"If Genesis 1 isn't literal, the Gospel isn't literal either!"
"If the earth isn't 6000 years, then we can't trust the Bible on anything!"
These statements are a kind of rally cry for some Christians. Yet, it has also been the source, sadly, of much consternation for sincere, devout followers of Jesus who cannot accept a young earth or a literal six days. Convinced that they must either "take it or leave it", they walk away. Countless others, one might guess, have never even ventured to ask about Jesus, the cross, resurrection and redemption because they've been told they need to accept everything or nothing.
In the wake of the recent "creation debate", I wonder if Christians have achieved much besides driving yet another artificial wedge between "faith" and "science", as if the two have not happily co-existed-- indeed fed each other!-- in past centuries. I have no interest in re-hashing or critiquing the debate, not only because I am not the person to do so, but also because I didn't watch it! My interest is a more modest question: How are we to read Genesis 1?
The Cosmologies of the Ancient World
The cosmology in Genesis does not stand alone but within the landscape of many ancient creation stories, each providing different answers to similar questions. No one was asking, "Did god create the heavens and the earth?" The question was, "Which god, and why?" It is in comparing the Genesis account against these other stories that one may discover the significance of the Genesis cosmology. And perhaps along the way, you'll also see why I don' think Genesis backs you into a corner having to make the false choice between creation/young earth and evolution/old earth.
The Sumerians had no specific creation story text, though descriptions of creation appear in a few Sumerian texts. There are basically two traditions. In one, Heaven-- the god An—is united with Earth—the goddess Antum or Ki, fertilizing the earth and causing life—humans, animals, vegetation—to spring up and flourish. In the other tradition, Enki the god of fertility produces a spring that carries life to the earth through streams and rivers, with life springing up around it. In both traditions, humans exist “to serve the gods, to save them from having to work” (Lucas, 132).
Perhaps the best known ancient cosmology, besides the Genesis account, is the Enuma Elish. This Akkadian account was a copied numerous times and often recited at the New Year festival. The story is lengthy and bloody. It is essentially an account of a power struggle among the gods, driven by jealousy and anger. Marduk, the descendent of Apsu and Damkina, becomes greater than his divine predecessors. Though at first this provokes the jealousy of the other gods, he strikes a deal with them: he will fight on their behalf if they give him the power of “fixing destinies” (ibid). They agree. Marduk kills Tiamat, splitting her body in two, one half becoming the sky and the other half becoming the earth. Marduk orders that Ea make humans out of the blood of Kingu, the leader of the rebel gods. Once again, the reason for making humans is so they can do the work of the gods.
There is a Canaanite cosmology as well. The Canaanites had no “undisputed cosmogony”, but there is the Baal cycle of texts in which the chief of the Pantheon, El, is called “creator of creation/creatures”, and his wife, Asherah, is called “creator/begetter of the gods” (Lucas, 133). These epithets are possible indications that the Canaanites thought of the origin of the cosmos in procreation terms.
Egyptian cosmologies are a bit more variegated. Several strands exist, each connected with local deities like Re, Atum, and Ptah (Lucas, 134). Lucas, writing in the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch summarizes them by pointing out that Egyptian cosmologies are primarily concerned with the origin of the gods, each identified with basic elements of the cosmos such as earth, sky, and sun (Lucas, 134).
So, What Is Genesis 1 Saying?
The meaning of Genesis 1 can be drawn out by two considerations. The first is the consideration of context: imagining what was going on in Israel’s story when these chapters were being formed and woven together. The second is the consideration of competing narratives: contrasting the Genesis creation story to the other creation stories of the Ancient Near East.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, meaning of Genesis 1 for the children of Israel can be summed up in the “Shema”, which appears in Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is one.” Genesis 1-11 reveals an entirely different view of the divine or spiritual realm. In contrast to the many gods that fill the scenes of other creation stories in the Ancient Near East, YHWH stands set apart as the sole sovereign over creation. There is no division of divine jurisdiction; no god of the sea, and a god of land, and a god of war. There is only one God. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is one.” As the lead character in the opening scenes, God not only is, He acts. God is all through the opening passage as the only active character. There are no rivals, no one else adding input or ideas. There is simply, God. He is clearly the main character. God speaks, God forms, God makes, God calls, God blesses, God commissions. The primacy of God is must have been striking to a young Israelite child hearing these stories for the first time.
Secondly, this sole sovereign God creates the world on purpose. Creation is not the result of a bloody battle among the gods, or the result of mutated divine excretions, nor is the gods’ way of getting some help around the universe. The God of Genesis sets out to make the world, carefully, deliberately, methodically, and yes, even poetically. The opening chapter does, after all, have a song-like cadence to it.
Thirdly, as the sole Sovereign and intentional Creator, YHWH does not simply create, He blesses what He makes. In this way, all that is good and beautiful in the world—Hebrew, tov—is the result of YHWH’s blessing. One can imagine the people of Judah in Babylon straining their eyes to see something of YHWH’s hand, training the ears to hear something of YHWH’s voice, when all of a sudden, they remember: this world itself was made by YHWH. This tree, this stream, this flower, this fruit—all that flourishes around them—flourishes because YHWH has blessed it. The blessing of YHWH on the material world would have been a source of consolation and a spark of worship in an otherwise difficult land of exile.
Genesis 1 is a hymn of praise to the one, true God who made the world on purpose and with pleasure, and who lovingly blessed it and called it good. Now, let's tell the world about that.
For Further Reflection...
Here are two 3-minute videos from the Principal at St. John's College in Durham University (yes, where I'm doing my doctorate in theology) on Genesis, human origins, and the song of creation: