August 18, 2019

My View: Genesis 1

By Chaplain Mike.

My interest in the first chapters of Genesis began to blossom when I was in seminary, studying under Dr. John Sailhamer. Over the years, I have come back to it again and again. My understanding has grown and been refined each time I’ve taken it up.

It saddens me that Genesis 1 has been so often co-opted for use in contemporary battles with science, particularly with regard to the age of the earth and the scientific model of evolution.

This has made it extremely difficult to simply teach Genesis. For while Christians need to stay informed and be able to interact with the findings of science (see, “Bruce Waltke on Staying in the Discussion“), such concerns were certainly not those of the Torah’s original audience, nor are they essential to studying what the Bible teaches.

Jesus said that the Bible’s central message is all about: (1) God’s Messiah and his redemptive work, and (2) God’s Mission of taking the Good News of forgiveness to all the world (Luke 24:45-47). The groundwork for that message is laid right here in Genesis 1.

Today, I would like to share with you the way I view this foundational passage from the Bible.

Let me begin with a warning. For many of you, my interpretation is probably quite different from what you have been taught.

If you asked me to categorize my view, I would say it has been influenced most by three OT scholars: John Sailhamer, Bruce Waltke, and John Walton, along with my own further study. (I hasten to add that these fine men should not be blamed for any of my errors.)

  • Sailhamer showed me that Genesis 1 should be read first as the introduction to the Torah, which Moses gave to the generation of Israelites preparing to enter the Promised Land. Its themes reverberate through the rest of the Torah, and are summarized in Moses’ final message to Israel in Deuteronomy 29-30. Most people skip this step and read Gen 1 as the introduction to the entire Bible. It is that too, but failing to put it in its original context first causes us to miss much of its message.
  • Waltke helped me grasp the genre of this material. Genesis 1 is a literary composition, not journalistic reporting as though someone were witnessing specific events. In exalted prose, the literary artist-author points toward the One to whom all creation owes its existence and loyalty.
  • Walton pointed out that Ancient Near Eastern parallels, along with Biblical descriptions of the Garden of Eden, the tabernacle, and the temple show that in Genesis 1 God is portrayed as a King constructing a cosmic temple from which he will rule and extend his blessing to all creatures.

TWO STORIES
I am convinced that Genesis 1 contains two stories, not just one.

  • Genesis 1:1 explains the origin of the Universe.
  • Genesis 1:2-2:3 explains the origin of the Promised Land.

THE ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE (Gen 1:1)
The best translation of Genesis 1:1 is the traditional one: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Read this way, Genesis 1:1 states the most basic truth of all: There is one true and living God who created everything that exists.

What did God create in the beginning? “The heavens and the earth,” is the usual reading, but a translation like “the skies and the land” more accurately represents what the author would have been saying as a pre-scientific observer of the world around him. Don’t picture a globe in outer space amidst all the other heavenly spheres. That is not the perspective of the ancient observer. Rather, our author is standing with the reader and looking out on a landscape, motioning with his hands across the whole sweep of the view and saying, “God created all of this.”

This phrase is a merism, a figure of speech that uses two contrasting concepts to present a single idea. For example, in Psalm 139, David says, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up.” In other words, God knows every movement of his day. “The skies and the land” is likewise a way of saying, “Everything that is.” Genesis 1.1 thus affirms that there is one true and living God who created the universe, all that exists.

When did God do this? “In the beginning.” Beyond these words, the author does not specify when this occurred. He simply thinks back as far as possibly can be imagined, to a time when there was no sky, no land, no world as we know it. At that time God created the terrestrial world and the skies that surround it.

THE ORIGIN OF THE PROMISED LAND (Gen 1:2-2:3)
Grammatically, Genesis 1:1 stands alone. In Hebrew, it is clear that a new subject is introduced in Gen 1:2—“Now the land…” The author’s attention moves away from the cosmic scene and focuses on a “land,” a specific land in the world that God created back in the beginning.

English versions obscure this by translating the Hebrew word eretz as “earth” rather than “land,” which is its more common meaning. For modern readers, the word “earth” conjures up pictures of a globe that we know as the Earth, our planet as it exists in outer space among the other heavenly bodies. However, this is not nor could it be the viewpoint of the author of Genesis. As in Genesis 1.1, the author’s perspective is that of a person standing on the ground, looking out across a landscape. And the landscape across which he is gazing is the Promised Land.

After making the bold declaration that it was God and God alone who created this universe we know and observe—the land surrounded by skies—into existence, Gen 1:2 begins to tell how the God of creation at some later time provided a good land where his creatures might live in his blessing.

The preparation of this land is what the seven days of “creation” are about.

For the sake of length, I can only give an outline of the seven days in this post. The seven days are divided into four sections:

  1. There is a prelude describing the land before God prepared it (Gen 1:2)
  2. The first three days describe how God formed the conditions suitable for life in the land.
  3. The second three days describe how God filled the land with essential elements and living creatures.
  4. The seventh day describes how God completed his work, hallowed the seventh day, and rested.

Prelude: The Uninhabitable Land (Gen 1:2)
This verse describes the land before God readied it for his creatures. It was “without form and empty,” a Biblical phrase that describes an uninhabitable wilderness. It was not yet “good” like God would make it. The problem was that it was covered by darkness and water. However, God’s Spirit hovered over the waters, ready to exert his creative power.

Days One through Three (Gen 1:3-13)
On the first three days, God forms the land, creating the environment in which his creatures might dwell.

  • Day One: God overcomes the darkness and assigns functions to light and darkness so his creatures may live within the framework of regular days and nights.
  • Day Two: God assigns places to the waters, so that his creatures may live within the framework of a regulated environment.
  • Day Three: God parts the waters from the land and causes the land to bring forth food, so that his creatures may live within a framework of a home and regular provision.

Days Four through Six (Gen 1:14-31)
On the second three days, God fills the land he formed with essential elements and living creatures.

  • Day Four: God fills the sky by hanging “lamps” to shine on the land, to regulate days and nights, and to prompt people to worship him in his designated seasons.
  • Day Five: God fills the skies and seas with living creatures, giving them his blessing.
  • Day Six: God fills the land with living creatures. Then, God makes human beings in his image, blesses them, and gives them responsibility for the land and its creatures, promising them his provision.

Day Seven (Gen 2:1-3)

  • God completes his work and takes his place of rest (the throne of his temple)

SUMMARY
So then, the story of creation explains that there is one true and living God who created the universe back in the beginning. It also tells us that God prepared a special place in the world, a land, to be his temple. Like a King and master workman, he first constructed the outward form of this land so that it would be good for the creatures he planned to make. He then filled it with essential elements for life and worship, formed living creatures to inhabit it, and blessed them. He made humans in his image, blessed them, and made them his representatives to care for the land and its creatures. The blessing he gave to humans, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” shows that he intended his blessing to be extended throughout the whole world. At the completion of his work, God took his place of rest, sitting down on the throne in his temple to rule and receive the praise of his creatures.

The land of Genesis 1, its preparation artfully described by use of the seven-day literary scheme, was made as God’s temple in the world, and people were placed there to live in his blessing and to extend that blessing throughout the rest of the world.

WHY THESE TWO EMPHASES?
Why does the author of the Torah begin his story with these two emphases: (1) that God is the one true and living God who created the universe, and, (2) that this God prepared a special land in the world to be his temple, from which his glory might extend over all the earth?

Because this was God’s message for the people of Israel who were about to enter their own land.

The one true and living God chose Israel to represent him in the world, just like those first humans. Like them, he prepared a good land for them to inhabit. That good land was rich and abundant and filled with his blessing. The tabernacle, and the temple that they would later build, housed the Ark of the Covenant, which represented God’s throne dwelling in the midst of his people, ultimately in Jerusalem.

The Promised Land was not simply God’s gift to Israel for their own sake. Their life in the land was meant to be a light to the nations. From them and through them, the knowledge of the one living and true God and his blessing was to extend to all people throughout the world.

And that is the story Genesis 1 introduces.

Comments

  1. Interesting post.

    Your conclusions sound like the would complement this post by Peter Enns.

    • Thanks, Michael. I’ve been reading Enns’ writings with interest. He has confirmed some of the things I’ve learned, and opened up a few other avenues of thought that are exciting to me.

      • Someone mentioned in a later post that they enjoyed the artwork for the stations–I like this particular painting with this essay and wanted to ask what it was and by whom. If you posted it and I missed it, I apologize. Very nice—reminds me of Franz Marc who I enjoy.

    • At the risk of creating a tangent (and sorry if I do), while I find the parallelism of Adam and Israel intriguing, I’m not sure it works, in the end, if Adam isn’t the literal first man of all humanity. I think maybe that takes it a little farther than it should. I do, however, find intrigue in the parallels he’s noticed between the nation of Israel and Adam.

      End sidenote. 0=)

    • Wasn’t Enns the guy who got booted out of Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) for teaching aberrant views on Scripture?

      • No, Peter Enns got booted out of Westminster Theological Seminary for having a view of innerancy that didn’t fit with theirs.

        Michael Spencer wrote the following a little over a year ago.

        I don’t like or use the word inerrancy. In my context of working with non-Christian internationals, it’s simply too complicated to teach the complicated special definition of “no errors” that goes along with this view. The Bible truly tells us what we need to know. It has the authority of God. (Plus, I’m tired of seeing people like Peter Enns labeled as weak on scripture.)

        • Just because a person chooses to read scripture literally does not mean that they trust scripture implicitly.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Note Mark’s Ad Hominem argument, dancing around the word “Heretic”. “Abberant views on SCRIPTURE (TM)”.

        Sorry, dude, I come from a family where Passive-Aggressive putdowns were a fine art form. And once was mixed up in aberrant Christian cult-in-all-but-name where “SCRIPTURE (TM)” was The Party Line used by all the Comrades to beat down Traitors and Thoughtcriminals.

        Didn’t the Pharisees have “THE Non-Aberrant Views on SCRIPTURE” when they got this low-life Rabbi with “Aberrant Views on SCRIPTURE” nailed by Roman proxy? With Barabbas in trade as part of the deal?

    • On an unrelated side note, Wikipedia (if you trust that site) states that Peter Enns is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA is the conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church.

  2. Excellent, Chaplain Mike. I particularly like your last paragraph.

    With all the discussion that has been going on here and on other blogs about God and evolution, I found it interesting reading in the paper today about Francisco Ayala, a 76-year-old evolutionary geneticist and former Catholic priest, being awarded the 2010 Templeton Prize (worth 1.53 million dollars). One thing Ayala said was, “Science concerns the processes that account for the natural world. … Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life.” And I read, the “Templeton Foundation maintains that ‘the prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the divine.’ ” I like that. (NOTE: those two quoations came from the aol news online. It was a very long URL to paste here, so you will likely be able to just search on Francisco Ayala to find this story or one similar to it.)

  3. Try Meredith Kline. *Kingdom Prologue*, *Images of the Spirit*, *God, Heaven and Har Magedon*… You don’t, by the way, have to buy into his theory of the 6 days of creation. That’s a separate thing from what the books above have to offer.

  4. Wow.

  5. I learned about this interpretation of Genesis 1 – almost exactly the way you just presented it, actually – in a high school theology class; it was called the “literary framework” interpretation and it seems to me to be the most probable meaning that was actually -intended- by Moses. The parallel structure of the creation story is so beautiful to me. It shows me that God is a God of order, that His plans make sense and have clear direction. From what I understand, other ancient Near Eastern creation stories have a similar structure, six days divided into twos or threes (can’t remember which). The one emphasis that was not presented to me was that of Genesis as the introduction to the Torah -specifically-, and the creation of the Promised Land as distinct from “the heavens and the earth” in general. Either way I think it makes sense that the point being driven home is not the means God used to create, or even necessarily the length of time it took Him (although I’m sure it easily could have been six days, or six minutes, or six eons, or whatever), but the fact that -He- made it. But I think the intention of showing Israel that they were to be a light to the other nations does make sense when comparing Genesis to the rest of the Torah. As I read through the Law recently I saw over and over that God was setting Israel up as a city on a hill, which the rest of the world was supposed to see, and seeing it, to know who He was and what He was like. I wish the Jews themselves had understood that.

    • “I wish the Jews themselves had understood that.”

      We can imagine that many of them did, and that lots of good men and women lived and died gentle lives under that pedagogy over the centuries.

  6. Yeah . . . I’ve been into this idea of Gen 1-3 as (a)the creation of the universe and (b)the creation of Israel, it think it is a well founded theory to adhere to!

  7. I love this explanation. Thank you for giving this to us!

  8. i appreciate this refreshing, honest, close, and sincere reading of the text. thanks for sharing!

  9. Take a look at Genesis Unbound… deeper study of exactly this point… Bravo!
    http://www.amazon.com/Genesis-Unbound-Provocative-Creation-Account/dp/0880708689/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269764682&sr=8-1

    I preached as series of lessons on this very subject years ago… met with some resistance… but a lot more “AH HAs” as a result.. It set many thinking people free to have faith again, and many faithful people to start thinking about their assumptions.

    The Bible IS the inerrant word of God… but what is it saying? Often not what the culture or the church demands it should say.

    Michael The Haggard

  10. Good post.

    I hope you will go on to do a post about if, and how, this relates to “The Fall”, and Paul’s view of “Adam”.

  11. Well, I learned something new. I will be thinking and praying about this, seeking God’s counsel.

    Thanks, Mike.

  12. textjunkie says

    That’s certainly a reasonable approach–I’ll be interested to see how you connect the dots to the story in Ch 2 that reverses the order (or something?).

  13. Thank you for this post, Chaplain Mike.

    I still remember the first time someone pointed out the literacy aspects of the texts. I was a strict fundamentalist and creationist then. Looking at it as a piece of Near Eastern literature (ableit inspired literature) was really an “Ah ha!” moment for me — I had spent so much effort reading it as an exact account that I hadn’t realized how poetic it was or how much can be observed about it if its original context is taken into account. It was a beautiful moment.

    I admit, after that I stayed out of Genesis, just because so many people use it as fodder for their favorite hobby horses. Hard to read it without thinking of the controversies and feeling the need to solve them all. Your post reminds me of how fascinating the book is. I want to return to it again now.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I once got turned into a pile of rocks for pointing out that the paralellism and returning refrain (“And the Evening and the Morning were the Nth Day”) is characteristic of Classical Hebrew POETRY.

      A Jewish contact confirmed that in the original language it was not only a poem, but a song. Which means the YECs are building their entire theology on parsing a 3500+ year-old SONG. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather go romp & play with the critters in Aslan’s Land. Including the Imaginary ones Resurrected into Reality.

  14. Thanks Mike for writing this. It’s an interesting time to be an evangelical Christian as it relates to the sciences, especially biology and genetics. I’m assuming if you’re reading/watching Peter Enns, that you already know about biologos. I would also highly recommend (once again) the British counterpart, The Faraday Institute. I was introduced to their work through Denis Alexander and his masterful book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Of all of the books out there by orthodox Christians concerning the interplay of faith and science, his book stands out for me. It treats the scientific issues in a fair amount of depth across several disciplines, but he also dives right into the theological issues better than most have done. He doesn’t answer every question of course, but he does show that you can be a faithful Christian and still be scientifically literate. It’s very heartening to see more and more voices coming out and standing up for this perspective in the evangelical community. There’s certainly a long way to go, but it’s good to see this much progress so far.

  15. Rob Barninger says

    Chaplain Mike,
    I have been reading this site for several years now. (I have never commented before.) I hope you keep this site going. It has been a lifeline for me. Thanks to you and especially to Michael Spenser. God bless you both.

  16. It is amazing how the very beginning of our Scripture begins with us having to embrace it all by faith.

    That is the problem with the liberal theologians; when do they jump on board? I mean, from the very start we take it by faith as a literal thing, not a moral guide or “story”.

    • Matthew, I don’t follow you. Are you suggesting that Chaplain Mike in his outline, or the theologians he mentions are in the liberal camp? You seem to draw a line in the sand between “literal” interpretation and “liberal”. Since neither Mike nor Dr. Waltke are “literal” all the time (I don’t know about the other two) it looks like that’s what you mean.

      If so, you do them a disservice. The true liberals don’t come anywhere near this high quality view of Genesis.

    • If by ‘literal’ you mean a literal scientific description of creation we are back to this:

      http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_XAakLKI3wRs/S3WidTbq8eI/AAAAAAAAACM/ZWvA3YA2pVs/s1600-h/enns.ane.bmp

      since that is ‘literally’ what is being described. Since we understand the universe differently, we all (even you) struggle to draw the meaning from the text. Some disregard science; other disregard Scripture; others (and I think that would include most who post on this site) regard Scripture very highly but seek to understand its message in light of its original audience AND its original purpose (which was undoubtedly NOT to give a scientific explanation of creation to satisfy 21st-century people).

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Faith” as in “The substance of things hoped for” or “Faith” as in “Total Denial of All Physical Evidence — IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!” If the latter, you might as well be bowing towards Mecca five times a day.

      (A contact of mine worked Army Intel in Iraq years ago. He described Iraqi Muslims as “Having this wall in their minds”. No matter how educated or articulate they were, if you pushed too far, the Wall in their Minds slammed down, after which there was only Faith Faith Faith — “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! AL’LAH’U AKBAR!”

      And a LOT of Christians have a similar wall in their minds.

      • I don’t think of it as a wall, but rather as a shield.

        Psalm 84:9 Behold our shield, O God;
        look on the face of your anointed!

        Word=Jesus=Anointed One=Shield(I might be reaching, but I’m okay with that.)

      • That’s a very stark image, HUG. I think people forget, faith is evidence and substance. The further along in this journey I get, the more I’m convinced faith is not blind, but rather sees quite clearly. Faith is a matter of trust based on the past, not vague ideals.

  17. I too have been reading Pete Enns discussions on this topic over on BioLogos. I’ve been fascinated by this perspective. Arguably, it has helped reinvigorate my faith. I’m a former atheist and hold a degree in English. I can’t tell you the problems I’ve encountered with the “literal/verbatim” perspective on Genesis, both as a non, and now, new believer. Many times I felt like I was being told to embrace ignorance in order to be “in the club.” The work that you and BioLogos have done has helped me read God’s Word in new and exciting ways that has brought it to greater life than it has ever been before. I’m simply fascinated by it all.

  18. This is just another compromise on God’s Word in order to be able to accomodate a godless macro-evolutionary theory. If you start with the position that molecules-to-man evolution is true, then you have to go to all sorts of contortions to say that God is not a liar.

    • I’m sounding like a broken record, but if Genesis is a literal, scientific description of creation, then we are back here:

      http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_XAakLKI3wRs/S3WidTbq8eI/AAAAAAAAACM/ZWvA3YA2pVs/s1600-h/enns.ane.bmp

      since that is ‘literally’ what is being described. Since we understand the universe differently, we all (even you) struggle to draw the meaning from the text. Some disregard science; other disregard Scripture; others (and I think that would include most who post on this site) regard Scripture very highly but seek to understand its message in light of its original audience AND its original purpose (which was undoubtedly NOT to give a scientific explanation of creation to satisfy 21st-century people).

      • What exactly is it that convinces you that molecules-to-man evolution is true? The odds of it happening are so infintessimally remote, even if we were to, say, double–no, make that 10x–the 4.3B year supposed age of the universe. What leads you to place more faith in THAT-pure random chance of something starting from nothing (ex nihilo) and ending up with what we experience today? I am sorry, but, you doubt an omnipotent God. We haven’t been told how, “scientifically,” God did it in the Genesis account. He’s told us all that we need to know about how he did it. Any other interpretation of the evidence we have before us needs to be filtered through that, not through the lens that says, no God but random chance processes. Micro-evolution–adaptation, variation, speciation, natural selection–all perfectly fit within the design parameters God put in his creation. But a frog’s always been a frog and always will be, just as a monkey’s always been a monkey and always will be. I feel so sorry for these men of God whose faith in God’s infallible word has been so shaken by what–evolutionary “theory”? They ought to resign their commissions to teach God’s word.

        • I’m not arguing for or against evolution, theistic or otherwise. I’m just pointing out that the model of the universe one finds with a literal interpretation of Scripture is one of a flat earth, supported on pillars above a primieval ocean, with a ‘firmament’ overhead that keeps the waters above from coming down until God opens the windows of heaven so it can pour out. Are you saying that when I look at a picture of eath taken from space I’m supposed to filter that evidence through the picture of the earth we find in Scripture? In essense, that is what you are saying.

          I’m suggesting (here and elsewhere) that God has always conveyed spiritual truth in light of the worldview (scientific and otherwise) of the original hearers, not 21st-century science. I think the model of the universe found in Scripture clearly supports that idea. If that is the case, what is wrong with allowing for the possibility that an omnipotent creator might have chosen to put in place and guide a process whereby life did evolve, under his sovereign hand, over long periods of time? Is God any less omnipotent to bring about humankind that way than if he made him of dust on the 6th day?

          To treat the Genesis account as a literal description of the time and method of creation (though you acknowledge that we aren’t told how God did it) and force it into a very small box (and God as well) is to ignore what Genesis actually says. I realize that this can be a ‘slippery slope’, and heaven knows universities (and some seminaries) are filled with liberal professors who started out as staunch fundamentalists (there might be a link there), but we have to read God’s Word for what it says, and what he intended it to say to the original hearers. From there, we see what it says to us and how that applies to our day. This is a basic principle of hermeneutics.

    • While it’s likely you’re merely trolling, this is the second such argument I’ve encountered in the last few days. So, I’ll bite.

      How is anything posited here a compromise of God’s Word?

      Do you understand the differences between “true,” “literal” and “without error”?

      Where is your proof that macro evolution is not occurring? As evidence in favor of macro evolution I offer this: http://tiktaalik.uchicago.edu/ The way I see it the only way you can continue to make the claim that macro-evolution has never occurred is to either ignore the evidence entirely or make the “moving the goalposts” logical fallacy. Note that nothing in the example I provided makes any claims to existence of God.

      I think perhaps your theology is too small and it’s impairing your ability to see God’s wonder in his creation.

      • I thought it was trolling, too. He just fit in too much into those two sentences not to be trying to get a rise.

  19. Richard Hershberger says

    I think it is worth explicitly emphasizing the “genre” part of this discussion. One of the first steps to reading any text is to understand what genre it is. (As an undergraduate I read, on my own, Edmund Spenser’s sonnet cycle. I thought it trite and wondered why Spenser was no highly regarded. Then I read the introduction and learned that it was a parody of the fad for sonnet cycles. Reading the poems a second time, they were hilarious.)

    Genre gets lost in the shouting about “literal” readings, but even those who claim to read scripture literally don’t really mean it. Don’t believe me? Consider the first clause of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd”. What does this mean? By a literal reading, the Lord is a literal shepherd. What does it mean to say that he is the Psalmist’s shepherd? The Psalmist was not a literal sheep, so this only makes sense if the Lord is in the Psalmist’s employ: a hired hand to watch the Psalmist’s sheep.

    Of course no one reads this Psalm anything like this. We all understand that this is a poem, following conventions of poetry, and that “shepherd” is a metaphor, implying a further metaphor of the Psalmist as a sheep. But allow the word “metaphor” into a discussion of Genesis 1 and watch the shouting begin! Why is this? Because many people mistake the genre of Genesis 1.

    The reading Chaplain Mike puts forward here is not the only possible one, but it is honest. It is far more true to the text and respectful of God’s word than the mindless invocations of “literal!” we so often see.