When people read Genesis in the Bible many people fail to consider the fact that it was written in a certain cultural and historical setting as well, and that the author had certain issues he was reacting to, and certain points he was trying to make.
At the time of its writing, there were several other competing cosmologies in the Ancient Near East, one of the better known being the Enuma Elish account from Mesopotamia. In it, the gods are formed, battle, and create the world and humanity. It is an explicitly polytheistic work, in which the sun, moon, stars, earth, and sky are all deified and endowed with personalities.
It was in this sort of setting that the author of Genesis appears, creating a story designed to counter the then popular world view. In fact, Genesis is explicitly anti-mythological, using the language of the prevailing myths and, as it were, turning it upside down. In Genesis, there is but one God, and the sun, moon, stars and the like have all been de-personified, reduced to mere inanimate objects without power except to mark the passing of time.
Sometimes readers of the Bible ask questions of it that are beyond the purpose of the story. After all, the Bible is not designed to give us an exhaustive and complete accounting of everything that there is, nor can it answer all our questions (try fixing your computer using the Bible as your manual!). Yet, how often do we act as if it has to have the answer to any question that strikes our fancy? In the meantime, we miss the whole point of the passage at hand.
Another of the problems that people have in reading the Bible is to fail to reckon with their own cultural presuppositions and ideas. They unconsciously impose a modern way of looking at the world on the biblical materials and assume that the Bible will automatically mean what they think it means in the modern context. So when the Bible talks about the earth it obviously must mean a globe spinning around the sun, a nation must be the same as the nation-state that we think of today (though nations as we understand them have only existed since the middle of the seventeenth century AD); the counting of time and its precision (though clocks didn’t exist till the middle ages), the exact measurements necessary for an industrialized society, and on and on all must mean exactly the same as we would today understand them. Idioms, too, must be equivalent, and a “day,” and a “thousand,” and “forty,” and “heart,” and “generation” and all the rest must mean the same thing in the Bible as they do to us today.
When put this way, the ludicrousness of the situation becomes evident.
Yet, God was and is interested in communicating with his people.
The basic mistake so many readers of Genesis make is to assume that the Genesis account is written by modern Westerners infused with the thinking of the Enlightenment
If communication is going to work, the speaker and the listener must have something in common. That is, if I talk to you, it helps if we both communicate with the same language. That is a start, but not all that is involved, unless by language, we give a definition more specific than normally understood. That is, beyond having say English in common, for instance, it helps if we are both from the same general local (say Southern California), are about the same age, and have the same basic interests and experiences. Then, we can be pretty certain that communication will occur with a minimum of misunderstanding. The fewer of these items we have in common, the less likely unconfused communication will occur.
Octagonal red signs at the corners of streets with white lettering or an outline of a hand are meaningful to the denizens who are of age and drive cars in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. To those of another era, they would be meaningless puzzles. All communication involves such symbols, of one sort or another. When I say the word “water”, or write it on a piece of paper, that verbalization or those black marks on the white paper will not quench your thirst or clean your hands. The word, whether spoken or written, is a symbol for the object. The connection between the object and the symbol is pretty direct and easy in the case of something concrete like a noun; but the connection becomes more tenuous and hard to pin down when we start talking about “grace” or “liberty”. And then what are we to do with idioms, like “it’s raining cats and dogs” or metaphors like “his tongue was sharp as a sword”; even more difficult becomes parables, fables, or allegories.
When one considers that the Bible is written in three different languages, over a period of about a thousand years, by perhaps upwards of sixty or more different people, in a pre-industrialized, non-Western, Semitic culture, and that the biblical materials encompass a wide range of literary styles and genres (ranging from prose to poetry, parable, allegory, proverb, wisdom literature and historical narrative), the difficulty in getting good communication, and the potential for great misunderstanding, becomes obvious.
As the members of a modern, industrialized western society, we think we understand how to tell a story: we start at the beginning, follow a chronological thread, and wind up at the end. If we take this obvious truth, this obvious way of doing things, and then read the Bible with this same expectation, we will become hopelessly confused and accuse the biblical materials of being a random hodgepodge with little reasonable order, or, too often, we will impose an order of our own making that will make things even more hopelessly confused.
For the writers of the Bible, whether we’re dealing with the author of Genesis, or the author of the Gospel of Matthew, we’re dealing with someone who will not tell a story according to our modern sensibilities. If we can simply acquiesce to this culture shock, accept it and embrace it, the Bible will be much less frustrating. Like going to a foreign country, you’re better off doing as they do in Rome, because for sure they’re never going to do as they do in Paduka, Kentucky.
Thus, the altars in the ancient Israelite temple looked like the altars of all the peoples around them; the temple followed the pattern and style of Phoenician temples; God spoke in their language (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic); he used the literary conventions, like parallelism, nonchronological narrative techniques, proverbial statements, fables, parables, allegory and the like to make his points. The letters of Paul are just that, letters, and fit that style and technique of his period, from the opening greetings to the closing benedictions. Thus, when we look at descriptions of God and all else in the Bible, when we look at some of the visions, the descriptions of heaven and Hell, God and the end of time, how are we to understand what is being seen and described? Are we to impose literalism? And what, in such settings, is the literal meaning? Is God revealing himself in a certain way to accommodate the culture he’s facing?
Perhaps I should add something here to prevent misunderstanding. I do not mean to imply that the Bible will present falsehoods, or to argue that cultural understandings mean we can choose to ignore certain sections of the Bible, or argue that “this isn’t true.” The fact that the biblical writers were unaware of the true nature of the Earth as a rotating sphere in the midst of an immense universe does not mean that the statements in the Bible are necessarily counter to the modern conceptions of things. It simply means that the point of a given passage might be more accurately perceived if we don’t add the modern layers to the ancient picture.
Herbert Livingston in his book, The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment, makes an interesting and valid observation:
“Many form critics have castigated scholars for looking at and interpreting the OT from the standpoint of Western thought patterns and customs. Yet the names give to the Pentateuchal literary types and the criteria for isolating and labeling these types are Western to the core. The observation that names for type do not often occur in the Pentateuch does not justify this procedure. Efforts must be made to devise labels that accord with and arise out of the biblical materials themselves.”
There is a delightful consistency in the nature of the critical problems throughout the Bible. Rather than explaining the difficulties as the result of conflicting sources, or by simply ignoring them, perhaps they should instead be recognized as an inherent characteristic of Hebrew narrative; it seems an obvious solution. The problems so well recognized by the critics, if one thinks of it, are remarkably similar to what is taken for granted as normal in Hebrew poetry: for instance, the parallelism, which, by its nature, is repetitious. So, perhaps in narrative something of this method of structuring thought can be recognized.
What will be demonstrated, therefore, is that chronology is not the overriding structural principle in biblical Hebrew writing (and this would include the New Testament as well, because, though written in Greek, it was not primarily composed by Greeks). Rather, chronology is subsumed by more important principles, at least in Hebrew thought: namely, theme and content.
While chronology is not lacking, it is not the only, most important or overriding sequencer of the material. Rather, other things can become more important, thereby skewing the chronology in unexpected ways. Perhaps this is not so surprising. After all, the very nature of the ancient (as opposed to the contemporary) Hebrew verbal system is suggestive of the possibility; instead of tense, ancient Hebrew has aspects which describe action in terms of completion or incompletion, rather than in terms of past, present and future. This outlook cannot have avoided having an impact on narrative techniques. Thus, I would suggest readers make a significant mistake when they assume the creation account in Genesis is attempting to give a chronology of the events.
Below is an outline of the opening chapters:
I. Summary statement, Genesis 1:1-2
A. General Details of Creation, 1:2-2:3
a. The Six Days
1. light/darkness 4. sun/moon and stars
2. water above/below 5. birds/fish
3. dry land, vegetation 6. animals and people
b. God Rests (seventh day)
B. Details of Human Creation (return to the sixth day) (Genesis 2:4-25)
The structure of the six days narrative follows the pattern of the creation of empty spaces (light and dark, water and atmosphere, land) which are then filled by specific objects. Notice, too, that the first two days (and the parallel fourth and fifth day) are split into two segments, while the third day and parallel sixth day are not so split, with plants rising from the soil on the third day and animals rising from the soil to inhabit the land and consume the vegetation on the sixth day.
The word “day” is defined in the context of the creation narrative in 1:5 where it is equated with the word “light”, rather than a twenty-four hour period.
The difficulty for some modern interpreters of the Bible is in what is meant by the word “literal.” I do not believe that it means, when confronted by the phrase “he will sit on the right hand of the father” that we should expect to see the father’s hand under his butt. Instead, literal means an ordinary, non-subjective or non-allegorical meaning; of course, if we are dealing with something allegorical it is as big a mistake to literalize it as it would be to allegorize what should be taken literally.
Thus, I believe that the problems alleged between the biblical account in Genesis and what is known scientifically evaporate if we actually understand what is going on in the book of Genesis. The days of Genesis are not placed in a chronological arrangement, and the questions so many readers ask of this particular text are not questions that the text was ever trying to answer.
Moving on to some issues beyond the biblical text: many people seem confused about radiometric dating methods. It needs to be pointed out that C-14 dating is only one method of many, and that its uses are very limited. That is, it can only be used for the dating of previously living materials that are less than 50,000 years old. For older samples, other methods must be used. And one other thing potential critics of dating methods should keep in mind. Anecdotal stories about mistakes in the dating of a handful of objects does not successfully discredit the radiometric dating methodology. The fact that a bank occasionally makes mistakes in a depositor’s account does not mean that addition and subtraction, as methods for manipulating numbers, are therefore unreliable. It simply means that human beings make mistakes.
The radiometric dating methods are known to be reliable. They are not the product of wishful thinking or circular reasoning. They get used because they are known to work and give accurate data.
For instance, scientists announced recently that a chemical dating technique worked with incredible accuracy when testing sediment of known age.
Scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, published in the journal Science that they used specimens from the Vesuvius explosion that buried the Roman city of Pompeii to test the widely used radioactive-argon dating method. The testing placed the eruption of Vesuvius at 1,927 years ago. Historians place the eruption around 79 AD, or 1,921 years ago. The margin of error was thus plus or minus 5 per cent. The researchers feel that they can eventually get the percentage of error down to 1 per cent or less.
One other bit of detail in the debate about the age of the earth and universe needs to be tossed into this mix: the astronomical data.
Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum. When you look at the sun, you see it as it looked a little more than eight minutes ago, since it takes the light from the sun a bit more than 8 minutes to cover the 93 million mile distance. Sirius, the Dog Star near the constellation Orion, is 8.6 light years away, which means that it takes light more than 8 years to travel the distance separating us from that “nearby” star. Of course, you can see where this leads us. If we look at the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy that is gravitationally associated with our Milky Way (and visible to our neighbors below the equator), we are looking at light that left about 169,000 years ago, since the Large Magellanic Cloud is 169,000 light years away. Of course, other objects are even further away: millions, hundreds of millions, and even billions of light years distance. The natural conclusion is that if it takes light a year to travel for each light year in distance, then when we see something 10 billion years away, we’re seeing how it looked 10 billion years ago.
In 1987 astronomers noticed a supernova explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud. A supernova occurs when a massive star reaches the end of its normal life cycle and blows up. Of course, this was really old news, since the star actually exploded 169,000 years ago. It just took that long for the light from that explosion to get to us.
Thus, for those who might be tempted to argue (and yes, I’ve heard this argument used) that God “made the light already in transit” to give the universe an “appearance of age” as a way of trying to reconcile large astronomical distances with a 6000 year old universe, consider the following. If that is the case, then you must insist that when God created the universe 6000 years ago, he put a make-believe supernova explosion in the light six thousand light years out from Earth so that astronomers would think there had been a supernova explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud in 1987.
What would be the point? And why such a complex scenario, when the far simpler explanation is to assume that our senses are accurately reflecting the nature of reality. Otherwise one must suppose a massive divine conspiracy, because there are many, many similar supernova explosions being recorded every year from galaxies much further away, scattered all across the sky.
The antiquity of the universe, the evolutionary explanation for the origin and development of life on earth, are demonstrable from several lines of evidence. And since those explanations are not incompatible with the biblical revelation (if we understand it), there is no reason to reject either them or the Bible.