Introduction: The Riddle of Creation

It really hurt when someone as notable as Carl Sagan said, “If … you take the Bible as the literal word of God … you run into deep trouble because the Bible is demonstrably wrong in areas of science.”1 His charge applies equally to Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant versions--all the major translations of the first chapter of Genesis are quite alike when it comes to being out of step with current learning about the physical facts of the world. And the conclusion latent in Sagan’s charge also wounds: “How can you possibly believe in God as the Creator of the universe and the Author of an inerrant Bible when he didn’t even get the first chapter right?”

It is a challenge that those who believe in the truthfulness of the Word of God need to look at seriously again, even though after two hundred years many believers have chosen to give up the struggle.2 They argue, “Why bother? Isn’t the whole point that God created everything? Why spend so much time fussing over factual details? As long as we’ve got the main point, aren’t the details irrelevant?”

Although it is true that God’s authorship is the main point, not everyone sees that point with the eyes of faith. Some people see it as a point that needs to be proved. They then seek to disprove it using apparent inconsistencies between the Genesis account and fact as they know it. Stung by the resulting irony--people are trying to use God’s Word to prove that he3 doesn’t exist!--we Christians have to bother. Matters cannot be left with an assertion that the Bible is demonstrably wrong when it is demonstrably right.

The Why bother? argument is not the only argument against trying to demonstrate the accuracy of the Word. Two other common arguments are that the biblical account is poetry (after all, no one seeks to question the factual accuracy of statements like “the fog came in on little cat feet”) and that the biblical account is myth. We deal with both of those arguments in chapter 1 and conclude, as does Gerhard Von Rad,

Nothing is here by chance; everything must be considered carefully, deliberately and precisely. It is false, therefore, to reckon here even occasionally with archaic and half-mythological rudiments .… What is said here is intended to hold true entirely and exactly as it stands. There is no trace of the hymnic element in the language, nor is anything said that needs to be understood symbolically or whose deeper meaning has to be deciphered.4

There is no waving this issue away. God has authored two major works: the Bible and the physical world.5 As did many thinkers before us, we call these two main works God’s Book of Words and Book of Works. It is not too much to expect that when his two works address the same subject, they will be consistent. Where there appear to be inconsistencies, we are not looking at an error; we are looking at a riddle. At first glance, the inconsistencies may seem impossible to figure out. But once the inconsistencies are properly understood, the answer, like the answer to a riddle, is clear, and everything falls neatly into place.

In order to create a context for solving the Genesis riddle, let’s first try to appreciate the challenge God faced in authoring Genesis 1. His original audience was scientifically unsophisticated; their frame of reference was what they saw. Yet God knew that successive audiences would become increasingly more sophisticated about the natural world.6 And God was fully aware of the natural facts of creation, so the challenge was to inspire a spiritual text that could speak to the range of humankind--from the audience that looked at the earth from the ground to audiences that would look at the earth from the moon--all the while staying consistent with the natural facts. Try explaining math to a three-year-old and to a thirty-three-year-old using the same words, and you’ll have a sense of what God was up against.

God achieved it, of course, with the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 -- 2:4a. That Hebrew text is our bedrock,7 the one thing in the analysis that does not change. But other things in the analysis do change, as we will show.

For example, translations change. Translations are, in their own way, a kind of commentary. As English translators sift through possible English words and phrases, they will choose the ones that they feel most accurately render the Hebrew. Their choices are based on their understanding of languages and of how the world works.

Take, for example, the ninth verse of Genesis 1, which in the King James Version (KJV) reads:

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so.

The word land is italicized in the King James Version to show that it was not in the Hebrew text; it was added by the translators. But notice that “land” is not a gloss on the text or a word that helps to clarify shades of meaning; “land” is a pivotal word.

Another vivid example can be found by comparing the King James Version with the New Living Translation. As we will see, one of the critical questions is whether the creation days contain the acts of creation associated with them. The familiar King James Version says merely (in Genesis 1:13, for example), “And the evening and the morning were the third day.” The New Living Translation, however, proposes a conclusion in its version of Genesis 1:13: “This all happened on the third day.” These examples help to show that translators’ views of the world can be expected to guide their view of what makes sense and therefore guide their word choices and that these choices are not always choices of nuance but can be choices of fundamentals, key to what the text is depicted as saying.

It would be natural for us to update our translations as our understanding of God’s world improves, and that is what we were doing until 1611, with the publication of the King James Version. At that point the effort to keep English translation in tune with our understanding of the physical world appeared to grind to a halt. When the first official revision of the King James Version was done in 1885, there was no attempt to incorporate the explosive advances in knowledge that had been made since 1611. And it has been that way ever since.

This freeze in translation is further compounded by mutation in the English language. Many words have different meanings now than they did when they were first laid into the King James text. A particularly vivid example, perhaps, is the word meat in Genesis 1:29-30:

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

“Meat,” to many speakers of American English, now means “the edible flesh of a dead animal.” Indeed, to a number of such speakers, “meat” means “beef”: more than a few people claim to be vegetarians because they don’t eat meat (beef), even though they still eat chicken and fish. But as one can see from the context, “meat” in these quotes from the King James Version means “food.” (We go into more detail about the Hebrew text and the challenges of translation in chapter 2.)

In order to align God’s Book of Words and God’s Book of Works, the translation must be freed to follow modern understandings and modern usages, including the way the text is laid out on the page. We discuss changes in textual structure in chapter 4 and specific translation changes that we feel are useful in chapter 5.

Switching now from the Book of Words to the Book of Works, we must note that humankind’s convictions about earthly facts have continued to evolve. We have, at various points in our history, been convinced that the sun revolved around the earth. We were also convinced that Newtonian physics was the final and complete truth--until Einstein.

This progression of convictions suggests that we should be humble about our current notions of the world. We need to be clear about what we know and how we know it. God’s Word will be consistent with proven fact; God has no need to be consistent with shifting scientific theory. Consequently chapter 3 narrows the apparent conflicts to only those in which the biblical text appears to conflict with physical fact. These apparent conflicts are then dealt with in the remaining chapters.

Lastly, this book will not conclude by suggesting a final, authoritative interpretation of Genesis 1. There is so much more to learn about the world and about God before that is even possible. But this book does attempt to show that harmony is possible between truths revealed by the Bible and truths revealed by the physical world. We gaze upon existence with two eyes: the eye of faith and the eye of reason. God acts “in spirit and in truth”; we need to keep both eyes open to achieve the depth of understanding that he would give us.

 Introduction: The Riddle of Creation

1 Stephen Budiansky, “Keeper of the Flame,” U.S. News and World Report, March 18, 1996, 78.

2 It has been about two hundred years since geology came into its own and spoke of vast expanses of time not before imagined, at least not by Western thinkers. Note, though, that for much of the Christian millennia, there was not thought to be any serious conflict between faith and learning.

3 Although we use masculine pronouns for God, we do not intend to offend those who see in such pronouns a disenfranchisement of women. We intend no such stratification of God’s human creation, but the gender-neutral “it” conveys a thingness that does not do justice to God’s personhood. Alternatively, switching between masculine and feminine pronouns runs the risk of offending an even larger number of people and confusing the rest. We request that the pronouns be accepted as yet another instance in which mere human language is incapable of capturing the fullness of reality.

4 Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 47-48.

5 As an aside to those who may be interested in copyright concepts, note that the definition of a copyrightable work of authorship is that of “a concept fixed in a tangible medium.” Since Genesis suggests that God thought of what he was going to create before he created it, the physical world is a “concept fixed in a tangible medium”--truly a work of authorship!

6 We resist the temptation to assume, like every generation before us, that we have at last reached the pinnacle of scientific understanding. There is surely more to come.

7 We would have liked to make much of using the original Hebrew. But it no longer exists, or at least it has not yet been rediscovered. So we follow the path trod by many Bible scholars and refer to the Masoretic text for our Hebrew underpinnings.

The Riddle of Creation, Introduction