The Struggle for the Soul of Science, pt6: Bible – Exhibit B
The First Week
If Genesis 12–50 assumes the historical background of Genesis 4–11, which assumes the historical background of Genesis 2–3, does it stop there? Many have tried to argue this, treating 1:1–2:3 as non-historical, for three main reasons: literary style, perceived contradictions with the following account or with common sense, and the structure of Genesis. These will be dealt with in turn.
First, the literary style of Genesis 1:1–2:3 is certainly not ‘poetry’, as every Hebrew scholar knows; Biblical poetry uses the technique of balanced sense couplets, as found in 2:23 or 4:23-24. Exalted style, using refrains or repeated words, is common elsewhere in clearly historical passages such as Genesis 18:22-33, or 29:31–30:24, so it need not imply ‘semi-poetic’ fiction. In fact, the comparison of the two creation accounts in chapter 1 and chapters 2–3 with later paired chapters of prose and poetic accounts of the same event (e.g. Exodus 14–15; Judges 4–5) reinforces the point that even if it were in some sense ‘poetic’, this would obviously not be a reason to dismiss its historical character.
Second, people have long wondered how one could have day and night without sun and moon, but far from dismissing this as figurative language, we have clear evidence from Scripture that ancient Israelites treated this as historical and then drew the necessary conclusions. Psalm 104 is an expertly written theological and historical commentary on Genesis 1–3 in the form of a hymn, using the seven-day sequence of creation as a pattern for describing different parts of the natural world in the psalmist’s own generation. He evidently treats the two creation accounts as compatible narratives with a coherent chronology, since 2:4–3:24 would correspond to the sixth ‘day’ (2:4) when God created the animals and then mankind (Eve completed Adam). The absence of specifically ‘cultivated plants’ in 2:5 does not contradict the creation of general vegetation on the third day, and the only other apparent contradiction, regarding the day on which birds were created (1:20-23; 2:19-20) is resolved by the author of Psalm 104. It would be hard to find any earlier evidence than this for how Genesis 1–3 was originally meant to be read by its ancient Israelite audience.
Psalm 104:1-2a (Day One) concludes that God Himself must have been the first light source for the rotating earth, later delegating this responsibility to the sun (cf. Revelation 21:23). 104:2b-4 (Day Two) describes God’s creation of ‘heaven’ as His palace, and therefore also of the angels as His courtiers and servants. 104:5-18 (Day Three) speaks of the separation of dry land and water (in language reminiscent of the Flood) and the various types of vegetation, being both the environment and food supply for animals and birds as Genesis 1 emphasises (1:20-25, 26, 29-30). 104:19-23 (Day Four) contrasts moon and sun, night and day, and 104:24-26 (Day Five) focuses in on the swarming fish and great sea monsters in the oceans. The birds are not mentioned here, though, in view of their association with both Day Five in Genesis 1 and Day Six in Genesis 2. Instead, the contradiction is resolved at the start of the following section about Day Six (104:27-30), where they are described as ‘waiting’ to be given their food at the ‘appointed time’. The creation of birds was only complete when God authorised their food source on Day Six (Genesis 1:30). This section also speaks of animals and man in whom is the ‘spirit/breath of life’ (cf. Genesis 7:21-22), and hints at the giving of fruit to Adam as well as his ‘death’ and hoped-for resurrection, all in the context of Day Six. Finally, 104:31-35 (Day Seven) defines the Sabbath as both “Let the LORD be glad in His works” and “I shall be glad in the LORD”. The wicked being ‘no more’ is a clear reference to the absence of Adam and Eve from the ‘land’ of the Garden on the seventh day.
That might come as a surprise to some people, but the account starting in Genesis 2:4 describes the “day” in which God made (i.e. completed – see Ezekiel 43:18) earth and heaven, which was the sixth day (1:31–2:1). There is then no further reference to time until the late afternoon “cool of the day” in 3:8, which would indicate the soon arrival of the seventh day, since days begin with evening not morning (1:5). God came into the Garden to prepare for enjoying His Sabbath rest with those He had created, but already they had sinned and needed to be expelled from the Garden ‘on the day they ate’ the fruit. Ever since, mankind has been striving to enter God’s rest and eat the fruit of eternal life.
An even more important implication also follows from Adam and Eve’s failure on the sixth day. In Israelite culture (and many others), social institutions typically require a full seven-day period of consecration; consider, for example, the dedication of Solomon’s temple and altar (2 Chronicles 7:7-10). It is a common trope in Biblical literature, though, for this period of time to be interrupted at the very last moment, resulting in a failure of the institution. For example, Samson’s marriage to his Philistine wife failed without consummation on the seventh day (Judges 14:10-20); Saul’s kingdom was fatally compromised by his impatience for Samuel’s arrival, which would have completed the seven-day consecration at Gilgal (1 Samuel 13:8-14); and Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu were burned up in God’s presence when they disobeyed instructions during their seven-day period of consecration as priests (Leviticus 8:30-35; 10:1-7; cf. Exodus 30:9). In an ancient Israelite context, it would make perfect sense that God’s holy dwelling place of the cosmos, specifically the earth, and more specifically the Garden of Eden (all depicted using temple imagery) had been defiled from the very start, when God’s specially appointed representative and high priest failed to finish the requisite seven-day period of consecration. [Adam’s late appearance, in time for the Sabbath, in a way parallels the prophet Samuel’s arrival and act of worship which was necessary to inaugurate Israel’s first monarchy.] There would be no reason, then, to understand these days as anything other than literal twenty-four hour days, as is clearly understood in Exodus 20:11.
The third reason sometimes given for treating Genesis 1:1–2:3 as non-historical is the structure of the whole book of Genesis, but this in fact leads us on to consider one of the most important theological messages of Genesis 1:1–2:3. Scholars note that the book of Genesis is divided into ten unequal segments based on the repeated phrase “These are the generations of ___” as a sort of chapter heading (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2). That might seem to exclude 1:1–2:3 as somehow separate from the rest of the book, maybe even a different genre. The key is in the meaning of the phrase, though. The last of these headings shows as clearly as any other, that the following material will identify those who are the legal heirs of the named progenitor. Joseph and his brothers inherit from Jacob, Jacob and Esau inherit from Isaac, Isaac and Ishmael inherit from their grandfather Terah, and so on. The whole sequence therefore ultimately starts with 2:4, which introduces the following story of Adam, Eve, and her appointed seed Seth, as “the generations of the heavens and the earth”. So what legal authority will the ‘seed of woman’ (3:15) inherit? Genesis 1:1–2:3 provides the answer: not just what belonged to Adam (i.e. the Garden), but the entire created cosmos. 1 Chronicles 1–3 is therefore one of the most astounding passages in the whole Bible – this final book of the Hebrew Bible (in the Hebrew ordering) traces the legal inheritance of Adam down through Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Judah, Perez, Hezron, Ram, Jesse, David, Zerubbabel, and on down to the author’s own generation, a few centuries before the birth of Yeshua of Nazareth. It was equally clear to Luke (3:23-38) that by virtue of His direct descent from Zerubbabel, David, Judah, Abraham, and Noah, Jesus the Messiah was the legal ‘son of Adam’ [AKA ‘Son of Man’], and therefore the heir of not only all humanity but also the whole cosmos.
It is not just an unjustified imposition on the text to view Adam as only one of many Neolithic farmers around in his day. If Genesis 1:1–2:3 is just a stylised mythical preface to the history of Adam’s particular family group of homo sapiens, the claim of the Messiah to be king of the world, and authorised to restore all creation to God’s original plan, has no legal foundation whatsoever.
Implications of different approaches to Genesis
At this point I only really have space to summarise a handful more of the theological principles that depend on one’s interpretation of Genesis 1–11. As evolutionist philosopher Michael Ruse has noted perceptively,
In particular, I argue that in both evolution and creation we have rival religious responses to a crisis of faith – rival stories of origins, rival judgments about the meaning of human life, rival sets of moral dictates, and above all what theologians call rival eschatologies – pictures of the future and of what lies ahead for humankind.1
The philosophical roots of scientific naturalism can be traced back to the Deist belief that God simply set up the world and then left it running like a machine or a wind-up clock. Biblical theology teaches instead God’s active intervention in the world from the very beginning (as the light of the world) and throughout history. The same is true today – miracles and manifestations of the Holy Spirit should be expected and sought after. Theodicy [literally ‘divine justice’] was also part of Darwin’s motivation for excusing God from involvement in the imperfection and natural catastrophes visible throughout nature. The Bible, however, insists that humans were not only the cause of pain, corruption, and death in the natural world (Gen 3), but also continue to be the solution, individually, corporately, and globally, insofar as we mediate God’s righteous rule into our own ‘Garden’ or sphere of responsibility.
Ecology is part of the duty of God’s people, therefore, because humanity was given authority to govern over all other life forms (Gen 1), creating names appropriate to each one (Gen 2), and so assigning to each their proper place in the divine order. Just as nature cannot be divorced from its life source in God, so nature cannot prosper without the sensitive but active intervention of humanity, as God’s representatives. Acknowledging mankind’s divinely appointed place in the created order (Psalm 8), also involves a recognition of God’s equally good order within human society – despite their shared duty as the corporate ‘image of God’ (Gen 1:26-27), Adam was given vital instructions by God before Eve was even created (2:16-22; compare 1 Timothy 2:11-15), and therefore he bore the primary responsibility for their actions before God (Gen 3:9). This spiritual and natural complementarity of men and women applies within the family, and thence the clan, tribe, etc., and likewise in the family of God. Much more could be said here!
Part of the shared duty of humanity was to multiply and ‘fill the earth’ (Gen 1), extending the harmony and order of the Garden of Eden territory by territory until the whole earth was populated and fruitful. The same blessing was given to Noah’s descendants after the Flood (Gen 9), and the diversification of language at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) was designed to expedite this process of exploration and settlement. The Great Commission from Yeshua of Nazareth (Matt 28:18-20) was therefore specifically to disciple ‘nations’ in how to govern their respective territories under the superintendence of the coming Messiah, King of the world – this is the primary duty of the Church and the meaning of the Kingdom. Within this broader vision, God selected one particular territory before even the dispersal of the nations, and decided that the people of Canaan and their land would serve His chosen leader, the descendant of Shem (Genesis 9:25-27; 10:15-19). The entire book of Genesis was written to set out the case in international law for the duty of the Israelite tribes to govern Canaan according to God’s ways, imported into their land like Adam himself had been. God’s intention was that Israel’s land become a new ‘Garden of Eden’, a prototype and source of life for every nation in every territory on earth (cf. Gen 2).
Because it is empirical and ‘scientific’ history, the Bible also makes certain predictions that can be tested. Apart from the offer of a personal encounter with the Messiah for anyone who genuinely wants it, one of the most dominant promises throughout the entire Bible, from beginning to end, is that the Jewish people will be reconstituted in their promised land as a nation ruled over by a king of the lineage of David – the Messiah. Interwoven with this is also the anticipation of another global judgement, on a par with the Flood of Noah, to punish all nations who resist God’s good rule through Israel and through Gentiles who acknowledge Israel’s king (2Peter 3:1-15). When the Messiah arrives, though, He will bring with Him resurrection and indestructible life for the earth itself. All creation suffered physically (not just spiritually) when Adam’s rebellion cut off access to the Tree of Life for all humans and animals; even so all creation will benefit from the Son of Man’s obedience, tangible eternal life cascading outwards from Him to affect all living things. This hope of resurrection is not just spiritual or individual, but physical and national, even global.
I recognise that many of these points will be even more controversial than the creation/evolution debate, but I would contend that they reflect a fully coherent theology of the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments. A historical Genesis is not an optional extra to the Jewish or Christian believer; it is the foundation for every other doctrine, and provides the only hope for humanity and the world.
1. Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle (2005), p. 3.