“If Genesis 1 isn’t literal, the Gospel isn’t literal either!”
“If the earth isn’t 6000 years old, then we can’t trust the Bible on anything!”
These statements are a kind of rallying cry for some Christians. Yet, they have also been the source of much consternation for sincere, devout followers of Jesus who cannot accept the notion of a young earth or a literal six-day account of the world’s origins. Convinced that they must either “take it or leave it,” some walk away. Countless others have likely never even ventured to ask about Jesus, the cross, resurrection and redemption because they’ve been told they need to accept everything or nothing.
I have no interest in re-hashing the Ham vs. Nye debate or the (false) wedge between science and faith! My question is: How are we to read Genesis 1?
The Cosmologies of the Ancient World
The cosmology (the study of the origin and development of the universe) of Genesis does not stand alone. It exists within the landscape of many ancient creation stories, each providing different answers to similar questions. Back then, no one was asking, “Did god create the heavens and the earth?” The question was, “Which god, and why?” In comparing the Genesis account against other ancient stories, we may discover the significance of the Genesis cosmology. And along the way, you’ll also see why I don’t think Genesis backs us into a corner of having to make the false choice between creation/young earth and evolution/old earth.
The Sumerians had no specific creation story text, though descriptions of creation appear in a few Sumerian texts. There are basically two traditions. In one, Heaven — the god An — is united with Earth — the goddess Antum or Ki, fertilizing the earth and causing life– humans, animals, vegetation — to spring up and flourish. In the other tradition, Enki, the god of fertility, produces a spring that carries life to the earth through streams and rivers, with life springing up around it. Ernest C. Lucas writes that in both traditions, humans exist “to serve the gods, to save them from having to work.”
Perhaps the best known ancient cosmology besides the Genesis account is the Enuma Elish. This Akkadian account was copied numerous times and often recited at the New Year festival. The story is lengthy and bloody. It is essentially an account of a power struggle among the gods, driven by jealousy and anger. Marduk, the descendent of Apsu and Damkina, becomes greater than his divine predecessors. Though at first this provokes the jealousy of the other gods, he strikes a deal with them: he will fight on their behalf if they give him the power of “fixing destinies” (ibid). They agree. Marduk kills Tiamat, splitting her body in two, one half becoming the sky and the other half becoming the earth. Marduk orders that Ea make humans out of the blood of Kingu, the leader of the rebel gods. Once again, the reason for making humans is so they can do the work of the gods.
There is a Canaanite cosmology as well. The Canaanites had no “undisputed cosmogony,” but in the Baal cycle of texts, the chief of the Pantheon, El, is called “creator of creation/creatures,” and his wife, Asherah, is called “creator/begetter of the gods.” These epithets are possible indications that the Canaanites thought of the origin of the cosmos in procreation terms.
Egyptian cosmologies are a bit more variegated. Several strands exist, each connected with local deities like Re, Atum, and Ptah. Lucas, writing in the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch summarizes them by pointing out that Egyptian cosmologies are primarily concerned with the origin of the gods, each identified with basic elements of the cosmos such as earth, sky, and sun.
So, what Is Genesis 1 saying?
The meaning of Genesis 1 can be drawn out by two considerations. The first is the consideration of context: imagining what was going on in Israel’s story when these chapters were being formed and woven together. The second is the consideration of competing narratives: contrasting the Genesis creation story to the other creation stories of the Ancient Near East.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, meaning of Genesis 1 for the children of Israel can be summed up in the “Shema,” which appears in Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is one.” Genesis 1-11 reveals an entirely different view of the divine or spiritual realm. In contrast to the many gods that fill the scenes of other creation stories in the Ancient Near East, in Genesis YHWH stands set apart as the sole sovereign over creation. There is no division of divine jurisdiction; no god of the sea, god of land, and god of war. There is only one God. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is one.”
As the lead character in the opening scenes, God not only is, He also acts. Throughout the opening passage, God is the only active character. There are no rivals, no one else adding input or ideas. There is simply God. He is the main character. God speaks, God forms, God makes, God calls, God blesses, God commissions. The primacy of God must have been striking to a young Israelite child hearing these stories for the first time.
Second, this sole sovereign God creates the world on purpose. Creation is not the result of a bloody battle among the gods, or the result of mutated divine excretions, nor just the gods’ way of getting some help around the universe. The God of Genesis sets out to make the world, carefully, deliberately, methodically, and yes, even poetically. The opening chapter does, after all, have a song-like cadence to it.
Third, as the sole Sovereign and intentional Creator, YHWH does not simply create; He also blesses what He makes. In this way, all that is good and beautiful in the world — in Hebrew, tov – is the result of YHWH’s blessing. One can imagine the people of Judah in Babylon straining their eyes to see something of YHWH’s hand, training their ears to hear something of YHWH’s voice, when all of a sudden, they remember: this world itself was made by YHWH. This tree, this stream, this flower, this fruit — all that flourishes around them — flourishes because YHWH has blessed it. The blessing of YHWH on the material world would have been a source of consolation and a spark of worship in an otherwise difficult land of exile.
Genesis 1 is a hymn of praise to the one, true God who made the world on purpose and with pleasure, and who lovingly blessed it and called it good. If you’re a Christian, that’s the story you should be telling the world.