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What are we going to do with Genesis 1? I have heard that question throughout my career, first as a pastor and then as a professor. I understand the urgency behind it, but the question itself needs serious revision. For Christians, a more important question asks what Genesis 1 is going to do with us. Or, to put it differently: How does God want to challenge and nurture the church through Genesis 1? Obviously, in order to arrive at an academically sound and theologically sensitive answer to that question, we must engage in serious biblical interpretation. We do not have to choose between our theological commitments and our interpretive methods but rather should focus those methods on hearing what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church.
A serious and faithful engagement with the creation story will demonstrate the folly of pitting science and the Bible against each other.
Remembering this theological goal offers a remedy to a utilitarian approach to the Bible’s opening chapters that co-opts the first creation account for our debates about faith and science, particularly questions about the origins of the universe and of life itself. (By “first” I mean canonically prior; I use the term “Genesis 1” as shorthand for what scholars call the “priestly account.”) As a biblical theologian who teaches at a Christian liberal-arts institution, I owe it to my colleagues and students to take every scholarly endeavor seriously. Part of loving God with our whole mind requires that we not shrink back from using those God-given intellectual capacities in the pursuit of truth wherever we find it. I believe that long before we broach the matter of faith and science in Genesis 1, we must wrestle with three other crucial features of the chapter itself: genre (its literary form in light of the historical context), representation (the literal-figural referents of its language) and structure (the ordered function of its literary features). A serious and faithful engagement with the creation story will demonstrate the folly of pitting science and the Bible against each other.
REALITIES TO REMEMBER
First, we cannot establish the relationship between Genesis 1 and science until we decide what Genesis 1 is as literature coming out of the ancient Near East. When archaeologists began discovering ancient Mesopotamian epics about 150 years ago, scholars immediately recognized the similarities between the kind of literature found in, say, the Atrahasis epic or the Enuma Elish and Genesis 1. If those works had never been lost to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we wouldn’t be having this debate today. Unfortunately, their disappearance meant that western civilization in general and Christendom in particular developed an almost myopic view of the Bible’s literary character. (Theologically speaking, I fully affirm the inspiration of the Bible in the spirit of the Reformed confessions. The Bible is the word of God for us in a way that other literature is not.) It is imperative that we understand the message of Genesis 1 by acknowledging that its Israelite author knew, borrowed from and critiqued the creation accounts of the cultures around Israel. If anything, our understanding of Genesis 1’s literary artistry and theological rhetoric are enhanced by knowing that it, too, is an ancient Near Eastern epic told from the perspective of a deep faith in the God of Israel.
Second, if we accept the insights offered by the genre of Genesis 1, we still cannot make scientific claims until we determine the relationship between literal and figurative referents within the chapter. Here is where much of the discussion breaks down between believers who are otherwise committed to a basic Christian orthodoxy. Believers on both sides of the debate (for lack of better terminology, the young-earth creationists and the old-earth evolutionists) tend to pit the literal meaning of the chapter over against its figurative meaning. It simply is not accurate to say that Genesis 1 must be understood either in a completely literal, narrative-historical sense or a completely figurative, poetical-theological sense. On the one hand, the Hebrew author was certainly writing about literal land, water, sky and animals. On the other hand, these literal referents certainly conveyed figurative meaning. A good illustration of this literal-figurative combination arises in the author’s deliberate decision not to use the Hebrew word for sun (šemeš) – thus evoking the Mesopotamian sun god Shamash – but to refer to that object simply as a “greater light” (Genesis 1:16, NRSV). The figurative meaning contained within the literal referent shows the author’s polemic against a worldview that sees the universe as divine.
Third, we cannot advance scientific interpretations of the chronology in Genesis 1 if we fail to ascertain the theological purpose of its structure of days. Here, too, debates over how much time is implied by the Hebrew word for day (yôm) have missed the point. (There is much to be said for the structural paradigm sometimes referred to as the framework hypothesis, but the literary balance of days one through three with days four through six does not preclude the literary movement toward day seven.) In creating a structure of seven days, the Israelite author was no doubt thinking about the literal, seven-day week, but the literal pattern evokes a much more profound pattern for creation, namely, temple worship and Sabbath observance. The structure of Genesis 1 moves through the “good” days on its way to the affirmation that all creation is “very good” and ultimately to the sacredness of the seventh day. So also, the plan of the temple moves worshipers from the outer courts to the most holy place. By its very structure, therefore, Genesis 1 makes the same theological declaration found in the psalms: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).
It is my conviction that when we marvel at Genesis 1’s literary and theological artistry, we discover how misplaced is the so-called debate between science and faith. Those arguments have reduced its value to matters of chronology and cosmology, thereby obscuring its revelation of the majesty and glory of God. May our generation’s interpretive legacy with respect to Genesis 1 not be that we missed its claim upon our lives. For this incredible prologue to Holy Scripture joyfully invites us to worship God as a good creator, to accept God’s purpose for humankind as earth’s stewards and to affirm the equality of men and women and all races before God.
James K. Mead teaches religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.
Image: The Creation of the Sun and the Moon, by Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.