Most books dealing with the proper interpretation of Genesis 1 attempt to do one of two things: show how Genesis 1 cannot be reconciled with modern science, or show how Genesis 1 can be reconciled with modern science. Some try to show that Genesis presents us with a young universe, while others try to show that Genesis presents us with an old universe. Either way, it is presumed that Genesis 1 intends to present us with a scientific description of how God created (order, duration, etc.).
In their new book, In the Beginning…We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context, coauthors Johnny Miller and John Soden argue that this presumption is false, and concordism is a misguided hermeneutical approach to Genesis 1. Discussions over the meaning of Genesis should not be driven by scientific questions, but by literary questions. Our interpretation of Genesis should not be determined by our views about science, but by the text itself. Why even think that God meant to provide a scientific description of creation? The most important question to ask is what Moses meant when he wrote the creation account, how his readers would have understood it, and what practical impact it would have for them given their unique historical situation. How did it prepare them for the theology and religious practices they were familiar with in Egypt, as well as those they would encounter in Canaan?
Soden and Miller argue that Genesis 1 was not written to answer questions about how God created, the order in which He created, or how long it took Him to do so, but to reveal the identity, character, and rule of the creator. It is a theology of creation rather than a scientific description of creation. It is a “broadly figurative presentation of literal truths; it is highly stylized and highly selective. It does not report history as a journalist might do.” As such, the days of Genesis are not intended to refer to solar days or long ages. Rather, God is using the week as a framework to portray His creative acts. The week is figurative, not literal (the events are not even in chronological order, as is clear from a comparison of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, as well as the fact that the light exists before the sun). What reasons do Soden and Miller have for this conclusion? Here are a few:
- The Hebrew lacks the definite article when numbering days 1-5. They are not ordinals (“first day,”), and they are not definite. The number in days 1-5 should be translated as the NASB does: “one day, a second day….” This is very unusual grammatically speaking. In Hebrew, one would normally use the ordinal rather than the number.
The unusual nature of the Hebrew alerts the reader that what is being communicated is not a literal week where there is a first, second, third day in consecutive order. Rather, each day is like a photo on a wall. They are not necessarily posted in order, and they don’t necessarily give you a sense of duration, but when you look at all of them together you get a complete picture of what happened.
There is a logical ordering of events in Genesis 1, but not necessarily a chronological ordering. A closer look at days 1-6 reveal a correspondence of activity between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6. Days 1-3 show how God took care of the “without form” problem (separating the elements), while days 4-6 show how he solved the “void” problem (by filling up the earth with life and atmosphere with lights). For example, on day 2 God created the atmosphere, and on day 5 he created the birds to inhabit the skies.
“[T]he structure makes the point that both order and substance in the world originate with the purpose and plan of God.”
- Light was created on day 1, whereas the sun was not created until day 4. The ancients were smart enough to know that the source of light is the sun, so how could there be light with no sun? Furthermore, how could there be an evening and a morning for days 1-3 if the sun did not exist until day 4? Unless there was a stationary, unidirectional light source in the sky, there could be no evenings for the first three days.
This makes sense if we understand the week figuratively, in which the days are not in chronological order, but topical order (days 1-3 addressing the “without form” problem, and days 4-6 addressing the “void problem”). The activities of day 1 and day 4 coincide, but are separated in the text because Moses is arranging the events topically rather than chronologically.
- The order of creation in Genesis 2 differs from the order in Genesis 1:
- Genesis 1 = birds > beasts > man/woman
- Genesis 2 = man > beasts/birds > woma
Also, Genesis 2 presents the events as happening on a single day (2:4), whereas in Genesis 1 we are told that the birds were created on days 5 (1:20-23).
- Genesis 1:24 presents animals as being spoken into existence, whereas Genesis 2:19 speaks of them being formed from the dust. The text is not trying to tell us the precise mechanism by which God created animals, but simply to highlight that He is responsible for creating the animals.
- Day 7 does not include the “evening and morning” formula. Instead, it is portrayed as a perpetual day.
- Ex 31:17 says God was refreshed by resting on the seventh day. Obviously, this cannot be literal. If God’s refreshment is not the same as ours, why think His week is the same as ours? God was describing a figurative week on which to base the human week of literal days.
Parallels to Egyptian creation accounts
If this was all there was to their case, it wouldn’t be much different from what others have said. But there is much, much more. Soden and Miller make the case that Moses utilized the creation myths of Egypt (and to some extent, those of Mesopotamia and Canaan as well), but altered them in various ways to serve as an apologetic against pagan deities, correct the Israelites theology, and articulate theological truths about YHWH: YHWH alone is God, YHWH is transcendent, YHWH is sovereign over nature, etc.
Moses did not simply copy the Egyptian myths, but used them as a platform, recasting them to argue for a radically different theology. He needed to correct the Israelites’ spiritual worldview, not their scientific worldview. This was necessary because his fellow Hebrews had assimilated to Egyptian culture, including their religion (Josh 24:14). They needed to know that YHWH was not like the Egyptian gods. YHWH was not a nature deity, but the deity who created all of nature. YHWH was not in a cosmic struggle with other gods, but is the lone, sovereign, creator God.
The parallels between Genesis 1 and the Egyptian accounts of creation are staggering, even down to the very order in which events are portrayed. For example, both accounts:
- Begin with a watery, chaotic, lifeless void and proceed to create by separation (water from water, light from darkness, land from water, etc.) “Genesis 1 paints a picture of creation different from what most of us have assume d from our reading. Instead of starting with a globe covered completely with water and floating in dark, empty space, Moses starts with the common ancient Near Eastern assumption of limitless water, without any concept of a globe.”
- Portray man being created in the image of a god, formed from clay
- Show god creating by divine command
- Portray the existence of light before the creation of the sun
- Portray the deity resting after creation
In chart form, and with additional details (sequential differences highlighted in bold):
Genesis 1:3 – 2:3
|1. Begin with desolation, emptiness, dark waters (1:2)||1. Begin with desolation, emptiness, dark waters|
|2. Light (1:3)||2. Light (god of light creates himself)|
|3. Atmosphere (1:6-7)||3. Atmosphere|
|4. Land (1:9))||4. Land|
|5. Plants (1:11-12)||5. Luminaries in the heavens (sun rises)|
|6. Luminaries in the sky (1:14-18)||6. Plants|
|7. Creatures (1:20-25))||7. Creatures|
|8. Man (1:26-28)||8. Man|
|9. God rests (2:1-3)||9. Ptah rests|
While the Biblical account of creation has significant parallels to the Egyptian accounts, there are differences as well, and these differences are theologically significant:
- Genesis portrays God as preexisting and transcendent to the waters, whereas the Egyptian account portrays God as self-creating from within the waters. YHWH is transcendent, eternal, and thus preexistent.
- In the Egyptian accounts, every aspect of nature is deified, but in the Genesis account nature is not personal, but rather subject to the will of the one personal God. And in the Genesis account, no part of creation is in a power struggle with God. He is sovereign over all creation. There is no nightly battle as in Egyptian theology.
- While Ptah creates by speaking, it is the act of naming that is central (ownership). YHWH creates by speaking, and then names the entities afterward.
- In the Egyptian account, the first land created was just a small mound that came to have religious significance. In Genesis, all land was created at the same time, and it is all God’s.
- Whereas in Egypt only the Pharaoh was the image-bearer to stand between the gods and men, in Genesis all men are the image-bearers.
- Ptah completes creation in one day, whereas in Genesis it takes six days. Creation is reenacted each day, whereas in the Genesis account it is complete.
- While the sun is created in about the same order in both accounts, since the sun is created on day 4 rather than on day 1, Genesis portrays it as much less significant. The sun is not the king of the gods, but just another part of creation that is subservient to the one true God.
- Genesis changes the order of the plants and the sun, probably so that plants (day 3) could be parallel to man (day 6). Each of these days has two events each, and plants/man are the second event in each case. Moses meant to connect the man-plant connection so that they could recognize that it was YHWH, not Baal or some other deity, who is the giver of vegetation and life (notice how it was plant-life that was the basis of Adam and Eve’s temptation to sin).
- Whereas order has to battle chaos every day, in Genesis God battles it once and wins decisively.
Soden and Miller also detail the similarities and differences between Genesis 1 and the Mesopotamian and Canaanite accounts, but they pale in comparison to the Egyptian account.
The final portion of the book addresses objections related to inerrancy, divine misleading, chronology, the meaning of “day,” death before the Fall, and others. They did a good job of anticipating and responding to objections to their view.
While the positives far outweigh the negatives in this book, there are a few areas I found lacking or weak:
- The authors were very upfront about the nature of our evidence for the beliefs about creation in the Ancient Near East (ANE). Texts are fragmentary, they often contradict one another or present different accounts, and they cover a wide range of dates. Given the diversity of the Egyptian accounts, and the diversity of dates, how do Soden and Miller know that their reconstruction of Egyptian creation beliefs accurately depicts what Egyptians believed during the time of Israel’s enslavement? How do we know that the Egyptians did not later modify their accounts based on Genesis?
- There was no appendix providing more information and details about the ANE sources (date, contents, archaeology, etc).
- The authors quoted very little from the source documents. Instead, they summarized the content. While this may be necessary for spatial reasons and to keep the interest of the reader, it also leaves the reader to wonder whether Soden and Miller have summarized it accurately.
- The authors keep saying that the difference between the Genesis account and other ANE accounts is that our God is the sole creator and transcendent. But they also say Gen 1:1 is not teaching creation out of nothing (p 84), so why think that Gen 1 presents God as transcendent to creation? Why not think He is just co-eternal with the chaotic sea?
- If Genesis 1 is a recasting of the Egyptian creation account, then no revelation would be required for Moses to write what he wrote. If God was inspiring the book, we would expect for God to make a theological point using actual history, not fabricated myths.
- Their claim that light existed before the sun in the Egyptian account is not based on the Egyptian text explicitly referring to light being created before the sun, but based on the fact that the creator God who later brought the sun into existence is also a sun god. The god himself, then, is the light to which they refer. While I can see how they are reasoning, that interpretation seems quite strained to me.
- I wish they would have included an appendix giving more information and details about the Egyptian sources (date, contents, archaeology, etc).
While there are some kinks to be worked out, and everything is not as tidy as I would like, I must say that I have found Soden and Miller’s approach to the text quite convincing. If they are right, as I think they are, this means all attempts to reconcile Genesis 1 with science are misguided and futile. Attempting to determine the age of the universe from Genesis 1 is pointless because it was not intended to convey such scientific truths. This could radically alter the debate over origins within the Christian community, and between Christians and scientists. Let’s read Genesis 1 in its original context and according to its literary form. And for goodness sake, read Soden and Miller’s book. My summary of their argument is no substitute for reading their work.
 If God had provided a scientific description, the Biblical account would be judged false in every age until scientists finally verified the truth of Genesis.