Creation and Science: How Do We Read Genesis 1-3?
Before getting started, a bit of context. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, geological discoveries on the one hand, and comparisons with other Ancient Near Eastern texts on the other, prompted many scholars to jettison the idea that Genesis 1-3 contained history at all. ‘Myth’ was the preferred category, and while this word is elastic enough to allow for all sorts of evangelical readings, the sense in which it was used of Genesis made it clear that the events narrated in the first few chapters (often at least until chapter 11) did not actually happen in history at all. The first half of the twentieth century, by contrast, saw the opposite view gaining strength: not only did the chapters accurately relate history, but they demonstrated that the earth was only 6-10,000 years old, that nothing died until the fall, and that evolution was untrue. In both of these, the type of literature that Genesis 1-3 represents was a vitally important question.
My position, in my very Tim Kellerish way, is in the middle of these two. (Have you ever noticed how many times Tim Keller and Tom Wright end up in the perfect middle between two extremes? It’s almost like the polarity has been framed with them in mind. And now here I am, doing exactly the same thing.) In my view, Genesis 1:1-2:3 is exalted prose – that is, it is neither pure narrative nor pure poetry, but tells a story using a number of poetic features and a clear literary framework, and was not intended by its author to be taken as a literal, chronological guide to what happened – but Genesis 2:4 onwards is historical narrative, which although it contains metaphors, anthropomorphisms and so on, nonetheless is intended to be a historical account of what took place when and where. This view is highly controversial, and annoys pretty much everyone (it’s too fluffy for some and too conservative for others), so I’ll lay out my reasons as carefully as I can.
Firstly, Genesis is built around the chapter-heading phrase “these are the generations of” (biblos geneseōs), which occurs ten times from 2:4 onwards (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2). Each of these headings introduces the next “chapter” in the story, with the title based on the ancestor of what follows (so “the generations of Adam” are his descendants and their stories, rather than story about Adam himself, and so on). Taking Genesis as a whole, I find it very hard to see a change in literary genre from 2:4 onwards, since the ten “chapters”, though they contain prose, some poems or songs and genealogies, work in very similar ways, and the patriarchal narratives are certainly not intended to be mythical by their author. But 1:1-2:3 is different. It is the only section of the entire book that isn’t preceded by this phrase, which needs a very good explanation (which is often lacking, and sometimes results in the odd conclusion that it is a concluding phrase, not an introductory one.) So at a literary level, the first thirty-four verses appear to me to be an overture, a sweeping introduction before the detailed history begins.
Secondly, the narrative of 1:1-2:3 bursts in and out of poetic parallelism without warning, and without altering the seven day structure (1:27; 2:2-3). This may be why Ernest Lucas (a theistic evolutionist) and E. J. Young (a young-earth creationist) agree that although the text isn’t pure poetry – it doesn’t have the rhyming meaning pairs which are so characteristic of Hebrew poetry – the narrative itself is “semi-poetical”, since it contains features like repetition and parallelism. 2:4 onwards, however, has no sections like these which are part of the narrative; they are always attributed to a human speaker (e.g. 2:23). We would find it odd if, in the story of Abraham, we found a verse with the literary form of 1:27, and rightly so. This is an indication that we are dealing with a poetic sort of narrative.
Thirdly, as has often been pointed out, Genesis 1:1-2:3 describes the same events as Genesis 2:4-25, but in a much more sweeping, wide-angle lens way. Sometimes in Scripture, this happens – we get two accounts of something, one quite detailed and historical, one more sweeping and song-like (Judges 4-5; Ex 14-15; Acts 2:14-21, 22-36). Genesis 1, then, may function toward Genesis 2 similarly to the way Judges 5 does to Judges 4, or Exodus 15 to Exodus 14, or Acts 2:14-21 to 2:22-36. This is Tim Keller’s key argument for this position, although it should be noted, as per the previous paragraph, that in each of Keller’s examples, indications that we are dealing with songs or poetry are present in the text. Nonetheless, this works well as a negative argument (to show we are not dealing with a literal chronological history that runs uninterrupted through chapters 1-3), since otherwise the two accounts would be very hard to reconcile.
Fourthly, Gordon Wenham, one of the most insightful commentators on Genesis, notes the recurrence of the number 7 in the text of 1:1-2:3, and concludes that “it is indeed a great hymn”. 1:1 has 7 words, 1:2 has 2x7 words, and 2:1-3 has 5x7 words. The word “God” appears 5x7 times, “earth” appears 3x7 times, “heaven” 3x7 times, “and it was so” 7 times, “God saw that it was good” 7 times, and so on. Umberto Cassuto, similarly, was led by the chapter’s stylistic features to speak of “an exaltation of style approaching the level of poetry”. (For some interpreters, the use of Genesis 1 in Exodus 20:11 makes a poetic reading untenable. It seems to me, however, that since God doesn’t get tired, and since the Sabbath exists for our benefit and not for God’s, Genesis 1:1-2:3 could easily have been written this way to provide a basis for Sabbatarian living, which then becomes a foundation for Israel’s obedience. It would seem decidedly odd for the point to be, “Well, God got tired, so you lot will too.” Much more likely, I think, is the idea that God is said to “rest” to show us how to pattern our own lives – and this would work equally well in a poetic reading as in a literal historical reading.)
Fifthly, 1:1-2:3 has a rhythm and refrains, like choruses, that keep coming back (“and God said … he saw that it was good … there was evening and morning, the first day”). This is quite dissimilar to the structure of the rest of the Pentateuch, from 2:4 onwards, except of course for the genealogies, which are very different again in all sorts of ways (and to which the previous comments, especially the first one, do not apply). Once again: in the first chapter we are not dealing with a poem, strictly conceived, but we do seem to have on our hands a text that contains a lot of structural and stylistic features which look poetic in various ways. This, obviously, is not at all true from 2:4.
Sixthly, there is Origen and Augustine’s rather obvious question, which emerges from the text itself and predates modern geology by 1500 years: how do you have day and night without a sun and a moon? For Origen, this showed that we couldn’t be dealing with a literal, chronological history in 1:1-2:3:
What person of intelligence, I ask, will consider as a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars, while the first day was even without a heaven? … I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history.
Now, Origen’s way of understanding this text (let alone others!) would not be widespread today, and he is obviously wrong that no intelligent people would disagree with him on it. But it does show that the poetic, figurative and even mysterious features of the passage were clear to many long before the emergence of dinosaur fossils or Charles Darwin.
Taken together, I think these six lines of argument present a compelling case for seeing 1:1-2:3 as exalted prose, or narrative with poetic features, or even an overture to the book and the Pentateuch as a whole. Stylistically, I think the opening chapter is closer to the Song of Songs than it is to (say) Luke’s gospel, although it is clearly different from both. Please note: that doesn’t mean it isn’t true (any more than saying the Shulammite does not really have fauns for breasts makes the Song of Songs untrue). But it means it may need to be read differently from the rest of the Pentateuch, because of the way it is written.
From 2:4, on the other hand, things change. As I’ve said, we start with the phrase, “these are the generations of”, with which the book as a whole did not begin. The camera moves from wide-angle to narrow-angle, and we start seeing specific individuals and places, rather than “the heavens and the earth”. We get geographical specifics, which were notably absent in 1:1-2:3, like “eastward in Eden”, “four rivers”, “the one which flows round the whole land of Havilah”, “the whole land of Cush”, “towards the east of Assyria”, and so on. We even get physical details: “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food”, “the gold of that land is good”, “bdellium and onyx are there”, and the like. And of course we have the description of human beings and their activities, as opposed to the general commission they received in chapter 1. Some would write the chapters off as mythical due to their anthropomorphisms (which is absurd, since these appear throughout Scripture in narrative passages), or their resemblance to other Ancient Near Eastern accounts (which is also absurd, since almost all Old Testament passages resemble their pagan equivalents in some ways, sometimes very closely, but this does not indicate that the author did not intend them to be historical). More commonly, they are written off as mythical because of the infamous talking snake. But just ask yourself: how does Satan (assuming, like Paul in Romans 16, that this is who the snake represents) actually “talk” to people? Presumably, he uses created things to provoke temptation or accusation in people’s minds, whether that involves the created things physically opening their mouths and forming words, Harry Potter style, or not. Perhaps that’s what happened (Balaam’s donkey did it, after all); or perhaps Eve saw the snake, free and unconstrained, sliding wherever he chose, even around the base of the forbidden tree, and Satan used this to tempt her. Who knows? But if we write things off as mythical because they sound bizarre, we won’t end up with much of the Pentateuch left. Or the Bible. Or the gospel.
So: I see a significant change in genre between Genesis 2:3 and 2:4. And for me, this means that the author’s intention in the first thirty-four verses is not to affirm that the creation of the universe took 144 hours, nor that the sun began to exist after plants, but to affirm that God created everything, that he brought order and beauty out of a chaotic mess, that human beings were created in God’s image, and that Israel’s God is the real one, and the gods of the nations are hopeless parodies. The literary framework of the working week, and the semi-poetic nature of the prose, present these realities beautifully, like an overture, and leave us standing in awe of God the creator. Then, with “the beginning of the generations of” at 2:4, the author zooms in his lens to focus on the land, and the people, who will be the subject of the rest of the story. Whether they descend from monkeys or not will have to wait until next week.