When reading Genesis 1, the Creation story, interpretations of the story can generally be classified into three groups:
- Those who dogmatically cling to the story as literal gospel truth despite the science;
- Those who reject the story as a fable or patently false because of the science;
- Those who experience a crisis of faith when they find the word of God is in conflict with known history and become suspect of both.
The reality is, all three positions are flawed because they are interpreting it from a modern literary perspective. What we should be doing is interpreting it from the perspective of the original audience. Just read an article from a magazine published in 1950 and let me know if the vocabulary and social perspective makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. Any piece of literature is immediately limited by the language, figures of speech, culture, and scientific understanding of the author who produced it and the audience to whom it is written.
I often hear the question “should we interpret the bible literally”, as if literal and concrete are synonymous. They are not. The opposite of literal is metaphorical, the opposite of concrete is abstract. Just because something is written with abstract imagery does not make it fictitious. Genesis 1 is abstract not metaphorical. For example, I could say, “I am so hungry I could eat a horse.” I am literally very hungry, but the notion of eating a horse is hyperbole and is an abstract description of my hunger. Ancient writers were concerned about what something did, its abstract function, rather than how it did it. The moon served a function of providing light and this is how it is described. They had no idea of what its actual form was. They had no idea that it was a giant rock 380,000 km away. The reality is, not only did they not know but, they likely did not care. Another important point is that God does not reveal any new science in the bible. He teaches the audience according to their understanding of the world. This means that the bible may have been written for us, but not to us. Consider the following diagram. Don’t be too dazzled by my amazing Microsoft Art artistic skill:
In this diagram, you see how the ancient Israelites perceived the cosmos. The earth is flat with a firmament dividing the water above from the earth beneath. This helps explains why we are told that, during the flood in the time of Moses, water came from above and beneath – but I digress. The lights are strung along the firmament, and above the firmament is the heavenly domain of God. God taught the Israelites by using their understanding of the cosmos. No amount of mental gymnastics will let you escape this fact, so relax. You can stop trying to grasp the leaps of logic that the “literalists” come up with to match the text with the current trends in science. Should it concern us that God uses poor science to teach his gospel? Not at all, He is teaching according to the understanding of his people. He teaches us according to our understanding as well. Can you imagine an ancient Israelite trying to understand the message with early 21st century science, or us trying to understand the science of the 25th century?
Let’s look at each of the days in the creative process:
|1||Earth is without form and is dark. God said let there be light|
|2||Firmament formed to divide the waters below from the waters above|
|3||Dry land appears, and plants grow|
|4||Lights in the firmament dividing day from night, seasons begin, sun and moon appear|
|5||Animals in the oceans and birds in the sky|
|6||Land animals and finally Adam Eve|
Genesis 1 can be taken literally – a true story taught with abstract imagery. Nowhere in the bible does it say God created anything out of nothing. This is conjecture. The bible says ‘in the beginning’ but it does not explain what beginning it is referring to. Furthermore, the word translated as “create” refers to forming things that already exist. If you recall, on day one the earth is already there waiting to be formed. Another point is that earth does not mean planet. The audience for which this book was written had no concept of planet. Their land is flat, so at most we can understand that ‘earth’ refers to the land where they resided a being prepared for them and for God.
In my opinion, Genesis 1
is not talking about the formation of the universe and the development of life on earth. The scholarship suggests that Genesis 1 is literally telling us about the formation of the cosmic temple but using the abstract imagery of the cosmos as Ancient Israel understood them. This is a story of God building his house both in heaven and on earth. His promise that He is with us.
In my next blog, we will examine more about what each day in the creation story may mean.