Interpreting Genesis One

Discussion in 'Other Christian Denominations' started by Inquiring Mind, Sep 22, 2006.

  1. Inquiring Mind

    Inquiring Mind
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    A number of questions about the interpretation of Genesis 1 and its famous six days.

    There are a truckload of different interpretations of Genesis 1 that have been offered, and I can't consider them all today. I can consider more (like Gerald Schroeder's relativistic interpretation) later on. Here's a list of the five interpretations I will consider today, ranked in order from what I consider the most plausible to the least plausible, along with notes on how plausible I think them to be:

    1. The Framework Interpretation (most plausible from a careful reading of the text)

    2. The Ordinary Day Interpretation (most plausible from a casual reading of the text)

    3. The Gap Interpretation (almost completely without foundation)

    4. The Revelatory Day Interpretation (virtually demonstrably false)

    5. The Day-Age Interpretation (demonstrably false)

    Please note in how I treat these interpretations that I am coming at them here from a purely literary perspective. The question I'm asking is: "Given what the text says, how likely is it that this is the correct interpretation of the text?"

    I'm trying to arrive at the correct interpretation by considering the question of textual interpretation first, not rushing to square the text with the findings of modern science. My interest is in figuring out what the text most likely means taken on its own terms, not trying to harmonize it with modern science.

    In this discussion, I'll only present one significant point of a scientific nature, and it isn't a point of modern science. It is something that the ancients knew and commented on, making it fair to include in a discussion of what the author of Genesis 1 meant by what he wrote.

    (I will also include an additional few notes based on modern science, but these will be in parentheses as they are not part of my main argument. My main concern is just what the text would be read to mean on its own, without considering modern science.)

    Having said that, let's look at these interpretations, starting with the least plausible.
     
  2. Inquiring Mind

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    The Day-Age Interpretation

    The Day-Age Interpretation

    The Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis 1 holds that each of the six days of creation represents a long, indefinite period of time rather than a 24-hour day. Each day may represent millions or billions of years, allowing the Genesis 1 chronology to be squared with the findings of modern science.

    In its favor, advocates of the Day-Age Interpretation can point to the fact that, in Hebrew as in English, the word "day" can mean a number of things. It can mean "the daylight hours of the day," "a 24-hour day," or "an undefined period of time."

    Sentences like the following three are thus equally possible in both English and Hebrew:

    "He went out during the day, but he came home again at night."
    "We're open 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
    "Many Christians were put to death in the Emperor Nero's day."
    Strictly focusing on the word "day" (Hebrew, yom, which rhymes with "foam") it is possible that the six days of creation could be read as six long periods of time.

    Advocates of the interpretation can even point to the fact that Genesis 2:4 uses the word yom in precisely this sense, speaking of "the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens."

    But there are problems.

    First, the Genesis 2:4 reference seems to be part of a different literary unit. We seem to have moved on from the recounting of the week of creation to zoom in on the specific creation of Adam and Eve. This means that the use of the word yom in 2:4 may not shed all that much light on its use in chapter 1. Further, since Genesis 1 depicted the creation of the heavens and the earth as a succession of six yoms (to stick an English plural ending on a Hebrew word; the Hebrew plural would be yomim, pronounced yo-meem) and since 2:4 depicts it as being created in a single yom, that's at least prima facie evidence that yom is being used in different senses in these passages.

    These are small matters, though. Now for some big ones.

    The Day-Age Interpretation has a HUGE problem with the fact that the day/night cycle is set up on Day One, while the sun isn't created until Day Four.

    The ancients knew that the fact that the sun is shining is what provides daylight and makes it day, and that the absence of the sun is why the sky is dark at night. This is not something that you need Charles Darwin or even Galileo Galilei to tell you. It's pretty blog obvious. We know the ancients understood it because some of them--like Origen and Augustine--commented on the fact that the sun was created after the day/night cycle and speculated on what this might mean for the nature of these days.

    To get around this problem, advocates of the Day-Age Interpretation have tried proposing a number of theories, none of which are plausible readings of the text in Genesis.

    For example: There was a mist or cloud or barrier or atmospheric condition of some kind that blocked clear vision of the sun until the fourth age but which let daylight seep through in a diffuse way for the first three ages. Well, that's not suggested by anything in Genesis 1. It's pure speculation designed to prop up a theory that is otherwise in trouble.

    Or: The Day-Ages in Genesis 1 aren't concurrent. They overlap with each other, so the sun would have been visible from the earth's surface in earlier ages. (This variant also can get around the problem of how birds and fish get created on Day Five even though land animals aren't created till Day Six. Modern science suggests that the order was fish > land animals > birds, which doesn't square with Genesis 1 unless the days overlap.) Again, this is not suggested by ANYTHING in Genesis 1. It's pure speculation designed to prop up a theory that is otherwise in trouble.

    But even if the sun-on-Day-Four problem could be solved, there's another LARGER problem which is completely insoluble as far as I'm concerned.

    It's this: At the end of each day in Genesis 1 the text says a variant on, "And there was evening and there was morning, a second day" (the last bit of the phrase is what changes).

    Evening and morning were the two cusps of the 24-hour day in Hebrew time reckoning. The placement of evening first also represents Hebrew time reckoning, since the Hebrew day began at sunset, so evening came before morning. "There was evening and there was morning" is a kind of hendiadys that expresses the whole of the Hebrew day. It's like saying "day and night" in English--a way of gesturing to the whole of a 24-hour day by naming the two opposing parts of it.

    That's why the phrase is then followed by "one day, "a second day," "a third day," and so on. The evening and morning hendiadys emphasizes the two parts of each of the six days of creation.

    Now here's the problem: The evening and morning hendiadys clearly points us in the direction of a 24-hour day, and the Day-Age Interpretation has an INSURMOUNTABLE problem in that this hendiadys would NEVER have been used to describe a long, indistinct period of time. Long periods of time (especially ones millions or billions of years long) are not divisible in terms of a single evening and a single morning--not by anything other than the interpreter's fiat, at any rate. This was NOT a part of ancient Hebrew time reckoning, and it would have occurred to NOBODY in the ancient world.

    And so I think the Day-Age Interpretation is demonstrably false. It simply is not a credible reading of the text in literary terms.
     
  3. Inquiring Mind

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    The Revelatory Day Interpretation

    The Revelatory Day Interpretation

    The next interpretation of Genesis 1 that I'd like to consider is the Revelatory Day Interpretation. According to this interpretation, the six days of creation are not days through which the world was created. Instead, they are six days through which the creation of the world was revealed to man.

    The idea is that God showed Moses (or somebody) a series of visions at a rate of one per day in which he disclosed the mystery of creation. Genesis 1 thus serves as a kind of diary of the visions.

    This gets around--or potentially gets around--a number of problems.

    The first and most obvious one is that it gets around the evening and morning problem I mentioned in the previous post. The evening and morning hendiadys has its usual meaning: It refers to a 24-hour day.

    But it doesn't get around the Fourth Day sun problem--at least unless you want to say that the visions of the six days zoom around in history rather than telling what God did in chronological order.

    (Nor, for those wanting to square all this with modern science, does it get around the land-animals-after-birds problem unless you adopt the "zoom around" theory.)

    But these are small matters.

    The real problem with the Revelatory Day Interpretation is that there is nothing in the text to suggest it. The text does not have the usual language of biblical prophecy. We don't have Moses writing "And on the second day God showed me this and on the third day he showed me that." The latter is the kind of language we find elsewhere in the prophets, but it isn't what we find in Genesis 1.

    Worse, the very first day is taken up with the creation of the day/night cycle. That seems to be a peg that roots the interpretation of the six days as being days in which the world is created rather than days in which the creation is revealed.

    I mean, if you spend your first day setting up the day/night cycle and then you say "and there was evening and there was morning, one day" then you've strongly suggested that the "one day" was the one you were just talking about--in which the day/night cycle was created. If you then slap a parallel formula onto the end of each of the other days then it suggests that they, too, were days in which these things were created, not days in which they were revealed.

    At a minimum, it would be EXTRAORDINARILY MISLEADING to the reader to do this.

    So the most charitable thing I can say about the Revelatory Day Interpretation is that it is an interesting stab at what the days mean, but it is completely without support and on its face contrary to the text, making it almost as demonstrably false as the Day-Age Interpretation.
     
  4. Inquiring Mind

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    The Gap Interpretation

    The Gap Interpretation

    The Gap Interpretation of Genesis 1 holds that the timeline offered to us in Genesis 1 is meant to be taken literally and sequentially but that there are gaps in it.

    One version of the theory holds that there is a gap between Genesis 1:1 and the creation of light in 1:3. As this is usually articulated, God first created the world and then it fell into a state of disrepair somehow (possibly by the fall of the angels) so that it became "formless and void" and God then set about a cosmic renovation project, which is what the six days record.

    Advocates of this view appeal to certain words in the Hebrew of Genesis 1 that maybe could be translated in a way that would allow for this theory (but not require it) and to certain other passages in the Old Testament whose support for this theory is highly contestible.

    These are just scraps though, not solid evidence for the theory.

    The Gap Interpretation simply does not leap off the page as a plausible interpretation when you read this text. I am not aware of anyone in the ancient world who proposed it, and it has every appearance of being a desperate expedient to square Genesis 1 with the findings of modern science rather than a plausible interpretation of the text in its own right.

    (It's also not clear how well it accomplishes its intended task, since modern science does not view the current world order as having been re-established/created in a period of six days following a cataclysm of some kind. To try to deal with this problem, some have suggested additional gaps between the six days, so that they represent six individual days--scattered throughout billions of years--on which God did things, but this also is in no way suggested by the text.)

    We've also still got the Fourth Day sun problem. (And we may have the land-animals-before-birds problem if you go for a gap of millions of years between Day Five and Day Six.)

    While one could postulate that there was a space of time before God initiated the day/night cycle on Day One without doing unjust violence to the text, positing that there was a prior creation that deteriorated and that Genesis 1 is simply the story of how THIS PHASE of cosmic history got started is NOT a plausible reading.

    The reason is that it mistakes the primary function of the Genesis 1 narrative. It's a creation story, not a re-creation story. If it were meant to be the latter then the author would have needed to signal this fact in some clearer way than he did. On its face, the commonsense interpretation of the chapter is that Genesis 1 tells us the story of how God established THE WORLD, not just this phase of the world's history.

    So, again, the kindest thing I can say about this is that it is an interesting stab at interpretation but that it is so speculative that it is completely without support--or substantial support, at any rate.
     
  5. Inquiring Mind

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    The Ordinary Day Interpretation

    The Ordinary Day Interpretation

    The Ordinary Day Interpretation of Genesis 1 holds that the six days of creation are six 24-hour days that followed each other consecutively (not overlapping, with no gaps), so that God created the world and had a day left over to rest in the space of an ordinary week.

    This is the most plausible interpretation of the text if you give it a casual reading, which is why it has been the overwhelmingly most popular interpretation throughout Church history (and before). Most folks in history have read the text in a casual manner (or, at least, a manner that didn't give full weight to the points that I'll get into), and if you do that then this seems to be the obvious interpretation of the text.

    I have a lot of respect for this interpretation--much more respect than I do for the others we've considered--because it does so much justice to the different aspects of Genesis 1.

    I think that there is an interpretation that is even more plausible if you give the text a careful reading, but I want to give the Ordinary Day Interpretation its dues. It's an interpretation that a reasonable person can come to upon reading the text--as evidence by the fact that so many reasonable people have done so throughout history. It's more plausible by leaps and bounds than the others we have considered. And I would most definitely hold this view of the text if I didn't think there was a more plausible one.

    But I think there is. The first big clue to that is the fact that the day/night cycle is established on Day One but the sun isn't created until Day Four. As I mentioned, the ancients knew just as well as we do that it's the light of the sun that causes it to be day and the absence of the sun that causes it to be night. Origen and Augustine even commented on the fact that the creation of the sun is dislocated from the creation of the day/night cycle.

    Now: We know from other passages in Scripture that the biblical authors didn't always record things in chronological order, but sometimes recorded them according to other criteria, and the dislocation of the creation of the sun and the day/night cycle is a big clue that that's what we're looking at here.

    It's the author's way of telegraphing to the audience the fact that this is a non-chronological sequence and that we need to look more deeply at the text to figure out what's going on.

    That leads to the final and--I think--most plausible interpretation of the text on strictly literary grounds.
     
  6. Inquiring Mind

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    The Framework Interpretation

    The Framework Interpretation

    The Framework Interpretation holds that the six days of creation are not intended to be taken literally as a chronology of how God made the world. That's what they seem to be on the surface, but there are clues in the text--such as the creation of the sun three days after the day/night cycle has been established--that tell us that this is not meant to be taken literally.

    The Framework Interpretation holds that Genesis 1 tells us what God did without attempting to tell us in a literal fashion when God did it. Instead, the facts of creation have been fitted into the framework of a single Hebrew week. (The week being a characteristic measure of time among the Hebrews; prior ancient cultures didn't have weeks.)

    The Fourth Day sun problem that other interpretations have (and have typically solved by introducing things the text does not mention, like atmospheric conditions that clear up, allowing the sun to be seen, or days that overlap each other chronologically) is of itself significant evidence for the Framework Interpretation.

    But the interpretation could be strengthened if we could sketch out the specific way in which the events of creation have been fitted into a framework--in other words, if we could point to the framework itself. It's a fair question, after all: "If this isn't organized chronologically, how is it organized?"

    A careful reading of the text reveals this, and we can see not just that the author has arranged things out of chronological order in a way detectable to the ancients, we can see specifically how he has organized them. We know what his organizational criteria were.

    For centuries it has been recognized that the six days of creation are divided into two sets of three. In the first set, God divides one thing from another: He divides the light and the darkness on Day One (giving rise to day and night), he divides the waters above from the waters below on Day Two (giving rise to the sky and the sea), and he divides the waters below from each other (giving rise to the dry land) on Day Three. Classically, this is known as the work of division or distinction.

    In the second three days, God goes back over the realms he produced in the first three days by division and then populates or "adorns" them. On Day Four he populates the day and the night with the sun, moon, and stars. On Day Five he populates the sky and sea with the birds and the fish. And on Day Six he populates the land (between the divided waters) with the animals and man. Classically, this is known as the work of adornment.

    That this two-fold movement represents the ordering principle of Genesis 1 also is reflected at the beginning and end of the narrative. At the beginning we are told that "the earth was without form and void" (Gen. 1:2). The work of distinction cures the "without form" problem, and the work of adornment cures the "void" (empty) problem. Likewise, at the end of the narrative we are told "the heavens and the earth were finished [i.e., by distinction], and all the host of them [i.e., by adornment]" (2:1).

    People have recognized for centuries that these are the ordering principles at work in Genesis 1. This is not something modern Bible scholars came up with (e.g., see Aquinas, ST I:74:1).

    I don't fault anyone who has a different view of the text (particularly the Ordinary Day Interpretation), but this one seems to me to be the most plausible view if you give the text a careful reading.

    The dislocation of the creation of the sun thus tells us that the text is using a non-chronological ordering, and the recognition of the two phases of creation (distinction and adornment) proceeding through the same three spheres (day & night > sky & sea > dry land) tells us what ordering system is being used.

    And none of this is predicated on modern science. It was all there "in the beginning."
     
  7. Deacon

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    Quite a big post that covers many different areas of argument.

    Why don't you break it up a bit more next time.

    Rob
     
  8. Inquiring Mind

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    LOL, could not do it justice any other way.:smilewinkgrin:
     
  9. J. Jump

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    I wouldn't consider myself to be a Gap theory proponent myself, as I am not trying to square the Bible with science. I personally think that the Bibles squares everything and not the other way around.

    But with that being said I think a gap of time (no one knows how long) is the only accurate way to understand Genesis 1. The evidence is there to support this view both from the text and from scholars. The Septuagint even shows the distinction between verses 1:1 and 1:2.

    A lot of our problems with salvation today would be done away with if folks would understand that the picture of salvation is given in the first three verses of Scripture.

    You have a physical creation that comes into ruin and is incapable of getting itself out of the condition (just as you have man as a ruined creation becuase of sin that is incapable of getting out of his fallen state). You have the Holy Spirit moving (Holy Spirit moves first in man's eternal salvation). You have the spoken Word of God (God's Word invovled in man's salvtion) and then light becomes (and man is passed out of darkness into the marvelous light).

    There is nothing man can "do" to earn salvation just as there was nothing the earth could "do" to fix its situation.

    There are some other FANTASTIC pictures of the Christian life in the seven days, but the spiritual significance is lost if the days are seen as days of creation instead of days of restoration.
     
  10. BobRyan

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    Why not just "Accept the Word of God" instead??

    In Genesis 1 "evening and morning" is one day. NEVER do we see "Evening and morning was 1000 years" in scripture. Not even once.

    In Genesis 1 the plants are created BEFORE the Sun and Moon. NEVER do we find atheist darwinists arguing for plants 1 million years or 1000 years BEFORE the Sun!! No not even once.

    Yet God points out that on day 3 we get the plants and on day 4 the Sun and moon.

    In Exodus 20 the DAY "yom" of the people at Sinai is given exact equivalence to the 7 day week in Genesis 1-2:3.

    "SIX days shall you labor ... and REST the Seventh day... FOR IN SIX DAYS the Lord MADE... and RESTED the Seventh day"

    No escaping it.

    No glossing over it.

    No ignoring it.

    Might as well accept and believe it.

    In Christ,

    Bob
     
  11. Deacon

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    Anything new to offer Bob???? :BangHead:

    Nice work Inquiring Mind!
    You obviously have done some research.

    But why would two of the three recent Baptist systematic theologians say that old-earth creationism is an acceptable and biblical theory of creation? (Erickson and Grudem, [among many other in various other denominations]).

    I would propose that when reading literally and historically, Genesis is best understood under the old-earth creationist paradigm.

    Notice that the seventh 'day' in Genesis has no refrain "evening and morning...''.
    This is significant!

    If the author of Hebrews says the seventh day is longer than 24-hours, who are we to argue?

    Rob
     
  12. Inquiring Mind

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    For the same reason, some believe that 490 weeks equals 490 years.
     
  13. Inquiring Mind

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    Genesis is symbolic and figurative.

    Take the instance with Abraham and God before he was about to destroy Sodom.

    If taken literal, then God is not all knowing. Why continue the diatribe with Abraham when God could have cut to the chase and said:

    "Abraham, stop! I am all knowing, there are none down there that are righteous"

    Second the author of Genesis had no first hand knowledge of the event. Yes we believe that Moses was inspired, but I don't think Moses was taking dictation with God speaking the whole time. Moses was more than likely writing by hearing the stories of the Elders that were in the desert with him. Even then some scholars can't even agree that Moses actually wrote Genesis.
     
  14. David Michael Harris

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    I think NT teaching teaches quite clearly that one day and a thousand years ( or ten thousand billion trillion ) are the same to God.

    That teaching comes from very early Christian fellowship teaching which is far different from the OT stuff and much superior. Only those with the Spirit of God can grasp it though.

    In former days...but now...

    The NT is a far greater revelation of God. 'We will come and make Our home with him'

    Think about it.

    David
     
    #14 David Michael Harris, Sep 22, 2006
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 22, 2006
  15. billwald

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    It shouldn't matter to Christians because we don't live under the Mosiac Covenant.
     
  16. Inquiring Mind

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    exactly eactly exactly
     
  17. Inquiring Mind

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    Bob Ryan and other SDAs sure do think so. I 've been on another board, they rarely come back with a NT passage to debate an issue, it is 99% of the time an OT passage. Sometimes I wonder if they actually believe in Jesus with all the dwelling they do on the OT.
     
  18. Magnetic Poles

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    I think the Genesis creation account is parable and allegory, not a literal version of any events. It deals more with God's relationship with humanity rather than a tale of a man, a rib woman, a piece of fruit, and a wily talking serpent.
     
  19. David Michael Harris

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    It's quite amazing that women have one less rib than men :) or is it the other way round? :) or is it nonsense? Any doctors in the house?
     
  20. Magnetic Poles

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    David, that just isn't true. http://biology.clc.uc.edu/courses/bio105/ribs.htm
     

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