“If Genesis 1 isn’t literal, the Gospel isn’t literal either!”

“If the earth isn’t 6000 years, then we can’t trust the Bible on anything!”

These statements are a kind of rally cry for some Christians. Yet, it has also been the source, sadly, of much consternation for sincere, devout followers of Jesus who cannot accept a young earth or a literal six days. Convinced that they must either “take it or leave it”, they walk away. Countless others, one might guess, have never even ventured to ask about Jesus, the cross, resurrection and redemption because they’ve been told they need to accept everything or nothing.

In the wake of the recent “creation debate”, I wonder if Christians have achieved much besides driving yet another artificial wedge between “faith” and “science”, as if the two have not happily co-existed– indeed fed each other!– in past centuries. I have no interest in re-hashing or critiquing the debate, not only because I am not the person to do so, but also because I didn’t watch it! My interest is a more modest question: How are we to read Genesis 1?

Let’s begin…

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The Cosmologies of the Ancient World

The cosmology in Genesis does not stand alone but within the landscape of many ancient creation stories, each providing different answers to similar questions. No one was asking, “Did god create the heavens and the earth?” The question was, “Which god, and why?” It is in comparing the Genesis account against these other stories that one may discover the significance of the Genesis cosmology. And perhaps along the way, you’ll also see why I don’ think Genesis backs you into a corner having to make the false choice between creation/young earth and evolution/old earth.

The Sumerians had no specific creation story text, though descriptions of creation appear in a few Sumerian texts. There are basically two traditions. In one, Heaven– the god An—is united with Earth—the goddess Antum or Ki, fertilizing the earth and causing life—humans, animals, vegetation—to spring up and flourish. In the other tradition, Enki the god of fertility produces a spring that carries life to the earth through streams and rivers, with life springing up around it. In both traditions, humans exist “to serve the gods, to save them from having to work” (Lucas, 132).

Perhaps the best known ancient cosmology, besides the Genesis account, is the Enuma Elish. This Akkadian account was a copied numerous times and often recited at the New Year festival. The story is lengthy and bloody. It is essentially an account of a power struggle among the gods, driven by jealousy and anger. Marduk, the descendent of Apsu and Damkina, becomes greater than his divine predecessors. Though at first this provokes the jealousy of the other gods, he strikes a deal with them: he will fight on their behalf if they give him the power of “fixing destinies” (ibid). They agree. Marduk kills Tiamat, splitting her body in two, one half becoming the sky and the other half becoming the earth.  Marduk orders that Ea make humans out of the blood of Kingu, the leader of the rebel gods. Once again, the reason for making humans is so they can do the work of the gods.

There is a Canaanite cosmology as well. The Canaanites had no “undisputed cosmogony”, but there is the Baal cycle of texts in which the chief of the Pantheon, El, is called “creator of creation/creatures”, and his wife, Asherah, is called “creator/begetter of the gods” (Lucas, 133). These epithets are possible indications that the Canaanites thought of the origin of the cosmos in procreation terms.

Egyptian cosmologies are a bit more variegated. Several strands exist, each connected with local deities like Re, Atum, and Ptah (Lucas, 134). Lucas, writing in the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch summarizes them by pointing out that Egyptian cosmologies are primarily concerned with the origin of the gods, each identified with basic elements of the cosmos such as earth, sky, and sun (Lucas, 134).

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So, What Is Genesis 1 Saying?

The meaning of Genesis 1 can be drawn out by two considerations. The first is the consideration of context: imagining what was going on in Israel’s story when these chapters were being formed and woven together. The second is the consideration of competing narratives: contrasting the Genesis creation story to the other creation stories of the Ancient Near East.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, meaning of Genesis 1 for the children of Israel can be summed up in the “Shema”, which appears in Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is one.” Genesis 1-11 reveals an entirely different view of the divine or spiritual realm. In contrast to the many gods that fill the scenes of other creation stories in the Ancient Near East, YHWH stands set apart as the sole sovereign over creation. There is no division of divine jurisdiction; no god of the sea, and a god of land, and a god of war. There is only one God. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is one.” As the lead character in the opening scenes, God not only is, He acts. God is all through the opening passage as the only active character. There are no rivals, no one else adding input or ideas. There is simply, God. He is clearly the main character. God speaks, God forms, God makes, God calls, God blesses, God commissions. The primacy of God is must have been striking to a young Israelite child hearing these stories for the first time.

Secondly, this sole sovereign God creates the world on purpose. Creation is not the result of a bloody battle among the gods, or the result of mutated divine excretions, nor is the gods’ way of getting some help around the universe. The God of Genesis sets out to make the world, carefully, deliberately, methodically, and yes, even poetically. The opening chapter does, after all, have a song-like cadence to it.

Thirdly, as the sole Sovereign and intentional Creator, YHWH does not simply create, He blesses what He makes. In this way, all that is good and beautiful in the world—Hebrew, tov—is the result of YHWH’s blessing. One can imagine the people of Judah in Babylon straining their eyes to see something of YHWH’s hand, training the ears to hear something of YHWH’s voice, when all of a sudden, they remember: this world itself was made by YHWH. This tree, this stream, this flower, this fruit—all that flourishes around them—flourishes because YHWH has blessed it. The blessing of YHWH on the material world would have been a source of consolation and a spark of worship in an otherwise difficult land of exile.

Genesis 1 is a hymn of praise to the one, true God who made the world on purpose and with pleasure, and who lovingly blessed it and called it good. Now, let’s tell the world about that. 

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For Further Reflection…

Here are two 3-minute videos from the Principal at St. John’s College in Durham University (yes, where I’m doing my doctorate in theology) on Genesis, human origins, and the song of creation:

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Is Genesis 1 An Argument Against Evolution?

  1. Perhaps this is an interesting tie-in to the topic of last Sunday’s sermon.
    In past decades–at least in some of the church-environment and small-group norms to which I’ve been exposed–I’ve seen assent to creationism and other similar hot-button topics of cultural interest of the last century or two used as theological litmus test between who’s serious, committed, in vs. out, or really a “real Christian” in their heart of hearts. Yet in parallel, of evidently substantially lesser importance, I’ve witnessed, for instance, statements of modalism, docetism, and more without an apparent awareness or care. And also at times, I’ve wondered if what some have been implicitly and explicitly taught is that “strength of faith” is actually more centered in an ability to withstand an internal intensity of cognitive dissonance than in allowing a Pneumatic reforming one’s own existence to be kenotic and cruciform and thus in hopeful stance of the Resurrection.
    When these controversial topics come up nowadays though, I often find myself having fewer and fewer cosmically systematic grand answers. Instead, sometimes I just like to observe who arises to pick up the fork for themselves and proceed to the threshing floor to identify who is in and who is out. It can be fascinating to watch who winnows and how they do it–to observe the facial expressions of one who throws their bundles of chaff and weeds on fire.

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  2. Thanks for another great article. I always appreciate the thoughtfulness and wisdom with which you speak.
    I’m definitely open to the idea of Genesis 1 being more of a poem than a literal scientific account, but Numbers 12:6-8 tells us that God spoke to Moses plainly and not ‘in riddles’. Is that something we should consider when reading the creation account in Genesis 1, or does it apply to something else?

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  3. From what I understand, Numbers 12 seems to be of Elohist origins with Mirian, a Cushite, as wife of Moses. In the possible Yahwist texts, Zipporah, a Midianite, seems to be the designated wife of Moses. Traditionally since, these elements have been harmonized. Also from what I understand, Genesis 1 as received is of possible Priestly origins. The Shema, with its strongly monotheistic, or possibly henotheistic, tones is of possible mid-7th century origins. Glenn conventionally links YHWM of the Shema to Elohim of the creation story of Genesis 1. Personally, I’m not yet convinced that Genesis 1 is “summed up in” the Shema, at least not to its earliest authors or audience in the context of their competing ancient Mesopotamian pantheons and gods. This may not be for the “children of Israel,” but for a good number of generations after Jacob and the Patristic Era. Now, whether or not God’s speaking to Moses “plainly and not in riddles” has bearing on interpretation of Genesis 1, this seems to bear relationship to the passages’ authorship. Much has been said of this, by persons with significant credentials and much labor.
    From my limited lay person’s perspective, Genesis 1 does not seem to bear support explicitly against (or for) evolution; that seems to be juxtaposing a modern scientific theory into an ancient Mesopotamian context. But also, I’m not sure the passage itself bears witness to *YHWH* as sole sovereign over creation, as this seems to be possibly quite anachronistic as well.
    All of this said, I fully agree with Glenn that to the Christian–confessionally monotheistic with supporting exegetical principles–“Genesis 1 is a hymn of praise to the one, true God who made the world on purpose and with pleasure, and who lovingly blessed it and called it good.”
    Whether or not Moses got riddles, we seem to have been left with a few ourselves. 🙂
    Perhaps at least as interesting is whether or not we ourselves intrinsically see the world as full of purpose, rich with pleasure, lovingly blessed, and–albeit fallen–delightfully good.
    And yet another dare is this–do I see the world as Christ?
    — Worth dying for to save.
    What if I not just *told* the world about that, but gave my life in that way?

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  4. I think this conversation is desperately needed, Glenn. I’ve spent the last few years around some cynical Christians (myself included somedays), and much of the dialog around the importance of going to church was migrating toward “meaningless, meaningless.”
    On the flip side, I think a lot of us who grew up “slow cooked” in the institution never really asked or understood the why’s. We just went because that’s what you do. Personally, I’ve found the whole conversation and forced clarification to be very enlightening. I’m kind of glad Don threw the grenade. You’ve helped give real words to the thoughts many of us have had trouble expressing without sounding like we were simply holding onto traditions and personal preferences. Thanks.

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