I heard a really great joke at lunch last Sunday…
A scientist approaches God and says, “Hey! I can prove that you had nothing to do with creating man. It happened by natural process…we’ve proven it in a lab.” So God says, “Okay, show me how you would explain it without involving me.” The scientist bends down and scoops up a handful of dirt, at which point God says “No, no…go get your own dirt.”
Unfortunately, faith and science, once great dance partners, have moved away from each other…at least it appears that way in our interactions online. I am a pastor, and I can give you real anecdotal evidence of people who have felt robbed of the opportunity for faith to be a part of their life simply because of this issue. I also know several people who believe this issue is foundational to their faith. The trouble is when this becomes a wedge issue…the kind of issue that people use to one-up each other on Facebook.
What do I mean by “this issue”? Let me clear. There are many Christians who believe that the Bible clearly teaches that the universe and mankind were designed in their current forms during six consecutive 24 hour periods. Furthermore, any suggestion to the contrary is to them further proof that scientists are out to destroy God and anyone who would claim to know Christ but to deny this particular theological viewpoint is in danger of believing false doctrine, perhaps even to point that their very salvation is in jeopardy.
You may think I am overstating the issue, so let me just say this: I recently taught my church that there are 3 types of theological issues in the church…
- Things we debate over: things we can disagree on but still go to the same church.
- Things we divide over: issues that would have us congregate separately, but still be part of God’s family together.
- Things we die over: these are issues that directly affect salvation…namely issues around Christ himself.
I bring that up because one of my pastor friends in the area has identified this issue as a “die for” issue. In fact I would say that in my experience most young-earth Christians say it’s at least a “divide” issue, meaning we couldn’t fellowship in a church together very long before it became a real source of contention.
Conversations about this issue don’t always go well between us, do they? However, that doesn’t mean we should stop. It means we should try again and learn to communicate better and allow this process to change us for the better.
With that in mind, I wanted to offer up some thoughts that I hope will contribute to the discussion. My thoughts today are based on what my personal study of the Bible has led me to understand. I will sum up my position as this…I do not believe that Genesis 1 is meant to describe the hourly timeframe in which God created the universe, and the more we demand that of it, the less we are inclined to receive its real truth. This idea of discovering the “real truth” of a passage in Scripture will be where we will end up, but to get there, I’d like to explore the major BIBLICAL components of creation. I won’t be getting into the science stuff, as I can’t really contribute much to that side of it. I do however consider myself a student of the Bible and what I lack in knowledge and skill I like to think I make up for in fervor. So here we go…
What Does a “Day” Mean?
Much of the young-earth position from a biblical standpoint is tied up in the idea that Genesis firmly commits God to a 6 x 24 hour creation process. This position is based on the fact that Genesis 1 indicates 6 different “days” and more specifically states “and there was evening and morning” for each one.
Let me start by answering this question: do I believe it’s possible that God created the world in six 24 hour periods? Absolutely. He is God, and therefore any science we may study was also created by him. Do I think his Word clearly indicates that he did so? No. I can’t commit to that. This is for many reasons, but if I’m supposed to lead with my best argument, it is simply this: the word for “day” in the passage does not conform to the standard of a single 24-hour period in the rest of scripture.
I’ve heard people argue this, saying that the Genesis 1 passage is in a form that always means 24 hours, but I’ve investigated it myself and cannot find any evidence of this. Let’s take a look at it for a minute…
The Hebrew word that is translated “day” here is “yom”, and is spelled like this: יוֹם
Pretty cool, huh? Actually the tough part was getting a right-to-left language to work in my left-to-right english writing.
This word sometimes means “day”, and sometimes means “time”, as in “time of harvest” and sometimes means “seasons” and sometimes means “an indefinite period of time” in which something occurred.
Now, as with many languages, where this word appears in the structure of a sentence determines which one of the above it means. Here are a few examples…try to notice the symbol above in the examples below…
- ׳יוֺם י – “The day of the Lord” in Amos 5:18
- יוֺם יוֺם – “day by day” in Genesis 39:10
- בְּי֬וֹם – “time of harvest” in Proverbs 25:13
The list goes on and on, with over a dozen different meanings, each one with a healthy share of references in the Hebrew Old Testament. In all, the word is used over 2300 times in the Jewish Scriptures. So how do we know the context in which it was written in Genesis 1:1? We can begin by simply reading through the passage to pick up some clues.
Evening and Morning
I’ll first acknowledge that the idea of each day having “evening and morning” is compelling. It would, at least for me, be the strongest argument in favor of a 24-hour day in Genesis 1. However, Genesis 2:4 uses the word differently…
These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.
The word for day used in this verse is the exact same as in chapter 1. However, I used the King James Version here because it most accurately translates another Hebrew word, “toledoth” (תּוֹלְדוֹת) which always means “generations”, especially in regards to “an account of a man and his descendants” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon).
Again, the existence of “evening and morning” is not something to overlook. However, I simply cannot in light of Genesis 2:4 and with the absence of a sun during the first 3 days say that it necessitates an interpretation that God was indicating the number of hours he spent on each part of creation.
Perhaps one would ask, “then why else is it in there?” Well, of course I’m not entirely sure. I suppose one might consider it a possibility that it is a very meaningful piece of poetry describing God’s sustaining power. God is described as the one who keeps the world in motion or rather “sustains all things” and “in him all things are held together” (Colossians 1:16-17, Hebrews 1:3). Perhaps this is why he is called the “Morning Star”…the refrain possibly echoed by the Psalmist when he says…
The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
where morning dawns, where evening fades,
you call forth songs of joy.
– Psalm 65:8
In the end, I don’t know for sure the significance of “evening and morning” in Genesis 1, nor do I feel I have to in order to receive “the full counsel of God” from this passage. However, I mentioned the verse above because it uses the exact same phrase as Genesis 1.
You see, my job as a teaching pastor is to study the text and deliver the truth that is there. I do this by following some simple rules that many teachers before me have been following. One of the most important rules is that a passage can never mean what it never meant. What that means is that God never writes anything in scripture that is over the head of the original audience and therefore intended to have its understanding found only by a future generation. Genesis 1 was written for the original Hebrew audience that received it and would make sense best in their context. Let me say that again a little differently: any real meaning to be found in Genesis 1 would be best understood in an ancient Hebrew context. I don’t believe it is helpful for the church to try to pull out of God’s Word what God didn’t intend to put in. I do not believe that God intended to give a physics lesson in Genesis.
What About the Sabbath?
This brings us to another idea that is often brought up in this debate. It’s the idea that the days had to have been literal days as this set the model for the sabbath day of rest that would be practiced by the nation of Israel.
Again, this is compelling, but not at all convincing for me.
Yes, there was a command to rest on the sabbath or seventh day as God did. However, even the sabbath wasn’t always measured in days. In fact, this idea of resting every seventh is used differently throughout scripture. In Leviticus, God teaches the Israelites about a sabbath year for their fields…
But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.
– Leviticus 25:4
In this sense, the analogy of resting from work was able to be modeled without the need for a sabbath day at all…we have no reason to believe that God would necessarily have had to actually create and rest in exact 24 hour periods in order to command his people to do the same.
This brings up another topic…while a 24-hour day understanding might work with the first six days, what about that seventh day? Was it only 24 hours? In fact scripture tells us that God is still in his sabbath from creation…the sabbath is eternal rest in scripture, and all believers are invited to enter into that rest (Hebrews 4:4-11).
Was there a 24 hour limit for the first 6 days and not for the seventh? How does a “literal reading” of the passage allow for that?
Speaking of reading Genesis literally…
A Literal Reading of Genesis Necessitates a Belief that God Created all Living Things by Evolutionary Process
Where did the earth come from? What about light? How about water, the stars and even plant life? As far as the Bible reads, we know that God simply created it. From nothing, I would assume. I believe he has that power. He is the creator, not merely creative.
Yes, God made everything from nothing…until he made living things.
And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so.
– Genesis 1:24
I get the joke. This is obviously the part where someone points out “See! It says it right there…according to their kinds!”
Yes. It does. Does it say anything else?
Apparently animals were “produced” by the land. What does that mean? Well, again, we need to know the word in question, which is yatsa, or in the Hebrew: יָצָא
This word appears literally in hundreds of places in the O.T. and can mean many things, such as “to go forth”, or to “come out of”. In some places it is the idea of “origin” and others of “children”.
To get a more accurate meaning from it, we need to find other places where it exists in the same context and structure as Genesis 1. My Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon says that in the Genesis 1 context (verses 12 & 24) the word means “produce, generate, bring into being” and that there are only 7 cross-references in scripture that use this word in the exact same way. Perhaps they have might shed some light on its meaning.
The 7 cross-references to its use include magicians trying to produce lice in Exodus 8:14, vegetation that grows out of the dirt in Psalms 104:14, Isaiah 61:11 and Haggai 1:11, and Aarons staff, which is said to have produced blossoms in Numbers 17:28.
Then I read these last two…
For as churning cream produces butter,
and as twisting the nose produces blood,
so stirring up anger produces strife.”
– Proverbs 30:33
Why is that intriguing? Because it’s describing process as a necessary part of the production, the way churning cream turns it into butter. Then there’s my favorite one…
“See, it is I who created the blacksmith
who fans the coals into flame
and forges a weapon fit for its work.”
– Isaiah 54:16
Did you catch that? So, one might argue that the dust of the earth produces animal life in the same way that a blacksmith produces a weapon. Not only that, but God is clear to say to those that might marvel at the blacksmith’s obvious skill, “yes, but I created the blacksmith.”
What if I were to suggest that perhaps scientists are smarter than we give them credit for? That creation does indeed have some sort of “will-to-live DNA” that keeps pushing it forward? That the universe has some sort of innate power (in other words, nature) to actually create life from the dust of the earth?
While an argument for or against evolution is outside the scope of this article, I would suggest that if indeed that is the way it happened, God’s response to such a claim, as it would have been to the scientist at the beginning had he been given a chance to share with God how life came not from Him but from dirt, would be “yes, but I created that dirt.”
Allow me to end this section the way I began it: A literal reading of Genesis necessitates a belief that God created all living things by evolutionary process. God didn’t just form animals from the ground. He made man as well…
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
– Genesis 2:7
Did God create the universe in 6 x 24 hour periods? If that’s your position, I assume it is because you believe the Bible (or at least this part of it) should be read literally. However, please recognize the slippery slope that you’re on when you commit to reading them literally. You may in fact be forced into accepting some form of evolution, because the Bible “literally” says that all living things started as one form (dirt) and transformed into another form. That is the very simplest definition of macro-evolution…one form turning into another. You might say “Right, but that’s just because God turned them into that, not nature itself”. Fine. I suppose if you’re comfortable with being labeled a Theistic Evolutionist then I am too.
Now…PLEASE don’t think that’s my attempt at making a case for evolution. That is not my intention here at all. Rather, it is my segue into what I believe is the moral of the story…
Should we read the Bible literally?
Well? Should we? Answer: sometimes.
So, when is it appropriate? Let me state my thesis before defending it: it is appropriate to read the Bible literally when it is literal. All other times, it would be incredibly dangerous to do so.
Let me state that differently…there are times in the Bible when there is no literal meaning…even in passages that contain profound truth. Plenty of the Bible is not literal. What if we were to take literally Paul’s words about the Israelites and how they were baptized into Moses and drank from a spiritual rock (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)? What about when Jesus instructed his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood? He even clarifies how serious he is when he sees their dumbfound faces…
For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.
– John 6:55
Eat my body. Drink my blood. Literally? Of course not.
Plenty of the Bible is not literally written and shouldn’t be read that way. The Bible is full of both orderly accounts of history and compelling, narrative biographies. There is much poetry, and plenty of lament. There are stories of men and stories of angels. There are visions and dreams and letters to friends.
The literary form of any given passage must be understood before its truth can be. Then, once we understand its form and get to its truth (which in some sense should both be objective), we can then get to its relative meaning.
Let’s take an example. Here is one of my favorite passages, listed twice in Proverbs, so there’s no mistaking its validity…
“Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.”
– Proverbs 21:9 and 25:4
Let me ask you, if I have a quarrelsome wife (which, of course, I don’t…love you honey!), would I be better off pitching a tent on my roof? Is that what the meaning of the passage is? Of course not, but that brings up a great question…what is the meaning of the passage?
Well, what is its form? This is from Proverbs, which is best described as wisdom literature. It’s really a collection of short, pithy sayings containing profound truth that are often expressed figuratively, as in the passage above.
The truth of the passage is some version of the following: a quarrelsome wife is big trouble.
The meaning? Well, now we’re in the land of relativity…in a good way! I know we’re not all comfortable with using the word “relative” around the Bible, but now that we’ve established the truth, it’s okay to be relative. The truth never changes but the meaning does. For example, a single man might read that passage and its meaning will direct his choice in a future wife. One husband might be driven to his knees in thankfulness for the wife he has, and another might be driven into marriage counseling to fix something before it causes trouble. Even further, this passage might have profound relative meaning for a woman preparing for marriage and for a woman who became a bride 40 years ago.
So what about Genesis? What type of literature is it?
Actually, it’s pretty orderly. Almost poetic. It is, in fact, a type of song, punctuated by the chorus after each verse “and God saw that it was good, and there was evening and morning.”
In fact, Genesis, like the other books in the Torah, has a distinctive pattern to it. Apparently if you take every 50th letter in the entire book, it spells out the Hebrew word for Torah which is like this: TORH.
Can you imagine how painstaking that process might have been? Imagine being the guy writing it, who is asked by his wife at the dinner table, “how was work today honey?” “Tough” he says. “I need a word that starts with ‘T’ and rhymes with Jehovah. Nothing rhymes with Jehovah!”
My point is that this is where the literary form should be taken into consideration. The patterned, poetic process of writing the book would have driven the choice of each word as much as anything else. Not that the writers would have sacrificed lyrics over melody, but if they needed to convey a particular meaning and could use any one of 8 appropriate words to do so, I’m sure they would have chosen the word that would have supported the art-form best.
To put it bluntly, some places in scripture are not about you discovering some deep theological truth. In fact, in some places, God just wanted to write you a song more than anything. There is a lot of truth in Genesis 1 and 2, but if you keep trying to force it to become a science book, then it might just become one to you. Wouldn’t that be awful?
For my non-Christian friends who may have allowed this issue to become a reason to ignore the idea of God in their lives, I want you to know that there is room in the tent for people who believe in science and you don’t have to check your brain at the door.
For my Christian friends, who don’t feel comfortable without making up their minds definitively about what Genesis 1 says about biology, I would offer you this quote from R.C. Sproul…
“When people ask me how old the earth is, I tell them I don’t know—because I don’t.”
I’m not really an R.C. Sproul fan, but the guy did draft the original “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” and you know what? I bet that in spite of the quote above, he would be able to teach the truth to be found in Genesis 1 quite capably. He is an intellectual and he is not frightened or intimidated by the fact that he doesn’t know something. He doesn’t feel one needs to settle that issue in order to get the full truth of Genesis 1 and neither do I.
Having some room for nuance on this issue does not make you less of a
pastor Christian. In fact, it probably makes you a better student, since it most likely means you haven’t stopped learning yet.
I’d love to hear from you.
So what do you think? Anything here worth some thought? Do you take issue with anything I’ve written here? If you can manage to express it lovingly and thoughtfully I’d love to hear it in the comments below!