The Bible says God created the world and everything in it in six days. Science says the world and its inhabitants evolved slowly over billions of years by natural forces. Can this mismatched pair make it as roommates in the big city?
Hello, I’m Josh Way. You may know me from the Internet where I am an unpaid intern. Join me for a little while as we take an entertaining and revealing look at the world’s most popular and misunderstood BOOK.
The first chapter of the book we call “Genesis” is one of the most familiar and contentious passages in the Bible, perhaps in all of world literature. Dismissed by many as simply another ancient “creation myth,” cherished by others as the authoritative account of the origin of everything, the Genesis story is a dividing line for many in our culture. But does it have to be that way? Do science and the Bible really stand at odds as mutually exclusive, incompatible opposites? Does the Bible really say what many creationists insist it does? Namely, that the word was created in a period of six twenty-four-hour days as recently as six to ten thousand years ago? If so, hasn’t scientific progress proved this account untenable and rendered the Bible invalid? And what of Lori and her love for Bruce?
Well, settle down there, sport. That’s what we’re here for, to apply a heaping helping of HISTORY and LITERATURE to the Bible and get an idea of what’s really going on. I think the answers I’m going to suggest might surprise everybody.
But first we have some homework to do. The obvious first step is to set aside all of our agendas and assumptions and read the passage in question. So here is Genesis chapter one (plus a couple verses of chapter two to complete the account):
1When God started creating the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was formless and chaotic, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water.
3 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated light from darkness. 5 God called the light day, and the darkness night. And there was evening and morning, the first day.
6 Then God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters, and let it separate water from water.”7 And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters above. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse the sky. And there was evening and morning, the second day.
9 Then God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called seas. And God saw that it was good.
11 Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, seeded plants and fruit trees bearing seeded fruit of all kinds on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, seeded plants of all kinds and trees bearing seeded fruits of all kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and morning, the third day.
14 Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and seasons, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light upon the land.” And it was so. 16 And God made two great lights—a greater light to rule the day and a lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the land, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and morning, the fourth day.
20 Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the land across the expanse of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and all kinds of living creatures that move with which the waters teem, and all kinds of winged birds. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the land.”23 And there was evening and morning, the fifth day.
24 Then God said, “Let the land bring forth living creatures of all kinds—livestock and creeping things and all kinds of beasts of the land.” And it was so. 25 And God made all kinds of beasts of the land of all kinds and livestock, and everything that creeps on the ground. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the livestock and over all the land and over every creeping thing that creeps on the land.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
28 Then God blessed them. God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the land.”29 And God said, “See, I have given you every seeded plant that is on the face of all the land, and every tree with seeded fruit. You can have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the land and to every bird of the sky and to everything that creeps on the land, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their inhabitants. 2 And on the seventh day God finished what he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it special, because on it God rested from all the work he had done in creation.
So that’s what the Bible says. Let’s take a brief look at what’s not there and then a longer look at what is. First, here’s three things that are noticeably missing from this text:
1. A timeframe, or any sense of when this is happening or what was happening before, if anything was happening before. The familiar translation of Genesis 1:1 reads “In the beginning God created…,” but a better sense of the Hebrew is “When God started to create…” Much may be implied by that opening, but very little is actually said.
Along those lines, you might be wondering where the “six to ten thousand years” thing comes from. At no point does the Bible explicitly place this creation event within a year or even an era. The so-called “young earth” number is the result of well-meaning contemporary interpreters attempting to decipher the date of creation using the genealogies of Genesis from Adam to Abraham, estimating lifespans and adding them up. This is an extremely “modern” type of analysis, and it makes many assumptions about the text and the way Hebrew genealogies work. I don’t disparage anyone who strongly believes in the “young earth” interpretation. Suffice to say, it is not the only view, and it is certainly not an explicit feature of the text itself.
2. The second item missing from this text is a witness or author or narrative framework. Just who is meant to have written all of this down? Even the most outrageous biblical visions are witnessed and recorded by human authors: Daniel, Ezekiel, John… But creation just… happens. The book is part of the Torah, and tradition says that Moses wrote the Torah, but nowhere in Jewish or Christian tradition is Moses understood to have witnessed creation. (Except in my cool screenplay where the ark of the covenant is also a time machine.)
Of course, there is a good reason a text like this might not have a traditional narrative framework. It could be an example of a completely different genre. Maybe this doesn’t read like a typical Bible story because it isn’t… That’s clue number two.
Now, one more observation before we turn the lights on.
3. The third element that is conspicuously missing from Genesis chapter one is the identity of “God.” There is no description or explanation of who this God is or where he came from. The identity is simply assumed. That’s another important clue, and we’ll come back to it in a moment.
To sum up, our three missing pieces: there is no timeframe, no narrative framework, and the identity of God is assumed. None of these are problems in and of themselves, but they thwart traditional interpretations and critiques of the passage.
Now, I told you I had a surprise, one that would change the whole mood of our discussion and give us a new lens through which to read the text. And I won’t tease you any longer, so here it is: Genesis chapter one is not a scientific report. OK, that’s not the surprise, in fact – that should be perfectly obvious. But neither is Genesis chapter one an historical account or a traditional narrative story in any sense that we might expect.
IT IS A SONG.
That’s right, Genesis chapter one is most certainly a poem, and very likely a hymn sung by ancient Israelites to celebrate the natural order. If this is true, it explains why God’s identity is merely assumed, why there is no narrative framework, and no timeframe. This is a song celebrating something everybody already believed in. And it’s not very productive to argue science and facts out of a song book, is it?
You’re probably thinking, “this doesn’t SOUND like song lyrics.” That’s because we’re reading it in English. Hebrew poetry works very differently. For one thing, it doesn’t rhyme. Rhyming is effective in English because we have so many diverse types of words we stole from other languages that it takes some effort to compose a good rhyme. Hebrew words are constructed using a small set of often-repeated suffixes, and so rhymes would just be too easy and distracting.
Instead, Hebrew poetry uses elements such as meter, balance, and repetition. For example, the first verse in Hebrew (“Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve-et haaretz”), breaks the rules of Hebrew syntax and leaves out a couple of maqafs (hyphens) just so it can have exactly seven words. One for each day in the week of creation. Now, this in itself doesn’t prove anything, much less that this is a song, but it certainly shows that the text has been very artfully and poetically composed.
But we don’t need to be Hebrew scholars to discover the lyrical nature of this text. One aspect of Hebrew music that IS just like our own is the use of a repeated refrain. Did you notice all of the repeated phrases in the chapter? “And it was so…” “And God saw that it was good…” “And there was morning and evening…” Every day of creation ends with the same refrain.
Now, I don’t mean to belittle the Bible by means of this analogy, but I think an appropriate comparison can be made between Genesis 1 and the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” They both take something familiar to a particular community of people, and they celebrate it in song in a framework of consecutive, escalating days. In the Christmas song, the gifts increase in number and absurdity with each day, indicating the excesses of holiday cheer, or whatever that song’s supposed to be about. In the Genesis song, there is a progressive order to the days that we tend to overlook because we’re arguing about whether they’re “literal” or not. Check it out:
On days one through three God makes various realms: Space, sky, sea, and then land. Then, in days four through six he fills them in-order with the appropriate inhabitants: sun, moon and stars, birds, fish, and beasts and humans. The point of the song is ORDER. The world has an order, it works, it is good, and Israel celebrates her belief that her God is the one who made it all work. The significance of ORDER in creation as a biblical theme cannot be overstated. It set Israel apart from her neighbors in Canaan, Babylon, and Mesopotamia, who saw nature as chaotic and unstable, and whose gods were at war with nature, not in control of it. The seven days of the creation song also reflect Israel’s unique seven-day-week and sabbath observance.
Historically speaking, Genesis fits into a much larger collection of texts called “the Torah”, or “The Book of Moses”, or “The Pentateuch.” Remember the last show when we talked about the early period when Israel didn’t have a king because it was ruled by a family of priests? Well, the Torah is a collection of traditions, songs, genealogies, and laws compiled by those priests to give the new nation an identity so they could live together in peace and unity. To our eyes and ears, the contents of Genesis might seem random and problematic, but to their original hearers they spoke directly to their experience and their hope.
Two themes in particular run through every passage of Genesis: offspring – because this is the story of a family, and land – because this is the story of nomads settling down in their own country. And each of these themes is on full display in the creation song: God organizes the elements into a livable space where man and beast can live, then he tells them to get busy populating it.
The creation hymn is an artifact of the shared identity of the Israelites. It did what all good songs do: it distilled something true and timeless into a memorable, shareable experience. Our endless debates, which almost always focus on elements which are simply not there on the page, distract us from the simple but culturally distant context.
Now, by suggesting that Genesis 1 is a song, I’m not looking to diminish its significance or anyone’s belief in it. Far from it. I am merely suggesting that there are ways to discuss and appreciate it without getting stuck in the tedious loop of anachronistic debates about science and chronology. Science has its own language for describing the natural order, and the ancient Hebrews (and contemporary Jews and Christians by inheritance) have theirs as well.
I’m not so naive as to suggest that science and biblical creation are really just two expressions of the same thing, but I am happy to suggest that they have more in common than we are prepared to accept.
I know this won’t end cultural debates about man’s origin and the implications of science for religion and vice versa. But I do hope for believers this might relieve some of the burden to justify an ancient song against critiques it was never meant to answer. And for those outside of the biblical tradition looking in, I hope this gives you permission to rethink your assumptions about the Bible the world that created it.
So there it is, the song at the beginning of the Bible. The melody is lost to us, so maybe it’s time we wrote a new one!
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