A Few Reflections on Creation in Genesis 1
BY DAVID ADAMS & CHARLES P. ARAND
Introductory Note: In the previous posts, we have surveyed three camps in the faith–science debates regarding origins among contemporary Evangelicals. Three issues arise in these debates: (1) the exegesis of Scripture, (2) the methods and conclusions of science, and (3) the attempt to harmonize theology with science. Without adequate background or knowledge to discuss the methods and conclusions of science, we will leave that aside in this and upcoming posts and discuss the first and third issues only.
This post will consider some of the key biblical texts where our interpretation of Genesis 1 conflicts with the conclusions drawn by many scientists from their reading of nature (and its history). How to deal with these texts is crucial for the three evangelical camps in their quest to show that God’s “two books” (the book of Scripture and the book of Nature) do not contradict each other.
Because of their central role in these debates, I want to set forth the historical interpretation of these texts in Genesis 1 within the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). We will then explore the larger theological approach that seeks to develop a theological–scientific synthesis.
My thanks to David Adams for writing much of this as we talked together. Also thanks to my faculty colleagues for looking over this post as well
Reflection #1: The God of Creation
When we read the creation account in Genesis 1 we typically focus on what it says about us, that is, about the world of creation and our place in it. While these are important truths, they are not the most important thing that Genesis 1 teaches. All the religions of the Ancient Near East taught that the gods they worshiped were responsible for shaping the world in which we live.
And so before looking at a few passages or words, and before bringing our questions to the text, it is helpful to understand God’s purpose and goal in using Moses to write Genesis 1 for his people past and present. This begins with the question regarding the context in which Moses wrote this chapter and what it would have meant for the people of Israel. What questions was Moses seeking to address for the people of Israel as they looked at the world?
What is fundamentally distinctive about Genesis 1, when compared with creation accounts from the Ancient Near East, is what it teaches about who God is. While most of us think of this difference primarily in terms of the Hebrew Bible being monotheistic and other religions of the Ancient Near East being polytheistic, there are at least three other fundamental differences reflected in the creation account.
FIRST, what Genesis 1 says about how God created the world shows us that the God revealed in the Bible is radically different from the gods worshiped in the Ancient Near East with respect to the relationship between the divine and the material. There is no such thing as creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) in any Ancient Near Eastern religion that we know of outside the Bible. For all other religions of the Ancient Near East both the gods and the material world are thought to be derived from a single fundamental but undifferentiated substance which is understood to be eternal.
This leads to a SECOND important difference. While the gods of the Ancient Neat East were not limited by what we call space and time, they were understood to be a part of the perpetual cycle of the cosmos. They are born, they age, they mate and produce offspring, they may become sick or injured, and they may die. When the cycle is complete and the world returns to its primitive state (i.e., chaos), the gods will cease to exist and the process will begin again.
THIRD and finally, no god in the ancient world was truly supreme. None had absolute power. To be sure, polytheistic systems often had a chief god or top god (e.g., Zeus, Odin) who had more power than the other gods. But that “top god” did not have all power, that is to say, he was not Almighty. As a result, they were subject to the same “fates” that shaped the destinies of humankind, and even the most powerful of them could be thwarted by the combined efforts of the other gods.
The biblical creation account, indeed the whole of Scripture, reveals a radically different God. There is only one God. God is not a part of the continuum that includes the material world but brought into being even the unformed substance from which all things were made (the “empty and void” deep of Genesis 1:2). God is not subject to the cycle of the cosmos, but the distinctions that he introduced into the material world brought about time (Gn 1:3–4, resulting in the day as the fundamental natural cycle of time) and space (Gn 1:6–7). Since no part of the material cosmos is a manifestation of his being, he may not be worshiped using any image (Ex 20:4; Dt 4:11–12, 15–19). God and God alone, of all the things worshiped as gods, is all-powerful and can bring about whatever he wills. In this way, the creation account reveals that YHWH stands apart, and YHWH stands alone.
Reflection #2: The Creation Week of Genesis 1
Another unique feature of the biblical account of creation quickly emerges when compared with other “creation” accounts in the ancient world.
Genesis records God creating both time and space and everything that fills them within the span of six days after which God rested on the seventh day. It is the only creation account that is temporally structured. Not only is this temporal ordering one of the biblical account’s most distinctive features, but the period of time in which God creates the world lays the foundation for key elements of the theology of the Bible.
The “liturgical calendar” for the religions of the Ancient Near East is based on the naturally occurring cycles of nature: the year, the season, and the month (including some half-monthly elements). The Bible alone recognizes a period of time that is not based on the naturally occurring cycles of nature but on God’s distinctive activity. In other words, the week as we know it is both unique to the religion of Ancient Israel and fundamental to the theology of the Bible.
This pattern, based purely upon the account of God’s activity in which he created the world over the course of a week, is fundamental to the theology of the Bible in three ways. FIRST, it provided the basis for the rhythm of the Israelite’s own life within creation, especially, with the observance of the Sabbath as the central element of Israel’s worship. SECOND, it provides the framework for almost all of the chief promises and blessings that God gives to Israel. And THIRD, it unites God’s creative work (Ex 20:11) and his redemptive work (Dt 5:15) to understand Christ’s saving work as the fulfillment of God’s plan to restore the state of “rest” that was lost as a result of the fall, and by whose grace we are brought into that rest.
For these reasons we can hardly overstate the significance of the Sabbath to the theology of the Bible and the importance of the creation account’s temporal structuring in laying its foundation. Confessing the pattern of God’s creative work in seven days, culminating and including the Sabbath rest, is confessing what God did, is doing, and will do both in creation and in redemption. This literal weekly pattern lays the foundation for our understanding that God’s redemptive work in Christ brings about what is sometimes called the “eighth day,” the day when all things become again as God intended them to be.
God makes a special connection between the first week of creation and the dawn of the new creation with Jesus’s resurrection. At times, the early church focused on the days of creation in its preaching during the days of Holy Week. The parallels are striking. God creates humans on the sixth day—the second Adam dies on the sixth day, namely, Friday. And so when Jesus was tried, Pilate said, “behold the man.”
During the first week of creation, God rested on the seventh day, Saturday. Jesus in turn “rested” in the tomb on the seventh day, Saturday. Then on the next day, Sunday, the Gospel of John stresses that it was “the first day of the week,” the beginning of a new week, the beginning of a new creation. Thus, it became known as the “eighth day” of creation for which our baptismal fonts often have eight sides.
Reflection #3: The Age of the Earth and Genesis 1
So how old is the earth? Although the Scriptures do not give a specific age to the earth or a specific date for its creation, the Scriptures portray a world that has been created in the relatively recent past, that is, within a historical span of time measured in thousands of years rather than millions or billions of years.
To be sure, the exegetical reading of the creation account raises certain questions but does not give clear and definitive answers to them. For example, how long was the Spirit hovering over the waters? How long were Adam and Even in the garden before the fall?
More importantly, possible gaps in the biblical genealogies may not allow us to pin down a specific age as advocated by many in the Young Earth Creationist movement (especially by the influential organization Answers in Genesis). What is the purpose or the function of those genealogies within their literary context? What is their role or place within the narrative? Genealogies perform one (or more) of three functions in relation to narratives.
- First they may serve to establish the bona fides (or identity) of someone in the account. The genealogy of Moses and Aaron in Exodus 6:14–26, for example, does this. Similarly, Matthew’s account of Jesus’s genealogy establishes the identity of Jesus. Matthew organizes Jesus’s genealogy through his mother, Mary, into three patterns of fourteen generations each. The first fourteen generations following Abraham are a period when the people had no king. The next fourteen generations beginning with David focus on the period when Israel had a king. The third fourteen generations again focus on a time when Israel had no king, and end with Jesus who is born to be king. Matthew’s genealogies thus serve to identify who Jesus is.
- Second, they may be used to “wrap up” the account of a person, summarizing their history and descendants. Many of the smaller genealogies in the book of Genesis function in this way. For example, the short genealogy of the descendants of Abraham by Keturah (25:1–4) serves to wrap up the discussion of all of Abraham’s descendants except those who come from the line of Isaac.
- The third literary function that genealogies sometimes perform is to “fast-forward” from one major event to the next by summarizing the generations in between. This is how the genealogy of Genesis 5 functions. It moves the narrative quickly from the end of the aftermath of the fall in chapter 4 to the account of the conditions that led God to decide to bring about the flood at the beginning of chapter 6.
While genealogies do sometimes provide chronological information, we must also assess the purpose of the narrative so that we can understand the significance of that chronological information. Therefore, it is both legitimate and necessary to ask whether the biblical authors are providing genealogies for deducing the age of the earth or whether they are using the genealogy to perform a different function.
A consideration of the literary or theological purposes of genealogies does not mean that one can or should discount the chronological information. The challenge is to make sure that we honor the chronological and historical significance of these genealogies as well as their literary or theological function.
In other words, these genealogies give us a sense of the flow of time within the narrative in terms of actual years (even without a precise computation of the age of the earth). To that end, Moses records the age of each father at the son’s birth, as well as each father’s total years of life. Thus
- even if the genealogies are selective and incomplete (but not inaccurate), and
- even if the genealogies are not exhaustive in a way that one can add them up in order to arrive at firm date from which to calculate the age of the earth,
it is difficult not to conclude that the cumulative year totals in the genealogies contribute to the impression that God created everything in the relatively recent past.
For a good article on genealogies, see Andrew E. Steinmann, “Gaps in the Genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 174, no. 694 (April 2017): 141–158. Steinmann responds to those who maintain that there are no gaps in the genealogies that such views are not correct. Steinmann also cautions that this does not imply that the earth is millions or billions of years old. “Instead, it simply argues that the earth is older than the 6,000 years that can be obtained by a simple arithmetic calculation based on the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies” (158).
For an older discussion of science, genealogies, and age issues, I recommend Paul Zimmerman’s chapter “The Age of the Earth” in Darwin, Evolution and Creation (CPH, 1959). Zimmerman held a PhD in chemistry and served as president of Concordia Teachers College in River Forest, Illinois. The five-point summary of his chapter bears repeating:
1. The Bible does not give us sufficient information to date the time of creation and the age of the earth.
2. We cannot be certain how long a period of time is involved in Genesis 1:2 in the moving of the Spirit over the deep. It is not clear if this is before the reckoning of days begins. If it is outside the days, we cannot set a limit. However, important ordering of the world comes during the first three days. This includes the succession of day and night, firmament, separation of waters and dry land.
3. The creative days are best accepted as days of ordinary length. This is the obvious meaning. However, we must remember that God’s creation is vastly different from His present preservation where present-day laws of nature obtain. God created a dynamic, operating earth. To attempt to probe these beginnings by using modern conditions is to ignore the fact that creation was a once-in-eternity event to which present laws do not apply. This actually takes the question out of the realm of the scientific and places it into the purely theological and philosophical.
4. If the days of Genesis are days of normal length, then man is about as old as the earth. There is then no point in attempting to stretch the genealogies of Gen. 5 and 11 to cover more than thousands of years…. The really vast age estimates deal with the age of rocks whose condition possibly is the result of the initial creation of God. They did not need to wait for crystallization and recrystallization to achieve their present form. Moreover, we would expect that things were created in chemical and physical balance.
5. Scripture, then, does not give a precise calendar. But it does give the impression of an earth far younger than the theories of some scientists indicate. Neither side can be definite. However, the Christian must be sure that any conclusions he reaches must be in harmony with the very clear picture of a great creative act, of man specially created by God in his image, of man’s fall from perfection into sin, and of the first promise of the Savior in Genesis 3:15. To lose those precious truths would be tragic indeed! (Zimmerman, 165–166)
Exactly how recently did God create it? We simply can’t say definitively on the basis of Scripture. We can offer suggestions and guesses . . . but that is as far as we should go. LCMS President Matthew Harrison clearly stated as much in his own LCMS blog post of January 4: “it is true that the Synod has not defined as biblical doctrine a specific age of the earth” (https://blogs.lcms.org/2018/64959).
Reflection #4: A Day is a Day in Genesis 1
The question regarding the length of the days of creation arises especially in connection with the new geological sciences that appeared in the century before Darwin. The idea of interpreting them as representing long geological epochs became a popular way to account for the conclusions of geology regarding the age of the earth. We also see this in the “day-age” theory popular among many Fundamentalists in the twentieth century.
Although the Scriptures are silent on defining the number of hours in a day (the Hebrew does not have a word for “hour,” which is why we have not made this a doctrine binding on consciences), exegetically strong arguments exist to regard it as what we ordinarily experience a day to be. Paul Zimmerman (above) referred to them as “days of normal length.”
In other words, the interpretation of “yom” in Genesis 1 to mean something other than a day is exegetically unconvincing. For example:
- There are no linguistic or literary grounds—either in the etymology of the word “day” in Hebrew or the grammar, syntax, context, or in any figure of speech related to its usage in Genesis 1—that can justify an understanding of the term in any way other than as a day as we ordinarily experience it.
- Genesis 1:5 defines what is meant by a “day” in this context: a day is a period of light (daylight) and a period of darkness (night) separated by two transitional periods (morning and evening).
- All of the other time-related words in Genesis 1 appear from the context to be used in what we might call their natural sense.
- Most importantly, in Exodus 20:8–11 Moses speaks of the “days” of creation and relates them to the “days” of Israel’s week that culminates in the Sabbath. Moses reiterates this in Exodus 31:15–17. Here, as in Genesis 1, Moses intended “six days” to be what we ordinarily experience six days to be.
- Interpreting a “day” as what we ordinarily experience as a day is the cleanest way of interpreting the text in that it creates no difficulties for interpreting other portions of Scripture. Put another way, it best fits the overall scope or stream of Scripture.
- Over the course of these six days, we have “eight originating miracles” (as my colleague Paul Raabe refers to them). One on each day with two on the third day and two on the sixth day. These creative acts (the initial opera ad extra of the Trinity) are miracles, and miracles are by definition not accessible to human reason or empirical science (in the same way that Jesus’s calming of the storm is not accessible to science).
Horace Hummel expressed it well in his classic introduction to the Old Testament, The Word Becoming Flesh (CPH, 1979):
Grammatically, it is impossible to try to calculate a date for creation on the basis of the meaning of “day” (yom). The word is undeniably used in Hebrew as in English in a variety of extended senses. Yet in the context of Gen. 1, its ordinary 24-hour sense is certainly the most natural or “literal” sense, if external criteria are not invalidly introduced. The problem of Gen. 1–11 is not primarily exegetical, but hermeneutical (philosophical and epistemological starting points). (64)
Reflection #5: Animal Death and the Fall
The narrative of Genesis 2, and the scriptures that follow, focuses on those two human creatures that God made in his image and to whom he gave dominion over his creation. It focuses on their life, their death, and their renewal of life as the gift of eternal life. Thus Paul writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12, italics added). Paul follows with, “For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (Rom 5:15, italics added).
Although the biblical record focuses primarily on human history, human life, human sin, human death, and human restoration, it does not do so in isolation from the wider creation of which Adam and Eve were members. As the catechism puts it, “God made me together with all creatures.” Consider the following connections.
FIRST, in Scripture, animals and humans were both created on the sixth day and both seek their food from God (Ps 104:27). In addition, God’s human creatures and non-human creatures possess the breath of life and thus are both regarded as “living creatures” (nephesh chayyah—Gn 2:7, 19; Ps 104:29–30). This linkage binds them together in both life and death after the fall. Plant “death” is not of concern since plants do not have nephesh or breath (thus humans and animals were given plants to eat).
SECOND, given the role of humans as stewards of creation, it follows that all creation is impacted by human dominion, sin, and restoration. Scripture repeatedly suggests that animal life and death are closely bound with humanity’s fall and restoration. On the ark, God preserved Noah’s family and the animals. Outside the ark, everything that had the breath of life died. After the flood, God made a covenant three times with humans and every living creature (Gn 9:9, 12, 15; cf. Hos 2:18–20).
THIRD, we might also note that animals were not given to humans for consumption in the initial creation. Genesis 1:29–30 portrays a world in which both animals and humans are given plants to eat. This would further support the idea of no animal death prior to the fall. Then, following the flood, God grants humans the right to kill animals and consume their flesh. At the same time, he puts the fear of humans into animals that they might flee and preserve their life (Gn 9:2–3).
FOURTH, animal life was analogous enough to human life that substitutionary sacrifice was logical and acceptable to God, for the life is in the blood.
Finally, when Paul talks about the fall in Romans 8, he speaks about how all creation was impacted and subjected to futility (pointlessness or meaninglessness). The same language is used in Ecclesiastes to describe life hemmed in by death. In humanity’s restoration the animal creation will participate as well; in the eschaton when humanity is liberated, animals will be, too. Hence Isaiah describes what has been called the “peaceable kingdom” (Is 11 and 65) in terms of humans and beasts living in harmony, and an end of predation.
Luther comments on Genesis 3:17–19 about the curse making the earth resistant to bringing forth its bounty:
Moreover, it appears here what a great misfortune followed sin, because the earth, which is innocent and committed no sin, is nevertheless compelled to endure a curse and, as St. Paul says in Rom. 8: 20, “has been subjected to vanity.” But it will be freed from this on the Last Day, for which it is waiting. Pliny calls the earth a kind, gentle, and forbearing mother; likewise, the perpetual servant of the need of mortals. But, as Paul points out, the earth itself feels its curse. In the first place, it does not bring forth the good things it would have produced if man had not fallen. In the second place, it produces many harmful plants, which it would not have produced, such as darnel, wild oats, weeds, nettles, thorns, thistles. Add to these the poisons, the injurious vermin, and whatever else there is of this kind. All these were brought in through sin. (Luther’s Works, vol. 1, 204, italics added)
A few paragraphs later, he reiterates, “The earth indeed is innocent and would gladly produce the best products, but it is prevented by the curse which was placed upon man because of sin” (LW 1, 205).
But even as we identify these similarities or correspondences between humans and animals, we cannot ignore the scriptural differences with regard to their role and telos within Scripture. Even though they both are “living creatures,” only humans were made by the hands and breath of God. Only humans were made in the image of God, and only humans are given the task of serving as God’s vice-regents upon the earth.
These are a few of the significant exegetical issues raised for those searching for harmony or synthesis between theology and science, or faith and reason. We have crafted these reflections so as to say neither less than Scripture says nor more than Scripture says. In such matters, about which people quite rightly have strong opinions and deep concerns, it is difficult to provide answers without saying more than what the Word of God itself says.
When we encounter conflicts between the conclusions reached by Scripture and science it is natural for us to ask how they can be resolved. God created us to want to understand the world around us, and to find answers to all the questions that our study of the Bible and of the world raises. We want answers, but sometimes we cannot find them.
In this we share Habakkuk’s dilemma as we wonder how long it will be until we see all things fully revealed. It can be hard to hear God say, “Wait for it” (Hab 2:3). Like Habakkuk, God calls us to wait in faith. Until that day, genuine faithfulness requires us to confess the truth of God’s Word while having enough humility to recognize that when the Word of God does not speak directly to a question, we may have to live without answers. This we can do by the grace of God that constantly recalls us to the cross, the empty tomb, and the risen Christ who is both the source and the object of our faith, and who is the answer to the one question that we must ultimately know, “How can I be saved?”
 This primitive substance, which we often call “chaos,” is typically given a name and regarded as a god, but it is also a material substance. It is commonly pictured in these texts as “water.” The ancients employed this way of talking about the undifferentiated divine/material substance because water was the only thing commonly known to them that had a physical substance but no natural form.
 Paul Zimmerman, for example, in “The Age of the Earth,” in Darwin, Evolution, and Creation (Concordia Publishing House, 1959) writes, “Scripture, then, does not give a precise calendar. But it does give the impression of an earth far younger than the theories of some scientists indicate” (166).
 For a very good discussion on the topic of genealogies in Genesis, see Andrew E. Steinmann, “Gaps in the Genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 174, no. 694 (April 2017): 141–158.
 I personally prefer this language to keep the focus on God’s creative act rather than the language of “young earth” which too easily gets into the issue of whether or not the earth looks young. By relatively recent past, I would understand a time scale measured in thousands of years rather than in millions and billions of years.
 This passage provides us with the one certain exception to the basic rule that we have just stated. In its first usage in Genesis 1:5 the Hebrew word for day is used in the sense of the period of light (what we commonly term “daylight”) in contrast to the night. This is within the common use of the term, both in Hebrew and in Greek (cf. Jn 9:4 and Rom 13:12) as well as in English, and does not invalidate the general point.
 These would include terms “night, “evening,” and “morning” all in 1:5, and “seasons” and “years” in 1:14. Genesis 1:14 includes the only ambiguous usage of the term “day,” there in the plural for the only time in the chapter. While the matter is debatable, the apparent meaning of 1:14 is that the “lights” function as signs to indicate the passage of two things, the “seasons” and the “days and years” (the grouping in this case suggested by the pattern of the usage of the prepositions in Hebrew). By this interpretation the term “days,” while plural, still refers to normal days. The other possibility, that the term “days” is being used euphemistically to refer to some other period of time, perhaps a “month” or a “week,” seems unlikely. The former (month) is unlikely because Hebrew has two other words (both related to the new moon) regularly used for a month and “days” is never elsewhere used that way. The latter (week) is unlikely since it is not a period of time for which the lights function as a sign, and thus makes no sense in the context. In either case the context requires that the term “days” as used in Genesis 1:14 refers to some naturally occurring period of time, apparently less than a year.