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Genesis One in Historical-Critical Perspective


The "historical-critical" method of Bible study, used properly, can be a valid and powerful tool for Seventh-day Adventists. How might the use of the "historical critical" method of Bible study affect the interpretation of Genesis 1, a chapter of great interest to Seventh-day Adventists? What follows is an example of the application of the method to Genesis 1. I am going to claim, first, that the primary focus of the chapter is on God's creation of all things in a miraculous and ordered way, and second, that there is no justification for trying to harmonize modern science with the chapter's implicit cosmology, or worldview. I hope to illustrate how an approach that attends to the culture, history, philosophy and religion of the Bible's time and place can enhance our understanding of its message.

I will defend my claim by explaining briefly what the "historical-critical" method is; by defining two key terms I will be using; and by proceeding straight through the chapter in a fairly detailed examination of its contents. At the end I will sum up the results of the inquiry.

The term "historical-critical method" has for various reasons become less precise than it once was; still, it is the term characteristically used within the Adventist community for the approach I am about to describe.1 Basic to this method is the assumption that the Bible writers addressed issues important to their readers and used terms and concepts they could understand. This explains why the historical-critical approach emphasizes the study of the culture, history, philosophy and religion of the biblical period. The point is that, in order to do so, we must understand its literary and historical context. The method assumes that understanding of Scripture is really possible – that, unless otherwise affirmed, as in some passages of the apocalyptic literature, for example, nothing in the Bible was intended to be veiled by obscure, incomprehensible symbols. We may successfully comprehend it today if we understand its literary and historical context. In all of this, the method assumes, too, that in Scripture the truth of God is mediated through the limited languages and feeble understandings of mankind. What we find there is stamped by humanity, but the Word of God comes through in what is said.

The actual practice of the method requires a considerable acquaintance with a variety of tools. First and foremost, of course, is an ample knowledge of the language of the text, in this case biblical Hebrew. But since many of the meanings and nuances of the ancient Hebrew words have been lost, we must rely, too, on a comparative study of the Semitic languages related to biblical Hebrew. We must also refer to the literature of the ancient Near Eastern world in order to enhance our understanding; the Bible writers wrote in the prevalent literary modes of their day just as we do in ours. Finally, we must allow the study of ancient Near Eastern history to inform our inquiry; it illuminates the political, economic and cultural framework within which the Bible writer works. All of these tools have been used in a variety of ways in the following exegesis.

Before going further I should discuss two major terms. Both words, "cosmology" and "cosmogony" are related in that they are based upon the same Greek root word, kosmos, meaning "world, universe." For our purposes, "cosmology" indicates the descriptive account of the universe as a whole; a "cosmological element" is any part of that cosmology, such as the sea, the moon, the plants, and the firmament. Cosmologies change through history as knowledge changes, so that we can distinguish the cosmology of Genesis 1, for example, from the cosmology prevalent today.

The term "cosmogony," on the other hand, refers to the theory of the origin of the cosmos. How did it come about? The doctrine of creation is a cosmogony; creation ex nihilo, or out of nothing, and creation from preexisting matter are two different creation cosmogonies. Evolutionary theory offers still another cosmogony. With the aid of these terms we can clarify the thesis of what follows. I will show that the cosmology of Genesis 1 is a vehicle for making what is ultimately a statement about cosmogony, namely, that the ultimate origin of the universe is God. Cosmogony, then, is ultimately the point of the chapter, not the details of its cosmology.

We will proceed to an extended verse-by-verse analysis, or exegesis of the first chapter of Genesis to see how the description of nature (cosmology) understood by biblical authors can be distinguished from their statements about God being the ultimate origin of the creation (cosmogony).

Verse 1

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”2

This is usually understood to be an introductory summary statement of the upcoming creation account. Some hold, however, that this verse actually refers to the creation of a prior world which has been destroyed by the time of the creation event recorded in Genesis 1.3 This interpretation offers a way to harmonize the biblical account of creation with the apparently long history of the fossil record, which, it is said, represents the fauna of the earlier creation.

Unfortunately, however, this view does not take into account the literary structure of the narrative. Highly-structured texts of the ancient Near East, both biblical (like Genesis 14) and non-biblical, often contain introductory and concluding statements in formulaic language.5 If Genesis 1:1 is such an introductory statement, where is the concluding one? Genesis 2:1, placed at the end of the six days of God's creative activity, concludes: "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them." It is a simple concluding statement, corresponding perfectly with the simple introductory statement in verse one.

I cannot emphasize enough how typical these introductory and concluding statements are in biblical and contemporary nonbiblical literature. This makes it clear that verse one is not talking about a prior creation which may be harmonized with the fossil record. Moreover, no other known ancient Near Eastern group knew of an earlier creation, and to suggest that the Bible hides one here is sheer conjecture, with all supporting evidence pointing in the opposite direction.

"In the beginning" (Heb. bere sit). In light of its grammatical form, the first word of the Bible should be translated "In the beginning of," and followed by a noun such as "time" or "the world" or "things." But no noun is there. One suggested solution is that the remainder of the verse should be interpreted as a noun phrase, so that in English we get: "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth," or "When God began to create the heavens and the earth."6 Then Genesis 1:1, 2 would read: "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void.”

This translation implies that matter was preexistent at creation. On the other hand, the wording in the Revised Standard Version, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," leaves this question open. And it is in fact the better translation, as we have seen. Verse one is a formal introduction to the whole narrative. It would be structurally and formulaically bizarre for such a statement to be a dependent clause. This, together with other examples – in and out of Scripture –7 of this same problematic grammatical structure, indicates strongly that a traditional translation like that in the Revised Standard Version is correct. No clear statement regarding preexisting matter is thus available from a study of this word.

“Created” (Heb. bara’). This word, the second word of the Hebrew Bible, is often said to denote creation ex nihilo, or out of nothing, as is contrasted with asah (“to make”), used elsewhere in Genesis 1 and said to indicate creation from matter. This contrast is not justified, as verses 26 and 27 show. “Let us make asah man in our image,” says verse 26, while verse 27 asserts “So God created bara man in his own image.” Each verb denotes the creating (or making) of the same object. The conclusion is very clear. Bara does not necessarily indicate creation ex nihilo and asah does not necessarily indicate creation from matter. Otherwise verses 26 and 27 would be totally contradictory. Bara therefore cannot be said to indicate creation ex nihilo only, nor can asah be said to indicate exclusively creation from preexisting matter.

“The heaves and the earth.” These are the two major realms of creation into which all creation was placed. They make up the total spatial cosmology of the biblical view. They are thus a convenient summary of the complete creative activity of God for use in this introductory statement. The “heavens” includes what is above the plane of human activity and the “earth” what is at or below this level.

Verse 2

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”

The two Hebrew words we meet here are for various reasons somewhat enigmatic.

“Without form and void” (Heb. tohu wabohu). The basic idea, however, seems to be not so much physical chaos as spiritual and existential chaos. The physical chaos is simply a reflection of this higher level of emptiness, and emptiness to be explained by the lack up to now of the presence of God. The writer was apparently not really interested in whether there was preexistent matter,8 but was immensely interested in the arrival of the God who could bring meaning out of meaninglessness. The terms are thus cosmogonic in thrust – they illuminate the question of the explanation of the ordered universe.

“Darkness” (Heb. hosek). This term is almost identical to the English word “darkness” in most of its nuances. Certainly in this context it symbolizes the absence of the Spirit of God who brings goodness, order and meaning. The phrase “and darkness was upon the face of the deep” – the deep is the primordial sea – is thus parallel to the previous phrase, “The earth was without form and void.” Both the earth and the deep were a meaningless waste before the Spirit of God arrived.

Verse two seems to assume the prior existence of two primordial realities: “earth” or land and “the deep” or the sea. The Hebrew language could have stated very plainly whether creation was ex nihilo; we should remember that, by and large, whether there was preexisting matter is a modern question and really should not be imposed upon the biblical text.

“Deep” (Heb. tehom). The use of this term in the story of creation has occasioned much comment due to its linguistic relation to Tiamat, the evil goddess of the primordial sea in the Babylonia creation story. Although there is little doubt that tehom and Tiamat are linguistically related, the use of tehom in the Bible simply refers to the all-encompassing primordial sea. This non-mythological use of the term in a cultural milieu which was well acquainted with Tiamat and her myth is actually a striking disclaimer of the polytheistic myth in which Tiamat played a role.9 Far from being influenced by the Babylonian creation story, Genesis 1 rejects at least part of it, and constitutes a mild polemic against the polytheistic mythical religions.

“Spirit of God” (Heb. ruah elohim). The “Spirit of God” was not understood by the Old Testament reader as the Holy Spirit of the Trinity. Indeed the Old Testament does not seem to be aware of the Trinity’s existence. Rather, the Spirit of God seems to have been understood as God’s presence. The picture in Genesis 1 is of the arrival of the latest creative force of God. The stage is set for the banishment of meaninglessness and the creation of the cosmos.

Verse 3

“And God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light.”

Creation has begun and light – the symbol of meaningfulness and divine order – is the first item to be made.

Verse 4

“And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”

Here God symbolically separates order and chaos. Again we see the cosmogonic goal of the story. God brings in the good – and dispels the bad and the fearsome.

Verse 5

“And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”

It is natural to ask how on the first day there could be light and, indeed, the progression from evening to morning, without the sun which was not created until the fourth day. But what is important here is that the author of Genesis 1 has deliberately set out to separate light from the heavenly sources. He certainly understood the natural relation between day and night and the sun and moon; indeed, he describes that relationship in verses 14 and 15. At this point, however, he deliberately ignores this cosmological truth to lay down a cosmogonic truth. God’s presence is light, and therefore light must be the first item of creation. The sun, moon and stars are specific, limited created bodies – not his symbolic essence, but simply his creation. This is part of the author’s mild polemic against the polytheistic religions of his day. For them, the sun, moon and stars were divinities. By giving light, the symbol of divine presence, precedence over the luminaries, there can be no question that the one true God is supreme over all.

On the first day the daily cycle was also begun, a cycle that no doubt symbolized to ancient man the order and regularity of creation. The point here is that the daily cycle was to the author not ultimately dependent on the luminaries, but rather on God. The responsibility to keep that order is only later to be given to the sun and moon. The natural world and its laws cannot by themselves account for creation. Only the divine miracle can do that.

“Day” (Heb. yom). Many scientists who wish to harmonize modern evolutionary theory with the biblical record, especially the proponents of the various breeds of theistic evolution, suggest that the term “day” as used in Genesis 1 refers to an indefinite length of time, not a 24-hour period.10 To them, each "day" was sufficiently long to allow for the evolution of certain species from other forms more or less in the order the Bible presents; the "day" of Genesis 1 is thus an era of millions of years. But even though the term yom can indeed refer to an indefinite period of time, this is never the case when the word is used with a number; when a number occurs with the word, a period of 24 hours is always meant. The Bible writers knew nothing about evolution, theistic or otherwise, and were not seeking to write either for or against it. They would have no reason whatsoever to intend very long periods of time when they used the word" day" in this context. The author clearly intends the creative act to be understood as a miracle which occurred in one literal day. The concern here is cosmogony.

Verses 6-8

“And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.”

The account of the second day establishes the basic form of the cosmology of Genesis 1.

“Firmament” (Heb. raqia’). Science-oriented students of the Bible have often assumed that this word refers both to interstellar space – because the sun, moon and stars are placed in it – and also to the atmospheric mantle around the earth – since it separates the waters above the firmament from the waters below. It is only logical at first sight that the waters above are the moisture-laden clouds and that the waters below are the seas. The atmosphere seems to fit very nicely and thus the ancient and modern cosmologies are harmonized.

Unfortunately, this view represents only a superficial understanding of the biblical text. In verse eight the firmament is identified with heaven. Verses six and seven show the firmament separating the waters above from those below; that is, it holds back the waters above from rushing down upon the waters below. Only something solid could do that. On the fourth day the luminaries were placed in the firmament which then must have been conceived as beneath the waters above the firmament; otherwise they would not be visible through the water. However, the birds also fly in the firmament in verse 20, showing that the firmament includes the region beneath the solid object. Psalms 19:1 and 150:1 confirm the identification of the firmament with heaven, the abode of God. The four occurrences of the word in Ezekiel 1:22-26 suggest the picture of a bright, shining panoply or dome with four living creatures beneath and the throne of God above. To the Old Testament mind, therefore, the firmament is a solid dome high above the earth which holds back the waters above it, and in which the heavenly luminaries have been placed. It also contains the throne or abode of God, just below its lower surface the birds fly.

The etymology of the Hebrew word raqia’ supports this. It is a noun based on a verb meaning "to spread out." This verb is used to depict the pounding of a smith as he beats metal ingots into various forms. One Canaanite variant of the word (Hebrew is a dialect of Canaanite) indicates a bowl hammered out from a metal ingot. Although etymologies should never be used to establish the meaning of a word at a single point in time, it certainly would seem to confirm the apparent biblical understanding of raqia’ as a solid construction. Job 37:18 is the clearest in this regard: "Can you, like him, spread out, [raqia’] the skies [equals firmament], hard as a molten mirror?" (Mirrors were made of metal in antiquity.) The idea is of a ceiling for creation. All subsequent creation is contained beneath this ceiling.11

Of course, this view of the universe, which is similar to what we find in other writings of the ancient Near East,12 is incompatible with our own view of an infinite space with the stars and galaxies sprinkled as far as human technology can reach, and undoubtedly farther. We know of no firmament and no waters above it. We cannot argue our way out of this impasse by suggesting that the firmament disappeared at the flood when the waters above it descended to the earth. The Psalmist talks of the firmament as if it was still present (Psalms 19:1 and 150:1). No text after the flood story clearly talks of waters above the firmament, but certain texts seem to imply floods or rain when the windows of heaven are opened (2 Kings 7:2, 19; Isaiah 24:18).13

There is no clever or magical solution. Instead we must recognize that the Bible writer simply accepts the cosmology of his day, never questioning it, then uses the cosmology to convey his basic message that the ultimate origin of the universe is God. A similar thing happens, as Adventists have always said, in Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Although the parable seems to acknowledge the existence of a pre-resurrection life after death in both heaven and hell, Adventists have rightly appealed to the historical understanding of the people during Christ's time when they apparently believed in such a life after death. We have further said that that concept although erroneous, was simply used by Christ as a vehicle to portray a much greater truth. Once we realize the general point I am making here, the problem of harmonizing the biblical understanding of the firmament with our modern cosmology disappears. What is important is the fundamental truth that God is Creator.

Verses 9-13

“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.”

On the third day, now that the firmament was keeping out the upper waters, dry land could appear from the waters below. Although the English word "appear" is not passive, the Hebrew word from which it is translated is the passive form of the verb "to see" (raah). The land did nothing of its own to become visible. At the command of God the waters simply ran off and exposed the dry land called "earth." The accumulated water was then called the "sea." Again, in conveying its basic message, Genesis 1 is simply using the cosmology of its time, which indicated a flat earth with a single land mass surrounded by seas.

“According to its kind” (Heb. lemino). Any person of antiquity who observed the flora about him realized that there were different kinds of plants. Although he did not yet classify them with the rigors of scientific taxonomy, the phrase "according to its kind" was meant to suggest that all the various types of plants known to the readers of Genesis 1 were created at the same time. The narrative leaves no room for the modern idea of the slow evolutionary development of plants.

Verses 14-19

“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.”

In verse 14 the lights are very clearly put into the firmament, a two-dimensional expanse, as we saw before, serving as the ceiling of the universe. The heavenly bodies were thus conceived as being on a single plane more-or-less equidistant from the earth. Again, the biblical view radically differs from our own and again our explanation must be that the common cosmology of antiquity was being used in affirming the cosmogonic truth that God was the creator.

“The greater light” (Heb. hamma' or haggadol). The use of this euphemism for the sun is deliberate. The ancient polytheistic religions almost universally worshipped a god of the sun whose name in many Semitic languages was simply the common word for "sun." In its mild polemic against the polytheistic religions of the day, Genesis 1 seeks to avoid any possible confusion with a solar divinity by using the phrase "the greater light" instead of the name of the sun god. There is but one true God. And because the moon was also a god in the polytheistic systems, the euphemism "the lesser light" is used for the moon.

“He made the stars also.” As it stands in the Revised Standard Version translation this phrase seems to have been tacked on at the last minute as a secondary thought. Indeed some scientists and theologians, wishing to harmonize the Genesis 1 account with a young earth, have suggested that the original text did not include the phrase under question and thus the stars – some of which are millions of light years away – can be understood as already created.14 But no Hebrew manuscripts omit the phrase. And in the original language it is part of a typical grammatical construction and should in no way be considered secondary. Literally it should be translated, "and the stars;" (with no verb nor the word "also.") An untranslatable grammatical marker preceding "stars" indicates that the phrase is the last of a string of direct objects, including "the greater light" and "the lesser light," of the verb "made" (asah). In Genesis 1, as we have already seen, the verb asah refers to God's creative activity during creation. There can be no doubt that Genesis 1 intends to say that all the heavenly lights, the stars included, were created on the fourth day. No attempt to explain this away can be squared with the text.

The solution to the problem – for us – of the great distance between the earth and the stars (the Hebrew term includes all heavenly bodies, including galaxies) is to be found not by attempting to harmonize modern science with the biblical account, but by realizing that Genesis 1 is using the known ancient cosmology. To the people of the Bible times, there were no great distances between the stars and the earth. They knew nothing of the light year or indeed that light traveled at a certain rate of speed. As far as they were concerned, all the stars were placed within the firmament, as stated in verse 14. The author expresses the cosmogonic truth of divine creation in those ancient cosmological terms.

Verses 20-23

“And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens.’So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

On the fifth day comes the creation of life. (Plants were not considered life by the ancients.15) Of special interest among the living creatures are the "sea monsters" (Heb. tanninim). Out of all the multitude of various sea creatures, only the enigmatic tanninim are mentioned specifically. All others are included in the phrase "swarms of living creatures."16

The background to the biblical understanding of the tanninim is one of the most frequent motifs in ancient Near Eastern literature, namely, the cosmic battle between the beneficent god and an evil force, usually the god of the sea, symbolized as a sea monster or a sea dragon. In Babylon, Marduk defeated Tiamat, and at Canaanite Ugarit, Baal defeated Yam.17

This battle genre was so well known that the Bible writers referred to it in several places as if it were Israel's God who had defeated the great evil beast of the sea in establishing the created order (Psalm 74 and Isaiah 51).18 This does not mean that the Bible writers necessarily believed the story, but apparently they thought it expressed very nicely the awesome power with which divine creation came about.

Genesis 1:21 provides an interesting twist to all of this. Here there is no mythical context, not even an allusion to a myth. Instead the fearsome tanninim are simply creatures of God's creation, totally subject to him. There is no hint of a cosmic battle; the scene is totally demythologized. Instead of fearsome divine opponents of God in the cosmic battle, they are merely his creatures sporting in the sea. If it were not for this polemic against polytheism, there would have been, indeed, no reason whatsoever to mention this one creature of the sea. The Israelites were not a people acquainted with the sea, though the biblical readers had undoubtedly heard stories of great sea monsters from neighboring seafarers. Not being able to confirm or deny the existence of sea monsters (nor even, probably, being interested in doing so), they simply included the tanninim in their marine bestiary. They thus had to be accounted for in creation.

Again, the ancient cosmology is used in pointing toward a cosmogonic truth: God is the creator and ruler of all, including the fearsome tanninim.

Verses 24-25

“And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.’ And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.”

The account of the sixth day of creation (as with the third and fifth) includes the phrase "according to its kind." The phrase indicates that all the observable types of animals were created at this time. Genesis 1 does not allow room for an interpretation that they developed from each other (the Hebrew language could have said so, if it wished).

Verses 26-31

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.”

The creation of man is the literary climax of the chapter. On no other day is a complete section of the chapter devoted to the creation of only one kind of creation. Moreover, the usual, consistent divine formulaic statement, "Let there be…," is dramatically broken by a new form of creative statement, "Let us make man in our image," a statement which also identifies God with the creature being made. Man, the image of God, is the supreme work, the climax, of God's creative activity.19

“Image” (Heb. selem). This word, frequent in the Old Testament, is used primarily for idols. The root idea behind the word is that man is physically like God, as a picture or a sculpture is like the object being represented, although the ancient Semitic mind would not have sharply differentiated between a physical and spiritual likeness.

“Dominion” (Heb. radah). God made man his coregent on earth. Man, who is God's image, will rule all creation, including animals and plants, in God's place. The text then says that God saw all that he had made and pronounced it very good.

Chapter 2:1-31

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.”

After the statement of Genesis 2:1 concluding the narrative of the six days of creative activity God rests and thereby creates the Sabbath. One could be tempted to see this day as an anticlimax for several reasons. It follows: 1) the climactic creation of man; 2) the closing formulaic expression "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good"; and 3) the formal concluding statement in Genesis 2:1. Actually, this is a typical form of ancient Near Eastern literature where a sequence of six (or other numbers) plus one is frequent. Literary works often picture a person traveling for six days and on the seventh reaching his goal. Or a fire may burn for six days and on the seventh it goes out. Many examples could be given.20 In each, the seventh day represents a climactic release from the activities of the preceding six days. Certainly a similar pattern is present in the creation account of Genesis 1. Thus, far from being an anticlimax, it is a type of climax. The creation of man is the climax of God's creative activity, but the seventh day, the day of rest and fellowship, is the meaning and goal of all that has happened up to now.

The above analysis, relying on close attention to the meaning of the words at the time they were used, suggests that the primary purpose and intent of the author of Genesis 1 was cosmogonic; he is affirming that the cosmos was created by the one true God in a miraculous and ordered way. It is the miraculous word of God which brings the universe into being; and only he could have done such a thing. The author is aware of a tendency among at least some of his readers toward polytheism. He wishes to state unequivocally that true Israelites are monotheists who disdain polytheistic systems, and he dismisses their divine luminaries, primordial seas, and cosmic battles as mere mundane reality.

It is against this background that we must read the chapter today. As we have seen, Genesis 1 is certainly not means to be primarily a compendium of scientific claims about the universe to which we must harmonize all our modern data. The chapter simply uses the common ancient Near Eastern cosmology in expressing what it takes to be the theological (or cosmogonic) truth.

Obviously, the ancient cosmology found in Genesis 1 cannot be harmonized with our present observations of the sun, moon and stars. One implication of the evidence we have examined is that Genesis 1 is theological in intent and that scientists need not attempt to harmonize the ancient cosmology used by biblical authors with the cosmology of modern science. The cosmological elements of Genesis 1 are simply the background for the cosmogonic point of the chapter: the ultimate origin of the universe is God. It is on this that a biblical people must take their stand, whatever modern science may have to say.

What does this do to the Sabbath, one of the most sacred of Adventist beliefs? Does the fact that some parts of Genesis 1 do not conform to our "known" view of the universe destroy our confidence in proclaiming the truth of the Sabbath, as some would hold? Once again it must be underscored that every problem we have encountered in Genesis 1 is a cosmological one. Here also the cosmology of Genesis 1 is the vehicle for its cosmogonic, or theological message. The Sabbath is in no way part of cosmology; it describes nothing of the universe. It is wholly cosmogonic. It is the symbol of, and provides the daily meaning for, the miraculous creative activity of God. As such, it is part of the central theological message of the chapter.

Have we subjected modern science to the Bible as Ellen White has suggested? Yes. We have insisted that the truth of Genesis 1 is its cosmogonic statement. God created the world miraculously in an ordered fashion. If science is to be related to the Bible, it is to this cosmogonic statement that the comparison should be made. After all, it is the theological message of a passage which is at stake, not the vehicle by which it is presented.


This article first appeared in Spectrum, Vol. 13, No. 2 (December 1982). It was written by Larry G. Herr who is a professor of religious studies at Burman University where he teaches Hebrew, Greek, and Old Testament Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University in 1977.


Notes and References:

1. See Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975).

2. All Biblical quotes are from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

3. See E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1964), p. 15. I have come across this view especially while talking with members of various conservative religious groups.

4. The repeated formulaic expressions throughout the chapter as well as the recognized relationship between the first, second and third days of the creation week to the fourth, fifth and sixth days, respectively, are a part of the structure.

5. Other biblical examples include the Book of Ecclesiastes where 1:2 is the introductory inclusio and 12:8 is the concluding inclusio. The opening vision of Ezekiel has an introductory inclusio in 1:4 and a similar concluding inclusio in 1:28. Many other examples could be given. Extra-biblical examples are just as frequent. For an example see Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969); hereafter, ANET. pp. 414-418, "The Instructions for King Meri-Ka-Re," Lines 1 and 144. Spot checking through ANET will reveal many more.

6. Young, Studies in Genesis One, pp. 1-3, discusses this alternative in detail.

7. Young, Ibid., p. 3, gives several examples.

8. He could have answered this question very clearly, if he had so desired.

9. The extant tablets of this early Babylon composition date to the first millennium BC when it seems to have reached the heights of its popularity as Babylon became the cultural center of the ancient world.

10. One of the more recent uses of this interpretation was by Norman Young, Creator, Creation and Faith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976).

11. Some Hebrew dictionaries translate raqia' as "expanse," but it is clear that a two-dimensional expanse is intended, similar to a table top or the surface of a lake, not three-dimensional space.

12. Consult James B. Pritchard, ed., ANET., pp. 4-6: The Theology of Memphis (Egypt); pp. 60-72: Enuma Elish (Babylon); pp. 129-142: Myth of Baal contains references to the cosmogonic battle, one of the Canaanite ideas of creation.

13. These "windows of heaven" may also be used to illustrate the solid nature of the firmament, but more likely they are intended as symbolic schematizations.

14. See, for example H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942), p. 76. There are many others.

15. To be considered "alive" by the ancients an organism must move (Genesis 9:3), have blood (Genesis 9:4) and visibly breathe (Genesis 7:22). Transpiration is, of course, a modern concept and does not fit this definition.

16. Other passages in the Old Testament that mention this beast show that "sea monsters" is more nearly, though not precisely, correct. In Psalm 74:13 the tanninim are great beasts of the sea who are defeated by God in an allusion to the Canaanite cosmic battle between Baal and the god of the sea which symbolized for the Psalmist the crossing of the Red Sea; the term Leviathan is parallel to it in the next line. Isaiah 27:1, in referring to the upcoming new exodus from captivity, pictures God slaying the tanninim which are again paralleled with Leviathan. They are a symbol of all that is evil. Isaiah 51:9 uses them to allude to the same cosmic battle as Psalm 74:13 (now symbolizing creation as well as the exodus); the tanninim were defeated and God's established order is created. In a context of sorcery in Exodus 7 it is the tanninim which came from the rods of Moses and the magicians; there is thus a serpent aspect to the word. Fortunately, the Canaanite texts found at Ugarit, in Syria, have helped greatly to make this rather enigmatic beast known; text 1001 describes tanninim as having two tails and a forked tongue, and, like the Bible associates it with the sea. See Arthur J. Ferch's recent discussion, "Daniel 7 and Ugarit: A Reconsideration,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 99, p. 81.

17. See Pritchard, pp. 4-6; pp. 129-142.

18. These passages also refer to the Red Sea experience during the exodus on another level.

19."Let us make" (Heb. na aseh). Many have seen this word which is in the first person plural form to be proof for the existence of the Trinity, though the Trinity is mentioned or referred to clearly nowhere in the Old Testament. However, if we consider the literatures of the ancient Near East, it will be seen that an important divine address to the heavenly court is often phrased in the first person plural. This is especially true in the case of the highest of the gods. (See Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Genesis 1-11: Studies in Structure and Theme, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 8 (Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 1978). The first person plural also occurs in Genesis 3:22 and 11:1-9, but the same picture of the divine address to the heavenly court is no doubt intended.)

We should certainly understand the pronouncement in verse 26 in the same manner. The decision to create man was the greatest decision of the creation plans and as such was recorded in Genesis 1 by the most solemn tones possible. The phrase would have evoked in the mind of the ancient reader a picture of God on his throne solemnly suggesting to the heavenly court surrounding him the creation of man in the image of God. It thus does not refer to the Trinity, but is instead consistent with the rest of the Old Testament on this point.

The three persons of the Trinity are first revealed in the New Testament and were apparently unknown to the Old Testament. Looking back, we can isolate the individual persons by theological projection, but the discipline of biblical study cannot talk about the Trinity in the Old Testament. Our modern concept of the Trinity, and indeed the term itself, developed during the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries AD.

20. For a few see E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One, pp. 79-81.


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