Mark Harris
 on June 03, 2014

Creation Unfolding: Reading Genesis in a Historical Setting

It’s not a problem, in my view, to see the authors of Genesis embedded in their times, writing in the scientific/mythological terms they knew, even if those terms are now obsolete.


This post outlines the reasoning behind my new book on creation, where I argue that creation is best understood by bringing modern science into conversation with critical biblical scholarship, with Trinitarian theology as the mediator. Let me unpack that.

I never meant to get caught up in creation. But as I started writing a new book on the Bible’s miracles, it became clear that I badly needed a chapter on creation. That chapter became two, three, and so on. You get the idea. And so this book became something I hadn’t originally imagined. I was experiencing a phenomenon that many authors describe, of the new book that evolves with a life of its own, of the story that tells itself. I like to think that God, in creating the universe, experienced something not unlike this, and still does.

I say this about God’s ongoing experience of creating for three reasons. First, it squares with my reading of the Genesis creation texts, where God is consistently portrayed as engaging in time with the creatures he makes, encouraging and exhorting them to realize their own creative potentials (Genesis 1), and reacting to their needs in an almost improvisatory fashion (Genesis 2). Second, it squares with my reading of the diverse creation traditions found elsewhere in the Bible, where creation is an ongoing action bound up with God’s acts of revelation and redemption. And third, it squares with my hunch that Christian faith is best related to science by relying on its most paradoxical and un-scientific claim: that God is to be known as one in three and three in one. For it is here, in faith in God as Trinity, that what we know about nature from science and what we know about creation from the Bible come together most clearly. In Christian terms, any statement about creation is incomplete unless it acknowledges God the Father who is unimaginably transcendent above nature and creation, God the Son who is the pattern for all created and natural things, and God the Holy Spirit who breathes the fire into the equations, birthing the new from the old. With all this in view, I believe that creation can be seen as a work of God in progress, and it’s not too much to link it with evolutionary science. But I’m starting the story in the wrong place. Best to begin “in the beginning.”

It’s impossible to read Genesis 1 without being reminded of modern science, which is why to so many (especially those caught up in the vociferous creation-versus-evolution debate) the only questions worth asking of the text are scientific questions. There are, after all, some astonishing parallels between Genesis 1 and modern scientific accounts of the beginning of the world. Take the Big Bang: the “formless void” (Gen.1:2) is evocative of the idea that our universe arose from an initial quantum state, while “Let there be light” – God’s first act of creation – reminds many of the gigantic flash of energy at the beginning of the Big Bang. Indeed, until strong experimental evidence for the Big Bang arose in the mid twentieth century, many prominent scientists were suspicious of this model on the grounds that it was just too close to Genesis to be truly scientific. Ironically, the Big Bang model is now so well established on scientific grounds alone that it’s frequently used by the new atheist movement toattack religious views. But there’s more, since the scientific resonances in Genesis 1 extend beyond the first few verses. It’s been noticed that the later order of creation, with the sea and dry land appearing first, followed by plants, sea creatures, land animals, and then finally humans, is broadly similar to the pattern described by modern theories of evolution.

We mustn’t forget though, that alongside the astonishing parallels between Genesis 1 and evolutionary science there are some glaring discrepancies, not least the six “days” of creation in Genesis 1. For those who wish to read Genesis 1 in scientific terms, a complex series of questions must be negotiated. Are the parallels between Genesis 1 and evolutionary science evidence that the author of Genesis 1 was privy to authentic divine revelation about the origins of the world, long before modern science came on the scene? Or did the author make what amounts to a series of scientific guesses, influenced by the creation myths of neighbouring cultures, some of which turned out to bear happy coincidences with the discoveries of modern science, while other guesses (e.g. the six “days”) show how completely uninformed he really was? Or is the situation helped if we argue that the author never meant “day” to be understood as a literal 24-hour period in the first place? If so, is it legitimate to interpret the “days” as metaphors for much longer episodes in time, such as geological periods? Or is it better if we abandon all attempts to draw scientific parallels with the text and say that it should simply be read as a theological parable of beginnings?

Although the questions are complex – and each has found advocates in recent years – it soon becomes clear that the way in which we choose to answer them says a lot about where we think theological “truth” resides. In other words, the text of Genesis 1 (along with Genesis 2-3) becomes quite a revealing litmus test for our understanding of Scripture. There are two common responses to the questions raised above:

  1. Many conservative Christians take a “high” theological view of the literal authenticity of the biblical text and insist that it provides a reliable scientific picture of what really happened in the beginning. The six “days” are a notorious crux. Some interpreters find imaginative ways to make them cohere with modern science (e.g. John Lennox), while others reject mainstream science and assert that the world was made in six literal 24-hour days, believing this to be an important witness to Christian faith.
  2. Christians who don’t have such a strong theological investment in the text’s literal authenticity are less likely to insist that it’s a scientific statement. In which case, the six days present no problems at all. Such readings may highlight the symbolic, theological, and perhaps even liturgical dimensions of the text, suggesting that it was never intended to be taken as a literal description of creation, and that it’s best read today as theological metaphor or perhaps even “poetry.”

These two descriptions are caricatures to some degree, but they’re representative of a debate which isn’t being resolved quickly. And although both responses are almost mutually exclusive, they’re linked by their tendency to prioritize attitudes to modern science as the key to how we read this ancient text: while response (1) attempts toharmonize the text with scientific claims (even if they’re claims informed by “creation science” rather than mainstream science), response (2) attempts to protect the text from modern science by insisting that the text doesn’t make scientific claims. But neither response engages fully with the historical reality of the text itself, which is informed at least partly by ancient mythological and scientific ideas. In effect, (1) and (2) take the text out of its own framework and place it in ours, judging it according to criteria it couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

A good example of what I mean here is provided by the dome/firmament/vault: “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters’…God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day” (Gen.1:6-8). Significantly, the Hebrew word for the “dome” (raqia‘) suggests a solid surface, like a lump of metal beaten out flat. Its solidity is important: using a mythological creation motif known elsewhere in the ancient world, God creates by separating the waters. The waters are cosmic forces opposed to creation (and to God): the dome holds them back, preventing them from overwhelming the earth and returning it to its formless pre-creation state. Indeed, this is just what happens at the great flood, when “the windows of the heavens were opened” (Gen.7:11). So if we examine carefully what Genesis 1 describes, we see that the habitable universe is pictured as a bubble of order deep within the disordering ocean, protected by a tangible barrier in order that it might bear life. This picture may bear no relation whatsoever to our modern cosmology, but it presents an appealing picture of God’s care for creation in the context of ancient mythological and scientific ideas about the cosmos.

Now while those who adhere to response (2) make little of the dome (on the grounds that it’s all “poetry” anyway), many of those who adhere to (1) look for a solution in terms of modern cosmology. The solidity of the dome is a particular hurdle, and creationists such as John Whitcomb and Henry Morris pointedly ignore it, interpreting the “dome” as our (very airy) lower atmosphere.[1] More interesting is the Answers in Genesis website, which devotes an entire article to the dome, declaring that those who maintain its solidity are “enemies of the Gospel,” on the grounds that the Bible cannot be seen to teach the scientific errors of an antiquated cosmology. My interest in this point is that it illustrates so clearly what I argue above, that, quite apart from the question of what the text actually says about the dome, and what the original author(s) might have believed, a much later agenda is being explicitly brought to bear, and one which makes modern science its defining yardstick.

We may not be able (or even willing) to avoid these agendas when we read. But it’s at least worth acknowledging them. For my part, the historical setting of the text plays an important role in how I read. It’s not a problem in my view to see the authors of Genesis embedded in their times, writing in the scientific/mythological terms they knew, even if those terms are now obsolete. Their faith in that God, and the picture they paint of him carefully protecting creation from the forces of chaos while coaxing it into life by stages, is very much not obsolete, it would seem to me. It speaks of a stable faith that is at the same time unfolding, much as science is continually unfolding, and much as creation (in the evolutionary perspective) is still unfolding.

About the author

Mark Harris Headshot

Mark Harris

Mark Harris, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. His first academic career was in Physics, but after studying Theology as preparation for ministry in the Church of England, he became enthralled with Biblical Studies. He is interested in the ways that modern science has affected biblical interpretation, especially in understandings of creation and of miracle. He is the author of The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science (Routledge, 2013).