Two groups of people insist that Genesis and modern science are incompatible: Secularists and Young Earth Creationists. Both camps have damaged the credibility of the Jewish creation story. But today I would like to suggest to you that there’s a 3rd way. A modern literal interpretation of Genesis 1 matches modern cosmology, geology and the fossil record… exactly. As we read this chapter together, I would like to make three simple assumptions:
1) The events are described as they appear from the surface of the earth beginning with verse 2.
2) We’re going to assume “day” is a period of time, not 24 hours. The Hebrew word for day (“yom”) has a variety of meanings in Genesis. A “day” can be a million or even a billion years.
3) Living creatures in verse 24 are “livestock” – not all land animals, but advanced mammals.
|1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.||The text literally means “At the beginning of time God (who already existed) created everything out of nothing.” Today we understand that the Big Bang was the beginning of matter, energy, space and even time itself, all expanding from a single point in a very precise manner. The Big Bang theory was resisted for decades in part because of its resemblance to Genesis 1 and its metaphysical implications.|
|2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.||This verse establishes the physical vantage point that is used from here forward. 4 billion years ago, following the “Hadean” period, the earth was a hostile, stormy, turbulent, water-covered ball. The Hebrew word for “hovering” is also used elsewhere in Genesis to describe an eagle protecting her young in the nest. Science tells us that the earliest life forms began in the ocean ~3.5 billion years ago and I believe this verse hints at this.|
|3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning-the first day.||The atmosphere changes from dark to opaque. Light can now shine through earth’s thick clouds. Now there is day and night on the surface of the earth. The phrase “There was evening and there was morning” is an ancient Jewish expression of completion.|
|6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning-the second day.||The water cycle begins. Clouds condense and form the ocean. Water evaporates from the ocean and forms clouds.|
|9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.||The continents (“Pangea”) rise above the surface of the ocean, forming land and sea.|
|11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning-the third day.||Plants appear before animals. Notice that the wording in the Bible says the land produced vegetation. It does not rule out an evolutionary process.|
|14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights-the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning-the fourth day.||Up to this point the atmosphere has been thick and opaque. It is not possible to see the sun and moon as distinct objects in the sky. The atmosphere clears. Now sun and moon are visible. When it says “God made two great lights, the Hebrew word for “made” is a different word than “create.” Create means from scratch, made means “made evident.” The moon and stars were already casting their light on day 1 (see verse 3), but were not visible as distinct objects until day 4. Notice that 24 hour days are not even mentioned before day 4.|
|20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning-the fifth day.||Day 5 spans from 500 million years ago (after the Cambrian explosion) to 50 million years ago. The earth is dominated by birds and fish. Insects and dinosaurs are also present on the earth during this time but are not mentioned in Genesis 1.|
|24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.||Day 6 is the busiest day (50 million years ago to less than 100,000 years ago). The earth is dominated by large mammals. Jewish people would have thought in terms of livestock.|
|26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”||God refers to Himself as “our” – God is plural. The first reference to the Trinity.|
|27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.||Man is a spiritual being, the first creature made in God’s image. Unlike the animals, man is both body and spirit.|
|28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”||Man is given responsibility to take care of the earth.|
|29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground-everything that has the breath of life in it-I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.|
|31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning-the sixth day.||The text says all was very good. It doesn’t say it was paradise or perfection.|
|Chapter 2 verse 1: Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.||God ceases from his creative work on the 7th day. There is no statement “And there was evening and there was morning, a 7th day.” We are living in the 7th day now.|
If we had to make obtuse, complex assumptions in order to make this fit, we would have a serious problem. But our assumptions are simple, even elegant. This poetic 3500 year old text matches modern science exactly.
As little as 100 years ago, the prevailing scientific view disagreed with Genesis 1 (the “steady state” theory of the universe was in vogue). Genesis produced a testable hypothesis. Since then, astronomy, geology and biology have shown Genesis was right and the science of the time was wrong.
No other ancient text, scripture or religious tradition has a creation story that even comes close to Genesis in its accuracy. The Jewish scriptures compete admirably in the marketplace of ideas in the 21st century.
How did a bunch of nomads roaming around in the desert in 1500 BC get this sequence of events exactly right? I submit to you it’s because God told his prophets what He did.
Elsewhere on this site I make an bold case that living things have a Designer. I argue that evolution is not random or accidental, but an engineered process. But it’s the remarkable accuracy of Genesis that persuades me to be a Christian and not an agnostic or deist.
Augustine said, “God wrote two books: The Bible and the book of Nature.” It’s important to acknowledge that modern science also informs our interpretation of Genesis. Each tells us about the other.
In an upcoming post I’ll look into Genesis 2 and the origin of man and woman.
I invite you to listen to Hugh Ross’s lecture “New Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God” where he explores the history of Big Bang science and its relation to Genesis in much greater detail.