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Understanding Genesis 1: Seeing the Majesty and Glory of God in Time

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January 23, 2010 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time

Today's video features Ard Louis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this brief video, Physicist Ard Louis looks at two important aspects of time to consider when reading Genesis 1: chronology and the idea of “deep time”.

Louis begins here by posing a rhetorical question, i.e. “what did the writers of Genesis 1 originally mean when they spoke of seven days” and responds by saying that he thinks “it is pretty clear that that passage was a polemic in many ways”. He explains that in the days when Genesis was written, astrology was a dominant scientific paradigm—so people believed that the sun and the moon and the stars influenced their everyday lives. As such, Louis points out that it is “very striking” that the sun and the moon aren’t created until the fourth day. Louis remarks:

You can’t have a day without the sun and the moon, so clearly that suggests that there is a pattern in there—there is a structure that the person is trying to say something to us. The Hebrew words that are used in that passage are not the words for sun and moon, they are the words for greater lamp and lesser lamp so the author is clearly saying that these objects in the sky are created objects, they are not gods to be worshipped, they are lamps.

That is a scientific prediction, Louis asserts, as it is saying that the sun and the moon are not living objects, they are material objects—they are lights. By not including them until the fourth day, this in essence “demotes” them from primary importance and supports the notion that the seven days written about in Genesis were to function as a literary device as opposed to a chronological transcript of events.

Louis also talks about the idea of “deep time” and how considering the vastness of the universe is one way that we can begin to grasp this concept. “It is not that strange,” he says, “we are all used to the thought of the universe being very large…there are a hundred billion stars in the sky and probably a hundred billion galaxies. We see in the size of the universe something about the glory of God, so why shouldn’t there not also be deep time—something about the majesty and glory of God?”

Louis concludes that the Genesis story is a way of imparting deep truths—not in a journalistic fashion, but in a much deeper, more powerful way.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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Knockgoats - #3249

January 23rd 2010

It’s an interesting idea that Genesis 1 places the creation of the sun and moon late to demote them from divine status, but Ard is really stretching it to call this a scientific prediction! The astrologers of the time were far nearer science than the writers of Genesis -  they had at least got as far as systematic, carefully recorded observation, and (I think) prediction - of eclipses. As for saying the sun and moon don’t affect our daily lives - what planet is he living on?

BTW, what’s the scrap of music at the beginning and end of these videos? It’s rather nice.

Tim McNinch - #3304

January 25th 2010

Knockgoats is right, of course. Genesis’s claim that the heavenly bodies are material objects is a theological claim, not a scientific hypothesis to be tested empirically. And the sun and moon do affect our daily lives (which is why the astrologers attributed divinity to them). Still, the point about their demotion to the fourth day as a polemic device is a great point.

I also thought that Dr. Louis’s statement about deep time revealing the majesty of God was rather elegantly put. It was just such an epiphany about deep time that first opened me to the possibility of a God-glorifying harmony between biblical theology and mainstream scientific theory.

Edward T. Babinski - #3348

January 25th 2010


“Greater and lesser lamps” are not terms unique to Hebrew. They were used elsewhere, by non-Hebrews studying the sky. They were used before Genesis 1 was composed.

See Jan Gertz’s recent article in ZThK entitled, ‘Antibabylonische Polemik im priesterlichen Schöpfungsbericht?’ (‘Antibabylonian Polemic in the priestly creation story?’). There are many aspects of Gertz’s argument, but let us examine that favourite example of ‘polemic’ in Genesis 1: the creation of the celestial luminaries. Drawing on recent discussion of ancient astronomical knowledge, Gertz argues that the creation of the sun, moon and stars reflects P’s reception of the latest Mesopotamian knowledge in these areas. His language of ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ lights reflects the abstract descriptive language found throughout Genesis 1. If you want to find polemic here you have to read it in, as commentators frequently have. For Gertz we are better to speak of Genesis 1 as ‘Wissenschaftsprosa’ (‘scientific prose’).

Edward T. Babinski - #3349

January 25th 2010

Hi Ard, If I may continue with what I wrote directly above…

Second, the deep (Heb. tehom) in Genesis is mentioned as a god in Ugaritic literature. See Mark. S. Smith’s new book on Genesis 1, THE PRIESTLY VISION OF GENESIS 1.

Third, when Genesis 1 speaks of God “setting the sun and moon in the firmament” other ancient astronomical sources, Ugaritic I believe, speak of venus being “set” in the sky. Again, see Mark S. Smith’s new book. Especially the notes.

Fourth, Not all creation stories involve conflict, there’s one Babylonian creation story recited at the dedication of temples to Marduk that is quiet and sublime, beginning, “All lands were sea. There was a movement in the water…”  And an Egyptian story about Amon moving on the face of the divine waters of Nu.

Fifth, Concerning N. T. Wright and Walton’s interpretation of Genesis 1 as temple imagery, what does that accomplish? Temple imagery is just as mythical as Genesis 1. Apparently Walton and Wright wish to make their particular religious “myth” unfalsifiably “true” without it being literally true. But why should anyone believe in Hebrew temple mythology any more than they should believe in creation mythology?

Edward T. Babinski - #3350

January 25th 2010

Ard, Final thought below, that goes with my previous two above.

And what about Revelation? Does the Bible begin and end with mythology? The Bible begins with Genesis 1 and ends with the “New Jerusalem” coming down “from heaven?” What other myths might not lie in between those two?

Read everything, enjoy myths galore, get the most out of each one as Karen Armstrong says. Seek the best in every book and every person. What more can “God” possibly want from humanity than that?

Edward T. Babinski - #3351

January 25th 2010

Ard, Where does the Bible mention “deep time?” Every flat earth Mesopotamians thought their cosmos was unbelievably immense since they couldn’t even measure the distance to the clouds, and they had no idea what lay beyond their immediate horizon. It was a grand mystery to them, but neither did they believe that “heaven,” God’s abode, was light years away. So before you start interpreting “God” for us, and “deep time,” please study ancient cosmologies, including biblical ones, and note how they differ from today’s cosmologies.

Edward T. Babinski - #3352

January 25th 2010

The sun moon and stars are not “demoted” by being created later. Study some ancient creation stories. Even Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic,  has the celestial bodies created and set in the sky later. Light is spoken of as being around in many divine forms prior to the creation of heaven and earth, and then after heaven is made, the stars, constellations, sun and moon are made and set running, the year declared. It’s in Enuma Elish just as it is in Genesis, and they were not DEMOTING the gods.

Pete Enns - #3374

January 26th 2010


I agree with some of your comments re; ANE religion (and I am glad you are evidently reading so carefully Smith’s recent and excellent treatment of Genesis 1). I would suggest, though, that you are overstating when you say that polemic only exists if it is read into Genesis. It may be that polemical notions are overstated at times, or that the very idea of what a polemic looks like may be misunderstood—but “polemic” is not absent from Genesis (and Smith concurs). Gen 1 deliberately distances itself from various aspects of ANE cosmology, particularly Enuma Elish. The priestly writer was making a statement about what distinguishes Israel and her God. Not every clause in Gen 1 is aimed at a direct polemic, but the polemic is unquestionably there.

Edward T. Babinski - #4537

February 15th 2010

Peter, I agree, though I addressed more than the polemic question in my posts above.

Secondly, we both agree that the delegation of the making of the sun, moon, and stars and their being set in the firmament on a later day after the earth is not unique to Genesis 1,  Therefore Ard is incorrect that chronological timing by itself was based on polemical concerns.

Thirdly, I never said that Genesis was not written against the background of ANE gods seeking supremacy over one another. Different Mesopotamian cultures utilized previous stories of conquering gods, adding accolades from old god to new ones that continued to rise toward HIGH god status, a chief of the gods. Call it “polemic” or a rise of a god to henotheistic status. In the case of the Hebrews their god rose higher than the Babylonian high creator god Marduk toward becoming the only god and creator, though some verses in the OT still evidence a belief in other gods.

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