‘What About Genesis?’, ask Denis Alexander, in his book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose? What follows is based on Alexander’s discussion.
Two preliminary points. The final authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and conduct is fundamental. Although modern science can shed light on the interpretation of the Bible, the relationship between the Bible and science is not such that we should relying on science to determine the meaning of the biblical text, or vice-versa.
Genesis is a book about ‘families’, as indicated by the repeated phrase ‘elleh toledot – ‘these are the generations’. The primeval history of Gen 1-11 introduces us to the God who will call Abraham and establish his covenant with his people.
What kind of literature is Gen 1:1-2:3?
It is clearly not scientific literature in the modern sense, and it would be quite inappropriate to force such an understanding on any ancient text written long before such literature came into existence.
Nor is Gen 1 poetry, even though it has some poetic resonances, and may have been used as a hymn.
It is not history in the conventional sense, since it describes events that occurred long before anyone was around to observe them.
We can think of Genesis 1 as ‘elevated prose’ in form, and ‘theological manifesto’ in content. It is the key text that sets out the creative character of the one true God in contrast to the polytheistic deities of the religions of the ancient Near East.
Form and Fulness
This chapter tells us that God speaks order out of formlessness and emptiness.
For the Hebrew reader the very structure of the text was shouting ‘Order! Order!’ – coming out of the disordered background described by tohu vebohu.
Days 1-3 in the account deal with the problem of tohu by creating form, and Days 4-6 address the problem of bohu be the creation of fulness.
Early Jewish and Christian commentators such as Philo, Augustine and Origen recognised that the ‘days’ of Gen 1 were to be understood figuratively. Origen reasoned that since the Sun and the Moon do not come onto the scene until Day 4, the days cannot be referring to our days of 24 hours. For Augustine, the days provided the framework of an inventory of all of God’s acts of creation; these took place in a single instant, and from these all the rest of the diversity of the created order ‘evolved’.
Even within Gen 1:1-2:4, the word ‘day’ is used in more than one way. In 1:5 it means ‘daytime’, and in 2:4 it refers to the entire period of creation as described in chapter 1. Moroever, the 7th day of God’s rest continues indefinitely, setting down a pattern of work and rest for God’s people.
Topical, rather than Chronological, Arrangement
A comparison of the two creation accounts in Gen 1 and 2 demonstrates that chronological sequence is less important that topical arrangement. For the account in ch 2 reverses the sequence of ch 1 by placing the creation of Adam at the beginning. We find such topical-rather-than-chronological arrangements elsewhere in the Bible, not least in the Gospels (compare the order of temptations in Lk 4 and Mt 4).
Reproduction ‘according to their kind’
When Gen 1 speaks of living things reproducing ‘according to their kind’ we should not assume that the fixity of species is thereby confirmed. This would be to read modern scientific categories back into the text. No: this expression simply means that plants reproduce to give the same kinds of trees, animals reproduce to give the same kinds of animals, and so on.
The highly stylised nature of Gen 1:1-2:4 is seen in the numerical structure of the Hebrew. Apart from the 7-day structure,
- v1 contains 7 words
- v2 contains 14 words
- the summary in 2:1-3 contains 35 words
- ‘God’ is mentioned 35 times
- ‘earth’ is mentioned 21 times
- ‘heaven’/’firmament’ is mentioned 21 times
Genesis as a critique of pagan creation stories
Genesis 1 can be seen as a critique of prevailing pagan creation stories. Instead of having a different god, or a collection of squabbling gods, responsible for each creative act, Genesis presents the one true God as bringing the entire cosmos into being through his creative word. In pagan worship, the sun moon and starts were objects of worship, but in Genesis they do not even make an appearance until the fourth day, and when they do appear they do so as created objects having the function of marking off times and seasons.
The word bara is used in Gen 1:1, unsurprisingly, and also in v27 to highlight the creation of humans. But it is also used in v21 of the sea monsters. This may be because in the main Mesopotamian creation story the creator god has to wrestle with and subdue the great sea monsters before he can create the heavens and the earth. But here in Genesis, they are just part of God’s creation.
Another contrast is that other Near Eastern creation stories man is created to be a slave of the gods, whereas in Genesis God gives human beings freedom and responsibility over the created order, Gen 1:29f.
Then again, there is a strong ethical element in Genesis which is missing from the pagan accounts. Matter is not evil in Genesis, but good. In pagan stories, the gods are as corrupt as people, whereas in Genesis God stands as the final arbiter of good and evil. In Genesis, humankind was created in communion with God, but fell by moral choice. In the pagan accounts, there was no possibility of the Fall, because humankind was made morally flawed.
The Two Accounts
As mentioned, the creation account in Genesis 2 uses a different chronology from chapter 1, suggesting that strict chronology is not of great significance in one or both accounts. The NIV attempts to mask this difference by the liberal use of the pluperfect (‘the Lord God had planted a garden in the east’, and so on). The differences of order and due to differences of emphasis and purpose. Genesis 1 teaches that humankind is uniquely made in God’s image, whereas Genesis 2 explains the responsibilties arising from this: as he works, names the animals, and gets married he shows what it means to be created in God’s image.