The Narrative Form of Genesis 1: Hyers

Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 36.4 (1984) 208-15.

American Scientific Affiliation, Copyright 1984;  cited with permission.

 

 

 

The Narrative Form of Genesis 1:

Cosmogonic, Yes; Scientific, No

 

CONRAD HYERS Department of Religion

Gustavus Adolphus College

St. Peter, Minnesota 56082

 

A basic mistake through much of the history of interpreting Genesis 1 is the failure to

identify the type of literature and linguistic usage it represents. This has often led, in

turn, to various attempts at bringing Genesis into harmony with the latest scientific

theory or the latest scientific theory into harmony with Genesis. Such efforts might be

valuable, and indeed essential, if it could first be demonstrated (rather than assumed)

that the Genesis materials belonged to the same class of literature and linguistic usage

as modern scientific discourse.

A careful examination of the 6-day account of creation, however, reveals that there is

a serious category-mistake involved in these kinds of comparisons. The type of

narrative form with which Genesis 1 is presented is not natural history but a

cosmogony. It is like other ancient cosmogonies in the sense that its basic structure is

that of movement from chaos to cosmos. Its logic, therefore, is not geological or

biological but cosmological. On the other hand it is radically unlike other ancient

cosmogonies in that it is a monotheistic cosmogony; indeed it is using the cosmogonic

form to deny and dismiss all polytheistic cosmogonies and their attendant worship of

the gods and goddesses of nature. In both form and content, then, Genesis I reveals

that its basic purposes are religious and theological, not scientific or historical.

 

 

Different ages and different cultures have conceptually

organized the cosmos in different ways. Even the history of

science has offered many ways of organizing the universe,

from Ptolemaic to Newtonian to Einsteinian. How the uni-

verse is conceptually organized is immaterial to the concerns

of Genesis. The central point being made is that, however this

vast array of phenomena is organized into regions and

forms--and Genesis 1 has its own method of organization for

its own purposes--all regions and forms are the objects of

divine creation and sovereignty. Nothing outside this one

Creator God is to be seen as independent or divine.

In one of the New Guinea tribes the entire universe of

known phenomena is subdivided into two groupings: those

things related to the red cockatoo, and those related to the

white cockatoo. Since there are both red and white cockatoos

in the region, these contrasting plumages have become the

208a



Conrad Hyers 208b

 

focal points around which everything is conceptually orga-

nized. The religious message of Genesis relative to this

"cockatoo-cosmos" would not be to challenge its scientific

acceptability, but to affirm that all that is known as red

cockatoo, and all that is known as white cockatoo, is created

by the one true God.

Or, one may take a similar example from traditional China,

where all phenomena have, from early antiquity, been

divided up according to the principles of Yang and Yin. Yang

 

 

This is the second of two essays on interpreting the creation texts, the first of

which appeared in the September 1984 issue of the journal.

 



209a THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

is light; yin is darkness. Yang is heaven; yin is earth. Yang is

sun; yin is moon. Yang is rock; yin is water. Yang is male; yin

is female. It would be inappropriate to enter into a discussion

of the scientific merits of the Chinese system relative to the

organization of Genesis 1; for what Genesis, with its own

categories, is affirming is that the totality of what the Chinese

would call Yang and Yin forces are created by God who

transcends and governs them all.

There are certain uniquenesses in the 6-day approach to

organizing the cosmic totality, spacially and temporally, but

the--point of these uniquenesses is not to provide better

principles of organization, or a truer picture of the universe,

in any scientific or historical sense. It is to provide a truer

theological picture of the universe, and the respective places

of nature, humanity and divinity within the religious order of

things. In order to perform these theological and religious

tasks, it was essential to use a form which would clearly affirm

a monotheistic understanding of the whole of existence, and

decisively eliminate any basis for a polytheistic understand-

ing.

 

The Cosmogonic Form

The alternative to the "creation model" of Genesis was

obviously not an "evolutionary model." Its competition, so to

speak, in the ancient world was not a secular, scientific theory

of any sort, but various religious myths of origin found among

surrounding peoples: Egyptian, Canaanite, Hittite, Assyrian,

Babylonian, to name the most prominent. The field of

engagement, therefore, between Jewish-monotheism and the

polytheism of other peoples was in no way the field of science

or natural history. It was the field of cosmology which, in its

ancient form, has some resemblances to science, but is

nevertheless quite different.

Given this as the field of engagement, Genesis 1 is cast in

cosmological form--though, of course, without the polytheis-

tic content, and in fact over against it. What form could be

more relevant to the situation, and the issues of idolatry and

syncretism, than this form? Inasmuch as the passage is

dealing specifically with origins, it may be said to be cosmo-

gonic. Thus, in order to interpret its meaning properly, and to

understand why its materials are organized in this particular

way, one has to learn to think cosmogonically, not scientifi-

cally or, historically--just as in interpreting the parables of

Jesus one has to learn to think parabolically. If one is

especially attached to the word "literal," then Genesis 1



Conrad Hyers 209b

 

"literally" is not a scientific or historical statement, but is a

cosmological and cosmogonic statement which is serving very

basic theological purposes. To be faithful to it, and to

faithfully interpret it, is to be faithful to what it literally is, not

what people living in a later age assume or desire it to be.

Various patterns, themes and images used in Genesis 1 are

familiar to the cosmogonic literatures of other ancient

peoples. To point this out does not detract in the least from

the integrity of Genesis. Rather, it helps considerably in

understanding the peculiar character and concern of this kind

of narrative literature. And it indicates more clearly where

the bones of contention are to be located, and what the

uniquenesses of the Genesis view of creation are.

The act of creation, for example, begins in Genesis 1:2 in a

way that is very puzzling to modern interpreters, yet very

natural to ancient cosmogonies: with a picture of primordial

chaos. This chaos--consisting of darkness, watery deep and

formless earth--is then formed, ordered, assigned its proper

place and function, in short, cosmocized. Chaos is brought

under control, and its positive features are made part of the

cosmic totality.

If one is determined to interpret the account as a scientific

statement, then one would need--to be consistent--to affirm

several undesirable things. There is no scientific evidence

whatsoever, whether from geology or astronomy, that the

initial state of the universe was characterized by a great

watery expanse, filling the universe. Nor is there any

evidence that the existence of water precedes light (day 1)

and sun, moon, and stars (day 4). Nor is there any evidence

that the earth in a formless state precedes light (day 1), or sun,

moon and stars (day 4). On the theological side, one would

also be affirming--if this is to be taken completely literally-

that water is co-eternal with God, since nowhere does the

account specifically speak of God as creating water. Day 2

refers to water as being separated by the creation of the

firmament, and Day 3 only speaks of water as being sepa-

rated from the earth in order that the formless earth may

appear as dry land.

The only viable alternative is to recognize that Genesis 1 is

intentionally using a cosmogonic approach, and to reflect on


 


210a THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

the logic of the account in its own cosmological terms--not in

geological or biological or chronological terms. The account is

not pre-scientific or un-scientific but non-scientific--as one

may speak of poetry (unpoetically) as non-prose. This does

not mean that the materials are in any sense irrational or

illogical or fantastic. They are perfectly rational, and have a

logic all their own. But that logic is cosmological, and in the

service of affirmations that are theological.

So the issue is not at all, How is Genesis to be harmonized

with modern science, or modern science harmonized with

Genesis? That kind of question is beside the point, if by the

question one is proposing to try to synchronize the Genesis

materials with materials from the various fields of natural

science: biology, geology, paleontology, astronomy, etc. That

would presuppose that they are comparable--that they

belong to the same type of literature, level of inquiry, and

kind of concern. But they do not. Trying to compare them is

not even like comparing oranges and apples. It is more like

trying to compare oranges and orangutans.

The questions then, are: Why is this cosmogonic form

being used, and how does a cosmogonic interpretation make

sense of the passage?

Like anything else in biblical literature, the cosmogonic

form was used because it was natural, normal and intelligible

in that time period. For some, it has been an offense to call

attention to ancient Near Eastern parallels of the Genesis

materials. This approach has appeared to undermine accep-

tance of the Bible as a unique vehicle of divine revelation, Yet

the Bible, obviously, does not speak with a divine language-

which, to say the least, would be unintelligible to all. The

biblical authors necessarily used the language forms and

literary phrases immediately present and available in Israel,

which included materials available through the long history

of interaction with surrounding peoples. They did not use a

whole new vocabulary, or fresh set of metaphors and symbols,

suddenly coined for the purpose or revealed on the spot.

When one speaks of the Word of God, one must be careful not

to suggest by this term that what is being delivered is some

sacred language, complete with heavenly thesaurus and

handbook of divine phrases, specially parachuted from

above.

Jewish scripture abounds in literary allusion and poetic

usage which bear some relation, direct or indirect, to images

and themes found among the peoples with which Israel was in



Conrad Hyers 210b

 

contact. An analogy may be drawn from contemporary

English usage which contains innumerable traces of the

languages and literatures, myths and legends, customs and

beliefs, of a great many cultures and periods which have

enriched its development. Thus one finds not only a consider-

able amount of terminology drawn from Greek, Latin,

French. German. etc.--including the terms "term" and "ter-

minology"--but references derived from the myths, legends,

fables and fairy tales of many peoples: the Greek Fates, the

Roman Fortune, the arrows of Cupid, Woden's day and

Thor's day, and even Christmas and Easter.

The issue, then, is not where the language (Hebrew) and

certain words and phrases came from, but the uses to which

they are put, and the ways in which they are put differently,

The cosmogonic form and imagery, in this case, is not chosen

in order to espouse these other cosmogonies, or to copy them,

or to ape them, or even to borrow from them, but precisely in

order to deny them. Putting the issue in terms of "borrowing"

or "influence" is to put matters in a misleading way. Various

familiar motifs and phrasings to be found in surrounding

polytheistic systems are being used, but in such a way as to

give radical affirmation to faith in one God, a God who

transcends and creates and governs all that which surround-

ing peoples worship as "god.

Such a God, furthermore, is not only transcendent but

immanent in a way that the gods and goddesses could not be.

These divinities were neither fully transcendent nor fully

immanent, for all were finite, limited, and localized, being

associated with one aspect and region of nature. The gods and

goddesses of light and darkness, sky and water, earth and

vegetation, sun, moon and stars. each had their own particu-

lar abode and sphere of power. One or another divinity, such

as Marduk of Babylon or Re of Egypt, might rise to suprem-

acy in the pantheon and be exalted above every other name.

But they were still restricted and circumscribed in their

presence, power and authority.

The biblical affirmation of One God is decisively different

from all finite and parochial attributions of divinity. In the

words of the Apostle Paul, this God is "above all and through

all and in all" (Ephesians 4:6). The very fact that God is

''above all" makes possible a God who is at the same time

"through all and in all." Radical immanence presupposes



210c THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

radical transcendence. At the same time all things are in God,

for apart from God they have no being; they do not exist. As

Paul also says, citing a Greek poet: "He is not far from each

one of us, for 'In him we live and move and have our being'

(Acts 1728).

Genesis 1 is, thus, a cosmogony to end all (polytheistic)

cosmogonies. It has entered, as it were, the playing field of

these venerable systems, engaging them on their own turf,

with the result that they are soundly defeated. And that

victory has prevailed, first in Israel, then in Christianity, and

also Islam. and thence through most of subsequent Western

civilization, including the development of Western science.

Despite the awesome splendor and power of the great



Conrad Hyers 211a

 

empires that successively dominated Israel and the Near

East--Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome--

and despite the immediate influence of the divinities in

whose names they conquered, these gods and goddesses have

long since faded into oblivion, except for archeological,

antiquarian or romantic interests. This victory belongs, in

large part, to the sweeping and decisive manner with which

the Genesis account applied prophetic monotheism to the

cosmogonic question.

 

The Plan of Genesis 1

How, then, does an understanding of this cosmogonic

form--as radically reinterpreted in Genesis--help in under-

standing the organization and movement of the passage?

The emphasis in a cosmogony is on the establishment of

order (cosmos), and the maintenance of that order, and

therefore upon the ultimate sources of power and authority.

Given these concerns, there are three amorphous realities that

are seen as especially threatening to order: the watery

"deep," darkness, and the formless earth ("waste" and

"void"). These potentially chaotic realities must be cosmo-

cized. They are not, however, simply threatening or demonic,

but rather ambiguous. They have a potential for good as well

as evil, if controlled and placed in an orderly context. The

particular organization and movement of Genesis 1 is readily

intelligible when this cosmological problem, with which the

account begins, is kept clearly in mind.

Water, for example, has no shape of its own. And,

unchecked or uncontained, as in flood or storm or raging sea,

water can destroy that which has form. Darkness, also, in

itself has no form, and is dissolvent of form. Only with the

addition of light can shapes and boundaries and delineations

appear. Similarly, earth is basically formless--whether as

sand, dust, dirt or clay. And it is doubly formless when

engulfed by formless and form--destroying water and dark-

ness.

These fundamental problems confronting the establish-

ment and maintenance of an orderly cosmos, therefore, in the

logic of the account, need to be confronted and accommo-

dated first. The amorphousness and ambiguousness of water,

darkness and formless earth must be dealt with in such a way

as to restrain their negative potential and unleash their

positive potential. Otherwise, it would be like building a

house without giving careful consideration to potential

threats in the region, such as the adjacent floodplain, or

shifting sand.



211b THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

The structure of the account, then, is that of beginning with

a description of a three-fold problem (the chaotic potential of

darkness, water and earth) which is given a solution in the

first three days of creation, The first day takes care of the

problem of darkness through the creation of light. The second

clay takes care of the problem of water through the creation of

a firmament in the sky to separate the water into the waters

above (rain, snow, hail) and the waters below (sea, rivers,

subterranean streams). The third day takes care of the

problem of the formless earth by freeing earth from water

and darkness, and assigning it to a middle region between

light and darkness, sky and underworld.

This then readies the cosmos for populating these various

realms in the next three days, like a house which has been

readied for its inhabitants. In fact, the third day also takes

care of providing food for its forthcoming residents through

the creation of vegetation. We thus observe a symmetrical

division of the account into three movements (Problem,

Preparation, Population), each with three elements. The

account could be read as if written in three parallel columns

as shown in Table 1.

The problem of the three "chaotic" forces is resolved in the

first three days by circumscribing their negative potential

and making use of their positive potential. As a result a

harmonious context is established in preparation for the

population of these three regions. Darkness is contained and

counterbalanced by light; water is separated and confined to

its proper spheres by the firmament; and the earth is demar-

cated from the waters, allowing dry land and vegetation to

appear.

Thus, with everything readied and in order, the inhabitants

of these three cosmicized regions are created and invited to

 

Table 1

Outline of Genesis 1

Problem Preparation Population

(vs. 2) (days 1-3) (days 4-6)

Darkness la Creation of light (Day) 4a Creation of Sun

b Separation from Darkness b Creation of Moon, Stars

(Night)

Watery Abyss 2a Creation of Firmament 5a Creation of Birds

b Separation of Waters above b Creation of Fish

from Waters below

Formless Earth 3a Separation of Earth from Sea 6a Creation of Land

Animals

b Creation of Vegetation b Creation of Humans



Conrad Hyers 212a

 

take their proper places. The light and darkness of day one

are populated by the sun, moon and stars of day four. The sky

and waters of day two are populated by the birds and fish of

day five. The earth and vegetation of day three make possible

a population by the land animals and human beings of day

six.

In this way of reading the account, the dilemmas that arise

for a literalist (i.e., scientific and historical) interpretation

disappear. The three problems, which are envisioned as

difficulties for cosmicizing, are dealt with first, followed by a

sketch of the way in which these cosmocized regions are then

inhabited. This is the logic of the account. It is not chrono-

logical, scientific or historical. It is cosmological.

The procedure is not unlike that of a landscape painter,

who first sketches in with broad strokes the background of the

painting: its regions of light and darkness, of sky and water,

and of earth and vegetation. Then within this context are

painted birds and fish, land animals and human figures. It

would be quite inappropriate for anyone to try to defend the

artistic merit and meaning of the painting by attempting to

show that the order in which the painting was developed was

scientifically and historically "correct." That order is irrele-

vant to the significance of the painting as a whole and the

attribution of its authorship. It is a painting of the totality.

And the critical concern is to sketch in all the major regions

and types of creatures, so as to leave no quarter that has not

been emptied of its resident divinity, and no elements that

have not been placed under the lordship of the Creator.

 

The Numerology of Genesis 1

In this way of organizing the material, Genesis has used a

numerological structure built around the number three-a

hallowed number, as is apparent in the sacred formula,

"Holy, holy, holy." Three is the first number to symbolize

completeness and wholeness, for which neither number one

nor two is suitable. Three also symbolizes mediation and

synthesis, as the third term in a triad "unites" the other two.

These symbolic uses of three are evident in the way in which

phenomena are organized in terms of two sets of opposite

forms which are separated from one another (days 1 and 2, 4

and 5), then completed and mediated by days 3 and 6. Light



212b THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

and darkness of day 1, and sky above and waters below of day

2, are completed and mediated by the earth and vegetation of

day 3. The triadic movement is then repeated as the first

three days are populated by the second three: the sun, moon

(and stars) of the day and night skies (day 4), and the birds of

the air and fish of the sea (day 5), are completed and

mediated by the land animals and humans of day 6.

The ultimate mediation is then given to human beings who,

while belonging to the earth and with the animals (and

therefore in the "image" of the earth and the "likeness" of

animals), are also created in the "image and likeness" of God.

Humanity is thus placed midway between God and

Nature--which has now become nature by being emptied of

any intrinsic divinity. Hence the traditional theological

phrasing of "Nature, Man and God." As the Psalmist in a

parallel passage put it with enthusiastic exclamation:

 

Thou has made him little less than God

and dost crown him with glory and honor.

Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;

then has put all things under his feet,

all sheep and oxen,

and also the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

whatever passes along the paths of the sea.

Psalm 8:5-8

 

This triadic structure of three sets of three points up

another problem with a literal reading of the account.

Literalism presumes that the numbering of days is to be

understood in an arithmetical sense, whether as actual days or

as epochs. This is certainly the way in which numbers are

used in science, history and mathematics-and in practically

all areas of modern life. But the use of numbers in ancient

religious texts was often numerological rather than numer-

ical. That is, their symbolic value was the basis and purpose

for their use, not their secular value as counters. While the

conversion of numerology to arithmetic was essential for the

rise of modern science, historiography and mathematics, the

result is that numerological symbols are reduced to signs.

Numbers had to be neutralized and secularized, and com-



Conrad Hyers 212c

 

pletely stripped of any symbolic suggestion, in order to be

utilized as digits. The principal surviving exception to this is

the negative symbolism attached to the number 13, which

still holds a strange power over Fridays, and over the listing of

floors in hotels and high rises.

In the literal treatment of the six days of creation, a

modern, arithmetical reading is substituted for the original

symbolic one. This results, unwittingly, in a secular rather

than religious interpretation. Not only are the symbolic

associations and meanings of the text lost in the process, but

the text is needlessly placed in conflict with scientific and

historical readings of origins.

In order to understand the use of the imagery of days, and

the numbering scheme employed, one has to think, not only

cosmologically, but numerologically. One of the religious

considerations involved in numbering is to make certain that

any schema works out numerologically: that is, that it uses,

and adds up to, the right numbers symbolically. This is

distinctively different from a secular use of numbers in which

the overriding concern is that numbers add up to the correct

total numerically.



213a THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

In this case, one of the obvious interests of the Genesis

account is to correlate the grand theme of the divine work in

creation with the six days of work and seventh day of rest in

the Jewish week. If the Hebrews had had a five-day or a

seven-day work week, the account would have read differ-

ently in a corresponding manner. Seven was a basic unit of

time among West Semitic peoples, and goes back to the

division of the lunar month into 4 periods of 7 days each. By

the time Genesis was written, the 7-day week and the sabbath

observance had been long established. Since what is being

affirmed in the text is the creative work of God, it was quite

natural to use the imagery of 6 days of work, with a 7th day of

rest. It would surely have seemed inappropriate and jarring to

have depicted the divine creative effort in a schema of, say, 5

days or 11 days.

It was important for religions reasons, not secular ones, to

use a schema of seven days, and to have the work of creation

completed by the end of the sixth day. "And God ceased on

the seventh day from all work which he had done" (Genesis

2:2). The word "ceased" is shabat, a cognate of the term

shabbat, sabbath. The "creation model" being used here is

thus in no sense a scientific model, but a liturgical-calendrical

model based on the sacred division of the week and the

observance of sabbath. This is the religious form within which

the subject of work is to be treated, even the subject of divine

work.

The seven-day structure is also being used for another, not

unrelated, reason. The number 7 has the numerological

meaning of wholeness, plenitude, completeness. This symbol-

ism is derived, in part, from the combination of the three

major zones of the cosmos as seen vertically (heaven, earth,

underworld) and the four quarters and directions of the

cosmos as seen horizontally. Both the numbers 3 and 4 in

themselves often function as symbols of totality, for these and

other reasons. Geometrically speaking, 3 is the triangular

symbol of totality, and 4 is the rectangular symbol (in its

perfect form as the square). But what would be more "total"

would be to combine the vertical and horizontal planes. Thus

the number 7 (adding 3 and 4) and the number 12 (multiply-

ing them) are recurrent biblical symbols of fullness and

perfection: 7 golden candlesticks, 7 spirits, 7 words of praise, 7



Conrad Hyers 213b

 

churches, the 7th year, the 49th year, the 70 elders, forgive-

ness 70 times 7, etc. Even Leviathan, that dread dragon of the

abyss, was represented in Canaanite myth as having 7

heads--the "complete" monster.

Such positive meanings are now being applied by Genesis

to a celebration of the whole of creation, and of the parenthe-

sis of sabbath rest. The liturgically repeated phrase "And God

saw that it was good," which appears after each day of

creation, and the final capping phrase "And behold it was

very good," are paralleled and underlined by being placed in

a structure that is climaxed by a 7th day. The 7th day itself

symbolizes its completeness and "very-goodness."

The account also makes use of the corresponding symbol of

wholeness and totality: 12. Two sets of phenomena are

assigned to each of the 6 days of creation, thus totalling 12. In

this manner the numerological symbolism of completion and

fulfillment is associated with the work of creation, as well as

the rest from it on the 7th day. The totality of nature is

created by God, is good, and is to be celebrated both daily and

in special acts of worship and praise on the Sabbath day. The

words "six" and "seven" are themselves words of praise: six

expressing praise for creation and work; seven for sabbath

and rest.

Uses of the number 12, like 7, abound throughout the Bible.

Not only is there a miscellany of references to 12 pillars, 12

springs, 12 precious stones, 12 gates, 12 fruits, 12 pearls, etc.,

but it was important also to identify 12 tribes of Israel, as well

as 12 tribes of Ishmael, and later the 12 districts of Solomon, as

well as Jesus' 12 disciples.

Though in the modern world numbers have become almost

completely secularized, in antiquity they could function as

significant vehicles of meaning and power. It was important

to associate the right numbers with one's life and activity, and

to avoid the wrong numbers. To do so was to surround and fill

one's existence with the positive meanings and powers which

numbers such as 3, 4, 7 and 12 conveyed. In this way one gave

religious significance to life, and placed one's existence in

harmony with the divine order of the cosmos. By aligning and

synchronizing the microcosm of one's individual and family

life, and the mesocosm of one's society and state, with the

macrocosm itself, life was tuned to the larger rhythms of this

sacred order.



213c THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

For twentieth century, western societies the overriding

consideration in the use of numbers is their secular value in

addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. We must

therefore have numbers that are completely devoid of all

symbolic associations. Numbers such as 7 and 12 do not make

our calculators or computers function any better, nor does the

number 13 make them any less efficient. Our numbers are

uniform, value-neutral "meaningless" and "powerless."

What is critical to modern consciousness is to have the right

numbers in the sense of having the right figures and right

count. This sense, of course, was also present in the ancient

world: in commerce, in construction, in military affairs, in

taxation. But there was also a higher, symbolic use of num-

bers. In a religious context, it was more important to have the

right numbers in a sacred rather than profane sense. While

we give the highest value, and nearly exclusive value, to



Conrad Hyers 214a

 

numbers as carriers of arithmetic "facts," in religious texts

and rituals the highest value was often given to numbers as

carriers of ultimate truth and reality.

Those, therefore, who would attempt to impose a literal

reading of numbers upon Genesis, as if the sequence of days

was of the same order as counting sheep or merchandise or

money, are offering a modern, secular interpretation of a

sacred text--in the name of religion. And, as if this were not

distortion enough, they proceed to place this secular reading

of origins in competition with other secular readings and

secular literatures: scientific, historical, mathematical, tech-

nological. Extended footnotes are appended to the biblical

texts on such extraneous subjects as the Second Law of

Thermodynamics, radiometric dating, paleontology, sedi-

mentation, hydrology, etc. These are hardly the issues with

which Genesis is concerning itself, or is exercised over.

 

Phenomenal Language

Since Genesis is teaching creation over against procreation,

and monotheism over against polytheism, it cannot be said to

be teaching science, or any one form of science over against

any other. Insofar as Genesis deals with relationships within

nature, it does so in a phenomenal manner: as things appear to

ordinary observation. Genesis is not in the business of teach-

ing a "young earth" theory of sudden creation in 6 literal

24-hour days. Nor is it teaching some form of "progressive

creation" with a mix of fiat creation and epochs of gradual

development. Nor is it teaching "theistic evolution" or "pan-

theistic evolution" or "panentheistic evolution." It does not

teach any of these views of science and natural history

because it is not using language in that way, for that purpose,

or out of that concern.

If scientists wish to take such positions on their own, it is

certainly within their province and right as scientists to do so,

and to debate such positions within scientific forums. But it

should not be done for religious reasons, or motivated by a

supposed greater fidelity to the Bible. Nor should anyone

presume that such efforts in any way confirm or deny biblical

teaching. It is a linguistic confusion to try to argue that any of

these scientific positions, or any other scientific positions,

past, present or forthcoming, represent the biblical position,

and can therefore be questioned by science, verified by

science, or falsified by science.

A prime example of this confusion is the energy expended

by certain biologists in construing the frequent reference to



214b THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

reproducing "each according to its kind" as a statement

concerning biological species and speciation. The phrasing is

repeated 10 times in Genesis 1 with reference to vegetation,

birds, sea creatures and land animals. If one may take this to

be a biological statement, then it would be appropriate to

introduce extended discussion of fixity of species, genetic

mutations, natural selection, missing links, stratigraphic evi-

dence, and the like. If not, then the discussion, however

interesting and important, is beside the point. And it is not.

The repeated stress upon "kinds" is not a biological or genetic

statement. It is a cosmological statement. While that may

appear to modern interpreters very much like a biological

statement, it is actually a different "species" of statement that

cannot be "cross-bred" with scientific statements. The type of

species-confusion involved here is not that of biological

species but linguistic species!

Since cosmologies are concerned with the establishment

and maintenance of order in the cosmos, central to the

achievement of order is the act of separating things from one

another. Without acts of separation, one would have chaos.

Thus ancient cosmologies commonly begin with a depiction

of a chaotic state, where there are no clear lines of demarca-

tion, and then proceed to indicate ways in which the present

world-order (cosmos) with its lines of demarcation has been

organized. In other cultures this was achieved by divine

births, wars, etc. Here cosmos is accomplished by separating

things out from one another, and by creating other things

(e.g., light or firmament) that aid in the separation. Every-

thing is thus assigned its proper region, allowing it to have its

own identity, place and function in the overall scheme. The

imagery used in Genesis 1, in fact, is drawn largely from the

political sphere. It is that of a divine sovereign, issuing

commands, organizing territories, and governing the cosmic

kingdom.

In Genesis 1 the inanimate features of the first four days

are achieved by being "separated" or "gathered together."

On the first day "God separated the light from the darkness."

On the second day "God made the firmament and separated

the waters which were under the firmament from the waters

which were above the firmament." On the third day God

said, "Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together

into one place, and let the dry land appear." And on the

fourth day God said, "Let there be lights in the firmament of

the heavens to separate the day from the night."

The same theme is then pursued on the third, fifth and



Conrad Hyers 214c

 

sixth days in dealing with plant and animal life. "Each

according to its kind" is a continuation on the animate level of

the acts of separation on the inanimate level. The process is

then climaxed by the creation of human beings who are

granted their unique place in the cosmos by being separated

from the rest of the animals by virtue of being in the image

and likeness of God, yet at the same time separated from God

as creatures of divine creation.

Beyond this general cosmological concern to attribute all

types of beings, and all types of order, to the creation and

control of God, there is no specific interest in or reference to

what we might recognize as a biological statement on species,

genera, phyla, etc., or a geological statement on the history of

water and earth, or an astronomical statement on the relation-

ship between sun, moon, stars and earth. The language used is

phenomenal and popular, not scientific and technical. As

John Calvin wisely noted, early in the growing controversies

over religion and science: "Nothing is here treated of but the

visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy and

the other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere."1

This observation on biblical usage is very important for the

doctrine of revelation. The biblical message offers itself as a

universal message. It is addressed to all human beings,

whatever their knowledge or lack of it. It is therefore couched

in a form that employs the universal appearances of things



215a THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

which anyone anywhere can identify with. As Calvin also

states: "Moses does not speak with philosophical (i.e., scien-

tific) acuteness on occult mysteries, but states those things

which are everywhere observed, even by the uncultivated,

and which are in common use."2 Thus when Genesis 1

discusses the "separating" or "gathering" of inanimate forces,

these are not astronomical or geological terms, but cosmologi-

cal ones, which draw upon everyday observations of nature.

Similarly, the word "kind" (min) is not functioning as a

genetic term, but describes the animate order as it is

perceived in ordinary experience. Biblical statements in all

these areas are the equivalent of phenomenal statements still

commonly in use, despite centuries of astronomy, such as

"sunrise" and "sunset."

Calvin pointed out, for example, that the biblical state-

ment--if construed as a scientific statement-that the sun

and moon are the two great lights of the heavens, cannot be

reconciled with astronomy, since "the star of Saturn, which,

on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is

greater than the moon."3 And, as we now know, there are

many suns greater than our sun. But, Calvin insisted, "Moses

wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all

ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to

understand."4 Similarly, in his commentary on the reference

to the two "great lights" in Psalm 136, Calvin affirmed that

"the Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and in

proposing instruction meant to be common to the simplest

and most uneducated persons, he made use by Moses and the

other prophets of popular language that none might shelter

himself under the pretext of obscurity."5

As Francis Bacon perceptively argued in 1605, addressing

the apparent flat earth teaching of the Bible, there are two

books of God: "the book of God's Word" and "the book of

God's Works." These books, however, must not be confused in

their nature, language and purpose. We must not, Bacon

warned, "unwisely mingle or confound these learnings

together."' Religion and science are not necessarily running a

collision course along the same track, except when someone

mistakenly switches them onto the same track. Religious

language and scientific language intersect at many points, to

be sure, as they touch upon many of the same issues and

realities. But they do not move along the same plane of



Conrad Hyers 215b

 

inquiry and discourse. They intersect at something more like

right angles.

Science, as it were, moves along a horizontal plane, with its

steadfast attention to immediate causes and naturalistic

explanations for phenomena. Religion moves along a vertical

plane that intersects this horizontal plane from beginning to

end-and not just in certain "gaps" which are defended so as

to make room for God at intermittent points along the line.

Science, with its eyes focussed on the dimensions of the

horizontal plane, tends to have a naturalistic bias, and to see

all experience and knowing, and all affirmation, as reducible

to this plane. Religion, however, adds another dimension, a

supernatural dimension, which it insists intersects this hori-

zontal plane at every moment, and in fact is the ultimate

source of its being, meaning and direction. It is a dimension

which, along its vertical axis, is both transcendent and imma-

nent. It is simultaneously present with the natural, and

without it the natural does not exist. But it is not reducible to

the natural, nor is language about it reducible to natural

forms.

If one wishes to argue for deeper meanings and mysteries

in scripture, they are certainly there. But they are not

scientific in character. They are theological and spiritual.

They are not meanings and mysteries hidden from the

ancients, but now revealed to 20th century scientists, which

lie along the horizontal plane. They are rather inexhaustible

depths of meaning and mystery which lie along the vertical

plane. "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge

of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how

inscrutable his ways.... For from him and through him and

to him are all things" (Romans 11:33, 36).

 

NOTES

1. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, ed. John King (Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 184-5.

2. Ibid., p. 84.

3. Ibid., p. 85.

4. Ibid., p. 86.

5. John Calvin, Commentary on Psalms, vol. V (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1981), pp. 184-5.

6. For an excellent discussion of Bacon and Calvin, see Roland Mushat Frye,

"The Two Books of God," Theology Today (October, 1982), pp. 260-266.

science, or falsified by science.



215c THE NARRATIVE FORM OF GENESIS 1

 

Conrad Hyers is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Religion,

Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota. He holds a BA from Carson-

Newman College, a BD from Eastern Baptist Seminary, and a ThM and PhD

from Princeton Theological Seminary. He has published a study of the relation-

ship between biblical themes and comic symbolism, THE COMIC VISION AND

THE CHRISTIAN FAITH (Pilgrim Press, 1981). His essay is an abridgment of

several chapters of his most recent book, THE MEANING OF CREATION:

GENESIS AND MODERN SCIENCE, (John Knox Press, December 1984.)

 

 

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