Previously in this series (see sidebar), Pastor Dave Swaim explained that certain passages of the Bible—such as the parable of the prodigal son-- contain profound truths about God and humanity but are not meant to be taken as expressing literal historical events. Today, in part three of his sermon, Pastor Swaim discusses the overall structure of Genesis 1.
"Maker of Heaven and Earth" (transcript, part 3)
So what is the beginning of genesis about? It explains who God is and who we are and God’s relationship to the world and our relationship to the world and God’s relationship to us and our relationship to each other. It addresses sin and work, temptation and pride, and suffering, and the deepest longings of our souls. I’ve preached hundreds of sermons from Genesis 1-3, and I could preach a hundred more and still not cover all that’s in here. So, today I’m not going to examine any of the individual ideas, but I want to help you see the overall structure of Genesis 1.
The first thing to notice is that Genesis 1 is a poem. As evangelicals, we affirm that the Bible is the authoritative word of God. Therefore, we believe that the Bible is totally accurate. But that doesn’t mean that we take it all literally. Consider the following passage—Isaiah 55: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills will burst into song before you, and the trees of the field will clap their hands.” If we take the Bible literally then we’re forced to contend with the problem that trees don’t even have hands. So is this passage untrue? No! We easily understand this passage is poetry. It’s expressing great truth in a genre that’s not literal.
I can appreciate the desire to interpret Genesis 1 like it’s a chapter from some history book. But the poetic, repetitive style suggests it’s not merely a list of facts. Let me show you how many Bible scholars read it: “Initially, the earth was formless and empty.” As this chart illustrates, the first three days correct the formlessness of creation, and the next three fill the emptiness of creation. In the first three days, God established the great domains of light, darkness, sea, sky, land, and plants. In the next three days he fills those domains with sun, moon, stars, fish and birds, land animals, and humans. If you look closely at the order of creation you see that the first three days and the last three days of creation correspond perfectly to each other. Many people turn to Genesis 1 to ask questions about the age of the earth or the order of creation. But maybe it’s not here. And those are the wrong questions that might even make us miss the main points. It would be like a modern lawyer looking to the prodigal son story to learn how to do estate distribution. The account of creation makes many points about God’s power, his ownership over creation, that he made us in his image and he invited us to live in his world, and then commanded us to take care of it. Things the other local cultures tended to worship, like the sun, moon, animals and birds: they’re all clearly depicted as God’s handiwork, not gods themselves. See, this is not intended to be a precise scientific description of the way God made the world, but a poetic hymn about who made the world and the relationships of everything in it. So it’s not necessary to also assume that the order of the events in this poem also match the historical events. And that’s why the writer of Genesis sees no contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Now some people think Genesis 2 is where actual history begins, and others see it as just another poem highlighting a different important truth about humanity. Does this mean that Genesis 1 is not true? No. It only means that it’s not literal.
I contend that there’s more truth—about theology, anthropology, and ecology, and spirituality, and human dignity, and human responsibility packed into this short chapter than a hundred normal books could describe on their own. Like the parable of the lost son, that’s why it’s so powerful. It’s truthful, it’s just not historical. But don’t get tricked into thinking that’s the only kind of truth. But if Genesis 1 is not literal history, then how do we know that the story of Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24 is literal history? Is that just another poem? How can you tell the difference? Usually it’s pretty obvious from the context. If I say, “Yesterday Pastor Eugene drove me to the store,” you understand I mean something very different than if I say, “Yesterday Pastor Eugene drove me up a wall.” One is clearly literal and the other is clearly symbolic, but they both may be one hundred percent true. Jesus and the gospel writers poked fun at the ignorant literalism of the people who didn’t understand the obvious metaphors when Jesus said things like, “You must be born again” or, “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” He was speaking life-changing truth, but he was not speaking literally. They should have been able to distinguish between things that are symbolic and things that are scientific. One is not more true than the other. They’re just different ways of expressing truth. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take Genesis 1 seriously. To the contrary, I’m suggesting we fail to take it seriously when, like a parable, we insist on taking it literally instead. When we make it about six days, when we make it simply a recipe for baking a galaxy. In contrast, in Luke 1, Luke insists that he’s reporting historical events carefully checked against the testimony of eye witnesses. That’s an unmistakable sign that he expects to be taken literally.
The point I’m making is that we still may reject elements of evolution on scientific grounds. But a high view of scripture does not necessarily preclude accepting evolution as the way God created the cosmos. Many contemporary evangelical leaders have affirmed this view, including Tim Keller, and C.S. Lewis, and Billy Graham, John Stott, and N.T. Wright, and John Polkinghorne. When we get to Genesis 2, things are less clear. Most scholars agree that everything after Genesis 11 is intended to be literal history, and modern archaeology and anthropologists have accumulated libraries full of corroborating evidence. But scholars are divided about chapters 2 to 10. Most evangelical Christians assume, insist, that God literally created the first man out of the mud and made the first woman from his rib. Others suggest this looks a lot like poetry again, and being too literal misses the main point. The great evangelical author John Stott suggested there may have been thousands of hominids already formed through an evolutionary process and Genesis 2 simply recounts the moment God breathed his spirit into them, giving them the uniquely human traits of self-reflection and moral reasoning. C.S. Lewis went much further, arguing that Adam and Eve weren’t intended to be thought of as real people at all, but archetypes who represent all of humanity. This story is not about an actual event, but about the sin nature in all of us that causes us to pull away from God because we want to be like God ourselves. So we disobey his commandments and we make ourselves miserable in the process. This explains why we all feel alienated from God and from one another, and it also explains why we all need Jesus to save us. The fact that Adam’s name means—literally in Hebrew—humanity, and Eve’s means life, lend themselves to an archetypal interpretation. This doesn’t mean the story never happened; it means it happens over and over again in every human who’s ever lived. So rather than just being a historical account of some ancient ancestor, this is a true story about you. Do you hear the difference? See, this solves the biblical riddles about who Cain might have married, and what city they moved to, and it leaves plenty of room for God to have created humans over any time scale he wanted.
Maybe you know the old joke about a scientist who told God that he’d figured out how to create life just like God did. So God asks to see it, and the scientist reaches down to grab some dirt. God says, “Hold it—get your own dirt!” See, in creation God packed the dirt with all the atoms and elements required to create life. And then, in Genesis 2:9 and 19, he used it to create all kinds of trees and animals and birds, and in verse 7 he used it to create humans. Did God create them directly or through a long evolutionary process he planned from the beginning and will write into that amazing dirt that he created? I can’t know which of these interpretations is correct. Many contemporary scientists use fossil records, and archaeology, and genetics, to insist that humanity is much older than a literal reading of Genesis would allow, and could not have come from a single human couple. Others disagree. I don’t know. No one knows. Maybe Genesis isn’t trying to answer that question.