Sunday, November 23, 2008

Back and Forth with Genesis 1

If we accept the Bible as the authority that defines our perspective on reality, how do we regard Scripture’s opening chapter, the account of the creation? Does the Bible teach a literal six-day creation, or can what it says be understood another way? Or, even if it does specify creation in six days — an idea that sounds ridiculous to secular cosmologists — are there some underlying insights in the biblical account that transcend the surface narrative? Perhaps these insights make sense even to someone who regards a literal six-day creation as a discredited doctrine.

To begin with, the Genesis account clearly says, “... one day ..., ... one day ...” So it does teach a six-day sequence of creation. On the other hand, “days” as we know them are earth days — a rotation of the earth on its axis demarcated by the appearance of the sun in the sky. And according to Genesis, the sun and moon aren’t created till the fourth “day.” So how could “days,” as we understand the term, be used to mark off the successive phases of creation?

Some interpreters nuance the account by claiming that the word “day” in Genesis means epochs of astronomical length in the gazillion-year history of the universe. But there’s no warrant for interpreting the Hebrew word yom (“day”) in that sense. Does that clinch the case for understanding the Bible as teaching a literal six-day creation?

Look again at the structure of Genesis 1, with its repeated refrain, “And God saw that XXX was good ... And there was evening and there was morning, X day.” Repeated refrains do not occur in historical accounts or textbooks of cosmology, they occur in hymns. Genesis 1 appears to be a prose paraphrase of a poetical, hymn-like structure, a hymn celebrating the Creator’s activity. Do you look into your church hymnal when you want to find an explanation of some problem in astronomy, physics or chemistry? Not likely. So maybe Genesis 1 isn’t the place to look for a description of how the world actually came into existence. Maybe the biblical account has a different purpose.

But, on the other hand, if you look at the Genesis account it starts with the creation of the most basic “element,” light. It then proceeds, by a process of division, to separate out the generalized components of the universe as the Israelites saw it: light and darkness, the heavens and terra firma, land and sea. That process of division is called analysis, the first principle of scientific inquiry.

By the way, the creation of light is a digital, or binary, separation, the basis for today’s computers. The presence of difference is the basis of information, because information is found in the difference between one thing and another — not in sameness.

The Genesis account then goes on to relate the creation of an ascending hierarchy of living things — plants, then water creatures and birds, then land animals and finally mankind. That is something like the sequence posited in the evolutionary view, though the theory of evolution itself is problematical.

Finally, one looks at other ancient “myths” of creation and notices that the creation of the earth, and of mankind, is only a byproduct of some cosmic struggle between competing deities, whereas in the Bible the universe is created deliberately in a planned and orderly sequence. The sun and moon are perhaps deliberately placed out of order to counter the tendency to worship these bodies, as was common in polytheistic religions.

Furthermore, God is not part of his creation but is separate from it. This implies that mankind, as his agent in the administration of the natural order — made in his “image,” as Genesis puts it — can approach that order in a “secular” way, i.e., without worrying about offending the god of this or that natural phenomenon.

So, in sum, one goes back and forth with the Bible account of creation. First, we accept that it doesn’t square with the scientific view, then we see how it adopts a view generally consistent with science, and finally we realize that it presents the only view that makes science possible.