Parashah Notes: B’resheit, aka How My Four-Year-Old Taught Me To Understand Genesis

13083111_1073516369360917_3856827006247995859_n
My wife, holding my son, with my nephew, trying to figure out how God made butterflies. (Answer: There was a very hungry caterpillar . . .)

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.

Milky_Way
The heavens declare both the glory and the justice of the Holy One.

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!

6 Replies to “Parashah Notes: B’resheit, aka How My Four-Year-Old Taught Me To Understand Genesis”

  1. Yes! Very well said! You are speaking my language here! I am an anthropologist by training and was in college when I became a follower of Yeshua, so the very first question I had was about evolution, creation, and the age of the universe. Reasons to Believe was foundational in helping me reconcile science with Scripture and in helping me discern when something was really present in the scientific record verses extrapolated from it. If you haven’t already read it, you might like John Lennox’s book “A Matter of Days,” in which he discusses the same issue. Thanks for the eloquent and level-headed post!

    Like

  2. Saw that debate. We personally know an astrophysicist who points out where Ross is incorrect in his facts…and therefore, incorrect in his interpretations. My husband is very into science and the data does, in fact, support a young earth and rapid creation (6 days and no evolution).

    Not only that, but Adam had to be highly intelligent. I do not believe man is getting smarter, but getting dumber. Our genetic makeup is adding around 100 abnormalities with each succeeding generation. I don’t G-d had to simplify much at all. I think He simply stated what was needed for then and for now.

    It is to His glory that science is actually affirming what He said…no matter how simplistic we may think it is. :-)

    Like

    1. Abigail,

      Aside from a couple of places where he obviously simply mispoke, exactly what did Dr. Ross say that was materially incorrect?

      Also, you might want to watch Dr. Ross’s debate with Danny Faulkner, a YEC astrophysist, which took place in front of a panel of their scientific peers. It’s very enlightening in that it illustrates the degree to which one has to bifurcate their mind to take Faulkner’s position.

      On the intelligence of Adam, I agree with you. My son has a very high IQ as well. However, IQ does not equal knowledge, and there is no reason to believe that Adam would have had instant knowledge of the universe, nor access to the resources necessary to study it completely. For example, he didn’t have access to telescopes, and so could not have guessed how truly vast the universe is. Besides, Adam didn’t write Genesis, so his IQ is irrelevant.

      I agree that it is to God’s glory to believe what he said . . . but I disagree that it’s to his glory to be simplistic about it. Just look at how deeply the NT authors dug into the Tanakh in explaining their encounters with the Son of God!

      Besides, if we can’t trust the record of nature, which God alone is the author of, how can we trust the Bible, which God wrote through human agents?

      Shalom!

      Like

      1. I would have to dig some things up regarding Ross. I just know Jason Lisle has been able to refute some of his stances.

        I am not talking IQ. I believe that Adam knew a whole lot more than we give credit for. I believe we lost a lot of knowledge in 2 instances. The flood. Babel. Can I prove it? No. But the opposite also cannot be proved. Many times science has said opposing things to the scriptures…and then caught up and ended up agreeing with the scriptures. I will trust the word of G-d over science if there appears to be a contradiction.

        Almost all supposed signs of “old age” can be explained away. The really sad thing is that a lot of it is plain logic if we just pay attention.

        We also need to be careful. I have watched debates where things are stated as “fact” that are not fact. My hubby studies this. It is amazing how many things are simply accepted as science which are not, in fact, science (by definition) or are built upon assumptions that are unproven. There are soooo many examples out there. But I am not sure of your stance and what you would be interested in hearing about. I do not know what you accept as “true” and “proven” and what is not. And there are some things that, as Jason pointed out to Dave, only another astrophysicist would even know that the person miss-stated something.

        Shalom!

        Like

  3. really enjoyed reading this article, especially like how you compared Adonai teaching His children to you teaching Steven about “the questions of life”. Really hits home, also enjoy the pic. Keep writing Michael, you have a gift and Adonai is using you. love ma.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  4. Long time ago Calvin wrote that the creation account was made for the simple and unlearned (those without higher education). Father to a child is also a nice way to explain it. I remember reading the account as a teenager with a mind not polluted by the modern origins debate and it never struck me that it had anything to do with modern science. Not a word on how things were made. The King’s orders are carried out. It’s much better to study the Word than force it to say something never intended.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s