On the Interpretation of Genesis
“When God began to create heaven and earth–” (Genesis 1:1)
The verse that drives every Creationist to object to scientific discoveries of natural causes which would be responsible for formation of the world as we know it, and drives them to commit the either/or fallacy that if natural causes could have done it, God is therefore unnecessary: “God either did it directly, or not at all.” In my opinion, and being a Christian myself, I don’t see why that has to follow. When I was a Creationist, I would frequently hear anti-scientific arguments that a six-day creation was central to Christian doctrine, and that if the earth were 4.5 billion years old, then therefore Jesus would be mythologized. More recently, I got into an argument with a Creationist who insinuated that if I accepted that natural processes can be credited with how our species came about, then I therefore would have no basis to believe in the resurrection. Hmmm, so not invoking the supernatural in one instance of scientific matters therefore disqualifies the supernatural in non-scientific matters? I would also wonder how would even a natural explanation disqualify God from authoring the natural laws that lead to the result.
The typical view taken by Creationists, particularly Young-Earth Creationists, is that the Bible is infallible and that therefore the universe, the earth, and life on this planet had to have been created within six twenty-four hour days. The Creationists see the infallibility of the Bible depends on this interpretation,– and yes, it is just an interpretation since there are several other acceptable views that can be taken on how to read the first few chapters of Genesis. They do not seem to understand that it is possible to believe the inerrancy of the Bible and still not accept a literal six day creation, though I would argue that even if the Bible were an infallible document, that wouldn’t disqualify their interpretation as fallible. In fact, I have read several other interpretations of the book of Genesis which seem much more plausible than the one that YECs cling onto. For example, there is one written by Glenn Moore (See: “Does Old Earth Creationism Contradict Genesis 1?“)
First, on the six days of creation– YECs acknowledge that the Hebrew word יום (pronounced as “yom”) is not necessarily a twenty-four hour day, but that in Genesis 1 the Hebrew grammar demands it because of the ordinal number given with each creation day. Interestingly enough, Hebrew linguists contradict this view. Rodney Whitefield, for example, shows that there is no such grammatical rule in Hebrew, and that the wording does not rule an “extended age.” More likely than not, this “rule” was invented by Young-Earth Creationists in order to prove their point.
Perhaps one of the main problems with view that the creation days are an actual, literal chronological sequence of events is that Genesis seems to say that the sun was created on the fourth day after the first living things appear. (Genesis 1: 14, 19) Since living things cannot exist without the sun in the first place, the sun had to have been created first. But some YECs insist that there was an alternate light source before the creation of the sun. For example, Jonathan Sarfati makes the claim that,
On the fourth day the present system was instituted as the Earth’s temporary light-bearers were made, so the diffused light from the first day was no longer needed.
Overlooking the fact that this is an untestable claim, this begs the question: If God had created a different light source before the fourth day, what would the point have been in God obliterating the first light source in order to create the sun? — Further more, Jeff A. Benner of the Ancient Hebrew Research Center points out that Genesis chapter one was not written with the intention of it being chronological. He points out,
It must be remembered that modern western thinkers view events in step logic. This is the idea that each event comes after the previous forming a series of events in a linear timeline. But, the Hebrews did not think in step logic but in block logic. This is the grouping together of similar ideas together and not in chronological order. Most people read Genesis chapter one from a step logic perspective or chronological, rather than from the block logic so prevalent in Hebrew poetry.
Although we do not see it, Genesis 1 is actually composed of six separate stories, one story per day. This itself can be taken to mean that the six creation “days” were not intended as literal. And the fact that it has been pointed out that they are “not in chronological order” would itself harmonize the apparent contradiction between science and scripture about whether the sun was created before the earth or after. — Another interesting detain, as Whitefield points out, is that the usual translation of Genesis 1: 16 is misleading. He shows that the Hebrew for “made” in the context of the creation of the sun on the fourth day is more correctly translated as “had made,” implying that the sun had been created before the fourth creation day. With this in mind, even if Genesis 1 were intended to be chronological which I personally do not believe, this particular matter would be a non-issue. Whatever the case may be, it shows that the YEC perspective on this matter is based on an over-literalistic, modern English reading of the text which is actually contradicted by Hebrew linguists.
The YEC interpretation also begs another question since on this particular matter since their position is that the “lesser and greater lights” were created on the fourth day. One of their main points is that the term “evening and morning” is associated with each “creation day,” and therefore it can only indicate a twenty-four hour period. Because evening and morning are defined by the cycles of the sun and the moon, how would one define what “evening and morning” was before they had even existed? This could logically indicate that, at the very least, the first three days themselves were not literal twenty-four hour periods meaning that “evening and morning” is simply an indication of a time interval. In fact, there are other uses of evening and morning in the Bible that are indicators of non-literal days (for example: Psalms 90: 6).
A common criticism made by Yong-Earthers and “Hard” Atheists against Christians that accept an old earth and Evolutionary theory is that they are compromisers; that they attempt to harmonize their beliefs in God and the Bible with irreconcilable views, and judging by how their arguments coincide, it makes me wonder if the “hard” atheists have been reading articles from Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Reasearch. Many of these criticisms have mostly to do with, of course, the creation days. Both of these groups tend to claim that before Darwin believed that the earth was young, and that they also believed that the creation days were literal 24 hour days. Even if this was the standard view, the linguistic evidence by itself debunks the literal day view, however it is not true that all Christians and Jews before Darwin believed in an overtly literal interpretation of Genesis 1. In fact, there are many examples of non-literalistic interpretations of Genesis stretching over the last two-thousand years:
- Philo Judeaus, also called Philo of Alexandria (20 BC to 50 AD), who was a Jewish philosopher and apologist, didn’t believe that the creation days necessarily had a literal meaning. In his writings, he said:
When, therefore, Moses says, “God completed his works on the sixth day,” we must understand that he is speaking not of a number of days, but that he takes six as a perfect number. Since it is the first number which is equal in its parts, in the half, and the third and sixth parts, and since it is produced by the multiplication of two unequal factors, two and three. (Treatise 1:2)
- St. Cyprian of Carthage (Birth: unknown, died in 258 AD), although he would be considered a Young Earth Creationists by several standards, also believed that the Creation days were not twenty-four hours. In a moment of Rhetoric which includes the number seven, he wrote:
As the first seven days in the divine arrangement containing seven thousand of years, as the seven spirits and seven angels which stand and go in and out before the face of God, and the seven-branched lamp in the tabernacle of witness…. (Treatise 11: 11)
- St. Augustine of Hippo (354 AD to 430) seemed to have thought that the Creation was all done “simultaneously,” but he also seemed ambivalent about defining what a “day” was in this case:
But simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world’s creation change and motion were created, as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days. For in these days the morning and evening are counted, until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say! (City of God 11:6)
There are numerous other examples, but these three are more than adequate enough to debunk the YEC/”Hard” Atheist criticism against Christian Old Earth Creationist and so-called “evolutionists” that non-literalistic understandings of creation days in Genesis is nothing more than a reaction to scientific discoveries made in the last two centuries; It had been happening for the last two-thousand years, and is therefore not an ad hoc attempt by some Christian theists to save their faith as they felt intellectually obligated to accept the scientific discoveries. On the contrary: It shows that early Judeo-Christians interpretations were quite diverse. Furthermore, there are other ancient interpretations of Genesis that involve other details as well. Flavius Josephus (37 AD to 100) may not have given an opinion about the creation days per say, but he still gives hints that he read Genesis as somewhat allegorically; that is, in the context of the creation of man saying that after the seven days, the writer “begins to talk philosophically.” (Antiquities 1:34) As far as I can tell, this is the only hint given by Josephus though it is a vital one.
One main counterpoint that Young Earth Creationists make against the theory of evolution is the repetition given in Genesis that creatures reproduced after their own kinds. This leads them to propose the so-called “created kinds.” The reasons for this, it appears, is to 1) explain away the speciation via microevolution that has been observed, and 2) to force fit representatives of all animal, both living and extinct, onto Noah’s Ark from dinosaurs to mammals. Biologists, however, have been quick to point out that there is no biological basis for a biblical, created kind. It doesn’t help that creationists have been unable to definitely define what a kind actually is. And to rub salt into the wound, there is likely not even a biblical basis for the “created kind.” — According to the Illustrated Bible Dictionary:
Some have insisted that the phrase ‘after it’s kind’ is a complete refutation of the theory of evolution. It is not, however, at all clear what the Hebrew word ‘kind’ (mîn) means, except as a general observation that God made creatures that they reproduced in their families. But it the Hebrew word is not understood, it is also true to say that the biological groupings are not at all finally decided. Let it be agreed that the Bible is asserting that, however life came into being, God lay behind the process, then the chapter neither affirms nor denies the theory of evolution, or any theory for that matter. (Volume 1, page 334)
If all the term “after it’s kind” simply means that animals were reproducing, then there is no inconsistency. It’s not as if Darwinian Evolution required a species to all of a sudden reproduce into something completely different from itself; the change is much more gradual. With the “kind” having neither a biological or biblical basis, it becomes apparent that the YECs simply have been inserting details in the Bible which originally had no place there.
A final Young-Earth objection to evolution is rooted in the belief that God made everything all “good.” Then they look at the fossil record and claim that there is a record of death, disease and suffering. They then believe that those animals had to have died after Adam’s sin because death is apparently “evil.” What Young Earth Creationists need to realize is that “good” does not mean “perfect.” The question here is, why should death be considered a bad thing? — In fact, it’s a good thing for preventing ecological meltdown. Also, a close reading of the Bible shows that animal death before Adam’s fall is not unbiblical. Perhaps death may not occur in our preference for a perfect world, but it only says that the creation was good; not that it was “perfect.” — To further support the idea, the fact that God ordered the first humans to eat and reproduce indicates that death could have happened before (Genesis 1:27-30).
Although not all of the Young Earth Creationist objections to the acceptance of an old earth and evolution itself have been covered here, enough have been covered here to show that many of them are invalid. The claim that non-literal understandings of Genesis are nothing more than a result of Christians attempting to force-fit the Bible so that it fits with the last two centuries of scientific discoveries are demonstrably false since both Jews and Christians had read Genesis in such a way for the last two-thousand years and had diverse interpretations of it. — From my perspective, there is no conflict between acceptance of evolution, an old earth, and of Christianity or theism in general.
- “Does Old Earth Creationism Contradict Genesis 1?,” by Glenn Moore, from Reasons To Believe.
- “The Hebrew Word “Yom” Used with a Number in Genesis 1: What Does “yom” mean in Genesis 1?” by Rodney Whitefield, from CreationGenesis.com
- “The Poetry of Genesis Chapter One,” by Jeff A. Benner, from Ancient Hebrew Research Center.
- “The Fourth Creative Day: Answers to Questions about the Sun, Moon and Stars,” by Rodney Whitefield, from CreationGenesis.com.
- Philo of Alexandria, First Book of the Treatise 1:2.
- Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 11:11.
- St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God 11:6.
- Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1:34.
- Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Volume 1, page 334.
- “Animal Death Prevents Ecological Meltdown,” by Dr. Fazale (“Fuz”) Rana, From Reasons To Believe.
- “Animal Death Before the Fall: What Does Bible Say?,” by Rev. Lee Irons. From Reasons To Believe.
- “Very Very Good, Very Good and Animal Death Before the Fall: “Very Good” is not the highest good as expressed in the Hebrew in the Bible,” by Rodney Whitefield, from CreationGenesis.com.
- “What Does Genesis Really Teach?“. From Exploring Christianity.
- “Biblical Kinds,” by Carl Drews. From Theistic-Evolution.com
- “Biblical Literalism: Constricting the Cosmic Dance,” by Conrad Hyers. From Religion-Online.org
- “No Physical Death Before the Fall?” by Glen J. Kuban. From The Paluxy Dinosaur/”Man Track” Controversy
- “Does Old Earth Creationism Contradict Genesis 1?,” by Glenn Moore. From Reasons To Believe.