Comparing Interpretations of Genesis 1
Note: Continuing this series of excerpts from the book Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, we turn our attention to Genesis. In chapter 4, the Haarsmas discuss principles of Biblical interpretation, and in chapters 5 and 6, they discuss no less than 8 different interpretations of Genesis 1. This excerpt includes a summary list of those interpretations , and the final comparative discussion of them.
Summary of Several Interpretations of Genesis 1
In concordist interpretations, God made the earth using the sequence of events described in Genesis 1. In non-concordist interpretations, God created the earth using a different timing and order of events than those described Genesis 1.
|Concordist Interpretations:||Non-concordist Interpretations:|
|Young Earth Interpretation
Creation occurred about 6,000 years ago, during six 24-hour days, in the order described. A scientific study of the earth should confirm this.
|Proclamation Day Interpretation
The days of Genesis 1 took place in God’s throne room, wherein God proclaimed each step of creation. The throne-room days are not related to days or time periods on earth.
Earth was created long ago (Gen 1:1), became “formless and empty” (Gen 1:2), and was restored about 6,000 years ago during six 24-hour days.
|Creation Poem Interpretation
The number and ordering of the “days” of Genesis 1 are chosen for poetic and thematic reasons rather than historical reasons.
Creation occurred over billions of years. Each “day” of Genesis 1 corresponds to a long epoch. Events occurred in the order given in the text, but stretched out over a longer time period.
|Kingdom and Temple Interpretations
As the great King, God gives humans dominion as in a “land grant” covenant. Alternatively, God inaugurates the cosmos as his temple. In both cases, the text is not focused on the physical universe.
|Appearance of Age Interpretation
Creation occurred about 6,000 years ago during six 24-hour days, but it was created to look like it had a long history of billions of years.
|Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology Interpretation
Genesis 1 matches the physical picture of the world believed in Ancient Near East religions, but presents a dramatically different theological picture, proclaiming one God as creator of all rather than many gods.
How should Christians go about choosing among all of these interpretations? Such a decision should be based on consistent principles and prayerful reflection, not just on “what sounds good.” Here are our own conclusions.
Weaknesses in Concordist and Non-Concordist Interpretations
Both concordist and non-concordist interpretations of Genesis 1 arise from good motives, a desire to show that the Bible does not conflict with nature’s testimony. But both types of interpretations have their pitfalls.
For concordists, the temptation is to interpret every Bible verse to match the current scientific picture. The meanings of particular phrases can be bent out of shape to match a particular scientific finding. For example, Hebrew words that literally meant birds or plants to the original audience are redefined to meet some modern scientific category such as insects or single-celled organisms, just to make the order of events line up. By focusing on trying to match the details of the ancient text to twenty-first century knowledge, the concordist may miss meanings in the passage that were clear in the original cultural context, including important spiritual insights. Moreover, concordists can be forced to regularly change and update their interpretations as modern scientific knowledge grows and changes. For instance, the Gap Interpretation twisted the meaning of Genesis 1:2 outside its original intent; later it failed to match new scientific evidence.
For non-concordists the temptation is to interpret every Bible verse that appears to disagree with science as figurative without first studying the text. By interpreting a text that was intended tobe understood literally as metaphoric, they may bend the meanings of particular phrases to refer to purely spiritual ideas and ignore the historical meanings they had in the original cultural context. At one extreme non-concordists can apply the same strategy to all Bible passages and even interpret Jesus’ miracles and resurrection as spiritual symbols simply because they think that miracles are scientifically impossible.
For both concordists and non-concordists the temptation is to let science drive the interpretation of Scripture more than it should. When an apparent conflict arises between science and a biblical text, it can and should motivate us to consider a biblical passage more closely. The scientifically discerned testimony from God’s book of nature can even be a useful tool for deciding between two or more biblical interpretations that are otherwise equally valid. But the interpretations themselves are not determined by science; they must be driven by theological considerationsand be consistent with the rest of Scripture.
To avoid these risks we need to look at what the best biblical scholarship has to say about the passage rather than at how it fitswith science. Finally, we must take care that the desire to resolve conflicts does not distract us from the main message God has forus in the text. Our primary calling as Christians is to live our lives according to the clear messages of God’s Word; it is a lesser calling to debate the subtleties of interpretation of less clear passages.
Genesis 1 in Its Original Context
To choose among the various interpretations, we recommend using a consistent approach based on the principles of biblical interpretation discussed in chapter 4. The first principle, that each passage should be interpreted in light of the rest of the Bible, provides some guidance. For instance, the Bible’s teaching on God’s truthfulness and his glory displayed in creation might lead us away from the Appearance of Age Interpretation. The differences between the Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 accounts might point toward a non-concordist interpretation.
The second principle of interpretation gives more direction. It reminds us first to work out what the passage meant in its original literary, cultural, and historical context, and then figure out what meaning it has for us today. How do the various interpretations fit this principle? Of the four concordist interpretations discussed in chapter 5, the Young Earth Interpretation seems to come closest to what ancient peoples would have heard in the text. The Gap and Day-Age concordist views would have baffled the original audience, since these ancients would have had no concept of geological ages; if they could not fathom time periods of millions or billions of years, the text must have meant something different to them.
Of the four non-concordist interpretations of Genesis discussed in this chapter, the Proclamation Day Interpretation, while it has some basis in the text, seems least likely to be the meaning heard by the original audience. The proclamations are implemented as soon as God says them, and there is no reference to a different timing or sequence of events in terrestrial time. In our view a combination of the Ancient Near East Cosmology, Kingdom and Covenant, and Creation Poem Interpretations come closest to what the original audience would have heard. The differences between the Genesis text and the pagan stories highlight the sovereignty of God and the goodness of creation. The elegant poetic structure and inspired phrases reinforce the theological messages of the Kingdom and Temple interpretations.
Genesis 1 for Modern Readers
With a better understanding of what the original audience heard,we have insight into God’s message for them and thus for us. If God’s purposes in Genesis 1 did not include teaching scientific facts to the Israelites, then we should not look here for scientific information about the age or development of the world. For modern readers, as for the original audience, the message of Genesis 1 is its powerful theological truths. God does not use theBible to teach us the physical processes he uses to make the rainfall or the earth orbit the sun or to form the mountains. Instead, in a beautifully crafted and impressively short text, God teaches us all about
- his sovereignty.
- the goodness of creation.
- the honored status of humankind as his image bearers.
God has given us a text that speaks of the physical world in simple terms, based on how it appears, in order that all peoplemight understand it. The common language of this text has made it accessible to people of many times and cultures, aiding the communication ofthe gospel around the world.
Does a non-concordist interpretation of Genesis 1 mean that we have sacrificed a literal understanding of the gospel? No. TheGospels were surely heard by their first audience as historical eyewitness accounts by the disciples, and everything about the emphasis and tone in those books indicates that Jesus’ resurrection and miracles are essential events in the story. That is how we should read the Gospel stories still today. In Genesis 1, on theother hand, the first listeners heard nothing new about the physical universe; all the emphasis was on who created the world and humanity and why they were created.
What does this mean for science? It means that Genesis 1 is not a science textbook. The text was never intended to teach scientificinformation about the structure, age, or natural history of the world. Thus, comparing Genesis 1 to modern science is likecomparing apples to oranges. Or perhaps more accurately, comparing Genesis 1 to modern science is like comparing Psalm 93:1 (“The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved”) to modern astronomy. Genesis is neither in agreement nor in conflict with the sequence of events found by astronomy and geology.
As scientific knowledge increases and changes over the centuries, its understanding of the physical structure and historyof the earth will change. But through all of those centuries the theological truths of Genesis 1 remain the same: there is one sovereign God who makes light from darkness, creates an ordered world from chaos, and fills an empty world with good creatures. Humans need not fear the capricious whims of a pantheon ofgods but can instead trust in the one true God who made us in his image and declares us “very good.”
For more discussion of Biblical interpretation, see chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Origins. Next week, we'll look at an excerpt on astronomy and the age of the universe.
Excerpt from Chapters 5 and 6 of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources), 2011. Reprinted with permission. To order purchase a copy of the book or e-book, please call 1-800-333-8300 or visit our website www.faithaliveresources.org.
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Deborah Haarsma serves as President of The BioLogos Foundation, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gifted in interpreting complex scientific topics for lay audiences, Dr. Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.
Loren Haarsma earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and did five years of postdoctoral research in neuroscience in Boston and in Philadelphia. He began teaching physics at Calvin College in 1999. His current scientific research is studying the activity of ion channels in nerve cells and other cell types, and computer modeling of self-organized complexity in biology and in economics. He studies and writes on topics at the intersection of science and faith, and co-authored Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design with his wife, Deborah.