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
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
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
The biblical creation accounts in Genesis have some
similarities with those of
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.
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
on July 26-29, 1985, at St. Catherine's College in
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).
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
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.
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
considers the Pentateuch to be a revelation from God,
through his prophet Moses, to
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
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
Even though they were miraculously delivered from
slavery and led toward
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
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
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
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
antipagan teaching provided in the Pentateuch, begin-
ning with Genesis.
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
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
(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
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
(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
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
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 &
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,
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
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.
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
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-
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
181c CHARLES E. HUMMEL
what the message meant then without any attempt to
harmonize it with either past or present scientific
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.
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
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
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
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
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
church's life today.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
185a CHARLES E. HUMMEL
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
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?
Henri Blocher, In
the Beginning (
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),
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.
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.
J. D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (
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.
P. J. Wiseman, Creation Revealed in Six
and Scott, 1948), pp. 33-37.
14 D. F. Payne, Genesis One Reconsidered (London: Tyndale Press, 1964), pp.
15 Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Christian Doctrine of
in the Light of Modern Knowledge (
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.
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.
E. Hummel graduated from
chemical engineering from M.I.T. While working for Inter-Varsity, from 1956 to
he received an M.A. in biblical literature from
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:
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt