If I were to ask you what a computer is, what would you say? For most people, a computer is a machine that you can use to surf the internet, type papers, play games, etc. Suppose the computer was just a machine, with no purpose at all. It didn’t work or anything, it was just a useless machine. Would you call that a computer? The reason why we call it a computer is because it has a certain function, one that gives a purpose to the machine. This analogy ties in to the Genesis account of creation. After the Enlightenment era, a much different way of viewing the world began to rise. This view consisted of a much more materialistic worldview, and it definitely had an impact on how Scripture was being interpreted. Biblical literalism started to become a major part of hermeneutics and the original meaning of certain biblical texts was ignored. In this post, I will not try to answer the question of whether the creation account is “literal”, “metaphorical”, “mythical”, etc. To do so would be a major oversimplification. In this post, I will attempt to be answer the question “what does Genesis 1 mean?”
First of all, I will emphasize why it is very important to interpret this text properly. We live in an age of science, and one may find it difficult to reconcile current mainstream scientific ideas with the biblical creation account. Geology is a major field that has wrecked post-Enlightenment literalism. There are two ideas that are withheld in the field of biology: Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism. Catastrophism is the idea that Noah’s flood created the geologic layers and even the fossil record that we see today. It wasn’t until about 200 years ago that this was found to be very problematic. Uniformitarianism quickly replaced catastrophism in the current scientific paradigm. This is the idea that slow, gradual processes brought about the fossil record and the geologic layers over millions of years. The main reason why this view has succeeded is because it’s testable. Catastrophism is based off of radical assumptions that cannot be tested and have no scientific basis to them. Uniformitarianism, on the other hand, can be tested and the evidence shows very little geomorphological change in the earth around the time of the flood. This is a huge problem for the catastrophist, and on top of that, Darwinian evolution has dominated the field of biology. These two factors go directly against post-Enlightenment literalism. So, how do we interpret the creation account? The truth is that the language of Genesis 1-11 is unapologetically folklore in its face-value reading. However, I won’t focus on that too much. I’ll start by discussing Genesis 1.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
I have often been accused of claiming that this verse is true, but the other parts of the Genesis account are mythical. At best, that is a perversion of the text and in no way do I advocate it. Context is everything and, like I said before, Genesis is an account of functional ontology rather than material. That being said, the word “beginning” is translated in Hebrew as bara. This is giving the creation account a function from the very beginning. It is used in the context simply to give a functional beginning for the rest of the creation account.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
In Hebrew, “formless” means tohu and “empty” means bohu. Again, both of these words mean simply something that is “unproductive.” This is giving function to the text. What’s interesting is Genesis 1 is the only text in the Bible where the words “formless” and “empty” are used in the context of not being material properties. It is important to note that in this context, these words do not mean something that lacks material, rather it simply means that nothing was happening.
Day 1: Verses 3-5
“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”
The ancients didn’t really have a clear concept of what “light” was. This is important because it helps us to understand what the ancient function of light was. Now, look at verse 5. Notice how God calls the light “day.” This is interesting, because the Hebrews had two distinct words for “day” and “light.” So why not use them? What the writer of Genesis was doing was using a rhetorical device called “metonymy.” The Hebrews would have understood the text as a “period of light” as opposed to just “light.” Essentially, it would make more sense for the text to say “God called the period of light “day,” and the period of darkness He called “night.” This makes more sense because it takes care of the “light being day” issue and it gives a condition to “light,” which is how the Hebrews would have better understood it. Not only that, but many people wonder why God would have created light before the sun. If “light” is established as a period of time, as opposed to a material object, there is no contradiction between God creating light before the sun. It just makes more sense.
Day 2: Verses 6-8
And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
Many people thought that the modern science of evolutionary theory and the age of the earth contradicted the literal reading of Genesis 1. This is true, but so should this. The ancient hebrews thought there was a vault, or firmament (a solid dome) in the sky that held up the waters above the earth. This is drastically problematic for the biblical literalist, because nobody believes this. Man has traveled to the moon and our technology has gone even further. To put it simply; the firmament does not exist. However, the ancients thought it did. This was part of their model of the universe, one that is 3-tier.
Day 3: Verses 9-13
And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
What’s interesting about day 3 is that it does not describe God actually creating anything. He gives the land responsibility to produce vegetation. This clearly shows function over anything else, because God is establishing a creative order for how plants and vegetation are supposed to work. It is not a material creation, it is a functional description.
Day 4: Verses 14-19
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
Again, more problems with the firmament. The ancients thought that the stars and other celestial bodies were in the firmament, but, as we now know, the firmament does not exist. The function focuses on the terminology of the “greater light” and the “lesser light” established times. This is not God “creating,” but “establishing.”
Day 5: Verses 20-23
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
Fairly simple. The function here is to establish the roles of living creatures, and one of their primary functions is to reproduce.
Day 6: Verses 24-31
And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
Again, establishing more function for creatures. God then proceeds to instill His Image within mankind. This is the most important functional aspect of the creation account because it establishes man’s role, which is the most important thing God has created.
This was just a simple overview of Genesis 1. For the next post in this series, be watching Ryan Ellington’s blog = ryanwaitforitellington.wordpress.com