Comparing Interpretations of Genesis 1
If God’s purposes in Genesis 1 did not include teaching scientific facts to the Israelites, then we shouldn't look here for scientific information today.
This post features excerpts from Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design by Deborah Haarsma and Loren Haarsma.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published April 12, 2013.
Summary of several interpretations of Genesis 1
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 to be 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 considerations and 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 fits with science. Finally, we must take care that the desire to resolve conflicts does not distract us from the main message God has for us 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 the Bible 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 people might understand it. The common language of this text has made it accessible to people of many times and cultures, aiding the communication of the gospel around the world.
Does a non-concordist interpretation of Genesis 1 mean that we have sacrificed a literal understanding of the gospel? No. The Gospels 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 the other 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 scientific information about the structure, age, or natural history of the world. Thus, comparing Genesis 1 to modern science is like comparing 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 history of 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 of gods 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.
About the authors
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
N.T. Wright | The Point of Resurrection
Phil Vischer | Being Evangelical