[K:NWTS 9/2 (Sep 1994) 30-54]
It Is Written
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." This seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? And yet so much of what we read about Genesis these days implies that it's really not so straightforward, after all. Take, for example, the claim that in Genesis 1:1, the phrase 'the heavens', "refers to the component of space in the basic space-mass-time universe." And that, "the term 'earth' refers to the component of matter [or "mass"] in the universe..." (Only later is the planet earth itself made from this initial stuff called "the earth"). According to this interpretation then, Moses meant to say, 'at the beginning of time God created space and matter'.
Now, you certainly can't argue with the fact that God created what we call "space" and "matter". But was Moses really trying to specify those particular concepts here in Genesis 1:1? Did he need modern scientific categories to come along so we'd finally understand what he meant by the phrase, "the heavens and the earth"'? Or does this, in fact, sound more like somebody reading modern science into Genesis?
Interestingly enough, this "space " and "matter" interpretation is the opinion of Dr. Henry Morris (on pages 40 and 41 of his The Genesis Record). Dr. Morris has built quite a career and reputation on supposedly taking the Bible at face value, come what may. And in the mind of many conservatives, anyone who disagrees with him is necessarily indifferent to the Scriptures (to say the least). Even so, I'm not at all sure how his exegesis could be called "literal" here, unless the word means something other than what I thought it did. But one thing is for sure: he's not giving us a straightforward reading of Genesis 1:1, call it "literal" or not.
Maybe I shouldn't single him out. Except that, as I said, he is so often taken to be the champion of straightforward, no nonsense interpretation of Genesis. And in this instance, he clearly does not do so. What's more, we don't have to be liberal, evolutionist badguys to see that he doesn't, either. Many others also offer commentary and opinions that, in one way or another, seem far removed from a plain reading of this passage of Scripture. And it doesn't always help to know whether the one commenting is a conservative or a liberal. Part of the problem may be that commentaries present Genesis to us in a dissected and analyzed form along with a lot of background material that is thought to be crucial to understanding the text. So much so that many commentaries just don't seem much like the Genesis that we remember reading in the first place. (The Genesis that Moses wrote, I mean). And we end up having trouble putting the two versions together in our minds. The actual words of Moses become, in a sense, replaced by the commentary, rather than being made clearer and more accessible to us.
Obviously, some of this can't be helped. A commentary is supposed to be more than a verbatim repetition of a particular passage. Or it just wouldn't be "commentary". It has to interrupt a plain reading if it is to do any commenting. Still, I wonder if, somewhere along the line, we haven't become dulled to the fact that the Bible itself is written. Written with just as much care and purpose as any commentary is. Writtennot some sort of mindless aggregate of unrelated words, thoughts and phrases that can only be made sense of by experts. Nor is the Bible a mere religious database from which to collate verses for the seven steps to this and the ten principles of that. The Bible was crafted in a premeditated way by those in whom the Spirit acted to write the Word of God in the first place. And this deliberately literary nature of scripture is often more evident in a plain reading of it than in the commentaries that are supposed to be helping us understand what we're reading. This seems especially true of Genesis 1. Oh, we're right in using commentaries and other tools. There's no excuse for laziness in Bible study. But I wonder if, in the end, we aren't too easily satisfied with manipulations of words, phrases and imagesnever taking the time to go back and read what Moses (or any other Bible author) actually wrote. And to see if the commentary is really telling us what God said or not. There is something to be learned from those noble minded Bereans.
Now, making a big deal about the literary nature of Scripture might make you a little suspicious (especially in the context of Genesis 1). Suspicious because "literary character" usually means that a liberal is trying to sneak something in on you. There's no denying the fact that one way to 'handle' (rather than understand) Genesis 1 is to ostensibly appeal to its literary qualities. Concern for "literary genre', for example, is often just a pretext for purging a passage of its specificity, historically speaking. Genesis, "properly" interpreted, is not supposed to involve specifics of real world history. And so an endless parade of literary categories are inventively applied to Genesis 1 to make it historically inert. In fact, when talking about religion, many intellectuals use the terms "reality" and "truth" as merely existential categories rather than as both existential and ontological ones, like they do when talking about history and science. l mean that 'religious' or 'theological' truths of Scripture are treated as alien to the world of specific historic facts; as if there is no necessary connection between the two. 'Religious' meaning and actual facts are not seen as belonging to the same reality. Sort of like Aesop's fables. The people, places and events of his stories are not historically specific. Rather, they are vehicles for generalized truths. Truths contained in the gist or moral of the stories.
Paul, in talking about how history and religion are related to one another, makes the 'religious' meaning of the resurrection dependent upon the historic fact of the resurrectionl Corinthians 15. If we take away the fact we also take away the religious meaning too! This is no less true of Genesis I. Again though, certain ways of 'handling' Genesis narratives serve to keep them in a detached, literary world away from causing intellectual problems for the real world. Practically speaking, this attitude eventually makes religion little more than structured symbolism of realities that are ultimately knowable through nonreligious means (a la Joseph Campbell).
Anyway, the point is that intellectual subterfuge is not at all what I have in mind by bringing up the literary nature of Scripture. Quite the opposite. Acknowledging literary dynamics of a Bible passage does not mean we accept that passage as nothing more than a literary dynamic. The passage does not have to be seen as locked in sort of an a-historical loop. The fact that Moses (or any other Bible writer) uses language in a premeditated, artistic way to articulate something does not reduce that articulation to mere metaphor or fable. In fact, it is through the literary character of Biblical revelation that its meaning is best guarded against the errors of wolves and of fools. When you and I talk to each other, we use all sorts of gestures, inflections and so onthings that provide context for the words we're usingas a way of getting our intent across. If the Bible, for its part, had no artistryno literary characterit would be far more difficult to pin down the intentions of its authors. This is certainly true of the narrative of Genesis 1.
There is nothing particularly mythic about the language, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." In the narrative that follows this declaration, Moses continues talking about this same "God". And he still talks about the same "heavens and earth" that God "created". And he uses straightforward language like "light", "sky", "land", "birds", "man" and so on. There's nothing here about using body parts of some deity to form the world we know. What then is so myth-like about this narrative?
Well, it's not so much the literary character of the narrative that gives some people the impression of myth-ness in Genesis 1. It is that what we read doesn't seem to them to fit the real world (at least as it has been articulated by our sciences). Genesis 1 is consequently 'interpreted' in a way that permits a kind of generalized understanding of ita religiously useful understanding without getting specific with real world detail. Rudolf Bultmann (one who approached the New Testament in this way) once wrote: "Myths give worldly objectivity to that which is unworldly". And that's just how many see Genesis 1. That is, as a vehicle to bring concrete, this world expression to truths that are actually beyond this world.
Divine revelation is not seen as being connected to the Bible in a way that demands absolute integrity of the textany textof Scripture. There is no intrinsically necessary connection between the specific way the Bible has come to us and divine revelation. The Bible is an accident of history, not integrally involved in divine revelation itself. This attitude can be seen, for example, in the way that the revelational content of Genesis 1 is so often reduced and generalized to that of "general" revelation. Compare, for example, what Dr. Howard Van Till says about Genesis 1 in The Fourth Day and what Paul says we all know without even reading Genesis (Romans 1).
Nearly everybodyeven the more 'progressive' among usagrees that Genesis 1 presents God as the Creator. And, of course, it does teach this. The thing is though, it presents God as the Creator. Not as merely a creator or as merely creative. My point is that the assertion that God is the Creator is much more historically specificmuch more tied-in with the intricacies of real world historythan many modern commentators allow for. We aren't talking about a religious truth that is the consequence of reflection on reality. Reality is itself the consequence of God being "the Creator".
God is the Creator. That is specific. Too specific, in fact, to dismiss the possibility of conflict between the Bible and our culture's sciences. Attempts to bring these two together nearly always means subordinating the articulations of the Holy Spirit to those of the sciences. Where this two-world approach is used (see The Fourth Day and Portraits of Creation), you can never exegetically establish that God is the Creator. Oh, you might genuinely believe that he is the Creator. But you could not derive it exegetically. Not from Genesis 1, anyway. And that's because the issue here is not so much one of literary constraints of a genre on our thinking as it is philosophic constraints of our thinking being imposed on the text. For one thing, there would be nothing to link a supposed Near Eastern mythic world to the real one; nothing in the text itself, because we just don't have a 'moral of the story' to tell us what this supposed myth has to do with the real world, like we do with Aesop. In the end, the very attempt to save Genesis from 'too much' specificity, empties it of any real specific religious meaning too!
Your exegesis could be no more specific than to say that God is a creator, or that he is creative. You just can't expect an ancient Near Eastern myth to serve as proof that God is the Creator. All this accomplishes is to show that the god mentioned in the myth created the world of that myth (the a-historical loop I was talking about earlier). And we'd be left to imagine a connection between that mythic world and the real world of our experience. That connection wouldn't be exegetical. It wouldn't be a teaching of Genesis 1. But the context of Genesis as a whole, and its place and use in the rest of Scripture eliminates such an approach to what Moses wrote, if we're going to take Genesis seriously.
Again, the problem with the modern approach boils down to the fact that what God created is the real world. This world that God is said to have created, here in Genesis 1, is the same world that the rest of Scripture takes place in. The same world, in other words, that the whole history of redemption unfolds in and partakes of. It is the venue God made to display his glory in. If the Genesis world was a metaphor, myth or saga, what must be said about what takes place in that make-believe world? Even Adam's sin and our need of a Savior would be part of the mythic construct. The idea behind so much of what we hear about Genesis seems to be that divine revelation is exclusively made up of truths that would obtain whether this world existed or not. But Jesus (the focus of divine revelation) was himself incarnated into this same Genesis world. He lived and died and rose gain in this God-created reality introduced to us in Genesis 1. The same reality that you and I now call "the real world".
What God Created
All Scripture is literary in nature. So identifying literary qualities in any particular portion of Scripture (say, Genesis 1, for instance), does not indicate that such a passage is merely metaphorical or poetic in character. It doesn't mean that it must be understood by just 'getting the gist of it' like we might a fable of Aesop. Nor does it make us "liberal" if we acknowledge the obvious literary nature of Scripture. There is, in fact, nothing up my sleeve in emphasizing that Scripture is deliberately composed writing. That's what it is. And we ought to read it that way. With that in mind, let's read Genesis 1 again (the narrative in view here actually covers Genesis 1:1-2:3. But I'll call it "Genesis 1" to make it easier to refer to). By the way, it would really help here if you'd have your Bible open.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." I'm sure you know this verse by heart. But how does it read to you? I mean, is it a complete thought? Or is it completed only when you've finished reading the entire narrative (Genesis 1:1 through 2:3)? I ask this because we often quote Genesis 1:1 as a proof-text for saying that God created everything. And yet, at other times, we take verse 1 as an incomplete thought. I mean, it is taken as the first of a sequence of discrete acts described in the course of the narrative ending up in verse 31. In other words, verse 1 says God created "the heavens and the earth". Then verse 2 picks up where verse 1 left off. He created more. Then verse 3 picks up where verse 2 left off. And so on until we read that the work is "completed" (2:1). Read in this way, verse 1 relies on the verses that follow it to round out the thought that it began; to complete the sequence of events that it started. Does "the heavens and the earth" refer to all that God created? Or does it refer only to some initial stuff?
Taken as an incomplete thought, of course, Genesis 1 can't stand by itself as a proof-text for saying that God is the Creator. "The heavens and the earth" would not then include vegetation (which doesn't show up until verse 11), birds and sealife (verse 20), land animals (verse 24), nor even man himself (verse 26). In fact, according to Dr. Morris, it wouldn't include the sun, the moon, the stars, or the planet earth! So again, what is Genesis 1:1 saying that God created?
I think that we are right in using Genesis 1:1 as Biblical proof that God is the Creator. In other words, that verse 1 here is a complete thought. Look, for example, at how the phrase, "the heavens and the earth" is used a little later, in 2:4: "This is the account of the heavens and the earth". 2:4 relates to us something of what comes from "the heavens and the earth", its resultant history. I do not believe that Genesis 1 is talking about the same thing. Genesis 1 is not "the account of the heavens and the earth". That is what the narrative initiated in 2:4 goes into. Genesis 1 is about the "creating" of the heavens and the earth.
The phrase, "the heavens and the earth" is not so much a list of what God created as it is telling us that God created everything. "The heavens and the earth" is to the range of things God created, what "springtime and harvest" is to passing time and "ladies and gentlemen" is to an audienceall inclusive. Joining two opposites into one phrase here indicates comprehensive inclusion, even of things not specifically listed. All of which is to say that in the beginning God created everything. Period.
Oh, and something else here. Saying that this creating took place, "In the beginning" isn't a problem either. Moses is not saying that 'at the first instant of time' God created the heavens and the earth. (This could be a problem because Moses would be saying that God created everything in an instant. Then he would go on to speak of the six days of creation). "In the beginning" corresponds to the phrases "when they were created" and "in the day that the Lord made earth and heaven" (chapter 2, verse 4). The reference is not to a point of time but to a period of time. A period that constitutes the early portion of history. Not, "At the beginning...", but "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
Genesis 1 in Context
Alright then, if for the sake of argument, Genesis 1:1 stands as a complete thought, how is it supposed to fit into the rest of the passage? Well, it seems to be something of a heading to initiate the narrative that follows it, 1:2-2:3. In fact, it seems that Moses planned out the entire book of Genesis in this way. That is, using headings to initiate narratives. The book of Genesis progresses from "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" to the children of Israel poised to enter the promised land. This progressive unfolding of God's plan (his election) can be easily seen in the headings themselves. These headings are characterized bywhat should I call them?toledot phrases. Toledot (toe-le-dote) is the Hebrew word often translated "generations". But here, see what I mean for yourself:
(Genesis 2:4) "These are the toledot of the heavens and the earth. "
(Gen. 5:1) "This is the book of the toledot of Adam."
(Gen. 6:9) "These are the toledot of Noah."
(Gen. 10:1) "these are the toledot of Shem, Ham and Japheth..."
(Gen. 11:10) "These are the toledot of Shem. "
(Gen. 11:27) "These are the toledot of Terah."
(Gen. 25:12) "These are the toledot of Ishmael. "
(Gen. 25:19) "These are the toledot of Isaac."
(Gen. 36:1) "These are the toledot of Esau."
[(Gen. 36:9) "These are the toledot of Esau." (yes, this is a repeat)]
(Gen. 37:2) "These are the toledot of Jacob. "
Where does Genesis 1:1 fit in? Well, suppose you were looking over Moses' shoulder as he wrote. And suppose that you noticed that he had used the toledot headings to shape and direct the narratives that make up Genesis. What's more, you were familiar with the creation stories of the surrounding nations; not to mention Moses' own education in Egypt. All of which, in some form or another, say that the creation is materially derived from divinity. Looking over his shoulder then, you might well have expected him to begin Genesis: 'This is the toledot of God.' Thus Genesis 1:1 would fit right at the top of the list I just gave you. It would fit his style as well as the conventional wisdom of the day.
So why didn't he do that? Quite simply because there is no toledot of God. And "the heavens and the earth" is not derived from God. The creation is not a product of divine 'substance' as was commonly held. God is just not part of the history of things in that way. God created the heavens and the earth out of . . . what? If the heavens and the earth is not a toledot of God, then what were they made out of ? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It must be said here that the word "created" (Genesis 1:1; "bare" in the Hebrew), does not mean "created out of nothing", as is often suggested. Not by itself, anyway. Look down at verse 27, for example. There the word 'bare' is used several times. God "created" man. Male and female, he "created" them. Out of nothing? Hardly. Chapter 2 says that God made man out of the dust of the ground (2:7). And in I Corinthians 15, Paul makes something out of the fact that man did not come "out of nothing". This historic fact (revealed in Genesis 2) that man came from the dust of the earth is theologically important to Paul's discussion there (verses 42-49). So Moses did not use the word "bare" thinking that it meant 'created out of nothing'.
Don't get me wrong though. Genesis does teach that "the heavens and the earth" were created out of nothing ("ex nihilo", as we like to say). But it does so contextually rather than lexically. And that's where Genesis 1:1 comes in. Moses does not begin Genesis with 'This is the toledot of God' because "the heavens and the earth" did not come out of God. History is not eternal. It is not simply an extension of the life of God. "The heavens and the earth" came out of nothing. And God made it come out of nothing. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." It is precisely its placement at the beginning of the toledot narratives that drives home the point that God "created" out of nothing. The universe is a toledot of nothingGod created it. It does not descend from anything, much less from God himself.
You see, Genesis 1:1 does belong at the beginning of the toledot narratives, right where Moses put it. After all, it too is a heading that initiates a narrative. And that narrative logically precedes the one that starts with "the toledot of the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 2:4).
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1)." That's where it all started. God made something for himself: the heavens and the earth. That is what our narrative here is about. Then, having established this, Moses goes on in Genesis to center our attention on "the toledot of the heavens and the earth (2:4ff.)". Out of everything that we might want to keep track of to trace the toledot of the heavens and the earthyou know, the vegetation, the animals, the birds, Adam and the rest of the stuff mentioned in chapter oneout of all of this, Adam is brought centerstage (5:1ff.). Then, out of all the people that make up the toledot of Adam (all of mankind to that point), Moses focuses on Noah (6:9ff.). And then his sons (10:1ff.). And then one son in particular, Shem (11:l0ff.). And so on. This narrowing of focus, this display of the election of God, continues (with some inclusions of reprobation) until we reach the toledot of Jacobthe children of Israel [here you may want to look again at the list of toledot headings above].
God, having brought history to this point, will further refine his revelation of himself in the law and so on. Ultimately, of course, Jesus is the final and complete focus of God's revelation of himself; the consummation of election in history; the goal of the law; the most perfect display of God himself. But, for its part, Genesis only goes through the toledot of Jacob.
We can see God through the course of Moses' writing of Genesis. God continually narrows the spotlight to focus on his own glory as history progresses toward Christ. From the creation of the venue of his glory, "the heavens and the earth", to the people he has chosen to call his own and dwell among, Genesis is the revelation of God himself. That's what Moses wrote about. That is Genesis. To God be the glory...
Genesis 1 is the beginning of this revelation. In fact, it is quite a visual narrative for this very reason. Because of God's glory, I mean. Glory in the Bible is most closely associated with visual perception. It is something to behold. So Moses, quite appropriately, writes this very visually oriented narrative.
Genesis 1 is not a mere introduction to the rest of Genesis. At least, not in the sense that it falls outside of the revelatory message or the literary style of the rest of Genesis. It is part of the whole. And, accordingly, Genesis 1:1 is a heading for the narrative that immediately follows it (in lieu of a toledot heading, but having the same relationship to its narrative that the toledots do to what follows them).
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." All that God "created", including the angelic beings, is referred to in verse 1. But going on from there, Moses only narrates certain aspects of God's creative work (in 1:2-2:3, that is). The fact that particular facets of the universe are not mentioned though, should not be construed to mean that they fall outside of the assertion of verse 1. It only means that God through Moses, was not offering a mere inventory of all that he created. Moses' narrative takes place sometime "in the beginning" not after "the beginning". And what happens within the narrative has to do with the creating of the heavens and the earth, not with events after that creating (at least not until we get to chapter 2 and God's rest).
The Narrative of Moses
Moses wrote Genesis. And he did so deliberately. Which brings up the issue of literary devices. Any time that we talk about literary devices red flags go up. And that's because some of us are worried that the literalness of the "days" of creation are threatened. And if the "days" aren't taken as straightforward, 24-hour "days", then the integrity of Genesis 1 is being challenged. There are some legitimate concerns in this area. But whether the "days" are taken as 24-hour days, as epochal periods or as a literary cadence of some sort, we still have little insight into Moses' narrative. The problem is that Moses relies on something other than the "days" to set forth the substance of what he wanted to say. So even if I could convince you of my opinion in this matter, we would have progressed little in our understanding of Genesis 1. It is for that reason that I'm going to bypass that issue for now.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." This having been said, Moses then begins a creation narrative that falls somewhere within the all-encompassing assertion of verse 1. And he begins by setting the scene for his narrative: "Now the earth..." Excuse me, I need to interrupt myself for a second. I am generally following the New American Standard Bible (or version). But it incorrectly reads "And the earth..." here. It's not a big deal, except that it can be misleading. It suggests that verse 2 picks up where verse 1 leaves off. Which isn't true and isn't required by the language Moses actually used. Down in Genesis 2:4, there is a similar situation. There is a heading that initiates a narrative: "This is [the toledot] of the heavens and the earth. Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth..." The same prefix that is rendered "and" in 1:2 is rendered "now" in 2:5. The NASB should have followed their own rendering of 2:5"now"in 1:2 (like the NIV did). Now the earth was so and so....
"Now the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters" (1:2). Moses prepares us for what is to follow, by telling us about the initial setting of the narrative. Each of the elements will find expression and counterpoint in the body of the narrative. (You may also notice that these elements figure prominently in the later history of redemption. For instance, take a look at Jeremiah 4 and Revelation 21 and 22, when you get a chance).
First of all then, the earth was "formless and void". At least, this is how most of us remember the verse. The problem is that using "formless and void" to translate 'tohu' and 'bohu' gives us the wrong idea about what Moses was saying about the earth. He wasn't trying to conjure up images of a chaotic swirl of molecules somewhere out in space. The idea is that the earth was barren and uninhabited. This is also the meaning intended in the only other passage where these words occur togetherJeremiah 4:
"I looked on the earth, and behold, it was tohu and bohu; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, And all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness ('bohu'), And all its cities were pulled down before the Lord, before His fierce anger." (Jer.4:23-26)
He looked upon the earth, the sky, the mountains and the land (hardly a chaotic swirl of molecules!). Not "formless" and "void". But "barren" and uninhabited". Moses' contrast in Genesis 1 is not between chaos and order, but between barren emptiness and the fulness of life. Just as the re-creation contrast is not so much chaos and order as death and life. "Now the earth was barren and uninhabited". It is this situation that will be dealt with in the coming narrative. Not the formation of a planet from some primordial swirl of stuff. To be more specific, the barren and uninhabited state of the earth will be addressed and counterpointed by the appearance of life on the earth; the vegetation, animals and finally, man. Man will then be given dominion over life (not necessarily over all the things mentioned in chapter 1). There will be no more 'tohu' and 'bohu'. The earth will be inhabited by life. Which is appropriate since the Creator is himself the living God. And Moses is talking about the creation of the venue for this living God's glory.
Another element that Moses presents is the "darkness". "And darkness was over the surface of the deep...." This "darkness" is nothing mysterious. And it isn't something that existed eternally, as some have suggested. Darkness is nothing. It is a non-category apart from the capacity of sight. Just as a shadow is nothing but what it takes from light, so too is "darkness" nothing without light. That's why Moses mentions it. He plans to address the matter of darkness in the narrative starting with "Let there be light". On the fourth day the sun, moon and stars visibly give light on the earth and regulate the light and the dark. These light bearers are given dominion: the "greater light" to "govern the day" and the lesser light (and starsPsalm 136:9) to "govern the night". This governing takes the form of their being seen in the sky at their appointed times. Thus the darkness is counterpointed in the narrative.
We should probably mention "the deep" or "the waters" too. While the presence of the deep is here taken for granted, like the earth itself is, the deep is utilized in the narrative that follows. These waters will be parted like curtains to reveal the sky and then later, the dry ground. What's left of the waters will be called "the seas". And they will come to have living creatures in them. It's hard not to jump ahead to the flood, where the waters again prevail on the earth. And to the re-creation that God brings about after his wrath is spent. But here in Genesis 1, there is no hint of "the waters" as a tool of judgment. They are here, simply a part of the initial conditions of the narrative.
The last element, but by no means the least, is the stirring presence of God himself. "And the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters." The Spirit is brooding over this dark, lifeless earth. In the narrative that follows, he is mentioned some 31 times ("creating", "saying", "seeing", "calling", "making" and so on). Then the counterpoint: The Sabbath. The Spirit at rest. And the narrative is complete. It begins with God and it ends with God.
"Now the earth was barren and uninhabited, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters." This is, I believe, the literary device that Moses uses to artistically structure his narrative. He sets the scene and then goes on to develop it. It is a very deliberate narrative, not a myth or saga. God created a venue for his glory. Part of that venue (humankind) was made in his image to behold that glory. God saw that this venue of his glory did what it was supposed to do. He saw it and was pleased. He rested and was refreshed. That is Genesis 1.
Cultural Obstacles to Understanding Genesis 1
It is necessary here, to digress a bit. It may not be immediately obvious how this digression fits in with the discussion so far. But I hope to make it plain as soon as I can. Such a digression is made necessary, in my opinion, because of some deep seated assumptions that I find coming up all the time in discussions of the meaning of Genesis 1 (particularly when the relationship between the Bible and science is in view).
It's certainly no secret that we Christians have a credibility problem these days. Our culture sees us as we often see children, newlyweds and seminarians. As being in dire need of a dose of real life, I mean. How many parents, frustrated with their teenager's unrealistic outlook on things, haven't resorted to: "Just wait till you get out into the real world. Then you'll see...." They will "see" just as soon as their naivete and idealism meet up with cold, hard reality. Or something like that.
Similarly, we Christians are thought to represent a kind of old world naivete. The way we look at reality seems naive and idealistic because we insist on always bringing up God and the Bible. Things that are okay as personal, private beliefs. But not the sort of things that make us practical and keep us grounded in reality. At least, not reality as our culture sees it.
Our view of reality is suspect because it involves so much reliance on the Bible. And this supposed naivete on our part, inevitably leads us to ideas and behavior that are considered culturally 'inappropriate' or just plain 'irrelevant'. Irrelevant in that we ask the wrong questions, we misframe the issues of life and, in general, we just don't seem to get it.
The upshot is that our culture takes upon itself the job of setting us straight. This is mainly done by imposing on us its idea of what "reality" means. And our culture's idea of reality either leaves no room for our beliefs, or it trivializes them. Trivializes them by assigning our religion to a special category of belief separated from reality. Nobody's expected to actually know anything about reality to have a religious belief.
This cultural attitude toward Christians and what we believe is nowhere more evident than in that part of our culture interested in things "scientific". Not that science is the only cultural activity where this attitude exists. Nor can it be said that everyone in science shares such an attitude. They don't. It's just that in public institutions that are passing on our culture, science holds a special place. A place that has made it the most powerful and authoritative cultural tool in our society's rejection of God. It hasn't caused that rejection. But it is being used to legitimize that rejection just the same.
For decades now, we have been taught that reality lies beyond our everyday, human faculties. And that the sciences offer our only objective interface with realitythe only way for us to really get in touch with the way things are. In school, to drive this lesson home, we were told that the desks upon which our elbows rested were not really what they seemed to be. They were really made up of mostly "space" (referring to the 'spaces' in the atomic and subatomic structure of the material that makes up the desk). It was supposed to follow that our confidence in the solidness of desks was, therefore, something of an illusiona sort of crude approximation of reality. What we were so sure we knew about our desks was really just an impression derived from our rather dull senses and their inability to precisely engage reality. Thinking of the desks as "solid" is as close to reality as we can expect to come, left to ourselves. Through the sciences though we know better. (Oh, we may still talk about "solid" desks if we want to. But only as a naive convention of language. Because the desks aren't really solid, after all).
This lesson was supposed to impress upon our young minds that we need science in order to correctly articulate reality. And that it is through the sciences, rather than religion, that we actually come to understand reality. And further, that it is upon the sciences, rather than religion, that we must build engaged and relevant and responsible lives for ourselves, especially if we intend to be practical about things.
Another example of this culturally directed use of science in education was the insistence by our science teachers that the sun doesn't really rise and set. We were supposed to think in terms of the earth spinning on its axis as it orbits the sun. You know, like those wall charts with the sun at the center and all the planets going around it in elliptical orbits. That's the way things really are. We were supposed to realize that such an out-in-space perspective on things articulates reality much more correctly than our terrestrial perspective ever could. And, indeed, there are some special, technical situations where an out-in-space frame-of-reference is more useful than a terrestrial one. Like sending a spacecraft to give us a closer look at Jupiter and Saturn. Useful or not though, it is a bit much to claim that such an out-in-space perspective is more accurate that our usual, terrestrial one is, just because there are some uses for such a perspective. On the whole, there are comparatively few such uses in the life of humanity. Here again though, we were taught that because our everyday frame-of-reference is naive, we need science to give us the correct perspective on reality.
Now, don't get me wrong. What I'm saying is not anti-science. It would be silly to sit here and deny subatomic phenomena or our galactic environment. And, in fact, I'm not trying to do that. I am taking exception though, to the cultural imposition of a particular, supposedly "scientific" attitude toward reality which is really a philosophic attitude. An attitude that insinuates that our human scale of reality is somehow less real than the subatomic scale of thingsthat our scale of experience is merely a second-hand, statistical impression of what's realjust because someone in a lab coat discovered subatomic structure in things. It simply does not follow that if we identify subatomic structure in a desk, for example, that the desk we see is less real than the particles and forces we don't see; as if the whole desk is nothing more than its subatomic parts. Or, more to the point, that "reality" is nothing more than a label to identify the furthest limits of our atomistic reduction of things. And that since only the sciences can "see" this reality, it is to the sciences that we must turn if we are ever to understand reality at all.
It's silly to insist that it is inaccurate or primitive, to talk about the sun rising and setting. Of course the sun rises and sets! It's not a matter of accuracy, but of being consistent with a particular frame-of-reference. And from here on earth, the sun rises and sets. It really rises and sets. There's nothing more realistic about an out-in-space view of things. The problem is that when "reality" is defined according to the prevailing theoretical view of things, then every time someone in science comes up with new numbers or a new spin on old numbers, we are expected to react by changing our whole view of what reality is.
Our culture seems to think that its sciences actually see behind the stage-set that most of us think of as reality. They can see behind it, what props it up and what makes it seem to be something it's not. Even God himself is seen as part of this facade of reality. The sciences have gone backstage and know what's real. This is just plain nonsense.
Nonsense or not though, that's where we are. And such depreciating of the human scale and the human frame-of-reference has taken its toll on Biblical religion in our culture. Obviously, Biblical religion doesn't come about by looking at the subatomic scale of things. Nor does it originate from considering large scale motions in the universe either. So it stands to reason that unless our religion is actually revealed to us by God (which is patently absurd to our culture, and therefore not a real option at all), then it must have been dreamed-up at the human scalethe naive scale of things. And, in fact, religion is widely regarded as the outcome of efforts by human imagination to cope with reality rather than to actually understand and articulate it. Religion is assumed, thereby, to have no more grounding in reality than does our imagination. Our religion is reduced to mere personal and social conventionscategories imposed upon realityrather than being intelligently engaged articulation of reality like science is supposed to be. Again, you just aren't required to know anything specific about reality to have a religious belief. Religion isn't thought to be anchored in reality but in second-hand, remote impressions of reality.
To understand reality, we're expected to turn to our culture's sciences rather than to the Bible. Because human consciousness is at arm's length from what is real, it will be impossible to live out our lives in an engaged, intellectually responsible way if we rely on religion. So we're told, anyway. And this attitude has a profound effect on what is considered acceptable as far as Genesis 1 goes. Obviously, we can't understand it in a straightforward manner. That's so unrealistic!
We Christians should know better than to buy into this cultural deception. But I wonder sometimes. Hence this digression from Genesis 1. Reality is not at the limit of atomistic reduction of things. We don't find reality by smashing things into pieces until, at last, the pieces won't break anymore and then call that "reality". Nor do we find reality by flying off into space to see what we look like from way out there.
It ought to be plain enough from reading Genesis that "reality" is what was made to be viewed and experienced on the human scale and from within the human frame-of-reference. God did not place our consciousness at the wrong scale or within the wrong perspective. What we know as "reality" is the venue God created for his own glory. That's not just some sort of religious spin that we put on an otherwise inert, non-religious object called the universe. The universe is actually a thing to display the glory of God. And because this is so we'll never find the bedrock of realitythat which is irreducibly realby scientific inquiry. There isn't a more accurate scale on which we can perceive reality than the human one. Nor is there a more accurate temporal or spatial frame-of-reference that what we find ourselves in. For centerstage in the theater of reality is our Lord Jesus Christ.
This certainly does not mean that science says nothing about the universe. But a scientist does not, by his work, get as close to reality as he would if he understood Scripture and faithfully responded to God. The more he moves away from the human scale and the human frame-of-reference, the more he moves into incomprehensibility. Over the years some amazingly ridiculous claims about reality have been made based on the apparent behavior of subatomic particles. Again, the assumption being that this subatomic stuff gets us to the real-ness behind the impressions of our scale of experience (our "reality"). But, in fact, our culture isn't understanding reality better. Reality is becoming more and more incomprehensible. And as the absurdities multiply, so does our confidence that we understand more and more about the universe and the nature of reality!
It's awfully easy to lose sight of the centrality of Christ and the fit-ness of Scripture to substantively articulate reality. Our culture seems to have so much knowledge. And the way that such knowledge is presented to us doesn't help any, either. For instance: from millions of miles out in space, a camera was turned so that we could see what we look like from way out there. The earth looks like a bluish dot in a sea of darkness and stellar light. And we were given expert commentary on what we were seeing. What we saw is powerful evidence of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Just see for yourself. All of which trivializes man and the events that have taken place on earth.
God's glory and our responsibility to appreciate that glory are trivialized by our culture. Trivialized by requiring that we change the scale of our thinking and the perspective from which we think about the earth and the events that have taken place here. We are expected to see that praising God is but one of a number of possible responses of the otherwise non-religious, objective events of reality.
We are supposed to realize that Biblical history even Jesus himselfis but a tiny element of the history and composition of the universe as a whole. Our religion is just our spin on that tiny part of the universe that happens to fall within our naive range of experience. Salvation in Jesus Christ is but one of a myriad of issues and topics we could choose to pursue. Glorifying God is not viewed as an intelligently engaged or enlightened response to the real world. It is merely a personally meaningful way of ordering our very limited range of perceptions and experiences. So we're told.
Seeing the Bible as something capable of articulating reality is patronizingly deemed old world naivete. This is because, of course, the Bible was generated on the human scale and from within the human frame-of-reference. Its language is restricted to a narrow range of experience from within those dimensions. As our knowledge and awareness goes beyond these primitive restrictions, we're better able to frame questions and concerns to fit our more comprehensive grasp of reality. We can step back and appreciate the diversity of perspectives from which to view the real world. (In my own denomination, there was an officially sanctioned traveling sideshow designed to teach this very thing. It is so sad to see Calvinists who once worked so hard to give our religion cultural expression now being satisfied in merely giving our culture religious expression).
God created this universe to serve his purpose. And he has chosen to speak to us on the human scale and from within the human frame-of-reference. It is here at the center of things that God revealed himself to us in his Son-revealing himself in a fullness and clarity unprecedented in all of the universe, at any possible scale or from within any possible perspective. The earth isn't important because of where it is in the universe. But because this is where Jesus came. The events of the Bible aren't important because of where they fall in the line of history of the universe. But because those events have to do with Jesus.
The best place to begin understanding the real world is with the fear of the Lord and in departing from evil. This is true for both the scientist and the carpet cleaner. What we Christians are about has everything to do with reality. Not just some personally meaningful, fringe realities. But the very heart of reality itself.
You see, Genesis 1 is not a naively conceived account of things. There's no reason why it would have been written differently if it were written today instead of in Moses' time. We should not confuse our assessment of our cultural sophistication with the wisdom of God. And we ought not presume that God had to condescend to the ancients but not to us. As if we have gotten beyond where they were so that we don't need to listen to what Moses says in Genesis 1. We haven't. Maturity isn't measured by cultural technology. For we in western culture are no more grown up than any son of Adam or daughter of Eve has ever been. The 'darkness' of an age is not determined by its religious devotion, but in what it does to either acknowledge or to conceal reality. Reality that was created by God to glorify God.
The fact that God did not choose to send Jesus to the spatial center of the universe, or to reveal himself only to particle physicists does not make the history of redemption incidental to reality. Nor does it make our interest in the things of God merely an arbitrary choice out of a whole universe of possible interests. Our religion deals with what the Creator says is important and significant in the universe he made. If we look elsewhere, our grip on reality will be compromised. The Holy Spirit, through Moses, wrote Genesis to introduce us to God, the Maker of the real world. We ought not presume to rise above his condescension to us.
Resuming Moses' Narrative
Returning again to our reading then: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was barren and uninhabited, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, 'Let there be light', and there was light."
Okay, so where is this "light" that Moses is talking about here? Does his narrative take us to the center of the universe? Are the several degrees of 'background' radiation that we detect in space, the remnant of "Let there be light"? No, no, no. That's not it at all. Moses does not mention light in order to account for electromagnetic radiation. Nor does he care here whether light is particle or wave. Light is mentioned because it makes it possible for the reader to see. To see the glory of God. That is, light has a place in this narrative because it relates to human beings and our necessary appreciation of God.
At this point in the narrative, you don't see the light so much as you see by means of the light. When you turn a light on in your room, it is not so much the light itself that greets your eyes. It is the objects in the room that are illuminated by the light that you see. It isn't until the fourth day that there are any apparent sources of light to actually look at. But the fact that vision is possible is important to Moses here. The stage is lit, so to speak.
Where is the "and there was light" taking place? Well, let me ask you this: where is the darkness? Moses sets up his narrative by mentioning that "darkness was over the surface of the deep" because that is precisely where the light now is too. He goes on to say that the light and darkness were not in the same place at the same time. I mean, there is a separation between the two; between seeing and not being able to see.
The separation is not so much spatial as it is temporal. For God named the lightthe time of seeing"day" (a temporal designation). And the darknessthe time you can't seehe named "night". All of which leads to that familiar refrain, at the end of this same verse: "And there was evening and there was morning, one day." This evening/morning phrase will also serve to divide the several activities of God as Moses' narrative progresses. "Evening" signals the end of the day (light), "morning" the end of the night (darkness). Each of God's activities seem to take place in the day, rather than the night.
The sky is next. Perhaps "the waters" which are above the sky [the clouds?] blocked the sun, moon and stars from sight. I don't know. But, in any case, these upper "waters" sort of just fade out of the narrative. The waters below the sky, however, will be the subject of another "day". The sky itself will come to be a place to see birds, the sun, the moon and the stars. But not yet. For now, the sky keeps "the waters" at bay, separated from the waters above. "And there was evening and there was morning, a second day."
Now come the landscape and the seas. The "waters" which were once separated like curtains to reveal the sky are drawn back and gathered to let the land appear. And God causes plants and trees to grow up from the land. The end of the 'tohu' and 'bohu' is near for the land is living. "And there was evening and there was morning, a third day."
At this point the sun, the moon and the stars become visible. Not all at once mind you. The sun is seen in the day, the moon and stars at night. Moses probably doesn't mention these "great lights" until now (rather than when there was first light), simply because from the terrestrial perspective of his narrative there was no place for them. He says that they belonged in the sky, the place where we would see birds. And the sky was not, as such, around until the second day. So he pretty much had to wait until at least the third day to mention them.
Question: Is Moses naive for not calling the sun a star? Would he have called the sun a star if he'd written Genesis knowing what we know? No. It may serve a particular purpose to call the sun a star. But to do so is not, ipso facto, a more accurate way of describing the sun. From here on earth, the sun does not look or act like a star. It isn't even seen at the same time as the stars. And there is nothing more real about adopting an out-in-space perspective to talk about the sun. Similarly, it is not naive to speak of the moon as a "light", even though we know that it reflects light rather than generates it. It is a source of light, from a terrestrial perspective. A more 'scientific' account would not be any more true to reality than what Moses has written here. He is being consistent with the frame of reference of his narrative.
In the daytime, the source of the light of day 1 can be seen. Maybe the waters that were above the sky only let light in without the sun actually being visible (as on an overcast, cloudy day). l don't know. Moses did not bother to tell us everything that happened. Even about the making of the earth itself. He just starts out his narrative with the earth as given. Other details that we might have included, were we writing Genesis 1, are also passed over. I'm thinking of the heat of the sun and the tidal effects of the moon. Things like that. So it is not far-fetched to imagine that he leaves out other details too, confining himself to details relevant to his narrative. In this case, the appearance of light on day 1 and the appearance of light-givers on day 4.
The idea that the sun was itself obscured by something like overcast skies on day 1, seems more fitting to Moses' narrative than other scenarios I've heard. Particularly so the view that God created a sourceless light (a creation that would no longer be part of the heavens and the earth). Oh not that God couldn't do that if he wanted to. But why would he? And why would Moses tell us about a part of creation that was irrelevant to creation itself after the fourth day? Not to mention using space in this brief narrative to mention something irrelevant to Genesis 1 or any of his later narratives or to the rest of Scripture? There is no reason to think that Moses conceived of a sourceless light in day 1.
Moses says that "God made the two great lights.... " But the sentence isn't finished (in case you were thinking that the sun and moon didn't exist till now). "God made the two great lights... to govern." To govern the day and the night, that is. So the wording here isn't really a problem. The sun, the moon and the stars are given dominion over the light and the darkness. That is what they were made for. These lights would now be visible at their appointed places and times, which is probably the substance of their dominion. I mean that their dominion would be tied up with their being seen rather than their assuming an active, cognitive ruling of something. Again, in keeping with the visually oriented narrative of Moses. "And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day."
Birds and sea creatures are introduced onto this stage now. The 'tohu' and 'bohu' are addressed yet again. The skies have life in them. And so do the waters that were once barren and uninhabited. "And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day."
Next onto the scene are the land animals: "cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth". And then, in the completion of the counterpoint to the 'tohu' and 'bohu' man is created. Created and given dominion over life. [Which only makes more terrible the fact that we chose death over life there in the garden and later spread it to the ends of the earth. And isn't it something to marvel at that we who were children of death should now be charged with bringing the word of life to the ends of the earth?Matthew 28:18-20]. As the image bearer of God, man is at once part of God's created venue or stage for his glory and the audience to behold that displayed glory. Remember though that man is not the central figure in Genesis 1. God is. This narrative isn't about the greatness or worth of man. The bearer of the image of God is given dominion over life. That is where man fits in here. Moses is narrating the creation of the venue of God's glory. God saw that this venue did what it was supposed to and was pleased with what he had done. "And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day."
Chapter 2, verse 1 brings us back to the beginning of Moses' narrative. The creating is done. God created the heavens and the earth. But the narrative is fully completed only when the Spirit that moved over the waters rests from all his work. "Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God created and made." [That's the sabbath day to remember in order to keep it holy. For since Israel did not enter it, it remains for some to enter it. There remains a sabbath rest for us! We have a stake in that rest of God that Moses talks about (Hebrews 4).]
This is Moses' narrative. It is not some sort of a naive, primitive myth that we must condescend to. We are today in the same frame-of-reference that Moses was, way back then. Moses (and through him, God) is talking to us as much as he was talking to the people of his day. And, contrary to many modern opinion makers, Moses is not merely anticipating Paul's discussion in Romans 1 here.
He begins by declaring that God created the heavens and the earth. And that this creation is venue for God's glory. This glory of God is most often conceived of in terms of our visual sense. It is something we see. Moses' narrative here is therefore appropriately very visual in style, not mythic. It has to do with the real world.
One day this venue, this "heavens and earth", will give way to a new venue, "a new heavens and a new earth" (Revelation 21). And just as we are suitably made for this one, so we will be given new bodies suited to that one. That new venue will not be tohu and bohu. The deep will be gone. And there will be no darkness, no time that we cannot see the glory of God, "for there shall be no night there". And life will be everywhere and always. And we will enter God's rest. And God will be glorified there forever. Even so, Lord come quickly.