‘At the beginning of all that begetting something begun’

 

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”
                – Genesis 1:1-5, King James Bible

These first words of the Old Testament describe God’s creation of heaven and earth and His introduction of light into the world on the first day of creation. But He wasn’t nearly finished.

“Creation of Adam.” Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On the second day, He separated heaven and earth; he divided the seas and dry land on the third day. He created the sun, the moon and the stars on the fourth day, birds and fish on the fifth day, followed by beast and, finally, man in His image on the sixth and final day. That’s quite a busy week.

But was it really a week?

One of the most hotly debated topics within religious circles is whether the opening lines of Genesis describe six literal 24-hour days or whether the six days of creation have a more flexible meaning that could be more compatible with the fossil record and other scientific discoveries.

In his book, “The Complementary Nature of Science and Christianity,” Anglican clergyman Dick Tripp discusses seven different interpretations of Genesis:

  1. Recent creationism: According to this belief, God created the world in six 24-hour days approximately 6,000 years ago, exactly as it is described in Genesis.
  2. Creation followed by chaos followed by re-creation: This interpretation postulates that there was a first creation where those animals and plants represented in the fossil record flourished before something went wrong leading to chaos. At this point, God re-created the universe as described in Genesis.
  3. Stages of creation revealed in six days: This theory holds that God revealed the truth of creation to someone, possibly Moses, over six days, using the structure of ancient clay tablets as evidence.
  4. God spoke his words of creation over six days: This belief states that God spoke His intentions for creation over six days. This rests on the Biblical principle that when God has foreordained something, the Bible often reads as though it has already happened.
  5. The six days of creation actually represent unspecified ages over which the work of creation occurred: This belief helps bring the Biblical story of creation into step with the fossil record and scientific discoveries regarding evolution.
  6. Prophetic poetry: This theory states that Genesis should not be read as a literal explanation of creation but rather a statement that uses poetic style to disprove other creation stories and state definitively that God created the world.
  7. Symbolic interpretation: This interpretation connects the events of creation with parts of the New Testament.

All of these theories have their intrigue, and if you are interested in learning more about them, you can read an excerpt of the book online. Personally, I found the idea of a re-creation following an original creation fascinating, as it attempts to bring the fossil record and Biblical literalism into alignment.

However, the two theories that always dominate the conversation are recent creationism and the belief that the six days actually represent the development of the earth over millions of years.

Truthfully, I find it impossible to believe in recent creationism. The scientific evidence based on radiometric dating states that rocks older than 3.5 billion years old can be found on every continent. While science certainly isn’t perfect, I find it hard to go against that kind of evidence.

On the other hand, the idea of the six days of creation actually representing unspecified ages certainly has its appeal. Like the theory of re-creation, it allows us to satisfy our desire to sync our religious beliefs with scientific facts. In fact, it is not entirely difficult to align large parts of the creation story with the scientific facts we know about the development of the earth.

God’s introduction of light into the world could represent His initiating the big bang or the first rays of light penetrating the earth’s atmosphere. The separation of the waters on the second day could represent the division that became clear between the oceans and the moisture in the atmosphere as the earth cooled. And perhaps the fourth day describes the point at which the gases in the atmosphere cleared to the point where the sun and moon began to cause seasons and effectively “rule over the day and over the night,” (Genesis 1:18).

It should be noted, however, that the introduction of life onto the earth, from fruit trees to birds to sea creatures to land creatures to man, does not fit with the evidence of the fossil record. Even still, the scientific plausibility of this theory is impressive, especially when compared with other creation stories.

While I have no doubt that a truly all-powerful God could have created the world in six 24-hour days, I can’t ignore the scientific facts that support an evolutionary process that took place over billions of years. And yet, the story of creation is the one place where I have no problem seeing the work of a God or Supreme Being. I just can’t rid myself of the idea that something, or someone, had to do something to get the proverbial ball rolling on life in the universe.

Congressman Matt Santos, a character from one of my favorite television shows of all time, “The West Wing,” summarized my feelings well when he said, “I’m sure that many of us would agree that at the beginning of all that begetting something begun. What was that something?”

Ryan Levi

About Ryan Levi

Ryan Levi considers himself religiously secular yet culturally Jewish. He provides commentary from his unique religious perspective. 

6 Responses to “‘At the beginning of all that begetting something begun’”

  1. Steve Swope

    Good stuff, Ryan! Author/clergyman Dick Tripp seems to have missed at least a couple options, in my opinion. 1. Science attempts to tell us How and When; Genesis suggests Who and Why. 2. You open with the King James translation, but others suggest that what God was really “doing” was bringing order to chaos – hence, another symbolic interpretation (not connected to the Christian scriptures) is God’s desire always to bring order out of disorder, comfort out of suffering, peace out of conflict, etc.

    Reply
  2. Ryan Levi

    Thanks for the read and the comment, Steve! In researching the article, I found a lot of people who emphasized your first point exactly that Genesis is about Who not How. Many of the articles I read focused on the fact that the biggest thing people can take away from Genesis is the fact that God created the world, not any other deity or power, and that people shouldn’t look to Genesis for clues about how it happened. It is certainly an interesting debate and a far more expansive one than I realized. What are the differences in the Biblical translations that lead to a order-out-of-chaos reading of Genesis?

    Reply
  3. Kevin Glenn

    Thanks Ryan,
    As one who takes both science and faith seriously, it’s refreshing to see the perspectives you share. I agree that the Creation Narrative is about “Who” more than “How”. Some great additional resources are: Genesis for Normal People – by Pete Enns, The Lost World of Genesis One – by John Walton, The Literary Guide to the Bible- by Robert Alter, and Science, Creation, and the Bible – by Richard Carlson.

    Dr. Carlson is a widely known and respected physicist, who just happens to live right here in CoMo and attends my church! He has an article on theistic evolution coming out soon in Theology News and Notes, the magazine for students and alumni of Fuller Theological Seminary.

    Reply
  4. Ryan Levi

    Kevin — Thanks for the read and the comment. I’d be very interested to read Dr. Carlson’s article on the subject. It’s certainly a fascinating topic that I don’t think we’re going to stop discussing any time soon.

    Reply
  5. Steve Swope

    Ryan, I’m definitely not a Hebrew scholar, so I rely on translations and commentaries. And I’ll warn you that this will be long.

    The Tanakh (2985) says “When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water….” The New English Bible (1972) says “…the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.” The American Bible Society’s Today’s English Version (1976) says “…the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the power of God was moving over the water.” And Eugene Peterson’s The Message (2002) says “Earth was a soup of nothingness….”

    The commentator from The Interpreter’s Bible (1952) suggests that the writers/editors of Genesis struggled to express something that they (a) did not witness and (b) could not completely conceptualize. And James Kugel has an interesting chapter in his The Bible As It Was (1997), tracking (primarily) Jewish interpretations in the post-biblical years.

    If we don’t take the Genesis account as an exhaustive, literal explanation, it seems to me what is suggested is that there was something there – wind, water – even if it was a chaotic mess and, perhaps, teetering on the cliff of an abyss. This seems to fit with other cultures’ views at the time, as we understand them.

    It also seems to mesh with other things people believe about God and God’s working – bad things still happen to good people, for instance, but God helps us find a way – bring order and meaning out of that chaos, as it were. In other words, it may not be the literal sense of the words, but for me, it fits what God did/does/is doing throughout all of Creation.

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  6. Ryan Levi

    Wow! Now that I read those translations, I do remember hearing about creation in terms of God taking chaos and turning it into order. I think the comment from The Interpreter’s Bible is an important one. I believe that one of the biggest reasons that we look to religion is to find answers for the things we don’t understand and/or can’t explain. What could tougher to understand or explain than how the world was created? I also find it interesting that there are so many different translations of the same few lines of Hebrew. Seems to me that this would be another clue that it is dangerous to take what we think the Bible says too literally since it seems we’re not quite sure what exactly it says.

    Reply

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