This could get a little less interesting now, but I want to write a little bit more about Genesis 1. I love that chapter of the Bible and I think I could make myself more clear about how I read it. Simply put, I don’t read Genesis 1 as a historical account of origins. I could elaborate on what I think of the Bible later, but the Bible can’t be treated like a constitution, historical textbook, scientific textbook, or even a theological textbook. Rather, it tells a story about a God and how people understood him in their time and context. So it’s important when we read Genesis 1, we consider the historical context, and that’s how we find the meaning of the story.
So let’s take a look at some context. Considering some of the parallels, the Genesis story probably took some inspiration from the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian myth of creation. This especially makes sense since scholars like Peter Enns would argue that the first five books of the Bible were compiled after the Babylonian exile of the Jews around 600 BC, though many parts of it were written centuries before. The Jews would have been looking for hope in their God, so they compiled their stories in which God conquered the other gods, especially those of the Babylonians. (Yes, early Jews did believe other gods existed.)
The Enuma Elish tells a story about a couple gods getting into a big fight and then one god killing the other goddess and ripping her corpse in half to create the earth and sky. This seems awfully chaotic, which might incite a Jewish author to write about the earth being without form and void. To me, that verse in Genesis 1 almost sounds satirical. The writer was making fun of the Enuma Elish. So they used the Enuma Elish as a starting point because the writer had something to say about who God was, particularly how he stood out from the other gods.
The people at the time Genesis was compiled would have been familiar with its symbols. Actually, the symbols were probably pretty important and well known to them at the time. It would almost be like Genesis dropping a familiar song lyric to us now. “And God said, ‘Let there be light. Come on let your colors burst.’” If we read the chapter as a literal historical account, we’d have to ignore the symbols because they were products of a culture of people and didn’t exist as symbols at the beginning of time (since people didn’t exist at the beginning of time). The symbols lose their meaning once we take the story literally because we’d be forced to read the text on the surface level.
So a couple important symbols would be the darkness and the water. Darkness and water seem to be symbols of God’s judgment. Darkness is one of the plagues on Egypt. After Cain kills Abel, he’s given a dark mark. Water is used as judgment in the story of Noah and the ark and then in the Exodus when the waters divided for the Israelites to escape but then converged to kill Pharaoh’s men. But what happens in Genesis 1? God divides the light from the dark, he divides the waters below and above, and then he divides the land from the sea. Darkness and water are symbolic of judgment, but God brings order to chaos through mercy and grace. The first readers and hearers of Genesis 1 may have understood it as telling of God’s mercy. He held back the darkness and he held back the waters.
Those were the first three days – (1) he separated day and night, (2) he separated the sky (the mythical waters above) from the ocean (the mythical deep waters), and (3) he pushed the sea from the land – but the next three days coincide the with the first three. Day four, he fills the day and night with the sun, moon, and stars. Day five, he creates birds and sea creatures to fill the sky and sea. And then on day six, he creates land animals and people. He creates sustainers and symbols of his mercy in each of these kingdoms he created.
Then, on the seventh day, God rested. John Walton would say that this rest indicates that God spent the past six days establishing his temple. Gods always rested in temples. The Babylonians built temples for their gods, but this God created his own temple, and guess what, his temple is everywhere. How comforting that is to a group of people who felt like God had turned his back on them. How amazing to know that God cares enough for them to have spent six whole days creating their home, to know that God loves them enough to invite them to live in his temple, to know that even when things look grim, God’s holding it all together. And how comforting that can be to those of us who are searching for us today.
I made the argument a few posts back that if we keep just using God as the explanation for the unexplained, then we’ll find that maybe eventually God could be made irrelevant. Science will answer many of our questions and we won’t have a lot of unexplained to rely on God to explain. I don’t believe God is just the explanation for the unexplained, though. I believe he’s the explanation for everything. He’s the sustainer and creator of all things. So even when science answers all of my questions about what is seen (which is really an exciting thing!), it doesn’t take away God. I’m even more amazed at how God is working in the unseen.
N.T. Wright said that talk of divine intervention or “God things” is almost like deism. When we can’t explain something, we call it a miracle of God. But isn’t that saying that God is distant and only works in a few situations every once in a while? Genesis 1 says that God doesn’t work here and there sometimes. It says that he is active and in control all the time. He is holding the universe together on a cosmic scale and on a microscopic scale and on some kind of individual emotional scale. And that’s pretty comforting to me as a guy sitting in a chair somewhere in a solar system that is hurtling through the galaxy at half a million miles an hour. So I choose to believe it.