Part 2 deals with the hypothesis that Genesis 1 in particular is an historical account of events of creation.
The Genesis of the world
As soon as you view Genesis 1 as an historical account of the physical events of the creation of the world world or universe and mankind, some puzzling issues arise (I am indebted to John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis 1 for the first of these):
3And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. Genesis 1: 3-5
- Why does God call the light “Day”. Why does he not call it light?
- Why does God separate the light from darkness? Darkness is the absence of light, and so the two do not need separating?
The answer to these two questions becomes immediately obvious if you realize what light and darkness mean to earthbound creatures (without electricity). Light happens during Day, and Day is separated from Night.
Now from a physicist’s point of view, or from God’s point of view Light is not the same thing as Day. Near the sun, for instance, it is always light, but there is no day or night. In almost anywhere in the universe’s “outer space” it is always dark, with tiny points of light from galaxies and stars, but again no day or night.
These verses then, are not describing the creation of light in the sense of electromagnetic radiation carried by photons, but are rather describing, in a very unelaborated way, the instigation of the rhythm of Day and Night and their regulation of all that happens on earth.
The puzzles continue, if you maintain that this is an historical account:
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. Genesis 1:16
- This seems a very two-dimensional description of the great balls of fire that constitute the sun and stars, and the dusty moon. There is no apparent appreciation that the sun is a star, nor that the moon is a satellite simply reflecting the sun’s light. You could add that there is no mention of asteroids, comets, gaseous nebulae, galaxies, pulsars, black holes, or even other planets.
A physicist does not describe the cosmos in these terms and it would be rather odd if God did so, but not at all odd if ancient people did.
2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Genesis 1: 2
- Why does the chaos of the waters of the earth precede creation of the cosmic bodies?
6And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8God called the vault “sky.” Genesis 1: 6-8
- Why are the waters above separated by a vault, firmament, or solid dome?
These descriptions are readily understood in terms of ancient perspectives. A prevalent view among many ancient civilisations saw the water of the seas as a chaotic domain inhabited by monsters and demons. On this point, God brought order – in particular the land – out of chaos and is greater than the monsters and demons of chaos. In addition, the waters above the earth which were the obvious source of rain, had to be kept up there by a solid dome. (There were also waters under the earth, on which the earth was founded, very likely owing to the discovery of underground aquifers. They are mentioned in relation to Noah’s flood as the “fountains of the deep”).
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.” Genesis 1: 11
- Why only seed-bearing plants? Seed-bearing plants are the gymnosperms (conifers are the major member) and the angiosperms (flowering plants, including most other trees). But there are many other non-seed-bearing plants that don’t get a mention here – mosses, liverworts, ferns, bracken, lichen, algae and phytoplankton. Why is their creation omitted? They are vital to life on earth – for instance phytoplankton in the ocean are responsible for producing about 50% of the oxygen in the atmosphere.
Simply put, seed-bearing plants are those that to ancient people, were most obviously and visibly related to human existence – producing timber, grains and fruits.
20And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21So 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.. Genesis 1: 20-21
- Why are the creatures of the sea not further specified – e.g. corals, molluscs, crustaceans, plankton, fish, reptiles and mammals? Similarly why are birds the only creatures of the air described – what about insects and bats? And when did God create swimming birds, like the penguin, or flightless birds like the kiwi or ostrich, or for that matter birds that live on land, sea and air, like seagulls?
You can see that this is not a technical description but a simple conception of the living world common to many ancient peoples. Our classification into species, genera, and families was unknown and would probably have been of little concern to those ancient peoples.
Let me be clear. It is not just that the descriptions in Genesis are simple; you can imagine God simplifying the description for a primitive people, for instance, but that is not what this is. It is a primitive, undeveloped description. It is earth-centred and human-centred. It simply describes the superficial impressions of a person standing on the surface of the earth without having any clear overarching understanding of the cosmos or of earth’s cycles and biosphere.
Can we imagine a simple description that is nonetheless informed, as we might expect directly from the mouth of the Creator?
In the beginning there was darkness. And God called the heavenly bodies into being and commanded them to burn, sending forth light. The heavenly bodies were the source of light: the distant stars that are only seen at night, and the close star, the sun, that gives light and warmth to the earth during the day. God created planets, and smaller bodies that orbited the stars. The earth was a planet and like other planets it rotated on itself, and also travelled in a circle around the sun. When it rotated it brought people on the earth to face the sun’s light and they called it day, then into the darkness facing away from the sun which they called night, then back to the light again. God also created the moon to circle the earth, which was as bright as a light at night, while it was lit by the sun. God created the seed-bearing plants which give shelter and food to mankind, and the very tiny plants in the sea which make the air we breath, and which give food to the other creatures. God created all the creatures of the sea: those that live in shells, the fish of the sea, and those warm-blooded creatures that breath air and give milk to their young. God created all the flying creatures – the feathered birds, the furry bats, and the locusts, moths and other insects with 6 legs and stiff wings. He also created birds that could swim, and birds that could not fly.
Such a description is just as simple as that in Genesis 1, but it indicates knowledge of the sun as a star, of the moon as a simple satellite, of the different fundamental types of sea and flying creatures.
Genesis 1 is, therefore, an earth-centric, human-centric description. God is creating order from chaos, separating light from darkness, heaven from earth, and earth from water. The cosmology involves this pattern of separation, involving the ancient elements of earth, air, water, and perhaps fire (light). The biology is also simple: creatures are made to fill the new spaces of the water, air and earth; plants are provided for the nourishment and shelter of humans.
Is there, after all, any reason to expect a naturalistic description in Genesis? Are seemingly factual accounts of the natural world in other parts of Scripture indeed factual, or is that even necessary in order to understand them? I will discuss these issues in Part 3.