In my previous post, I laid out a positive, scientific argument for a Creator entity that looks remarkably like the God of the Bible. However, there will be some Christians, particularly Evangelicals, who wouldn’t be entirely happy with that case. Why? Because it depends on the modern cosmology that says that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, not the 6-10,000 that many claim is the age of the universe as given by the Bible. So let’s deal with that.
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. Heck, we didn’t even realize that there were other galaxies until the 1920s!
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. 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.
Besides, if the God of the Bible is truly all-knowing and eternal (outside of the created dimension of time), should we really be surprised that he would anticipate future attacks on his sovereignty over creation just as much as those in the past? Is it beyond him to communicate to the ancient prophets in such a way that his oracles would both have immediate value and yet contain things that we would more fully understand later? (According to numerous passages in the NT, especially 1 Peter 1:10-12 and 2 Peter 1:19-21, this is exactly how God works.)
Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that any time we take these scientific observations and issues that the ancient Hebrews would not have known about, we are committing deliberate eisegesis–reading ourselves back into the text–rather than exegesis. This is true of both young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). How the latter does so is obvious, and will be made more obvious as we continue. For those in the YEC camp, we will use a single example: The sun, moon, and stars, they would claim, were not made until the 4th day. Yet when asked how they could then claim that the first three days with no sun must be normal 24-hour days as well, most would say that while the sun did not yet exist, day and night were still differentiated by the earth’s normal rotation in front of a relatively stationary light source of some kind. However, the ancient Hebrews did not have this concept of a heliocentric system or the rotation of the earth in mind. Therefore, the YEC is reading back into the text what is now common scientific knowledge, that days are determined by a steady rotation of the earth rather than by the passage of a heavenly body.
With that, here follows four positions on the Genesis narrative presented as being within the range of Biblical interpretation by the PCA Historical Center’s Report of the Creation Study Committee:
- The Calendar-Day Interpretation: “The Bible teaches that God created of nothing all things in six days, by which Moses meant six calendar days. The view is often called the literal view, the traditional view, or the twenty-four-hour view.”
- The Day-Age Interpretation: “The ‘six days’ are understood in the same sense as “in that day” of Isaiah 11:10-11—that is, as periods of indefinite length and not necessarily of 24 hours duration. . . [They] are taken as sequential, but as overlapping and merging into one another, much as an expression like ‘the day of the Protestant Reformation’ might have only a proximate meaning and might overlap with ‘the day of the Renaissance.’”
- The Framework Interpretation: Which means “understanding of the week (not the days as such) as a metaphor. Moses used the metaphor of a week to narrate God’s acts of creation. Thus God’s supernatural creative words or fiats are real and historical, but the exact timing is left unspecified. Why the week then? Moses intended to show Israel God’s call to Adam to imitate Him in work, with the promise of entering His Sabbath rest.”
- The Analogical Days Interpretation: “The ‘days’ are God’s work-days, which are analogous, and not necessarily identical, to our work days, structured for the purpose of setting a pattern for our own rhythm of rest and work. . . Length of time, either for the creation week, or before it or since it, is irrelevant to the communicative purpose of the account.”
When it comes to the plain-sense (p’shat) interpretation, I pretty much fall into the Framework Interpretation: I believe that the main point of Genesis 1-2, from the standpoint of its human author, is to correct the excesses of pagan creation mythology, give the credit instead to the single Creator, and to give the people of that Creator a way to emulate their God.
However, where I part company with many who take that position is that it is far from the only position. As I read the text in light of what we now know from the record of nature, I find that the text corresponds with what we know. It’s simplistic, because it had to be, but it’s amazingly accurate. Yes, even the sun, moon, and stars appearing (not being created) on day four. There are in fact subtle hints in the text itself that could only be fully appreciated today, which I will point out in a future post. And should that surprise us?