Barry Newman's Blog

October 13, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part II)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 12:28 am

The problem

Let us focus on the creation account of Genesis 1: 1- 2: 3.  At the outset the main problem, the obvious problem, is to work out what it all means.   However, so much has been said and written over the last 2000 years about how to understand this text that it seems both audacious and futile to attempt to say anything more.  The difficulty we all face is to choose which understanding is the correct one or even to decide if is there a correct understanding.

From early days an ongoing question was to determine where in the account is there a mention of the creation of angels.  This might seem like us today to be an absurd problem but it was not so for many who came before, who thought that the record must refer to the creation of all things.  Is their creation caught up simply in the first verse – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” or was the creation of light on the first day a reference to their being brought into existence?  Of course there were many other questions, as there continue to be up to this day.  Here are some of them.

Did God create all things in a six normal day time period or did he create the world instantaneously?  Are the first three days, abnormal days and the last three, ordinary days given that “the greater light to govern the day” is only mentioned on day four?  Are “days” ways of referring to very long periods of time? Is the seventh day the same sort of day as the first six days?  And what about the “day” of 2: 4?  Does it not seem as though the word translated “the day” takes on again a different meaning in 2: 4 where it seems to have the sense of “the occasion”? What does the recurring phrase, “there was evening and there was morning” really mean?

Interpreting the days allegorically was not an uncommon approach from the early centuries AD and onwards, seeing in them, for instances, spiritual truths over and above anything seemingly obvious in the text or references to historical developments in God’s plan of things.  The problem became one of coming up with the correct analogy.  There was a time when it was considered that there were different ways to handle the text and that each way was legitimate, though some ways were considered more valuable than others.

Is 1:1 an introductory statement preparing the reader for what is to follow or is it a reference to what God as a preliminary did – creating the stuff that he then worked on during the six days or is it a summary statement of what he basically did during those six days?  Does a correct understanding of 1:1 allow for the recognition that there was a gap (perhaps a very long gap) in time between what occurred in 1:1 and what follows?  What does “firmament” or “expanse” – two alternative translations of the Hebrew word “raqia” -mentioned in day two actually refer to?  Luther thought it referred to a solid sky whereas Calvin believed it referred to the atmosphere.  A very useful survey of various understandings is Robert Letham’s article, “‘In the Space of Six days’: the days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly”, Westminster Theological Journal, 61, 1999, 149-174.

Presumably many of our alternative understandings arise because we already have an idea of what the text ought to say.  That is we approach the text with a particular hermeneutic.  The text has to be such that everything that God has created is covered by the text (and that includes angels). Or, the text must be in agreement with what we know the world is actually like – the Scriptures cannot contain anything that we know is false, even scientific things – the “raqia” cannot refer to a solid sky because we know the sky is not solid.  Or the days must be long days because we know that the world has evolved over a long period of time.  Or the days must be ordinary days because that is what the text seems to say and evolutionary theories both cosmological and biological are in opposition to the idea that God is the creator.  Or in order to understand the text we need to look at other literature found in cultures nearby to Israel and look at the text in the light of this literature because it would undoubtedly reflect some thought forms and literary conventions of those cultures.

We might think it possible to simply come to the text with a completely open mind and just treat it for what it is, not reading anything into it in any way.  Unfortunately it can’t be done.  Whatever our beliefs that we bring to bear upon the passage, we have to work with a language – an ancient language.  The meaning of this ancient language doesn’t sit upon its surface in some obvious way.  Fundamentally it is imbedded or found in the language and the culture in which the language operated.  And it’s not a language or culture with which anyone can say that he or she is completely familiar.  And to come to an understanding of that language we have to bring to it, to some extent, certain ideas about “what things are like” – that there is land and sea and light and that we have a reasonably correct idea of the concepts involved and further assume that these concepts apply to some extent to aspects of the text itself.  That words which seem to refer to “in the midst of” and “above” and “under” can be conceptualised appropriately. Furthermore, although this is hopefully a minor matter, in the case of the text under discussion, we have to examine what is thought to represent something like the original text. 

Well, where and how should we now begin as we try to tackle afresh Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3? In the light of history, we ought at least to act cautiously and not imagine that we shall get it all right.  It is safe to assume that nobody ever has.



  1. G’day,
    You might also determine whether you are reading the words of Genesis 1-2 literalistically or literally. If the genre of Genesis was a newspaper, an encyclopeadia, a poem or a textbook, then you’d them differently.
    I think the main point of Genesis 1-2 is WHO, not HOW, the world was created.


    Comment by André Wheeley — October 14, 2010 @ 5:48 am | Reply

    • Hi Andre,

      Many thanks for the comment. I apologise but the blog series will take some time to develop. I am approaching the matter slowly. I am trying to mount a case and wish to avoid at this stage announcing my own perspectives although one of my main assumptions should become clear fairly soon.

      Referring to viewing the material “literalistically” or “literally” suggests that one simply chooses between these two possibilities. This has not been the case in the past. Multi layered understandings was in fact not an uncommon view and perhaps Origen was one of the chief exponents of this approach. I am not persuaded that that approach is at all satisfactory. However I also think that the possibilities you refer to are not mutually exclusive. To understand something “literalistically” may mean having to understand it, to some degree or another, “literally”. It all depends on the literature being considered. Perhaps the Genesis material requires a more complex approach. Dealing with the “who” versus the “why” will come up later in the series.



      Comment by barrynewman — October 14, 2010 @ 9:54 pm | Reply

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