Reading Genesis 1

To truly understand the message contained in the scriptures, we need to appreciate the message in the same way the original audience would have done. Of course, Genesis is no different, and sometimes seeing a familiar chapter from a different perspective can rekindle an excitement that may have waned over time.

To illustrate this point, let’s start our discussion of Genesis 1 by looking at a completely different account of creation called Enûma Eliš

Discovered in 1849, it’s regarded as one of the oldest, if not the oldest creation accounts in the world. It describes the birth of the gods, and the creation of the earth and human beings from the Babylonian point of view. Summed up very briefly, it goes something like this…

In the beginning, there was only water swirling in chaos. Out of this swirl, the waters divided into sweet, fresh water, represented by the god Apsu, and salty bitter water, represented by the goddess Tiamat. The union of these two entities gave birth to the younger gods.

These young gods, however, were extremely loud, troubling the sleep of Apsu at night and distracting him from his work by day. Apsu decides to kill the younger gods, but Tiamat finds out about the plan and warns her eldest son Ea. He puts Apsu to sleep and kills him. Tiamat is enraged that Ea (and the other younger gods) have killed her mate. Her advisor, Kingu, convinces her to makes war on the younger gods, so she summons the forces of chaos to create eleven horrible monsters to destroy her children.

Ea and the younger gods fight desperately against Tiamat (and Kingu) until a young god called Marduk emerges as their champion. He kills Tiamat and splits her in two, creating the heavens and the earth with her corpse. He then creates the calendar, organises the planets, stars, and regulates the moon, sun, and weather.

After the gods have finished praising him for his great victory and the art of his creation, Marduk consults with Ea (now the god of wisdom) and decides to create servants (human beings) from the remains of whichever of the gods instigated Tiamat to war. Kingu is found guilty, executed, and from his blood, Ea creates mankind to help the gods in their eternal task of maintaining order and keeping chaos at bay.

Now let’s read Genesis 1…

With that story in mind, Genesis 1 now has a more interesting context.  If we were to imagine an Israelite arguing with a Babylonian over creation, they might say things like this:

“No, God made the heavens and earth – not Ea…”
“God made the light. The lights (stars) are not other gods…”
“The waters were already there, because God’s spirit moved over them. They weren’t Tiamat…”
“God made the firmament (heavens) to separate from the waters above from the waters below. The heavens didn’t come from half of Tiamat’s body…”
“God gathered the waters below together and earth appeared – it didn’t come from the other half of Tiamat’s body…”
“God created man in his image, and from the earth, not from the blood of Kingu!”

This doesn’t imply that Genesis 1 was written in direct response to Enûma Eliš, but it does show that it was written to explain to God’s people that other views were somewhat off-target. The point of Genesis 1 is to reinforce that God did it, and afterwards he thought it was rather good.

But in this explanation of creation, some vitally important information has been left out. For example, God doesn’t explain how he actually created the earth, and he doesn’t explain how there was enough light to cause day and night before making the sun on day four. Of course, we only consider these things as important details now because of our modern knowledge. We understand just how complex the universe is, and so we seek answers to this complexity.

We know that light is electromagnetic radiation, and only a portion of the spectrum of light is visible to us. We know that darkness is simply an absence of light, not something that can be physically separated from it. We know that the light of day comes from the sun, and that day and night happen because of the earth’s rotation. We also know the moon is not a light, and we know that the sun is just another star that doesn’t separate light from dark, because it provides light.

We know all these things today, but the Israelites didn’t, and God appears to have made no effort to correct them on this. Instead, he uses their current understanding of the origin and development of the universe to make his point: “I am your God, and you are part of my creation”. Whatever details they, or future generations, were to learn about how God created life would not change that point.

It’s literally eisegesis…

There is simply no way to interpret Genesis 1 literally without inserting additional thoughts and concepts into the text.

For example, to explain the discrepancy between the appearance of light on day one and the creation of the sun on day four we hear explanations such as, “The sun and moon couldn’t be seen until day four because there was a mist over the earth”, or “The light was God’s shekineh glory”. Yet the text doesn’t say this.

(Anyone scurrying off to Job 38 right now, please check the order of events carefully, and you’ll notice that they don’t support the sequence of Genesis 1. Also, clouds and mist are atmospheric phenomena, but even if you try to make the firmament equal the atmosphere (despite the evidence to the contrary), it wasn’t made until day two…)

Whilst there is no harm in positing these ideas, we must realise that they are speculative, and in doing this we are injecting our ideas into the text.

In verses 15 and 17 the various lights are made and placed in the firmament (raqia) of the heavens (shamayim). But let’s not forget that verses 6 and 7 tell us the firmament was created to separate the waters, and that there are waters above the firmament as well. So these lights (the Sun, Moon, and stars) could not have been literally placed in the firmament; or alternatively, whatever they were placed in, was not a literal firmament that had waters above it.

Another example is in the vegetation.  Genesis 1:12 tells us that God made the plants and trees on the third day, and they were “good”. Yet Genesis 2:5 says that they hadn’t grown because it had not yet rained, and man had not yet worked the ground; and so in verse 7 God makes a man. Again, the literality of these references is questionable, and many scholars today argue that Genesis 2 is not describing the same event as Genesis 1. (More on this later.)

As these points above show, insisting that Genesis 1 has to be read literally (through modern eyes) is an indefensible view, and by doing that we are demanding a purpose of the text that God never intended. Thus, it’s little surprise that the idea of reading Genesis literally has always open to debate in our community, and some quite openly dismissed a literal interpretation of Genesis 1.  Consider these quotes below:

“…it does not seem necessary to confine the allusions of this first chapter of Genesis to six literal days on the last of which man appeared”.⁠1

“…we believe there is no real conflict between Genesis and geology; though we are unable any longer to hold to the idea that the first chapter of Genesis, from verse 2 onwards, is intended to describe the operations of six literal days of twenty-four hours each, some six thousand years ago”.⁠2

“Therefore, if the “days” of Genesis 1 are to be taken as literal days, we feel bound to admit the sun as the origin of the “light,” and “evening and morning” that were the characteristics of “the first day.” How can you have “evening and morning” without the sun?⁠3

Other prominent authors from our community who did not consider the six days of Genesis 1 as literal, consecutive days include: Henry Sulley,⁠4 Peter Watkins,⁠5 John Carter (who accommodated differences)⁠6 , Alfred Norris,⁠7 LG Sargent,⁠8 Harry Whittaker,⁠9 Alan Fowler,⁠10 Alan Hayward,⁠11 Alan Eyre, and Wilfred Lambert.⁠12

If not literally, then how?

If this account is not entirely literal, then how should it be read? At the start of this chapter, we made the point that to understand a text we need to read it through ancient eyes, so that is why, in the sentence above, the phrase “through modern eyes” is in brackets.

When cross-referencing Genesis 1 with verses like Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 there is no doubt that God says he made heaven and earth in six days. Right here is where all the tension erupts, and all too often debates about this point lead to the assertion that, because of these two verses, science is wrong and to suggest otherwise is to place man’s word above God’s word.

Does this present us with a conundrum that is beyond solving? No.

Firstly, as we have already seen in the examples of the demons, the raqia/firmament, the heart, and the geocentric universe, God frequently worked within the frameworks of contemporary understanding to establish his spiritual precepts.

Secondly, we have already seen that Genesis 1 can not be literal, because it contains too many logical and natural discrepancies.

Thirdly, we have a wealth of evidence from God’s own creation that demonstrates the age of the earth.

Fourthly, authors in our community have long argued that this is only speaking of the ‘arrangement’ or ‘preparation’ (not creation) of the heavens and earth, which already existed prior to the six days. (For example, in his paper Let There Be Light,⁠13 Jonathan Burke has compiled references for this from authors such as R Roberts⁠14, J Thomas⁠15, CC Walker,⁠16 and HP Mansfield.⁠17)

None of this entails “putting man’s word above God’s word”; it simply requires careful assessment of the evidence God has left us. Therefore, although we have evidence to suggest the events themselves aren’t literal, given the Exodus verses it seems quite reasonable to acknowledge that Genesis does speak of six 24-hour days, because that is what the text suggests, and it is what the original audience believed and understood.

Therefore, the point that we need to explore further, is not the length of time involved in Genesis 1, but rather, “What is happening during those six days?” There are three very interesting hypotheses that we can consider to explain this question. Note, this not a shoot-out to compare which one is better, but to make the point that there are numerous options to reading Genesis in a way that does not require a literal translation. These hypotheses are worth further examination by those who are genuinely interested, because as Paul said, “each man should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).

Days of creation

The first is from Peter Watkins. He suggested that the days of Genesis 1 are days of fiat (or authorisation), which are daily declarations of God’s purpose, followed when appropriate, by parenthetic statements of what had been fulfilled at the time of writing. This also offers reasons for the many scriptural statements that creation is the outworking of the edicts recorded for us in Genesis 1. More importantly, it stresses the spiritual lessons that explain the place of Christ, and help us to see the Sabbath in its true perspective.⁠18 Thus, in the beginning, God uttered these instructions (and the text then explains that these are now completed), and then Genesis 2 describes the creation of man as per the instructions were issued some time back.

This idea is supported by references such as 2 Peter 3 that describes how things happen because the word of God “speaks of them first”, and then they happen. This idea was also supported by Alan Hayward in his book on Creation and Evolution.⁠19

It’s an elegant solution because it stays reasonably true to the text (i.e. no eisegesis is required to defend assumptions); it remains within the 24-hour day time constraints that the original audience would have understood; and it allows us to appreciate the evidence from the natural world without having to resort to indefensible theological views.

In other words, Genesis 1 doesn’t become a ‘faith OR science’ dilemma, but rather becomes faith AND science in harmony.

The functioning temple of God

The second hypothesis is from John Walton.⁠20 Just as we did at the start of this chapter, he also notes that in studying the Bible, one has to begin by asking how it would have been understood by the ancient audience.

Walton lays out a very compelling argument explaining that Genesis is about the one true God inaugurating the cosmos into a functioning “temple” where he would take up residence and extend his reign to the earth, where his glory would be revealed through creation, and with a creature that would bear his image.

Thus, Genesis 1 is about bringing order to chaos, and assigning function.  This is supported by understanding the use of the Hebrew word bārā’ which means to “form, fashion by cutting, shape out.”⁠21 So Genesis 1 describes how God created the earth (1:1), and then brought order to that creation by appointing various entities and elements (1:3-1:31).

Essentially, Genesis 1 describes a pattern that is established for God’s larger cosmic temple, and is reflected in type through the tabernacle, the temple, and ultimately Christ. The days in Genesis represent the days when each component (however long it may have taken to create) is ordained and finally deemed ‘functional’ in God’s eyes. A sort of “ordaining ceremony” if you will.

There is much more to describe with Walton’s hypothesis, but that would take us away from the scope of this book. Should anyone wish to read more about this then Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One is highly recommended.

As with Peter Watkins’ proposal, John Walton’s hypothesis also offers us a solution to Genesis 1 that attempts to stay true to the text, describes Genesis 1 through the understanding of the original audience (Walton has done a tremendous amount of research to verify this), and doesn’t require us to reject the natural evidence.

Genesis as an inspired eye witness account

Jonathan Burke has compiled a third hypothesis that considers Genesis 1 as an inspired eyewitness account of visions given by God over six literal days, showing acts of creation by God.⁠22 This is not a new interpretation, but is found in early Christian commentary, and has been proposed several times in our community by Alfred Norris⁠23, Alan Fowler⁠24, and Harry Whittaker⁠25. It has also been commented on favourably by John Carter⁠26 and John Launchbury.⁠27

This hypothesis reviews the evidence showing that the writer was a human observer of God’s creative work, which he recorded as he saw it; it was not dictated to him.  However, no humans existed at the beginning of the creation to observe God’s work. The only way for a human to be an observer of God’s work at creation (as opposed to a recorder of an account conveyed to them non-visually), is for God to have revealed it to them after the event, in the form of a vision.

In summary…

This chapter has shown that even though the narrative of Genesis 1 plays out over six days, it’s not a literal step-by-step account of creation, and to insist that it must be read that way does not stay true to God’s intention for the text. Admittedly, there are several hypotheses as to what exactly that intention was, but when we look more closely at Genesis 1, there is enough certainty to know that it can’t be read literally without resorting to eisegesis.

The three hypotheses that we have touched on offer solutions to Genesis 1 that honour the intent of the text, whilst acknowledging the original audience’s perspectives. They do not attempt to weave modern themes or knowledge into the text. What’s more, they don’t require us to reject the natural evidence. Consequently, Genesis 1 doesn’t need to become a ‘faith OR science’ dilemma.

This is important, because it shows that one does not need to dilute or compromise scripture to enjoy a more positive consideration of faith AND science in harmony.  God is the author of both, and so this is the way it should be!

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1 CC Walker, Genesis (The Christadelphian, 1910) 47:363

2 CC Walker, Genesis and Geology (The Christadelphian, 1914) 51:317

3 CC Walker, Is it Wrong to Believe the Earth Was a Sphere? (The Christadelphian, 1933) 50:349

4 Henry Sulley, Creation (The Christadelphian, 1926) 63:472

5 Peter Watkins, The Days of Creation (The Christadelphian, 1960) 97:6

6 John Carter, The Days of Creation – Editors comment (The Christadelphian, 1960) 97:6

7 Alfred Norris, Where Science & Religion Meet (The Christadelphian, 1965) 102:18

8 LG Sargent, What do we believe (The Christadelphian, 1966) 103:460

9 Harry Whittaker, Commentary on Genesis 1-4 (Biblia Books, 1986) p16–17

10 John Nicholls, Creation & the Fossil Record (The Testimony Magazine, 1997) 67:325

11 Alan Hayward, Creation and Evolution: The facts and fallacies (SPCK, 1987) p170-177

12 Wilfred Lambert, Creation (Endeavour Magazine, 1996)

13 Jonathan Burke, Let There be Light (2017) p116

14 R Roberts, The Law of Moses: Chapter V.-  The Sabbath Law (The Christadelphian, 1894) 365:414-415

15 J Thomas, Elpis Israel (1990 ed) p.12

16 CC Walker, Creation: The First Chapter of Genesis (The Christadelphian, 1933) 70:197

17 HP Mansfield, The Christadelphian Expositor: Genesis (1990) p.32

18 Peter Watkins, The Days of Creation (The Christadelphian, 1960) 97:6

19 Alan Hayward, Creation and Evolution: The facts and fallacies (SPCK, 1987) p.170-177

20 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).

21 Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) p135.

22 Jonathan Burke, Let There be Light (2017) p1

23 Alfred Norris, Where Science & Religion Meet (The Christadelphian, 1965) 102:18.

24 Alan Fowler, A Drama of Creation: the Genesis record and the fossil record  (Bridgend: Ortho Books, 1996)

25 Harry Whittaker, Commentary on Genesis 1-4 (Biblia Books, 1986), p16

26 John Carter, In response to “A Prologue to Revelation” (The Christadelphian, 1940) 77:108

27 John Launchbury, More Reasons – more evidence for God, Jesus & the Bible (Willow Publications, 2014), p18