004 - "In The Beginning": How Does That Work?
Season 1, Episode 4
Series: Journey Through the Old Testament
Hi, everyone. Before we jump into this material, I recommend that if you have not listened to the previous episode about the Bible’s big story that you go and do that first. In that episode, we look at the six simple acts that make up the Bible’s big story. In this episode, we’re going to dive deeper into the very first act about creation.
When we look at Genesis chapter one, what is going on? Well, let me offer you some possibilities because there’s not absolute agreement in the church as to what this is.
In terms of what’s happening in Genesis chapter one, what we’re given in the text is a particular narrative of the seven days of God’s creation of the physical universe. And most people are familiar with the story at this point. In the beginning was God, but nothing else was there. It was otherwise empty.
And then comes the six days of the specific acts of creation. But what exactly is happening? Well, here are 4 possibilities. There’s actually more, but I’m going to try to summarize these four main ideas.
The first will call poetic theology. In this view, we’re not talking about any kind of a literal objective explanation with regard to these days, or how creation itself actually happened. Instead, the seven days are just a metaphorical vehicle to help ancient listeners and maybe even modern listeners have some kind of an explanation about how the world came into being. The creative process itself, as it’s described in the text, is poetic and figurative.
What’s important, this view would argue, is the theological message about God and his sovereignty and his establishment of the order of the world. Now, in this view, Moses, as the author of Genesis, he borrowed what would have been a familiar and common form of origin stories of ancient cultures, and then he wrote the Hebrew’s version of that same kind of story using this model.
Well, this is one possibility and there are numbers of people who would argue strongly in favor of that. There’s certainly some truth to that. In this sense: there is certainly theology going on in Genesis chapter one, and it is a theological statement about God. But is it fair to say or appropriate to say that it’s strictly poetic? And not at all literal in any sense. I would say no.
For one thing, it’s very difficult logically to treat the 1st 2 chapters of Genesis as strictly poetic, but then the chapters that follow in the rest of the Old Testament as something more factual. Nothing in these first two chapters would support such a view, I don’t think, but that is option number one.
A second possibility has the same metaphorical argument, but for a different reason. Here, the underlying explanation is evolution and its long periods of time that are required, at least in evolutionary theory, in order to progress from the simple to the complex forms of life. This is what we previously called the old Earth view.
Now there’s nothing scientific going on here in Genesis one. Much like poetic theology, the language here is metaphorical. But it’s primarily metaphorical in this way: the primitives of the ancient world were not refined enough in their understanding to be able to grasp the explanation of evolution. It’s the modern or the premodern, pre-scientific world, after all, and they would have been utterly lost and confused at any attempt to explain something like that. So Moses used the best language he knew, which was the seven days of creation, much like you find in other ancient literature with that same that same format.
This is the implication here. In other words, Moses absent any divine inspiration here, just uses the world around him to try to explain what he couldn’t understand. And so in this view, Genesis 1 really is evolution, but it’s simply packaged in figurative language in order to work in the setting of the ancient world.
But of course, the reasoning then goes on, we modern humans now know better, so we can replace that pre-scientific explanation of Genesis 1with modern evolutionary theory.
Well, I absolutely reject that view. I do think you have to have a lot of theological and logical gymnastics in order to arrive at that conclusion. But that is one position that some take.
Well, the problems with this evolutionary worldview in Genesis one are many and it would need its own series of episodes in order to break down. And there’s lots of material out there that has done that already.
I would simply respond to it with this. I think it’s bad science. I think it’s bad theology. And I think it comes from an entirely humanistic view of the origins of Scripture. So here’s the thing. Science is not all knowing. Any explanation of the world, including our own, begins with faith and pre-existing assumptions about what that world like. And, plainly put, the starting point here for all of us is, whether or not you believe it is plausible that God exists eternally outside of space and time, and therefore could create the world as Genesis 1 describes. If you go and reject that possibility from the outset as a matter of faith, you would have to reject any explanation for creation other than purely materialistic ones. And that’s exactly what Charles Darwin did, and it’s exactly where the theory of evolution comes from.
The last two options both hold that what we read in Genesis 1 is in some way a literal explanation of the means by which God created the world. Evolution is not involved. God spoke and creation happened ex nihilo, out of nothing, and the language of God’s verbal commands that bring forth the respective elements of creation can be taken concretely. And that means a relatively scientific explanation in that what is described can be harmonized with what science tells us about the world, not necessarily an evolutionary worldview, mind you, but bona fide genuine science that is concerned with understanding the world as it actually is.
However, the differences between these last two options revolve around two points. The first is what we mean when we say “literal”. We talk about a literal explanation. Or do we take Genesis one literally. But you have to make sure that you understand where they’re coming from in terms of what is meant by “literal”. And we’ll get into that here in a little bit.
The second difference is the way in which we are to understand the nature and the structure of the days being described in one way or the other. These are real periods of time in which things happen. But there’s some disagreement as to what exactly the text means when it talks about a day. Now, whatever it is, it’s not figurative language or evolution that is dressed up for primitive cultures.
OK, the third option — we went from poetic theology. We went to the evolutionary worldview dressed up in metaphorical poetic language.
Now the third, the third possibility here is this young earth view. Here, the language in Genesis chapter 1 is describing a seven-day week of sequential 24-hour periods. And the word “day” would mean just that: 24-hour periods, one following after the other, in other words. This view would say God created the world in the space of a week sometime around 4 to 6000 BC.
However, one challenge to this view will concern the translation of the Hebrew word yom, from which we get “day,” and I’ll explain this a bit with option 4, momentarily.
One other challenge to this view is that scientific archaeological evidence seems to very strongly suggest the earth is substantially older than the 6000 years give or take allowed by the young earth view. Now, I’m not speaking of assumptions and theoretical calculations about evolutionary development. Instead I’m talking about archaeological artifacts – pots, tools, fabrics, things uncovered at excavation sites — that have been analyzed using dating methodologies that are far less suspect than some of those that are used to arrive at the supposed millions of years timeline in evolution.
For instance, Carbon 14 dating is the most widely used and accepted method of dating archaeological artifacts, not only from the pre-ancient world we’re talking about, but also in more recent excavations. And the principles of the half-life and the rate of decay of carbon 14 molecules in organic material is a fairly concrete and established process. However, because of the chemical nature of carbon, this method of dating only works for an age range out to about 20,000 years in the past.
So any purported dates much beyond that are very, very suspect. What’s interesting here, though, is that carbon 14 dating artifacts from excavations in ancient Jericho indicate human activity was taking place there nearly 9000 years ago, and that’s well within the time range limitations and using the same analytical processes with carbon 14 dating that would give us the age of an artifact that is dug up at a medieval site, for example.
It is worth observing here that there is another possibility. One can interpret this chapter as a typical week of 24-hour days and yet be comfortable placing the creation of the Earth much earlier in the timeline. Putting the creation of the earth around 4 to 6000 BC is not the result of holding a 24/7 view of the days, but of how the genealogies later inGenesis are handled. The young age of the earth is based on counting backwards from the time of known events later in the Old Testament, counting backwards in the genealogy from David to Adam.
So, while we call this view broadly, the young earth view, I would suggest separating this interpretation of day from the need to also say that the Earth was created at that definitive point in time. To be fair, a number of young Earth creationists do just that. You’ll find some that are very comfortable within a time frame, back to around 10,000 BC. And they argue that the best interpretation of Genesis supported by the science is a literal 24/7 day-week cycle. But they will allow that the earth may be older than the 6 to 7000 years typically associated with this view.
One issue with the Middle Earth view here and the seven 24-hour days punctuated by periods of time is that it requires a less than straightforward reading of the text. In Genesis chapter 1, on the surface, the rhythm and the wording does certainly appear to suggest, as the young Earth creationists would argue, 24-hour days back-to-back in the space of a week. And it would have to be very compelling evidence within the text itself to suggest otherwise.
So, to the degree that this view this Middle Earth view is used in order to allow for archaeological evidence suggesting an older period of Earth, young Earth creationists could rightly critique and say that you can still hold the 24/7 day-week structure here and yet allow for a longer range of time that would take into account the archaeological evidence. You don’t have to adopt the Middle Earth view in order to accommodate that archaeological day.
OK, the fourth option is what I call the Middle Earth view, and this simply means that the age of the earth is somewhere in the middle of the young earth and the old Earth ages. However, much, much closer to the young earth. For most people who land here this view is equally concerned with a literal non evolutionary interpretation. But it argues that the text here is employing a variety of other meanings with this Hebrew word yom that is translated as “day”, and these other meanings they don’t make much sense in the text if a 24-hour period is the only thing that is involved.
Now, unpacking this argument is beyond the scope of this podcast series, but it is a valuable and important argument on both sides here.
Well, beyond that, this fourth view is a bit of a blend of both the poetic and the concrete, and there’s a couple different ways this shows up, or two different branches of this view.
Here, one version is that the word “day” is best understood as referring to an indefinite period of time. Time in which the creative work of God happened on that, during that time on that day. But the time period itself is indefinite, not because evolution requires it, but simply because the text doesn’t define it. In this interpretation, the word era or epoch or eon works better than our English word day.
Now recognize here that even in our own modern English we use that same word “day” to refer to an indefinite period of stretch of time. We do this, such as when Grandpa complains that, “kids in my day didn’t dress like that.” Grandpa is not talking about a 24 hour period of time somewhere way back in his past! He means an earlier stretch of time that is not defined by the chronology and number of hours, but instead by a different culture or a different state of life. So, we already use the word day that way on our own usage. Some argue that this is exactly what is happening in Genesis 1.
Now there are problems with this. It, too, runs into issues with wanting to treat the word “day” to exclusively mean long periods of time here in Genesis one, but it doesn’t insist on that other places in the Bible, and that’s a problem. But again, I want to stress for many people who hold this view, it’s not out of a need to make Genesis 1 fit with an evolutionary theory, although that’s often the claim. Now, some people do that, to be sure, but for other more biblically minded scholars, they are legitimately attempting to interpret the text based on what is actually there.
Now this is the actual proper meaning of “literal:” that we interpret the text according to the kind of writing and format that intends to be read. But if we take literal to mean we take it at face value on the surface and not in some other way, that’s going to lead us down one track. The question here is in what way does the word day in the text require us to read it? And therein lies the debate.
Well, a second possibility regarding the question of the seven days of creation here in this in this fourth view, that is a blend of the poetic and the scientific, is that these are in fact 24-hour days like the young earth view argues, but it’s not a seven-day chronological week. So, seven distinct 24-hour periods of time, but not back-to-back chronologically to form a week. And read carefully, indeed, the text in Genesis 1 never says that. We infer it because of our familiarity with the rhythm of life following the pattern of a week. And so we’re naturally inclined when we see seven days — day one, day two, day three, day four — to just see it as a week. But of course, the question that we really want to consider is what does the text itself actually say?
So, in this fourth option, the interpretation is that God’s commands and acts in the creation process are indeed what brings us all about in the sequence it described. And that when the text is summing up a 24-hour day, it means it. But it’s not happening necessarily in the space of a chronological week. Instead, each day is a literal day in time and space.
On each day God speaks and more creation comes into existence. But in between each literal day is a longer period of time, same undefined period of time that behind the scenes more development growth is taking place. It’s just that the text of Genesis one tells us about the days. It doesn’t tell us about the periods of time in between.
Now we can’t make an argument from absence of anything, and the lack of any mention of time here between days doesn’t itself mean that there are, and that’s certainly true. But advocates of this view will point out that neither does the text say anything about these days being chronologically back-to-back, we simply assume them to be. But one advantage this view does offer, for whatever it’s worth, is that the sequence of days punctuated by indeterminate periods of time certainly do allow for an older age of the earth that is suggested, or at least seems to be suggested by archaeology without having to resort to evolutionary assumptions and explanations. And that’s why with this Middle Earth view you’ll usually find when you are talking about the age of the earth, a range anywhere from 10,000, possibly up to 100,000 years.
And I would recommend here for you if you’re interested in really exploring this whole question of the seven days of creation, an excellent source. It’s very accessible and readable. It’s the book Seven Days That Divide The World by Doctor John Lennox from Oxford University. Great book, easy to find and we’ll post a link to that on Amazon on the episode page on the website.
Let’s step back and make some observations here before we move on. First of all, I reject evolution as an explanation for creation or the age of the earth. I just don’t think there’s any basis for this, even in science, and in fact, I don’t think science even lets us do this. Darwinian evolution is just bad science, in my humble opinion. But when you begin with a rejection of any possibility of a divine being beyond the physical world, this is all you can come up with. It’s the best you can have.
Likewise, I don’t think the poetic theology view only really holds much water. There are just too many questions in Genesis chapter 1 in the text itself that remain unanswered out of this explanation.
So, I think when it comes to the text to the biblical text itself, you have to go with either the young earth view or the Middle Earth view. I think that’s biblically sound. I think it’s scientifically sound. Yet whether it’s a 24 hour, seven day week or it’s a 24 hour day, seven days punctuated by longer periods of time. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions as to which of those you think you find the greatest abundance of evidence for. I do think both are valid possibilities when it comes to the text itself and a thoroughly biblical worldview.
Now let me add one other personal observation. Here I get pretty concerned when I hear young earth creationists becoming very, very insistent on both the 24/7 day argument and the age of the earth in order to, in order to uphold the authority of all of the Bible. What that produces is the assumption that that particular, precise explanation of Genesis one is the only acceptable one, and then we begin to have to interpret everything else we find in the world in light of that. I think that’s a dangerous place to end up because the authority and the inerrancy and the inspiration of Scripture does not depend only upon how you interpret Genesis 1.
Now there are people who would vehemently argue with me on this point, and I would agree insofar as we’re talking about evolution. But choosing between the young earth or the Middle Earth view, in which both of these are treating that seven days of creation as something specific and concrete, I think you’re on legitimate ground. There’s good cases for both of these.
But whichever of these two views you do find most compelling — young earth or Middle Earth — I argue here that Genesis 1itself is most concerned not with how the time works, but with the fact that God brought creation into existence simply as an act of his will, a reflection of who he is, and in keeping with a purpose and a design that he intended this world to operate by.
So, as I said earlier, whatever understanding here is of the science and the time, Genesis 1 absolutely is making a theological statement. But I don’t think it is only a theological statement about God’s sovereignty or authority, as is the usual argument.
It seems to me there is something much more profound going on here with the physical creation itself and how that creation is structured. And the pattern and the sequence that is given to us in Genesis chapter one is the key to understanding the meaning of creation and what that means for us today in the Kingdom of God.