Monday, 26 January 2015

If you think you are reading the creation narratives literally, then think again.

Young Earth Creationists make much of their claim to take the creation narratives literally. However, they do not consistently read the narratives literally, as can be seen by their failure to recognise that a consistently literal reading of the creation narratives forces Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 into hopeless contraction with both narratives disagreeing on the length, duration, and order of creation. The fact that YECs are forced to construct elaborate harmonisations of both creation narratives automatically destroys their claim that the plain literal reading of the text is the only way to read them. If that was the case, then there would be no need for such hermetical wrangling. Literalism fails comprehensively right at this point.

Contradictions between the narratives

The general consensus among Old Testament scholars is that there are two creation narratives which cannot be harmonised credibly into a single seamless account of the same event. As OT scholar Peter Enns ably reminds us:

As can be seen in the chart below, the differences between the two creation stories are significant, not superficial, and should therefore be respected rather than harmonized. Particularly telling is the sequence of creation in the third row.

These two stories are clearly significantly different, and they cannot be harmonized by saying that the first gives the overview and the second fills in some of the details. The presence of two different creation accounts is troublesome for readers who assume that Genesis 1 and 2 are historical in nature and that the Bible’s first priority is to recount history accurately. Yet the divergence of these stories cannot be reasonably questioned. To stitch them into a seamless whole would dismiss the particular and distinct points of view that the authors were so deliberate in placing there. The differences between the two creation accounts are further complemented by differences seen in other Old Testament passages such as Psalms 77:16–20; 89:5–37; Job 9:4–15; 26:5–14; 38:4–38; and Isaiah 40:12–31; 44:24–28. It does not seem to be a concern of the biblical writers to provide God’s people with a “unified” story of creation. [1]

Contradictions within the narratives

Harmonisations offered by special creationists are automatically wrong by dint of the fact that if God intended the creation narratives to be read as plain, literal account of creation, such ad hoc harmonisations would not be needed. Furthermore, such harmonisations, as Enns points out, fail to account for major tensions such as the differences in order and length of creation. 

Even within the creation narratives, the literalism which YECs claim is the only permissible exegetical option raises insuperable problems. According to the YECs, the sun, moon, and stars were created on the fourth day. However, as Gen 1:14-18 notes, the sun and moon were created to separate day and night. Prior to day 4, there were no day and night as we know it, meaning the refrains "and there was evening and there was morning, day X" are false for the first three days if we consistently employ the YEC hermeneutic. Again, any attempt at creative harmonisation or ad-hoc interpretation betrays the states YEC hermeneutic of taking the plain literal sense of the narrative. The moment any attempt is made explain these problems, the YEC commitment to literalism is shown to be false.

How to really read the narratives literally

C.C Walker's remark that the creation narratives were given to a scientifically naive society not to teach them cosmology but show that YHWH and not the surrounding deities were worthy of Israel's worship [2] should remind us of the need to remember that they were given originally to an audience separated from us by thousands of years of time and a culture that was definitely pre-scientific. In order to fully understand them, we need to understand how they would have understood them. What we term as literal, and what an ancient audience would term literal are not the same thing.

One of the main differences between the ancient Near Eastern world and ours was their cosmogeography. We know that the Earth is roughly spherical, orbits the sun once per year, and is a tiny speck in an unimaginably vast universe. The world of the ancient Hebrews regarded the Earth as flat, fixed, and covered with a solid firmament separating waters above from waters below, in which were embedded the sun, moon, and stars. If God was really interested in providing a scientifically accurate account of creation, we would expect a specific repudiation of this cosmogeography. Genesis 1 however does nothing of the sort. As OT scholar Susan Pigott reminds us:

“And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were above the dome from the waters that were below the dome. And it was so. God called the dome, ‘sky.’ And there was evening and there was morning. Day two.”

Now here’s where things get really interesting.

God creates a dome in the midst of the waters to separate waters from waters. The Hebrew word (raq├«ya’) refers to a solid dome, something hammered out. Ancient Hebrews believed the sky was a solid dome that kept the waters above from falling down upon them. They believed the sky was blue because of the waters above the dome. The Hebrews also believed the earth was flat and stationary and that the sun moved. Though that fact isn’t overt in Genesis 1, numerous texts attest to this belief through expressions like “the ends of the earth” and the sun “rising and setting” (Josh. 10:13; Job 37:3; 38:13; Pss. 93:1; 96:10; 103:12; 104:5; Eccles. 1:5; Jer. 16:19; Isa. 40:22 [flat circle]; Dan. 4:11). The Genesis writer was a person of his time. He described the world as he observed it. And, if you go out somewhere flat where you can see the earth and the sky, it looks exactly like the writer describes it: a dome that meets the flat earth with a sun moving round about. [3]

Outside of a tiny, uninformed fundamentalist rump, none of this is even remotely controversial in the scholarly world. As Peter Enns has eloquently pointed out:

The solid nature of the raqia is well established. It is not the result of an anti-Christian conspiracy to find errors in the Bible, but the “solid” result of scholars doing their job. This does not mean that there can be no discussion or debate. But, to introduce a novel interpretation of raqia would require new evidence or at least a reconsideration of the evidence we have that would be compelling to those who do not have a vested religious interest in maintaining one view or another. [4]

When we read the narratives literally as the ancients did with a full appreciation of what modern science shows us about our universe, we realise two things. One is that they reflect (though not necessarily endorse) the cosmogeography of the ancient Near East. The second is that whatever intention God had in mind with the creation narratives, teaching us the details of when and how he made the world as it really is was not one of his aims. 

Genesis is primarily an account of functional origins, not material origins.

One of the main problems in fact lies in what the creation narratives mean by create. Special creationists simply take for granted the assumption that creation is about material origins, but given the considerable time and culture distances between our world and that of the ancient Near East, even this assumption needs to be challenged. Susan Pigott in commenting on Genesis 1:2 observes:

Do you notice something here? I mean, really? There’s already something in existence before God starts saying “Let there be.” There is an earth that is desolate and barren (more on that in a minute). There is darkness. There is a deep that covers the earth (this becomes more evident later in Gen. 1:9). And God’s breath is blowing over the surface of the waters.

Usually translations render the Hebrew expression tohu vabohu as “formless and void.” This is unfortunate and misleading, because to Western ears “formless and void” sounds like vast emptiness, somewhat like our concept of space. But that’s not what the writer is saying. In fact, in the only other place the expression tohu vabohu is used (Jer. 4:23), it clearly refers to a desolate wasteland, not empty space (see also Jer. 4:26). [5]

What we are seeing here is not so much creation, but assigning order to what which has been chaotic, which alone should sound a note of caution against the blithe special creationist assumption that Genesis 1 is exclusively an account of material origins. As OT scholar John Walton warns us:

...we have no reason to think that cosmic ontology in the ancient world was conceived as having a material basis. Though an ancient material cosmic ontology cannot be ruled out, it certainly should not be assumed as the starting point for our consideration. Good methodology demands that we take our lead from the texts themselves when thinking about how the ancients framed their own ontological perspectives. If their ontology was not material, then they likely would have had little interest in material origins. The focus of their ontology would also naturally be reflected in their accounts of origins. [6]

While Genesis does refer en passant to the creation of objects, as the division of light from dark and waters above from waters below show, there is an emphasis on the progressive creation of order and function in a previously chaotic and unformed world. In fact, the creation of the firmament and stellar objects a means to an end, namely the creation of time and weather, entities which are functional rather than material in nature. Along with the inauguration of agriculture (the link between the creation of plants on day 3 and the creation of humans on day 6 strongly implies this link which is made emphatic in Gen 2:4), what we have in the creation narratives is the divine creation of all the functions necessary for an agricultural society to flourish. As Walton notes:

Although Gen 1:1–2 contains elements that support the functional understanding of Genesis 1, days 1–3 provide the bulk of the evidence that this is indeed the perspective underlying the text. The three functions—time, weather, and food production—are called into existence by the utterance of God and are given their functions through acts of separating and naming, with both the functions themselves and the actions that make them operational having precedents in the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East. They are evaluated and found to be perfectly functional (“good”) for the human world. These functions are comparable to the quintessential archetypes (mes) that are featured prominently in Mesopotamian literature, except that, in Genesis, God is positioned differently in relationship to them. The creative activity therefore involves bringing these functions into action in a system ordered around human beings. (Emphasis mine) [7]

This is what it means to read Genesis 1 literally. Of course, the ancient cosmogeographical worldview is obsolete, but, to invoke the language of speech act theory, this is a locutionary concession to the limitations of a prescientific world for whom the language of modern science would have been meaningless. Our task, when reading Genesis, is to enter the ancient world of the Hebrews, understand what point the writers was making, and contextualise it for our time. As Pigott notes, "I read Genesis 1 literally, but what I mean by that is I read Genesis 1 recognizing that the writer’s worldview is pre-scientific but his theology is transcendent."

The Scandal of the (Fundamentalist) Christadelphian Mind

In his seminal book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, historian Mark Noll laments the intellectual stagnation of evangelical Christianity, which he argued had abandoned any attempt at maintaining a serious attempt at maintaing a credible intellectual presence in the academic world. In probing the cause of this problem and its impact on evangelical Christianity, Noll observed that:

Evangelicals make much of their ability to read the Bible in a “simple,” “literal,” or “natural” fashion—that is, in a Baconian way. In actual fact, evangelical hermeneutics, as illustrated in creationism, is dictated by very specific assumptions that dominated Western intellectual life from roughly 1650 to 1850 (and in North America for a few decades more). Before and after that time, many Christians and other thinkers have recognized that no observations are “simple” and no texts yield to uncritically “literal” readings. 

The evangelical Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke, for example, has argued that in order to interpret the early chapters of Genesis adequately, it is necessary to make use of thorough historical study of the ancient world, carefully nuanced exegesis, and wide familiarity with scientific procedures and results. His own conclusion, based on such study, is that Genesis 1:1–2:3 is in some sense “myth” (not in the sense of a fairy tale, but in the sense of a story explaining how God works among humans), that (by modern standards) it both is and is not “history,” that (again by modern definitions) it is not primarily “science,” and that it is “theology” in substance but not in style. Waltke may or may not be correct in his conclusions, but his painstaking chain of reasoning demonstrates that it is anything but a simple matter to move from the central meaning of early Genesis (that God is to be worshiped as the source of matter, life, and human civilization) to detailed explanations of how God brought about the creation. 

When evangelicals rely on a naive Baconianism, they align themselves with the worst features of the naive positivism that lingers among some of those who worship at the shrine of modern science. Thus, under the illusion of fostering a Baconian approach to Scripture, creationists seek to convince their audience that they are merely contemplating simple conclusions from the Bible, when they are really contemplating conclusions from the Bible shaped by their preunderstandings of how the Bible should be read. [8]

Special creationists who claim to be honouring the creation narratives by reading it 'literally' not only fail to appreciate what it really means to read the Bible literally as the ancient Hebrews would have done, but are actually employing a means of interpreting the Bible which owes much to scientism. The irony is palpable, but the theological consequences are damning.


1. Enns, Peter. The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012, p 52
2. Walker C.C. "Is it wrong to believe that the earth is a sphere?" The Christadelphian (1913) 50:348
3. Pigott S "Reading Genesis 1 'Literally'" Scribalishess Jan 3 2014
4. Enns P "The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That's Not the Point" BioLogos Blog Jan 14 2010  The few desultory attempts at rebutting the scholarly consensus on raqia' by Christadelphians invariably come from laypeople without any specialist training in Hebrew or ancient Near Eastern studies. Tellingly, those that attempt such rebuttals fail to submit their minority views for peer reviews, or post them in self-published vanity journals. Any attempt at meeting the burden of proof is not even met by such attempted rebuttals.
5. Pigott, op cit.
6. Walton J.H. Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbruans, 2011, p 24
7. ibid, p 170-171
8. Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994, p 197-198