Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Recently two of my young friends have raised questions about the creation story. One, a young lady, had been deeply hurt when another gal at her Bible study group told her that if she didn’t believe in a literal seven days creation, she might not even be a Christian! The other, a young guy science major whose father is a scientist and atheist, was beginning to question the whole “faith thing,” since he can’t reconcile literal seven days with scientific method… I don’t know if you want to address something this controversial and divisive, but I think maybe we (er, that would be you, as “we” doesn’t have the answers…) should talk about it.
SEE ALSO: Creation & the Cosmos: God Bringing Glory to Himself
Your question breaks my heart. I am grieving for your first friend. How we interpret the creation story can never be a test of our Christianity. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15 that the key to Christianity is the resurrection—not how we interpret Genesis 1.
SEE ALSO: Monumental Version of Genesis 1 Takes You Back... to the Beginning. Powerful!
I also grieve for your scientist friend who is unable to reconcile the “whole faith thing.” A seven-day creation is counterintuitive for one who can and find multiple examples of scientific evidence that the universe was fashioned over billions of years--that every element heavier than lead on earth was cooked up in a star explosion somewhere else in the universe, and that the earth is about four and a half billion years old.
Trying to reconcile scientific findings and theological truth misses the point. The mark of a good Bible student is figuring out what the biblical writers had in their minds when they wrote Scripture. I don’t think Moses had any of the above in his mind when he wrote what he wrote. Sorting out the truths of cosmology was the least of his worries. His big worry was leading a rebellious and stubborn people who were having a hard time letting go of the Egyptian gods.
During the 40 days of wanderings, the people expressed their wishes to return to Egypt where the food was better and the gods were well known—even at the cost of re-entering into slavery.
I believe that when Moses finished the creation story he not only affirmed God Almighty as the Creator, He also destroyed every Egyptian god as a figment of man’s imagination. He raised his nose in insult by saying to the people of Egypt: “My God is better than your gods. In fact, your gods aren’t gods at all. The only true Creator is, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’”
I believe that the literary device Moses used in communicating these truths was Hebrew poetry. This is not to say that the opening chapters of Genesis are myths or untruths. Much—but certainly not all—of the Bible is written in prose. We understand prose to be literally true just as written.
But, the Bible writers also used all sorts of literary devices to communicate. For example, when Jesus said, “I am the door of salvation,” no one believes that statement is literally true. Jesus is not made of wood. He used a metaphor. Paul used allegories in Galatians 4 to contrast Mount Sinai that represented the Law with Mount Calvary that represented grace. The Bible is filled with similes, onomatopoeias, hyperboles, and chiasms. No one interprets these grammatical devices as literal prose.
Most English poetry rhymes words. For example, “Hickory, dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock.” Dock rhymes with clock. Here is another example, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…” Wall and fall rhyme.
Hebrew poetry is different. It rhymes thoughts. Psalm 1:1-2 is a great word rhyming illustration. Notice in the passage below how “walk, “stand,” and “sit” rhyme. Notice how “counsel,” “way,” and “seat” rhyme. Notice how “wicked, “sinners,” and “mockers” rhyme.
Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
In the Bible we interpret poetry as poetry. For example, in Psalm 91:1-4, the Psalmist declares: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…”
No one interprets this as literal. God does not have wings and feathers. This is a poet’s way of giving us a picture experience of God’s love and care. Like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings when threatened (remember similes?), so God brings protection and care to His children. Poets paint pictures with words and we interpret poetry accordingly.
Matthew related that Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on both a donkey and a colt. Can you imagine Him seated on two animals? Of course not! Matthew used Hebrew poetry to celebrate this glorious event. His comment is a direct quote from a Messianic prophecy recorded in poetry in Zechariah 9:9 about the entering of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
As I examine Genesis 1 I see Moses using a Hebrew literary device to communicate truth to the people of God.
In Genesis 1:1-2 Moses declared that God was the creator of all things and that the earth was formless and empty. Utilizing Hebrew poetry Moses declared that God took the formless earth and gave it form. He then took the empty earth and filled it.
The structural form was put in place on days one through three. On day one God created Light and Darkness (1:3-5). On day two God separated the Sky and Waters (1:6-8). On day three God created dry Land and Vegetation (1:9-13).
The filling was accomplished on days four through six. On day four God created the Sun, Moon, and Stars (1:10-19). On day five God created Birds and Fish (1:20-24). On day six God created Animals and Man (1:25-26).
Let’s examine the rhyming scheme more closely.
Day one rhymes with day four. On day one He formed Light and Darkness. He filled it on day four with the Sun, Moon and stars.
Day two rhymes with day five. On day two the Almighty formed sky and sea. On day five He filled the sky with birds and the waters with fish.
Day three rhymes with day six. On day three God formed dry land and vegetation. On day six He filled dry land and vegetation with animals and man.
On each of the six days of creation Moses knocked down one or more of the Egyptian gods: light and darkness; sea and sky; land and vegetation; sun, moon and stars, birds and fish; and animals and man. Even Pharaoh and his son were gods. Now, think about it, Moses declared that these Egyptian gods were not gods at all. They all were creations of the one God who stands tall above all!
By the way, on day seven God rested (2:2-3). In Hebrew poetical structure, rest rhymes with create. The Babylonians had a 10-day week based on three cycles per month. Other cultures had varying lengths. “God established a seven-day week with one day of rest for our best benefit.
Many interpretations are put forth to explain the complexities of the opening verses of Genesis. The “young-earth theory” assumes that the earth is really 6,000 years old but that God created the earth and universe in six days to look as if it were billions of years old. This is also called the mature-earth creation.
The Hebrew word for day is “yom”. But the word “yom” does not always mean 24 hours. It also means, “age”, like, “back in grandpa’s day” they used to drive “Model T” cars. As a result some try to understand the biblical creation story in terms of long million (billion) year ages. Thus, the creation of Light and Darkness is the flash at the moment of the big bang followed by hundred of thousands of years of darkness until the proto galaxies flashed into existence. One of the eventual problems that must be faced by those who espouse this theory is that vegetation (day three) was growing on earth millions of years before the Sun is created on day four.
In addition, many struggles are fought between those who espouse Theistic Evolution versus Naturalistic Evolution. Both groups agree that evolution of some kind or other is the means for the continuing process of creation. The theistic evolutionist believes that God is the One behind the design and process while the Naturalistic Evolutionist believes that evolution began by chance and is still proceeding by chance.
L, I want you to know that I struggled mightily for 25 years over reconciling the Genesis creation account. For years I wondered how the Bible could possibly be correct in the light of modern scientific discoveries. Fortunately, I was given the book, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science by Conrad Hyers. He is the one who presented the ideas of Moses fighting the Egyptian gods and using Hebrew poetical form.
How easily the Genesis creation interacts with science. No, it doesn’t! That’s why there’s such confusion. Genesis one is a religious book dealing with the issue of worshiping other gods besides “Elohim”. Science is all about uncovering the marvels of how God built and continues to empower His creation.
L, I hope my answer will shed some light on the issue of creation and on ministering understanding and grace to your friends. The Bible is not trying to explain or be understood by science, and science is not trying to explain or be explained by the Bible. My hope is not that everyone reaches the same conclusions as me. There is plenty of room for diversity and individual decision-making.
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