

I feel like a man chained. I get a glimpse of reality and then it flees. If only I could be free from the shackles of my intellectual smallness, then I could understand the universe in which I live.

There is an ancient prayer:

From cowardice that shirks from new truth,
From laziness that is content with half-truths,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth —
O God of truth, deliver us!

The remarkable nature of Genesis 1 is ample testimony to its divine origin. If, when I get to heaven, I discover that my interpretation of it was misled at some points I will not be put out. My faith in Christ as my personal Saviour and Lord is not dependent on my ability to rightly interpret one chapter of the Bible!

Copyright 1997 by Dick Tripp, R.D. 1, Lyttleton, New Zealand. The above article comprises pages 39-49 of The Complementary Nature of Science and Christianity, published by the author, booklet number 8 in the series Exploring Faith Today. Dick Tripp is an Anglican clergyman with experience in the parish ministry in the Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand. He has an MA in Theology from Cambridge University.

Author: Dick Tripp

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