An introduction into Genesis 1
The Bible – the most famous and controversial book in the world. We carefully open the first pages, wondering what mysteries will be made clear about the providence of God. Then, as we open to Genesis chapter one – the creation account, we find ourselves, well, to be honest, confused.
Have you ever read Genesis 1? It doesn’t make sense. Where does the light come from on the first three days if the sun, moon, and stars aren’t created until the fourth day? How was there evening and morning without the sun? That all seems like a problem. We are also told that God separates the waters with a “firmament” (KJV). But last time I checked, there’s not a solid dome-like structure up in the sky holding the rain back. Reading Genesis 1 from a scientific perspective, nothing makes sense. It makes me feel stupid. Has science trumped the biblical creation account?
Then I came across The Bible Project. I watched their insightful video on Genesis 1, and through them came across John H. Walton, an Old Testament scholar and Professor who specialises in the book of Genesis. Gradually, it all started to come together and those surface level “issues” resolved under a more accurate understanding of the text.
So, let’s kick things off.
Within scripture, one of the principal attributes of God is that he is Creator. That conviction is foundational as we merge our theology into our worldview. After all, what is entailed in viewing God as Creator? What does that imply for how we view ourselves and the world around us? How we answer these questions dictates how we approach life. It is the first chapter of Genesis that kick-starts our understanding of what the Bible teaches about God as Creator. Though the first chapter is simple in the majesty of its expression and the power of its scope, it is anything but transparent. In fact, this beautiful account has become a bloodied battleground of debate.
Firstly, we need to understand that while Genesis communicates to us and was written for us, it was not written to us. It was written to Israel. It is God revealing himself to Israel and through them to everyone else. Since it was written to Israel, it is in a language that most of us do not understand, and therefore requires translation. But also, language assumes, operates and is designed to communicate in the framework of a culture. So when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to properly understand the text.
While translating a foreign language is difficult enough, translating a foreign culture adds to the challenge. To accurately translate, we need to lift the ideas from their native context and relocate them in our own context. But in this process, we must withhold our own ideas from creeping in and twisting the material to fit our own context. For example, in the Old Testament, what does the text mean when it describes Sarah as “beautiful?” We first need to know the meaning of the word, but also have some idea of what defines beauty in their ancient culture, regardless of what is seen as “beautiful” by today’s standards. Or to give another example, when the Bible speaks of marriage, we understand that it is the establishment of a socially and legally recognised relationship between a man and a woman. But marriage carries a lot more social nuance than that in our culture and is not necessarily similar at all to the social expressions in the ancient culture. Marriage today is expressed in very different ways to the ancient past. If we try to interpret marriage in the text and culture of the Bible by imposing all the aspects of marriage in our culture, we would end up distorting the text and so would interpret it incorrectly. So, the point of those two examples are this – rather than translating the culture, then, we need to try to enter the culture. We must try to leave our English categories and cultural ideas behind, and try our best to understand the material in its cultural context.
In order to achieve this task, first we need to recover the way that an ancient culture thought and what categories, ideas and concepts were important to them. How do we do that? Well firstly, language is keyed to culture so literature is a window to the culture that produced it. If we can become familiar with the literature, we may better understand the culture. Now I get this sounds like a circular argument: we can’t interpret the literature without understanding the culture, and we can’t understand the culture without interpreting the literature. If we focus on just the bible, it would indeed be circular, because we have already adjusted it to our own cultural ways of thinking. The answer then is to be found in the literature from the rest of the ancient world.
We’re not saying that we expect similarity at every point; but neither should we assume differences at every point. While the nature of the bible is very different from anything else of the ancient world. The very fact that we accept the Old Testament as God’s revelation of himself distinguishes it from the literature of, say, Mesopotamia or Egypt. In fact, Egyptian literature was very different from Mesopotamian literature, and Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Babylonian literature were far from homogeneous. In any given time period in any given culture in any given city, people would have had different ideas from each other. Having said all of this, at the same time that there would also be some common ground. By comparing the ancient cultures to each other we start to see those common threads even as we become aware of the distinctions that vastly separated them from one another.
Let’s bring back the example of marriage: we are more likely to better understand the Israelite ideas of marriage by becoming informed about marriage in Egypt or Babylon than we will by thinking of marriage in modern terms. At the same time, we will also find evidence to suggest that Babylonian customs were not always like Israelite ones. The texts of other ancient cultures merely serve as sources of information to help us formulate the shape of each culture’s ways of thinking. And to be fair, generally speaking there is more similarity between Israel and its neighbours than there is between Israel and our Western world.
Before we open Genesis 1, let’s make one thing clear. We are not looking at ancient literature to try to decide whether Israel borrowed from some of the literature that was known to them. Instead, we recognise the common conceptual worldview that existed in ancient times. We are not speaking of Israel being influenced by that world— but understanding that they were part of that world.
Genesis 1 offered Israelites their own explanation of origins and functions, just as mythologies served in the rest of the ancient world and that science most often serves our Western culture. On a separate thought, in real terms science merely serves as an explanation of the mechanics of nature since its origin, and has come no way near explaining the origin of nature itself, nor can it. Genesis one represents what the Israelites believed, as a revelation from God, about who created the world and why.
Now the introduction is done. The rest of this essay will offer several propositions to guide our understanding of Genesis 1, to help us interpret the text closer to how the Israelites understood it. After all, God was speaking directly to them. Hopefully this essay will relieve your doubts about the creation text, and enhance your understanding of God Himself.
Proposition 1: Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology, not modern cosmology
Our first and perhaps most important proposition is that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. What does that mean? It means that it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. The Israelites did not have telescopes to understand the cosmos as we do; they did not know that the earth was moving through space, nor that the sun was much further away than the moon. They believed that the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to hold back the rain waters. In many ways, they thought about the cosmos in much the same way anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it was necessary to revise their thinking.
Some Christians make the mistake (as I did) to approach the text of Genesis as if it has modern science embedded in it. It doesn’t. We call this approach “concordism,” as it seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text. This is an attempt to “translate” the culture and text for the modern reader. The problem is, however, we cannot translate their cosmology to our cosmology, nor should we. Walton clarifies why:
“If we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology. If we try to turn it into modern cosmology, we are making the text say something that it never said. It is not just a case of adding meaning (as more information has become available) it is a case of changing meaning. Since we view the text as authoritative, it is a dangerous thing to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say.”
Trying to bring Genesis 1 into accordance with today’s science doesn’t add anything to the text. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated His revelation to His immediate audience in terms they understood. God’s purpose in Genesis 1 wasn’t to reveal to Israel scientific details of cosmology, so He was content for them to retain their native ancient cosmology. The shape of the earth, the nature of the sky, the locations of sun and moon are not of significance, and God could communicate what He desired regardless of one’s cosmic geography. He chose to adopt the language of the Hebrew culture to communicate a deeper message in terms they understood. In fact, there is not a single instance throughout the entire Bible in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. No passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the ancient near east’s science of antiquity.
There are a number of other cultural issues to consider concerning how people thought in the ancient world. Such as, what is God’s relationship to the cosmos? Is He controlling it from outside? What is the cosmos? Is it entirely “natural” – a collection of material objects that operate on the basis of laws? A machine? A residence? Is the account of creation the description of a manufacturing process or the communication of a concept? These are the types of questions we will address throughout this essay.
Before we do, there is one thing we should address immediately. That is, there is no concept of a “natural” world in ancient Near Eastern thinking. The dichotomy between natural and supernatural is a relatively recent thought. To ancient thinkers, nothing happened independent of a deity. The Hebrews, as well as everyone else in the ancient world, believed that every event was the act of deity—that every baby born, every plant that grew, every drop of rain and every climatic disaster was an act of God. They didn’t understand “natural” laws to govern the cosmos; deity ran the cosmos or was inherent to it. If God was absent from the cosmos, it would devolve into chaos. There is nothing “natural” about the world in biblical theology, but actually, nor should there be in ours. I still believe God to be thoroughly involved in the operations and functions of the world, I do believe He governs it, yet He also transcends it. Natural laws and mechanisms carry God’s signature. They don’t replace Him but reveal the genius of a God who made the universe to operate in the way it does. I am not suggesting that God micromanages the world, only that He sustains it.
The reason this is so important to grasp is that the ancient Hebrews would never have dreamed of addressing how things might have come into being within a “natural” scientific sense, or what “natural” processes He might have used. For example, notice how the biblical text merges these perspectives when Genesis 1:24 says, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” but then follows up with the conclusion in the very next verse, “So God made the animals.” All of these issues are modern issues imposed on the text and not the issues in the culture of the ancient world. In western culture, we tend to view or seek to understand the materialistic aspects of things, but that wasn’t the focus in the ancient world. We cannot expect the text to address these modern issues, nor should we configure the information of the text to force it to comply with the questions we long to answer. We must take the text on its own terms—it is not written to us.
So, to summarise what’s been said – God has chosen the agenda of the text. If we attempt to steer the text to address our issues, we distort it in the process. It was written to ancient Hebrews, not 21st Century materialistic minds. And although our understanding of ancient culture will always be somewhat limited, ancient literature is the key to a proper interpretation of the text, and there are still sufficient amounts of it available to allow us to make progress in our understanding of Genesis 1.
Proposition 2: Ancient cosmology is function oriented
Following from the first proposition is the understanding that ancient cosmology is function oriented. What does that mean in our discussion of origins? Well, we will start off with a focus on the ontology of the cosmos.
What does it mean for the cosmos (or the objects in it) to exist? In the language of cosmic ontology these days, our culture often views existence in merely material terms. Our material view of ontology in turn determines how we think about creation, and it is easy to see how. If ontology defines the terms of existence, and creation means to bring something into existence, then your ontology sets the parameters by which you think about creation. Our culture has a materialistic focus on things, and so in consequence we believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus, our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins.
Now, I know what you might be thinking: “Silly! Of course, something exists because it has material properties!” To our minds, it is common sense to believe that creation means to give something material properties. But it could also mean something else. Is it possible to have a cosmic ontology that is function oriented and sees creation (i.e.bringing something into existence) in those terms?
Perhaps an illustration will help explain: when we create a curriculum, create havoc or create a masterpiece, we are not involved in a material manufacturing process. We don’t use the verb “create” in material terms. Even though a curriculum eventually takes a material form (i.e. books), the creation of the curriculum is more a process of organising ideas and thoughts. We could say that the primary aspect of “creating” a curriculum is really non-material. So even in our culture, there are alternative ways of thinking about creative activity, as the example highlights. If a curriculum’s ontology is functional, then creating that curriculum involves function-giving activities. With that background in mind, let’s get back to the question of cosmic ontology. To understand a creation account from the ancient world, we must understand what they meant by “creation,” which implies that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own.
What constituted a creative act in the ancient world? What did it mean to say that the world existed? I propose that those in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system – we may call this “functional ontology.” In this way of thinking, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather, it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way it functions for humankind.
In a functional ontology, something could be manufactured physically but still not “exist” if it has not become functional. To the ancient Hebrews, we may say that the focus on the creative act was on assigning a purpose or role to something, rather than the origin of its material components.
Think about it like this: if we think of “creating” a computer, we understand that at the most basic level the casing and the electronics have to be manufactured, as well as the keyboard and other parts designed and so forth. This is what we might call the material phase of production. After all those manufactured parts are assembled, we might say that the computer exists. After all, we can see it. But in reality, there is way more to consider. Another aspect involves writing the programs. But if the software has not been installed on the computer, its “existence” is meaningless—it cannot function. So the additional process of installing the software makes the computer theoretically functional. But what if there is no power source? It won’t turn on without a power source. Adding a power source, we might now claim that its existence is finally and completely achieved. But on top of that, what if no one sits at the keyboard or knows the purpose of using it? It remains nonfunctional, and, for all intents and purposes, as if it did not exist. The point is that we can see that different observers might be inclined to attribute “existence” to the computer at different stages in the process. In a functional ontology, all of the above steps are important in the definition of existence. But unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, (often in which is useful to people) it does not exist. Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence.
Or consider another simpler analogy: on a hot day, someone picks up a piece of paper and uses it as a fan to keep themselves cool. They’ve “made a fan” merely by giving existing material a new purpose, without ever adding or reshaping it. While we all agree that most things must have physical properties before it can be given its function, the critical question is still, what stage is defined as “creation?” In the ancient world, what was most significant to their understanding of existence was the way that the parts of the cosmos functioned, not their material status. This is very different from the norm today.
How do we know the ancient world thought like this? The evidence comes from both the biblical text and from other literature of the ancient world. A number of ancient Near Eastern texts describing creation come from the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians. There are a number of ancient thoughts we can learn from these, such as…
The shape of the cosmos
Old-world cosmic geography is based on what they could observe from their vantage point. They didn’t have the scientific tools we have today, so if water comes down, well, surely there must be some up there—so they all thought in terms of cosmic waters in the sky. And if it doesn’t come down all the time, then it makes sense to think that something must hold the water back—something somewhat solid (a firmament). Waters also spring up from the ground, so there must be waters under the ground, yet something must hold the ground steady. On and on the logic goes, following fairly obvious paths.
Most of the creation accounts of the ancient world begin their story with no operational system in place. Walton goes on to explain, “Egyptian texts talk about a singularity—nothing having yet been separated out. All is inert and undifferentiated. Similarly, one Sumerian text speaks of a time when there was darkness, no flow of water, nothing being produced, no rituals performed, and heaven and earth were still joined together.”
Creation accounts of the ancient world often begin with something which emerges from the waters—whether a deity or land (e.g. the Egyptian Primaeval Hillock). In Egyptian texts, these primaeval waters are designated as “non-existent,” a key indicator they held a functional ontology too.
The most common creative activity in Egyptian texts, also observable in a number of Mesopotamian texts, is the idea that heaven and earth get separated. Even Hittite literature indicates this crucial step when one myth talks about cutting heaven and earth apart with a cutting tool. Others include the separation of the upper and lower waters and waters from land.
No creation of material
What’s fascinating about the Near Eastern creation accounts is that within the literature no new material is actually made—instead, everything is function oriented. Creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional, chaotic condition. In the ancient world, to create something (cause it to exist) means to give it a function, not material properties.
We tend to think of the cosmos in a mechanical sense, like a machine, and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like a kingdom or an empire. Sure, they believed that their gods manufactured the material, for nothing can be thought to stand apart from the gods. But they weren’t as fussed about material origins. Such issues were simply insignificant to them. What really matters is not the material, but what purpose the material has. The functional level has a higher degree of importance to the mere material level.
So, to summarise this proposition, our own material definition of existence is only one of the possible ways to define existence. In the ancient world, they defined it differently. They thought of existence primarily as defined by its function in an ordered system, so that the line between existence and non-existence was functional, not material.
Proposition 3: Genesis 1 is also function oriented
We now turn our attention to the creation account in Genesis 1, to ask ourselves whether it follows a function orientated cosmology. Let’s start with verse one – what exactly does the verb “bārā”, translated as “create”, actually mean?
The verb bārā occurs around fifty times in the Old Testament, and deity is always the subject (or the implied subject) of the verb. So we can safely assume that the activity is inherently a divine activity and not one that humans can perform. Also, no clear example occurs that demands a material perspective for the verb, although to be fair many are ambiguous. Either way, a large percentage of the contexts to the use of “bārā” in the Old Testament requires a functional understanding. So, along with the rest of the ancient world, we can safely assume that the Israelites understood the word bārā to convey creation in functional terms rather than material terms. This is the most “literal” understanding that we can achieve.
Now, just because we are saying that Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, we are not, therefore, suggesting that God is not responsible for material origins. I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins. Material origins do involve at some point creation out of nothing (nothing physical, that is). But when we look at Genesis 1, we are asking a textual question: What aspect of origins is addressed in Genesis 1? Most have generally thought that Genesis 1 contains an account of material origins because unfortunately that is the only sort of origins that our materialistic culture is interested in.
So, this is our expanded interpretive translation of verse 1: “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it.” The creative activities relate to the way the ancient world thought about creation and existence: by naming, separating and assigning functions and roles in an ordered system. These creative activities were accomplished in the seven-day period that the text calls “the beginning.”
Proposition 4: In Genesis 1, the beginning state is nonfunctional
So far we have established that existence in the ancient world was best defined in functional rather than material terms, and “creation” is the functional activity that brings the transition from non-existence to existence. But we also need to establish how creation accounts describe the “before” and “after” conditions.
If the text offered an account of material origins then we would expect it to begin with no material, but if the text offered an account of functional origins then we would expect it to begin with no functions. Genesis 1 offers its starting point in verse 2 where it describes the earth as tōhû and bōhû. These terms are most commonly translated as “formless and void.” If we analyse the use of these two terms throughout the rest of the Old Testament, I see nothing in these contexts that would lead us to believe that tōhû has anything to do with material form. The contexts in which they occur and the words and phrases used in parallel suggest that the words describe things as nonfunctional, i.e. having no purpose or meaning in human terms. So it would seem that tōhû and bōhû together convey the idea of non-existence in their functional ontology, that the earth is described as not yet functioning in an ordered system. (Functional) creation has not yet taken place, and therefore there is only (functional) non-existence. The creation account in Genesis 1 can therefore be seen to begin with no functions rather than with no material.
In a nutshell – evidence from both the Old Testament and ancient Near East texts suggest that in these stories, the pre-creation state lacked functions rather than material. Their concept of existence was linked to functionality and the act of creation was bringing functionality/order from a nonfunctional/disordered condition rather than creating material.
Proposition 5: Establishing functions happens in days one to three
Now it’s time to get into the nit and grit of Genesis 1. So open your Bible at Genesis chapter 1, and let’s examine the seven days in turn, starting with days one to three. As far as I can tell, only in days one to three are functions established.
Day One – Genesis 1:3-5
The whole process begins with verse 5, the concluding verse of the account of day one: “God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening and there was morning—the first day.” It’s interesting that light is never treated as a material object in the ancient Near East, despite our common understanding. It was instead thought of as a condition, just as darkness is. So even if light were being created in day one, we are not able to make the claim that this is a material act. The fact that the day’s events conclude with God naming day and night show the focus of His activity is in ordering states of light and darkness, separating and making useful.
If something connected with light is named “day”, then we can assume that it is not light itself, but the period of light, because that is what “day” is. That makes sense. So since “day” is a period of light, and “day” is the name given, then we are effectively dealing with a rhetorical device called metonymy in which a noun can reasonably be extended to a related concept. In this case, the author Moses intends for us to understand the word “light” to mean a period of light. Otherwise, the verse would not make sense. As a result, we can translate this as, “God called the period of light ‘day’ and the period of darkness he called ‘night.’”
With this knowledge of verse 5, we can now proceed backward to verse 4. There we are told that “God separated the light from the darkness.” These are the distinct periods that are then named day and night in verse 5. But if “light” refers to a period of light in verses 5 and 4, then consistency demands that we extend the same understanding to verse 3 – “God said, ‘Let there be a period of light.’” Since what is called into existence is a period of light that is distinguished from a period of darkness and that is named “day,” we must inevitably consider day one as describing the recognition and rhythm of time, since the basic drum-beat of time is the invariable alteration between periods of light and periods of darkness. This is a creative act, but the creation is not a material one but a functional one.
This interpretation of the text allows us to solve the long-standing conundrum of why evening is named before morning. There had been darkness in the pre-creation condition. When God called forth a period of light and distinguished it from this period of darkness, the “time” system that was set up required transitions between these two established periods. Since the period of light had been called forth, the first transition was evening (into the period of darkness) and the second was morning (into the period of light).
So, the meaning of day one is that God put the great cycle of time in place.
Day Two – Genesis 1:6-8
For a long time, day two had been problematic for me. In antiquity, people routinely believed that the sky was solid, so if the Hebrew term is to be taken in its normal contextual sense, it indicates that God made a solid dome to hold up waters above the earth. The term “expanse” or “firmament” should not be interpreted as the sky or the atmosphere because that is not what the author meant by it when he used it and not what the audience would have understood by the word. As we have already discussed, we cannot force Genesis to speak to some later science.
How do we make sense of this? Well, if we continue to think about the creation account as ultimately concerned with the functional rather than the material, then Genesis 1 is affirming nothing about the material world. The fact that there isn’t a solid dome holding back the cosmic waters doesn’t matter. Considering the text isn’t seeking to introduce a new cosmological model but rather teach truths about God’s purposes for the world (as stated earlier in this essay), we should focus on the important twofold cosmic function it played instead of its materiality.
What comic function did the “firmament” represent to the ancient Hebrews? Its most significant function was to serve as a mechanism by which precipitation was controlled, in other words, the means by which weather operated. Order in the cosmos, especially for people, depended on the rains. Too little and we starve; too much and we are overwhelmed.
So in Day 2, our understanding of the Creator includes His role in setting up and maintaining a weather system. While there is no actual “firmament,” it represented the way the ancient audience thought about the world. But it doesn’t matter whether one’s material cosmic geography is primitive or sophisticated—the point, the key message in the text, remains. On the second day, God brought order to the weather to make earth habitable.
Day Three – Genesis 1:9-13
Following from day two, God continues to create order in the cosmos. The act of separating, which is a key creation activity from a functional perspective, continues.
The day seems to contain two separate acts – water / dry land, and vegetation. The soil, the water and the principle of seed bearing are all very much related as essential to the production of food. In Egyptian cosmology, the emergence of dry land from the waters is a common element. That is, the emergence of the primaeval hillock in Egyptian cosmology reflects the yearly reality of the fertile soil emerging in the aftermath of the inundation of the Nile. So it is clear that the emergence of dry land is associated with the growing of food.
Day three reflects the wonder of the ancient world at the whole idea that plants grew, dropped seed, and that more of the same plant came from that seed. The cycle of vegetation, the principles of fertilisation, the blessing of fecundity—all of these were seen as the wonderful provision of food, necessary for our survival.
Summarising day one to three
On day one, God ordered time; day two ordered weather, and day three ordered land and food. These three great functions—time, weather and land/food—are the foundations of life. God is a wonderful creator, not simply in the materials that He brought together—but how He brought them together in such a way that they work. He tunes the world for a purpose. Creation is purposeful.
However, the story quickly turns south. In Genesis, after the cosmos is ordered, a calamity leads God to return the world to an unordered, nonfunctional state by means of a flood (we shall discuss this in a separate essay). Here the “cosmic waters” are let loose from their boundaries and again the inhabited land becomes nonfunctional. What follows is a re-creation text as the land emerges again from the waters and the blessing is reiterated. What’s interesting is that God restates His creator’s promise: “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Genesis 8:22). If you read this carefully you will find the same three major functions in reverse order: food, weather and time, never to cease. The author (Moses) is well aware that these are the main categories in the operation of this world that God has organised. The fact is that the three functions of seasons, weather and food can be clearly seen in the text and are recognised as significant in ancient Near Eastern cosmologies.
When we read the Genesis account, I don’t think we should worry about the question of scientific factuality with regard to the Bible’s use of old-world science. That’s not the purpose of the creation account. It’s not a material account. Sure, some scientific framework needs to be adopted, but all scientific frameworks are dynamic and subject to change. It made sense for God to speak in the framework of the target audience, especially when He is trying to convey a deeper point than material origin.
The old-world science found in the Bible just offers a perspective from a different vantage point. Even today we can consider it true that the sky is blue, that the sun sets and that the moon shines. But we know that these are scientifically misleading statements. Science, however, simply offers one way of viewing the world. The old-world science in the Bible offers the perspective of the earthbound observer. Now, I’m not suggesting that there are many truths, but that there are many possible different perspectives within which truthful information can be conveyed.
The creative work of God in Genesis 1 focuses on functions, and therefore God communicated that He was the one who set up these functions and who keeps it going, regardless of how we envision the material shape.
Proposition 6: On day four to six, God installs functionaries
On the account of days four through six, we see a shift in the focus. While a functional orientation is still obvious, God is not setting up functions as much as He is installing functionaries. Days four to six are literarily parallel to days one to three. What do I mean by this? While in days one to three God orders the context of the world, in days four through six God fills the world with corresponding agents for each of the functions described on day one to three. This suggests that the seven days are not to be seen as a factual seven days, but as sections to highlight different creative events.
|Day oneSeparation of light and darkness||Day fourCreation of sun and moon for day and night|
|Day twoSeparation of water||Day fiveCreation of birds and fish|
|Day threeSeparation of land from water for vegetation||Day sixCreation of land animals and humanity|
Day Four – Genesis 1:14-19
Day four runs parallel to day one. While the text offers no indication of the material nature of the “lights” or “celestial bodies,” all that it says of their material placement is that they are in the “expanse.” We understand this to be objects in space such as the sun, moon, planets, and stars. Now, if we try to parse the text scientifically it doesn’t make sense, but on the functional side of the equation we find that they separate day and night (thus the link to day one), that they provide light and that they serve for “signs, seasons, days and years.” Finally, we are told that their function is to govern the day and night. Now the fourfold description of functions: signs, seasons, days and years, are only pertinent to humans.
So, on day four, God began with a decree (V.14) that identified the functions of these celestial functionaries. Then he did the work so that they would govern as intended (v. 16). And finally He appointed them to their posts (v. 17). The conclusion that “it was good” indicates that they are all prepared to function for the human beings that are soon going to be put in place.
Day Five – Genesis 1:20-23
On day five, the functionaries (birds and fish) simply carry out their own functions in the cosmic space that they inhabit. In verse 22 God blesses the creatures and gives them the function “to be fruitful and multiply.” God created them capable of reproduction, and it is their function to fill their respective realms.
What grabs attention is verse 21 where it reads, “great creatures of the sea”. Here the author returns to the verb bārā which he has not used since verse one. I therefore assume that this use of the verb raises the significance of these creatures. Now, in the ancient world, it was understood the cosmic seas were populated with creatures that operated against the ordered system. They were viewed as threats to order, as they inhabited the region that was itself outside the ordered system. This is the very reason why the author (Moses) of Genesis would single them out for comment. Moses was communicating to the rest of the world that there is no cosmic warfare or conquest that was understood as part of the ancient Near Eastern picture, instead, the text indicates that these creatures are simply part of the ordered system, not enemies that had to be defeated and kept in check. In the creation account, all the creatures are under God’s control.
Day Six – Genesis 1:24-31
Day six introduces the land creatures. They are viewed in their categories, and they reproduce after their own kind according to God’s blessing. Their function is to reproduce and to fill the earth—this is what God made them to do. What I find intriguing, however, is the subject and verb in verse 24, “let the land produce living creatures”. What does that even mean? This is not a scientific mode of expression, and you shouldn’t attempt to read in it scientific concepts. Instead, we should ask what would it refer to in an ancient Near Eastern context?
The role of the land in producing animals does not give us material information as if this were some sort of spontaneous generation or even a subtle indication of an evolutionary process. Rather, the ancient world understood that the land and mountains are locations of origin. This is where animal life comes from, not what it is produced from. Think of it as if a child asked you where babies come from. Rather than needing a description of sperm and egg in fertilisation and conception, you will probably just tell the child that babies come from hospitals or from their mothers, since for now that’s all they need to know. Verse 24 is similar in the sense that all they needed to know was that animal life functioned from land – they live, breed and survive on land – it’s where they come from.
Next, day six moves to the creation of people. This is a big step. The difference when we get to the creation of people is that even as they function to populate the world (like fish, birds and animals), they also have a function relative to the rest of God’s creatures, to subdue and rule.
Furthermore, they also have a function relative to God as they are in His image. On top of that, they also have a function relative to each other as they are designated male and female. All of these show the functional orientation with no reference to the material at all. Out of all these points, the image of God is the most important and is the focus of the text. All the rest of creation functions in relationship to humankind, and humankind serves the rest of creation as God’s vice regent. Being in the image of God implies that people are delegated a godlike role (function) in the world where He places them.
Throughout days one to five, God turned chaos into harmony by separating and ordering, creating a world that functions well because everything has its right place. When God makes humanity to image Him, the context therefore implies that He intends humanity to rule the way He’s ruled – to subdue the earth for its proper functioning just as He separated things to create space for flourishing. This ruling and subduing carries more force than a gentle caretaker role, yet the force of humanity’s rulership is intended to help bring further order to the world.
Proposition 7: The Seventh day is not about rest as we understand it
Day seven is mystifying. On surface, it appears to be nothing more than an afterthought with a theological concern that Israelites should observe the sabbath, but a reader from the ancient world would immediately recognise the role of day seven. In a material account, day seven would have little role or significance, but in a functional account it is the true climax without which nothing else would make any sense or have any meaning. So, how could reactions be so different? The difference is the piece of information that everyone knew in the ancient world and to which most modern readers are totally oblivious.
On the seventh day we are told that God rests from his creative work, which sounds odd, because since when did God need to have a rest? Did He screw up? Does He get tired?
What does divine rest entail? Most of us think of rest as disengagement from the cares, worries and tasks of life. For me, rest sounds like taking an afternoon nap. But in the ancient world, rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved. Consequently, normal routines can be established and enjoyed. For God, this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. As Walton put it: “This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.”
After creation, God takes up his rest and rules from his residence.
Central to this is the Hebraic idea of shalom. This is a state of peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquillity. The pre-creation chaos (“formless and void”) is seen as a discordant disharmony, as something not yet as it should be. So now God has brought order, He can reign in peace. So the rest He enters isn’t laziness, it’s ceasing from fighting against disorder. While shalom opens space for one to relax, more importantly it allows life to resume its normal routines.
This knowledge gives us great hope. When we are troubled by the disorder that we encounter in this world, it is important to understand that the disorder and brokenness of this world are the result of human sin, the fall and corrupt spiritual powers. The theological commitment we draw from Genesis 1 is that God is the author of order. Ultimately, it is God who has ordered the world for good: materially, functionally and spiritually. He holds the laws in place, the seasons and tides, and He sustains the mathematical structure of the universe.
So, with this in mind, when God orders us to “observe the Sabbath”, what does that really mean?
While the weekly Jewish sabbath celebration constituted a strict ceasing from work, the focus of the sabbath is to celebrate God’s peaceful reign over creation. He is asking us to recognise that He is at the controls, not us. When we “rest” on the sabbath, we recognise God as the author of order in the world. The Sabbath is for recognising that it is God who provides for us and who is the master of our lives and our world, not us. So, in order to honour the sabbath, do whatever will reflect your love, appreciation, respect and awe of the God of all the cosmos. Worship Him in some creative form. Worship is a great idea, but it can’t be mechanical, it is up to the individual to determine their personal response to give the honour that is due. The more gratitude we feel toward God and the more we desire to honour Him, the more the ceremonies will mean and the more we will seek out ways to celebrate sabbath rest.
Genesis 1 and contentions with modern science
If you have lasted this far, hopefully you have learnt that there is more than meets the eye with the Biblical creation account of Genesis 1. When we read the text in the context of the ancient world, we discover that what the author truly intended to communicate, and what his audience would have clearly understood, is far different from what has been traditionally understood about the passage.
Firstly, Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins but an account of functional origins. Secondly, the seven days, and Genesis 1 as a whole, have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. This is a conclusion drawn from an analysis and interpretation of the biblical text of Genesis in its ancient environment. While most people who seek to defend a young-earth view do so because they believe the Bible obligates them to such a defence, in fact, the biblical text does not demand a young earth. Therefore, there remains little justification to insist on this position. While I admire that some believers are willing to take unpopular positions and investigate all sorts of alternatives in an attempt to defend the reputation of the biblical text, when properly understood, Genesis 1 gives us no compulsion to stand against a scientific view of a comparatively old earth. We don’t need to abandon biblical faith if we conclude from the scientific evidence that the earth is old. Hopefully this will be comforting for some to hear.
Our third point is that while we view Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos, this does not in any way imply that God was uninvolved in material origins—it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story. To the author and audience of Genesis, material origins were simply not a priority. But for the ancient Hebrews, it also would have been unthinkable that God was somehow uninvolved in the material origins of creation. If we turn to the New Testament texts (Colossians 1:16-17, Hebrews 1:2), the theological point is that whatever exists, God made it.
Finally, we need to remember who the text was written to. In our scientifically minded world, it is tempting to force the creation text to speak beyond its ken. As mentioned, there is not a single instance in the Old Testament of God giving scientific information that transcended the understanding of the Israelite audience. If He is consistently communicating to them in terms of their world and understanding, then why should we expect to find modern science woven between the lines? For those of us who value the Bible, we do not need to make it “speak science” to salvage its truth claims or credibility. Since Genesis 1 is an ancient document, we have no reason to impose a material ontology on the text, and therefore find no reason to require the finding of scientific information between the lines. On the other hand, we should also avoid reducing Genesis 1 to merely literary or theological expressions. Genesis 1 poses no conflict with scientific thinking to the extent that it recognises that the text does not offer scientific explanations.
Genesis 1 reaches beyond the limitations of modern science
In the last chapter we relieved some supposed contentions with Genesis one and modern science, but there is something we need to make clear. The creation account of Genesis adds a richer level of understanding than what modern science can provide. Science concerns itself with only the physical and material, and while that is wondrous and fascinating, it is restrictive. Science scrutinises the minutiae of the material nuts and bolts of nature, but the biblical creation account illustrates the rich, colourful tale of God’s grand, purposeful orchestration. The message echoed throughout Genesis is that beyond the material, there is a purpose. The wonderful structures of the cosmos exist for a reason.
God is always the ultimate cause—that is our belief, whatever secondary causes and processes can be identified through scientific investigation. But we also believe that God works with a purpose. Neither ultimate cause nor purpose can be proven or falsified by empirical science. Empirical science is not designed to be able to define or detect a purpose, though it may theoretically be able to deduce rationally that purpose is logically the best explanation.
When the materialist claims that there is nothing beyond what science can reach – no purpose, no ultimate meaning, they are like a fish claiming that there was only water, no air (despite the fact that they could not breathe if the water were not oxygenated by the air). Genesis is not metaphysically neutral—it mandates an affirmation of purpose (seen through functions), even as it leaves open the descriptive mechanism for material origins. Affirming purpose in one’s belief about origins assures a proper role for God, regardless of what descriptive mechanism one identifies for material origins. Since Genesis is thoroughly teleological (purpose-focused), God’s purpose and activity are not only most important in that account, they are almost the only object of interest. Genesis isn’t interested in communicating the mechanisms (though it is important that they were decreed by the word of God). As Walton explains:
“Whatever empirical science has to say about secondary causation, [it] offers only a bottom-layer account and therefore can hardly contradict the Bible’s statements about ultimate causation. Whatever mechanisms can be demonstrated for the material phase, theological convictions insist that they comprise God’s purposeful activity… The text looks to the future (how this cosmos will function for human beings with God at its centre) rather than to the past (how God brought material into being). Purpose entails some level of causation (though it does not specify the level) and affirms sovereign control of the causation process.”
The obvious result of Genesis 1 is that all creation is, by this definition, a result of intelligence, and likewise, all of it is designed. Contrary to the common message of atheistic materialists, nothing could be considered truly accidental. Nothing happens “by itself.” The universe is not self-explanatory. It did not create itself, nor would that make rational or logical sense. Nothing is really a coincidence. Coincidence is just the word we use when we have not yet discovered the cause. It’s really an illusion of the human mind, a way of saying, “I don’t know why this happened this way, and I have no intention of finding out.”
The fact that we believe that God did create the cosmos does not mean that it is no longer subject to scientific investigation. We believe the cosmos is ultimately an act of God. Yet that does not mean that scientific inquiry should be cut off, as it still have the potential of leading to understanding at a different, lower level.
If, after reading this essay, you are still perplexed with questions and doubts regarding the Genesis one narrative, I would advise reading Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science – by Oxford professor of Mathematics, John C. Lennox. Lennox offers a careful yet accessible introduction to a scientifically-savvy, theologically-astute, and Scripturally faithful interpretation of Genesis.