One of the great joys of having children is watching them learn. Preschoolers in particular always seem to be asking questions: “Why? Why? Why?” My four-year-old son’s favorite questions all start the same way, “How did God make ____ ?” He hasn’t yet figured out the difference between the natural and the artificial, so the questions range from, “How did God make trees?” to “How did God make cars?” Frankly, answering the questions about the natural world are a lot harder than answering those about man-made things, but both are difficult. My son doesn’t have a lot of background knowledge, so I’m always walking a line between answering truthfully but incomprehensibly and just making stuff up. (“Well, you see, babies are brought by a stork . . . “)
It was after a long series of questions one day that something clicked with me about the Biblical creation narratives. (Yes, there are more than one. No, they don’t contradict.) While the prophets of old weren’t children, and certainly weren’t stupid, they also weren’t very scientifically advanced. So how then could God explain creation to them in a way that was a) accurate, b) meaningful, and c) actionable?
To suggest that the ancient Hebrews would have read into Genesis 1:1 the creation of a universe over 30 billion light-years across in a “big bang” almost 14 billion years ago is, of course, ludicrous. To the ancients, “the heavens” referred to that which they could see with the naked eye: Sky, clouds, the sun, moon, and stars (which included the “wandering” stars, or planets) in their constellations, etc. They did not, and could not, distinguish between the atmosphere and outer space, let alone interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic space. They also had no conception of, and no concern about, our current scientific debates about the ultimate origin of a universe that was largely invisible to them and which we have only begun to perceive through powerful telescopes in the last century. Nor would they have cared about the extent to which evolution played a role in the development of the earth’s life-forms. Atheism and materialism were not even on the table for discussion.
What was on the table for discussion was the means by which the visible world was created and by whom. All Ancient Near-East (ANE) pagan systems personified nature into their gods. These gods, in turn, were not eternal, but arose (evolved) spontaneously from a chaotic, primordial world which they proceeded to shape and vie over. For example, the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (thought to have been composed around the 18th to 16th century BCE) tells us that Apsu and Tiamat, the personifications of fresh and salt water, mixed together and created the gods. Apsu wished to kill them, but Tiamat prevailed in keeping them alive. Ea, the chief of the gods, killed Apsu in his sleep, leading to Tiamat seeking revenge. Marduk in turn killed Tiamat in battle and divided her, using half of her corpse to form the earth and half to form the heavens. The Egyptians and Greeks had myths of a similar sort.
The chief point of Genesis, then, is to correct these pagan traditions of personified nature. In their place, Genesis asserts that in the beginning was one God, transcendent and separate from the visible world, and that he alone created the natural entities and forces that the pagans worshipped. God did not bring into being by strife, nor with the help of (or death of) other gods, by simply by the Word of his power. The deep (Heb. tehom) was not a god or a monster, but was simply the primordial ocean over which the Spirit of the Living God brooded before acting to create, and so forth. This is the plain-sense, historical interpretation.
Does this mean that Genesis has nothing to speak to today’s issues, or that it is ahistorical and simply a polemical device for countering paganism? Not at all. First of all, its polemical value is anchored on being a true, historical account by the One who created everything. And if that is the case, then we should expect that as our scientific knowledge of creation expands, we should find confirmation of God’s account. Secondly, the major difference between paganism and philosophical materialism is that paganism personifies the natural elements. (Though given how non-theists tend to personify “the Universe,” “the Cosmos,” and “Evolution” when speaking of the design in nature, that’s an even thinner line between the two than may be apparent at first glance.) The Bible’s response to paganism would therefore answer materialism as well–and such a response would have to be rooted in real, verifiable natural history in order to be effective. Moreover, if the God of the Bible is truly all-knowing and eternal (outside of the created dimension of time), we would expect that he would anticipate future attacks on his sovereignty over creation just as much as those in the past.
This is a long way of saying that I believe that my Father engaged humanity much like I try (however imperfectly) to engage my son: He is never untruthful, but by necessity he is often simplistic when the original human authors and readers would not be in a position to know the whole truth. Peter notes that the prophets did not always understand their own messages: “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced” regarding the Messiah and the Good News (1Pt. 1:12). In the same way, I think the clues are there so that when we gained greater knowledge of the physical universe, we would be able to look back at Genesis and say, “Hey, that still fits!”
Those who think that only a Young Earth Creationist viewpoint is consistent with a normal or “literal” reading of the Word should read the Report of the Creation Study Committee organized by the PCA. For the record, I’m mostly in the Framework Hypothesis when it comes to the plain sense, but an Old Earth Creationist midrashically. Those interested in getting the Old Earth Creationist viewpoint can do far worse than to look into Reasons to Believe, Dr. Hugh Ross’s ministry. You might also enjoy his debate with Kent Hovind on the John Ankerberg Show a few years ago:
This post is getting a little long, so I’ll leave the question of why I consider this issue to be so important for another time.
Until then, Shalom!