Teaching series from Genesis

The Beginning of Our World

Genesis 1:1-31; 2:1-4

Teaching t14071


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

This evening 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.  Let’s begin by reading a good chunk of the text . . .

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 myths/fables 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 (location of Eden, Babel, Ararat), and time (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.  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 to correct the erroneous creation myths of the ANE culture.

  • Monotheism distinct from nature vs. polytheism or animistic nature deities
  • Straightforward narrative to inform vs. myth and ritual-enactment in order to placate the gods, stabilize nature, etc.
  • God is eternally pre-existent vs. theogony (gods are born, undergo metamorphosis)
  • Creation out of nothing vs. creations from pre-existing materials
  • Creation by word vs. creations through sexual intercourse, battle, struggle, etc.
  • Humans created last vs. created first (not the case in Enuma Elish)[2]

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.”[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 decided 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, biblical genealogies are not exhaustive.  Careful comparison of the biblical genealogies reveals that they only name key ancestors to establish descent.  The Hebrew terms are general, meaning “became the ancestor of” or “descended from” (MORE LATER).  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 6 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.”  The events of Gen. 2:4-25 require more time than a 24-hour day (tending garden until lonely, naming all the animals, deep sleep while Eve formed, presenting Eve to him).  There is no ending to the seventh “day.”  “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).[5]

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 most 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 surveyed how the biblical account harmonizes with origins science, Andrew Parker, Research Leader of the National History in London, said: “Without expecting to find anything, I discovered a whole series of parallels between the creation story on the Bible’s first page and the modern, scientific account of life’s history . . . How did the writer of this page come to write this creation account? . . . I must admit, rather nervously as a scientist averse to entertaining such an idea, that the evidence that the writer of the opening page of the Bible was divinely inspired is strong.”[6]

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 WHO (God’s role in creation) and WHY rather than a detailed scientific treatise that focuses on WHEN this happened and HOW (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 may explain why the sun, moon and stars are described on the fourth day (i.e., 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/western 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 – God’s 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; Ps. 19:1; COMPUTER VIRUS).  Therefore, atheism is false.  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 (religions which dominated the land into which Moses’ audience was headed) are also false.

Humans alone are created in God’s image.  Humans are like God in a way that other life-forms are not.  Humans “image” or represent God on earth.  We will unpack this in more detail next week, but consider what these verses emphasize about us.

We have benevolent dominion over nature (1:26,28).  This dominion 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, exterminate roaches and termites from houses, kill viruses and bacteria that cause sickness, use trees for housing materials and furniture, etc.

We demonstrate God’s personal unity & diversity (1:26,27).  Most conservative biblical scholars agree that the “Us” and “Our” refer to God Himself, because only God creates.  Furthermore, in 1:27 “God” (Elohim) is a plural noun, but “created” (bara) is a singular verb.  God is one in essence/attributes, but is more than one Person who love one another (Jn. 17:24).  The interaction of these Persons resulted in the creation of life and other persons.  Humans are to image this aspect of God through their marital union (see 2:22-25) which brings forth more persons.

We can receive & respond to God’s propositional communication (1:27; 2:16; 3:8).  You are created by God, created in God’s image, created above all else to relate to this speaking God.  God initiates communication with us (through His written and spoken Word), and the purpose of our lives is to respond to what God says.  To reject or ignore His communication leads to death – but to respond to His communication leads to life (Jn. 8:12; 2 Cor. 4:6).


NEXT WEEK: Genesis 2 – “What does it mean to be human?”


[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. . . 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 (Chicago Press, 1951), and Bruce K. Waltke, “Creation and Chaos” (Portland: Western Conservative Baptist Seminary), pp. 47,48.

[3] “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.” Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (Warner Books, 1978), p. 105.

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

[5] 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.

[6] Andrew Parker, The Genesis Enigma (Penguin Group, 2009).