Teaching series from Genesis

The Beginning of Our World

Genesis 1:1-2:4

Teaching t07295

Introduction

Genesis means “beginning.” The book of Genesis is a book of beginnings (our world; humans; sin; salvation), and is foundational to the biblical world-view.

This morning we will look at Genesis 1. I want to spend the first part addressing some important apologetical issues, and then spend the last part reflecting on the key themes of this chapter.

Key apologetical issues

The first thing we must realize about Gen. 1 (and chapters 2-11 as well) is that it is history rather than myth. More than any other passage of scripture, Gen. 1-11 has been rejected by many as true history. This is because of a lack of extra-biblical historical records for this period, and because of supposed contradictions with science.1 Therefore, we are told, this passage must be stories that humans made up to help them cope with life, like the Epic of Gilgamesh or the stories of Zeus. But Gen. 1-11, including the creation account, is real history, reporting on real persons and events in space and time. There are several reasons why I say this.

First, the author (Moses) uses the same historical narrative style in chapters 1-11 as he does in chapters 12-50. If you read through the book of Genesis in one setting, you will see that the author does not change his style at chapter 12 or give any textual clue that he is moving from myth to history. Rather, you will see that the book is a unity—a record of historical events that sets the stage for the rest of the Bible.

It makes references to places, and time (location of Eden, Babel, Ararat; how long people lived). Myths have no interest in places and time, because they want to remove their characters from history.

It ends each section (real chapters?) with the same phrase, “ . . . these are the generations of . . .”—thus demonstrating the unity of the book.

Second, the rest of the Old Testament and Jesus himself regard these chapters as real history.

See Ps. 136, where the psalmist praises God for creating the world as described by Gen. 1 in the same way that he praises God for delivering the Israelites from Egypt as described in Ex. 1-19.

See Matt. 19:4,5, where Jesus regards Adam and Eve as real historical people.

Third, the biblical creation account is fundamentally different from other ancient creation myths, like the Babylonian Enuma Elish. As is so often the case, to actually read the other myths is to realize how very different the biblical account is. In fact, one of the main purposes of the Genesis account is (probably) to correct the erroneous creation myths of the ancient Near Eastern culture.2

Monotheism distinct from nature vs. polytheism or animistic nature deities

Straightforward narrative to inform vs. myth-ritual to enact in order to stabilize nature

God is eternally pre-existent vs. theogony (gods are born, undergo metamorphosis)

Creation out of nothing vs. from pre-existing materials

Creation by word vs. through sexual intercourse, battle, struggle, etc.

Humans created last vs. first (not the case in “Enuma Elish”)

The second thing we need to realize about Gen. 1 is that it harmonizes with origins science, but it is not a scientific textbook. Let’s take a closer look at both halves of this statement.

Gen. 1 harmonizes with origins science. There is no contradiction between what is recorded here and what science has discovered about the origin of the universe and life on earth. Rather, there is agreement about the most important issues.

The universe began at a point in time. For centuries, many scientists held that the universe was eternal, but now we know this is not the case. Through a variety of means, we can trace the universe back to a moment in time when all of its mass was condensed into a single point of incredible density. This mass exploded, and the aftermath of this explosion is the universe. This is the so-called “Big Bang.”

Of course, the Bible also tells us that universe had a beginning. It also explains what science could never explain—how this mass came into being, what caused it to explode, and why such order has resulted from this explosion. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

“The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same . . . We scientists did not expect to find evidence for an abrupt beginning because we have had, until fairly recently, such extraordinary success in tracing the chain of cause and effect backward in time . . . For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”3

The earth is very old. Solid scientific evidence indicates that the earth and the universe are several billion years old (e.g., red shift; radioactive dating of rocks). Unfortunately, many Christians have dogmatically stated that Genesis says the earth is only a few thousand years old. The classic presentation of this position was formulated by Bishop Ussher, who calculated the genealogies back from Jesus and proclaimed that the universe was created during the week of October 18-24, 4004 BC, with Adam created on October 23. Although young earth creationists have moved this date back by several thousand years, they still have a problem with both scientific evidence and the biblical text.

First of all, genealogy does not mean chronology. Careful comparison of the biblical genealogies reveals that they are not exhaustive; they only name key ancestors to establish descent. The Hebrew terms are general, meaning “became the ancestor of” or “descended from.” In other words, the Bible doesn’t tell us how long ago the first humans were created.

Second, it is not at all clear that Gen. 1 is describing creation in six successive 24-hour days.

There is evidence from the text that Moses is using the word “day” (yom) to refer to a period of time longer than 24 hours.4 Gen. 2:4 sums up the six creative “days” as “the day that the Lord God made heaven and earth.” There is no ending to the seventh “day.” The events of Gen. 2:4-25 require more time than a 24 hour day (tending grade until lonely, naming all the animals, deep sleep while Eve formed, presenting Eve to him). “Evening and morning” can connote beginning and ending rather than requiring a 24 hour day. In other words, Gen. 1 may be a general description of God’s activity in the creation and development of the earth over a very long period of time in a way that corresponds generally with the findings of origins science (vegetation to sea animals and birds to land animals to humans).

It is also possible that Gen. 1 is describing six literal but not sequential days. The text does not specify that the six creative days were sequential. It simply refers to them as “a day.” These “days” may refer to roughly 24 hour day long periods in which God intervened dramatically to introduce new life forms, etc.—and between which God was active in a very long fashioning process of these life forms.

New life forms emerged suddenly, followed by gradual development. Darwin postulated that the fossil record would show a gradual development of simpler to more complex life forms. But the fossil record shows something very different—sudden “irruptions” of new, more complex life forms, followed by long periods of development of those life forms. This better fits the Genesis 1 record, assuming it is describing an old earth.

Humans are more recent than most other life forms. Unlike the ancient Near Eastern myths which placed humans before other life forms, the biblical creation account is confirmed by the fossil record, which tells us that humans have appeared very recently in geological time.

Having said the above, we must also understand that Gen. 1 is not a scientific textbook. It is unfair to impose upon it standards of specificity and perspective that are appropriate to the scientific discipline. Consider these differences:

It is a very general summary, focusing on God’s role in creation, rather than a detailed scientific treatise that focuses on when this happened and the secondary causes involved.

It uses “observational” language—it describes things from the perspective and interest of a human observer on the earth. We do this every day when we speak of the sun “rising.” This explains why the sun, moon and stars are described on the fourth day (probably their appearance through the atmosphere).

It is highly selective. It focuses on matters that were known by and were of interest to the original (human) audience. We do this every day when our news focuses on events that pertain primarily to human affairs. This explains why microscopic sea life is omitted, as well as many other things.

What does Genesis 1 teach us?

God is revealed through but distinct from his creation. Just as we can learn something about the artist by studying his art works, we can learn something about the Creator by studying his creation (Rom. 1:20 – power and intelligence). But if the canvas was burned up, the artist would remain. In the same way, God exists independently from his creation.

Therefore, pantheism, animism, and polytheism (including nature worship and witchcraft) are false and dangerous, because they can lead you into involvement with evil spirits. Though Moses does not explicitly state this warning in this passage, it is implied and he does elsewhere (see Deut. 18).

Humans alone are created in God’s image (see 1:26,27). We will unpack this in detail next week, but consider what these verses emphasize.

We are to be benevolent rulers over nature (1:26,28).

This rulership is to care for nature, not rape or exploit it. The charge that the Bible gave western people to permission to exploit nature is untrue. Here and elsewhere, the Bible calls on humans to be humane in their treatment of animals, for example (sabbath rest; ox and mule; muzzled threshing). Such exploitation (usually motivated out of monetary greed) is a fallen perversion of biblical dominion.

Yet this means that human life is of greater value than non-human life. It means that, within proper restraints, the rest of creation was given to humans to use and enjoy. Therefore, humans may domesticate animals, practice agriculture, use animals for medical research, exterminate roaches and termites from houses, kill viruses and bacteria that cause sickness, use trees for housing materials and furniture, etc.

We can relate to God in a personal way (1:27?). You are created by God, created in his image, created above all else to relate to God. Unless you are doing this, you are fundamentally missing out on the purpose of your life. Have you acknowledged this fact? Continue with us in this study of Genesis and learn how God’s creation was spoiled, and what God is doing to restore it.

Conclusion

NEXT: “What does it mean to be human?”

Footnotes

1 “It may be regarded as an axiom of modern study that the descriptions of creation contained in the biblical records, and especially in Gen. 1:1-2:4a, are permanently valuable only in so far as they express certain religious truths which are still recognized as such. To seek for even a kernel of historical fact in such cosmogonies is inconsistent with a scientific point of view. H. Zimmern and T. K. Cheyne, “Creation,” in Encyclopedia Biblica, I (1899), col. 938.

2 See Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicgo Press, 1951), and Bruce K. Waltke, “Creation and Chaos” (Portland: Western Conservative Baptist Seminary), pp. 47,48.

3 Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: Warner Books, 1978), p. 105.

4 This is not a recent attempt to harmonize Gen. 1 with modern science. Christian and Jewish scholars have noted this for many centuries, even when most people assumed the earth was relatively young.

Copyright 1998 Gary DeLashmutt