Image Credit: Daniel Alexander, "The Capacity of Creation"
As I said in Prayer beads, Potter, and Pokemon Cards, not believing in literal six-day Creationism was a topic for another article, so I figured I’d follow through on the implied promise.
The first two chapters of Genesis are a favorite for conservative evangelicals, who use them as the foundation of their debates with “evolutionists” to say that God literally created the earth in six 24-hour days (hard to understand since we measure days by the sun, which allegedly wasn’t created until day four). Ironically, these Creationists often don’t realize that we have not one, but two creation accounts in these two chapters, which use two totally different names for God and don’t seem even agree on the order in which things were created.*
Still, I think these chapters should be a favorite for all of us, but for very different reasons than the ones I was given as a kid. I think they make (at least) three crucial, game-changing points that speak to our faith here and now, which I’ll explain in the second half of this post.
I firmly believe Genesis 1-2 as a “scientific” account of a “literal” creation of the universe in one week is an irresponsible reading of the text from a historical and interpretive standpoint. But the point of this article isn’t to join into the never-ending “evolution versus creation” debate. In my opinion, it’s mostly a waste of time if you’re doing so in an attempt to strengthen your faith. I let trained scientists, not Bible scholars (not saying the two can’t overlap, but it’s rare), do that kind of discussion.
To be honest with you, I don’t really care if you believe in six-day Creation or God’s use of evolution in the creation of the world. At least not for the purposes of this article. Because Genesis 1-2 has nothing to say about that debate, and everything to say about issues that are far more important: our understanding of God and our understanding of humanity. As Rob Bell says, we need to read the Bible literately, not literally. Because the Bible is literature, not a textbook or an owner’s manual.
Now, some of you might be thinking, “Hold on a minute! What do you mean it has nothing to say about that debate? You’re always saying how important it is to understand what was in the mind of the original author in order to get the original context to interpret Scripture well. Didn’t the original author believe that the universe was literally created in seven days?” Yes, I think he probably did.** But in the pre-scientific world, that was pretty much the only kind of origin story available. Arguments for/against evolution or other scientific explanations of the universe wouldn’t exist for at least another 3,000 years, depending on when you think the text was written. So yes, literal six-day Creation was most likely in his mind, but he wasn’t writing this text to argue that point. The author of Genesis wasn’t a scientist. Let’s take a brief detour before we talk about what “the point” of this text is.
A man called Galileo (when the Church stuck its foot so far in its mouth it almost came out the other end)
Here’s an example of when the church tried to take a “scientific” stand based on what was in the minds of the original authors. Ever heard of Galileo? He proposed that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa, as the Church (and humanity) had always taught and believed. After all, it looks that way, right? And plenty of Bible verses indicate that the original authors believed the same thing.
So, of course, the church, in one of its earliest blunders of using the Bible irresponsibly as a science book, excommunicated Galileo and called him a heretic for questioning the Bible. But today, we all know the earth revolves around the sun. It’s objectively provable (unless you’re a flat earther, but that’s also a topic for another article - and one that I’m not going to write).
By being too “literal” in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons, the Church ended up damaging the credibility of her message and her Scriptures, not strengthening them. They literally didn’t get the point that the passages about the sun going around the earth were poetic, and they were representations of the common beliefs of people based on their natural observations without telescopes and spaceships. A foot-in-mouth moment if ever there was one.
So we’re in a conundrum here. We have to understand what was in the mind of the original authors in order to get a better and more responsible understanding of the text. But we also have to accept that what was in their mind could be wrong, particularly when it comes to what we would call scientific matters, because they didn’t have access to the information we do. We have to sort out what point they were actually trying to make. And this usually involves finding what they were thinking about that simply isn’t in our minds, because we don’t live in the same context.
So what is the point?
It just so happens that in the case of Genesis 1-2, we have exactly that. There are things the author would have been thinking about that were relevant and revolutionary in his world, and we miss them because we don’t live in that world.
The surprising fact is that there are striking parallels between many Ancient Near Eastern accounts of creation - including the one in Genesis. The first two chapters of the Bible have a number of similarities in language and imagery to other creation accounts from Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt.
Some think that these other nations copied from the Israelite account, but a lot of evidence points to the fact that the author of Genesis might have copied from them, since the Biblical text was likely written at a significantly later date.
But I don’t find this threatening in any way. There is powerful revelation in the text, because it is in the places where the text deviates from the norm of ancient creation myths that we can find the truths the Bible is trying to teach. In other words, the fact that there are parallels in language and themes and imagery only makes the differences all the more striking and meaningful.
This is not an academic article, so I’m not going to expand on all the details of each and every parallel, but if you’re interested, do a Google search or contact me and I can send you some places to get started. In this post, I just want to integrate what I’ve learned from research and share what I believe “the point” is.
There are three main “deviations” that set the Biblical text apart its contemporaries:
There is only one God
All ancient Near Eastern creation stories are polytheistic. They assume a pantheon of numerous gods, all fighting and competing for power and control. The idea that there is a single God who is the source of everything was a radical innovation, and one that lies at the foundation of our faith. Ironically, because it seems so obvious and “normal” to most evangelicals, who view polytheistic religions such as Hinduism as the abnormal and strange, we have failed to see just how big of a shift it really was.
The monotheistic revelation becomes central to Israelite belief and identity. When Moses is preparing to lead his people into exodus and “found” the Israelite nation, he asks God, “What should I tell them your name is?” Seems like a silly question for those of us who think, “Well, God is just God.” Right? Wrong. In a world with hundreds of gods, knowing the name of your god would be an important thing. When you’re challenging the very representative of the gods (Pharaoh) and leading a people out of a civilization steeped in devotion to them, it’s helpful to have a calling card for your deity.
But God doesn’t give Moses anything other than “Yahweh” - I am what I am, or I will be what I will be. Somehow, the “name” of God isn’t a name at all. It is simply undiluted being or existence itself. The seeming absurdity of this revelation in its historical context became the cornerstone of Israelite and, later, Christian belief.
God is good and creates a world that is “very good”
In most ancient Near Eastern creation myths, the gods are a bunch of bickering school children - if schoolchildren were brutally violent and did things like chopping each other in half with swords. According to the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation narrative, the earth and sky are created from the guts of a goddess. After a lengthy description of unending war between all the gods, including the creation of monsters and demigods, the god-champion Marduk captures and kills the goddess Tiamat with an arrow to the heart. Then he slices her belly with his sword, and out of her dripping entrails come the sky and the earth.
In these stories, the gods are not benevolent. They might be coaxed or persuaded into helping you out, or they might take a liking to you and do “good” things for you, but they are not good in the way we are told that God/Yahweh is good.
It’s not just that God is good. His creation is said to be good too. The idea that God made it all with his own words for the sheer delight of it was unprecedented. Our world and everything in it are good and were intended for good purposes. Beauty, harmony, and breathing the very life-breath of God are what the universe was created for. In fact, we are told that God breathed his own breath into Adam, the first human (probably symbolic, but I guess possibly historical - again, history and science are not the point of the text).
Humans are not pawns in a divine game/battle. Humans are themselves the “images” or “idols” of God.
In the Enuma Elish, humans are created from the blood of a god. They do not matter to the gods. They are essentially pawns in a giant chess game: the ongoing competition and battles of the gods. They have no real significance, and the only way for humans to earn any favor and blessing and divine credit is by building idols - symbolic representations of the gods - and putting them in beautifully adorned temples in which they can offer all kinds of sacrifices.
Here is where we find the most striking, radical, revolutionary, game-changing deviation of the Biblical creation narrative: we don’t have to build idols, because we are the idols. The text tells us that humans were created in the “image and likeness” of God, and this is precisely the language used to describe temple idols in the Ten Commandments, where God orders his people not to make any “graven image or likeness” of anything on earth or heaven.
There is also a good case to be made that the original language used for God’s creation seems to indicate that the world itself is his temple. If we are the “idols” in God’s temple, then we are actually the mediators of God’s presence for the whole earth. In the original plan for the universe, there was no need to visit a temple to get in contact with the divine or find a god-king to play the mediator between us.
This changes literally everything. And yet, generally speaking, we miss it. In fact, we usually miss all three of these points because we approach the text as historical/scientific, rather than highly symbolic, highly poetic, and supremely theological. Like the Catholic Church with Galileo hundreds of years ago, by approaching the text in what we call “literally,” we only end up damaging its significance and relevance.
There is one God. God is good, and he creates a good universe. Humans are the idols/images of God in the “temple” that is creation itself. What would have been absurd or even blasphemous in its day now lies at the heart of the Christian faith. And that, my friends, is the point.
*It is clear that in Genesis 1-2 we have two different accounts of the same story. The first one uses the name elohim for God, whereas the second one uses Yahweh. In the first account, Adam is the final creation, but in the second one he is created before the plants and (possibly, depending on how you read it) the animals. Most scholars with knowledge of the original text agree that they were written by different authors at different times and later compiled together - as all of Scripture was. Again, this isn’t problematic if we read the text well and recognize what points it is trying to make, because the two complementary accounts each have their own unique perspectives, with the former focusing more on the cosmos and the latter going into much more detail on the nature of humanity as made in God’s image.
**The author probably believed in literal six-day Creation, but this was also probably not something he was even consciously thinking about. What he would have seen that we also tend to miss is the meticulous parallelism in the poetic text. On days 1-3, God creates the heavens/earth, then separates the “waters” to make the sky/sea, then calls the waters back to form land filled with plants and trees. On days 4-6, God then “fills” each of these spaces in the same order. On day four, he fills the heavens with the stars. On day five, he fills the skies with birds and the seas with fish. And on day six he fills the land with plants and animals and, finally, humans. This is another point that I didn’t have time to focus on, but one that I think would have stood out much more obviously to the original audience: God is the space-maker who creates room for things to flourish, and God is the source of all good things that he places into the spaces he has created.