But, But, But . . .
Over many years of research into Genesis 1, it was amazing how many
people characterized the work as a fool’s chase. The objections were based
not on philosophical or practical grounds but on a misunderstanding of
what Genesis 1 is. Trying to reconcile Genesis 1 with physical fact was
a doomed endeavor because, the objectors would claim, Genesis 1 is not
a real creation account; it is the mirage of poetry, beautiful but ephemeral.
Or it is the mirage of myth, exciting but still the gossamer stuff of human
imagination. In either case, Genesis 1 was not thought of as concrete enough
to bear any direct relationship to fact. But these objections are based
on misunderstandings about the literary nature of the Genesis text.
Genesis 1 Is Not Poetry
Persons of faith sometimes use the argument that Genesis 1 is poetry in order to sidestep any possible conflict with physical fact. As we note in the introduction, it is generally considered foolish to try to reconcile poetic statements like “the fog came in on little cat feet” with scientific observations about fog and cats. But as can be seen from a closer examination of the biblical text, Genesis 1 is not poetry.
Ancient Hebrew, the original language of Genesis 1, did have a poetic form. In fact, about 40 percent of the Old Testament is poetry.1 Unlike English poetry, which involves the repetition of slightly different sounds--rhymes such as “moon,” “spoon” and “croon”2 ancient Hebrew poetry involved the repetition of slightly different concepts.3 An example of poetic repetition of concepts can be seen in Genesis 4:23-24 in the following speech from Lamech to his wives:4Adah and Zillah, hear my voice,Contrast this poetic form with Genesis 1:9-10, taken from the King James Version:
Lamech’s wives, listen to what I say:
I killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
Sevenfold vengeance is taken for Cain,
but seventy-sevenfold for Lamech.And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
There is a clear difference between the two. The first is biblical poetry; the second is structured prose.
There are people who might object that the poetic example comes from a later section of Genesis. Perhaps, so the argument would run, what we see in Genesis 1 is a kind of prepoetic form, a structured prose that had not yet evolved into poetry. Perhaps this structured prose, the argument would suggest, was the closest thing the writers had at the time for expressing poetic thoughts.
But this argument is refuted by the text. The writing of Genesis 1 did not predate Hebrew poetry, because one of the verses, Genesis 1:27 (KJV), is Hebrew poetry:So God created man in his own imageSome of the more recent translations, such as the New International Version (NIV) and the New American Bible (NAB), set this verse apart from the rest of the text in order to draw attention to its different, poetic nature.
in the image of God created he him
male and female created he them.
So the poetic form was available at the time Genesis 1 was written down. The poetic form could have been used if poetry was intended, but it wasn’t. Genesis 1:27 is set into the rest of the text like a jewel, as if to demonstrate by contrast that Genesis 1 was not intended to be poetry but was meant to be down to earth.
Genesis 1 Is Not Myth
While those who view the Old Testament with eyes of faith resort to explaining the text as poetry to avoid conflict, those who don’t use the argument that Genesis 1 is myth. Readers do not try to reconcile Cinderella’s mice turning into coach horses with modern genetics. But Genesis 1 is not myth.
It’s worth taking a few moments to talk about what kind of myth we mean, because there are several kinds that people talk about.5
The kind of myth that we mean is a community-developed story that many people in a culture know and that a number of people in the culture may believe to be true but which is not consistent with fact. We would include folk tales in this category, for example--hence the reference to Cinderella. The “Genesis 1 is myth” argument maintains that Genesis 1 is an imaginary story that was invented and passed on by an ancient culture and is no more factually accurate than any other cultural story.
However, note that one of the characteristics of this kind of myth is that it is a vehicle for human emotion and for dramatic themes such as struggle, conquest, death and birth. Consider, for example, this portion of the Finnish creation story:6In the beginning there were the primeval waters and Sky. Sky’s daughter was Ilmatar, who lived alone and one day drifted down to the waters to rest. There she floated and swam for 700 years longing for more life. There was a day when, floating on her back with one knee raised out of the water, she noticed a beautiful bird, a teal, fluttering over the seas in search of a resting place to make a nest. Ilmatar, the Mother of the Waters, then raised her knee further so the teal thought it was a dry island. The bird made a nest there and laid six golden eggs and one iron one. The little teal sat on her nest warming the seven eggs and also heating the knee of Ilmatar. The heat became so great that it began to burn the uplifted knee. Finally, Ilmatar could not stand it and she jerked her knee into the water to cool it. This dislodged the eggs, which fell into the water and were shattered by the wind and waves. Then something full of wonder came to be. From the lower part of one of the eggshells land developed, and from the top was made the sky as we know it. The moon and the stars came from the egg whites, and the yolk became the sun.There is a clear difference between such a storied account and the structured prose of Genesis, which moves forward with a simple majesty:And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
(Gen 1:3 KJV)
Again readers might hear a chronological argument raised. Perhaps, so this argument would go, Genesis 1 was written down so early in human history that there wasn’t time for the full development of dramatic themes. Perhaps all creation accounts of this vintage are this simple.
But this argument can be refuted by comparison with other creation accounts that date to around the time Genesis 1 was written down. One such example is the ancient Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish. It is not unusual to hear the claim that Genesis 1 has been derived from or based on the Enuma Elish. But compare the account of the Enuma Elish given below with Genesis 1.
Babylonian Creation Epic--Enuma ElishClearly Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish are worlds apart. Genesis 1 is so different as to be in a separate class, not in any way part of that class of writings full of human dramatic themes.First there were two divine beings, Apsu, god of sweet waters and Tiamat, goddess of salt waters. They had five children: one son and two pairs of brother-sister twins. The brother-sister pairs in turn had children, including Anu. When they grew up, those children had children; Anu’s oldest son was Ea.
The younger gods were rowdy, and when they got together, they made a lot of noise. The noise upset Apsu and Tiamat, who could not quiet them down. Finally Apsu decided that the only way he could get some peace would be to kill them. “Why should we destroy that which we ourselves have brought forth?” responded Tiamat to his plan. “Their way is indeed painful, but let us take it good-naturedly!”7 But Apsu was not dissuaded.
His great-grandson, Ea, heard about the plan and through magic spells caused his great-grandfather Apsu to fall into a deep sleep. While Apsu was sleeping, Ea stole Apsu’s powers, then killed him. Afterwards Ea made a palace for himself, which he named Apsu, and where Ea lived with his wife, Damkina. There they had a very impressive son, Marduk. No ordinary god, Marduk had four eyes, and four huge ears, and fire blazed from his mouth when his lips moved.
Meanwhile, after her husband’s death, Tiamat was very restless and upset. Kingu convinced her to wage war against those of her offspring who had supported her husband’s murder. So Tiamat declared Kingu to be her new husband and created an army of monsters and dragons, “sharp of tooth and unsparing of fang.”8
When the offspring heard about Tiamat’s plan, they were very upset, but there didn’t seem to be anything they could do about it. Ea and his father, Anu, each tried to calm Tiamat down but were unsuccessful. Just when everything seemed lost, the gods thought of Marduk and asked him to save them from Tiamat and her army.
Marduk would agree to fight his great-great-grandmother on one condition: that the gods would make him their leader. That proposition seemed reasonable to the gods, but first they gave him a test. They got together at a large banquet and put a tangible object (some say it was an article of clothing,9 one summary called it a “constellation”10) in their midst. Marduk would have a deal if he made the object disappear. With a command, Marduk made it vanish; with another command, Marduk brought it back. Marduk was their chosen hero!
Marduk set out to meet his great-great grandmother and challenged her to a one-on-one fight. She tried to attack him with her mouth wide open, but Marduk caused the winds to blow into her mouth and blow her up like a balloon. Distended like that, she was more vulnerable to sharp points; Marduk killed her with one arrow shot into her belly. He then captured her entire army and her husband, Kingu.
Not finished with Tiamat, though, Marduk trampled her corpse, smashed her skull and sliced her arteries. He then split her in two “like a shellfish.”11 Marduk made the sky with half of her body and the earth from the other half. Marduk then set up the constellations of stars to mark off the days, months and years, created the morning gates and the evening gates for the sun and entrusted the night to the moon.
Later on, it was decided that life was too hard for the gods. They wanted servants, but they needed a god’s blood to make the servants with. They decided that Kingu, since he had convinced Tiamat to go to war with her offspring, would be the best god to provide the blood. So they killed Kingu and used his blood to make servants. And that is how and why people were created.
In fact, not only is Genesis 1 not like contemporaneous creation myths; Genesis 1 appears to be deliberately attempting to avoid confusion with them. Notice Genesis 1:16 (KJV):The text is talking about the sun and the moon. And just as surely ancient Hebrew had words for “sun” and “moon.” Why then does the text call them “great lights”?And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
Look at the surrounding cultural context when Genesis 1 was written down. It was common for people in these early cultures to personify the sun and/or moon, to worship them and to treat them as rulers. As the ancient peoples of the Middle East told their creation accounts to their neighbors, it would have been easy for this verse to be misunderstood as the creation of the sun god and the moon goddess and the establishment of their monarchies. But that isn’t what was meant. So Genesis 1 calls them the “great lights”--with almost scientific objectivity--so as to avoid any confusion with the cultural myths of other nations.12
Genesis 1 Is Not Merely Allegory
Although it is unusual to hear the allegorical argument today, it is worth observing that Genesis 1 is not merely allegory.
For a long time, Bible scholars and interpreters viewed Genesis 1 as pure allegory and thereby avoided any need to, or any interest in, relating the account to known facts. Reflect, for example, on the Greek fables “The Tortoise and the Hare” or “The Grasshopper and the Ant.” Everyone knows that these fables are stories about the virtue of working consistently toward a goal. That’s why nobody pursues issues like are these accounts false because we have no documented instances of tortoises or ants forming complete sentences? or do we have archeological evidence that dates the year in which the tortoise/hare race took place or the year in which the grasshopper refused to work?
Genesis 1 has been interpreted in an allegorical way for a long time. Allegorical interpretation was quite popular around the time of Christ, for example, and for a few hundred years before and after. With such a venerable tradition of allegorical interpretation, it would be tempting to say, “Well, there you have it. We don’t need to worry about whether there is any relationship between Genesis 1 and the facts of creation because Genesis 1 was never understood to be real. It was understood to be allegory.”
But while an allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1 may be useful and even inspiring, allegorical use does not cut the ties to fact. For example, a stick in the hands of an imaginative child can be a spear or a rocket ship or a horse or an orchestra-leading baton or any number of things, all of which the child finds entrancing and useful. But just because a child can use a stick in that allegorical way does not mean that the stick is no longer a real stick.
Here is another example taken from Scripture (1 Cor 5:6-8 NAB):Your boasting is not appropriate. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough? Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
The apostle Paul, who just before this passage had chastised the Corinthians for immorality, was using the Passover and the feast that came right after it, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, as an allegory. That is, just as a little yeast permeates and changes the dough, so too does a little sin begin to permeate and change the person and the community. After the Jewish sacrifice of the Passover lamb, the Jewish people celebrated the Feast of the Unleavened Bread by cleansing their houses of all traces of leavened bread--even sweeping out the crumbs--and eating only unleavened bread. So since Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed, we should clean out sinful ways, just as Jewish tradition called for cleaning out leavened bread, and then live a kind of perpetual Feast of the Unleavened Bread by living lives free of malice and wickedness.
At least two points can be taken from this example: (1) it is not wrong to understand Scripture in an allegorical way, as Paul does in this example, but (2) even if we do, that does not mean that there was no tie to fact. In this case, there was a Passover, and there continues to be a yearly celebration of Passover followed by the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. The factual basis does not go away.
Indeed, this very tie to fact makes allegory so powerful; it speaks to familiar facts in the physical realm in order to illustrate concepts in the spiritual realm. Just so, we can be confident that the factual basis of Genesis 1 does not go away even though Genesis 1 may have been understood in allegorical terms for more than two thousand years.
Genesis 1 Is Accurate but Not Necessarily Obvious
James Kugel did an extensive study of biblical interpretations of the Old Testament around the time of Christ.13 Based on his study, he concluded that “the first assumption that all ancient interpreters seem to share is that the Bible is a fundamentally cryptic document.”14 As he explains, “all interpreters are fond of maintaining that although Scripture may appear to be saying X, what it really means is Y.”15
This is a significant finding. We are so used to hearing people assert that the Bible was intended to be clear on its face, that we should look to the obvious as the intended meaning. Further, we are also used to hearing people assert that only recently have biblical interpreters sought to dismiss the obvious as a last-ditch way of reinterpreting Scripture to fit some modern, false doctrine.16
But the people who worked with the biblical text in the original language and in the original times recognized it as a text that could not be picked up and read like cake-mix directions. It is a text that needs to be lingered over and meditated on before it yields its full meaning. Think about it: If people who were two thousand years closer to the writing of the text, to its language and to its culture thought that the text was not obvious, then those of us who are worlds away should surely be cautious about asserting that what is obvious to us is what the text must have meant. Even the Bible appears to testify to the need for further study before understanding is achieved:It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
to search out a matter is the glory of kings.
(Prov 25:2 NIV)
It is not unreasonable to understand this verse as explaining that God is not making it impossible to figure things out but that it is in our best interest to work at understanding rather than have it handed to us. Similarly, educators point out that studies of learning show that people retain the least of material that they have been told or simply read. People comprehend and retain the most of material that they have worked at and have worked out for themselves. It seems fitting that we should find a learning environment in Scripture that is consistent with what has been found to be the optimal learning situation.17
Genesis 1 Is Like a Riddle
There is a literary form for the accurate but hidden meaning, and that form is the riddle. The riddle lays out the puzzle pieces, but it takes some head scratching to figure out how the pieces fit together:As I was going to St. IvesThe solutions to riddles are clear, surprising and rewarding.
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
Each sack had seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, wives
How many were going to St. Ives?
Like the answer to the riddle about going to St. Ives, the immediately obvious answer to the riddle of Genesis 1 is not the right one. We do not start multiplying kits, cats, sacks and wives to figure out how many are going to St. Ives, even though at first the riddle seems to suggest that we do. We must think more deeply about the pieces of information in the riddle and about what they mean. Then, when we figure it out, everything falls into place.
Another chronological objection might be raised at this point. The St. Ives riddle was apparently invented during the Middle Ages. How do we know we are not taking a literary form that was invented much later and reading it back into an earlier, simpler text?
There is some evidence that the riddle is quite old, at least as old as the written Scriptures.18 For example, Samson at his wedding asked the Philistine guests to figure out the answer to a riddle:Out of the eater came something to eat,The answer was that Samson had killed a lion with his bare hands, and bees had made honey inside the lion carcass.
Out of the strong came something sweet.
(Judg 14:14 Revised Standard Version [RSV])
Further, Scripture says that some godly communications come in the form of riddles. Note the following passage, which, like Genesis, is part of the bedrock text of the Old Testament:Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When both of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words: When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles.” (Num 12:5-8 NIV)
Note the implications of this passage. The Old Testament says that riddles are a common method of godly communication, even to “prophets of the LORD.” We can expect Scripture to be true. We can also expect it to be understandable. We cannot necessarily expect Scripture to be obvious.
Chapter 1: But, But, But . . .
1 Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 7, note to Genesis 1:27.
2 With due deference to the various and honorable forms of English poetry that do not involve rhymes.
3 R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969), 965-75. There is some difference of opinion over the extent to which Hebrew poetry also involved meter and, if so, which meters. Poetry independent of rhyme (and maybe even independent of meter) seems odd to us, but it was a perfect choice. In the millennia to follow its first writing, the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament would be translated into more languages than any other poetic text--into hundreds of languages. Poetry that is grounded on the sound and/or rhythm of its original tongue would take quite a beating from such extensive translation and might not survive. Poetry that is grounded on concept would be the most accessible kind to speakers of other languages.
4 Most of the passage is taken from the Jerusalem Bible; the line about the young man comes from the New International Version.
5 Another kind of myth is the kind
one finds in popular magazine quizzes where readers guess whether each
assertion is fact or myth. This type of myth means “something that a lot
of people believe is true but is false.” A champion example of this use
of “myth” is in the September 2001 issue of Discover, in the news story
titled “Is the Placebo Effect a Myth?” (13). The first two sentences, somewhat
abbreviated here, read: “Taking a swipe at conventional wisdom, medical
philosophers . . . recently proclaimed the placebo effect . . . a myth.
After analyzing 114 placebo-controlled trials, they concluded that placebos
are generally no more effective at relieving disease symptoms than no treatment
at all.” Since the point of this book is to make the case that Genesis
1 is not false, we are not dealing specifically with this kind of myth
in this discussion.
A third kind of myth is defined as “a community story that tells a truth, and because it focuses on something as important as truth, it is not necessary for it to be linked to mere facts.” This kind of myth is involved in a well-established view of biblical interpretation that says that Genesis 1 is myth and that being myth makes it even truer and more important than mere fact. That is, this view sees Genesis 1 as a community story (the ancient Hebrew community) that announces a universal truth (God created everything) and that therefore any attempt to link Genesis 1 with picayune details of fact is misguided, small-minded and uneducated.
We agree that Genesis 1 conveys a universal truth, but we differ with the conclusion that Genesis 1 consequently has no meaningful link to fact. We think it does (hence this book) and would like to offer the suggestion that in this case, the link to fact helps illustrate how profound the truth is.
As an aside, the two different uses of “myth” in this footnote help illustrate how important it can be to define terms. Imagine someone (Person A) who uses the first definition getting into a discussion with someone (Person B) who uses the second definition. Suppose Person B says, “Genesis 1 is myth,” and Person A responds, “Right! That’s what I’ve been trying to say all along!” If they were to end the conversation there, Person B would go off convinced that they had just agreed that Genesis 1 tells a universal truth, while Person A would go off convinced that they had just agreed that Genesis 1 is false.
6 David Adams Leeming, with Margaret Adams Leeming, A Dictionary of Creation Myths (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 94.
7 Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 4.
8 Henrietta McCall, The Legendary Past: Mesopotamian Myths (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 55.
9 Heidel, Babylonian Genesis, 7. See also S. H. Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 61.
10 McCall, Legendary Past, 56.
11 Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion, 62.
12 See, for example, Raymond E. Brown et al., eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 11.
13 James L. Kugel, The Bible As It Was (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1997).
14 Ibid., 18.
16 To bring this point home, it is argued that only recently have biblical interpreters tried to waive the obvious interpretation that creation occurred in 144 hours (six days of 24 hours each) in order to fit geological observations suggesting that the earth is millions of years old.
17 The situation can also be compared with an Easter egg hunt. An Easter egg hunt is much more engaging when the eggs are cleverly hidden than when they are lying out where everyone can see them. Further, a hunt for obvious eggs seems biased, stacked in favor of the fastest or those who have no scruples about shoving others out of the way. Hiding the eggs seems to level the playing field, to give everyone a chance to find something precious. When truths are hidden in riddles and parables, then it is possible to have a situation in which those who are serious about seeking the truth can be rewarded, while those who brush proudly by receive little or nothing. It is not intellectual pyrotechnics or arrogance that comes out ahead but humble, persistent search.
18 P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans,
eds., The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to
Jerome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 46.
The Riddle of Creation, Chapter 1