The Difficulties of Genesis 1 (Part 2 of 2)
In my previous article, I tried to show why the first chapter of the Bible is an exceedingly difficult passage for Bible students. The complexity of this chapter is reflected in the vast diversity of interpretations. One could write volumes on how Christians have dealt with Genesis 1 over the course of church history. Here I would like to give you four interpretations by well known preachers of our time. Three of these four men are active pastors ministering to great churches. I am particularly interested in how church pastors deal with the difficulties of Genesis 1, because my concern is not only about the theological debates but also about their practical implications for the church.
The historical eye-witness account
My first example is John MacArthur, pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church. MacArthur is considered by many to be one of the greatest expository preachers of our time, and I agree. His approach to Genesis 1 is quite literal. He treats the chapter as an eyewitness account of creation and reads it as one would read a history text. In MacArthur’s interpretation, each day of Genesis 1 is a 24-hour period, and the universe is no older than a few thousand years. Following this approach, God created physical light on day one and sun, moon and stars on day four. Needless to say, at least half of his sermon on Genesis 1 is an argument against evolution and its implications. Against the possibility of theistic evolution he argues that evolution itself is impossible. The historical elements of Genesis 1 are, according to him, so overwhelmingly obvious that he dismisses every other approach as turning science into a hermeneutic.
Although I absolutely admire MacArthur’s seriousness toward the word of God and his zeal to defend God’s truth, I find his approach too one-sided. As I mentioned, he approaches Genesis 1 as historical account, but not as an ancient historical document. Modern historians write chronologically, but ancient historians often did not (see, for example, the synoptic gospels). MacArthur doesn’t provide much explanation for why he believes that Genesis 1 is historical narrative. And, unfortunately, he doesn’t give much attention to the putative intentions of the original author. No consideration is given to the putative first hearers and readers of Genesis 1 (the Israelites wandering between Egypt and Canaan) and how they would have understood it.
God, the prophet of creation
A less literal approach can be seen in the interpretation of Mark Driscoll. Driscoll is a relatively young pastor of Mars Hill, a thriving and growing megachurch in Seattle. For him, the entire creation of the universe, including sun, moon and stars, is completed in the sentence, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” He sees evidence for this interpretation in the fact that the word for “made” in verse 1 is bara,’whereas for the following days, the author uses the word asa. He explains these two Hebrew words with a simple illustration. To “make” a bed can have two meanings. It can mean to construct and build a bed from scratch with wood, nails, etc. Or it can mean to tidy it up in the morning. Thus, when the Bible says that God made light, expanse, plants, land, etc. it does not necessarily mean that God created something that did not exist before. For instance, Driscoll interprets the appearance of light on day one simply as sunrise. When God separates the land from the sea, he is thinking of the Israelites in the desert and interprets this as God bringing forth the Promised Land as his own special ‘real estate.’ He also doesn’t see the making of sun, moon and stars on Day 4 as creating something new, but as God narrating and prophesying that he did create sun, moon and stars as mentioned in verse 1. So God doesn’t create something new every day, but he speaks and prophesies in his creation every day. Driscoll sees God as a prophet who is lovingly involved with his creation and speaking to it. In Driscoll’s sermon, he argues against macroevolution but he personally believes in an old earth.
Purely functional creation
The next interpretation I would like to discuss is that of John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Walton recently published a book called The Lost World of Genesis 1. His conclusions are radical and provocative, significantly different from what has traditionally been taught about Genesis 1. He begins with the observation that Genesis 1 is a piece of Ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) literature. This implies that Genesis 1 is not a modern scientific text and should never be read as such. Furthermore, he identifies a number of parallels and similarities between the Genesis account and ANE worldviews. He attempts to understand Genesis 1 in light of ANE cosmology.
Analyzing the meaning of the Hebrew word bara, he concludes that Genesis 1 is not intended to describe the material origins of the universe. Walton is not saying that he doesn’t believe that God is the creator of matter. But he contends that Genesis 1 is not that story. Instead, he sees the chapter depicting God as a functional creator. The first three days are about the installment of basic functions. The light in the first day refers to the function of time; the expanse in day two refers to the function of weather; and day three deals with the function of food. Days four to six are about assignment of roles and spheres to those cosmic functionaries. In Walton’s interpretation, the account reaches its climax on the seventh day when God rests. His rest means that he enters his creation to rule over it. To illustrate, he compares God’s activity to the establishment of a new company or business. The functions of the company are first established (Days 1-3) and then the functionaries are assigned (Days 4-6). Then the only thing that remains is for the CEO to enter his office and begin running the company (Day 7). In Genesis 1, God is not creating a company; he is making the earth into a temple for himself. All of creation is God’s temple, and the days of creation are the inauguration of the temple, climaxing in God’s rest in his temple to rule over the earth.
Walton’s conclusions may seem too extreme. Many would disagree with his claim that Genesis 1 doesn’t have anything to say about material origins. Like MacArthur, he doesn’t seem open to accepting the possibility that there may be multiple valid interpretations and approaches to the text. Nevertheless, Walton’s analysis did give plausible answers to a couple of questions I had about Genesis 1. His desire to do excellent exegesis is unmistakable.
The song of creation
Last, but not least, I will mention Tim Keller’s take on this passage. Keller is founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Keller wrote an excellent and easily readable white paper on the debate over creation versus evolution. On the question of literary genre, Keller points out that Genesis 1 does not make use of parallelism, the predominant feature of Hebrew poetry. Nevertheless, the many repetitions in the passage sound to him like refrains. Thus, Keller sees Genesis 1 as a creation song. He finds evidence for his view in the fact that there are some contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2. This he resolves by explaining that Genesis 1 and 2 share a ‘partnership’ similar to that seen in Exodus 14 and 15. One is the actual historical account, the other is a song paraphrasing the historical events utilizing metaphors and lyricism. In the case of Exodus 14-15, the event is the crossing of the Red Sea. That story is first told through the historical narrative, and then it is celebrated through the songs of Miriam and Moses. A similar thing is happening in Genesis 1-2, but the order is reversed; first comes the song, then somes the narrative.
In contrast to those who favor literal approaches to Genesis 1, Keller doesn’t think that Genesis 1 intends to say much about how God created the universe. Rather, he thinks that Genesis 1 is explaining why and for what. Keller does not argue at all against evolution. He does, however, strongly argue against a naturalistic view of the beginnings of the universe which claims that life came into existence only by impersonal, random and natural forces. He beautifully illustrates how Genesis 1 explains our longing for perfection and beauty and enjoyment. Most of all, he points to Jesus, the Word of God and the agent by which God created heaven and earth. Keller shows that on the cross, the opposite of creation occurs: Jesus was deconstructed, destroyed and unmade. All of this happened so that we, his fallen creation, could be remade and recreated for eternal joy.
I have presented four thoughtful and divergent views on Genesis 1 by contemporary Bible teachers. Which of these views sounds most plausible to you? What is your take on Genesis 1?
Let me finish with a few simple suggestions on how to deal with the difficulties of Genesis 1.
Suggestion 1: Before attempting to interpret this difficult first chapter of the Bible, invest some thought in how to do solid exegesis. Otherwise you may fall into the trap of arbitrarily of reading your own cultural biases into an Ancient Near-Eastern text.
Suggestion 2: Don’t treat Genesis 1 as a scientific or pseudo-scientific text. Genesis 1 was never meant to be a scientific treatise. (Example: When the author speaks about the creation of light, do not imagine he is talking about the phenomenon of electromagnetic waves or photons.) Because Genesis 1 deals with the origins of all things, and because the origin of the universe is a scientific pursuit, many people approach Genesis 1 with a desire to answer scientific questions. Well, don’t.
Suggestion 3: If you want to approach Genesis 1 more literally, consider the fact that the chapter does have a number of poetic elements, and one should be very cautious about applying literal interpretations to poetry. And vice versa: if you favor a less literal approach, consider the fact that Genesis 1 also contains elements of Hebrew narrative.
Suggestion 4: Don’t hesitate to consult the opinions of experts and scholars. So much is hidden to the untrained eye. For better or for worse, abundant resources are available.
Suggestion 5: Don’t be too quick to reach conclusions, and don’t be content with easy answers. Augustine of Hippo, the great bishop and philosopher, struggled extensively with Genesis 1 for many years. These honest struggles produced remarkable insights that are well worth reading even today.
Suggestion 6: Think hard, stay humble. All of us might be wrong and we should always be open to correction.
Alister McGrath put it well: “Evangelicals, after all, believe in the infallibility of Scripture, not the infallibility of its interpreters.”