Barry Newman's Blog

October 23, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 1:17 am

Genesis 1: 1, 2 – The Introduction to the Six Days

The opening words of Genesis could be understood as an introduction to what is to follow or a summary of what is to follow or even an introduction which amounts to a summary of what follows.  And with respect to the first 3 verses, they could be translated, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth being formless and empty, darkness being … God said, ‘Let there be light …’”, or “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty and darkness was … And God said, “Let there be light …’”.  See Walton, J.H., Genesis, The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001, pp. 69, 70 for another alternative and some discussion on these alternatives.

Again, the temptation is to write into the text, what one wishes it would say.  If there is a belief that a long period of time is involved somewhere in creation in order to accommodate a modern perspective that the universe is very old, then one might see the first verse as dealing with an initial creation followed by an indeterminate time period before the creation episodes of Days 1 to 6.  If there is a concern for the account to indicate that creation has to begin with God bringing into existence all things when previously there was nothing, perhaps appealing to something akin to Hebrews 11: 3 (the universe being formed so that is seen was not made out of what was visible), then one might claim the following: the opening verses of Genesis state that first of all God made an earth that was formless and empty, but covered with water and it was in darkness.

Adopting either of these positions is understandable but I will adopt a different position here. But first a few words about “the heavens” and “the earth”. Their mention in 1: 1 seems to be a reference to “everything” since 2: 1 again mentions them in a type of concluding statement – “And the heavens and the earth were completed.”  It is a reminder to us of how Hebrew words like “heavens” or “earth” can have a more inclusive or less inclusive reference. It could be a mistake to see “the heavens” and “the earth” of 1: 1 as simply referring to the firmament of 1: 8 and the dry land of 1: 10 respectively.

Some of what follows has been gleaned from the two works of Walton (Genesis, pp. 70-78 and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, pp. 179-199), though what is written here cannot do these writings justice.  In Egypt and Mesopotamia, the fundamental idea behind creation was not bringing into existence something which had not existed beforehand but bringing into existence function and role where that had not had a previous existence.  Walton contends that whereas we moderns are interested in questions such as, where matter came from, the basic concern of the ancient world of our focus was how the world came to have its ordered and functional characteristics.  The cosmologies of these ancients had very little to do with the manufacture of a material cosmos and their creation accounts typically begin with a “precosmic, unordered, nonfunctional world”.

Walton argues that “bara”, translated “create” in the Old Testament and only ever used there (about 50 times) of God as subject, is used throughout the Old Testament with a sense consonant with the idea of creation held by the surrounding cultures –  that is, having the sense of bringing about ordered functionality but not necessarily materiality.  Thus, the suggestion is that God’s creation of the heavens and the earth in 1: 1 is an introductory- summary type of reference to his bringing about primarily, a world that had ordered functionality rather than primarily, materiality.  Consequently, 1: 2 can be understood as a description of the “precosmic, unordered, non-functional world” and that what follows is God creating fundamentally order and function but doing this by bringing into existence things that were not.  That is, God is not being described as bringing into existence this precosmic, unordered, non-functional world, but that he begins with it. His actual acts of creation are to be found in the descriptions of Days 1 to 6.  It is not being implied here that God did not bring all things into existence, surely the rest of Scripture justify the conclusion that he did, but that Genesis 1: 1-2 and following does not fundamentally deal with the creation of something from nothing – it begins with the unordered non-functional.

The writer of Genesis works with a viewpoint and a concern common to his day but with an understanding of God, his relationship with the world and his purposes for his world totally different to those associated with the gods of the surrounding cultures.  Indeed I think either translation given above for Genesis 1: 1 probably conveys the correct basic sense.  And Genesis 1: 2 tells us what this precosmic condition was like.  It had no structure and no well defined elements separate from one another. It was dark – there was no light.  There was a “watery deep” but unlike in other cultures, this “watery deep” was not a personification for a god or goddess.  It was simply a god-free watery deep.

And then there was “the wind of God”.  Or should we translate it, “the Spirit of God” moving over the waters – the word, “ruach” being translated either as “wind” or “spirit”? Or should we consider it to be both the wind and the Spirit of God that is hovering or circling over the waters? Quite possibly, since for the Hebrew, God is behind the existence and the functioning of wind but perhaps more to the point, not only is God not of this material world, but likewise, probably to the Hebrew mind, neither is the wind.  Perhaps the wind is part of the precosmic condition but being termed the wind/the Spirit of God we are alerted to the fact that God is about to work with the precosmic world to bring functional entities into existence.  The formless, the void, the darkness and the deep are about to change.  The one and only great creator, God, never to be confused with his world, is about to bring about that world and for the reasons he will make clear.

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