So I’ve written my book. And I’ve finished the doctorate. And when I tell interested friends and acquaintances that the topic of each is, “A History of Christian Interpretation of the Creation Week in Genesis 1:1-2:3,” (though buyer beware, it only goes up to the early 1860s!), if they ask any further about it (proving that they are indeed interested!), they say something like,
So what do you think about the creation week?
It’s no use explaining, really, is it, that that is not what I was studying. Why does anyone want to know what I think when I can tell them what Augustine or Calvin or Thomas Aquinas or even Isaac Newton thought? Many of the people I studied were 100 times smarter than me, probably 100 times godlier, and many being celibate monk types, had 100 times more disposable time. But I have something over them. I’m living! That mysteriously makes my opinion more important than theirs, or at least that’s the impression I get. Though I don’t believe it myself.
So, what do I think? It’s actually oddly difficult to comment briefly on a text I’ve thought about so often over the years. When you stare at something for long enough it can become hard to see. Let me describe creation as it appears to me in Genesis 1, with explanations:
- Creation is orderly. It’s all about order. It begins with bare basic being, and describes the step by step introduction of distinction, where one thing is made different from another. Day is now different from night, light from darkness, sky from sea, earth from ocean. The content of creation grows increasingly orderly, and its very description is orderly, described in a series of day units so rigorously similar that we can call them formulaic, yet with unique little twists.
- Creation is full of vitality. The world was meant to be full of life. God wasn’t content until it was, until planet earth was absolutely teeming, with every possible zone of life filled with walking, crawling, swimming, flying, thinking, loving life. It’s true, isn’t it? We watch one of those David Attenborough documentaries (if he’s still alive) and see that there’s life in every possible terrestrial sphere, down to crushing ocean depths and hot springs. God couldn’t rest until life was everywhere.
- Creation’s Author is regal. God appears in the image of the most monarchic of monarchs. He gives the orders, no-one else. What he wishes is instantly done, no questions asked. His will is determinative. There is no resistance, not even from any ‘chaos’ that some interpreters see (or read into) Gen. 1:2. There is no mythical battle. Matter doesn’t utter a squeak of protest about being made into meaningful things. “So shall it be written; so shall it be done.”
- Creation is good. That might seem obvious, but there has always been a contrary idea that believes that the physical world, and the physical human body for that matter, is somehow ungodly, somehow evil, a kind of ugly, even sinister blot on the spiritual realm. It’s basically Gnosticism, and if you think it isn’t relevant, ask yourself why so many people think Christians aspire to eternal, disembodied existence in an ethereal heaven.
Yes, yes, yes, you say, that’s all good. But what about the days? Was the world made 6,000 years ago in a single work week? It is simplest to say yes, because that would be the simplest way to read Genesis 1, three days before the sun notwithstanding. Some readers will say so, and I would defend their right to say so, though I believe the usual bedfellow of this interpretation, which reads Noah’s Flood as a worldwide geological catastrophe on an enormous scale, is an extremely creative reading of Genesis 6-9 that cannot be so easily justified.
But I don’t believe that the world was made 6,000 years ago in a literal week. I believe the creation week is a schema, an anthropomorphism if you like, a description of God’s work in the form of a human building enterprise. (C. John Collins has written an article about this: Collins, C. J. “How Old Is the Earth? Anthropomorphic Days in Genesis 1:1-2:3,” Presbyterion 20 (1994), 109-130.) This would be an implicit, not an explicit anthropomorphism, just as God’s day of rest on Day 7 is. God doesn’t actually need rest, and if you respond that the Hebrew could be translated ‘cease’ [from creative work], the same cannot be said for Exod 31:18, which says that God rested and was refreshed! God got his breath back! Now that’s an anthropomorphism if I’ve ever seen one. Not to mention God breathing into the man’s nostrils the breath of life (Gen. 2:7), or walking in the garden in Genesis 3. To take these details of the narrative literally, as some readers probably unconsciously do, is to imply that God’s height could be measured with a tape measure. I think that’s a theological problem.
So are the days ages, you say? No, they’re just ordinary days. But the week is a literary form, a way of expressing information about creation, casting orderliness of being in an orderly arrangement of time. So I don’t believe the creation days are historical, but I believe they are intentionally realistic. It is talking about the real world, not events on a spiritual plane.
So why wouldn’t God give an exact, historical account of creation? My answer is, to whom? To our generation in 2014, according to what we currently think we know about the world’s and life’s origin? What would all of the earlier generations do for an account of creation? What about later generations, who will confirm the workability of some of our current ideas about the world’s origin, but will regard other current ideas about the world as passe, even comical. The creation account in Genesis, if we think it’s a God-given story for believers of all ages, is going to need to be extremely versatile, because the way people imagine the physical world is pretty different in different ages.
If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to look for a ‘firmament’ or ‘raqia‘ such as is described in Genesis 1:6-8. Surely it’s just our sky? Well, what about the ‘waters above’ that firmament or expanse? The clouds? Well they’re not really above the sky, are they? Maybe an original vapour canopy that collapsed at flood time? Then why would Psalm 148 assume it’s still there? And in any case, while these ‘upper waters’ are above the firmament, the sun, moon and stars are in it. This can be controversial, but at one level it isn’t surprising. Genesis 1 is a good, solid 2,500 years old at a minimum that few would disagree with. It is a text from the ancient world. If we’re expecting it to perfectly correlate with a 2014 view of the world, we’re asking that God make this text essentially incomprehensible for its earliest audiences, and most in-between.
But if you’ve ever read any ancient creation myths like Enuma Elish, you’ll know there’s no comparison with Genesis 1. Which makes more sense, that God orders the different groups of living things into existence in their appropriate places, or that the sky and earth are made out of the two halves of the corpse of an enormous, female, mythical goddess? I know what I think. In fact, it’s really hard for me to imagine how a chapter like Genesis, given that it be first written well ‘BC(E)’, could be written any better to suffice as an account of creation for audiences separated by millennia. This is the most historically versatile creation story there is. But we shouldn’t expect it to read as if it was written yesterday.
J. G. Herder said that Genesis 1 describes creation in the manner of a sunrise. Light appears, and as it rises higher and higher, all of the detail of the world becomes more and more clearly resolved. Not perfect, perhaps, but for my money not a bad way to cut to the essence of this magnificent opening text of the Bible.
God wanted a world, and humans in it. We are meant to be here. The reason why must reside within the will of Him who wished it so.
“Let there be light!” I love it.