What I Believe Genesis 1 Teaches, and Why

Derek Ouellette —  November 9, 2011 — 6 Comments

Coming off of the last post I want to be very clear about something: I was not saying that there was anything inherently wrong with believing that the earth is only 6,000-years old. For that matter, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with believing in evolution. The point of the last post was to say that we cannot make this a salvation issue. By telling people that by believing in evolution they cannot believe in God, we are creating a situation where people who want to believe in God feel compelled rather to walk away from the faith.

However, I did not say in that post what my views were about this subject and so I feel like I owe something by way of an explanation.

The Short Version:

I do not believe in evolution for many non-biblical reasons and a few biblical ones.  The clincher for me is how Jesus and Paul spoke of Adam. They talk about Adam as an actual person in history (even though sometimes they speak of Adam as representative of humanity). Because I am not a scientist I have to look at the simple evidence – for one example, that I don’t believe there is solid evidence for macroevolution and for another, that evolution is losing credibility in many spheres – and say with a critical eye that I cannot accept that theory. But again, as someone who is mostly concern with being faithful to the scriptures, I hang my hat on Jesus and Paul (I realize the discussion goes much deeper, but this is the short version).

But if you ask me how old I believe the earth is, my answer is that I don’t know. And if you ask me how did God create the earth, my answer is that I don’t know (in terms of putting the pieces together). But no short version can explain this, so I’m going to launch into a medium version and leave the long version for a book.

 The Medium Version:

When I tell people that I don’t know how old the earth is or how God created it people usually ask me, “What do you do about Genesis one?” Now the question actually usually comes off as sounding a little bit arrogant, like, “Genesis 1 obviously teaches when and how God created, what do you do with that?”

So here’s the medium version of what I do with that.

Before we begin, one comment is in order. Some people want to say, ‘just jump into the passage and tell me what you believe!’ If that’s you than don’t bother reading on because won’t benefit from this, you won’t respect the arguments and you so suppose your own beliefs that you’ll give no consideration to the foundational arguments that have led me to my conclusions. In short, you don’t want to intellectually engage this discussion and only want to buttress your own view. Nobody benefits from that.

Christianity is a historic religion. What this means is that we can have confidence in Christianity because its faith and scriptures are based in real history. Its scriptures were written in real history and often they were written to address real historical situations. What this means is that the Christian scriptures did not come down from heaven on golden tablets and hence they are not “timeless” in the sense of coming about outside of time as some other religions have their scriptures. Christianity is a historic faith and our scriptures are timely and contextual.

The point of this is that whenever we interpret our scriptures, the first and foremost thing that we need to do is figure out what they are saying in their own context. If we do not do this we run the risk of shipwrecking God’s message and building a buoy from its wreckage for our own interpretation to float on.

My challenge is this: do I want God’s message or mine?

 Genesis Does Not Tell Us How

Like many other places in the Bible, Genesis 1 was written for several reasons. We take for granted that it is “there”, but in fact in is “there” for a purpose. What is that purpose? For many people today – this included me for most of my life – the purpose for Genesis 1 was to tell us that God created the “heaven’s and the earth” in six days, to tell us how he created it in six days, and to do this in response to evolutionary theories that are opposed to God as creator. That is, I took Genesis 1 to be an apologetic or polemical passage designed to defend the Christian faith against evolution.

But now I don’t think that when Moses sat down to write that he first thought to himself, ‘hummm, people are going to believe in evolution one day, so how should I write now to counteract that view?’ This isn’t to say that we couldn’t use what the author said to counteract evolution. The point is that the author’s purpose was not to define a ‘cosmology’ against evolution. We need to first and foremost understand his purpose before we go anywhere else with this. (This is important because when people today read Genesis the only thing they see is creation vs. evolution, which, as we’ll see, misses the point of the passage entirely.)

The Purpose of Genesis 1:

Genesis 1-11 was written against something, but not evolution. Evolution was not a concern to Moses, to the ancient Israelites or to God. Rather it was written against other belief systems that Moses and the Israelites and God faced back when it was written. Those other belief systems said 1) that the heavens were filled with many gods, 2) that humans were created to serve the gods, and 3) that everything was getting progressively better.

Genesis 1 – 11 was written to prove that 1) there was only one Creator God (Israel’s God at that!); 2) the creation was made for humans and 3) everything was progressively getting worse. These three points that make up the polemical emphasis of Genesis 1 are precisely the opposite of the worldview of all the other ancient cultures of the world.

The Similarities of Genesis 1:

As much as Genesis 1 was written to counteract the beliefs of Israel’s surrounding culture, there were very many similarities between the ways Moses described the creation account and how the other cultures described the creation account. “Creation as an act of separation between light and darkness, land and sea, and by the word of God all find parallels in Near Eastern theology.”[1] Someone might conclude that the other ancient people were given a special revelation into modern science. This is unlikely. (Especially since ancient cosmology was nothing at all like modern cosmology.) In all probability Moses and Israel shared the same cosmology as the other cultures of the time just as it is today where modern people share a similar cosmology with each other.

The ancient cultures (including Israel!) told their creation account this way in order to say something about their God. That God is orderly. That he is their creator and sustainer. In fact, it is only because we are so blinded by our own assumptions today about creation and evolution that we could possibly miss the glaring point of the whole passage: GOD. God’s name “dominates the whole chapter – occurring some thirty-five times in all, so that it catches the readers attention again and again.”[2] The point is that the whole passage – the separating and filling of the days, the very mention of “days” itself climaxing in a “Sabbath” day meaning “rest”, the reoccurring refrain of “and it was evening and it was morning…” the fact that evening always came first, et cetera  – is theology, not science. All those days when I was younger and trying to figure out how there could be “light” before he created a “sun” and “moon” was an exercising in missing the point.

Conclusion 1: Hence, Genesis 1 is not telling us how God created (i.e. it’s not a text on a modern scientific cosmology), rather it is telling us something about God himself (i.e. it’s theology).

At this point I need to ask again, this time not to myself, but to you: do you want God’s message, or yours? Because the passage of Genesis 1 is a message about God and we have turned it into a message about science.

Genesis Does Not Tell Us When

The question of when God created the earth seems to be more important than how God created the earth. The reason this question is important is because if we can show from the Bible that the earth is really young – say, 6,000 years young – then that alone would rule out evolution as a viable option. That is why Christian apologists spend so much time trying to scientifically prove that the earth is really young. But like I said from the start, I’m not a scientist. My concern, my primary concern, is what the message of God is in the scriptures. This has been my concern all the way along and it continues to be my concern. So rather than reaching for scientific evidence to prove that the earth is young, I’m going to reach for the Bible.

There is only one piece of evidence that may be used to prove that the earth is young: the chronological records. If you do the math from a fixed point in history backwards you would come out with a creation date of 4004 B.C. based on a strict reading of the biblical chronology. That is it. That is the only evidence.

But there is a problem. The timeline doesn’t fit. According to this strict reading of the chronology the flood[3] would have occurred well after Egypt was already an established country and in fact well after the great age of the pyramid building. The flood would have occurred around the year 2300 B.C. while the large pyramids were built between 2700 and 2400 B.C.

Does this mean that the chronological records are wrong? For the person who thinks that what I am saying leads to that conclusion, I would like them to pick up their Bibles and read Matthew 1:1-17 and then turn and read Luke 3:23-38. Here we have two different chronological readings of Jesus’ own ancestors. Any discrepancies here should cause us a lot more concern than what I am suggesting about the genealogical records of Genesis. But most Christians express very little concern about differences in Jesus’ genealogy and many have found a way to explain the discrepancy to their satisfaction (usually suggesting that Luke is giving Mary’s genealogy despite the fact that Luke records, “Joseph, the son of Heli” while Matthew says that Joseph’s father was a guy named Jacob).

My point is that rather than jump to the conclusion that Jesus’ genealogical records are wrong, Christians have explained the discrepancies while holding to the doctrine of infallibility. I’m suggesting we do the same thing with the genealogical records of Genesis. The timeline doesn’t fit. So let’s go back and take a closer look at the chronological records of Genesis 1-11.

The Purpose of the Chronological Records:

I think when most people get to Genesis’ chronological records they read them as “blah begot blah, and blah begot blah… et cetera”. That is, they see the chronological record as serving no functional purpose until they begin to discuss the age of the earth. Then all of a sudden they become invaluable. But I think that is precisely backwards. I think the chronological records of Genesis serve a theological purpose just like Genesis 1 and that they were never meant to be used as a grid to determine the age of the earth.

There can be no mistake that numbers play a significant role in Genesis. All one has to do is consider the repetition of phrases used three, seven or ten times throughout these early passages of Genesis, all for the sake of making theological points like we saw above. For example, it is no coincidence that there are exactly ten generations between Adam and Noah and another ten generations between Noah and Abraham. The author is using the literary strategy of numbers to communicate a clear message for people who understand the significance of repetitive numbers in literature.  The repetitive number ten is used to signify new beginnings, which is precisely what happens with Noah and again with Abraham.[4] So again, the purpose of the chronological records of Genesis is to tell us something about God. It’s theology, not science. And as long as we continue to use the genealogical records as a mathematical formula to bolster a young earth theory we will continue to run into the discrepancy problem described above that first led me to conclude – as a simple answer – that there must be gaps in the record. It’s much more satisfying to me to say, ‘no, there are not gaps in the record. Rather God’s message in the genealogical records has a theological significance‘.  Otherwise we will continue to miss the theological significance of the passage. That is, we will miss God’s message – the theological point – while searching in them for ours.

The Similarities and Differences of the Chronological Records:

Like Genesis 1 and the creation story, the genealogy described in Genesis is very similar to other ancient stories especially flood stories. Before the flood great men are listed in chronological order with exceptionally long life spans just as in Genesis five; and like the biblical flood story, after the flood the lifespans of the great men is lessened.

But the differences are significant as well. For example, the oldest man in the Bible is said to have lived 969 years. That’s old. But the men listed in the other Near Eastern texts are said to live upwards to 64,000 years. That’s really old. Another difference is that the men listed in Genesis are often commoners, whereas the men of the Near Eastern texts are Kings. And yet another difference is that the men listed in the Near Eastern texts go back to the first King of a particular city, whereas the Bible goes back to creation itself.[5] These differences often have theological points in their own right, though exploring that is beyond this already too long post.

Conclusion 2: The point is that I do not believe the scriptures tell us how long ago God created the earth. There is no “four thousand years since God said, ‘In the beginning’, Christ was born”, and the genealogical records cannot be used to make a case for a 6,000-year old earth.

The Bible Writers Had It Right

All along I have been advocating for a literal-literary-theological reading of God’s message. This is not unique; I take my cue directly from the Bible writers themselves. I am striving to be – as a good Evangelical – thoroughly biblical.

For example, I am fascinated by the interpretation of Genesis 1 by the apostles John and Paul. John reads Genesis 1:1-3 and says, “a-ha! The Word by which all things have been created is non-other than our Lord Jesus Christ himself” (John 1:1 ff). And Paul reads that same passage and says “a-ha! The Light which God caused to shine out of darkness is the gospel of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). Neither John nor Paul read Genesis 1 and asked, “Is there a gap in the creation account? Are the days literal or metaphorical? How was the light created before the sun?” They read the text and asked, “What is the message?” and lo and behold they saw Jesus all over it!

I’m suggesting we follow the apostolic lead and read Genesis that way. What I am offering here is not concerned with science, but with the message of the scriptures primarily. In this way I believe this position is more faithful to the biblical testimony than theistic evolutionists, gap theorists and 6,000-year young earth advocates. Because all three views attempt to one extent or another to get something out of the scriptures that is not there in the first place.

The Workmanship of the Master

We have been invited to a premier art gallery where the Master will display his grand masterpiece. We approach it in awe, the whole lot of us. But when we finally get to stand before it we find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with dozens of people admiring the frame rather than the Master’s art. We look at that corner and this corner. We talk about the wood and the varnish. We debate over the woods trajectory and ask ourselves if the corners are perfectly square. We’ve come to the art gallery to admire the work of the Master’s hand – the paint strokes, the depths, the layers, and the brilliant colors – but instead we spend all of our time looking at the dull frame around the picture and debate its significance.

That is what we do when we come to Genesis 1 fixated on answering questions which the text itself is not asking.

Conclusion:

For the drawn out reasons given above – each in their own right could be drawn out a lot further – I believe that the Bible does not answer the question of the age of the earth or how God created. My personal view (I am saying this for the sake of the curious) is that Adam and Eve were real people – God’s first two created! – that God created everything out of nothing (ex-nihilo), that the creation itself – it’s my conviction – is not nearly as old as evolutionists claim and that something like a real historical “fall” (for lack of a better term) did in fact transpire. I do believe in a real historic Noah and flood just as I believe in an Abraham, a Moses, a David, a Daniel, a Jesus, a Paul, and a Harry. (That last one is a friend of mine :) )



[1] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary Volume 1, p. xlviii, 1987

[2] Hughes, Genesis, Preach the Word Commentary Volume 1, p.18, 2004

[3] Because a historical investigation of the flood is not the purpose of this article, I’m going to speak of it in terms of a global flood as it is described in the Bible without any attempt to argue that position.

[4] Blocher, In the Beginning, p.2011, 1984

[5] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary Volume 1, p. xlviii, 1987

Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://wearethestories.wordpress.com Eric Gregory

    There absolutely is something wrong with believing in a 6,000-10,000 year old earth. It’s denying all sorts of science and placing faith in words that were never intended to mark historical time. If we can’t trust in our God-given reason and rationality when exploring the material world that God has gifted to us, then we are, ipso facto, denying that God’s gift is both good and for our knowledge of God’s creation.

    There aren’t any scientific arguments that I’ve seen (and I’ve looked) that would make me deny evolution. I grew up believing that evolution was false because of the very same views that many conservatives hold: the Bible says so. Yet that’s untenable, especially with regard to what Jesus says about Adam. Jesus is a human (albeit God as well) in a particular time and place, and suggesting anything outside of the common conception of world history is unfathomable.

    Science continually reminds us that the Bible is not a historical or scientific textbook. Why do we keep trying to make it so? What would one give up if one accepted science? I’d argue that it’s not anything that’s not worth discarding (namely, a sheltered understanding of the world that thinks it is somehow more enlightened about non-spiritual issues).

    Also, Genesis 1-11 wasn’t necessarily written _against_ something. It’s very clearly derived from the Enuma Elish (Babylonian creation myth: http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/enuma.htm; it’s much more clear when you compare Hebrew names with the Babylonian gods) with edits that make it a monotheistic text. Yes, it is Scripture, but it’s not inspired ex nihilo :)

    And telling people that they can’t be Christians if they believe in evolution is ludicrous. Even the Catholic Church, arguably one of the most conservative traditions in all of Christianity, has no problem with evolutionary science. Indeed, Darwin’s theory wasn’t a big deal for faith communities when it came out in England – those who opposed did so only on scientific grounds (with the specific qualification that arguments which opposed on “faith” grounds “savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-intrusted faith”: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html).

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Eric, you see something “absolutely wrong” with believing in a young earth. That’s your view. Fine. My point was that there is nothing inherently wrong with believing in a young earth. That was my way of respecting people’s views while disagreeing with them. I do the same with your evolutionary views. It’s amazing that liberals claim to be tolerant, but I don’t see any conservatives jumping on here bashing on my statement that there is nothing inherently wrong with believing in evolution. :)

      Most commentators disagree with your statement that Genesis 1-11 “wasn’t necessarily written _against_ something.” You in fact point in that direction yourself when you admit that the names were changed to “make it a monotheistic text”. At the very least Genesis 1 was clearly a polemical text… I don’t know any commentator who would disagree with that. If you can find one, then they are certainly in the minority. And yes, all scripture is “god-spired” whether you like it or not (unless of course the passages that say so are themselves not God-spired, then you have a way out) :)

      • http://wearethestories.wordpress.com Eric Gregory

        The difference between saying that something “is” written for a particular reason, and suggesting that it might not be is the difference in certainty. We cannot be certain that Genesis 1 was written as a polemic, but it’s not an unreasonable conclusion (I think the polemic, if it exists, is light. It’s uncertain if Ancient Near Eastern Palestinians would have engaged directly with the Enuma Elish on a regular basis, which seems to be the only rationale for a strong polemic that would be regularly recited, etc. The only thing Genesis 1 really does “polemically” is maintain the existence of a single God rather than a heavenly court á la the Babylonians).

        That’s why I said that it wasn’t “necessarily” written against anything in particular.

  • http://wearethestories.wordpress.com Eric Gregory

    Yet I maintain that there is indeed something wrong with holding an uncritical opinion. It’s not a salvation issue (not by any stretch of the imagination), but if one “officially” takes a stand on an issue that’s not been sufficiently researched (and is, by all scientific accounts, false), that is, by it’s nature, wrong.

    Counterpoint:

    Evolution is about as well-established within the scientific community as heliocentrism or a spherical earth (or the “theory” of gravity, for that matter).

    Should I, simply because Scripture makes reference to a central, flat earth upheld by literal “pillars”, respect such beliefs?

    I will say that, were there any scientific evidence that calls the theory of evolution into question, I would have a great respect for that. Or if there were an alternate theory that better speaks to the origins of life on the planet, I would certainly respect that. (To the best of my knowledge, neither of these exists. And I think claiming “I’m not a scientist” is a cop out. You’re not a mathematician either, but you’ll verify the validity of calculus, yes?)

    I will also say that I do respect the struggle with faith that evolution poses (it was mine for a while before I accepted the facts on their face value and not based on what the Bible says about questions that weren’t even being asked while it was written). I respect that it’s hard to come to terms with science that seems contradictory to faith. It’s tough, it’s faith-shaking, and it’s hard heart-work.

    What I don’t have much room for is the claim that because the Bible “says” something, this means that we should toss out reason and science. Again, I’ll go with Bishop Wilberforce on this (just a scant decade after Darwin published Origin of Species; again, he disagrees, based on science, with Darwin’s theory):

    “Our readers will not have failed to notice that we have objected to the views with which we have been dealing solely on scientific grounds. We have clone so from our fixed conviction that it is thus that the truth or falsehood of such arguments should be tried. We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation. We think that all such objections savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-instructed faith”

    This is the way to engage with science. If we take sacred texts outside of their realm of concern (and you show how the Genesis’ concern is not the historical science of “how we came to be”), we do a disservice to God’s design.

    A further note on “respect”: I’m not disrespecting or lacking respect in this area – you simply haven’t offered an opinion on the science. If anything, I want to encourage you to go and do research and come to a fully formed opinion instead of one that’s taking a scientific stand based on certain literal readings of texts that aren’t intended to offer a solution to the modern scientific problem that the theory of evolution poses

    If you take a stance without evidence (which is what it seems like you are doing), that appears to be a position not to be taken seriously.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Eric, I’ve never made the uncritical claim that bible teaches young earth. In fact, I don’t think I’ve made the claim that the bible addresses modern science at all. So your counter-point seems mostly moot to me since we essentially agree there.

      I think the fact that macroevolution has never been proven is a significant point that calls the theory of evolution into question. It least it does for me. As far as an alternative, I think that traditional view has it mostly correct to say, broadly, that God created ex nihilo. I won’t say more about it than that because I don’t think we have enough to go on. But an “old earth” does not necessitate evolution in my view.

  • http://wearethestories.wordpress.com Eric Gregory

    I don’t think you’re quite understanding my point.

    Your article has a statement about your belief that evolution is false, yet you do not engage any of the science. You make some pretty blanket statements about macroevolution not being “proved true”, evolution “losing credibility”, etc., yet you cite no sources. (NB: Almost nothing outside of mathematical concepts can be “proven”. Remember that gravity is still a “theory”.)

    Evolution is the best scientific understanding of how different life came to be. It doesn’t exclude creation ex nihilo (though the Genesis never makes that claim, and I’m not sure the rest of the Scriptures do either), and it doesn’t exclude the Divine. There seems to be no scientific reason (if you have one, I’d gladly hear it) to doubt evolution, leading me to believe that, despite your rather odd statement about evolution “losing credibility”, you really are “hanging your hat” entirely on biblical texts where both author and character have no concept of modern science and live in a world where the “truth” of the world was that it was flat and was upheld by literal pillars. Just because Jesus talks about Adam as if he were a real person (which I think may be debatable, but that’s another exegetical conversation), it does not follow that therefore we are to treat Adam as a real person or claim that science is wrong.

    Also, I’m not engaging young earth/old earth ideas, I’m engaging your statement about not “believing” in evolution. I’m calling that into question, and I’m calling the idea that you’re not a scientist a “cop out” from engaging in the material that you seem to have made up your mind about before studying it (at least that’s what your original post led me to believe).

    A quick readthrough the Wikipedia article on Common Descent should be enough to suggest that your idea of macroevolution is indeed found throughout the created order: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_descent

    So let me try again.