Getting a Cultural and Contextual Understanding of Creation in Genesis and Science

You can download the full PDF of this article here: Creation in Genesis and Science

            The relationship between Genesis and science has long been a heated debate and the cause of much tension and controversy both in the secular conversation and even within the church itself. It would seem for many that the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 would serve as a litmus test as to Christian orthodoxy, whether if liberal or conservative or secular. It has sadly been the source of much division within the church. However, is this tension and argument about the text really necessary or rather the result of a wrong approach toward the text? Are the apparent contradictions between Genesis and modern science systemic and critical or are they perhaps actually superficial and forced? Should we be divided about this issue?

            I had wrestled for a long time with various scientific offerings as to the interpretation of Genesis and always had been uncomfortable with them. Often it is hard for us to be truly unbiased, especially if what we hold to is part of a long standing tradition or belief which we have known all our lives. I ask you to try to temporarily hang your theology and presuppositions at the door as we approach the topic on neutral grounds to attempt an unbiased look at the text to see what is and isn’t there. This will be primarily a textual analysis rather than getting into the specifics of every scientific squabble which would take too much time to address. So I submit to you this information for your consideration. Please take a moment to re-read Genesis 1 before you continue just to familiarize yourself with some of the things I’ll be drawing on in this article…


Understanding the context:

            To begin to understand what a text is addressing, it is important to understand the background behind it. What was the author’s intent, his audience, the style and genre of the work and what was the culture of the time in which the author wrote. Only by reading a work within its proper context can we truly give it a fair reading without imposing our own meanings upon the text. It would seem that most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, seem to read Genesis with many of their beliefs already in hand instead of allowing the text to speak for itself—from within its own framework, on its own terms—realizing that it was not written to modern thinking Westerners.

            To put it frankly, Genesis wasn’t written to you—it’s not even in English! I believe the Bible is written for us, however it is not written to us. This is the whole reason for the need for biblical scholarship and understanding the history and culture of biblical times. The ancient audience thought differently to us, spoke a different language, had a different culture and ‘science’ to us and therefore, understanding the biblical texts in light of what questions the author would have been addressing is important to our understanding of the text.“Ironically, a high view of the Bible is one that recognizes its lowliness in some respects. It’s actually a positive thing to keep in mind, that God is not afraid to speak in the way people understand.” – Pete Enns.


The culture of the day:

            Interestingly, Young Earth Creationism (YEC) views arose out of Seventh-day Adventist founder Ellen G. White, and theorist George M. Price who published works arguing the “literal” reading of Genesis showed the earth was created six to eight thousand years ago. “Price’s ideas were never taken seriously by practicing geologists, and they also had little impact outside of Adventist circles.” – Mark Noll. Today, our natural inclination when we think of origins is to think of material origins (how the stuff of the Universe was made) which is very much the influence of the Enlightenment era and modern scientific advancement on our cultural mindset. These aren’t bad things. However, this wasn’t the mindset of the people to which Genesis was written and to read our science into or out of the text is to inevitably make the text say something it was never meant to. Interpretations which do this inevitably run into problems trying to coerce the text to say what they have already pre-supposed. Especially problematic is that this anachronistic method of importing modern science into the ancient text doesn’t work as a rule throughout scripture as a whole. One will run into many various problems trying to read the bible as a science text when it uses the understanding of its day to relate spiritual truths to the people of its time.

            The Israelites, and everyone else in their time and culture believed every event was the act of deity. There was nothing “natural” about the world, the gods were thoroughly involved in the functions and operations of the world unlike our modern “naturalistic” outlook on the world. To get a feel of the context we look at other creation myths from Ancient Near Eastern civilizations of the day (which I won’t go into much detail here but you can look them up on your own if you feel so inclined – I’ve read them and comparing the Genesis text to them puts a lot of things in perspective), such as the Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and the Baal Epic to see how the ancients thought. From this we get an idea of the cultural mindset and atmosphere in which Genesis was written. We observe some similarities to the Biblical account in them such as; the focus on functions rather than material origins, the narrative of order from chaos, similar usages of concepts and metaphors—such as the sea representing chaos, leviathans or sea monsters—and other such concepts. This was the cultural understanding and climate to which the Genesis text was written, and it seems like it could have served as a polemic (polemic – defn – a strong verbal or written attack on something) to the culture of the time. It’s almost like an ancient apologia (defence) responding to its contemporary Pagan myths of origins from within their own context—much like how modern apologetics works today responding to the alternative views from within our own context, culture and scientific understanding.

            For example, in other myths, the deity had to struggle with a leviathan or evil beast to bring order. Creation was depicted as a violent battle, in contrast to the Bible, where the great sea creatures are part of God’s creation. In one of the myths, creation was actually made from the body of the defeated evil beast. However the bible affirms that God is the source of creation and declares it “good” not the carcass of an evil monster. Another example would be the Hebrew words used in the fourth creation day are not the usual words for sun and moon but rather they are referred to as “the greater and lesser lights.” Ever stopped to wonder why is this? Well, in that time, every other Pagan system believed the sun and moon were seen as lesser ‘gods’ among many. Their creation framework saw it as the result of a pantheon of gods. Genesis stands in stark contrast saying that the sun and moon in fact are not gods but lights, thereby reaffirming the Hebrew monotheistic position in contradiction to the polytheistic views of the day. In other myths there are conflicts between gods to explain creation, however in the Bible, there is only one God and therefore no conflict to overcome. He stands alone in the act of creation.

            Also, in contradiction to Pagan religions, where the gods created humans as slaves to serve their needs and sometimes even viewed them as a nuisance (reflected in familiar Roman/Greek mythologies where the gods are cruel and demanding), the God of the Bible is not served by human hands, nor does He dwell in temples made by men (Acts 17:24-25). Instead He creates nature as a home for us to enjoy relationship with Him. Humans are not created as slaves, but as objects of God’s affection. They do not exist to serve the needs of God, as He has none, but rather He serves their needs by providing for them as loving Father. These are insights which would be lost to a reader without an understanding of the cultural and religious context to which Genesis was written or if you tried to force a strictly modern scientific reading into the text. By understanding how the Biblical text compares to these myths of the time brings out a beauty in the text that would otherwise go unnoticed by us as we are so far removed from that time and culture. By comparison, it is far less violent, much  less repetitive and seems to flow better and gives a concise, clear picture unlike the other myths. However, though these things are not obvious at first reading to us, to the ancient readers who lived in that culture, these contrasts would have been obviously evident to them.


Creation as Temple:

            One other level of interpreting the Genesis text that has been put forward by biblical scholarship (such as proposed by Dr. John H Walton) is as a temple text. There is good argument for its structure resembling that of a temple inauguration text, which brings in a host of deeper theological meaning to the text. The seven days can be seen to symbolically mirror the 7 years it takes Solomon to build the Lord’s temple. Furthermore, it was understood that temples were a reflection of the cosmos to the Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Many of the pagan temples’ layout were reflections of their understanding of the cosmos and this is also seen even in the design of the Jerusalem temple. (Not that I’m directly equating the Jewish temple to the Pagan ones, but rather how they understood the temple to be a reflection of the cosmological geography of the Ancient Near East) It’s outer court representing earth, the inner court the heavens, and the holy of holies as Heaven where God dwells. This sort of cosmic geography reflected what was the common understanding of the time. Also, before a pagan temple was functional, it was well known that the last thing installed in a temple was the idol or image of the god. The last thing God creates in the Genesis 1 account is man, in the image of God. We serve as God’s image here in His temple, earth.

            Also the concept of Sabbath or rest; when a god came to rest in a temple, this was the start of the work of the temple—it became functional. However, when God creates His temple, He appoints us as His image-bearers and priests to carry out the duties of the temple. On the seventh day, He rests from creation and comes to dwell in His temple. Notice that every other day in Genesis 1 has the “evening and morning” clause to bring it to an end, however the seventh day is missing this. Theologians have argued that this is because the seventh day has not yet ended, God has taken up residence in the world He created choosing to step into time and begin His day to day functioning of the temple. His rest from the ‘work’ of creation has stopped as He has already set up the functions for the temple, and now is running it. However, the bible talks of when this age shall come to an end and the evening will set, then a future day when God will create again—a new heavens and new earth—a sort of eighth day if you will.

This idea of creation, of God residing in His temple, is seen in Isaiah 66:1-2:

“…Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?”

Also in 1 Kings 8:27; 

“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple that I have built?”

            In another, Isaiah 6:3, the seraphim declare that “the whole earth is full of his glory”. Then later on in the New Testament, we read that God has made his dwelling place in the hearts of men, that we become His temple. The idea of temple, the dwelling place of God, is something that can be a metaphorical and real narrative we follow throughout Scriptures even into the NT. To look at Genesis 1 as a sort of temple text and not just purely a scientific text allows us to see some of these beautiful analogies that would perhaps be otherwise missed.


Functional Ontology:

Ontology – defn – the metaphysical study of the nature and relation of being and existence.

            It is clear, even from an English translation reading of the text, that not much is said about the material origin. In days 1, 3 and 7 nothing is actually made in a material sense, but rather God does a lot of separating and ordering, the materials are somewhat assumed and God installs functionaries—animals and humans—to inhabit and carry out His purposes. Day 2 has potentially a material component—the firmament (raqi’a in Hebrew) but no one believes there is literally a solid construction holding back the waters in the air—which is what the Hebrew word literally means when you look at how the word is used elsewhere. To assume another meaning of the word is to invent one just for the purposes of smoothing out the text to a presupposed meaning and seems like a strenuous and inconsistent interpretation.

            Genesis 1 offers a theology of functional origins—that whatever there is, God made it for a purpose—rather than concerning what they were made of and how those materials came together. To the ancients, something came into being not by virtue of its materials and components as we tend to think scientifically, but rather by virtue of having a function in an ordered system. This mindset is reflected in the other contemporary Pagan creation myths of the time I mentioned before like the Enuma Elish, Baal Epic, etc. Therefore, that can significantly change how we defend or talk about it—no longer at contrast with scientific origins of materials, but rather what do the material things mean and what are the purposes they serve in relation to God and to us? Genesis primarily poses a theological and philosophical question to us rather than a scientific one. (And I know at this point there are those of you with a scientific bent who are cringing, but bear with me a bit longer as I flesh this out…)

            So what do I mean by functional ontology? An example of functional ontology would be that of a company. We are not too concerned about the history of the stuff that makes up the company we work for. We are more interested in the corporate structure and functions of the departments, who reports to who, and who is in charge of what. Or take for example a college, when we say it comes into existence or started, we talk of when it became functional. Though there is a process of how the buildings were constructed, how the materials were assembled, and so on—that isn’t truly what makes it a college. It is only actually a college in a real sense when the teachers and students take up their roles within it. When it becomes functional.

            When you arrive late to the theatre and ask what you missed, no one gives you an explanation of the construction of the set and stage. We understand that the play exists in the roles of the performers. When you ask what happened so far, you don’t answer by telling about the costume designer, script writer, hiring of cast, construction crew, and such because telling a person about that would offer the wrong sort of origin story. Some sorts of origins are more important than others, the ancients were more interested in this type of origin story that told them of the meaning and function of things. (Not only is this reflected in the Bible’s account but also in the other creation myths—less is said about material origins and the focus is more on how things became functional.) This is the type of origin story (ontology) that I see in a natural reading of the Genesis text within its cultural framework.


What does it mean to “create”?

            The Hebrew word used for create in Genesis 1 is “bara”. So to understand if what is being spoken of when the Bible uses “create” we need to look at the context in which this word shows up throughout the Old Testament (OT). Does it speak of material creation or functional? The verb “bara” occurs about 50 times in the OT, and in every case deity is the subject of the verb. The activity is inherently a divine activity. Only God can “bara”.

*Interesting side note:*

In Psalm 51:10 – When David prays, “create in me a clean heart” – he uses “bara”, because only God is able to create a pure heart in people. I thought that was cool food for thought! That one’s for free… 🙂

            So, the objects of the verb “bara” used throughout the OT are: cosmos (10 times), people in general (x10), people groups (x6), types of individuals (x5), phenomena like darkness (x10), components of cosmic geography (x3) and a pure heart (x1). This list shows that the grammatical objects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms and a large percentage of the contexts are speaking of functional terms. If this was the way the Israelites understood creation, then it would seem logical to conclude that this would be the most faithful reading of the text.  

****However, in concluding that Genesis 1 is not primarily an account of material origins, I am NOT suggesting that God is not responsible for material origins – just simply that the text doesn’t really address material origins as its focus.****

            God focuses functionality around people. People are not put in until day 6, but the functionality of creation is established before with their needs and situation in mind. The repeated phrase, “it was good” might then refer to “functioning properly”. It is not expressly to do with the moral perfection or quality of the workmanship. Notice that day 2 is not called ‘good’, it is not until day 3 that God proclaims it was good because without the formation of continents and separation of land and waters it wasn’t yet really functionally ‘good.’ Also, the one thing that God said is “not good” is for man to be alone. This is because the human condition is not functionally complete without woman.


Overly literal interpretation:

            Today we have a pervasive mindset of literalism which perhaps undermines our ability to get into the minds of ancient people who taught more through stories.

“Story and metaphor and symbolism communicate things on a very, very deep level that I think ancients had more of a sense for. It’s possible, for example, to think of ancient peoples as being somewhat horrified at how hyper-literalistically we might sometimes take their words. They may be more subtle and more sophisticated, dare I say, than we sometimes give them credit for. Again, it’s a matter of trying to be self-conscious and self-critical about what we bring into that moment of reading the Bible.” – Peter Enns.

            We can see many times throughout scripture how the use of stories and parables was preferred, even by Jesus himself, to be the primary method of teaching deeper truths. This super-literal approach of some far left young earth creation conservatives tends to run into much problems.

            For example, many Bible translations use the word “mind” when the Hebrew word in the text actually literally says “entrails”, because in their culture that was how they understood things. Consequently, we don’t need to try to come up with a modern explanation as to how people can think with their entrails. However, a hardcore concordist (who takes the text literally to that degree) would have a lot of problems. God did not revise their ideas of physiology and science to explain to them that we think with our brains, instead he adopted the language of the culture to communicate in terms they understood. And this is in fact we can trace all throughout scripture! The concept of God coming down to our level to relate to us is at the very heart of the gospel message.


Differences in genre:

            Also, the fact that much of the lay people of the ancient world were illiterate made the use of teaching tools such as repetition, literary structures, poetry and clever one liners preferable for easy memorization. We see examples of this in the Genesis text as well, it is written with a structure that is obviously different to our modern historical writing, almost resembling that of poetry with a certain rhythm embedded into it. The repetition of phrases such as “there was evening and there was morning” between days, and “it was good” serve as markers to indicate that this text is of a specific style and genre. For us to ignore that would be like trying to use a book of poetry as a science textbook. This is not to say that you may not find statements which seem scientific within the Bible, just as you would possibly find them in a book of poetry. However the ultimate purpose and genre of that work would not primarily be the same as a scientific textbook. Genesis 1’s style doesn’t lend itself to being read as a scientific text.


Significance of the Days:

            There’s been a lot of debate over the Hebrew word “yom” which is used for ‘day’ in Genesis 1. Does it mean a literal 24-hr day or a vast amount of time? In light of the functional terms of Genesis 1, and the literary style and genre, I think the days are actually a literary devise. As used in poetic prose, they serve to order a sequence of events. While the word in its context I think means a literal day, I don’t think that it ties us to an interpretation of the text to say that creation was necessarily accomplished in 7 literal consecutive 24-hour periods due to their obvious figurative nature within the structure of the text as discussed previously.

Furthermore, there are deeper concepts to be drawn from the ordering of these days:

Day 1 – God creates light and calls it day. However, the author seems to intend for us to understand the word light as a period of light which he separates from the period of darkness. Since what is called into existence is a period of light that is distinguished from a period of darkness and named “day” we must consider day 1 as the creation of time. The basis of time to the ancients is the invariable alteration between periods of light and periods of darkness. This is why this seems to precede the creation of the sun in day 4—time itself precedes the sun.

Day 2 is the creation of the basis of the weather system or atmosphere. God separates the waters. He creates the space in which people would live and sets up the precipitation system that would sustain life.

Day 3 is the creation of the basis for food. He doesn’t actually create anything in day 3—which would be a problem if you looked at it in strictly material origin terms—but instead He differentiates terrestrial space.

The following days, now that God has set up the basis for the functions, describe the functionaries He puts into those spaces.

Day 4 – Lights. This would be hard to explain if you were trying to read it scientifically, but understanding it functionally—the text says that they will serve as signs for seasons, days and years. The greater light and lesser light governing day and night. These functionaries correspond with the function established in Day 1.

Day 5 – Birds and Sea Creatures. These inhabit the skies and waters which were established in Day 2.

Day 6 – Land animals. These inhabit the terrestrial space that God sets up in Day 3.

            What’s even more interesting is what we learn theologically later on in Genesis 8:22 after the flood when God makes His covenant with man, he says: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest(food), cold and heat, summer and winter (weather), day and night will never cease (time).” The flood was a return to chaos or non-function with the ‘waters’ again covering the earth. The functions of the first 3 days of creation are listed in reverse order because God is restoring the creation order which was messed up by man’s sinfulness through the flood.


Alternate Theories:

            There have been some very interesting ‘scientific’ theories as to how to interpret Genesis, such as the Day-Age theory, Gap theory, Young Earth Creationism, Theistic Evolution and others which try to use the Biblical text to support their views. However, these theories tend to be an unnatural reading and stretch the text beyond what it says or fall short of what deeper meaning the text is meant to communicate. One cannot discredit that there are indeed some interesting scientific discoveries and theories which do point towards a Creator and support Creationism as a whole, however, the most natural reading of the text would be in light of its cultural context, intended purpose and genre.

            One of the most popular views in the scientific community is that of the Day-Age view. However there are three problems with this approach in trying to say that “yom” refers to an extended period of time:

– Firstly, the examples of “yom” meaning a period of time are when it is used idiomatically – “in that day” which is the same as saying in Hebrew, “when”.

– Second, even if you could somehow make “yom” mean a longer period of time, you would still have to determine a sound basis on which meaning the author intended in the passage which just isn’t there. Textual Hebrew Scholars agree the inclusion of the passage of evening and morning infer a literal day being referenced.

– Thirdly, it is clearly a concordist resort—seeking to find an alternate meaning to the text because it doesn’t vibe well with their scientific understanding of the time for creation. It ends up being an unnatural reading of the text at face value.

            However, in light of what I’ve discussed, when you see the days as a literary devise—they take on a much lesser significance to science. Rabbi Moshe Weinfeld has suggested that Genesis 1 could have served as a liturgy in festivals and certainly the structure of the text (resembling poetic structure) certainly could support that and the recounting of functional origins would make a lot more sense in a liturgical use. Understanding this, there is no need to worry about the days of Genesis contradicting modern scientific understanding as it wasn’t even addressing that but was more probably a literary tool of structuring the text to understand the functional origins. Whether if the time taken for creation was 6 literal days or billions of years is a non-issue to the text of Genesis as that was not its primary focus. It intends to convey a theological truth and a functional understanding of Creation.


The place of science:

            I do find some of the information that proponents of Day-Age theory such as Dr. Hugh Ross bring to the table quite interesting though. And I don’t discredit their science and astronomy—perhaps there is something there. However, I don’t believe the natural reading of the text lends itself intrinsically to support or contradict certain scientific claims brought to the table. It just simply doesn’t speak directly about material origins. The point is NOT that the biblical text therefore supports an old or young earth, but simply that there is no convincingly tenable biblical position on the age of the earth. That is open to scientific discovery. We must understand the limits of science, and also the limits of the textual context and essential message. Everything that science discovers is another step in understanding how God has and continues to work through naturalistic processes He put in place.

            It is quite possible that the Bible may have some scientific truths in its pages, however, it is important to see that science is not its primary focus. The Bible unabashedly assumes that God exists and makes no apologies for that. It does not set out to prove that. Paul even states in Romans 1:20 that creation itself is the testimony to God’s existence so that everyone is without excuse. Therefore, the Christian should not be afraid of scientific discovery but rather embrace it as a privilege that God has allowed us to uncover how all creation shouts His glory. The Bible then builds on this testimony which is self-evident in nature, establishing to us the possibility of a God to give us another level of meaning. Both the Bible and Nature derive equally from the same God, so one should not be afraid of contradiction.

            So we let science interpret natural phenomena and answer the questions of science and material causation, and let the Bible do what it was intended to—to answer the higher level questions of meaning and how we relate to God. Although the material structures can point to a designer, God’s purposes and intentions are best seen in the way the cosmos runs or functions. The science is the base layer upon which theology gives the teleological meaning. Genesis is thoroughly teleological and God’s purpose and intent are the main object of interest. It is a top-layer account that is clearly not metaphysically neutral and not concerned with communicating mechanisms.


Conclusion:

            Some naturalistic scientists sometimes try to take their explanations of how things came to be as sufficient to answer the question of origins. However, merely understanding the mechanism by which something came to be does not explain it’s source of creation or ontology. Equations can describe how something functions, but equations do not create anything out of nothing. At some point we end up at an impasse of how is it possible that there is something from nothing—creation ex-nihilo. At the singularity of the beginning of space and time, what caused the initial movement from non-movement? Who was the “Banger” of the Big Bang?

            Science can only give us that surface level reading dealing with the details of the ‘how’ of the materials of creation which will be subject to continuous revision as science progresses. For the questions of deeper meanings of life, purpose, morality and destiny, we must move to areas of metaphysics, theology and philosophy. This is where the Bible can help us gain understanding. It doesn’t contradict what the science says about the base level, but adds another level to it which science by itself is unable to address. The question then must be asked also of the Bible’s truth claim—what type of truth was it claiming to have? It wasn’t scientific truth, but rather a more ultimate type of truth which is of a relational nature. That truth is a personal one to whom we can relate. Jesus said of himself that he is that truth, and ultimately what brings meaning and purpose to life. This is the primary goal and message of the Bible, to bring people into a relationship with the God of creation.

            This is my current understanding of the Genesis text from my research and studies of some of the biblical textual scholarship and some of the scientific creationism theories around the issue. I think for now it helps me to form a cohesive theology of creation and to see more clearly how science and faith can work in tandem for a more enriching experience and understanding of life. As I continue to learn and grow more, these positions may change as it is an area which I am more than open to continue learning in. However I don’t see anything really changing from the standpoint that it is all God’s creation, and we are thus made for a purpose.

For further reading, check out Dr. John Walton’s book, “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate”.


SELECTED BIBILOGRAPHY

  1. Biologos.org, Enns, Pete. “Challenging Old Assumptions, Conversation with Pete Enns”. No pages. Online: http://biologos.org/resources/multimedia/pete-enns-on-challenging-old-assumptions
  2. Biologos.org, Enns, Pete. “Understanding Origins and the Ancient Mind, Conversation with Pete Enns”. No pages. Online: http://biologos.org/resources/multimedia/pete-enns-on-understanding-origins-and-the-ancient-mind
  3. Walton, John H. “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate”. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2009.
  4. Watts, Rick. “Making sense of Genesis 1”, Vol 12, No 4., Masterton, New Zealand, Stimulus, 2004.

***Additional sources which were read but not directly quoted here were not included in bibliography…

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