Interpreting Genesis One: Hummel

               Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 38.3 (1986) 175-85.

                American Scientific Affiliation, Copyright © 1986;  cited with permission.

 

 

Interpreting Genesis One*†

 

CHARLES E. HUMMEL     

         Director of Faculty Ministries

       Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship

 

Like other parts of Scripture, Genesis 1 must be interpreted in terms of its

historical and literary context. This creation account was given to the Israelites

in the wilderness, after the exodus from Egypt but before the conquest of

Canaan. What the message meant then to the original hearers must govern the

application of what it means now to us today. The historico-artistic interpreta-

tion of Genesis 1 does justice to its literary structure and to the general biblical

perspective on natural events.

 

            From time immemorial people have speculated

about how the world began. Many fascinating myths

and legends date from the dawn of civilization in the

Middle East. Reflecting polytheistic religion, they fea-

ture violent struggles by a variety of deities for suprem-

acy over the world.

            For example, Sumerian tablets around 2500 B.C.

present a pantheon of four prominent gods, among

them Enki who leads a host of the gods against Nammu,

the primeval sea. In one Egyptian myth the sun god Re

emerges from the deep to create all other things. The

best known of the creation myths is the Babylonian

national epic Enuma Elish, which was composed pri-

marily to glorify the god Marduk and the city of

Babylon. Amid such a mythological environment Israel

fled from Egypt, wandered in the wilderness and took

possession of Canaan.

            The biblical creation accounts in Genesis have some

similarities with those of Israel's pagan neighbors as

well as several radical differences. The relative impor-

tance of those elements has been a focal point of

theological controversy for more than a century. Some

issues have been resolved, but considerable confusion

persists over the nature and purpose of Genesis 1.

            Genesis is a book of beginnings: the origin of the

universe, birth of the human race and founding of the

Hebrew family. Yet the book is more than an account

of origins. It provides a foundation for many themes

prominent throughout the Old and New Testaments.

                                                175a



Interpreting Genesis One                             175b

 

Here one learns about God, humanity and nature in

their mutual relationships. The Creator and Controller

of the universe reveals himself as the Lord and judge of

history, which has both a purpose and goal. Such great

doctrines as creation, sin and salvation trace their

beginnings to this remarkable book. Concepts of cove-

nant, grace, election and redemption permeate God's

saving activity to overcome the consequences of evil

and sin. It should not surprise us that Genesis, more

than any other part of the Bible, has been a scene of

historical, literary, theological and scientific battles.

Some of those battles have made their way out of

church and seminary into the schools and courts.

 

*Paper presented at the conference "Christian Faith and Science in Society,"

a Joint Meeting of the ASA/CSCA and the Research Scientists' Christian

Fellowship, on July 26-29, 1985, at St. Catherine's College in Oxford,

England.

† This article is taken from chapter 10, "Genesis One: Origin of the Universe,"

of the book The Galileo Connection, recently released by InterVarsity Press

(Downers Grove, Ill.: 1986, 296 pp., paper, $8.95).

 

                                                            175



176a                            CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

Much of the controversy arises from a misunder-

standing of what the Genesis account of creation

intends to teach. What message was it meant to convey

to ancient Israelites in their struggle against the pagan

mythologies of the surrounding countries? How does

that meaning apply in a post-Christian culture whose

gods and values infiltrate even the church?

 

Approach to Genesis

An interpretation of Genesis 1 must deal with three

elements: historical context, literary genre and textual

content. Many commentaries skip lightly over the first

two in an eagerness to grasp the meaning for today. As a

result their interpretations at critical points would

hardly have been intelligible to ancient Israel, much

less equip God's people to resist the influence of pagan

mythologies. Therefore, we will adhere to the following

principle: What the author meant then determines

what the message means now.

 

Historical Context

What was the situation of the Israelites who received

the message of Genesis, especially their cultural and

religious environment? The answer to that question

depends to a large extent on certain assumptions about

the authorship and date of the document. Two main

approaches have dominated the interpretation of Gene-

sis during the last century.

 

One position rejects the Mosaic authorship and early

date of the Pentateuch along with its divine inspiration

and trustworthiness. The developmental view of the

nineteenth century treated those five books as the

culmination of a long process of social growth. It

assumed that, culturally and religiously, humankind

has moved through evolving states from savagery to

civilization. But, as new data provided by archeology

tended to discredit that view, the comparative religion

model became increasingly popular. It holds Genesis

1-11 to be a Jewish borrowing and adaptation of the

religions of neighboring nations. Both views consider    

the Pentateuch to be writing of unknown authors or

redactors (editors) long after Moses, probably late in the

period of the Hebrew monarchy.



Interpreting Genesis One                             176b

 

A contrasting position holds that Moses wrote most of

the Pentateuch (though he may have used earlier

sources) and that some editing took place after his

death. The historical-cultural model used in this paper

assumes that the Genesis creation narratives were given

to the Israelites in the wilderness, after the exodus from

Egypt but before the conquest of Canaan. This view

considers the Pentateuch to be a revelation from God,

through his prophet Moses, to Israel en route to the

Promised Land. An understanding of the historical

context and primary purpose of that revelation lays the

foundation for our interpretation.

For more than four hundred years the Hebrews had

languished in Egypt far from the land promised to

Abraham. Those centuries took a spiritual as well as

physical toll. The people had no Scriptures, only a few

oral traditions of the patriarchs. Devotion to the God of

their forefather Joseph had largely been, supplanted by

worship of the gods of other nations. The incident of the

golden calf suggests that fertility cults may have been

part of Hebrew religious life in Egypt (Ex. 32:1-6).

Even though they were miraculously delivered from

slavery and led toward Canaan, many of the people

may have had a minimal understanding of the God of

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

When the wanderers arrived at Horeb, their world

view and lifestyle differed little from that of the

surrounding nations. Their culture was essentially

pagan. Now God was calling them to keep his covenant,

to become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"

(Ex. 19:6). Although the people responded, their yes

was just the beginning of a long, painful process by

which God would create a new culture.

Although trained by God in Pharoah's house and

then in the hills forty years, Moses faced a formidable

 



177a                            CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

task. His people needed a radically different theology

for a knowledge of God and his purposes; a new

cosmogony to restructure their attitudes toward the

created order; a new religious institution to guide their

worship; a new anthropology to understand the human

of condition; and a different lifestyle for moral and ethical

living. The five books of Moses were designed to make

his the Hebrews a people of God through a divinely

instituted culture.

The location of God's people at that point is signifi-

cant. In each pagan nation the gods, of which there

were hundreds, permeated and dominated every

aspect of life. A people and their gods formed an

organic whole with their land. Religion existed for the

welfare of society, not primarily for the individual.

Religious change was not possible; it occurred only

when one nation conquered another. Even then the

defeated gods were usually absorbed into the victorious

pantheon. In Egypt, for example, only Egyptian gods

were worshiped. Hence Moses had initially asked Pha-

raoh to permit the Hebrews to go three days' journey

into the wilderness to worship their God; there the

Egyptian gods had no power and need not be feared.

Now God had created for the Hebrews a religious crisis

that opened them to the new order he desired to

institute. The events of Sinai could never have taken

place in Goshen.

Although Israel had left Egypt behind, they still

retained its world-view. Paganism is more than poly-

theism; it is a way of looking at the whole of life. So a

complete break with Israel's past required the strong

antipagan teaching provided in the Pentateuch, begin-

ning with Genesis.

 

Literary Genre

What kind of literature are we dealing with? Is it

prose or poetry, history or parable? Only after that

question is answered can the appropriate interpretive

guidelines be applied.

The style of Genesis 1 is remarkable for its simplicity,

its economy of language. Yet to ask whether it is prose

or poetry is a serious oversimplification. Although we

do not find here the synonymous parallelism and



Interpreting Genesis One                             177b

 

rhythms of Hebrew, poetry, the passage has a number

of alliterations. The prominence of repetition and of its

corollary, silence, brings the writing close to poetry; its

movement toward, a climax places it in the order of

prose. Sometimes called a "hymn," it appears to be a

unique blend of prose and poetry.1

            Although it has no trace of rhetoric, the passage does

use figurative language for describing God's activity:

anthropomorphisms which represent God as if he were

a human being-speaking and seeing, working and

resting. Yet a conclusion that Genesis 1 is semipoetic

and has figurative language by no means determines

the main question--the connection of the narrative

with actual events.

Once for all we need to get rid of the deep-seated

feeling that figurative speech is inferior to literal

language, as if it were somewhat less worthy of God.

The Hebrew language is rich in figures of speech.

Scripture abounds with symbols and metaphors which

the Holy Spirit has used to convey powerfully and

clearly the message he intended. What would be left of

Psalm 23, for example, if it were stripped of its

figurative language? Further, we must give up the false

antithesis that prose is fact while poetry is fiction (prose

= literal = fact, and poetry = figurative = fiction).

Indeed, prose writing often has figures of speech and

can recount a legend or parable as well as history; by

the same token, poetry may have little if any figurative

language and narrate actual events. The prophets, for

example, recalled past facts and predicted future

events with a welter of symbols and images as well as

literal description. (See Ezekiel 16 and 22 for two

versions of the same events.) Jesus summarized centu-

ries of Hebrew history in his parable of the wicked

tenants (Mt. 21:33-41). Good biblical interpretation

recognizes and appreciates this marvelous and effective

variety of literary expression.



177c                           CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

Genesis 1 appears to be a narrative of past events, an

account of God's creative words and acts. Its figurative

language is largely limited to anthropomorphisms. (For

a highly imaginative and figurative account of cre-

ation, read Job 38:4-11.) The text does not have the

earmarks of a parable, a short allegorical story designed

to teach a truth or moral lesson. That genre generally

deals with human events and often starts with a

formula like "There was a man who had two sons" in

Jesus' parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-31).

Genesis 1 is "historical" in the sense of relating events

that actually occurred. Modern historians distinguish

between "history," which began with the invention of

writing or the advent of city life, and "prehistory."2



Interpreting Genesis One                             178a

 

According to that definition, the events in Genesis 1 are

prehistorical. Nevertheless the writing can be called

historical narrative, or primeval history, to distinguish

it from legend or myth, in which ideas are simply

expressed in the form of a story.

Our interpretation of a passage should also be guided

by its structure. Narrators have the freedom to tell a

story in their own way, including its perspective,

purpose, development and relevant content. The

importance of this principle comes to focus in the

Genesis 1 treatment of time. The dominating concepts

and concerns of our century are dramatically different

from those of ancient Israel. For example, our scientific

approach to the natural world seeks to quantify and

measure, calculate and theorize, about the mechanism

of those events. For us time is as important a dimension

as space, so we automatically tend to assume that a

historical account must present a strict chronological

sequence. But the biblical writers are not bound by

such concerns and constrictions. Even within an overall

chronological development they have freedom to clus-

ter certain events by topic. For example, Matthew's

Gospel has alternating sections of narrative and teach-

ing grouped according to subject matter, a sort of

literary club sandwich. Since Matthew did not intend to

provide a strict chronological sequence for the events in

Jesus' ministry, to search for it there would be futile.

By the same token our approach to Genesis 1 should

not assume that the events are necessarily in strict

chronological order. An examination of the phrases

used by the author reveals his emphasis on the creative

word: "And God said" appears eight times, in each

case to begin a four-line poem (figure 1).3  These poems

form the basic structure of the narrative. (The third and

seventh poems do not have the final line, "And there

was evening, and there was morning," since they are

combined with the fourth and eighth creative words,

respectively, to link with the third and sixth days.)

Although the eight poems vary in length and minor

details, they have the same basic format.

It also becomes evident that the eight words are

linked with the six days in an overall symmetrical

structure (figure 2). The second half of the week

(fourth to sixth days) parallels the first half. Augustine

noted this literary framework early in the church's



178b                           CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

history. He believed that everything had been created

at once and that the structure of the days is intended to

teach the "order" in creation. Two centuries ago J. G.

von Herder recognized the powerful symmetry

between the two triads of days. The two have been

contrasted in several ways: creation of spaces and then

their inhabitants forming of the world followed by its

filling.4 Such a sequence is indicated by the conclusion

Word Day       Poem                                                        Verse

1          1          (a) And God said, "Let. . . “               3         

                        (b) and there was ...                          

                        (c) God saw that ... was good.                       4         

                        (d) And there was evening, and there           5

                        was morning--the first day.                         

 

2          2          (a) And God said, "Let. . . “               6

                        (b) And it was so.                                           7

                        (c)                  

                        (d) And there was evening, and there

                              was morning--the second day.                8

 

3          3          (a) And God said. "Let. . .”                            9

                        (b) And it was so.                                                      

                        (c) And God saw that it was good.               10

                        (d)

 

4                      (a) Then God said, "Let . . .”             11       

                        (b) And it was so.                                          

                        (c) And God saw that it was good.               12       

                        (d) And there was evening, and there          

                              was morning-the third day.                     13

 

5          4          (a) Then God said, "Let. . ."               14       

                        (b) And it was so.                                           15       

                        (c) And God saw that it was good.               18       

                        (d) And there was evening, and there          

                               was morning--the fourth day.                19       

 

6          5          (a) Then God said, "Let . . .”             20

                        (b)                  

                        (c) And God saw that it was good.               21

                        (d) And there was evening, and there                      

                              was morning--the fifth day.                    23

         


              


Interpreting Genesis One                             178c

 

7          6          (a) Then God said, "Let. . .”              24       

                        (b) And it was so.                  

                        (c) And God saw that it was good.               25

                        (d)      

8                      (a) Then God said, "Let . . .”             26                   

                        (b) And it was so.                  

                        (c) God saw ... it was very good.                  31

                        (d) And there was evening, and there                      

                              was morning--the sixth day.                  

 

Figure 1. Eight Poems of Genesis 1          

           

Creative                                              Creative                     

Words Day    Elements         Words Day    Elements                    

1 (verse 3)      1          light                5 (verse 14)   4          luminaries     

2 (verse 6)      2          firmament      6 (verse 20)   5          birds   

3 verse (9)      3          seas                 7 (verse 24)   6          fishes

4 (verse 11)               land &             8 (verse 26)               animals &      

vegetation                                           humankind     

 

Figure 2. Literary Structure of Genesis 1              

 


179a                            CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

of the narrative in Genesis 2:1 (RSV): "Thus the

heavens and the earth were completed [days 1-3] and

all the host of them [the crowds of living organisms,

days 4-6]."

The writer's use of the significant numbers 3, 7 and

10 also highlights the careful construction of the cre-

ation account. It starts with three problem elements

(formless earth, darkness and watery deep) which are

dealt with in two sets of three days; the verb "create" is

used at three points in the narrative, the third time

thrice. Both the completion formula, "and it was so,"

and the divine approval, "God saw that it was good,"

appear seven times. The phrase "God said," the verb

"make" and the formula "according to its/their kind"

appear ten times.

In both its overall structure and use of numbers the

writer paid as much attention to the form as to the

content of the narrative, a fact which suggests mature

meditation. The historico-artistic interpretation of

Genesis 1 does justice to its literary craftsmanship, the

general biblical perspective on natural events and the

view of creation expressed by other writers in both Old

and New Testaments.

 

Interpretation of Genesis 1

The third step, after determining the historical con-

text and literary genre, is to discover what this account

of creation means to the first readers. Although a

thorough exegesis cannot be done in a few pages, we

can note the narrative's development and the meaning

of several key words.

 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the

earth. (v. 1)

God is not only the subject of the first sentence, he is

central to the entire narrative. It mentions him thirty-

four times. The phrase "God created" can also be

translated "When God began to create," but the latter

translation is linguistically cumbersome; it also seems to

connote a dualism incompatible with the rest of the

chapter.''

The meaning of the word "create” (bara) in this

context is determined in the light of its meanings

elsewhere in the Old Testament. Its subject is always

God; its object may be things (Is. 40:26) or situations (Is.



Interpreting Genesis One                             179b

 

45:7-8). The specific context determines whether the

creation is an initial bringing into existence (Is. 48:3, 7)

or a process leading to completion (Gen. 2:1-4; Is.

65:18).

The Bible's opening statement may be taken as either

the beginning of God's creative activity or a summary

of the account that follows. Either way, the "begin-

ning" includes not only the material universe but also

time itself. Since all of our thought and action occurs

within a time scale of past/present/future, we find it

difficult if not impossible to conceive of timelessness.

Yet as Augustine observed many centuries ago, God

created not in time but with time.6

 

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness

was over the surface of the deep. (v. 2)

The writer expands on his initial statement, making

the earth his vantage point (compare Ps. 115:16). He

uses two rhyming words, tohu and bohu,7 to describe a

somber scene: a trackless waste, formless and empty in

the utter darkness. Those two words signifying a lack of

form and content provide a key to the chapter's

literary structure.

 

And God said, "Let there be light," and there was

light .... And there was evening, and there was

morning-the first day. (vv. 3-5)

Here is the first of eight creative commands distrib-

uted over six days. A major focus of the narrative is the

word of God: God "speaks" and it is done. The Hebrew

amar has a variety of meanings.8 Its use in Genesis 1

emphasizes God's creative command, his pledge to

sustain the creation and his revelation as the Creator

(this theme is echoed in Psalm 148:5 and Hebrews

11:3). The words leave no room for the divine emana-

tion and struggle so prominent in pagan religions.

Nevertheless there has been too much emphasis on

God's creating simply by command. Only verses 3 and

9 report creation by word alone; the other six occur-

rences include both a word and an act of some kind,

indicated by verbs such as make, separate and set.

 



179c                           CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

The creation of light marks the first step from

primeval formlessness to order. "God saw that the light

was good" (v. 4). There is no hint of ethical dualism,

good and evil coexisting from eternity. To some of the

pagans day and night were warring powers. Not so

here. The Creator assigns to everything its value (4a),

place (4b) and meaning (5a).

 



Interpreting Genesis One                             180a

 

And God said, "Let there be an expanse between

the waters to separate water from water.". .. And

there was evening, and there was morning-the

second day. (vv. 6-8)

An expanse or firmament separates the waters below

(the seas and underground springs) from those above in

the clouds which provide rain. Unlike the first day, the

creative command here is followed by an action: "So

God made the expanse and separated the water under

the expanse from the water above it. And it was so" (v.

7). That combination of word and act also occurs on the

fourth day: "God made two great lights ... made the

stars ... set them in the expanse of the sky" (vv. 16-17);

and on the fifth day, "God created the great creatures

of the sea ... "(v. 21). The wording for the sixth day is

unusual in that God commands himself, so to speak,

and then does it: "Then God said, ‘Let us make

man'. .. So God created- man. .. "(vv. 26-27). This

variety of wording for the eight creative events/

processes should caution against an attempt to formu-

late one basic procedure or mechanism for the cre-

ation.

 

And God said, "Let the water under the sky be

gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear."

And it was so. (vv. 9-10)

Then God said, "Let the land produce vegetation:

seed-bearing plants and trees.". . . And it was

so . . . And there was evening, and there was morn-

ing-the third day. (vv. 11-13)

 

Two events are linked to the third day. In the first, a

creative command continues to give form to the world

through differentiation, the land from the sea. In the

second, a procreative action of the land, empowered by

God, brings forth vegetation in an orderly fashion

"according to their various kinds." That phrase, also

used for the reproduction of animals (v. 24), would be

especially meaningful to the Hebrews, since pagan



180b               CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

mythologies featured grotesque human-beast hybrids.

(The concept fixity of species, often read into this

phrase, would have been unintelligible to the original

hearers.) Here God commands the earth to produce

something, and it does so.

The emphasis has begun to shift from form toward

fulness, which becomes prominent in the remaining

creative words. Originally formless and empty, the

earth is now structured (through the division of light

from darkness, upper from lower waters, dry land from

the seas) and clothed with green, ready for its inhabi-

tants. What God has formed he now fills. The second

half of the week generally parallels the events of the

first.

 

And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of

the sky to separate the day from the night.". . . God

made two great lights ... to govern the day

and ... the night. .. And there was evening, and

there was morning-the fourth day. (vv. 14-19)

The expanse of the, sky is now filled with the stars,

sun and moon "to give light on the earth." (Our

problem of how the earth could be lighted [v. 4] before

the sun appeared comes when we require the narrative

to be a strict chronological account.) It is significant

that the sun and moon are not mentioned by name-

because those common Semitic terms were also the

names of deities. This description may be seen as a

protest against every kind of astral worship, so preva-

lent in the surrounding nations.9 Here the heavenly

bodies do not, reign as gods but serve as signs (see Ps.

121:6). They "govern" (vv. 16, 18) only as bearers of

light, not as wielders of power. These few sentences

undercut a superstition as old as Egypt and as modern

as today's newspaper horoscope.

 

And God said, "Let the water teem with living

creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across

the expanse of the sky.". . . And there was evening,

and there was morning--the fifth day. (vv. 20-23)

The sea and sky are now filled with their inhabitants.

The word for birds literally means "flying things" and

includes insects (compare Dent 14:19-20). The special

reference to great creatures (tanninim, "sea monsters")

also serves a polemic purpose. To the Canaanites the



Interpreting Genesis One                             180c

 

word was an ominous term for the powers of chaos

confronting the god Baal in the beginning. In the Old

Testament the word appears without any mythological

overtones; it is simply a generic term for a large water

animal.

 

And God said, "Let the land produce living crea-

tures according to their kinds." . . . And it was so.

God made the wild animals according to their

kinds. (vv. 24-25)

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in

our likeness.". . . So God created man in his own

image, . . . male and female he created

them . . . . God saw all that he had made and it was

 



 181a               CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

very good. And there was evening, and there was

morning--the sixth day. (vv. 26-31)

The seventh and eighth creative acts are linked to the

sixth day. The former populates the land with three

representative groups of animals: "livestock, creatures

that move along the ground, and wild animals." The

creative action here parallels that in verse 20-23, but is

unique in one respect: God commands the earth to do

something, yet he himself makes it. Here as elsewhere

in the Bible, what we call "natural" reproduction and

God's creative activity are two sides of the same coin.

The eighth act produces man and woman both in

nature and over it. They share the sixth day with other

land creatures, and also God's blessing to be fruitful and

increase; yet their superiority is evident in the words

Let us make (instead of "Let the land produce") and in

the mandate to "fill the earth and subdue it." Human

uniqueness lies in the relationship to God: "Let us

make man in our image"--that of a rational, morally

responsible and social being. The words male and

female at this juncture have profound implications. To

define humanity as bisexual makes the partners com-

plementary and anticipates the New Testament teach-

ing of their equality ("There is neither Jew nor Greek,

slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in

Christ Jesus"--Gal. 3:28).

The culmination of creation in man and woman who

are to rule over the earth and its inhabitants is espe-

cially significant to Israel. In pagan mythology the

creation of mankind was an afterthought to provide the

gods with food and satisfy other physical needs. But in

Genesis 1 the situation is reversed. The plants and trees

are a divine provision for human need (v. 29). From

start to finish the creation narrative challenges and

opposes the essential tenets of the pagan religions of

Egypt, where the Hebrews stayed so long, and of

Canaan, where they would soon be living.

At each stage of creation, six times, God has pro-

nounced his work to be good. "Thus the heavens and

the earth were completed in all their vast array" (Gen.

2:1). The creation ,narrative then concludes with a

seventh day.

 



Interpreting Genesis One                             181b

 

By the seventh day God had finished the work he

had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested

from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day

and made it holy, because on it he rested from all

the work of creating that he had done. (vv. 2:2-3)

The word rested means "ceased" (from sabat, the

root of "sabbath"). It is a rest of achievement or

Pleasure, not of weariness or inactivity, since God

constantly nurtures what he has created. Nature is not

self-existent but is constantly upheld by his providential

power.

This part of the narrative has an immediate applica-

tion embodied in the Ten Commandments. The seven-

day format is given as a model for Israel's work week

and sabbath rest:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you

shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a

Sabbath to the Lord your God.... For in six days the Lord

made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them,

but he rested on the seventh day. (Ex. 20:8-11)

 

This is the account of the heavens and the earth

when they were created. (v. 2:4a)

The narrative finally ends with a "colophon," a

statement that identifies a document's contents, which

we generally put at the beginning of a book.

 

The Creation Days

Much controversy over the interpretation of Genesis

focuses on the meaning of the word day. Many

commentaries wade into that question first and soon

bog down in a hermeneutical quagmire. First one's

perspective on the chapter should be defined. Since no

one is completely objective, it is not a question of

whether we have an interpretive model but which one

we are using.

The comparative religion approach views Genesis 1

as the work of an unknown author long after Moses, and

considers its creation account as being similar to the

primitive stories in other Semitic religions. The concor-

dist model assumes a harmony between the Genesis 1

and scientific accounts of creation, and seeks to demon-

strate the Bible's scientific accuracy. The historical-

cultural approach views the narrative as given by

Moses to Israel in the wilderness, and tries to discover



181c               CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

what the message meant then without any attempt to

harmonize it with either past or present scientific

theories.

Throughout the Old Testament the word "day"

(yom) is used in a variety of ways. Usually meaning a

"day" of the week, the word can also mean "time"

(Gen. 4:3), a specific "period" or "era" (Is. 2:12; 4:2), or

a "season" (Josh. 24:7). We have already noted the

literary symmetry of eight creative words linked to six

days, which occur in two parallel sets of three. The six

days mark the development from a dark, formless,

empty and lifeless earth to one that is lighted, shaped

and filled with teeming varieties of life, culminating in

the creation of man and woman.

The author's purpose--teaching about God and his

creation in order to counteract the pagan myths of

neighboring countries--has become clear in our exposi-

tion of Genesis 1. Israel's God is the all-powerful

Creator of heaven and earth. His world is orderly and



Interpreting Genesis One                             182a

 

consistent. Man and woman are the culmination of

creation, made in the image of God, to enjoy and be

responsible for their stewardship of the earth.

The literary genre is a semipoetic narrative cast in a

historico-artistic framework consisting of two parallel

triads. On this interpretation, it is no problem that the

creation of the sun, necessary for an earth clothed with

vegetation on the third day, should he linked with the

fourth day. Instead of turning hermeneutical handspr-

ings to explain that supposed difficulty, we simply note

that in view of the author's purpose the question is

irrelevant. The account does not follow the chrono-

logical sequence assumed by concordist views.10

The meaning of the word day must be determined

(like any other word with several meanings) by the

context and usage of the author. A plain reading of the

text, with its recurring phrase of evening and morning,

indicates a solar day of twenty-four hours. That would

have been clear to Moses and his first readers. The

context gives no connotation of an era or geological age.

Creation is pictured in six familiar periods followed by

a seventh for rest, corresponding to the days of the

week as Israel knew them. But the question still remains

whether the format is figurative or literal, that is, an

analogy of God's creative activity or a chronological

account of how many hours He worked.

God is a spirit whom no one can see, whose thoughts

and ways are higher than ours. So (apart from the

Incarnation) we can know him only through analogy,

"a partial similarity between like features of two things,

on which a comparison may be based."11 In the Bible

the human person is the central model used to reveal

God's relationship and actions in history. God is pic-

tured as seeing, speaking and hearing like a person even

though he doesn't have eyes, lips or ears. Those figures

of speech (anthropomorphisms) assure us that God is at

least personal and can be known in an intimate rela-

tionship. (Science also uses analogies; for example, a

billiard-ball model in physics helps us understand the

behavior of gas molecules which we cannot see.)

The human model appears throughout Genesis 1,

The writer also links God's creative activity to six days,

marked by evening and morning, and followed by a

day of rest. In the light of the other analogies, why



182b               CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

should it be considered necessary to take this part of the

account literally, as if God actually worked for six days

(or epochs) and then rested? Biblical interpretation

should not suddenly change hermeneutical horses in

the middle of the exegetical stream.

A stringent literalism disregards the analogical

medium of revelation about preation, raising meaning-

less questions about God's working schedule. For exam-

ple, did he labor around the clock or intermittently on

twelve-hour days? If God created light instantaneously,

was the first day then mostly one of rest like the

seventh? How dill the plant and animal reproductive

processes he constituted on succeeding days fit so neatly

into that schedule?

The fact that the text speaks of twenty-four-hour

days does not require that they be considered the actual

duration of God's creative activity. Even on a human

level, when we report the signficant achievements of

someone in a position of power, the length of the

working day is generally irrelevant. For example, a

historian might write, "President Roosevelt decided to

build the atomic bomb and President Truman ordered

its use to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the

war with Japan. Two days radically changed the entire

character of modern warfare." The exact details of how

and when the commands were implemented over years

or weeks are unimportant to the main concern of who

and why, and what resulted.

Preoccupation with how long it took God to create

the world, in days or epochs, deflects attention from the

main point of Genesis 1. Such "scientific" concerns run

interpretation onto a siding, away from the main track

of God's revelation. Once we get past arguments over

the length of the days, we can see the intended mean-

ing of these days for Israel.  First, their significance lies

not in identity, a one-to-one correlation with God's

creative activity, but in an analogy that provides a

model for human work. The pattern of six plus one,

work plus rest on the seventh day, highlights the

sabbath. In doing so, it emphasizes the uniqueness of

humanity. Made in the image of God, and given rule

over the world, man and woman are the crown of

creation. They rest from their labor on the sabbath,

which is grounded in the creation (Gen. 2:2, Ex 20:11).



183a                CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

metaphor uses the commonplace (or commonly

iuderstood, if you wish) meaning of a word in a

figurative manner. When, for example, Jesus calls

Herod "that fox" (Lk. 13:32), the word does not refer

vaguely to any animal but to that one whose character-

istics are well known; yet Jesus doesn't mean that Herod

is literally a fox. Likewise, when David in Psalm 23

says, "The Lord is my shepherd," he refers not to just

any kind of animal keeper but to one who cares for

sheep. It is the commonplace meaning of fox and

shepherd that makes the metaphor understandable. So

the fact that the day in Genesis 1 has its ordinary

work-a-day meaning, and does not refer to an epoch of

some kind, makes possible the metaphor of God's

creative activity as a model for human work of six days

followed by sabbath rest.

Linking God's creative activity to days of the week

serves as another element in the antipagan polemic.

“By stretching the creation events over the course of a

series of days the sharpest possible line has been drawn

between this account and every form of mythical

thinking. It is history that is here reported--once for all

and of irrevocable finality in its results.”12 Genesis 1

contrasts sharply with the cyclical, recurring creations

described by Israel's pagan neighbors.

Two other interpretations of the days have been

advanced. P. J. Wiseman considers them days of revela-

tion with the narrative given over a period of six days,

each on its own tablet.13 He notes a precedent for that

literary form in other ancient literature. It has also been

suggested that Genesis 1 was used liturgically some-

what like the narratives in other religions.14  Whatever

the merits of those views, they at least use the historical-

cultural model to focus on what the narrative could

have meant to the first hearers.

 

The Significance of Genesis 1

During the last century, Genesis 1 has suffered much

from Western interpreters. Liberal literary criticism

removes the divine authority of its message through

Moses; conservative concentration on implications for

science misses its intended meaning. Scholars from the

theological left, armed with scissors and paste, have

rearranged supposed authors and dates into a variety of

configurations. Commentators from the right, scientific



Interpreting Genesis One                             183b

 

texts in hand, have repeatedly adjusted their interpreta-

tions to harmonize with the latest theories. In the

process, the message of Genesis 1 has been so muffled

that the average reader wonders what it means and

whether it can be trusted. Hence we conclude by

summarizing the significance of its account for ancient

Israel, biblical theology, modern science and the

church's life today.

 

Israel at Mount Sinai

Genesis 1 achieves a radical and comprehensive

affirmation of monotheism versus every kind of false

religion (polytheism, idolatry, animism, pantheism and

syncretism); superstition (astrology and magic); and

philosophy (materialism, ethical dualism, naturalism

and nihilism). That is a remarkable achievement for so

short an account (about 900 words) written in everyday

language and understood by people in a variety of

cultures for more than three thousand years. Each day

of creation aims at two kinds of gods in the pantheons of

the time: gods of light and darkness; sky and sea; earth

and vegetation; sun, moon and stars; creatures in sea

and air; domestic and wild animals; and finally human

rulers. Though no human beings are divine, all--from

pharaohs to slaves--are made in the image of God and

share in the commission to be stewards of the earth.

For Israel those were life-and-death issues of daily

existence. God's people do not need to know the how of

creation; but they desperately need to know the Cre-

ator. Their God, who has brought them into covenant

relationship with himself, is no less than the Creator

and Controller of the world. He is not like the many

pagan gods who must struggle for a period of time in

their creative activity. He is stronger than all the

powers that stand between his people and the Promised

Land, the only One worthy of their worship and total

commitment. Creation is the ground of Israel's hope for

preservation as God's chosen people. For them the

doctrine of creation is not so much a cosmogony as a

confession of faith repeatedly expressed in psalms and

prophecies throughout the Old Testament.



183c               CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

Biblical Theology

Both Old and New Testaments connect God's crea-

tive power with his redeeming love.

 

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord his God,

the Maker of heaven and earth,

the sea, and everything in them-

the Lord, who remains faithful forever.

(Ps. 146:5-6)

 



Interpreting Genesis One                             183a

 

In last days he has spoken to us by his Son ... through

whom he made the universe.... sustaining all things by

his powerful word. After he had provided purification

for sins he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in

heaven.

(Heb. 1:2-3)

God the Creator of the universe is the Lord and judge

of history who comes in Jesus Christ to demonstrate his

saving love and power. Three great creeds emerging

from the church's early theological controversies-the

Apostles', Nicene and Chalcedonian--affirm that fun-

damental connection. It has provided the basis for

creativity and meaning in human life, and for Christian

confidence in ultimate victory over all forms of evil.

Thus creation is also closely connected with eschatolo-

gy, the doctrine of the end-times in which God ulti-

mately vindicates his own creativity.

Eschatology is more than futurology, despite preva-

lent fascination about time tables of future events. It

deals with the fulfillment of what God initiated in

creation. God creates through his eternal Word; he also

redeems and brings to completion through the incarna-

tion and glorification of the same Word in Jesus of

Nazareth. "Creation, as the going forth from God, is

simultaneously the first step of the return to God; and

the return is the completion of the journey begun in

creation. God creates for a purpose which becomes

known as the future of the world in the resurrection of

Jesus, the Christ."15  Even though creation has scientific

and philosophical implications, its central significance

is theological.

 

The Scientific Enterprise

The positive contribution of biblical teaching about

God and the world to the development of modern

science has been well documented. Yet a certain kind of

modern theology has considered the biblical descrip-

tion of nature a liability, requiring "demythologizing"

to make it acceptable to a scientific age. Actually,

Genesis 1 prepared the way for our age by its own

program of demythologizing. By purging the cosmic

order of all gods and goddesses, the Genesis creation

account "de-divinized" nature. The universe has no

divine regions or beings who need to be feared or

placated. Israel's intensely monotheistic faith thor-



184b               CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

oughly demythologized the natural world, making way

for a science that can probe and study every part of the

universe without fearing either trespass or retribution.

That does not mean that nature is secular and no

longer sacred. It is still God's creation, declared to be

good, preserved by his power and intended for his

glory. The disappearance of mythical scenes and poly-

theistic intrigues clears the stage for the great drama of

redemption and the new creation in Christ.

 

The Contemporary Church

Meanwhile, the doctrine of creation has profound

implications for contemporary Christian thought and

life. Study of Genesis 1 illuminates two major questions

that should concern Christians in modern culture. First,

what false gods command a following in our society

and even in our churches? Although they differ radi-

cally from the false deities of ancient Israel's neighbors,

their worship can produce similar results. In order to

escape the influence of current unbiblical philosophies,

religious ideas and superstitions, the message of Genesis

1 is urgently needed.

Second, in a day of increasing environmental con-

cerns, what actions should Christians take as stewards

of the earth? Environmental problems have scientific

and technological, political and economic, social and

legal aspects. Important moral and ethical concerns

derive from the biblical doctrines of creation and

human responsibility for the earth. Basic to such con-

cerns is our understanding of nature. Most other reli-

gions view the world as spiritual in itself or as irrelevant

to spiritual concerns. But in the biblical view, the

natural world is created, material and significant in

God's purposes. From that teaching come basic princi-

ples which are belatedly receiving attention from

Christian writers." Surely the church needs a solid

contemporary theology of creation to help define our

human relationship to the natural world.

The doctrine of creation is foundational for God's

providential care of his creation, for his redemption of

humanity and for his re-creation of a new heaven and

earth. Its teaching of God's transcendent sovereignty



Interpreting Genesis One                             183c

 

and power is embodied in a hymn in the last book of the

Bible:

You are worthy, our Lord and God,

to receive glory and honor and power,

for you created all things,

and by your will they were created

and have their being.

(Rev. 4:11)


 


185a                CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

APPENDIX

 

Before 1750 it was generally held that God created the

world in six twenty-four-hour days, although some early

church fathers like Augustine viewed them allegorically.17

Archbishop Ussher around 1650 even calculated the date of

creation to be 4004 B.C. But as the science of geology

matured in the 1800' s, many were shocked to discover that

the earth was millions of years old. Since modern science had

gained so much prestige, many interpreters strove to retain

credibility for the Bible by attempting to demonstrate its

scientific accuracy. Therefore, a variety of concordistic (har-

monizing) views were proposed to correlate biblical teaching

with current scientific theories.

For example, "flood geology" attempted to account for

fossil discoveries through the catastrophe of a universal

flood.18 When new geological discoveries questioned that

view, it was replaced by the "restitution" or "gap" theory

popularized by a Scottish clergyman, Thomas Chalmers, in

1804. According to that view a catastrophe occurred between

Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 to allow the necessary time for the

geological formations to develop. Eventually it became neces-

sary to assume a series of catastrophies or floods to account for

newer scientific findings.

Although such theories accounted for the time that science

required, they could not explain the sequence of the geologi-

cal record. The "day-age" interpretation considered the

Genesis days to be metaphorical for geological ages. That

view was advocated by influential North American geologists

J. W. Dawson and James Dana as well as many theologians.

The Genesis days were then correlated, more or less accurate-

ly, with the proposed epochs. Another version retained literal

twenty-four-hour days of creative activity, but separated

them by geological epochs.

The above views, with varying degrees of credibility, have

in common three major problems. First, they attempt to find

answers to questions the text does not address, about the how

or the mechanism of natural forces. (To see how inappro-

priate such an approach is, consider its opposite: suppose one

tried to derive information about the meaning and purpose of

life from a technical treatise on astronomy in which the

author had no intention of revealing his philosophy.) The

biblical accounts of creation do not provide scientific data or

descriptions. John Calvin emphasized that point: "The Holy



Interpreting Genesis One                             185b

 

Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy.... He made use

by Moses and the other prophets of the popular language that

none might shelter himself under the pretext of obscurity."19

Adapting Calvin's principle to the present we can affirm,

The Holy Spirit had no intention of teaching geology and

biology

Second, not only do the concordistic views strain Genesis by

importing concepts foreign to the text, but any apparent

success in harmonizing the message with "modern science"

guarantees a failure when current scientific theory is revised

or discarded. During the last two centuries, that pattern has

been evident in the continual efforts of harmonizers to keep

abreast of rapidly changing scientific views. The credibility

of the Bible is not enhanced by thrusting it into the scramble

of catch-up in a game it was never intended to play. What is

the point of trying to correlate the ultimate truths of Scripture

with the ever-changing theories of science? No wonder that

when those theories go out of date, in the minds of many

people the Bible joins them in gathering dust on the shelf.

Third, any extent to which Genesis teaches modern scien-

tific concepts would have made its message unintelligible to

its first readers, and to most of the people who have lived

during the last three thousand years. Even in our own

century, what per cent of the people understand the abstract

language of science? And of those who do, how many use it in

the communications of daily life with which the biblical

writers are primarily concerned?

 

REFERENCES

1 Henri Blocher, In the Beginning (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press,

1984), pp. 31-33.

2 N. H. Ridderbos, Is There a Conflict between Genesis I and Natural Science?

(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), p.10.

3 Adrio Konig, New and Greater Things: A Believer's Reflection, part 3, "On

Creation," trans. D. Ray Briggs, unpublished ms., pp. 14-18.

4 Conrad Hyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science

(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), "The Plan of Genesis 1," pp. 67-71. The

author identified three fundamental problems confronting the establish-

ment of an orderly cosmos: darkness, watery abyss and formless earth,

which find their solutions on days one to three, respectively, of preparation

followed by days four to six of population.

5 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), p.46.

6 Bruce Milne, Know the Truth (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982),

p.78.

7 Compare Deuteronomy 32:10; Job 6:18; 26:7, Isaiah 24:10; 34:11; 45:18.



185c               CHARLES E. HUMMEL

 

8 See Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 1, ed. G. J. Botterweck

and Helmer Ringgren (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), pp.

328-45.

9 Gerhard Hasel, "The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology," The

Evangelical Quarterly 46 (1974), pp. 78-80. The author lists six character-

istics of this passage as an antipagan polemic.

10 J. D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.

Eerdmans, 1979), p. 271.

11 Laurence Urdang, ed., The Random House Dictionary of the English

Language, college ed. (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 48.

12 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 57.

13 P. J. Wiseman, Creation Revealed in Six Days (London: Marshall, Morgan

and Scott, 1948), pp. 33-37.

14 D. F. Payne, Genesis One Reconsidered (London: Tyndale Press, 1964), pp.

18-19.

15 Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Christian Doctrine of

Creation in the Light of Modern Knowledge (Garden City, N.Y.: Double-

day, 1965), p. 178.

16 Richard H. Bube, The Human Quest: A New Look at Science and the

Christian Faith (Waco, Texas: Word, 1971), pp. 230-33.

17 Davis A. Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Grand Rapids: Wm.

B. Eerdmans, 1982). Part One, pp. 1-67, traces the history of thought

regarding the age of the earth from the early Greeks through church

history to the twentieth century.

18 Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, (Grand

Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), chap. 4, pp. 171-179, presents a detailed

historical account and critique of each theory.

19 Calvin, Commentary on Psalms, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981),

vo l5, pp. 184-85.

 

Charles E. Hummel graduated from Yale University, and received an M.S. in

chemical engineering from M.I.T. While working for Inter-Varsity, from 1956 to

1965, he received an M.A. in biblical literature from Wheaton and an L.H.D.

from Geneva College. From 1965-74, the author served as president of Barring-

ton College in Rhode Island, and since 1975 as director of faculty ministries for

Inter-Varsity. He has a special interest in the history and philosophy of science, as

reflected in his latest book, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between

Science and the Bible.

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

ASA

P.O. Box 668

Ipswich, MA 01938

http://www.asa3.org/

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu