According to many lay Christians, creation happened six to ten thousand years ago in the exact way that it is described in the book of Genesis, even if certain things seem contradictory. However, Biblical scholars hold many different views about Genesis, with the majority of Old Testament scholars leaning towards the fact the Genesis creation account(s) are more mythical than literal. And by mythical they do not mean “it’s untrue” but rather that it’s “a prescientific, premodern, preanalytical way of using stories to speak on big themes and ideas.” Is that the case?
Now, before we get into accusations of heresy, let me unfold why I care. If the Genesis creation account is literally true, I am completely willing to believe it. I have no personal agenda or motive to reject it. In fact, I would rather have it be literal so I could fit everything into a nice little box. I like nice little boxes. To repeat myself, I’m not someone seeking to “disprove the Bible” because deep down I want to “become a liberal and sin as much as I want.” I don’t have an agenda to uphold or a position to defend.
What do I want? Why am I even considering this issue?
Because at the heart of everything, I sincerely want to know the truth. I don’t want scripted answers that we are supposed to play on repeat. I want to inquire, to seek out, to search, and to gain an understanding that which is not biased by dogmas. I just want to know and accept that which is true. I genuinely believe that if something is true, we should not be afraid of exploring and asking hard questions, for truth will stand up to all manner of inquiry.
And thus, I would like to briefly explore Genesis 1 and 2, to ask if we can take the passages as modern writing – a literal historical and scientific narrative, or as something that more closely fits the cultural methods of transmitting information in the ancient world. I will also the word “literalist” to refer to those who read Gen 1-2 as scientific literal narrative. (If you think reading the Bible literally is the best and an only way, think of that passage with Jesus telling people to cut off their hand or gouge out their eye to avoid a temptation, do you literally follow that? No? Then you’re not truly a literalist.)
One Account or Two Separate Accounts?
Many scholars have noted that there is a great deal of variability between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Both seem to have very big differences leading some to the conclusion that both are separate stories. Others have argued that Genesis 2 is merely a repetition of the Genesis 1 story, giving a zoomed in view of the important events that happened on the 6th day. However, this theory requires tens of alterations and explanations of the simple literal reading of the text to make sense. You cannot “literally read” both creations accounts and fit them together. This requires a great deal of hermeneutical gymnastics, such as “even though this sounds like its saying A, it really has to mean B, because it was B in the first chapter, and they have to harmonize.” While most of these differences are possible to “explain away” using this approach, it seems unfair to talk about Genesis 1-2 being “literal” and then refusing to read it literally. Below are some highlights of those differences in the two stories.
Here is a short summary image
1. Man created before or after the animals?
In the first story a reading that is strictly literal plainly says that humans are created after all of the other animals.
- “God made the beasts of the earth after [their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” (Gen 1:25-27)
In the second Genesis account it says that man was created before all of the animals, then after him we see the creation of animals, and finally the woman.
- “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being…Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man.” (Gens 2:7-33).
Literalists reconcile this difference by arguing that when the Bible says “Then,” as highlighted above, it doesn’t really mean then, when God speaks in the future tense (“I will make,” rather than “I have made”) he doestn really mean that, and also the description of the animal creation, which follows Gods words, is something that happened before his future tense words. Is that really literal reading?
2. Man and woman created at the same time or not?
In the first Genesis account, strict literalism leads us to believe that both man and woman are made simultaneously on the sixth day, there is nothing at all to make it appear as though there were any time gaps or other creations in between them.
- “God created man(kind) in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gens 1:27).
However, in the second account we see a very prolonged period of time between the creation of man and woman.
- First man is created. Then all of the trees and shrubs and vegetation. Then the rivers are made rivers. Then God created the Garden of Eden. Then made commands to Adam about the Tree of Good and Evil. Then He made all the animals and birds. Then He brings every single one to Adam, who names all of the animal and all of the birds, then Adam does not find a companion for himself, and finally after all of that, Adam is put to sleep and woman is created. See Gen 2:4-22.
While literalists could try to argue that it’s possible to do all that in one day (and if God did some kind of time-stopping miracle, of course it is), however, that is not the most simple and most literal reading. In the purest literal sense, if we read it just as it is, the first account describes (1)all plant and animal life being made, then (2) man and woman. The second describes (1) man being made, then (2) all plant and animal life, then finally (3) woman.
3. Creation happens in “six days” or “the day”?
In the first creation account, a strict literal reading takes the word “day” (Hebrew yom) to refer to literal 24 hour days. There is a great deal of effort spent by young earth creationists to argue that the word “day” is very literal and cannot be in any way symbolic; so that every time day appears, we must treat it as a 24hr period.
- There are seven of these days in Genesis 1 and different creation events are described on different days. In the end each separate day is closed with a statement saying “And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.. a third day.. fourth day… a fifth day…” and so forth (Gen 1:8,13,19,23).
In the second Genesis account the word “day” is also used, but only once, and this happens as the introduction to the second account or story.
- “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.” (Genesis 2:4). This is saying that the following events happened on the day God made heaven and earth. Not in the seven days, but in the day, as in one day.
Here a literalist must either back track and give up the dogma that “day” has to mean 24hr day (they often do) or else make up all sorts of strange explanations and logical loops. A literalist could argue that this second account “day” refers to the 6th day from the first story, when God made man and woman. However the actual verse in Genesis 2 rules that out; it says in the day that the heavens and the earth were created. The heavens and earth were made on day 1 in the first account, not day 6.So then a second argument is that “the day” in the 2nd creation story refers to the 1st day in the 1st story, because that verse also reports the creation of heaven and earth. This seems to work at first, however, that cant be it as well. Genesis 2 says “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.” and without any bridge begins to talk about the creation of man, plants and animal life. This transition is exactly like me saying, “This story is about the day that I went camping. First we woke up early in the morning…” You would not argue that the first and second sentences talk about completely different dates and events, would you? By following the most simple and literal reading we observe that Gen 2:4 is an introduction to the whole second genesis account. Which would mean the second creation narrative, read with strict literalism, only talks about one day and literally says this is the day in which everything was created.
4. Birds made on the 5th day from thin air, or 6th day from the ground?
In the first Genesis account birds are made on the 5th day at the same time as the sea creatures, the land animals are made one day later, on the 6th day. Interestingly enough, other animals are made from the ground, but the birds are literally made from nothing or from the water, depending on the translation.
- The NASB says “Then God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.’.” (Gen 1:20). The KJV, however, says that the water brought forth both sea creatures and birds.
In the second Genesis account birds are made at the same time as the land animals, not with the sea creatures. In addition, the second account says that birds were made from the ground which is different from the description of creation in the first account.
- “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky.” (Gen 2:19). If we argue that this second account is a summary, we ought to note that this summary happens after the creation of man, with God speaking in the future tense, saying “I will make.”
5. Plants made on the 3rd day before Adam, or the 6th day for Adam?
The first chapter of Genesis, as read with a literalist precondition states that the creation of plants and vegetation happened on the 3rd day. This was before the creation of man. There is no other mention of plants or vegetation in Genesis 1 except that which was made on the 3rd day.
- “Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them” and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind” (Gen 1:11-12)
The second chapter of Genesis, as read by literalists, starts off by saying that when God created the earth there were no plants or shrubs. We have an empty slate with no plants. Then God creates man. The plate is still clean, no plants have been mentioned. Then after creating man (this according to the 1st story, should be the 6th day) God creates a garden and grows every tree.
- “Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground…Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living [being. The Lord God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food.” (Genesis 2:5-9)
The only arguments a strict literalist could offer is that the first account speaks about one type of plants, and the second about another type. Yet that is an ad hoc hypothesis that appears to me to be very dishonest. Both stories talk about trees with fruit or trees for eating, could there really be two completely separate categories of fruit? While some arguments have been made regarding the Hebrew word for vegetation, when it comes to fruit trees, neither the Bible nor science makes this distinction, even the Hebrew word is the same in both stories. The second account also says God “caused to grow every tree” for food. Can we really stretch the literal stament to say that on the 3rd day God made all the “fruit trees” that are not good for food, and then on the 6th made all the trees that are good for food? And these two separate accounts completely ignore one another? The first account mentions the plant creation on day 3, but forgets the one on day 6? And the second ignores day 3, but mentions day 6? Why? I suppose we force scripture to say that, but to be fair, it doesn’t. And honestly, is this still a truly literal reading anymore?
The Science and Logic of The Story
First off, this section holds a lot less strength in my mind, because God can do absolutely anything he wants, even it it’s illogical, nonetheless there are interesting issues brought up by science and logic, if we take Genesis 1 literally. Again, I absolutely agree that God is all-powerful, and can do whatever he wants. He is a supernatural God that is not limited by the natural. Yet, this world he created is strikingly natural, and is very precise to follow natural laws and rules. Every single atoms stays on course as described by the laws of chemistry and physics. Gravity works every single day and every single moment, it’s not uncertain but a stable physical reality. Mathematics is always true, and one plus one never equals three and so on. The world works according to these rules primarily because God designed it that way. I would wager that it even shows us something about God and is a secondary form of revelation after Scripture. (Unless you would try to argue that God created it the way he did for no reason at all). So with that said, there are plenty of things in the Genesis creation accounts that are against the rules of logic and science that God made. While God could have done something so radially beyond logic during creation that in no way fits the physical universe now, why would he? It’s like using two separate languages; writing a story in French, for it to be instantly read in American sign language. God could have done it, but it doesn’t make sense.
Separating light from darkness – Genesis says God first created light, and only then separated light from darkness. This passage is beautiful as poetry and allegory, showing a God who divides dark and light. He makes the determination of what is right and wrong, what is good and evil. However, this is not a logical or scientific text, it is impossible for light to be connected to darkness; the very definition of darkness is merely “absence of light.” How can “light” and the “absence of light” be connected?
Evening and morning before the sun – The first day of creation ends with an evening, marking the end of the Hebrew day. How can there be evening and morning if the sun was not created until a few “days” later? Morning and evening is marked by the location of the sun to the earth. In fact, days are strictly measured by the rotation of the earth in relation to the sun. If there was no sun the earth couldn’t rotate and couldn’t have or measure 24hr days.
Ancient Hebrew cosmology – The Hebrews believed that the sky was encapsulated in a large dome of water with nothing above the dome. The earth was like a snow globe, with the area between the bottom and the glass being “heaven.” Genesis 1, we see this same cosmology: on day two God divided the waters above from the waters below, and called the middle space “heaven.” Heaven is literally described as the space between the earth’s atmospheric dome of water, and the earth’s surface, rather than a place that is a million times bigger than our imaginations that encompasses trillions upon trillions of earths in diameter.
Flat earth geography – The genesis accounts strongly alludes to flat earth geography by saying that all of the earth is between two planes “up” and “down.” The creation account speaks of separating the waters below the “expanse” (or “sky” or “heaven”), and waters above. If we were to take this literally, and draw it literally, we would have picture of a (flat) sea, with a dome of water above. While this type of geocentric language (such as “the sky is up”) can properly is used to talk about things from the human perspective, however, this is being written about God creating the earth before there were human observers or before there was a land to stand on and observe up/down from.
Plants before the sun – Even though plants need the sun as a primary source of energy, they are shown being created before the sun. Even worse is that without the sun the earth would have been a giant icicle that is so cold it would instantly freeze-kill any plant. Yet literalists argue that plants could have survived 24hrs without the sun (even though there was no sun to dictate 24hr days), without realizing the sheer coldness of space without our sun. In addition, this order does not follow the simple logic of necessity and order. This is similar to saying humans were created before oxygen. And sure, God could have miraculously heated the earth before the sun was there, and miraculously held plants alive before the sun, yes of course. But why would he do something so confusing? (Yet if this story is not a science textbook, it would fit perfectly in an ancient world that worshiped the sun. Its purpose being to show that the sun was not a God like everyone thought, but simply another object, one that wasn’t even special enough to be created first).
Stars in the “expanse of heaven” – On day two God creates an “expanse” between the upper waters and lower waters, this He calls “heaven.” This expanse, in Hebrew cosmology, would be the area modern people know as our atmosphere. The stars, sun, and moon, are all created in this “expanse” or atmosphere. This is currently literally impossible as stars are thousands of times bigger than the earth. Simply put, they would not fit. The alternative physical explanation, which is really stretching the text and the idea of this “expanse” would be that the universe is contained within a ball of water, which of course it could be, but so far is against all known science. The primary issue of this second theory would be that this literally sets the earth as being the exact center of this ball. Astronomy has clearly shown we are not in the center; this was known even in the time of Galileo, and this idea ended up being a major battle between church and science. Must we again go back?
Moon and Sun are big lights, stars are little lights – As written from a human observer, these appear to be true facts, yet if taken literally to represent scientific ideas, (which is how literalists read Genesis one and two), there is a lot of scientific error. First off the moon is not a light, it emits no light of its own, it is a mirror. This is as accurate as me walking into your room, in which you have one lamp and one mirror, and telling you, “I like both of your lamps.” Next, the sun is merely another star, yet this account sets it up as something very different than the other stars, rather than saying this its a “near star” similar to all the others far away, it says the sun is simply much bigger. Yet in astronomy, there are much much bigger stars than the sun. Also the moon is presented as a larger “light” that the stars, which is physically untrue, the moon is a tiny rock that serves as a mirror, while the stars are tens or thousands of times larger and actually “lights.”
While these creations are fully supernatural, they do not break the laws of physics or logic; there is nothing logically impossible or scientifically contradictory about this, considering supernatural creation. In fact, it’s ironic that this first account shows that life was made from water and ground, and indeed we are composed of such natural elements. This is a scientific observation before there ever was science.
Great leaders of the church have often considered that Genesis 1 and 2 are not literal. B.B. Warfield, the great Princeton Theologian believed in evolution and its compatibility with the Bible. Ironically his work is probably the biggest influence on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (the most well known and accepted standard of Biblical Inerrancy among fundamentalists and evangelicals). Other great scholars say that Genesis should be read with the Literary Framework view, which basically means the days are not chronological but logical because the author was not telling us about the length and order of creation. Prominent Bible scholars who have been pillars of the last few generations of the church, such as Meredith G. Kline, Henri Blocher, Bruce Waltke, Gordon Wenham, have held this veiw. More can be read about it here: http://biologos.org/blog/science-and-the-bible-the-framework-view. And still others hold to views that are varying degrees of difference from the Framework view. Many modern Bible scholars also discount Genesis as literal and hold to varying forms of progressive creationism or evolutionary creationism. Names that you might know are CS Lewis, John Stott, NT Wright, Tim Keller, Alister McGrath, William Lane Craig – if we include Warfield these seven scholars make up the most influential team of Christian leaders in the last 200 years, hands down .On top of that, the great Billy Graham is open to evolution if God took over the process of creating Adam. And even the far more conservative John Piper is fine with a billion year old earth. Less known names in the public sphere, but very well known in academia who hold to evolutionary creation include Alvin Plantinga, Francis Collins, Peter Enns, Tremper Longman, John Walton, Richard Hess, & Howard Van Till.
In reality, there are too many names to write down. The main point is that prominent Christian leaders, whom we often look to on all things either believe in progressive creationism or evolutionary creationism, and find that to be perfectly consistent with the Bible. Why? Because all these men (I’m not sure where the women are) don’t think Genesis is to be taken in a strictly literal way.
So how do we understand Genesis?
Alas, this is where I kindly pass the buck. This is where we need to ask for help. Here is a Video by Dr. John Walton, a prominent Old Testament Professor. Origins Today: Genesis Through Modern Eyes.
Also, here is another link to three video lectures at Western Seminary given by Dr Walton and Dr. Longman, another well known Old Testament expert (which I am not).