Should we Read the Creation Story “Literally”? Part 1

This post continues a series of responses to a college student seeking to understand their faith more deeply. In our last post in the series, we finished some thoughts about the Canon of Scripture, and now we turn to questions regarding the creation account in Genesis.

For centuries our culture has debated the creation account in Genesis, and, in the process, has stranded many people within an intellectual fog.  Hopefully we can help to clear up some of that fog.  In this post, we will make a few introductory comments, with a plan to follow up with more detail in later posts.

A Cultural Perspective

Our post-modern culture is much different than the culture in which the Genesis account was written.  We have learned many things about our cosmos that these ancient learners had yet to discover.  They had not yet learned, for example, that the earth revolves around the sun, that the “heavens” contain other galaxies, that time is relative, a measurement of things moving around other things.   We cannot therefore expect this ancient account to speak in today’s “scientific” language.  No one on earth had yet conceived these ideas, let alone tried to express them in words and phrases.

Does this ancient account, however, still hold meaning for us?  Is it nevertheless true?  Can creation language from that culture be trusted to convey truth?

Figurative Phrases

The Genesis account contains several words and phrases that, in our translation at least, make us wonder what meaning they are conveying.  Just in the first two verses, for example, we see four challenging phrases piled on top of one another:

  • “heavens and the earth”
  • “formless and empty”
  • “darkness was over the surface of the deep”
  • “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”

Clearly, these are not “literal” phrases in a scientific sense. 

  • “Heavens” is a figurative word, pointing to whatever is above earth, beyond the sky that we see, including whatever contains the sun, moon and stars.  The cosmos, consisting of many galaxies (let alone “parallel universes”) is not yet conceived or expressed.
  • “formless and empty” is a figurative way of saying that there is nothing on earth yet: no land, no geology, no life.
  • “darkness was over the surface of the deep” tells us that, at this stage of the process, light had not yet made its way to our planet.  In our terms, we would say that the earth had not yet began its rotations around the sun.
  • “the surface of the deep” is a way of describing a planet engulfed in some sort of flood water. 
  • The Spirit “hovering” paints an ancient word picture.  The Hebrew term translated “Spirit” also includes our English ideas of “wind” and “breath”.  We get an image here of God’s Spirit getting ready to move things, like a powerful wind forming over the waters, and a powerful breath about to speak.

Taken together, these phrases, though not strictly literal, speak a powerful truth, even to our culture.  They paint a big, opening picture, that sets up the rest of the story.

Science and The Big Picture

The extensive debate over these first two verses of Genesis has unfortunately obscured their simple, eloquent beauty. Simply put, they set the stage for what follows. God has created a universe that includes the planet, earth.  The story then focuses on earth, pictured here in its early phases of development. We do not yet have the order of regular days and nights.  We do not see land or life.  But God is about to change all that.  The mighty wind and breath of the divine Spirit is about to act.

Nothing in this big, opening picture contradicts science.  Even the bit about a water-covered earth finds its way into many scientific theories. 

The one bit that is not “scientific”, however, is the reference to God and His Spirit.  This is because science is limited by our human minds and experiences. God transcends all of this. 

In Genesis, God enters our human experience to tell us something we could not know otherwise. He tells us why there is something rather than nothing, why there is order rather than chaos.   He tells us that earth exists simply because He wants it to exist.

Science can speculate about all this, but it cannot prove anything.   Over the last few centuries, at least in Western European and North American cultures, many started to believe that science did have this ability.  In the name of science, they boldly denied the existence of a Creator, arguing that there are other, more natural ways to explain the origins of the universe.

In doing this, however, these individuals overstep the boundaries of science.  Science can investigate how things happen.  It can observe, test and theorize about cause and effect.  But science cannot answer the big why questions, questions like why the universe exists, why the earth exists, and why we exist.

When science ignores these boundaries, it needlessly leaves us in a hopeless place.  Sometimes, again in the name of science, people tell us that the universe is a cosmic accident, that earth is a geological accident, and that we are a biological accident.  But this is just a theory, not a fact.  This simply means that these individuals don’t know why, so they assume that there is no “why”.

God has told the story in Genesis because He wants us to know why.  He wants us to know that the universe exists, earth exists, and we exist because God wants us to exist.  In this ancient account, He reveals Himself as Creator, even though He does not provide scientific detail about His process. He wants us to know that He is behind the cosmos, the planet and the life that we experience.

I hope these introductory thoughts have cleared a little bit of the fog.  In the next post, we will plan to look further at the language used in this ancient and powerfully relevant story.

In His Service