The opening chapters of Genesis are incredibly rich. (If you haven’t noticed, they’ve been bouncing around my head quite a bit recently. Consider Exhibit A and Exhibit B.) But I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to bring up Genesis 1—regardless of the setting—without certain key questions coming up. For some people, these are the only questions that matter. As you’ll see here, I don’t think that’s the case. But they’re important questions nonetheless.
The primary two questions I get about Genesis 1 and 2 are:
Question 1: Don’t the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 contradict each other?
If you’re a careful reader and you decide to pick up the Bible for the first time, you’re liable to get tripped up pretty quickly. In the first two chapters of Genesis, there seem to be two different accounts of creation—one in Genesis 1, and one in Genesis 2. And it doesn’t take a sleuth to recognize that the order of events is different.
We’ve talked a lot recently about biblical “contradictions” (check out our discussion of Mark and John), and much of that applies to this as well. When you come to an apparent contradiction in Scripture, you should attempt to give a charitable reading. Look for the ways in which the contradiction might actually be a complementary rendering before crying foul.
In Genesis 1 and 2 specifically, the literary structure hints at the solution to this supposed problem. Genesis 1 is an artistic, rhythmic, poetic celebration of the creation event. Each creation moment is told with a pattern of “And God said…and it was so…and God saw that it was good…and there was evening and morning.” That’s why C.S. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia, re-told the creation story by having Aslan sing the worlds into existence. Genesis 1 is the song of creation.
Tim Keller points out that several of the great events of the Old Testament are told this way. Exodus 14 is the story of the deliverance through the Red Sea. Exodus 15 is Miriam’s and Moses’ song celebrating the deliverance. Judges 4 records the battle of Deborah and Barak; Judges 5 is Deborah’s song celebrating it. If Genesis 1 is the song, then Genesis 2 is more like the essay. Yes, there are poetic elements in chapter 2, and historical reliability in Genesis 1. But the purposes are slightly different. Genesis 1 wasn’t written with specifically scientific questions in mind. It was written to be a poetic celebration of the who of creation. The primary purpose, in other words, wasn’t documentation but celebration.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean that Genesis 1 is a fabricated myth, or that it’s not true in what it says. But it means that we shouldn’t be lining up Genesis 1 and 2 to hunt down contradictions—as if the author who put chapter 2 after chapter 1 was so dumb he couldn’t recognize the differences between the two.
Question 2: Does Genesis 1 teach that God created the world in 6 literal days?
Many people look to Genesis 1 and they want to know timelines. Are we talking about 24-hour periods here? Or does each day represent a period of time—millions of years, perhaps? Maybe there were gaps somewhere along the way? Did evolution play a part in this? And what about dinosaurs?
This is one of those questions that some Christians take very seriously. It often acts as a litmus test for whether you’re a “real” Christian at all.
With all due respect to those who consider this a Priority One issue, I don’t believe that Genesis 1 itself gives us enough to come to rock solid answers about the creation timetable.
Remember: whenever you’re interpreting a passage Scripture, you have to ask why it was written before you pepper that passage with questions. If you start with the wrong questions, you’re not going to get to the right answers. And it appears rather obvious that the author of Genesis 1 was not intending to weigh in on the scientific nuances of our contemporary creation v. evolution debate. The focus of Genesis 1 is not specifically how God created, but that he created. It’s an artistic celebration, not a scientific documentation.
When it comes to the age of the earth, that’s a question that scientists and theologians should explore together. I know godly, biblically faithful theologians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and who think that the timetable of Genesis 1 was not a literal week (which, by the way, isn’t a new interpretation, but is a position that has been around since the first few centuries of Christianity). I know some who think that God used evolution as a part of that process. And I know highly intelligent, scientifically sophisticated, erudite scholars who believe that each of the days in Genesis 1 are literal days.
My encouragement to everyone in this discussion is to study it out with an open Bible and an open mind—and not to look at other believers wrestling, in sincerity and faith, with disdain. If you believe in a literal 24-day in Genesis 1, don’t view your brothers and sisters who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible but approach interpreting Genesis 1 differently than you do as “enemies of the faith” or “compromisers of the truth.” That’s not always true. And if you don’t believe in a literal 24-hour day, don’t look down your nose on others as “primitive, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.” That’s not always true, either. Be charitable and assume that others are trying to be faithful to God’s Word and God’s world, just like you are.
God’s Scripture is never wrong. But we theologians and scientists often are. So we’ve got to resist the temptation to turn into a dogma a question that Scripture did not intend to settle. As Christians, we can agree: the universe is not the result of blind, random forces; God is the miraculous author and creator of all we see. That’s actually a significant common ground.
For those of you who are still thinking, “Yes, but what about…?” allow me commend to you an excellent—and accessible—resource by Kenneth Keathley and Mark Rooker: 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution. The question of creation and evolution would take a book to tackle in full; so if you’re still curious, this book is an great place to start.