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Genesis 1:1-2:3 is not poetry and it is historical

I suspect the title has already polarized you—or if not that, it has at least evoked something of a gut response for you. The issues of creation and science tend to do that for people! But please let me set the context of this discussion: this is not a discussion about science and creation.

This discussion is about one aspect of the literary nature of Genesis 1 on its own terms, in the context of Genesis as a whole and the rest of the Bible; Genesis 1 is not poetry, it’s not even poetic, and it certainly is historical.

In almost every informal discussion I’ve ever had about Genesis 1—and often enough in teaching contexts too—someone will inevitably assert that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is poetry or poetic. I’m sure many of you have heard it too. And, depending on the Bible translation or publisher, you may find that the text is arranged with extra indents or in other ways to indicate that, whatever else this chapter is, it isn’t narrative like the rest of biblical narrative (my ESV doesn’t, but my NIV does).

And fair enough of the translators, in some ways. Genesis 1 is a highly structured text! But my point is this: structure is no sign of poetry, nor is it a sign of poetic inclinations. Any number of texts in everyday life reflect highly structured patterns, and yet we wouldn’t call them poetry. In the Bible, too, we encounter narratives, such as the majority of 2 Kings or Judges, which are heavily structured around certain patterning.

On the other hand, when we think about the ‘standard features’ of poetry (not that there really are any)—like heightened imagery (metaphor, simile), sensory evocation, wordplay—then we find Genesis 1 lacking. It reads as narrative, albeit a highly structured one.

Further, and more importantly, when it comes to standard Hebrew poetic forms—especially parallelism, ‘non-standard’ vocabulary and ‘unusual’ verb patterning—these are also absent from the text (with the exception of 1:27). As my old Ancient Near East history lecturer once put it, anyone reading the text would fail a first-year Hebrew exam if they called Genesis 1 a type of Hebrew poetry.

The question we need to therefore ask is: what is driving this desire to see Genesis 1 as poetry? In the discussions I’ve had with people, the reason for asserting Genesis 1 as poetry is almost always so that elements of the structure can be argued to be non-literal (i.e. it didn’t really happen like that in history), particularly the day structure (i.e. that it didn’t really happen in six or seven days in history) and the separation between what was created on what day.

But as far as that question is concerned, so what if the chapter was poetry? Poetry is not the opposite of historicity. Poetry is a literary form, and historicity is a comment on the content and purpose of a text. To conclude that something didn’t happen on the basis of poetics is to confuse categories.

This confusion between literary genre and history-as-event needs to be reiterated. ‘Poetry’ and ‘narrative’ are general comments about types of literature. Historical poetry is as much in evidence throughout the ages as narrative fiction. It’s in the Bible, too; Philippians 2:5-11 is poetry, but it certainly is history too, as is Psalm 106, and…

To label a text as ‘poetry’ is to say nothing of its historical value. In other words, the tension that people are trying to alleviate by calling Genesis 1 ‘poetry’ or ‘poetic’ is not alleviated; it is simply a confusion of categories. What they are doing is something else entirely, which gets hidden by the terminology.

This confusion hides the fact that (as I said before) what people are really suggesting is that elements of the structure should not be taken as referring to historical reality: that it is, rather, just a stylistic device (albeit one that communicates the point of an ordered creation).

But there is a danger to that methodological approach to Genesis 1. No one I’ve met has gone down this path, but methodologically speaking there is no reason why they couldn’t, or even shouldn’t. If one says that the structure of Genesis 1 is such that it renders the day references non-literal (i.e. non-historical, it didn’t really happen like that), what is the safeguard to retain the literal (i.e. historical, it really happened like that) nature of the rest of the structure? Particularly in reference to God creating by speaking, and God creating a good creation?

Theologically, there are many elements of this chapter that we want to hold as being historical (i.e. really happened), and this false category conflict has obscured that. Theologically, we hold that God created—and he alone—and he created ex nihilo (from nothing). We hold that God created a good creation and that he created by his word. The entire nature of Trinitarian interaction with this world and salvation history, and the nature of God himself, hangs on these being real truths—things that happened in history (even if at the very beginning of history).

One can argue, of course, that we can hold these ideas about God as creator from other places in Scripture. Granted, but what if those other places in Scripture are exegeting this passage (‘intertextuality’)? And in either case, why these things and not seven days in creation? The Sabbath is occasionally justified by referring to God creating in seven days (e.g. Exodus 20, but not Deuteronomy 5). Why should we maintain some theological truths and intertextual theologizing based on the structure of Genesis 1, but not other aspects of the structure?

I’m not trying to solve creation/science issues. I’m simply trying to clear away some category confusions, and highlight what is at stake theologically when people adopt what is often a hidden methodology when they approach Genesis 1. But having taken out a couple of spanners from the works, let me throw another couple in.

Genesis 1:1-2:3 is not the only account of the act of creation in Scripture, some of which have no sense of it occurring in seven days (including Genesis 2). Nevertheless, other places explicitly refer to the days in creation, and use it to make conclusions; it is God’s basis for the Sabbath, for instance, as noted above.

Or again, it is worth noting that Genesis 1:1-2:3 falls outside of the significant ‘generations’ structure of Genesis (which begins at 2:4). That is, there is a historical framework that structures the book that Genesis 1:1-2:3 stands outside of. But that doesn’t prove anything in and of itself, it’s just a piece of evidence. The question we have to ask is, ‘evidence of what’?

23 thoughts on “Genesis 1:1-2:3 is not poetry and it is historical

  1. Scott,

    I suppose the first point I’d like to raise is that you’ve almost defined poetry out of existence, or at least out of definition. You have said that structure is not necessarily a sign of poetry, and denied that there are standard features of poetry, well at the same time noting that there are standard formal features of Hebrew poetry. I want to humble but seriously accuse you of not having presented a theory of poetics.

    Secondly, I wonder whether people want to see Genesis 1 as poetry in order to deny either its historicity or literality. If I wanted to exegete Genesis 1 responsibly, aren’t I first going to ask the question, “what genre is this?”, before asking, “what can I legitimately deduce from the text, given the genre that it is?”. If you grant this to proponents of a poetic-reading, then you at least grant them the right to make a case for the poetry of Genesis 1 on literary grounds, rather than an argument of suspicion about what they want to achieve by doing so.

    I can grant your point about what is poetic not necessarily being either non-literal nor non-historical, but we are trading on two senses of ‘historical’. And that is precisely one possibility that a poetic reading holds out: that the events of Genesis 1 might be historical in the sense of a true account of things that happened, without being historical in the sense in which ‘history’ is also a genre of how we recall and recount events.

    Fourthly, let’s discuss the danger of this methodological approach. Essentially you are presenting a slippery slope argument that if at one point of the biblical text you take it non-literally, there is nothing to stop you taking anything non-literally. I find this unconvincing on two grounds. The first of which is you don’t know anyone who has gone down this path. Is it a real danger then? Secondly, I don’t see how this argument is different from radical literalism. At some point you have to deal with the figurative nature of scriptural language, and so I do think there are safeguards as to how one interprets and distinguishes the literal and figurative.

  2. Hi Seumas,

    Thanks for your insightful comments. Let’s see if I can clarify what I meant. I’m not as sharp a thinker as you, so you’ll have to forgive lack of clarity.

    As to your first point. Yes a bit of an unthinking slip in my uses of ‘standard’ there, sorry. My parenthetical comment was more to tip my hat to the notorious difficulty of defining poetry – in many languages – in such a way that it encapsulates everything that we’d normally associate with poetry as a genre: of being specific enough to mean something, but general enough to work. Hebrew poetry has had its share of identity crisis issues too, to the point where some translators / commentators have been known to delineate poetry according to mathematical percentages of verb / word ratios, etc. (I can’t help but think of J Evans Pritchard’s textbook in Dead Poets Society smile )

    I wasn’t aiming at a technical definition of poetry, and I’m not sure that my argument at that point needed it. As far as my discussions with people has gone, the reason for describing Gen 1 as poetry has always had to do with the highly structured nature of the passage. I don’t see how that can be sustained as proof of poetry. It’s neither proof nor non-proof. But, given poetry is so hard to define, what about on a descriptive / typological level (as opposed to a definitional or taxonomic), that is, the things which we normally associate with poetry – both in English and Hebrew? These are absent from the text. Instead, the things that we normally associate with Hebrew narrative (and by that I put no genre value as to whether is historical narrative or not – I simply mean narrative), are there in the text. If structure is the only reason people have given me for it being poetry (and it is the only reason I have heard at least), then I don’t think we can say that it is poetry on those grounds.

    With your second point, I’m not sure where exactly we disagree. The two questions you ask (and the order you ask them in) are exactly the kind of thing I think we should be doing – and that is where my post ends up, although I don’t spell it out so clearly. On literary grounds, and in the context of Scripture’s self-understanding, what exactly is Genesis 1? And I don’t think the answer is as straightforward as people often make out (but I don’t think it’s poetry, I think the alternatives are between other things that are both prosaic / narratival in form). But my point is that, because in the conversations I’ve had with people the argument tends to be ‘highly structured therefore poetry’ (and without anything more than that), then this process has been done incorrectly, I’m suggesting.

  3. As far as me running ‘an argument of suspicion about what they want to achieve’, I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask what people do with it, or why they are so keen on insisting on it. And my point was that, in the end, what they do do with it is irrelevant with respect to whether the passage is poetry or narrative – it’s an argument about the structure: whether it is figurative (as you say) of an ordered creation, or whether it is literalistic (ie, univocal – 7 days means 7 days).

    For your third point, again, I’m not sure where we disagree, unless it’s just another example of my not being clear enough. I think the point I made clearly was that history-as-record-of-event it not mutually exclusive with poetry, and not identical with narrative. The reason I stressed that is, again, that is how people I’ve met have tended to put the issue. But again, with regards to history-as-event, you are right in saying that poetry offers the hope of the possibility of being figurative but historical; the point I’d make on that as well is that narrative can do exactly the same thing (eg, myth … whatever that means: Rogerson lists 17 different uses of the term in OT scholarship).

    Which takes us to the fourth point: by what methodology do we say some of the structure is figurative but other bits not? I think you’ve unfairly generalised me: I’m talking about the tightly knit structure of one chapter. Why some bits of the structure and not others of elements occurring in the one space? This is not radical-literalism! And says nothing about my recognition of analogical language elsewhere in Scripture. It’s asking, on what grounds is this separation done within this one tightly knit structural device?

    As for slippery-slopes … I’m no master of logic or critical thinking, but my thought was that a slippery-slope argument is “don’t adopt position x for whatever reason because it could / will lead to position y”, where position x becomes wrong because it could lead to position y. In my post, I thought I was saying: “don’t adopt position x because of reason ‘a’ which is lousy as an argument; in any case reason ‘a’ could lead to position y; if position x is to be held (if that’s where the evidence lies), what is a better reason ‘b’ for it, and how will that protect us from position ‘y’.”

    Again, forgive any lack of clarity.

    Scott.

  4. Scott,

    Thanks for your responses to my points. Let me continue our quest for clarifications…

    I agree that the presence of a high degree of structure is not a sufficient feature to mark poetry. I would argue that within Hebrew poetry, high degrees of structure are a typical but not sufficient marker of poetry. So I agree with you that structure is not enough to mark Genesis 1 as poetry, and the absence of other typical Hebrew poetic features is a strong negative argument against considering the passage to be poetry.

    On my second point, I think we agree both about the procedure in which those two questions should be asked, and that ‘highly structured therefore poetry’ is a flawed argument. I suppose I am trying to guard against what I view as a different flawed argument that goes ‘my opponent is trying to deliteralise Genesis 1 by saying its poetry, and deliteralising it is wrong, therefore she is wrong about it being poetry.’ That is, deliteralisation is a separate but related issue, and I want to avoid conflating arguments about the two unfairly.

    I think this becomes point 2b: I don’t think it’s necessarily problematic to ask why people are keen to deliteralise Gen 1. It is a question that clarifies both someone’s hermeneutic and their presuppositions. And yet, it may also flow the other way – one may conclude that Genesis 1 is figurative on literary grounds, and so adopt a non-literal reading for all the right presuppositional reasons.

    Thirdly, I think we are in agreement, about the distinctions between two types of history as well as both narrative and poetry being capable of bearing figurative meaning.

    Fourth, I suppose that I am insisting that such a methodology must be provided too. That’s a question for proponents of non-literalism to provide. For example, if one wanted to argue that the days were non-literal, this is the argument that would provide the grounds for it: in what literal sense can ‘day’ be understood in Genesis 1 prior to the existence of the lights in v14? in what literal sense can one relate the separation of Day and Night in v3-5 before the separation in v14? The non-literalist would follow the rule that what cannot be resolved literally must be referred to the figurative. That would be a methodological principle that allows some things to be read literally and others figuratively within the same text.

    Fifthly, slippery slopes. I think untangling two arguments will avoid my charge: it’s one argument to deny the poetry of Genesis 1 on the grounds that structuration is insufficient; it’s another to defend literalism by asking where a figurative approach will stop. And, it should be clear, I am arguing that figurative readings have controls by which we avoid unbridled interpretations. Specifically, I’m arguing that within Genesis 1 one could argue for figurative interpretations without pursuing wild figurative speculation.

    Hope that clarifies and advances our conversation.

  5. Amen and Amen to your bold and true assertions Scott. I can’t recall how many times I’ve been in conversations re creation with people and they’ve asserted that Genesis 1 is poetry. Yet in all my reading so far I’ve never seen it defined as such. There’s no sign of typical Hebrew parallelism. And every time when someone’s asserted it is poetry, they’ve gone on to give a non-literal view, which I think gives away their motives.

    The best I’ve seen it is described as is highly structured narrative. The fact that it is narrative implies a sequence in time – a point the poetry reading of Genesis wants to avoid. And here’s the rub – if there is a sequence in time, it is history. It is history that is to be the pattern of activity for man himself, the ultimate typology. That is why God writes in the Ten Commandments regarding the Sabbath rest ‘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.’ And Jesus could later say ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’

  6. Hi Scott,

    That’s a well written piece. Although we are probably on opposite sides of this issue, I appreciate any who can carry the debate on with courtesy and respect.

    One issue your piece raises is how does information we know from other sources interact with our interpretation of scripture? It seems to me, very plainly, that sometimes knowledge we have from elsewhere will affect how we read the Bible.

    Some simple examples. When we read in the Bible of the rising of the sun, or of the four corners of the earth, we don’t pause to worry about genre before interpreting these expressions figuratively.

    Or when we read that the devil takes Jesus up on top of a tall mountain, from which he can see *all* the kingdoms of the world, we don’t wonder how on earth he could see the kingdoms of the Aztecs and Chinese, on the other side of the planet. And so on.

    So it is with Genesis 1. The earth is very ancient – this fact is as well established scientifically as is the spherecity of the earth, or the heliocentric theory. We necessarily must take this into account when trying to understand what Genesis 1 teaches about the age of the planet. To ignore or avoid this is to be dishonest.

  7. Great article!

    Or again, it is worth noting that Genesis 1:1-2:3 falls outside of the significant ‘generations’ structure of Genesis (which begins at 2:4).

    That generations structure actually makes more sense if the statements come at the end of their sections, as colophons, rather than at the beginning.

    in what literal sense can ‘day’ be understood in Genesis 1 prior to the existence of the lights in v14? in what literal sense can one relate the separation of Day and Night in v3-5 before the separation in v14?

    I don’t understand how this is a problem. Is God not capable of creating light himself? Can he only create it indirectly by creating sources instead? The light could be a reference to his shekinah glory, or it could refer to what we now understand as the whole electromagnetic spectrum.

    All that’s relevant for day and night is that a point on the surface of the earth has two periods of light and dark. This is not incompatible with God shining his own glory, or him creating independent streams of photons.

    So it is with Genesis 1. The earth is very ancient – this fact is as well established scientifically as is the spherecity of the earth, or the heliocentric theory. We necessarily must take this into account when trying to understand what Genesis 1 teaches about the age of the planet. To ignore or avoid this is to be dishonest.

    The earth is ancient, or the earth appears ancient? Did Adam appear only hours old when he met Eve?

    The usual argument against apparent age is that it makes God deceptive. But this is only the case if you rely on your own powers of observation more than God’s revelation. If God says he made a fully formed man and we believe him, then we can believe him when he says he made a fully formed earth.

  8. Hey Scott,
    thanks for the post. Have you checked out Beale’s book on the temple. One of the things he says is that the temple is a meant to reflect the created world and that in biblical cosmology creation language is temple type language.It follows if Beale is true that creation language is theological and therefore can be read literally without being pressed into saying things scientifically. It also helps us define the genre of the genesis 1-2.

  9. Scott,

    Thanks for highlighting what has long been a misguided point of contention in the debate over the historicity of Genesis 1. I quite agree: Genesis 1 does not correspond to normal Biblical Hebrew poetry, and I agree that the disjunction between history and poetry is spurious. So also is the apparent belief of some (I think reflected in Howie’s comment above) that if it is narrative it must be historical. That’s patently false (there are clear examples of narrative with no specific historical referent whatsoever in BH).

    So the proper question is not whether Genesis 1 is poetry or prose, but what sort of prose is it? I think there are good grounds for claiming that it doesn’t conform to the same genre as much of what would appear to be the Biblical Hebrew version of historiography that appears in much of the Deuteronomic History. If that is so, it should at least give us pause before judging everything it states to be necessarily literalistic.

    But there is a danger to that methodological approach to Genesis 1. No one I’ve met has gone down this path, but methodologically speaking there is no reason why they couldn’t, or even shouldn’t. If one says that the structure of Genesis 1 is such that it renders the day references non-literal (i.e. non-historical, it didn’t really happen like that), what is the safeguard to retain the literal (i.e. historical, it really happened like that) nature of the rest of the structure? Particularly in reference to God creating by speaking, and God creating a good creation?

    Surely this isn’t a valid objection to reading some parts of the text figuratively? This same problem can be applied to any non-historical text (prose or poetry). How is meaning derived anywhere?

    Dannii,

    Strange, but I think Genesis 2:4 makes better sense as an heading for a section whereas treating these sentences as colophons throughout Genesis actually presents more problems than it solves, and a fair few commentators would agree!

  10. Back when I was in high school, repetition was counted as a poetic device. I’m pretty sure it is in Hebrew as well (eg Psalm 136).
    The significance of describing this part of Genesis as poetry is simply that with poetry, the subject is there to illustrate the theme.  It is not itself the theme.  We then can focus on the theological ideas that underpin the passage rather than asserting that the universe is 6000 years old.
    Or perhaps it’s just my experience that the Christians who spend all their time on the subject of Gen. 1 never get to the themes?

  11. @ Martin – could you give some examples of biblical narrative that have absolutely no historical referent? and my next question is, how can you be certain that Genesis 1 has no historical referent, particularly given the later verses (ie Ex 20) which appear to affirm it has?

  12. Hi Howie,

    I’m not claiming Genesis 1 has “no historical referent.” I’m suggesting it is not the same type of literature as that which elsewhere passes as historiography (as far as that modern term can be applied to the ancient writings) and so we should take care before we assume that it should be read as such.

    However, if you need to see non-historical narrative, read 2 Samuel 12:1–4; Judges 9:8–15.

  13. Martin,

    I read (in a website I can’t quickly find) one argument that the break should actually occur in the middle of 2:4. The repeated phrase at the end of the verse begins the next section. These catchphrases were apparently used at the beginning and end of tablets to help readers keep them in the right order, but the generations statements would only occur at the end. And some translations, such as the NLT, actually put the section break half way through 2:4.

    I think 2:4a definitely comes at the end, but other generations statements may come at the beginning of their sections. More study to be done…

  14. Hi Danii,

    I’m pretty sure that there’s a website out there for any theory you care to imagine.

    It is true that there is some disagreement among scholars over whether the tôlĕḏôṯ; clauses in Genesis stand at the beginning or end of sections. However, those who place them at the end of a section often appeal to colophon’s found in Akkadian scribal works which noted the identity of the scribe (for example see D. J. Wiseman, “Archaeology and Scripture,” Bulletin of Westminster Theological Seminary; 8.4 [1969]). One problem with seeking to draw this parallel is that the Akkadian explicitly made reference to the fact that the named person was the author of the work whereas tôlĕḏôṯ; in Genesis is not related at all to authorship.

    Problems with the theory that אלה תולדות (ʾēlleh ṯôlĕdôṯ;, “these are the generations…”) is an authorial colophon include:

    • The term תולדות has no reference to ‘writing’, unlike the Akkadian colophons from which the notion that these serve as authorial colophons is derived.
    • It does not appear to be an ascription of authorship when the exact same expression appears in Ruth 4:18 (Perez is not claimed by anyone that I’ve seen to be the author of Ruth!).
    • The term תולדות appears to function as a genealogical marker, (Matt 1:1 uses the same Greek as the LXX does in Gen 2:4 but is not normally understood to be a claim that the author of Matthew’s gospel is Jesus!).
    • In some instances it is difficult to claim that it functions as a colophon, such as Gen 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9.
    • Ascriptions of authorship use different terminology altogether in the Old Testament (e.g. Deut 31:9, 24).
    • The length of each section varies considerably, suggesting that the phrases are unlikely to represent tablet divisions.

    Petersen places them at the beginning of sections, see David L. Petersen, “Genesis and Family Values,” JBL; 124.1 (2005) 9 as do the vast majority; of scholars (cf. also Tremper Longman III, How To Read Genesis; (IVP, 2005) 46–47.

  15. Hi everyone,

    Apologies for absence from my own post, but it’s going to continue, sorry! I’ve had a medical complication, so this will be my last post for a while.

    Just a few quick thoughts …

    Seumas – thanks for the good clear thinking and untangliing of issues. I think I tried to do too much in one short piece. Sorry I can’t keep writing!

    Howie – thanks for the encouraging remarks. My only question would be: time sequence is common in most fictive narrative too – that is, it can function as a literary device (which some would say is happening here).

    Hi Craig, thanks for your thoughts too. Trust me, I doubt you’d be able to guess what I think re: creation / evolution wink I’m just really glad that we’ve all taken the spirit of the conversation and are nutting through what Genesis 1 is as literature.

    As far as your observations, yes: the relationship between cosmology and metaphor and what the ancients actually believed (ie, did they recognise their language as metaphorical) is worth thinking about. I guess my question about consistency with Gen 1 raises its head at that point: God is spirit, so didn’t have a mouth; there was no air for soundwaves, so in what sense did God speak? Does this just become metaphorical of God as sovereign over the creation process? Or, if death was in the world before the garden (and here at least, I’ll fess up and say I think we need an historical – as in history-as-event – Adam) then what does that do to our understanding of ‘good’, etc.

  16. Hi Danii & Martin,

    Thanks for your comments about the generations structure. Yes, I agree with Martin on this one – there are a few issues with it as headings rather than conclusions, but it simply doesn’t work narrativally as conclusions. Structure is a funny beast (even Gen 1 doesn’t ‘fit’ its own structure properly), so this doesn’t work quite perfectly (there are 11 instances of it), but I think there is a pairing of elect-non-elect in the generations pairing of Genesis: the non-elect line that excels at all things, the elect line that is weak and foolish, or at least nothing to say about them.

    Hans! Thanks for the reference. No, I haven’t read it. I’ll go have a flick through sometime. Do you find it persuasive? I guess my question would then be: what is the narrative context of Gen 1? That’s very tricky to answer … ie, when I read Gen 1 am I supposed to have a pre-existing theology of temple and creation etc. Does he address that? Do you have any thoughts on that?

    Dannii. Thanks for the imput re: deep time vs appearance of deep time. I personally think the ‘deception’ argument is weak, especially since it locates the source of knowing with man: God is his own objective observer of creation.

    This was actually going to be my second post, but I doubt it’ll go up for a while now. My general thrust of this post has been that we need some epistemic humility re: what Gen 1 is as literature in the context of Scripture, that, regardless of science, we need to take a breather with what the Bible is and isn’t saying on its own terms. I have thoughts on what the answer is, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about in the post: I guess I just wanted us all to think through Genesis 1 as literature, without recourse to importing the latest fad in scientific theory.

    I’m clearly no expert on this either way, but my second post was going to be to ask science on its own terms, to have a bit of epistmic humility too. It was titled ‘scientific method is by nature agnostic to creation ex nihilo (creation out of nothing)’.

    I could be very mistaken, but scientific method is incapable of identifying or even knowing about instaneous creation. So whatever theory one has about the creation of the universe – 4000, 4 million, 400 billion years ago – then science will never be able to spot it; in fact, science will sail right past it and ‘retroject’ a ‘history’ that never existed. That isn’t deception on God’s part, it’s just the nature of scientific endeavour. This is a problem the Christian scientist will always face when the believe in creation ex nihilo: whether 6 days, evolution, deep time, big bang or elastic band universe or whatever will come up next … at some point a retrojected history will appear to have existed scientifically that did not in actual fact exist.

  17. Hi Ellen, do you believe everything you learnt at high school? wink Sorry, that was one of the big lessons of first year Ancient History for me at uni … school would often simplify something for the sake of realistic learning that later on we’d discover is far more nuanced / complex than what we’d been taught at school.

    Your final question is actually the subject of what was going to be the third post on this: is it possible to teach / be taught Genesis 1 without having to go into creation / science issues? ie, is it possible to hear a sermon that only teaches the point of the passage.

    Thanks everyone; I’ve appreciated the discussion and the tenor of it too: please keep discussing!

  18. Your final question is actually the subject of what was going to be the third post on this: is it possible to teach / be taught Genesis 1 without having to go into creation / science issues? ie, is it possible to hear a sermon that only teaches the point of the passage.

    Scott, if only it were that easy! All the controversy around creation is dependent on the point of the passage saying something about the reality of God creating the universe. The problems usually focus on the nature of life and death.

    Anyways, if you do turn this into a series, I’ll be looking forward to it!

  19. Thanks all for a good discussion so far, and to Scott (even in his absence) for bringing it up.  There are always going to be different points of view in this area, and some of them even compete persuasively in my own head!  So let me make a few random remarks at this stage.

    1. I suspect many evangelicals think (or would like to think) that this is a side-issue, not central to the gospel.  However in practical terms it’s very hard to avoid the question “but did it REALLY happen that way?” without sounding wishy-washy.  Certainly the Young-Earth-Creationists (YECs) would say avoiding the question IS wishy-washy, and compromises our whole gospel presentation.

    2.  I think we see in Gen 1 the Hebrew “three-decker” universe—so possibly God was presenting creation in a way that made sense to the hearers of the time?  Should he have presented it in a way that didn’t make sense to them?  The examples that Martin referred to of non-literal narrative would be relevant here.

    3.  He certainly could have created in six literal days.  Everything is possible with God.  The ancients generally took Gen 1 literally.  The only reasons for ever thinking it might be otherwise, come from science.  These findings can all be challenged, as the YECs do. 
    But for me, I still find a 6000-year-old universe hard to swallow.  The flood, yes, (glug) but a 6000-year-old universe, no.  I know a smidgin of astronomy, and the idea that God would use natural processes to produce the galaxies, stars and planets (in ways we’re still discovering) but make a special case of earth, creating it before there was even a sun for it to orbit, then creating the sun as a middle-aged main-sequence star in one day, unlike all the other stars—well, it just doesn’t feel right.

    Just to conclude, I’ve always felt that to try to make the Bible a scientific textbook is misusing it.  The YECs have certainly challenged me on this, but I’m still happy with the idea that Gen 1 can be taken somewhat non-literally.  This leaves a bit of wiggle room, and I’d like to feel clearer on the limits of this.  I think that the “very good” conclusion doesn’t leave any wiggle room for evolution, for example.

  20. Michael, two quick comments. The earth IS special. And God could’ve made the other stars in a day too. smile

  21. Hi Dannii,

    Michael, two quick comments. The earth IS special. And God could’ve made the other stars in a day too. smile

    Yes, of course, I agree.  And also all the light photons between them and us, so we can see them.  But what bothers me about that is that those photons carry information about events that occurred—or didn’t occur?  Like the supernova explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud in 1987 from which we’ve learned a whole heap about supernovae—and that one was around 160,000 light years away??
    Recently YEC astronomers John Hartnett and Russ Humphreys have proposed some scenarios to try to deal with this problem—involving time dilation in which distant stars and galaxies can indeed be many billions of years old by their time, and the light has time to get here, while only one day elapsed on earth.  And the earth is indeed special!  But I still don’t feel right about it.
    I’m a bit concerned that we might be getting off topic here so maybe I’ve said enough—anyway I’ll be away for most of this week.
    Cheers!

  22. Good on you, Scott, for stating the obvious. Everyone plays poison chair with Genesis 1 and you have the guts to go sit right in it.

    What few people see is that the Bible is a fractal (another argument for its divine origin). The structure of the Creation Week as a whole is found in each of the separate days. Genesis 2-3 follows the same structure, but it “zooms in” on Day 6.

    My point is that the entire Bible follows this same structure. I’ve written a book on this, but the boffins don’t seem to get it. Yet, somehow, my Scripture kids DO. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Bible is written for people who have an imagination. Moderns don’t (99% of Bible college lecturers, who were either born without it or had it beaten out of them as kids) and I’ve found you can’t teach these old dogs new tricks. They are technicians. The Bible requires some technical skill, but interpretation is an ART. We are dealing with history, but history as IMAGE, i.e. complex typology in a repeated structure. The Revelation on its own is the most amazing example. Every stanza is seven-fold, and in groups of seven stanzas which also follow the pattern. You can step out at least two or three more times to greater levels until you see the whole book following the structure. For the slow, it begins with Jesus as light and ends with Sabbath.For the slightly less slow, Adam, Eve and the serpent are there too, but as full-grown, “institutional” sins: the false prophet, the harlot, and the beast. Can we make such a connection? Based on this structure, yes. It makes it verifiable. It is “systematic typology.” Jesus even follows this structure in his sermons. Paul uses it as well.

    But postmoderns DO have an imagination. Their minds are not disabled by this hermeneutical scientism. So there is hope for the next generation, who have been raised on movies and games and YouTube and graphic novels. They understand image, and plot and subtle allusion. It has prepared them for the Bible, a book which has been presented as dry crackers by conservative Bible teachers when it is actually a firecracker. Let’s not miss this opportunity.

    Here’s the book. Judge for yourself. You might never look at the Bible in the same way again:
    http://www.amazon.com/Bible-Matrix-Michael-Bull/dp/1449702635

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