Bro Wilfred Lambert was one of the foremost Assyriologists of his generation. He wrote quite explicitly about the connection between ancient near eastern ideas (about which he was an expert) and the impossibility of reconciling Gen 1-3 with science. Some of his specific observations in the following article are:
- The antiquity of the earth and man is unquestionably longer than biblical literalists can allow
- Gen 1 and Gen 2-3 are separate events and cannot be read as literal/scientific accounts
- The solid raqia was a common/borrowed understanding of the sky
- Humanity is far older than 7,000 years
Bro Wilfred was not disfellowshipped for such ideas (for the record – I take elements of Gen 2-3 more literally than he did)
Originally a series of articles in Endeavour:
E96, Dec1996, p 30; E97, June 1997, p 9; E98, Dec1997, p16.
In the Authorised Version the Bible begins, ‘In the beginning’ and, though this is probably a mistranslation, it is in itself appropriate. Any religious attitude to life involves some notion of a supreme being or beings who is, or are, responsible for the life of which we are part. Thus ‘creation’ is a foundation concept of religious thinking. Of course, in our age, this subject is commonly tied up with scientific cosmogony, of how things did in fact originate, and here the questions cease to be religious since, first, very few believers are qualified to have an opinion on the latest scientific ideas of how the universe and life on earth began, and, secondly, no one can be sure that scientific conclusions will not change in the future. But religion and science impinge on each other, and for this reason ‘creation’ is for some believers an emotive, not to say disturbing, subject. For some, Darwin and evolution have discredited Genesis and over the last century in the English-speaking world believers unwilling to ignore the facts of geology have had the problem of offering some explanation of what the Bible teaches on this subject. The problem has been aggravated in some circles by an unwritten taboo on open discussion of the subject. The truth of the Bible, it has been said, can be accepted without getting bogged down in current scientific opinions. This attitude offends both against the apostolic injunction to have an explanation ready for any inquirer of the hope within us, and against common-sense. A refusal to have an answer to what is commonly taught in schools puts off many young people from joining us, and making adult converts is all that much more difficult. This booklet will look at the Biblical chapters afresh, and will then draw some conclusions.
Two creation accounts
That there are two accounts of creation in Genesis is clear to any open-minded reader. Genesis 1:1–2:3 offers a narrative of acts of creation by God spread over six days, followed by a day of rest, at which point God’s creative work, it is stressed, was finished. The acts of creation are achieved by God’s command, in effect: ‘Let it be done’ and so ‘it was done’. There is a solemnity to the expression of creation in this account, the very antithesis of many pagan accounts of creation, as perceived by a pagan writer of the later first century or early second century AD, who composed a treatise On the Sublime (in literature). The name of Longinus, or Dionysius (or: Dionysius Longinus) is attached to the work, but nothing is known of the author outside what is clear from its content. Discussing his theme he wrote: ‘Thus the Jewish lawgiver also, no ordinary man, when he rightly conceived of the power of the divinity, at the very beginning of the laws, expressed it: ‘God said – What did God say? – Let there be light, and there was light. Let there be earth, and there was earth.’ (Longinus, On the Sublime, 9.9)
Whoever the author was, he begins his masterly work of literary criticism by asserting the need for his own work because of the inadequacy of a previous work on this very subject by one Cecilius, who taught in Rome at the time of the birth of Christ, and was an adherent of the Jewish religion. Very probably ‘Longinus’ got to know the Septuagint version of the Old Testament from Cecilius, and though he was far from satisfied with Cecilius’ literary criticism he sensed the grandeur of Genesis 1, which he quotes from memory. One can but regret that some Christian writers on this chapter have made the account a peg on which to hang their own ideas. It has been argued that ‘God said’ and ‘it was done’ implies creation out of nothing, when in fact these words only state the occurrence of creation at God’s command, not anything of the mechanism employed.
As stated above, the wording of Genesis 2:2–3 makes plain that creation by God finished at that point. Chapters 2:4–3:24 is a narrative entirely different in style and content and in no way presupposes what now precedes it. The account of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve, of the fall and of the expulsion from the Garden, is entirely different in style from the earlier account: more picturesque, reading like a story. The names of God used in the two narratives are also different. The first uses exclusively ‘God’ (Hebrew Elohim), while the second uses ‘LORD God’ (Yahweh Elohim) in its narrative, and ‘God’ (Elohim) only in the dialogue between the serpent and Eve in 3:1–5. The most natural explanation of these facts is that the two accounts were composed by different authors, and have been combined by the inspired author of Genesis. The ancients were not inhibited by our sense of literary rights, and freely incorporated in their works anything of great value from earlier works with or without making changes. A comparison of the later Chronicles with Samuel–Kings, and of the first three Gospels with each other, illustrates this phenomenon.
The First Account (Genesis 1:1– 2:3)
The traditional rendering of the first verse “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” was undisputed and universal until learned Jewish Rabbinic scholars in the Middle Ages pointed out an equally possible alternative: When God began to create the heavens and the earth – the earth was a vast waste, darkness covered the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water – God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.
The great scholar Rashi (full name: Rabbi Shelomo ben Yitshak, or Solomon son of Isaac) who lived 1040 – 1105 in the south of France, and who had great influence on both Jewish and Christian scholarship, proposed this translation but tradition proved stronger so that to this day most versions follow the older rendering. One has to take this older rendering as a sort of summary statement, but a not too happy one, since the actual creation of heaven is recorded later, in vv. 7–8, while there is no account of the creation of earth unless in the first verse. So the traditional rendering is not stating what had already occurred at the time conceived, since earth is assumed to exist in the very next verse 2, but heaven is created only in vv. 7–8. As conventionally rendered the first verse fits the modern scientists’ ‘big bang’ theory, but it does not fit the rest of the narrative, which concludes, after the final creative acts, “thus the heavens and the earth and everything in them were completed” which is a most appropriate ending to a narrative beginning “When God began to create.”
By the new rendering the account does not concern itself with the origin of matter, but starts from a point in time when two elements existed: earth and sea, but chaotically disposed, and God then begins his programme of work to yield a functional heavens and earth, with man on earth as the peak of his creation, created in the image of God.
We accept this new rendering and are convinced that many modern translations relegate it to the margin only to avoid upsetting devout believers who feel they can face the problems of geology and the theory of evolution armed with the traditional rendering which is simple, emphatic and easily memorised. Significantly the modern translation put out by the Jewish Publication Society of America, The Torah. The Five Books of Moses. A new translation (Philadelphia, 1962), had the courage to use the new translation in its text, putting the traditional one in the margin.
Thus the account begins with the earth and sea in disarray, and the first act of creation – on the first day – is of light, which alternates with darkness: day and night. On the second day the cosmic water is separated into upper and lower parts, by a ‘vault’. The Hebrew word means something beaten out, like a metal plate, and the AV’s ‘firmament’ is unhelpful. This plate serves to hold back the upper water and is called ‘heaven’. On the third day the lower water was cleared off the earth into the sea so that plant life flourished on earth. On the fourth day sun and moon are created in the sky to separate night from day, to provide light, and to supply the cultic calendar. The Israelite calendar was lunar. On the fifth day water creatures are created, also birds, on the sixth day land animals, and finally the human race.
It is worthy of note that not everything so created originated from the simple divine fiat. Plants arose out of the earth: ‘God said, “Let the earth produce growing things.”‘ (1:11). It is therefore unwise to assume that this account was meant as a full explanation of the actual processes whereby the universe reached its present state. If God had given us any such account we may be certain that it would be well above our heads.
If one asks the purpose and function of this first account the answer is not hard to find. It sets out to explain that the universe was created and developed by God to lead up to the creation of man, who alone of the various creatures was made ‘in the image of God’. The universe was not the result of chance, but of a divine purpose and each stage as achieved (save for the plate between the two levels of water) was declared ‘good’. It is unfortunate that to those brought up in a Christian environment such basic truths are self-evident and as such do not excite the respect they deserve. Instead the main concern can easily become a determination to justify the truth of the narrative by showing that it conforms to modern science, or, if there appears to be a conflict between the narrative and science, to cast doubt on the validity of the science. We shall return to this point later, but for the present attention will be drawn to some relevant aspects of the narrative.
First, with the correct translation of verses 1 and 2, no interest is taken in the origins of matter as such. Earth and water are taken as existing already in the early verses, and the interest lies in the ways these elements were husbanded by God to prepare for life on earth, leading up to man.
Secondly, the regularly repeated ‘God said’, contrasting with the only occasional indication of the modus operandi, shows clearly that greater importance is attached to the fact that God achieved the ends he intended, rather than to the details of the processes involved. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern languages, Hebrew has a special verb for God’s creating, b~r~‘,which is the second word in the narrative, and this confirms the emphasis that the inspired writer intended.
Thirdly, the concept involved in the creation of man ‘in the image of God’ is not of course concerned with physical characteristics. The ancients were as able as we are to perceive that the human body in both general form and inside parts is quite like those of some animals, monkeys and apes for example. The similarity intended is then not in physique, but in those attributes not shared with the animals, such as free will and the potential for spirituality.
Fourthly, the six days of God’s work followed by one of rest is of course a model for the Sabbath in human society.
The Second Account (Genesis 2:4–3:24)
This narrative begins in one respect like the previous one. It does not concern itself with the origin of matter, but starts with an existing earth, which was at that time unproductive for lack of rain. God made it productive, a man was created, and the Garden of Eden was brought into being to serve as his home, which he shared with his specially created wife and with the animals, lacking but not needing the amenities of human material culture. There is no need to repeat the remainder of the account. The difference between the two accounts is immediately apparent even in their styles. The first is solemn and dignified. The second is more picturesque, indeed it reads like a good story with the dramatic climax as the first couple are driven from their paradise to live in the workaday world of toil and finally death.
Like the first, the second also has purposes other than giving information about creation. The main one is to explain the origin of sin and death. In the world created by a holy, all-powerful and just God, how can one explain that moral evil exists in the cream of his creation? Other aspects of human society are also explained, namely marriage, the need for hard work to sustain life, and the human dislike of snakes.
The logic of arranging the two accounts in their present sequence is clear. The first account deals more with the creation of the whole universe than does the second, and its account of the human race is general. The second account centres on the first human pair and their development. This leads on to the following chapter, since the Pentateuch is an account of God’s revelation to man through his chosen people. Thus the line of descent of the human race is followed from Adam and Eve up to Abraham and his descendants, at first giving some account of the whole race, later concentrating on the family from which the Israelite nation developed. It was therefore appropriate for the inspired writer to put the account of Adam and Eve second, because it could be followed by the generations leading in due course to Abraham.
The problems which the two accounts pose for modern believers arise from their conviction that Scripture, being the Word of God, is true, whereas those hostile to Christian faith proclaim that the accounts are not true. Traditionally the two accounts have always been taken to refer to the same creation, and the second one is dated by the figures given with genealogies in the following chapters. The relevant figures in the Septuagint (Greek) version of Genesis are higher than those of the traditional Hebrew text. The latter lead to a date of c. 4000 BC for Adam while the former’s figures result in a date more like 5000 BC. Taking the days of the first account as literal twenty-four hour periods means that the universe arose (according to the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1–2) no earlier than c. 5000 BC, if not a thousand years later. Study of geology over some centuries now has shown evidence of a succession of different eras represented by layers of rock giving evidence of the development of the earth over millions of years. While man in this sequence is a relatively recent arrival, the new dating techniques of the current century – radiocarbon, thermoluminescence, and dendrochronology – certainly make a date of even 5000 BC much too late for the origin of man. Hence, sceptics argue, Genesis is proved wrong.
Two preliminary points can be made before getting to grips with the real problems. The first is that we absolutely reject the idea put out by some that God deliberately put the fossils in the rocks in 4004 BC to deceive the (recent, western) scientists. This assigns a totally excessive importance to these people, and denigrates God by making him into a petty trickster. The second is that while all the failings of modern scientists can and should be taken into account – including rare cases of deliberate fraud – the general result that the human race is more than 7000 years old, and that the universe is very much older, can no longer be considered insecure. Devout and believing Bible scholars have made and still do make mistakes and Biblical manuscripts have, rarely, been forged, but that is no reason to abandon faith in God.
The major problem of the two accounts of creation is that while for Christian faith they must be true, there are difficulties in harmonising them with the facts of geology and palaeontology. By stating the problem in this way we have already prejudiced the issues. Truth has been assumed to be literal truth only. We have prejudged what God intended by these narratives. We have raised difficulties which come from our particular cultural background. We are wanting God’s word to conform to our way of thinking. There is something both naive and arrogant in such a stance. The Scriptures were surely meant to communicate God’s will and purposes to believers all down the ages, not only to 20th century believers in a western intellectual environment. If one insists that Scripture, being true, cannot conflict with the facts of science, the person making such a claim is presuming that his own science is infallibly correct. Perhaps God’s science is better than ours, and in any case believers before 1800 AD had very little science judged by our own age, yet God was appealing to them as well through his self-revelation in Scripture.
A further serious objection to those who insist that Genesis 1–3 must be wholly literal truth is that any narrative may be mixed in this respect: in part literally true, in part true in other senses. There is very little literature that belongs wholly to one category or the other. What appears from a superficial reading as literal only, usually turns out on deeper inspection to have its share of metaphor and other forms of figurative language with which the casual reader is so familiar that he fails to note that literally these items should be judged as untrue. When the prophet said, ‘All flesh is grass,’ he communicated the basic truth of human mortality in words that are literally untrue. Flesh is not grass – ask the scientists!
A scriptural approach to this question will examine the narratives carefully to see if there is any internal evidence bearing on the question, and will look at other parts of Scripture, since the claim is often made that Jesus and Paul took these narratives literally meaning wholly literally. When the first man was created in Genesis 2 he was given no name. He is referred to throughout the narrative with the definite article: h~ ‘~d~m, “the man”. The Hebrew ‘~d~mis a collective noun meaning “the human race”, and used with the definite article it cannot be a personal name “Adam”. The Authorised Version is inconsistent in this respect since it translated the term as “the man” regularly up to verse 2:18 but in 19 suddenly switches to “Adam”, and then varies between “man” (once in each of 2:22; 2:25; 3:22; 3:24), and “Adam” (in the other occurrences). Eve only received her name after the curses for disobedience were pronounced (2:20), so the lack of any name for the first man is not strange. For an English translation “the man” is inadequate because it emphasises the one particular man, while the Hebrew term is generic. An ancient Hebrew author wanting to write: “the man”, meaning a particular man, would use the word ‘îsh and this is indeed used in 2:23, where there is a play on words: “woman” (‘ishshah) was taken from “man” (‘îsh) and in the following verse, 2:24, where the text refers to human males individually, not to the first man in the garden. (In 3:6 and 3:16 ‘îsh is also used, but meaning “husband”, not “man”). To convey the sense, h~ ‘~d~m could best be rendered “Man”, since the word does have a corporate overtone, but the capital gives it the individuality which the man in the narrative has.
There must be a reason why the inspired author chose ‘~d~m not‘îsh. The only hint in the narrative itself occurs in 2:7, where there is a play on words: “Man” (h~ ‘~d~m) was made from “dust of the ground (‘|d~m~h)”, which is abbreviated in 3:19 to “until you return to the ground (‘|d~m~h), for you were taken from it.” There is then a certain assonance between “man” and “ground.” The New Testament, however, suggests a further, or different explanation. That it uses the transliterated form Adam as a name is to be expected when the Greek Septuagint version does essentially what the Authorised Version does: it starts by rendering “the man”, but then switches to the proper name Adam. Hebrew readers and speakers would of course catch the meaning of Adam. Thus Paul writes, first quoting Genesis, then adding the opposite:
It is in this sense that scripture says, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living creature,’ whereas the last Adam has become a life-giving spirit … The first man is from the earth, made of dust: the second man is from heaven. The man made of dust is the pattern of all who are made of dust, and the heavenly man is the pattern of all the heavenly.’ (1 Cor. 15:45-48 REB)
Genesis 2:7, latter part only, is quoted here freely, and Paul makes sure that his Greek readers with perhaps no Hebrew will understand that ‘~d~m means ‘man’. But Paul here is not concerned with literal history. “Adam” was the first man, but Christ was neither (literally) second nor last. Nor did he literally come from heaven. Paul here sees “Adam” and Christ as two paradigms: the first of the natural way of life for our race, the second of the new way of life. This fits perfectly the Hebrew term ‘~d~m, “the human race”. Those in Christ are a new race. So, in Romans 7:9 Paul writes: There was a time when, in the absence of law, I was fully alive; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. (REB)
In this spiritual autobiography Paul notes how as a Jewish boy he once lived in innocence, not yet bound by the terms of the Law, but when that responsibility came upon him he sinned and so “I died”. He did not die literally, but he is following here Genesis 2:17; ” in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (RSV). The Hebrew idiom here “dying you shall die” gives merely emphasis, as is well known, and renderings such as “you are surely doomed to die” (REB) add something to the original to escape the problem that Adam did not die when he broke the commandment, but hundreds of years later. Paul clearly took the words in their grammatical sense, and so declared that when he sinned he spiritually died. Again he takes the narrative as a paradigm of all human life. It is somewhat pointless to press the question of literal or not here. If one does, one must declare that the sentence was not carried out, but commuted. Paul, however, takes the words to mean what they say, but obviously not in the sense of literal death. And Paul did not become mortal when he first sinned: he was mortal from birth.
A further case of non-literality in the narrative is the serpent or snake. It is nowhere a literal snake. First it apparently walks on legs or by some other means, since the judgment on it includes, “upon thy belly shalt thou go.” Also it had the power of rational thought and human speech, which literal snakes do not. Finally, in the judgment: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel,” a literalist view must assume that a literal snake (though walking and with human mind and speech) is being judged, but the judgment on its seed refers to a symbolic serpent: the personification of moral evil. So by that interpretation a literal snake (though unlike any known to us) is condemned to become an actual snake such as we know, but the seed of the walking and talking snake is in effect ‘sin’ and no snake. This is an intellectual contortion surely better avoided, and the New Testament leads the way. Revelation 20:2–3 deals with the binding and imprisonment for the duration of the millennium of “the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan.” Christadelphians will need no convincing that here is no real snake, no matter how different from snakes known to us, but personification of human moral evil. This snake is dubbed ‘old’ because it was present with our first parents in the Garden of Eden.
Thus the New Testament does not teach or presume a wholly literal sense of the Genesis narratives. Rather it draws out a symbolic meaning of the first man and of the snake. The objection is often raised that the symbolic presumes the existence of the literal, on which it is based, and with this we can agree. The human race exists in a most literal sense. It must have had a literal beginning. A first human pair is no problem at all. The problems are created by those who think that God should have revealed an account of human origins suited to the intellectual background of late 20th century AD believers. Another example of such reasoning is based on Luke’s genealogy of Christ in chapter 3 of his gospel. It goes back to “… son of Adam, son of God.” Thus, it is claimed, Adam is proved to be a real man and the first man. Also the number of generations is such that a date for Adam of about 4,000 BC is clearly right, and so the scientists’ view of the much greater antiquity of man must be wrong. This uses Luke as though he were writing for 20th century believers, and ignores the genealogy in Matthew where not only are the names given, but the generations are summed up as 3 groups of 14 from David to Christ (1:17). But if one compares 1 Chronicles 1–3, which Matthew used, it is clear that three generations are omitted from the second group and one from the third. In short, the inspired author was not dependent on our methods but had other reasons for his omissions
The biblical serpent or snake is a good example of the truth that the symbolic must be based on the literal. This creature in nature moves furtively and has “the power of death.” As such it is the literal basis for the Biblical doctrine of sin.
The new message of the New Testament was that through Christ the human race can be reconciled to God by forgiveness of sins, and have eternal life in God’s coming kingdom. But notice how the message is communicated by Jesus himself. His miracles of healing, were acted parables as well as acts of mercy on the sufferers. The sick had always to show faith in Jesus, and his response was typically, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” He also often used the thought pattern of the time by referring to demonic possession, and the gospel writers record this. In short, much of Jesus’ teaching was parabolic, using the ordinary modes of thought of the times as the medium. Parable is not restricted to those stories introduced by the gospel writer with such phrases as, “Another parable put he forth unto them.” If Jesus taught in this way, using the then current ways of thinking and common conceptions, we should surely allow the same possibility when considering Old Testament teaching.
Early ideas of creation
Thus in approaching Genesis 1–3 it would be pertinent to ask what the current ideas on creation in the pagan ancient Near East were. What sort of background did the Israelites have on this matter? The best sources of knowledge are Mesopotamian, because so many clay tablets with cuneiform writing have survived. Nothing of this kind has survived from pagan Palestine, and not much from Syria and Anatolia. Egyptian material exists, but while the Egyptians influenced the people of Syria and Palestine by their art and artifacts, intellectual property spread much less.
The Babylonians and their Sumerian predecessors seem to have held unanimously that the universe arose from a single substance, but there is diversity of opinion as to what it was. The most commonly held view was that earth was the prime element from which all else arose. A less common but well-known view considered water as the prime element. Least common was the idea that time was the original source of everything. Basically they agreed with modern scientists that the complex universe we know developed out of a single element.
But when it came to the question of how the present universe developed out of the one element, there was a wide range of differing opinions. To some thinkers the prime element itself had life and consciousness, with the power to observe, think, and reproduce. To others the prime element was inanimate and had to be worked on by a personal god, one of the many hundreds worshipped around the ancient Near East. To us this latter might seem to negate the very concept of prime element, because the active, worshipped gods or their forebears must then have existed alongside the prime element if it was incapable of thought and action itself. Such inconsistencies are normal in the polytheistic thought of the time. Thus ancient Near Eastern myths of how the present universe arose are extremely varied both as to actors and to techniques, though the intellectual framework out of which they arose is comparatively simple. There are stories of divine craftsmanship, of the earth being formed by a god who heaped up soil on a raft floating on the primeval water. A quite widespread and differing account has to start with a body of solid matter which was split in two on the horizontal plane and the resulting pieces were pushed apart to become heaven and earth. A Hittite version had a saw used to do the cutting. Still another version of this sundering had a watery mass, which is not so wild an idea, since all water known to the human race could be presumed to have come up from below via springs, or to have come down from above in rain. The formation of the surface of the earth was the subject of similar speculations. Gods were boring holes to start off the rivers and digging their channels. Earth was being heaped up to form the mountains. One common version of the creation of man saw the gods forming figurines from clay mixed with divine blood. Another simpler version had the human race arise from the ground like plants. Gods worshipped in historical times had to have their origins explained, and the succession of divine generations often involved battles of heroic proportion. Battles could also arise from accounts of how the primeval element was brought under control and made useful. There were countless motifs and variants in this mythology from which the ancient authors selected, modified and combined to form their own stories. And that was part of the intellectual environment in which Israel developed.
The inspired Old Testament writers were no more aloof from their world of ideas than the inspired New Testament writers. They needed to communicate with the people of their times, and God did not provide them with prescience of 20th century AD ideas, which would have baffled their contemporaries, though they might cosset weak faith in our own generation. Thus both Testaments mention demons, the devil, and dragons. One of the last in the Old Testament is Leviathan. It is a difficult creature to deal with since in some passages it may well be used to describe a large fearsome animal of those times (Psalm 104:26; Job 41:1), but in Isaiah 27:1 God is said to be going to slay in the future “Leviathan, that twisting sea serpent” (REB). We of course would treat this as symbolic, but it is in fact taken over as a phrase, word for word, from Canaanite mythology, in which Baal slays the monster. The version of the myth known to us comes from Ras Shamra on the coast of Syria and dates to c. 1300—1200 BC. Thus Old Testament writers could and did know and use material from their environment in order to teach the truths of God, just like New Testament writers. In matters of creation, note how both earth and water are taken as existing from the beginning: no account is given of their origin. Also the cosmic water is divided into two parts. But the truths which emerge from this material in Genesis are worlds apart from ancient mythology, and they are truths which have stood the test of time. They are:
(i) The universe, the earth and the human race, did not arise by chance or accident, but by the express will and purpose of God.
(ii) Man is the cream of God’s creation on earth, alone able to interact with God on a spiritual level.
(iii) Moral evil exists because God created man with free will, which allows a choice between moral good and bad, and bad was chosen.
These are the fundamentals on which true faith in God rests. and this relationship between God and man is what God intended in providing Scripture.