What Happens If We Apply Hermeneutics to Genesis 1?
Christianity is currently undergoing a vigorous debate on how to relate the Genesis 1 account of the creation of the world with the observable facts about the world. Unfortunately, the “debate” is largely a religious argument, since all sides have articles of “faith” that force a particular interpretation. Fundamentalists typically believe that the Bible must be literally true in order for it to be true, so they are forced into a belief in a literal six-day creation, which is completely at odds with the scientific evidence. The more moderate Evangelicals hold the faith that a literal interpretation is best, but make allowances for matching up with observation, interpretting Genesis 1 in such a way that it acts like a scientific re-telling.
If we want to be good Bible scholars, we should go through the interpretive process, rather than letting our “faith” assumptions direct our interpretation. So, let us look at the text itself, and determine what it meant to the original readers. Next, we will look at the differences between their time and ours. Finally, we can apply the text to our time.
In the original Hebrew, Genesis 1 is a very artful, poetic description of creation, as noted by Nahum Sarna, in Genesis. The NIV translation even indents it as poetry. This is in contrast to Genesis 2 - 3, which take a more narrative approach. As poetry, the original readers of Genesis 1 would have experienced the Creation story as a piece of art. Just as we do not interpret Psalms literally, a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is an incorrect interpretation and application of hermeneutical principles.
Genesis 1 is clearly an ancient text, often ascribed to Moses, but possibly from even older sources. This culture is many millenia distant from ours, requiring us to understand the ancient Hebrew language and worldview in order to understand that text as an early reader would.
The ancient Hebrew language used in this text is so old that not many words had been developed yet. Thus, one word had more definitions than in our more precise, modern language. English, in particular, has words that are very precise in meaning; we cannot read the text with our modern precision. Rather, we must take our understanding and “blur” it in order to arrive at a similar feeling as ancient readers. For instance, there was no word for a long period of time. You could not write “eon”; the only word for any long length of time was “day.”
The ancient Middle Eastern understanding of the nature of the world (cosmology) was very different than ours. The Bible and other ancient texts from the region understand that what we experience is a dome. The dome keeps the waters in the sky from overwhelming the land. Likewise, the waters below are prevented from rising up to overwhelm the land. This is a reasonable interpretation of what we observe. The sky does indeed look like a dome, and there must be water up there somewhere, because we get rain from the sky. Likewise, if you dig in the earth, you find water. Occasionally those waters rise up and flood the land, and you can observe that the ocean rises and falls regularly.
However, this cosmology probably has a strong poetical and symbolic element to it, rather than a literal understanding. The correlation between clouds, which are clearly beneath the dome, and rain cannot have gone unnoticed. To the ancient Hebrews, water represented chaos. Water is unpredictable and dangerous. The ocean is not a safe place. Rivers flood and cause large amounts of destruction. In desert regions, a dry stream and suddenly and unpredictably turn into a raging torrent from unseen rain miles away.
Another element of the culture in which Genesis 1 was written are the Creation narratives of the cultures around Israel. Genesis 1 offers strong similarities and differences to the neighboring accounts, but not in the ways that modern Westerners expect. Other accounts have a similar poetic feel to them, with the earth being created out of the dead body of the mother-god. This is fitting, because it is the earth that provides us with food, just as the mother’s body provides her child with food. Regardless of whether the surrounding cultures thought that the earth was actually the body of a dead god or whether they interpreted it metaphorically, the method of Creation is much different in the Biblical account. The Biblical account is very peaceful and orderly. God speaks, and it happens. The accounts of the surrounding nations involve warring gods and have a chaotic feel. The nature of Yahweh-God and the gods are very different. Yahweh is clearly powerful and in control. There is no conflict, and Creation unfolds peaceably and so perfectly that God calls it “good” repeatedly.
Another strong difference in the cultures, and therefore the narratives, is the nature of people. In the surrounding nations, people exist to serve the ruler. Thus, their Creation stories describe people being created to serve the gods, cultivating the land and providing food for the gods via sacrifices. The story and the culture have a strong hierarchical element: the ruler is better than the commoner. The Biblical account is completely contrary to this. While Yahweh is obviously the ruler, He does not rule over people in a master-slave relationship. People are created in His image. In fact, the repeated emphasis of creatures “reproducing after their kind” suggests that God’s final act of creation was to reproduce after His kind. Thus people are tasked with ruling over Creation, just as God rules over the larger Creation.
So how would the original readers have understood the text as they read it? First, they would have experienced it as an work of art, an elegant piece of poetry. Second, they would have seen God’s character demonstrated. God takes the waters of chaos and separates them, creating space for creatures. (In fact, the flood account later on is not merely a disaster, but an act of uncreation—God permits the waters to recombine back into the primordial chaos.) They would have seen an orderly creation by an orderly God. They would have seen a supremely powerful God, unchallenged by any other, quite unlike the nations around them. They would have seen a high value for human life, as carrying God’s image. There could be no slave, no notion that rulers command the labors of others, since we are all God’s image bearers. For the original readers, Genesis 1 is full of rich portrayals of the goodness of Yahweh and the stark difference between the gods of the surrounding nations.
The original readers may have even seen a literal creation account, depending on how literally they took their cosmology. The waters are divided by the implied dome. Then light is created, which is what we actually observe: day comes first as light, and only after some time does the sun come up. As modern people who “know” that the sun causes the light, we do not notice this, but if you simply observe, the light comes first, and then the sun. After that come plants, birds, animals, and people in a rational order.
There is quite a big interpretive bridge to cross between the worldview of the ancient Hebrews and the worldview of modern Western Christians. Probably most noticeably is that truth means something different to us than to them. For us, truth means it must be literally accurate. Something is either true or not true. It might be more correct to say that we tend to label “correctness” as “truth.” But even today, we have certain things that are difficult to categorize as truth. Is literature “true”? (Even our labels belie our obsession with correctness—literature is “fiction.”) Is The Great Gatsby true? Obviously it does not describe actual events, but it gives a reasonable picture of the experience in the Prohibition Era. More importantly portrays the experience of a jilted lover trying to passively-aggressively prove himself. Literature is like a painting of a story or an experience. Can a painting be “true”?
Our political climate is also much different than that of the ancient Middle East. Autocratic rulers claiming divine parentage and thus control over the lives of everyone else has given way to governments that are, by comparison, highly responsive to the people, as a result of this Genesis 1 description that we are all, alike, equal children of God. Also unlike the ancient Middle East, where there were endless wars for conquest, much of the West has been stable over many decades, North America in particular. Political chaos is not such an issue.
Our relationship with Creation has also changed. The once dangerous ocean, where it is easy to get lost out of sight of land, and storms unpredictably blow up and swamp small boats, is now a reliable mode of transportation. Huge ships regularly travel for days out of the sight of land, but know exactly where they are. Rivers prone to flooding are now dammed with mighty works of cement that are wonders to rival the seven ancient wonders. Most people are out of touch with “Mother Earth”; we get our food from the grocery store, where it somehow shows up from farmers somewhere across the now-safe ocean. Even the chaos of Mystery has been removed, as science has explained and documented everything we encounter on a daily basis. The Mystery of the sky, rain, floods, water in the ground, movements of stars, lightning, all is child’s knowledge, taught in elementary schools. The Mystery has even been tamed, as we force the elements to work for us. We seed the clouds to make our own rain, we make our own electronic GPS satellite-stars for ultra-precise navigation, we put lighting in wires to power our day, and we store the flood waters to power the generators that make our lightning.
Expecting Genesis 1 to fulfill our modern standard of textbook correctness-truth leads to the Young Earth position. It is completely at odds with the observed facts, which forces this position into one of two very problematic views. The most common is to say that Science is somehow incompetent at dating the earth while being extremely competent in sending men to the moon, flying heavy metal planes around the world, and creating the tiny microchips that power our life. The other is that God made the earth in 144 hours (six days) but made it look older, which is called “fraud” in accounting and “lying,” or at least “intent to deceive,” in the legal system. In protecting the faith of literal-correctness by either minimizing God’s character or disrespecting scientists, this view becomes completely irrelevant to modern life, a far cry from the deep relevance that it had for the original readers.
Accommodating Genesis 1 to the scientifically observed facts is much more respectful and honoring of the work of scientists. The work of Hugh Ross makes Genesis 1 palatable to modern readers, but still not terribly relevant. Hugh Ross is so complete in how perfectly Genesis 1 matches the scientific account that it feels like over-fitting a curve. In statistics, if the curve fit matches all the points, you know that the fit is incorrect, because the data is never perfectly accurate. It is like demonstrating how perfectly The Great Gatsby matches life in Prohibition, or how the Mona Lisa matches a particular Italian woman. Even if it is right, it misses the point. The Great Gatsby is not about life in Prohibition, any more than the Mona Lisa is a portrait. Worse, if all that Genesis 1 does is confirm what science has already discovered, it is not richly relevant to today, which is a loss.
If we are faithful to the text, we must read it like the original readers, as a word-painting. As such, we do not expect it to exactly match science. When I was a child, I found a black book with Genesis 1 illustrated in lavish watercolor paintings of Creation on a jet-black background. If we could watch a video of Creation, it would look nothing like the book. But even though I only saw the book once, the image of the creation of light has been indelibly inscribed on my memory, and even affects my style of watercolor on the rare occasions that I do it. To me, Creation is an explosion of yellow and red with subtle textures that I still have no idea how to produce.
Somewhat less artistically, Genesis 1 still paints a starkly different picture from the scientific materialism that prevails in modern society. The narrative of our surrounding culture is that we are simply a result of meaningless random happenings that, quite improbably, led to where we are. There is no meaning to our life, because there was no meaning to the creation of the universe, or to the processes that created us. There is no protection from the chaos unless we erect it ourselves, and there is no reason to rule out “might makes right” (known as “survival of the fittest” these days). Only the thin barrier of the remnants of Judeo-Christian equality of people under a now non-existent God separates us from the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian autocracies of the Genesis 1 time period.
Modern Christians seem to try to use Genesis 1 as a rebuttal against atheism, but, as a painting, Genesis 1 is not relevant to the argument. Nonetheless, Genesis 1 is very relevant to our age. Genesis 1 paints a picture of a God who made us as much like Himself as He could, to the extent that He delegated us to rule over the earth. It paints a picture of a life of deep value, because we are God’s self-portrait. It paints a picture of a God who calmly creates a place of beauty that we are placed in to cultivate. It paint a picture of a God who rejoices in what He makes, including us.
This painting may not win an argument, but it was never designed to. Instead, it offers a completely different picture than the nihilism of thinkers like Nietzsche who fully embraced the tenets of atheism. It offers its readers a completely different trajectory; it offers meaning and beauty in place of meaningless and emptiness. This may seem like a non-sequitur to an atheist steeped in correctness-truth, but it offers something deeply relevant to the heart.