The genesis of Genesis

We are journeying along a road less travelled–so few today have undertaken a serious study of the Hebrew Bible which Jesus himself read and used. So we continue to meet weekly and have serious and often hilarious conversation emerging from the texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. Here are some of our discoveries from Genesis, chapter 1.

We recognised these texts are controversial. So in fear and trepidation and above all humility, we venture into some interesting conversations.

Genesis explains the meaning of the universe : why are there all these wonderful things around us and why is there anything here at all? Why are we here? Scientists set out to explain how it all came about and so we should be very thankful for scientists. They are describing the created order and the laws of nature. Let’s celebrate their work.

Genesis does not describe the laws of nature or maths or science. Genesis tells the story to truthfully explain why. Today, the amazing discovery of the DNA and the results of the human genome project show us some wonderful  things about the information technology there in the very beginning! Our Creator made our digital world! But, why?

Genesis 1 tells a story to show the most significant truth of all is about the relationship between the Creator and his special creation, all of us, made ‘in his own image’. All people are meant to reflect his glory on earth. God can communicate to all people, even those who are opposed to his ways. Anyone can talk to, and listen to their Creator, if they have the ears to hear. So how valuable we all are–you are. How very significant we all are. How each life is sacred and important to our maker, along with the whole created order.

Genesis 1 declares that our universe had a beginning, using the Hebrew word bara, created. Many scientists call this beginning, ‘the Big Bang’. But this was not the beginning of everything–God and his memra were there from before the beginning. So God said let us make make man in our own image.

Surprisingly, the first two verses tell us this created universe in the beginning had no form, and describe it as “void”. Then in verse 3 follows the “six days”, six periods or stages, when God is seen to systematically bring about the immense astronomical complexity of the intricately ordered universe. Thus God did not bring it all about at once, in an instant. The length of these six ”days” are unspecified unless we adopt a strictly artificially literal approach to the word day. But there are many meanings of the Hebrew word for day.

As countless people have pointed out, the 24 hour period between sundown to sundown does not fit the events of verses 3 and 4 (before the advent of the sun) and in v.5 it is clear that day is contrasted with night as in Jesus’ retort aren’t there 12 hrs in a day? (Gospel of John, 11:9).  The word week (Hebrew yom) in v.3 and following, is quite unrepeatable because God never becomes fatigued like us! And when we reach Genesis 2:2, God “rests” meaning the work of creation is finished and God declares it so good that it cannot be any better. And 2:2–3, the seventh day is special and the phrase evening & morning is omitted.

So we can see that the text does not commit us to six days as we measure days today.  And we can see there was a period of time between the ‘beginning’ and the ‘first day’. Renowned mathematician, John Lennox in his intriguing book, (Seven Days that Divide the World, 2011) has so ably pointed out these matters and much else and is a delightful read. Highly recommended.

My fellow traveller and friend Carol, pointed out the other evening, that it is important not to be dogmatic and arrogant in our thinking when we come to the biblical texts. We must ask not only what the text says but also what it leaves unsaid. How much do we unconsciously add to the text or read into it, to make it easier to understand or to fit in with our world view or our preconceived ideas?

Genesis 1:3–28 says all this creative work was accomplished by God (elohim Hebrew, a word used only in the Hebrew language)speaking” creation—information—into existence. God created by his word, his memra (Heb), who is the agent of creation. The memra is sometimes distinct from God and sometimes it is the same as God. The rabbis never could explain this paradox—they taught the truth of both. The Gospel of John chapter 1, reflecting this, identifies Jesus as the Word, the logos, the memra, the agent of creation!  Pre-existing.

Another possible reading of Genesis 1 is seeing that between the events of each of six stages there may have been enormous lengths of time, thus creation taking place over extremely long periods with the possibility of the emergence of new species –some scientists call this macro evolution—which might excite us with wonder and awe that God should go to so much trouble over us and our environment, our universe. Certainly scientists tell us that exceptionally long periods were necessary for certain elements to be produced e.g., helium and hydrogen. If this is so, what an outrage that we should not care for it as a precious gift from God.

The period after sunset is the start of the Hebrew/Jewish day. The writers of Genesis were Hebrews and this is how they described every day.

The ancient Hebrew storyteller is not concerned with certain details of history as we might be today. Genesis 1—11 is generally seen by many scholars as “pre-history” as the events took place long before writing was invented (around 3000 BCE). The storytellers are selective, as we sometimes are in telling a story. The telling had to be simple so as to be able to be transmitted faithfully.  I think we have to give the ancient writers the benefit of the doubt. I mean we have to accept that they were intelligent and instructive, even though they don’t tell the story as we in the 21st Century feel it should be told. They knew that their hearers (not readers, mind you) would not raise the questions that we tend to raise. Yet the genre used, means the truth would be understood universally by all peoples and cultures and in all ages. Just imagine the limitations of understanding should the texts have been written in a purely literal manner as if describing how it was all put together! Of course, all the books in the whole world would be grossly insufficient in volume to do so.

Thus for us moderns, questions arise like who did Cain marry?  The storyteller doesn’t tell us and didn’t have to. We assume that Adam and Eve were extremely fertile. They certainly lived a long time and had a lot of time to have many children. And some of them were several hundred years old when they had kids.

Remember, the Genesis account is not necessarily chronological in the details. Certainly Gen 2:4b and verses following do not seem chronological. Getting stuff chronologically down was not seen as important to the storytellers. Such a literary device was not essential in those ancient days of writing. Often people today may tell a story which is not strictly chronological. I might write about the construction of a research facility and because I am an architect, I am likely to tell it chronologically; but a scientist will tell it differently, from her point of view, her interests being focussed on the floor where the laboratories are located—she will certainly skip any information about excavation and foundation works.

When we get to look at the gospel accounts of the New Testament, we find that the chronology of each of the four writers is different in some of the details and this may rattle the faith of some who expect that people of a different time and culture must conform to modern principles of historical literature. Of course, the main events about Jesus (birth, boyhood, public ministry, arrest, trial, death and resurrection are in the order we might expect today.

We need to try to understand the literary form we are dealing with. Not easy. But when we raise questions in our minds about what we may call “the account” or “story”, we may have to admit that this literary form is not what we today have come to expect of a story that is told like our history.

For any storyteller to have written about creation he or she would either have had to be there—an utter impossibility—or it was revealed, and this is the plain claim of scripture: creation is revealed. Creation in the Bible is based not on conjecture or ‘blind faith’ but on God revealing it to people. When God reveals something it is evidence. Not proof, but certainly evidence.

This prophetic revelation of Creation is confirmed by us every day– it fits reality we experience daily, hourly. This revelation is also confirmed by anyone who sees the creation’s beauty and the indescribably mathematical complexity of the human body or the night sky –you don’t need to be a scientist.

To be continued …….

2 responses to “The genesis of Genesis

  1. Thank you Phil for your wise and encouraging words. What a delight to read your comments and so worthy of reflection. That last point you made is wonderful–how utterly reassuring that we are not destined to make up stories or philosophies to give meaning–lies have to be invented; truth just is.


  2. Phil Horwood

    Ian I love the way you present these wonderful truths . In nearly 40 years of sharing these ideas you have barely wavered in the essentials , just found more and more ways to express them so clearly, and to make them come alive in terms of the context of culture , the modern mindset, science etc , and of our own need to respond .
    You mention the ‘Why ?’ questions and how Genesis is concerned more with the ‘Why Questions’ of creation than the modern and scientific ‘How ?’ . Richard Dawkins on his appearance on Q+A two weeks back made his usual petulant attack on human being’s insistence thur the ages on asking these Q’s and then ascribing a God as the creative force behind the big Why questions of life . He said this was a copout ( the God Delusion ) and that the only option left to us is to make up our own meaning for life , that science could not offer that , and neither should it . He claims to be centred entirely on scientific evidence as the only valid basis for existence , and yet when the audience sniggered at some of his ideas ( that he obviously sees as just so self evident ) he responded like an immature child , displaying an insecurity that belied his supposed strong and unassailable position .
    I really felt for him at that point , one of the revered archbishops of world humanist atheism reacting like a spoilt child. I am at times a lot like that , I think we are all like that in our worst moments, and when our position is threatened . Unless we know the reality of the Creator and draw on it continually , the one who set the whole amazing process of Creation in motion , ( and the one who designed it such that in the last 15 secs of the supernova explosion that created all the matter of our universe ,and including our planet, the earth’s small supplies of precious gold – just 3 swimming pool’s worth – were created , and at temps of 3 billion degrees ! ) , we are as lost and insecure as a Richard Dawkins, and one who is unable to cope with the mild questionings of a studio audience .

    I love the idea you present of a heightened reverence for the planet and the need for it’s protection, in the light of what we increasingly know thanks to our amazing scientists, about our loving Creator’s astounding and intricate work, and how the physical universe was formed and life has evolved , culminating in His supreme creation – us ! Even a non-God-delusionist should be able to see that , and many in fact do, and far better than God’s people, regrettably .

    So the Dawkins of this world would have us certainly humbled by our place in the universe ( how could you not be ? ) , but then condemned to struggle to derive some sense of purpose and self love as the mere specks of dust , pure byproducts of the Big Bang and evoutionary process ,and robots of chemical chance, that we all are, and no more . All thanks be to God we have been so wonderfully saved from that way of thinking . Alleluia ! Phil Horwood


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