Understanding Genesis 1

images-4The proper interpretation of Genesis 1 fuels a lot of conflict these days in the so-called science vs. religion wars. Genesis 1 is controversial because it forces us to ask important questions with huge implications for how we understand God, our world, and ourselves. Questions typically asked include: Is it true? Does it give us history? How does Genesis related to what geologist tell us? Is it consistent with evolutionary theory and Darwinism? Do we have a right to question Darwinism because of what it says in Genesis?

In this post, I am not going to say what I think Genesis 1 teaches, but rather, I want to set out important questions that should be asked as one seeks to understand it. As such, my desire is to “teach you to think” more than to “teach you what to think.” So, here are some key questions that should be considered when approaching Genesis chapter 1 (I’ll indent the text where I provide an example of a possible answer to these questions, answers coming from Old Testament scholars).

1. Who is the audience and what is the purpose of the book? This question is an important first question when we approach any text. It helps us to establish context, and gives us a rubric for interpreting unclear parts of the text. The Old Testament Scholar John Walton, in his book The Lost World of Genesis One, points out that we need to understand the original language and the culture in order to arrive at a proper interpretation.[1] Thus, we would do well to familiarize ourselves with the ancient literature of Egypt and Mesopotamia in order to understand the mindset of the ancient world, including the world of Genesis 1.

 For example, the Old Testament Scholar C. John Collins states in his book Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?[2] that the answer to this question is as follows. Genesis is written by Moses to those who have followed Moses out of Egypt. The author is telling the truth (it is historical) about where we came from and how we got here. As such, it is important to see that Genesis 1 does not present a modern cosmology. In fact it doesn’t present much of a cosmology at all, except in Genesis 1:1-2. Another example: John Walton has recently and convincingly argued that the cosmic geography of Genesis 1 reveals an ancient cosmology. He states, “Through the entire bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture.”[3] If this is correct, then we should be wary of those who want to read modern science off of the pages of Genesis 1.

2. What is the relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2? One or two creation accounts? The worry is that we have two contradictory creation accounts, which would call into question the veracity of either.

 C. John Collins argues that the two accounts are mutually supporting. Genesis 1, in the language of “exalted prose narrative” gives us the big picture, while Genesis 2 fills out the details of the 6th day of Genesis 1 (that is, the day in which God created Adam and Eve). This question quickly leads us to the next two:

3. Does Genesis 1 give us a chronology? C. John Collins argues, e.g., that the creation account is supposed to take up some length of time (it is not instantaneous as Augustine argued). God is portrayed as having taken some length of time to prepare the world as a place for mankind to live and love. A straight-forward reading reveals that these days are presented to us as six separate periods of time, that took place one after the other.

4. How should the Hebrew word “yom” (day) be understood? The three options for understanding the Hebrew word for day are (1) ordinary 24-hour period, (2) the “day-time,” or (3) “period of undetermined length.” Here are Walton and Collin’s main argument for why we should understand day as in (1) and (3) above. Interestingly, in both cases, they argue that Genesis 1 does not take a stand on the age of the earth.

John Walton argues that the creation account in Genesis 1 is functional rather than (primarily) material, hence the nature of the day takes on a much less significant role that is normally the case (in material creation views) since they no longer have any connection to the material age of the earth. Walton says these are seven 24-hour days and this is the best reading of the text. So, according to Walton, the 7 days are not given as the period of time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple, and perhaps to its annual reenactment. Thus, “the seven days of Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. . . . there is no biblical position on the age of the earth.” [4]

 C. John Collins reasons as follows: The key to answering this question begins with noticing the phrase “and there was evening and there was morning, the nth day.” Notice the order—evening and then morning! Q: What is the significance of evening followed by morning in the ancient world? A: what falls in between—nighttime! Q: And what is significant about nighttime? A: It is when the worker takes his daily rest, as Psalm 104:23 puts it, “at sunrise, man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.” This daily rest in Israel looks forward to the weekly Sabbath rest. Q: And what shall we make of the absence of the refrain on the 7th day? A: Absence tells us a lot! It suggests that the 7th day has not ended. Therefore, we are now living in day 7. POINT: The 7 days of creation are an analogy for us—during the creation week, God was “working on” the earth to make it just right for man, in his Sabbath he is no longer doing this, but now keeps it all in being. Thus, these days are not “ordinary 24 hour days” but “God’s workdays”—our workdays are not identical to them, but analogous. The purpose of the analogy is to set a pattern for the human rhythm of work and rest. The length of these days is not relevant to this purpose.[5]

Undoubtedly there are many more questions we should ask as we work toward a correct understanding of Genesis 1. Once we have arrived at an understanding of Genesis 1 (which is our 1st task), then we can engage in our 2nd task: to integrate the Bible with what we learn from modern science. I recommend to you both Walton’s and Collin’s books as excellent examples of faithful, patient, biblical scholarship and plausible explanations of how to integrate the deliverances of faith and science.

For a short clip by John Walton on Genesis 1, see this:

For a postcast interview with C. John Collins, click here















[1] John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[2] C. John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003).

[3] Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 19.

[4] Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 95.

[5] See Collins, Science and Faith, chapter 5.

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