Is Genesis 1 Really About Creationism?
From the inaugural Spring 2016 issue of the MIT Et Spiritus. Sorry the footnotes are so screwed up.
A quick confession: I used to be really, really creationist. I believed (and still do!) that the Bible was the inspired word of God, and to me that meant that if Genesis 1 said the earth was created in six days, then that must be the case.1 This lasted well into high school, as I read books like The Case for a Creation and watched movies like Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I looked down condescendingly on “the evidence” for evolution, which in my high school textbooks boiled down to something along the lines of “well, whale fins look kind of like hands, so evolution is true.” I shared my thoughts and debated my friends on my incredibly conceitedly-named blog, Philosophically Cynical.2
As you’ve probably guessed, this phase eventually came to an end, thanks to some very patient people in my life. My dad showed me sequences of transition fossils, and my friends told me about things like the Lenski bacteria experiment. I saw people compute genetic trees that mysteriously matched the evolutionary explanation of the fossil record. So, I decided I believed in evolution, and went about it as smugly as I had creationism. I waxed eloquently about the scientific and philosophical value of Darwinism. I made snide remarks about Republicans teaching Intelligent Design in school. I looked down on those silly creationists who took their bibles too literally, when I knew Genesis 1 was really a metaphor meant to discuss evolution. Or the big bang. Or quantum physics. Or something like that.
My various character flaws notwithstanding, I think my approach to Genesis 1 was fairly common among Christians - we either look at it as a literal description of the facts or sort of skim over it as a metaphor without taking the time to ask what the authors of the text actually meant by it. This isn’t to say the text can’t be historical or metaphorical, but rather that the ways we write history and poetry both communicate ideas beyond the merely literal, and it is these ideas that should shape our interpretation of the text at hand. I would therefore like to present a different way of reading the text, one that seems to be common among bible scholars and seminarians, but which sadly seems doesn’t seem to have reached much of the rest of the church.3
Let me state my assumptions outright: I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and, when correctly interpreted, is a reliable authority on spiritual and moral matters. I also believe that understanding the historical and cultural context of biblical texts is imperative for any attempts to interpret scriptures. Given these assumptions, I think that the most reasonable reading of Genesis 1 is as a non-literal, theologically-loaded polemic against Babylonian paganism in favor of a single God who was at once specifically Israelite and universally sovereign. If this seems unlikely or strange to you, I hope that you’ll give me a chance to explain why.
What Kind of Story?
One of the most commonly criticized portions of figurative and metaphorical interpretations of various biblical passages is the possibility of going too far: if Genesis 1 didn’t happen in six days, did Israel’s exodus from Egypt happen at all? Was there ever a King David or a Solomon, or are they just symbols of faith’s power? Are we free to view Jesus’s death and resurrection as a metaphor for overcoming violence, or being nice to one another, or some other chosen interpretation?4 While this is a difficult question deserving of careful thought, the same issues face overly literal interpretations of scripture: Are we to believe that Jesus is literally a gate, or late, or bread, or a vine? Does Daniel think a series of small animals will be the next major empires, or does the author of Revelation believe a monster with multiple heads is going to be the next Roman emperor?5 In these cases the answer is clear: probably not. Sometimes, however, the answer isn’t clear: is Job the true story of a specific guy with bad luck and worse friends, or an ancient play about the nature of evil? Are Adam and Eve actual people, or archetypes of Israel’s fall into exile or humanity’s fall into sin? I believe the most natural way to answer these questions is to seek to determine the author’s intent. Was the author trying to write history? Poetry? A combination of the two?
To answer this question in our case, we’ll have to take a short detour into the world of biblical scholarship. The entire Torah (the first five books of the bible) has traditionally been ascribed to Moses, but the texts themselves are largely anonymous.6 If we want to infer an author from the text, there are a few features that seem relevant: variations within the text,7 multiple passages describing the same events,8 and different writing styles. While any discussion of specifics will have to be limited to the footnotes, these features have generally been taken by scholars to imply that the Torah is a composite work, consisting of pieces by a number of different sources that were later edited together.9 It is important to note that this is still consistent with traditional Christian beliefs about biblical inspiration: God, in conveying theological truths too complex for direct statements, seems to have decided to instead give us a text comprised of various perspectives, none of which provide the full story but which, when taken together, point towards a deeper reality.10
Genesis 1 is usually attributed to a Priestly source, and is typically dated to either during or soon after the Babylonian exile.11 As we look to see what this source wanted to communicate by the Genesis 1 story, it will be helpful to examine the unique perspective they offer to the Torah as a whole. The Priestly sources are famous for providing some of the most boring parts of the Torah: constant genealogies, endless Levitical laws about sacrifice, and page after page of architectural blueprints. These are not, however, simply arbitrary details tossed in by an author looking to fill up space, but rather a carefully constructed tower of symbolism being used to paint a portrait of God. The genealogies are full of numbers, particularly multiples of 7 and 60, which seem intended to point back to God, while the sacrificial laws spell out a deep and subtle theology of life, sin, and redemption. The architectural blueprints are again rich in symbolism pointing forwards to Solomon’s temple and backwards to Eden, both in overall design and minor details. When we examine Genesis 1, we again see the hallmarks of the Priestly writers: the numerological use of 7, the repetition of “it was good”, and the carefully structured language12 all point towards the Priestly authors’ typical use of symbol and metaphor to express theology.
Stories Told by Israel's Neighbors
But what theology is being expressed? When the Israelites sought to define themselves and their beliefs, they didn’t think about naturalism or Islam or weird new-agey stuff or any other modern belief system. Instead, their main opponent in the marketplace of ideas would have been the paganism of the Ancient Near East (ANE). Similarly, they didn’t make cases by appealing to science or equality or the Constitution: instead, they used the ideas, tropes, and rhetoric of their time to define and discuss their theology, ethics, and cosmology. In other words, the author’s intent was probably to present their beliefs in the context of those held by their neighbors. As such, many parts of the Hebrew Bible, and Genesis 1-11 in particular, are devoted to reworking traditional ANE ideas to express Israel’s radical vision of a single, universal God who had called them to devote themselves to Him alone.13
The basics of cosmology seem to have been shared between the Israelites and their neighbors. Both below and above, they believed, were oceans: the earth floated on the oceans below, and a tent-like dome called the “firmament” held the sky waters above. Fixtures like the Sun and Moon were suspended by cables controlled by the gods (or God) to move through the sky. The world was created, not from nothing, but from a vast watery chaos, and the key to this creation was not by sparking matter into existence, but separating order out from the disorder.14 While we now know that this is not the case, it still needs to inform how we read the text because it is the thought-world in which the original authors and audience would have lived. Their now-confusing cosmologies should not distract us from the actual questions they sought to answer: why is there something instead of nothing? Is there a God? What is He like? What is our purpose? Why is there evil, and what is God doing about it?15
Their neighbors had their own stories to provide their own answers to these questions, and it will be helpful to first understand these if we wish to understand how the Israelites sought to differentiate themselves. One of the most famous of these is the Akkadian Enuma Elish,16 which describes creation and the ascendence of the sky-god Marduk through a complicated mess of orgies and warfare. Initially, there is only a watery chaos, which splits into two primeval water gods: Tiamat and Apsu. They have a lot of sex, producing more and more gods, but these new gods are loud and thus anger Apsu. Apsu decides to kill them, but is discovered and murdered by Ea, who becomes the chief god and has a son, Marduk. Marduk, being playful and mischievous, bothers some of the other gods, who convince Tiamat to avenge her dead husband. She does so, raising up eleven monsters and establishing her new husband Kingu as king. The gods opposing her are unable to stop her until they appoint Marduk as their leader, who destroys the monsters and Kingu before going after Tiamat. There is a fierce battle, but Marduk eventually defeats Tiamat, ripping her body into two pieces. He places one of these pieces below, creating the seas, and one above, creating the water above the sky. Tiamat’s followers are at first forced into submission, but eventually Marduk decides that this is unfair and instead creates humanity from Kingu’s blood to become the gods’ slaves instead.
A Very Different Kind of Story
In the shadow of stories such as these, one of the most immediately obvious features of Genesis 1 is the tiny cast of characters. Until day 6, the only character seems to be God. More importantly, we’re missing any account of God’s origin or ascendance to the head of the divine council: he’s simply set forth as sovereign from the beginning. It is hard to overstate the theological weight of this: God is being set forth as the universe’s true king, with no worthy human or supernatural rivals. The authors, however, did have philosophical rivals, and it was with these rivals that they now had to grapple. Did you catch the reference to Marduk and Tiamat? God’s wind17 is on the stormy waters, and on the second day he cuts them in half to create the seas and sky-waters. There is no battle, nor are the elements personified, but the outline of the story is still there and reinterpreted to submit to the authors’ monotheistic perspective. This is characteristic of the early parts of Genesis: pieces of ANE mythology are borrowed, but rewritten to reflect Israel’s belief in a single, universal God.18 The message is clear: all other views are entirely mistaken. There is only one God, and all history (even that attributed to pagan gods or natural forces) is really the unfurling of his own plans.
While the cast of characters is unusual, the plot is even stranger. The confusing mess of sex, fighting, and backstabbing of nearby creation myths has been replaced with a straightforward narrative about a single character. When God decides to create things, he simply speaks, and they are created. Everything is created by what seems like to be an intentional, orderly plan: on the first three days, God separates light from dark, ocean from sky, and sea from land. This is repeated on the next three days, when God controls the light with the sun and moon, fills the ocean and sky with fish and birds, and finally fills the land with animals and people. God declares everything to be good, and sets human beings, who he has created in his own image, in charge of the world. This, too, carries extreme theological significance: creation is not a coincidence but part of a long-term predetermined plan, in which people (men and women!) play a significant role because they reflect the image of God. Finally, on the seventh day, God rests, thereby establishing the Sabbath. This is an incredibly bold move on the author’s part. The Sabbath was (and still is) a fundamental marker of Jewish identity - the Israelites had by this point been keeping the Sabbath for more than a thousand years, a ritual marking a covenant with God not shared by any of their near neighbors. The author describes God’s Sabbath not to imply that God needs rest, but to establish a theological truth: God’s covenant with Israel was not the result of some coincidental meeting with Abraham or Moses, but part of the original plan of the entire universe.
So How Can We Read it Today?
So what is the “message” of Genesis 1? It seems to me that Genesis 1 is best understood as a creation story written by ancient Israelites to capture the theological truths they had learned about their God. (After all, have you ever read a systematic theology? Stories are both much deeper and much more fun!) The seven day period seems to be put there not because the authors were sure that creation took seven days rather than six or eight (or 1.6 trillion), but because they knew their God was, and had always been, a fundamentally Jewish God. God’s sea-splitting creation of the sky is not a literal reconstruction of history, but instead reflects the fact that their God had no true challengers or rivals for his role as king of the universe. If Genesis 1 were written today, the language might reflect today’s scientific understandings, perhaps reflecting God’s presence at the big bang or guiding hand in evolution. The purpose of such statements would not be to support the idea of a big bang, but to prove a theological point. As such, the literal truth of this sort of reconstruction is unimportant - perhaps God invented quantum physics, or perhaps in fifty years we’ll find new evidence that overthrows our current understanding of physics entirely. What matters now, as it did in Genesis 1, is the theology these reconstructions express about God: that he is a God who guides history, who chooses people for redemptive purposes,19 who has no equal, and who loves his creation.
This entire procedure is certainly open to the charge that we are just throwing out parts of the text that we no longer agree with. This is a serious danger any time we interpret scripture, but I don’t think it’s the case here. In many ways, I find the implications raised by this interpretation of the text to be both much bolder and much more troubling than the possibility of a six-day creation. We’re asked to accept creation as an orderly, intentional act from God, but this seems hard to reconcile with the randomness and chaos of evolution. We’re asked to see God as a specifically Israelite God, whose holy book openly mocks other points of view - this is at best uncomfortable in our multicultural era. We’re asked to see a creation and a humanity full of evil and suffering as fundamentally good, and we’re asked to throw away our concerns about foreknowledge and free will to accept a God who had planned Israel’s existence before there were even stars. These are difficult problems without easy solutions, and we haven’t even left the first chapter of the first book of the Bible!20 While I think that it’s important that we seek answers, both in the rest of the Bible and in our lives, I also think we need to approach them with a posture of humility and faith. Not all of our questions will be answered, not all of our fears will be assuaged, and not everything that makes us uncomfortable can be explained away. Even if we don’t know all the answers, however, we can rest assured in the fact that the God we serve is a sovereign God who sees us not as slaves but as image-bearers, who creates good things, and who lets us play a role in his ultimate, world-shaking plan. This, after all, is the real message of Genesis 1.
1. By ``Genesis 1", I actually mean the entirety of the first creation story, i.e. Genesis 1:1 - 2:3↩
2. No, don't bother looking. I've deleted it since.↩
3. For a much more complete and compelling account, please see e.g. The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns, The Lost World of Adam and Eve and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John H. Walton, and The Unseen Realm by Michael S. Heiser. Anything true in this essay is due to them, while any inaccuracies, mistakes, or blatant heresies are probably my own.↩
4. Peter Leithart, for example, satirizes figurative interpretations by claiming that ``Genesis 12, like the exodus narrative, teaches that God delivers. It does not matter whether or not God has ever actually delivered anyone. The moral stands: God is our deliverer''↩
5. Daniel 8; Revelation 13 ↩
6. A few parts, including the Ten Commandments and parts of the law and history are explicitly attributed to Moses, but the rest, and in particular Genesis, do not list an author.↩
7. Some of these can be explained away, but a few remain: did people always call God Yahweh (Genesis 15:7-8) or only after God revealed himself to Moses (Exodus 6:2-3)? What was Moses’s father in law’s name: Reuel (Exodus 2:18) or Jethro (Exodus 3:1)? Jewish interpreters in particular have a long history of drawing out fascinating and creative interpretations from these sorts of textual discrepancies. It is for this reason that nearly every historical definition of biblical inerrancy demands that the bible is inerrant when correctly interpreted and only for matters related to salvation. It is also worth noting that ancient historiographical standards differ from modern ones: in many ancient cultures it was considered acceptable practice to change or invent minor details when recounting the past in order to increase the drama or support a philosophical or moral theme. We should not therefore be surprised that when ancient biblical authors were inspired by God to write, they wrote according to their own cultural standards, not by ours. ↩
8. This is most clearly seen in the story of Noah’s ark, which seems to have been stitched together from two separate sources. While the sources agree on the overall story, they differ on details such as whether the water came from above or below, what kind of bird Noah sent out, how long the water was on the earth, and how many of each animal was taken on the ark. ↩
9. There are now a number of competing theories surrounding the literary history of the Torah and I am thoroughly unqualified to judge between them. Most of these theories distinguish between priestly and non-priestly sources, however, nothing we say should depend too strongly on the specific reconstruction of the text’s history.↩
10. A good example of this is found in God’s justice and mercy. There is a tension between the forgiveness of sins and the idea that God punishes the wicked, and both notions have widespread biblical support. Far from being a contradiction to be written off, the tension seems to be an intentional choice: the idea that a perfectly just God could love and forgive us is difficult to comprehend, awe-inspiring, and relentlessly pushes those who believe it into a state of worship. ↩
11. There are a number of reasons to date the final, compiled form of many parts of the Torah so late after the events they describe. Some of the main threads of evidence include linguistic evidence (the Hebrew dialect used in the stories wasn’t used until more than 1000 years after Moses) and textual evidence (the texts seem to cite and interact with belief systems associated with Babylon at the time of the exile, and the ``Table of Nations'' in Genesis 10 refers to nations and places that existed long after Moses’s time.) This doesn’t mean they were simply made up - ancient scribes regularly updated language, explained unclear passages, and applied familiar stories to new context, and the text we currently have seems to be based on a number of older traditions. Genesis 1-11 in particular bears the hallmarks of much later editors presenting the stories and traditions in a specific historical context (which is what this entire article is about!)↩
12. For example, on days 1-3 we see the creation of light/dark, water/sky, land/sea, which on days 4-6 are filled in the same order: the sun, moon, and stars for the light and dark, then fish and birds for the water and sky, and finally animals and people for the land. ↩
13. One of the more amusing examples of this is found in Genesis 6:1-4, in which a series of large Babylonian folk heroes are recast as the bastard offspring of renegade semi-divine beings and human women. This will be used later in the Old Testament to construct a theology of warfare, and in the New Testament to glimpse the spiritual world. ↩
14. We see this in Genesis 1, which begins with a watery chaos and continues with God separating: light from dark, water from sky, and seas from land.↩
15. In the language of biblical inspiration, God seems to have been trying to communicate theological truths necessary for salvation in a language understandable to readers of the time rather than give a literal transcription of events. (Imagine how a text explaining all the actual details of evolution or modern physics or anything else would have been received in ancient Babylon! It would have been laughed out of town before anybody paid attention to the real aims of holy writing: to discuss God.) This is referred to as an accommodationist view of scripture, the idea that God accommodates human finiteness and error to get to the important parts. ↩
16. The Akkadian empire was centered in Akkad, in modern-day Iraq, in the late third millennium BCE. It was the predecessor of two rival empires: Assyria and Babylonia, both of which record variants of the Enuma Elish. While scholars disagree on the exact date, the Enuma Elish is generally believed to have been written sometime in the second millennium BCE. ↩
17. Some translations render the Hebrew ruach as ``Spirit''. Some other features of the Hebrew are lost here in translation: the ruach is hovering over the deep (tehom) a word with strong resemblances to names used for Tiamat. In verse 21, the ``great creatures of the sea'' are the tanninim, a word borrowed from Canaanite mythology to describe sea monsters. Later biblical accounts will portray this part of creation as a battle between God and the sea (usually via a sea monster named either Leviathan or Rahab: see e.g. Psalm 74:13-14, 89:10, Job 26:12-13, 41:1-2), a story borrowed from Canaanite Baal myths but reinterpreted to demonstrate Yahweh’s supremacy over all foes. ↩
18. For example, Genesis 2-3 borrows from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Genesis 5-9 draws on a number of ANE flood stories, and Genesis 11 seems to be directed at the Mesopotamian understanding of ziggurats. This ``borrowing" seems to reinforce the view of Genesis 1-11 as non-literal but theologically significant. ↩
19. See the article The Gospel in the First Century in this issue by Erik Johnson.↩
20. Yes, we technically also read three verses from the second chapter.↩