Making Sense of Genesis 1 – Creation and Contentions With Modern Science

Making Sense of Genesis 1 – Creation and Contentions With Modern Science

44 minutes reading time

The following is an excerpt from “Does the Universe Paint God Out of the Picture?” by Luke Baxendale. This is part one of four in the book:

The concept that the universe was created by, or emanates from, a transcendent mental source is often quickly dismissed by many. This dismissal is often due to their familiarity with biblical narratives, such as the one in Genesis 1, which seems to contradict the detailed and complex explanations found in scientific research. Genesis 1 has long been the subject of extensive debate and scrutiny regarding its interpretation and validity – particularly regarding our scientific understanding of the universe. Our aim is to alleviate some tension and doubt surrounding the topic by introducing a fresh perspective on the Genesis creation account and contentions with modern science. 

The first time I read Genesis 1, I was immediately drawn to the poetic nature of the creation story. As a young teenager, I marvelled at the way it described the formation of the world in six days, with God creating light, the heavens, the earth, and all living creatures. However, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of confusion and unease as I tried to reconcile the story with my understanding of modern science.

Have you ever read Genesis 1? Read as a strictly scientific account, 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 isn’t a solid dome-like structure up in the sky holding the rain back. Nothing seems to make sense.

Growing up, I had learned about the Copernican Revolution, the Big Bang Theory, the gradual formation of stars and galaxies, and the evolution of life on Earth over billions of years. The Genesis account, with its seven-day timeline, seemed to be in direct conflict with these scientific explanations. I began to wonder how I could make sense of both perspectives, and whether it was even possible to do so.

I discussed my struggle to understand Genesis with others and discovered that many shared similar concerns. Some proposed that the seven days in Genesis should be interpreted metaphorically, representing lengthy periods rather than literal 24-hour days. Others pointed out that the Bible was written thousands of years ago, in a time when people had a limited understanding of the natural world, and so it shouldn’t be taken as a scientific textbook. I became acquainted with various interpretations of Genesis, with three main perspectives in the church being:

  1. Young Earth Creationism: This view posits that the “days” in Genesis are literal 24-hour periods, leading to the belief that the earth is approximately 6,000-7,000 years old.
  2. Old Earth Creationism: This view interprets the “days” in Genesis as long periods of time, potentially spanning millions or billions of years (2 Peter 3:8 comes to mind — “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”) This view attempts to harmonise the biblical account with modern geological and astronomical findings.
  3. Framework view: This perspective perceives the creation story as a literary and theological construct instead of a chronological account of events. This interpretive approach seeks to understand the creation narrative on its own terms, emphasising the importance of reading the text within its literary and historical context, paying close attention to its genre, structure, and original purpose, while also acknowledging its relevance and significance for contemporary discussions on the relationship between faith and science.

Of these perspectives, I found the framework view to be the most sensible. It underscores the importance of understanding the original context, culture, and language of Genesis to avoid imposing modern scientific paradigms onto the text. Upon further research, I came across a book titled “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John H. Walton, who is an Old Testament scholar and professor Emeritus at Wheaton College. I gratefully acknowledge the invaluable research and insights provided by Walton, whose work has been instrumental in shaping my understanding of the subject. His expertise and in-depth exploration of Genesis within its ancient Near Eastern context have laid the foundation for much of this section. Thanks to Walton and others of his ilk, I began to appreciate the complexity of the text. By the end of this part of the book, I hope to demonstrate how apparent conflicts between Genesis and modern science can be reconciled through a more accurate interpretation of the text.

Contextualising Creation: Exploring Biblical Meanings in an Ancient Framework

Within Scripture, a fundamental characteristic of God is His identity as the Creator. Acknowledging God as the Creator means recognising a purpose behind the existence of the universe and everything within it — it’s not a coincidence. You and I are not a coincidence. This conviction profoundly influences how we perceive ourselves and our surroundings. If we embrace the notion of God as Creator, it leads us to question the ultimate nature of the world, whether it is more like a machine or perhaps something of a dwelling place for God. It also raises questions about the creation account itself – is it a literal manufacturing process or a deeper, conceptual message? Furthermore, recognising God as Creator inevitably prompts us to ponder existence, purpose, and meaning in relation to Him.

Genesis 1 kick-starts our understanding of the biblical teachings regarding God as Creator. This passage, although simple in its majestic expression and encompassing scope, has become the subject of intense debate. It is anything but transparent.

First, it is crucial to recognise the obvious: while Genesis communicates with and is intended for a broader audience, it was not written directly to us. It was composed for the Israelites, with God revealing Himself to Israel and, through them, to the rest of the world. As the text was written for an ancient Israelite audience, it is in a language that is unfamiliar to most of us, requiring translation. Moreover, language is inherently intertwined with culture, so to fully grasp the meaning of a text written in another language and for another culture, it is essential to translate not only the language but also the cultural context. This is not easy. Accurate translation involves extracting ideas from their original context and situating them within our own while simultaneously ensuring that our own cultural assumptions do not distort the intended meaning.

For example, in the biblical context, hospitality was a highly valued and important cultural practice. This is exemplified in stories like Abraham welcoming the three visitors in Genesis 18. In ancient Middle Eastern societies, offering hospitality to strangers was considered a social obligation and even sometimes a sacred duty. This extended to providing food, shelter, and protection to travellers, even if they were previously unknown to the host. In modern times, the practice of hospitality varies greatly across cultures and may not carry the same weight as it did in biblical times. In the Western world, inviting a stranger into your home could be seen as risky or imprudent. To accurately understand the biblical concept of hospitality, we must recognise the importance and cultural implications of this practice in the ancient context, rather than imposing our modern perspectives onto the text. By doing so, we can better appreciate the underlying message of compassion, generosity, and the sacred responsibility to care for others that these stories convey.

When we read Genesis 1, we must set aside our modern categories and cultural assumptions and make a sincere effort to understand the text within its original cultural framework. How do we achieve this? We must immerse ourselves in the thought processes, categories, ideas, and concepts that were pivotal to an ancient culture, becoming familiar with their literature to deepen our understanding of that culture. Focusing solely on the Bible would create a limited perspective; therefore, the key lies in examining a diverse range of literature from the broader ancient world to enrich our understanding. By engaging with a wide array of ancient texts, we can better grasp the cultural nuances and context in which Genesis was written, allowing for a more accurate interpretation of its intended meaning.

To be clear, when we look at ancient texts, it’s not about expecting them all to sound the same because they’re from the same time period. At the same time, it’s not about thinking they’re all completely different, either. The Bible is a perfect example of standing out from the crowd. It’s seen as God’s way of revealing Himself, which is quite different from what you might find in texts from Mesopotamia or Egypt. Egyptian stories often revolve around the afterlife and gods ruling over people, which is a sharp turn from the adventure-packed tales and divine meetings you read about in stories from places like Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Babylonia. It’s critical to understand that within any particular time, culture, or even specific city, a variety of perspectives existed and were articulated through their literary works. Despite these variances, through the study and comparison of ancient cultures’ literary outputs, we can unearth shared themes and insights, while also valuing the unique characteristics that differentiate them.

For instance, let us consider the example of kingship as a means to better grasp the mindset of ancient Israelites, rather than relying on modern perspectives. The practices and ideologies surrounding kingship in ancient Egypt and Babylon offer a more relevant comparison to those of Israel than contemporary understandings of leadership and governance. This is because Israel, Egypt, and Babylon were part of the same broad cultural and historical landscape of the ancient Near East, sharing not only geographic proximity but also similar social, economic, and political currents. By delving into how these neighbouring civilisations conceived of and practised kingship, we gain insights into the collective norms and values that shaped the era.

In contrast, modern concepts of leadership, democracy, or even monarchy have been deeply influenced by a myriad of cultural, historical, and societal shifts that are far removed from the realities of the ancient Israelites. To draw parallels between the ancient and the modern in this context risks anachronistic errors, where we might unintentionally project our contemporary frameworks onto a society that operated under fundamentally different principles and beliefs. It’s reasonable to suggest that the way Israel related to its neighbours in terms of kingship and governance reveals more about its culture than comparing it to today’s Western or global political structures. Through examining the royal customs of Egypt and Babylon, we can discern patterns and deviations that illuminate the distinctive features of Israelite society.

To be clear, our goal in studying ancient literature is not to determine if Israel took ideas from the texts familiar to them. Instead, we recognise that there were common beliefs and understandings throughout the ancient world. Our interest lies not in how Israel was influenced by its neighbours, but in acknowledging that Israel was an integral part of this broader cultural environment.

Having established this foundation, the remainder of this section will unpack Genesis 1, enabling us to interpret it in a manner more closely aligned with the Israelites’ perspective. After all, it was to them that God was speaking directly.

Genesis One: Understanding Cosmology Through an Ancient Lens

Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology, meaning it does not seek to describe cosmology using modern terminology or address contemporary questions. Modern cosmology aims to understand the universe’s origin, evolution, and large-scale structure through the lens of physics. But recognising Genesis 1 as a product of ancient cosmology allows us to understand that the text’s primary purpose is not to offer a scientifically accurate account of the universe’s creation. By appreciating Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, we can better grasp its underlying themes and significance without conflating it with modern scientific explanations of the universe.

For instance, without the advantage of telescopes for observing the cosmos, the Israelites were entirely unaware of Earth’s journey through space or the immense disparity in distance between the sun and the moon. They regarded the sky as a partially solid structure, strong enough to restrain the celestial waters. Their understanding of the universe aligned with that of their ancient contemporaries, significantly diverging from the perspectives we hold today. God, it appears, did not deem it necessary to correct their perceptions.

When I first delved into the Genesis creation account, I mistakenly approached the text as if it contained modern scientific concepts. It does not. This approach is known as concordism, which aims to provide modern scientific explanations for the details in the text. Concordism seeks to harmonise the biblical account of creation with contemporary scientific knowledge regarding the origin and development of the universe. Proponents of concordism argue that the descriptions in Genesis 1, despite being rooted in an ancient context, can be interpreted in a manner consistent with our current understanding of cosmology, geology, and biology. This is an attempt to “translate” the culture and text for the modern reader. However, the issue is that we cannot, nor should we, translate their cosmology into ours. John H. 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.” 

Aligning Genesis 1 with modern scientific understanding does not enhance its value. Rather, it is reasonable that God communicated His revelation using terms and concepts familiar to His immediate audience. This approach enabled them to grasp the key message in the text without being hindered by unfamiliar scientific ideas. God’s intent in Genesis 1 was not to divulge scientific cosmological details to Israel; He was content with them retaining their ancient cosmology. The Earth’s shape, sky’s nature, and celestial bodies’ locations were not crucial, and God could deliver His message regardless of one’s cosmic perspective. By using the Israelites’ cosmology, God could emphasise truths without confusing them with scientific details beyond their understanding (and ours). In fact, throughout the Bible, there is no instance where God revealed scientific knowledge beyond Israel’s cultural context, with no passage presenting a scientific perspective that was not common to the ancient Near East’s science of antiquity.

Old World cosmic geography is primarily derived from the observations and experiences of ancient civilisations as they sought to make sense of the world based on their limited 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. Many ancient civilisations believed in the existence of a solid dome or vault that enclosed the Earth, known as the firmament. Similarly, noticing that water also springs from the earth led them to imagine that there must be great waters beneath us as well. To explain the stability of the earth amidst these waters, they came up with ideas like the earth floating on a cosmic ocean or being held up by giant pillars. They were trying to make sense of the world through fairly logical paths.

It is also worth noting that the notion of a “natural” world, as our contemporary minds perceive it, did not hold the same meaning for ancient Near Eastern cultures, including the Hebrews. Their worldview was not bifurcated into natural and supernatural realms but was instead a seamless integration, where the divine presence was infused in every aspect of the cosmos. This holistic perspective is a departure from the modern dichotomy of natural vs supernatural, a distinction that emerged much later in human intellectual history. Ancient civilisations, particularly those in the Near East, understood every occurrence as deeply intertwined with the divine will. From the birth of a child, the growth of crops, to the patterns of the weather, each was seen not merely as natural processes but as direct manifestations of divine action. For instance, in Hebrew thought, as reflected in the biblical narrative, phenomena such as rain (Leviticus 26:4) and fertility (Genesis 1:28) were directly attributed to God’s blessings or displeasure. Similarly, natural events like storms and earthquakes were sometimes interpreted as expressions of divine communication or judgement (e.g., Nahum 1:3-5). They did not understand “natural” laws governing the cosmos; instead, they believed the cosmos was managed or inherently connected to deity. If God were 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 believe God to be thoroughly involved in the operations and functions of the world, in the sense that 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; rather, He sustains it through mechanisms and laws He put in place.

As a brief digression, it is interesting that the natural laws governing the universe are characterised by their expression and comprehension through mathematical formulas, which indicates an inherent intelligibility in the cosmos. The fact that we can comprehend and describe the behaviour of the universe using mathematics suggests that there is an underlying rationality or logic to the world, congruent with the notion of a mind or intelligence behind its creation and organisation. Furthermore, the mathematical expressions of natural laws often exhibit a remarkable degree of elegance, with simple formulas explaining complex and intricate patterns and structures. This aesthetic quality suggests that there is more than just random chance at play in the organisation of the universe, which, on an intuitive basis, aligns with the idea of a creative and purposeful intelligence underpinning these natural laws.

Returning to the main point, the ancient Hebrews would never have considered addressing how things might have come into existence from a “natural” scientific perspective, nor what “natural” processes God might have employed. For instance, Genesis 1:24 states, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures,” followed by the conclusion in the very next verse, “So God made the animals.” These are modern issues imposed on the text and not reflective of issues in the ancient world’s cultural context. Their narratives were rich with meaning, focusing on the relationship between the Creator and the creation, and the role of humanity within this cosmos. We should not expect the text to cater to our contemporary curiosities, nor should we distort the text’s information to force it to answer the questions we are eager to explore. Imposing modern scientific inquiries onto ancient texts is akin to asking a poet to explain the physics of light in a sunset they’ve described. The text was written for ancient Hebrews, not 21st-century materialistic minds.

The Function-Centric Approach of Ancient Cosmology

It becomes evident through the analysis of ancient texts, archaeological findings, and historical cultural practices that ancient cosmology is function-oriented rather than material-focused. In these cosmologies, the primary focus lies in the roles and purposes of celestial bodies, natural phenomena, and their connections to human existence.

Take, for example, the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, considered one of the oldest known literary works. This epic tells the story of the creation of the universe, gods, and humanity, serving as a reflection of Babylonian cosmology. Throughout the narrative, the theme of “order versus chaos” plays a central role. The cosmic battle between Marduk and Tiamat symbolises the triumph of order (Marduk) over chaos (Tiamat). When Marduk defeats Tiamat and fashions the world from her remains, it signifies the establishment of a structured and orderly universe.

The text also sets forth a hierarchical relationship between gods and humans, with humans created to serve the gods and execute their will. In essence, the Enuma Elish suggests that the universe was designed to maintain order and ensure the proper functioning of society. Similarly, the ancient Egyptians perceived the cosmos as a well-ordered system, in which gods were responsible for upholding balance and stability. Each deity was responsible for overseeing a specific aspect of the natural or social order. The Egyptians engaged in elaborate rituals and ceremonies to honour the gods and ensure their continued favour, seeking to maintain the delicate equilibrium that they believed underpinned the very fabric of the universe. The pharaoh, as the earthly representative of the gods, was seen as the linchpin of this well-ordered system.

In contrast to the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian perspectives, contemporary cosmic ontology, as shaped by our materialistic culture, often perceives existence in predominantly material terms. For instance, consider the question: What does it mean for the cosmos (or the objects in it) to exist? If materiality delineates the conditions of existence and creation signifies bringing something into existence, then our material ontology inevitably governs our conception of creation. To you and me, this is obvious, “Naturally, something exists due to its material properties!” Today, it is intuitive to associate creation with the acquisition of material properties. However, alternative interpretations are worth considering. Could there be a cosmic ontology that is function-oriented and perceives creation — bringing something into existence — in terms of functionality?

To illustrate this, John Walton gets his reader to imagine different kinds of non-material creation, like creating a curriculum, causing havoc, or crafting a masterpiece. In such cases, the verb “create” transcends materiality. Although a curriculum ultimately assumes a material form (e.g., books), its creation chiefly entails organising ideas and thoughts — a primarily non-material process. If a curriculum’s ontology is functional, then its creation necessitates function-giving actions.

To genuinely understand a creation account from the ancient world, we must assume their interpretation of “creation” as we read the text.

What constituted a creative act in the ancient world? How was the existence of the world perceived? Those in the ancient world believed something came into being not by virtue of its material properties, but rather by virtue of its given function within an ordered system — what we may call “functional ontology.” Take, for example, water. In modern terms, we might describe water in terms of its chemical composition, H2O. However, to those in the ancient world, water’s essence was understood through its life-giving functions. It was seen as a source of life, purification, and a critical element in the cycle of nature that brought fertility to the earth. They would have considered it according to its role, the function it serves for humankind.

In functional ontology, an object could be physically manufactured, yet still not “exist” if it lacks a functional purpose. For the ancient Hebrews, we could argue that the focus of the creative act was assigning a purpose or role to something.

To help explain, imagine “creating” a symphony orchestra. First, instruments like violins, cellos, trumpets, and percussion must be crafted—this is the material phase. Once assembled, you might say the orchestra exists because the instruments are visible. However, there’s more to it.

Composing and distributing musical scores is essential. Without sheet music, the orchestra cannot perform, rendering its existence meaningless. Providing scores makes the orchestra theoretically functional. Yet, without a conductor, the musicians cannot synchronise. With a conductor, the orchestra’s existence seems complete. However, if the audience is unaware of the concert, the orchestra remains nonfunctional, effectively non-existent.

The crux of this analogy is that different people might attribute “existence” to the orchestra at various stages in the process. In a functional ontology, all the steps mentioned are crucial for defining existence. However, unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system — often one that is useful to people — it does not truly exist. The actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. In the mind of an ancient Hebrew, that is what brings it into existence.

Considering the functional perspective, we should examine how this understanding connects with other common themes found in ancient cosmologies. After studying numerous ancient Near Eastern texts describing creation from various civilisations, such as the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, we can discern shared concepts that offer insights into the prevailing perspectives on creation in the ancient world. 

A common theme found in various ancient creation accounts is that these stories often begin with no functioning system in place. A recurring motif in many Egyptian myths, for instance, is the emergence of the world from a primordial, chaotic, inert, and undifferentiated state. This initial state, frequently referred to as the primeval waters of Nun, represents a singularity in which nothing has yet been separated or distinguished. Similarly, the Sumerians, one of the earliest civilisations in Mesopotamia, depicted the universe’s origin as arising from a state of chaos. This chaotic state was characterised as an amorphous and indefinite expanse, representing a time when darkness reigned supreme. During this primordial era, there was no production of resources, no performance of rituals, and the heavens and earth were inextricably intertwined, forming an indistinguishable mass. This theme of initial chaos and disorder can also be found in other ancient cultures’ creation stories, such as the Greek myth of the cosmos’ birth from Chaos, a vast, formless void. In this narrative, various deities and primordial forces emerge from Chaos, ultimately leading to the formation of a structured and ordered universe. These creation stories share the idea that the world emerged from a state of confusion and disorder into an organised system, often through the intervention of divine or supernatural entities.

A further similarity in ancient creation accounts is the notion of primeval waters. The theme of primeval waters symbolises the formless and chaotic state of the world before the creation process begins, from which it was believed, something emerges. In Egyptian mythology, the concept of the primeval waters is closely related to the emergence of the primeval hillock or mound, which symbolises the first piece of land that emerged from the watery abyss of Nun, marking the beginning of the creation process. In Egyptian texts, these primeval waters are designated as “non-existent,” a key indicator they held a functional ontology too.

One of the most prevalent themes in Egyptian and Mesopotamian creation myths, also observed in Hittite literature, is the concept of separation, particularly the division of heaven and earth. This crucial step in the creation process often involves the intervention of divine or supernatural entities who actively participate in establishing order in the universe. In Egyptian texts, the separation of the heavens and earth is commonly attributed to the god Shu, who is associated with air and light. Shu is said to have separated his children, the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb, lifting Nut above Geb to create the space in which life could flourish. This act of separation allowed for the development of the natural world and human civilisation. Mesopotamian creation myths also feature the theme of separation. In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, the god Marduk defeats the chaotic water goddess Tiamat and divides her body into two parts, creating the heavens from her upper half and the earth from her lower half. This act of separation marks the beginning of the cosmic order and sets the stage for the creation of life on earth. The Sumerian creation myth also begins with a narrative of a unified, chaotic expanse where earth and sky were not separated. From this primordial soup, the gods emerged and began the process of creating order, separating the earth from the sky, and establishing the various elements of the cosmos as known to the Sumerians.

Additionally, what I find intriguing about the Near Eastern creation accounts is that within the literature no new material is actually made. Within these ancient texts, creation is portrayed as the process of imposing order on the cosmos, which originally existed in a nonfunctional, chaotic state. 

In summary, while we have a material definition of existence, the ancient world usually defined existence in terms of its function within an ordered system, positioning the distinction between existence and non-existence along functional lines rather than material ones. 

What I hope to have emphasised is that our current materialistic definition of existence is just one possible interpretation. The ancients had a different view. While modern Western culture is analytical, ancient cultures were more holistic. This difference is evident in the questions each culture asks. Modern Western society often focuses on “how” things came to be, seeking to understand the mechanisms and processes behind the universe’s formation, viewing it through the lens of physical laws and mechanisms, akin to a machine. In contrast, ancient civilisations asked “who” and “why” questions, considering the interconnectedness of the world. They viewed the cosmos as a kingdom or temple, with hierarchies and purposeful governance. Although they believed their gods created the material world, the material origins were not their primary concern.

Purpose Takes Precedence: The Function-Oriented Cosmology of Genesis 1

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth”
— Genesis 1:1

Let’s shift our focus back to the creation story of Genesis and explore whether it adheres to a function-oriented cosmology. We’ll start by delving into the first verse.

The traditional translation of Genesis 1:1 as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is problematic. The Hebrew phrase “בְּרֵאשִׁית” (berēʾšît) should not be translated as the absolute “in the beginning”, but rather as a relative clause “in the initial period that/in which…” So, Genesis 1:1 is more accurately translated as “When God began to create the Heavens and the Earth…” or “In the initial period that/in which God created the heavens and the earth…” This translation is more in keeping with the grammatical precedent, contextual fit of Genesis 1, and aligns with the Hebrew text’s lack of definite article. The implication of this is that the traditional “in the beginning” translation can imply metaphysical assumptions about the nature of time and the universe’s origins. In contrast, the relative clause translation better fits the overall context of Genesis 1, which describes a series of creative acts, rather than an absolute beginning point.

Having clarified this, let us now explore the meaning behind the verb “bārā” — the Hebrew word commonly translated as “create.” What does it really mean?

The Hebrew verb בָּרָא (bārā) is mentioned 54 times in the Old Testament, invariably in scenarios that showcase divine acts of creation. This term is exclusively associated with God’s capacity to initiate phenomena or to establish what previously did not exist. Take, for instance, Psalm 51:10, where King David seeks spiritual rejuvenation from God, asking for a “clean heart” and a “steadfast spirit.” Here, bārā is not about creating something physical but something deeply spiritual and transformative within a person. Similarly, Isaiah 43:1, 7 uses bārā to describe God’s formation of Israel as His chosen people, emphasising a communal identity and destiny. John Walton goes as far as to say that within the Old Testament, no clear example explicitly demands a material perspective for the verb. This suggests that, to the ancient Israelites, bārā implied setting everything in its rightful place and for a specific function within God’s overarching design. This is the most “literal” understanding.

Now, I hope I am not misunderstood: While we maintain that Genesis 1 does not present an account of material origins, this does not imply that God is not responsible for material origins. I believe that God is fully responsible for material origins, as the rest of this book will demonstrate. The question Genesis 1 poses is not about whether God created the material world but rather what kind of creation story it tells.

John Walton offers an insightful translation of Genesis 1:1: “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how He did it.” This view aligns with ancient perceptions of creation as naming, separating, and defining roles within an orderly framework. Consider, for example, a playwright who carefully crafts a script, assigning distinct roles and functions to each character in a play, ensuring that every individual contributes to the overall narrative and message. Similarly, God orchestrates the elements of creation in Genesis 1, assigning specific functions and roles within an ordered system, ultimately weaving together a cosmic story. These creative activities were accomplished during the seven-day period that the text refers to as “the initial period”.

If we were discussing material origins, we’d expect ancient texts to begin with a complete absence of material. Yet, if the focus is on functional origins, as we suggest, the narrative would start with a world devoid of purpose or roles. Genesis 1 sets this scene in verse 2 with the Hebrew words tōhû (תֹּהוּ) and bōhû (בֹּהוּ) which are commonly translated as “formless and void” or “empty and desolate.”

The use of tōhû (תֹּהוּ) and bōhû (בֹּהוּ) is not unique to Genesis but appears in other Old Testament passages, such as Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23. In these contexts, the terms signify not an absence of matter but an absence of order —pointing towards utter desolation and chaos brought upon places (Edom and Judah) as a result of God’s judgment. Tōhû is also used in Isiah 45:18 to underscore that the creation of the earth was a deliberate act by God, to foster life and habitation. God did not want an earth tōhû (formless) but formed it to be inhabited. Unlike ancient Near Eastern creation myths that might depict the world as a byproduct of divine conflict or accident, this passage affirms the purposeful intention of the Judeo-Christian God in crafting a world suited for humanity and other forms of life.

The contexts in which tōhû and bōhû appear throughout the Old Testament, as well as the words and phrases used alongside them, suggests that these terms consistently denote a state of non-functionality—essentially, an existence without clear purpose or role. This implies that the Earth, before the creative act described in Genesis 1, begins with an absence of functions, not an absence of material. This aligns with broader ancient Near Eastern creation motifs, where the emergence of order from chaos is a central theme.

Dawn of Creation: Exploring the First Three Days of Genesis

Now that we have laid the groundwork, it’s time to delve into the nit and grit of Genesis 1. To begin our examination, let’s take a closer look at the six days of creation, starting with days one to three. During these initial days, we witness the establishment of crucial functions that set the stage for the rest of creation.

Day One (Genesis 1:3-5)

On the first day of creation, God introduced light. Interestingly, this process reaches a key moment in verse 5, the concluding verse for the day’s account: “God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness He called ‘night.’ And there was evening and there was morning—the first day.” Interestingly, in the context of the ancient Near East, light was perceived as a condition, akin to darkness. The ancient Israelites did not conceive of light as a physical substance, like we understand it today in terms of photons and waves. Rather, they saw light and darkness as periods or realms. Hence, even though light was brought forth on day one, this act cannot be considered material in nature. The day’s culmination with God naming day and night indicates His focus on organising states of light and darkness, differentiating and rendering them useful.

As we think about this further, if something connected with light is named “day,” then it seems to me that it refers not to light itself but to the period of light, as that is one meaning of “day.” This notion introduces us to the rhetorical device known as metonymy, where a noun is extended to encompass a related idea. Thus, the author—traditionally Moses—might have intended for us to interpret the word “light” as signifying a period of light. This interpretation leads to the understanding: “God called the period of light ‘day,’ and the period of darkness He called ‘night.’”

Adopting this perspective for verse 5 invites a re-evaluation of verse 4, where “God separated the light from the darkness.” These distinct periods are subsequently named day and night in verse 5. If “light” symbolises a period of light in both verses 4 and 5, then it’s consistent to apply the same interpretation to verse 3: “God said, ‘Let there be a period of light.’” Since the entity brought into existence is a period of light, distinguished from a period of darkness and named “day,” it appears reasonable to view day one as delineating the recognition and rhythm of time through the allocation of purpose to the cycles of light and darkness.

In summary, day one’s essence lies in God instituting the basic framework for the progression of time. This establishment on the first day underscores the significance of rhythms and cycles in the natural world. The day-night cycle is the most fundamental rhythm, governing both human and animal behaviours. By instituting a rhythm to time, God lays the foundation for life to flourish within a structured environment.

Day Two (Genesis 1:6-8)

The first time I took a serious look at the second day of the Genesis creation account, I found myself puzzled by the concept of the “firmament” or “expanse.” The Hebrew term for the firmament, “rāqīa,” is often understood as a solid, dome-like structure. This idea aligns with the ancient Near Eastern understanding of the cosmos, where the sky was perceived as a solid barrier holding back celestial waters. It seems that in antiquity, people routinely believed that the sky was partially solid, and if the Hebrew term is to be taken in its normal contextual sense, it indicates that God created a solid dome to hold up waters above the earth.

It’s important to acknowledge that “expanse” or “firmament” should not be conflated with our contemporary understanding of the sky or atmosphere. The original authors and their audience lacked our modern conceptual framework, highlighting the importance of not retrofitting the Genesis account to align with contemporary scientific knowledge.

However, a coherent interpretation emerges when we view the creation story through a lens emphasising function over physical form. In this light, Genesis 1 doesn’t necessarily make definitive statements about the physical cosmos. The nonexistence of a literal solid dome becomes a moot point in this narrative context. The text aims not to outline a scientific model of cosmology but to articulate the divine intentions behind the creation, directing our focus towards the firmament’s significant dual cosmic role.

What then was the perceived cosmic function of the firmament for the ancient Hebrews? Primarily, it was seen as a regulatory mechanism for rainfall, a critical element of the weather system upon which the balance and order of life, especially human life, depended. Adequate rainfall was essential for sustenance, whereas its excess or deficiency could spell disaster through floods or famine.

Thus, on day two, our understanding of the Creator expands to encompass His role in establishing and sustaining a weather system vital to life on Earth. Although there may be no literal firmament, it symbolises how the ancient audience perceived the world around them. On the second day of creation, God arranged the weather system to ensure Earth could support life.

Day Three (Genesis 1:9-13)

On the third day, the continuing theme of separation plays a prominent role, which is then manifested in two distinct ways:

  1. Separation of land and water: in Genesis 1:9-10, God gathers the waters together to allow dry land to appear. This act of separation creates a distinct boundary between land and water. By distinguishing these domains, God ensures that the world has the necessary conditions for life to thrive, as the land can support vegetation and provide a home for humans and animals.
  2. Separation within vegetation: in Genesis 1:11-12, God commands the earth to bring forth vegetation, including plants that yield seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds. This act creates a clear separation among different types of vegetation. Each plant and tree are designed to reproduce according to its kind, maintaining order and balance within the ecosystem. This distinction ensures the sustainability of plant life and provides a diverse array of food sources for other living beings.

In short, day three is very much related to the provision of food. 

In Ancient Egypt, the Nile River was crucial to the civilisation’s survival. Its annual flooding deposited rich, fertile silt, allowing crops to grow and sustain the Egyptian population. This cycle of flooding and renewal was symbolised by the primaeval hillock, representing the fertile soil emerging after the Nile’s inundation. This symbol embodied the concept of dry land’s emergence from waters, a recurring theme in Egyptian cosmology and closely linked to food provision and life sustenance. The appearance of dry land and the growth of food were seen as a cosmic re-enactment of the original creation act, where the earth surfaced from primordial waters.

To the ancient Hebrews, the emergence of dry land was likely associated with the growth of food. In his book Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, Claus Westermann highlights the importance of day three as the moment when dry land and vegetation appear. This emergence is crucial for creating a habitable environment for humans and animals. So, day three captures the awe of the ancient world concerning the process through which plants grow, produce seeds, and give rise to new generations of the same species. The cycle of vegetation, the principles of fertilisation, and the blessings of fecundity were all regarded as the wondrous provisions of food, indispensable for human survival.

Summarising Day One to Three

In summary, the theological significance of the first three days of creation in Genesis can be understood as God ordering the essential framework for the progression of time, weather, and the land with its food sources.

Later in the narrative of Genesis, after structuring the cosmos, a catastrophe leads God to revert the world (or part of it) to a disordered, nonfunctional state through a flood. In the aftermath of this calamity, a remarkable re-creation unfolds as the land re-emerges from the waters, and God reiterates His blessing. Intriguingly, God reaffirms 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). A careful reading reveals the same three central functions — food, weather, and time — presented in reverse order. Moses, the author, demonstrates a keen awareness of the significance of these fundamental categories in the operation of the world.

I hope I am not overemphasising myself, but as we unravel each day of creation, it’s important to recognise that our focus shouldn’t be fixated on the scientific factuality of the Bible’s use of old-world science. While it is true that some scientific framework must be adopted, we must remember that all scientific frameworks are dynamic and subject to change. Scientific understanding is a fluid process, with new discoveries continuously refining, correcting, and expanding upon previous knowledge. Considering this ever-evolving nature of science, it is logical for God to communicate deeper truths using the framework familiar to the audience of the time, using concepts and language that they could grasp. By doing so, God emphasises the deeper theological meaning that transcends material origin, rather than potentially overwhelming the audience with complex scientific information they (or us) may not comprehend. This approach keeps the creation story relevant across different generations and cultures. It emphasises the timeless connection between God and His creation, along with the order He introduced, rather than the scientific framework employed at the time of writing.

The wisdom tucked away in the pages of the Bible gives us a unique way to look at the world. When we say things like “it’s raining cats and dogs”, we don’t mean it literally, but everyone gets the picture — it’s pouring rain! We acknowledge that statements such as “the sky is blue” and “the sun sets in the west,” are scientifically imprecise, yet we understand what is meant by them. Similarly, when the Bible talks about the world, it might not match up with today’s scientific textbooks, but that’s not the point. Think of it this way: if an impressionist artist paints a sunset, their canvas might look nothing like a photo of the same scene. Yet, both the painting and the photo capture the sunset’s beauty. The difference isn’t about conflicting versions of truth but about the richness of perspective. The theological insight offered in Genesis 1 emphasises that God is the orchestrator of these functions and the sustainer of the world, independent of how we perceive the material aspects.

The Genesis of Functionaries: Examining God’s Work on Days Four to Six

In the story of creation from days four to six, there’s a noticeable change in focus. The beginning, or the first three days, establishes the foundational structures and environments – like setting the stage for what’s to come. This part is all about creating the right conditions for life. Then, from day four onward, the story shifts to filling this stage with life – populating these newly formed environments with a diverse array of living beings, each specifically designed to function within the environment established in the first half of the narrative.

What’s really interesting is how the first half of the creation story mirrors the second half. This mirroring isn’t just about making the story neat and tidy; it hints that maybe we shouldn’t take the “seven days” too literally. Instead of reading it as a day-by-day account, ancient Hebrew scholars often see the seven days as a way to organise the story into themes, each “day” highlighting a different act of creation. This emphasis on symmetry suggests that the seven days are not intended to be interpreted as actual 24-hour periods, but rather serve as a literary framework to convey deeper messages.

Time realmDay 1:
Separation of light and darkness, designating days
Day 4:
Creation of sun and moon, inhabiting and governing day and night
Sea realmDay 2:
Separation of water from land, designating sky and sea
Day 5:
Creation of birds and fish, filling the sky and sea
Land realmDay 3:
Separation of land from water and population of plants, designating land and sea
Day 6:
Creation of land animals and humans, filling the earth

Day Four – Genesis 1:14-19

The account of the fourth day acts as a theological echo to the creation narrative of the first day. The scripture does not delve into the physical composition of the “lights” in the firmament, also referred to as “celestial bodies.” Instead, it accentuates their placement in the firmament—a term that conveys the vast expanse of the sky, inclusive of the sun, moon, stars, and planets.

According to ancient interpretations, the celestial bodies fulfil various pivotal functions: they demarcate day from night, aligning with the division of light and darkness established on the first day; they illuminate the earth; and they are to serve as indicators for “signs, seasons, days, and years.” These indicate that the celestial bodies were purposefully designed to benefit humanity.

The creation process on the fourth day unfolds in a structured manner, consistent with the rest of the creation narrative. Initially, God articulates a decree (in verse 14), specifying the roles and functions these celestial bodies are to play. Following this, God proceeds with the act of creation (verse 16), bringing the celestial bodies into existence in such a way that they are equipped to fulfil their designated roles. Finally, God places these bodies within the firmament (verse 17), establishing their position and initiating their function within the cosmic order.

Day Five – Genesis 1:20-23

In the Genesis account, the fifth day is marked by the creation of living creatures inhabiting the waters and the skies. The narrative emphasises the emergence of fish and birds, which are given the task of populating their respective domains and multiplying.

One interesting aspect of the fifth day’s account is the mention of “great creatures of the sea” in verse 21. The Hebrew term used here is “tanninim,” which could refer to large marine creatures or, in some contexts, even mythological sea monsters. The author deliberately returns to the verb “bārā” (to create), which has not been employed since verse one, suggesting a heightened significance of these creatures within the narrative.

In ancient Near Eastern myths, the cosmic seas were often populated with creatures symbolising chaos and disorder. These beings were perceived as threats to the established order, representing forces that needed to be vanquished and restrained. However, the Genesis account diverges from these stories by presenting an alternative perspective. Instead of engaging in cosmic warfare or conquest, the text communicates that these “great creatures of the sea” are simply part of God’s ordered creation, not adversaries that must be defeated and kept at bay.

By including these creatures in the creation account, the author asserts that all living beings are subject to God’s authority. Rather than perpetuating a narrative of cosmic conflict, the fifth day of creation in Genesis affirms the order established by God, embracing a unique worldview that sets it apart from other ancient stories.

Day Six – Genesis 1:24-31

The sixth day of creation introduces land creatures. Their primary function is to reproduce and fill the earth. The intriguing phrase in verse 24, “let the land produce living creatures,” is to be understood within the ancient Near Eastern context rather than as a scientific concept. The ancient world perceived land and mountains as locations of origin for animal life. Consider the analogy of a stage providing the setting for a theatrical performance. The stage itself doesn’t create the actors or the story; instead, it offers the environment necessary for the performance to take place. Similarly, verse 24 communicates that the land serves as the environment from which animal life originates and thrives. Animals functioned from land — they live, breed, and survive on land — it’s where they come from. Thus, on the sixth day of creation, land creatures were introduced.

The narrative then shifts to the creation of human beings. While humans, like fish, birds, and animals, populate the world, they are also endowed with distinct functions relative to the rest of God’s creatures, namely the responsibility to subdue and rule over them. Moreover, humans possess a unique relationship with God, as they are created in His image. They are also characterised by their relationships with each other, being designated male and female. 

The image of God is the most significant attribute and serves as the central focus of the text. The rest of creation operates in relation to humankind, and humans serve the rest of creation as God’s vice-regents. Being in the image of God implies that people are delegated a godlike role (function) in the world where He places them. 

In other words, God intends for humanity to rule in a manner consistent with His own rule, continuing the work of ordering and subduing the earth for its proper functioning. This dominion carries more force than a gentle caretaker role, yet the force of humanity’s rulership is designed to help bring further order to the world and ensure its flourishing. 

A Sacred Pause: The Seventh Day and Its Implications

At first glance, the seventh day might seem like an afterthought, suggesting that the Israelites should observe the Sabbath. Materially, it may appear less significant, but from a functional perspective, its importance becomes clear.

On the seventh day, we are told that God rests from His creative work, which seems peculiar, because since when did God need to rest? Did He screw up? Does He become tired? What does divine rest entail? Many of us think of rest as taking a moment to pause from work, activities, or stress, allowing the body and mind a period of recovery. It’s a deliberate break from routine and exertion, a disengagement from the cares, worries, and tasks of life. For me, rest sounds like taking an afternoon nap. However, 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 John 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 and prosperity. The pre-creation chaos (“formless and void”) is seen as a discordant disharmony, as something not yet as it should be. So now that God has brought sufficient order, He can reign. 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 intended routines.

The theological understanding 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. This is worth reiterating: Sabbath rest symbolises the ultimate state of shalom, of wholeness and peace, that God intends for all creation. By observing the Sabbath, we’re not only commemorating God’s creative work, but also anticipating the future restoration of the world to its desired state of harmony and perfection. It’s also worth noting that according to the biblical narrative, when we find ourselves disturbed by the disorder present in this world, such as suffering and illness, it is crucial to understand that the disorder and brokenness result from human sin, the fall and corrupt spiritual powers that are explained elsewhere in the biblical texts.

So, with this in mind, when God orders us to “observe the Sabbath,” what does that genuinely mean? While the weekly Jewish Sabbath celebration constituted a strict ceasing from work, the focus of the Sabbath is to recognise that God is at the controls, not us. He is the Creator. When we Sabbath, we recognise God as the author of order in the world. The Sabbath is for acknowledging that it is God who provides for us and who is the master of our lives and our world, not us.

The Genesis Creation Story: A Concluding Exploration of Its Timeless Significance

Hopefully, you should now appreciate that the Biblical creation account in Genesis 1 is far more nuanced than it initially appears. Reading the text within the context of the ancient world reveals that the intended message, and the understanding of the original audience, differ significantly from traditional interpretations of the passage.

First, Genesis 1 presents an account of functional origins rather than material origins. Second, the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have no bearing on discussions regarding the age of the earth. This conclusion stems from an analysis and interpretation of the Genesis text within its ancient context. While many young-earth proponents defend their view out of a perceived obligation to uphold the Bible’s authority, the biblical text itself does not demand a young-earth perspective. Consequently, there is little reason to maintain this stance. Believers who are prepared to consider unpopular positions and explore alternative interpretations in an effort to defend the Bible’s reputation may find solace in the fact that Genesis 1 does not conflict with scientific evidence supporting an old earth. This realisation may offer comfort to some.

Our third point is that interpreting Genesis 1 as an account of the functional origins of the cosmos does not preclude God’s involvement in material origins. Rather, it contends that Genesis 1 is not focused on material origins. For the ancient Hebrews, material origins were not a priority. Nevertheless, they would not have doubted God’s role in the material origins of creation.

Fourth, we must consider the intended audience of the text. In our scientifically driven society, it is tempting to impose modern scientific understandings onto the creation account. However, there is no instance in the Old Testament where God imparts scientific knowledge beyond the understanding of the Israelite audience. If God consistently communicates using terms and concepts familiar to the Israelites, why should we expect to find modern scientific insights hidden within the text? For those who value the Bible, there is no need to force it to “speak science” in order to uphold its truth claims or credibility. As an ancient document, Genesis 1 should not be burdened with material ontology, nor should we search for scientific information between the lines. At the same time, we must avoid reducing Genesis 1 to mere literary or theological expressions. In recognising that the text does not provide scientific explanations, Genesis 1 poses no conflict with contemporary scientific thought.

Fifth, it is crucial to acknowledge that while we have tackled some apparent tensions between Genesis 1 and modern science, the creation account in Genesis delivers a nuanced understanding that transcends the scope of scientific inquiry. While science delves into the captivating world of physical and material phenomena, its focus remains inherently limited. In contrast, Genesis resounds with the intuitive message that beyond the tangible, material realm lies an overarching purpose. The intricate structures of the cosmos are not coincidences; they exist for a reason.

One of the messages from Genesis is that God is the ultimate cause — this stands, regardless of whatever secondary causes and processes can be identified through scientific investigation. To be clear, belief in God’s creation of the cosmos does not preclude scientific investigation. In fact, even though I believe that the cosmos is ultimately an act of God, scientific inquiry remains valuable as it can lead to understanding at a different level. Empirical science, by its nature, cannot prove or falsify ultimate causation or purpose. Science is not designed to define or detect a purpose, although scientists may rationally infer a creative purpose underlying the universe.

When materialists claim that nothing exists beyond what material sciences can reach — no purpose or ultimate meaning — they are akin to a fish insisting that only water exists, with no air (despite the fact that they could not breathe if the water were not oxygenated by air). Genesis is not metaphysically neutral — it asserts a purpose (seen through functions) while leaving the descriptive mechanism for material origins open. Affirming purpose in one’s beliefs about origins ensures an appropriate role for God, regardless of the descriptive mechanism identified for material origins. Since Genesis is thoroughly teleological (purpose-focused), God’s purpose and activity are not only paramount in the account, but they are also nearly its sole focus. Genesis is not concerned with communicating mechanisms, though the importance of God’s decree is emphasised. Walton elucidates:

“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.”

Consequently, Genesis 1 proposes that all creation arises from intelligence. It posits a mindful presence behind the universe’s order and scientific laws. This stands in contrast to the notion held by some atheistic materialists that the universe occurred “on its own”.

Naturalism is a philosophical view that is rooted in the idea that the entirety of nature (the universe) can be explained only by natural elements and events, governed purely by non-divine and arbitrary causes and laws. It disregards any transcendent or mindful origin for these laws — they either sprung up from nothingness and/or self-organised. From this viewpoint, the universe’s complexity and beauty aren’t results of intentional design, but outcomes of aimless natural processes that evolved from near-nothingness (however defined). 

No matter how sophisticated these naturalistic explanations may seem, they ultimately rely on the assumption that the universe’s precise conditions and mathematical properties arose by chance, without intention or guidance. This perspective attributes the universe’s existence and characteristics to a series of random, unguided events driven by self-created laws, thereby dismissing the need for a sufficient reason and effectively reducing the cosmos’s emergence to mere happenstance.

The Cognitive Processes Behind Ancient and Modern Perspectives

Finally, and I think this is worth adding, we can also explore the perspectives on creation in both ancient and modern contexts through the framework of left/right brain cognitive functions. The brain is split into two hemispheres, known as the right and left brain. Even though specific regions have designated functions, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the brain functions as a unified system. The operations of the brain aren’t strictly divided between the ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’. The two hemispheres don’t work in isolation. For instance, language, often attributed to the left brain, also involves the right brain in comprehending context and tone. While the left brain processes mathematical equations, the right brain assists with comparisons and approximations. This is important to note since a simplistic interpretation that assigns specific functions to each hemisphere, such as the right hemisphere being responsible for ‘X’ and the left for ‘Y’, tends to overlook the complexity and interconnectedness of our brain structures. The hemispheres are inherently interlinked and always operate cooperatively, meaning all cognitive tasks involve both hemispheres.

However, while this is said, it’s essential to acknowledge the distinct manner in which each hemisphere perceives the world. Each hemisphere still has its areas of expertise. The left hemisphere is generally associated with focused attention and excels in categorisation, abstraction, and analysis. On the other hand, the right hemisphere is typically connected with a more expansive, vigilant attention, favouring a holistic, intuitive, and creative approach. This perspective implies that each hemisphere has its preferred mode of attention — areas where it takes the lead in information processing.

The left hemisphere is known for its analytical and linear thinking, which aligns well with the modern scientific approach that seeks to understand the universe through material explanations. This mechanistic mode of thought is essential for investigating the physical properties and components of the universe, as it excels at breaking down complex systems into smaller, more manageable parts. In the context of the creation narrative, you might suggest that the left hemisphere prefers to understand the mechanisms by which the universe was formed, probing the natural laws and processes governing its development.

On the other hand, it is said that the right hemisphere excels in holistic, intuitive, and relational thinking, which resonates with the ancient perspectives on creation, with their emphasis on function and order. This mode of thought appreciates the overarching narrative and purpose of the cosmos, acknowledging the role of intention in the universe’s existence. The right hemisphere perspective emphasises the interconnectedness of creation, recognising the profound significance of the cosmos as a unified, purposeful whole. Its holistic approach values the relationships between elements and their roles within the larger system, akin to the ancient worldview that saw the cosmos as a living thing, such as a body, a kingdom, or a temple.

If we want a full understanding of the creation narrative, we need to integrate both perspectives. While the focus on material origins offers valuable insights into the physical properties and processes that shape the universe, the “functional” approach reveals the deeper purpose and meaning underlying the cosmos. The Genesis narrative invites us to consider the ultimate purpose of our existence and to appreciate the cosmos as an awe-inspiring testament to the creative power of an intentional Creator.

(Section 1 summarises parts from The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton. Copyright (c) 2009 by John H. Walton. Done by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.

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