On the Creation Account
To understand and apply Genesis 1 correctly, we have to consider issues of genre and intention. Too often these chapters are read as if they present a purely straightforward (read literal) historical and even scientific account of cosmic and human origins. They are thus then read as a polemic against modern scientific ideas, particularly Darwinism.
In my opinion, if one reads Genesis 1-2 closely and with knowledge of contemporary ancient Near Eastern texts, it is impossible to believe that the original author wanted his audience to read the text literally. Let me explain by giving a couple examples.
First think of the days of Genesis. “Day” typically means a twenty-four hour period. When it means something like “period of time,” it occurs in a formula like “day of the Lord.” In addition, each of the six creation days are described as having an “evening and a morning.” Those who want to read the creation days as literally 24 hour days will often point to these facts as indicating that we are dealing with a real day, not a period of time. That seems very reasonable until we note that the sun, moon, and stars aren’t created until the fourth day. But to have a literal “day” there has to be a sun, moon, and stars! These heavenly bodies define what a literal day is. Attempts to argue that God manipulated the light and the darkness of day one in a 24 hour period are a far-fetched and strange. These are not literal days, but a figurative way to present the fact that God ordered creation. The first three days are realms that are filled by the second three days, so the light/darkness realm of day one are inhabited by the sun, moon, and stars of day four. The sky/sea realm of day two are filled by the birds and fish of day five, and the land of day three is filled by the animals and humans of day six.
Second, we must remember that a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation is to read a text in the light of its original context. The first audience simply was not interested in how the creation came into existence, but who brought it into existence and why. Again, Genesis 1-2 was not written against Darwin, but against rival ancient Near Eastern claims. The Enuma Elish of Babylon attributed creation to Marduk and the Canaanite version pointed to Baal. Both of these ancient creation myths saw creation as a result of divine conflict between creator gods and deities that represented the chaotic waters which they defeated and controlled. In contrast, the Bible identifies Yahweh as the creator and since there are no rival gods there is no conflict either. God created the “earth as a formless void,” a watery mass and created the habitable world from it. The watery mass was not there from the beginning.
In a word, Genesis 1 proclaims that God ordered creation. It is not concerned with how God did it. To use Genesis 1 to reconstruct the process of creation is a misuse of the text.
Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.
Tremper Longman is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, as well as Visiting Professor of Old Testament at Mars Hill Graduate School and adjunct of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of over twenty books, including the upcoming Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins with physicist Richard F. Carlson.