It has been said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Something similar could be said of “scientific creationism” or “Bible science.” It is neither good science nor good Bible, but a confusion of both. Creationism attempts to do a biblical reading of scientific and historical data and a scientific and historical reading of biblical data. Neither of these crossovers is appropriate or workable. They are true neither to science nor to the Bible, even though they claim to offer the only true science and true biblical teaching. The result is a labyrinthian tangle that requires considerable energy and patience to unravel.
The Bible is the written Word of God, and because we believe it to be inspired thruout [sic], all of its assertions are scientifically true in all of the original autographs. To the student of nature, this means that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths. (Creation Research Society Quarterly)
When one carefully examines the argument, however, one discovers that the biblical understanding of creation is not being pitted against evolutionary theories, as is supposed. Rather, evolutionary theories are being juxtaposed with literalist theories of biblical interpretation. This is not even like comparing
oranges and apples; it is more like trying to compare oranges and orangutans.
Even if evolution is only a scientific theory of interpretation posing as scientific fact, as the creationists argue, creationism is only a religious theory of biblical interpretation posing as biblical fact. And to compound the confusions, these biblical “facts” are then treated as belonging to the same level of discourse and family of concerns as scientific facts and therefore supportable by scientific data, properly interpreted.
Quasi-Science and Quasi-Religion
Most analysts outside the movement would readily concur that Creation Science is not genuine science but a deceptive facsimile which easily misleads people who have only a lay knowledge of science. It is not a science inasmuch as the organization of data and the conclusions are already present from the start, and are absolute and inviolable. No contrary arguments or information can be entertained or admitted, on the grounds that the scientific and historical truth of the matter has already been vouchsafed by divine revelation. There is therefore no possibility for free and unfettered inquiry, moving wherever the evidence seems to lead no matter how many cherished beliefs and time-hallowed opinions may have to be modified or abandoned.
A leading creationist, Henry Morris, states: “It is only in the Bible that we can possibly obtain any information about the methods of creation, the order of creation, the duration of creation, or any of the other details of creation” (Morris, p. 16). What scientific investigation there is, under these dogmatic assumptions, is devoted to finding evidence to fit this “creation model,” and to discrediting all evidence that does not corroborate it. In the event that this is not sufficiently persuasive, name-calling, innuendo, and guilt-by-association are resorted to:
Belief in evolution is a necessary component of atheism, pantheism, and all other systems that reject the sovereign authority of an omnipotent personal God. [It] has historically been used by their leaders to justify a long succession of evil systems—including fascism, communism, anarchism, Nazism, occultism, and many others. [It] leads normally to selfishness, aggressiveness, and fighting between groups, as well as animalistic attitudes and behavior by individuals (Morris, p. vii).
Such so-called science is not scientific either in spirit or in form. Its presuppositions, motives, methods, attitudes, reasonings, and results are a gross caricature of science. Preston Cloud has noted: “Fundamentalist creationism is not a science but a form of antiscience, whose more vocal practitioners, despite their master’s and doctoral degrees in the sciences, play fast and loose with the facts of geology and biology” (p. 15).
While such distortions of science and their effects on public education are in need of careful scrutiny, the other side of creation science is equally a caricature, namely its claim to represent the true understanding of the biblical texts of creation and their theological meaning. Of the two distortions, the religious misrepresentation is at least as critical as the scientific, if not more so. In a sense, it is more critical inasmuch as the motivations for creationism are basically religious, not scientific. The problem has arisen, in the first place, because of certain fundamental misunderstandings of the biblical texts, which then lead to distortions of science in an effort to bring it into conformity with the literalist belief system. Only when the religious misunderstandings are clarified is there a possibility of resolving the problem.
Despite the efforts of some creationists to soft-pedal the religious character of the “creationist model” in order to get their textbooks adopted and their position given “equal time” in public education, such a subterfuge hardly veils the religious character of the position. How can one have a Creation without a Creator? If creationism is fundamentally a religious position rather than a scientific one, it must finally be examined and critiqued on religious grounds. No matter how many creationist arguments are shown to be fallacious, and no matter how much evolutionary data is marshaled against the position, inasmuch as the ultimate commitment is to a particular interpretation of religious texts, scientific evidence can never be fully convincing. So long as the literalist theory of interpreting Genesis materials remains the cornerstone of creationism, no amount of scientific information, however otherwise overwhelming, will be permitted to cast doubt on the literalist credo.
Creationist attempts at refuting mounting evidence from many scientific fields in support of evolutionary theory and at marshalling their own evidence in support of creationism are reminiscent of tobacco company scientists arguing that no direct correlation between smoking and lung cancer have been decisively proven. One suspects that motives other than a quest for truth and impartiality are involved. In this case the motives are undoubtedly religious, even if, as will be shown, mistakenly and misguidedly so. When someone is determined enough to defend a particular position against all comers, however tenuous it might be, the impossibility of absolute scientific proof always leaves the door open a crack for various and sundry positions to slip in and out. Exceptionally determined people, it seems, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, are capable of believing as many as three impossible things before breakfast!
Approaching the Biblical Texts
The Biblical record, accepted in its natural and literal sense, gives the only
scientific and satisfying account of the origins of things. . . . The creation account is clear, definite, sequential, and matter-of-fact, giving every appearance of straightforward historical narrative” (Morris, pp. iv, 84).
Quite apart from any scientific and historical objections that may be advanced against such a statement, there is not a single word of truth in it, biblically or theologically. As long as creationism maintains an ultimate allegiance to such an interpretive approach to biblical materials and religious doctrines, every effort will be made to shift doubt away from its own assumptions—where doubt properly belongs—and onto evolutionary science. The creationist tactic is two-fold: to equate doubts about literalism with doubts about the Bible and its religious teachings; and to divert all doubt in the direction of scientific assumptions, scientific evidence, the scientific method, scientific motives, scientific conclusions, the presumed consequences of science, and scientists themselves.
But these literalist assumptions are precisely what are in question. It is by no means self-evident that the biblical texts upon which creationism bases its case are a “record,” or that they give “every appearance of straightforward historical narrative,” or that their “natural” sense is the “literal sense,” or that this sense is “scientific” or “matter-of-fact.” Nor is it self-evident that the Genesis authors are attempting to provide “information,” and that this supposed information is “about the methods of creation, the order of creation, the duration of creation, or any of the other details of creation.” Quite the contrary. These are assumptions—indeed demands—that have been brought to the text, confused with the text, given the authority of the text, and absolutized along with the text, requiring the same allegiance as to the text itself. Such an absolutizing of assumptions is neither in the spirit of science nor the Bible. In science it is called dogmatism; in the Bible, idolatry.
This may be the way the creation texts appear to certain modern interpreters at considerable remove from the religious context in which the texts were written and imbued with a consciousness so heavily influenced by science and historiography. And this may be the way these texts have always appeared to an unreflective popular level of religion. But it is by no means obvious that this represents the original intent, religious concern, or literary form of the Genesis materials. This is the fundamental interpretive issue. And it cannot be settled by dogmatic assertions about the Bible nor by scientific and historical evidence concerning the natural order but only by careful examination of the texts themselves and the contexts in which, and to which, they were written.
When this is done, the Genesis accounts of creation do not prove to be in conflict with scientific or historical knowledge. This is not because the creation texts can be shown to be in conformity with the latest scientific and historical knowledge, or supported by it, but precisely because they have
little to do with it. They belong to radically different types of literature, with equally different types of concerns and goals.
Let’s take an example from poetry, with which Genesis has more affinities than with scientific or historical prose. A poetic treatment of an autumn sunset is neither scientifically true nor untrue. It needs no harmonization with scientific statements and requires no scientific confirmation. It is simply unrelated to that sort of truth and that type of concern. A poem deals with poetic truth and poetic concerns. For someone to try to defend a particular poem by attempting to argue that it was scientifically and historically correct in every respect would be no defense at all. It would be a confusion of categories, like trying to defend a client being sued for divorce in a traffic court. In literature this would be called a mixing of genres. Any defense of a poem based on such confusions, and any attack on other forms of literature which do not “agree” with the poem, no matter how well-meaning and heroic, would be the greatest possible disservice to the poem, the spirit of the words, the intentions of the poet, and the nature of poetry.
Similarly, a literal interpretation of the Genesis accounts of creation is inappropriate, misleading, and unworkable. It presupposes a kind of literature and concern that is not there. In doing so it misses the symbolic richness of what is there and subjects the biblical materials, and the theology of creation, to a completely pointless and futile controversy. The “creation model” of origins is not what the texts are about. So the issue, ultimately, is not that creationism is scientifically and historically incorrect, but biblically incorrect.
Monotheism Versus Polytheism
There are actually two accounts of creation, one following the other, in Genesis 1 and 2. The first is commonly referred to as the Priestly account, because it reflects a priestly style, and priestly context and concern. It was probably written in the sixth century B.C. during, or shortly after, the Babylonian captivity. The Priestly account uses the schema of six days of creation and occupies the first chapter and first verses of the second. The other account, to which this has been prefaced, begins in chapter two, verse 4b, and contains the story of Adam and Eve in Eden. It is referred to as the Yahwist account because of its use of the term Yahweh (Jehovah) for God, and was probably written in the time of Solomon (tenth century B.C.). Since it is the Priestly account that is central to the “creation model,” the preponderance of attention will be given to the problem of its interpretation.
The alternative to the Priestly account available at the time was obviously not some prominent theory of evolution. All cultures surrounding Israel had their origin myths, some impressively developed in epic proportions and
covering most every aspect of the cosmos in great detail. Yet they were, from the standpoint of Jewish monotheism, hopelessly polytheistic. The one origin account within Israel, the Yahwist, was monotheistic. But it did not have the sweeping cosmic scope of other cosmologies. This was especially critical relative to Canaanite religion within Palestine, with its Baal myth and cult, and to the religion of the Assyrians and Babylonians who in succession had conquered Israel and were the proud possessors of grand cosmologies, as well as complex astrological systems.
In fact, if one looks at the cosmological alternatives that were prominent in the ancient world, one senses immediately that the current debate over creation and evolution would have seemed very strange, if not unintelligible, to the writers and readers of Genesis. Scientific and historical issues in their modern secular form were not issues in debate at all. Science and natural history as we know them simply did not exist, even though they owe a debt to the positive value given to the natural order by the biblical monotheistic affirmation of creation, which emptied nature of its many resident divinities.
What very much existed and what pressed on Jewish faith from all sides—and even from within—were the religious problems of idolatry and syncretism. The critical question in the creation account of Genesis 1 was polytheism versus monotheism. That was the burning issue of the day, not some issue which certain Americans 2,500 years later in the midst of a scientific age might imagine that it was. And one of the reasons for its being such a burning issue was that Jewish monotheism was such a unique and hard-won faith. The temptations of idolatry and syncretism were everywhere. Every nation surrounding Israel, both great and small, was polytheistic. And many Jews themselves held—as they always had held—similar inclinations. Hence the frequent prophetic diatribes against altars in high places, the Canaanite cult of Baal, and “whoring after other gods.”
Read through the eyes of the people who wrote it, Genesis 1 would seem very different from the way most people today would tend to read it—including both evolutionists who may dismiss it as a prescientific account of origins and creationists who may try to defend it as the true science and literal history of origins. For most peoples in the ancient world the various regions of nature were divine. Sun, moon, and stars were gods. There were sky gods, earth gods, and water gods. There were gods of light and darkness, rivers and vegetation, animals and fertility. Everywhere the ancients turned there were divinities to be taken into account, petitioned, appeased, pacified, solicited, avoided. For ancient Jewish faith, this divinized nature posed a fundamental religious problem
In addition, pharaohs, kings, and heroes were often seen as sons of gods, or at least as special mediators between the divine and human spheres. The greatness and vaunted power and glory of the successive waves of empires that impinged on or conquered Israel (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia) posed an analogous problem of idolatry in the human sphere.
In the light of this historical context it becomes clearer what Genesis 1 is undertaking and accomplishing: a radical and sweeping affirmation of monotheism vis-a-vis polytheism, syncretism, and idolatry. Each day of creation tackles two principal categories of divinity in the pantheons of the day and declares that these are not gods at all, but creations of the one true God who is the only one, without a second or third. Each day dismisses an additional cluster of deities, arranged in a cosmological and symmetrical order.
On the first day the gods of light and darkness are dismissed. On the second day, the gods of sky and sea. On the third day, earth gods and gods of vegetation. On the fourth day, sun, moon, and star gods. The fifth and sixth days take away any associations with divinity from the animal kingdom. And finally human existence, too, is emptied of any intrinsic divinity—while at the same time all human beings, from the greatest to the least (not just pharaohs, kings, and heroes) are granted a divine likeness and mediation.
On each day of creation another set of idols is smashed. These, O Israel, are no gods at all—even the great gods and rulers of conquering superpowers. They are the creations of that transcendent One who is not to be confused with any piece of the furniture of the universe of creaturely habitation. The creation is good, it is very good, but it is not divine.
We are then given a further clue concerning the polemical design of the passage when the final verse (2:4a) concludes: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” Why the word generations, especially if what is being offered is a chronology of days of creation? Now to polytheist and monotheist alike the word generations at this point would immediately call one thing to mind. If we should ask how these various divinities were related to one another in the pantheons of the day, the most common answer would be that they were related as members of a family tree. We would be given a genealogy, as in Hesiod’s Theogony, where the great tangle of Greek gods and goddesses were sorted out by generations. Ouranos begat Kronos; Kronos begat Zeus.
The Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians all had their “generations of the gods.” Thus the Priestly account, which had begun with the majestic words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” now concludes—over against all the impressive and colorful pantheons with their divine pedigrees “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” It was a final pun on the concept of the divine family tree.
Other cosmologies operated, essentially, on an analogy with procreation. A cosmic egg is produced and hatches. A cosmic womb gives birth. Or a god and goddess mate and beget further gods and goddesses. In the priestly account a radical shift has taken place from the imagery of procreation to that of creation, from a genealogy of the gods to a genesis of nature.
When Hesiod entitled his monumental effort at systematizing the complicated web of relationships between the many Greek gods and goddesses a theogony, he was reflecting the fundamental character of such cosmologies. They are theogonies (birth of the gods) and theo-biographies as well. They depict the origin, life, and times of the various divinities. And they interpret “nature” in terms of these divine relationships. Procreative, family, social, and political relationships are used to describe the natural order, understood as divine beings and powers. Thus, if there is any sense in which the “creation model” of Genesis stands over against evolutionary models of natural and human history, it is in the sense that it self-consciously and decisively rejects any evolution of cosmic forces presented in terms of an evolution of the gods. For that, by and large, was what polytheistic cosmologies were: the evolution of natural phenomena read as the emergence of new species of divinity. And their interaction with one another, their ecology, was read as the interaction within and between various families, clans, and armies of gods.
The fundamental question at stake, then, could not have been the scientific question of how things achieved their present form and by what processes nor even the historical question about time periods and chronological order.
The issue was idolatry, not science; syncretism, not natural history; theology, not chronology; affirmation of faith in one transcendent God, not empirical or speculative theories of origin. Attempting to be loyal to the Bible by turning the creation accounts into a kind of science or history is like trying to be loyal to the teachings of Jesus by arguing that his parables are actual historical events and only reliable and trustworthy when taken literally as such.
Even among interpreters who do not identify with the literalism of the creationists, one often finds a sense of relief expressed in noting that the sequence of days in Genesis 1 is relatively “modern,” and offers a rough approximation to contemporary reconstructions of the evolution of matter and life. Actually, however, its closest approximation in this regard is to the Babylonian “Genesis,” the Enuma elish. This epic mythology exalts Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, as the supreme divinity in the Mesopotamian pantheon. Marduk is extolled for rescuing the cosmos from the threat of the goddess of the watery abyss, Tiamat, out of whose womb the first gods had come. He then established, out of the two halves of the slain Tiamat, heaven and earth; sun, moon, and stars; vegetation; animals and fish; human beings. It is this order, and this cosmology, that Genesis 1 most directly approximates. It provides a Jewish cosmology to preface the story of Adam and Eve, on a scale equally encompassing to that of other ancient Near Eastern cosmologies, yet without the polytheistic mythological dramatics.
The attempt, then, to harmonize Genesis with modern science by reading the days of creation as referring to large epochs of time, rather than literal days, is no more relevant to the issues the Priestly writer was addressing than the literalist interpretation. At best the days, read as epochs, provide a very rough approximation to recent scientific scenarios. The entire progression actually begins, not with a burst of light, but with watery chaos—as in the Babylonian epic—which hardly corresponds to any modern understanding of origins. The “formless earth” is also depicted as existing before the light of day one and the sun, moon, and stars of day four. Vegetation is created before the sun, moon, and stars, on the third day, and surely would have wilted awaiting the next epoch.
Still, no matter how close the approximations to modem natural histories might be, the entire line of argument is a lapse into a form of literalism, with its assumption that this account is in some way comparable to a scientific, historical one. If there is a “modern” appearance to the account, it is not because it anticipates modem scientific constructions by presenting a similar sketch of a scientific order but because it anticipates them by preparing the way for them, in purging the cosmic order of all gods and goddesses. In Genesis the natural order, for the first time, becomes natural rather than supernatural. Nature has been demythologized and de-divinized. What was formerly divine, or a divine region, is now declared to be “creature.” Nature, in fact, could not become nature in the sense in which we have come to use the term until it was emptied of divinity by monotheistic faith. Nor could science and natural history become possibilities until nature was thoroughly demythologized. One may have half-way houses, such as astrology and alchemy, but only when nature is no longer a divine sphere can it be probed and studied and organized without fear of trespass or reprisal.
This does not mean that Genesis secularizes or desacrilizes nature; nature is still sacred by virtue of having been created by God, declared to be good, and placed under ultimate divine sovereignty. What it does mean is that Genesis 1 clears the cosmic stage of its mythical scenes and polytheistic dramas, making way for different scenes and dramas, both monotheistic and naturalistic.
Numbering and Numerology
A related area of confusion is the supposition that the numbering of days is to be understood in an arithmetical sense, whether as literal days or as epochs. This is certainly the way in which numbers are used in science, history, and mathematics—indeed, in almost all areas of modern life. But the use of numbers in ancient religious texts was often numerological rather than numerical. That is, their symbolic value, not their secular value as counters, was the basis and purpose for their use.
The conversion of numerology to arithmetic was essential for the rise of modern science, historiography, and mathematics. Numbers had to be neutralized, secularized, and completely stripped of any symbolic suggestion in order to be utilized. The principal surviving exception to this is the negative symbolism attached to the number 13, which still holds a strange power over Fridays, and over the listing of floors in hotels and high rises.
The creationists, in their literal treatment of the six days of creation, are substituting a modern, arithmetical reading for the original symbolic one. They are therefore offering, unwittingly, a secular rather than religious interpretation. And in the process, they lose the symbolic associations and meanings of the text while needlessly placing it in conflict with scientific and historical readings of origins.
One of the religious considerations involved in numbering is to make certain that any schema used works out numerologically—that it uses, and adds up to, the right numbers symbolically. An obvious concern of the Priestly account is to correlate the theme of the divine work in creation with the six days of work and seventh day of rest in the Jewish week. If the Hebrews had had a five-day or seven-day work week, the account would have read differently. Seven was a basic unit of time among West Semitic peoples, and the Sabbath-day was well defined and established by this period. It was important, then, to use a schema of seven days, and to have the work of creation completed on the sixth day. “And God ceased on the seventh day from all the work which he had done” (Genesis 2:2). The word “ceases” is shabat, a cognate of the term shabbat, sabbath. The “creation model” being used here is in no sense a scientific model, but a liturgical-calendrical model based on the Jewish week and observance of sabbath. Its motivation is religious, not scientific: to give ultimate grounding to the meaning of human work and creation, and to the religious significance of the sabbath observance.
The seven-day structure is also being used for another, not unrelated, reason. The number 7 has the numerological meaning of wholeness, plenitude, completeness. This symbolism is derived, in part, from the combination of the three major zones of the cosmos as seen vertically (heaven, earth, underworld) and the four quarters and directions of the cosmos as seen horizontally. Both the numbers 3 and 4 in themselves often function as symbols of totality, for these and other reasons. But what would be more “total” would be to combine the vertical and horizontal planes. Thus the number 7 (adding 3 and 4) and the number 12 (multiplying them) are recurrent biblical symbols of fullness and perfection: 7 golden candlesticks, 7 spirits, 7 words of praise, 7 churches, the 7th year, the 49th year, the 70 elders, forgiveness 70 times 7, and so forth.
When Joshua’s army took the city of Jericho, they are said to have circumambulated the walls once a day for the first 6 days, and 7 times on the 7th day, preceded by 7 priests blowing 7 trumpets; whereupon the walls collapsed and the city was completely taken. Even Leviathan, the dread dragon of the abyss, was represented in Canaanite myth as having 7 heads—the “complete” monster.
The symbolic meaning of the number 7, and of the 7 days, also harks back to the lunar calendar which, in Mesopotamia, had quite early been divided into 4 phases of the moon, of 7 days each, followed (beginning with the 28th day) by the 3-day disappearance of the moon—thus equally 30 days. The Babylonian epic of creation, Enuma elish—which itself consists of 7 tablets—has the god Marduk appointing the moon to four 7-day periods: “Thou shalt have luminous horns to signify six days, on the seventh day reaching a half-crown” (Pritchard, p. 68). On the seventh day of these lunar weeks one was counseled to abstain from a variety of ordinary activities because of the dangers involved during the critical transitions of the lunar progression. According to one ritual text, seers were not to give oracles, physicians to administer to the sick, or the king to change clothing, ride in a chariot, hold court, eat cooked meat, or offer sacrifices (Barton, p. 258 f.). The day of the full moon was known as shapattu, which has a probable relation to the Hebrew term for sabbath, shabbat, and shabat, “stop working.” This day is referred to in the Mesopotamian cuneiform texts as the “day of the quieting of the heart.”
In the Hebrew tradition the seventh day, while associated with cessation of normal activity, is separated from the lunar week and looked upon more positively as a day of blessing, celebration, and rest. “The Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11). This day does not suggest an atmosphere of anxiety or transition, but of relaxation and completion. Such positive meanings are now being applied by the author of Genesis 1 to a celebration of the whole of creation and of the parenthesis of sabbath rest. The liturgically repeated phrase “And God saw that it was good,” which appears after each day of creation, and the final capping phrase “And behold it was very good,” are paralleled and underlined by being placed in a structure that is climaxed by a seventh day.
The Priestly account also makes use of the symbolism of the corresponding number for wholeness and totality: 12. The six days of creation are actually two sets of three days each, with two types of phenomena assigned to each day. The second set of days fills in the details provided by the backdrop of the first set of days. The light and darkness of day one are populated by the greater and lesser lights of day four; the firmament and waters of day two are populated by the birds and fish of day five; and the earth and vegetation of day three are populated by the land animals and humans of day six. In this manner all the major regions of the cosmos are covered in six days, with two zones included each day, equalling 12. Thus the symbolism of completion and fulfillment is associated with the work of creation as well as the rest from it on the seventh day. The totality of nature is created by God, is good, and is to be celebrated both daily and in special acts of worship and praise on the sabbath day.
Uses of the numerology of 12, like 7, abound throughout the Bible: the 12 tribes of Israel, as well as the 12 tribes of Ishmael, the 12 districts of Solomon, and Jesus’ selection of 12 disciples, along with a miscellany of references to 12 pillars, 12 springs, 12 precious stones, 12 gates, 12 fruits, 12 pearls, and so forth. We, of course, continue the biblical and ancient Near Eastern division of the day and night into 12 hours and the year into 12 months. And the grouping of stars into 12 constellations and signs of the zodiac into 12 periods also derives from ancient Mesopotamia, along with the belief that the body was composed of 12 parts or regions.
Though in the modern world numbers have become almost completely secularized, in antiquity they could function as significant vehicles of meaning and power. It was important to associate the right numbers with one’s life and activity and to avoid the wrong numbers. To do so was to surround and fill one’s existence with the positive meanings and powers which numbers such as 3, 4, 7 and 12 conveyed. In this way one gave religious significance to life and placed one’s existence in harmony with the divine order of the cosmos. By aligning and synchronizing the microcosm of one’s individual and family life and the mesocosm of one’s society and state with the macrocosm itself, life was tuned to the larger rhythms of this sacred order.
For us the overriding consideration in the use of numbers is their secular value in arithmetic. We must therefore have numbers that are completely devoid of all symbolic associations. Numbers such as 7 and 12 do not make our calculators or computers function any better, nor does the number 13 make them any less efficient. Our numbers are uniform, value-neutral-meaningless and powerless. What is critical to modern consciousness is having the right numbers in the sense of having the right figures and right count. This sense, of course, was also present in the ancient world: in commerce, in construction, in military affairs, in taxation. But there was also a higher, symbolic use of numbers. And in a religious context, it was more important to have the right numbers in a sacred rather than profane sense. While we give the highest value, and nearly exclusive value, to numbers as carriers of “facts,” in religious texts and rituals the highest value was given to numbers as carriers of ultimate truth and reality.
Those, therefore, who would attempt to impose a literal reading of numbers upon Genesis, as if the sequence of days were of the same order as counting sheep or merchandise or money, are offering a modern, secular interpretation of a sacred text—in the name of religion. And, as if this were not distortion enough, they proceed to place this secular reading of origins in competition with other secular readings and secular literatures: scientific, historical, mathematical, technological. Extended footnotes are appended to the biblical texts on such extraneous subjects as the second law of thermodynamics, radiometric dating, paleontology, sedimentation, hydrology, and so forth. These are hardly the issues with which Genesis is concerning itself, or is exercised over.
The Impossibility of Literalism
The attempt to do a literal reading of Genesis cannot, in fact, be consistently pursued. And it is not, in actual practice. Creationists are literalists up to a point, but when their particular line of interpretation runs into an insurmountable difficulty they take that particular item “metaphorically,” or concoct some fanciful explanation which is far more symbolic than the interpretation they are attempting to avoid. The rule of thumb seems to be to take everything as literally as possible: give in only as a last resort. Thus the assumption is that religious truth equals literal meaning, when in most contexts the opposite is the case: religious truth equals symbolic meaning. The first questions in interpreting the text are never clearly asked: What kind of literature and linguistic usage is involved, what did the author intend, and what issues are being addressed?
In the case of the Priestly account, a literal reading is, at several critical points, impossible, contradictory, or simply unwanted. For instance, the imagery of days is used in the main body of the text, but the account concludes with the very different imagery of generations. The same word is used again in Genesis 5:1 to apply to the genealogy of Adam, and these generations are calculated as being in the neighborhood of 100 years per generation—obviously not the equivalent of single days. Clearly both the term days and the term generations cannot be taken literally.
If one moves on to the Yahwist account in Genesis 2:4b-25, the literalist encounters greater problems. If the two creation accounts are interpreted chronologically, they hardly agree in details or sequences. In Genesis 1 the order given is vegetation (day three); sun, moon, and stars (day four); birds and fish (day five); land animals (first half of day six). In Genesis 2 the order is quite different. Sun, moon, and stars are already presupposed, and therefore are before vegetation rather than after: “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up . . . then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground” (2:5-7). Adam is created also before any of the animals, rather than after as in Genesis 1. Eve, on the other hand, is created after vegetation and animals, not at the same time as Adam, as in Genesis 1. One would think that these glaring differences would be a sufficient indication that literal historical sequences could not be the original concern or intent.
The treatment of water in the two accounts is also quite different. Genesis 1 begins with watery chaos, and with the problem of separating this water into the waters above and the waters below (day two), as well as the problem of separating the earth from the engulfing waters (day three). In other words, the setting of Genesis 1 is one in which there is so much water that “the dry land” must be made to “appear” (1:9). Genesis 2, however, begins with the opposite problem: no water at all. The order is therefore quite the reverse of Genesis 1: first there is dry land, then water is introduced. Rather than formless earth needing to be separated from the embrace of the waters, the barren earth needs water in order for vegetation to appear: “for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground” (2:5, 6).
The differences between these two ways of organizing the issue of origins is the result of two contrasting life-settings in the history of Israel, the agricultural-urban and the pastoral-nomadic. Genesis 1 has drawn upon the imagery of the great civilizations inhabiting the river basins and areas adjacent to the sea, while Genesis 2 has drawn upon an imagery more in accord with the experience of wandering shepherds and goatherds living on the semiarid fringes of the fertile plains. There is precedent in the history of Jewish experience for both. For the shepherd nomad in search of green pastures, and moving between scattered springs, wells, and oases, the primary problem in life (and therefore in creation) is the absence of water. Water must be diligently sought out and is a scarce and precious commodity. What is in abundance is dust, sand, and wilderness rock. Thus the Yahwist begins quite naturally with a barren earth onto which water must be introduced. If there is an equivalent to the imagery of an initial chaos, it is not a watery chaos but a desert chaos.
The literalist, attempting to synchronize these two accounts with each other, and then with modern science and natural history, faces an impossible task. This is further substantiated by observing the inability of a literal approach to handle the puzzling imagery with which Genesis 1 begins. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (1:2 RSV). If one tries to take a literal interpretation, one immediately encounters the curious difficulty that none of the three realities mentioned in this introductory verse is referred to as created by God, either here or in the subsequent days of creation. On the first day darkness is presupposed, while it is light that is created and separated from the darkness. On the second day
water (the deep) is presupposed, while the firmament is created, separating the water into the waters above and the waters below. And on the third day the formless earth is presupposed, being separated from the waters “under the heavens” which are “gathered together into one place, letting the “dry land appear.”
This being the case, if one is determined to take the account literally, one achieves a very awkward and unwanted result: God created everything but darkness, water and earth, which are therefore co-eternal with God. It is also totally contrary to all scientific evidence, whether geological or astronomical, that either water or earth existed before light (day one), sky (day two), or sun, moon, and stars (day four). Darkness perhaps, but not water and earth.
These difficulties can only be resolved by a different interpretative approach which clarifies the literary form of the account, the reasons for selecting this particular form, and the reasons for developing the content of the passage in this particular order and manner. The basic literary genre of Genesis 1 is cosmological. And, inasmuch as it is dealing specifically with origins, it is cosmogonic. In order to interpret its meaning one has to learn to think cosmogonically, not scientifically or historically. This does not mean that the materials are, in any sense, irrational or illogical. They are perfectly rational and orderly, and have a logic all their own. But that logic is not biological or geological or paleontological or even chronological. It is cosmological and theological.
The Cosmogonic Form
Cosmogony is a common literary form in the ancient world, though the monotheistic content of Genesis 1 is certainly different from the highly mythological, polytheistic content of other cosmogonies. There was an established cosmogonic vocabulary with which the Priestly author could work. The motif of a primordial chaos, characterized by a combination of “chaotic” features, such as watery deep, darkness, formlessness, boundlessness, is a familiar theme in ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies. In Egyptian myth this original reality is described in terms of four primordial pairs of divinities, representing the qualities of this relatively undifferentiated cosmic brew. Nun and Naunet are the Primeval waters; Kuk and Kauket are the primeval darkness; Huh and Hauhet are the boundless primeval formlessness; and Amun and Amanunet are the obscurity and indefinability of this mysterious source of that which now has clear definition and place. Out of this beginning rises the primeval hill, like a muddy, fertile hillock from the receding waters of the Nile. Subsequently come the appearances and separations of the sun (Atum), air and moisture (Shu and Tefnut), sky and earth (Nut and Geb), and so forth. The logic of the
cosmogony is that, if things now form an ordered cosmos, with each sphere clearly demarcated, there must first have been a time when they came to be what they now are out of an initial state in which this situation did not obtain—that is, chaos. And water is a natural candidate for depicting this formless beginning.
Sumerian cosmogony, similarly, began with the primeval sea (Nammu) which gave birth to the cosmic mountain, with earth (Ki) as its base and heaven (An) as its peak, Earth and heaven then begat air (Enlil) who, like Shu in Egyptian myth, separates and stands between them. Likewise the Babylonian Enuma elish depicts a beginning in which there was only water. The primeval ocean, in this case, is pictured as the confluence of the fresh lake and river waters of Apsu (male) and the salt sea waters of Tiamat (female), whose commingling begets the gods. Or as another, hymnlike version, found at Sippar, paradoxically phrased the beginning: “All lands were sea; then there was a movement in the midst of the sea.”
Such aboriginal waters not only were seen as the source of life and fertility, but as having the potential for taking back and destroying what they have given. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Atum warns of the possibility that “the earth will return to the floodwaters, as in the beginning.” Because the Nile river is relatively placid and regular this theme does not take on the dramatic proportions that it does elsewhere. In Canaan the god of rainfall and fertility, Baal, subdues Yam, god of the sea, and defeats Leviathan (the serpentine), also called Rahab (the ferocious). He thus gains control of the weather and seasons, and brings about order. Similarly, the Hittites to the north celebrated at the New Year the victory of the weather god who had conquered the primeval waterdragon, thus placing rainfall under his dominion and regulation.
In the Mesopotamian plains, with the greater irregularity of flooding along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—as instanced in the extreme with the Great Flood accounts in Genesis 6-9 and the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, whose details are quite similar—this invasion of the waters is a perennial threat. Sumerian myth recounts a sinister plot to inundate the plains, which was subverted by the god Ninurta (or goddess Inanna) who channeled the subterranean waters through the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. Both Genesis and the Gilgamesh epic, of course, recount a “sinister plot” that was carried out. And much of the Babylonian epic of Enuma elish is taken up with the conflict between the water goddess, Tiamat, and her progeny, as she threatens to destroy the cosmos to which she had given birth.
When Genesis 1 calls upon similar images in describing the initial state of things, they are well-known images found along a great cultural arc that runs from Egypt in the south and Greece in the north through Palestine and Mesopotamia to India. And they have a venerable antiquity—in several cases, an antiquity of one or more millennia earlier than the Priestly account. While the imagery has presented problems for a modern interpretation, it was, and had been for many peoples for a long time, a perfectly natural way to begin a cosmogony.
In this cultural milieu which Genesis 1 broadly shares, the primary cosmological problem to be addressed was the problem of water. Actually water presents a double problem: its abundance and its formless (“chaotic”) character. Water has no shape of its own, and unchecked or uncontained, as in flood or storm, can destroy that which has form. Similarly, the earth, engulfed by formless (unformed) water is inevitably formless. Darkness, also, is dissolvent of form. These problems, therefore, in the logic of the account, need to be confronted first. The ambiguousness of water, darkness, and formless earth must be dealt with in such a way as to restrain their negative potential and unleash their positive potential.
The ensuing organization of materials is best understood by seeing this initial verse as describing a three-fold problem (the ambiguous potential of formless darkness, water, and earth) which is then given a solution in the first three days of creation. The first day of creation takes care of the problem of darkness through the creation of light. The second day takes care of the problem of water through the creation of a firmament to separate the water into the waters above (rain, snow, hail) and the waters below (sea, rivers, subterranean streams). The third day takes care of the problem of the formless earth by freeing earth from the waters and darkness and assigning it to a middle region between light and darkness, sky (with its waters), and underworld (with its waters). This then readies the cosmos for populating these various realms in the next three days, like a house readied for its inhabitants.
We thus observe a division of the account into three movements (problem, preparation, population), each with three elements. The problem of the three “chaotic” forces is resolved in the first three days of creation by restraining their negative potential and unleashing their positive potential. As a result a harmonious context is established in preparation for the population of these three regions. The light and darkness of day one are then populated by the sun, moon, and stars of day four. The sky and waters of day two are populated by the birds and fish of day five. The earth and vegetation of day three make possible a population by the land animals and human beings of day six. The account should thus be read as if written in three parallel columns (shown on page 18).
In this way of reading the account, the dilemmas that arise for a literalist interpretation disappear. Three problems, which are envisioned as difficulties for cosmicizing, are dealt with first, followed by a sketch of the way in which these cosmic regions are then inhabited. This is the logic of the account. It is not chronological, scientific, or historical. It is cosmological.
|(vs. 2)||(days 1-3)||(days 4-6)|
|Darkness||la||Creation of light||4a||Creation of sun|
|b||Separation from darkness||b||Creation of moon, stars|
|Watery abyss||2a||Creation of firmament||5a||Creation of birds|
|b||Separation of waters above from waters below||b||Creation of fish|
|Formless earth||3a||Separation of earth from sea||6a||Creation of land animals|
|b||Creation of vegetation||b||Creation of humans|
The procedure is not unlike that of a landscape painter, who first sketches in with broad strokes the background of the painting: its regions of light and darkness, of sky and water, and of earth and vegetation. Then within this context are painted birds and fish, land animals, and human figures. It would be quite inappropriate for anyone to try to defend, the artistic merit of the painting by attempting to show that the order in which the painting was developed was scientifically and historically “correct.”
Myth, Legend, and History
The implication of this d, ,, iscussion should not be taken to mean that everything in Genesis is non-historical or without interest in history. Both the Priestly and Yahwist accounts of creation are the beginning paragraphs of histories of Israel, which had commenced with the origins of nature and humanity, moving through a kind of universal history to the particular history of Israel. But using the word history for all of these materials is misleading, if we mean by the term a single, uniform concept of historical construction, such as modern historians might attempt to achieve.
The interest of the Genesis authors was not strictly and solely historical. In the first place they were concerned with collecting and preserving the stories that were an ancient part of the Jewish heritage, handed down largely by oral tradition. They were also concerned with arranging these stories in their relative historical order, so there is a sense of chronology and historical movement operative.
In the Yahwist history, the destruction of civilization in the flood, for example, is placed after rather than before the story of Cain, the father of civilization. The Priestly interest in genealogical lists and in dividing up materials into periods is certainly sequential and systematic. And thirdly, the authors were concerned with using these stories as instances of various theological and ethical truths. The accounts are thus fundamentally theologies of history and moral treatises.
Only the second of these concerns approximates a modern, secular understanding of historical writing. And, of these three, it is not the second but the first and third that are central to the purposes of the biblical writings. Consequently, it is difficult to make a clear, unequivocal use of the term history to apply to these materials, let alone terms such as information, record, straightforward narrative, or factual, natural, clear, definite, matter-of-fact. To try to apply such terms is misleading in the extreme and greatly distorts the real character and intent. The literalist view is not even a good representation of contemporary understandings of historical writing and sounds rather like the objective ideal of newspaper reporting. Again we have the problem of literary type. The biblical materials are only partly similar to the type of literature which we might acknowledge in our culture as being historical writing; there is certainly little similarity to journalistic reporting, television newscasting, or courthouse record-keeping.
Literalists are not the only ones to have done disservice in this regard to the special genius of these ancient texts. Some liberal interpreters, particularly of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, tended to agree with the literalists that the simple, literal meaning of these stories was what the authors believed—that it reflected the childlike simplicity of folk belief of the time, which post-enlightenment moderns, in their great wisdom and sophistication, could no longer accept. Hermann Gunkel, for example, in his influential Commentary on Genesis (1901), while defending the poetic beauty and religious profundity of the Genesis sagas, as he called them, nevertheless frequently spoke as if they were literally understood by those who told them. The stories and their details are frequently referred to as “primitive,” “naive,” “childish,” “infantile,” and “quite incredible.” They are seen to be offering explanations of a variety of phenomena that puzzled the ancients, such as why snakes did not have legs like lizards, and thus as representing the “humble beginnings” of science and history. For all these matters we now have, of course, better explanations by virtue of the scientific and historical rigor that eventually succeeded in emancipating itself from such myth, saga, and legend.
There are several misunderstandings in this way of dealing with the biblical materials as well. The primary function of great myths and legends is not that of offering explanations, as if intellectual curiosity were the central issue. There may be miscellaneous stories, or parts of stories, in which the etiological element is central. But the great stories are not concerned with providing a miscellany of information or ready-made answers for inquisitive children. They were understood as vehicles of the most basic and important truths of all by which people organized, regulated, and interpreted their lives, and through which they saw meaning, purpose, and value in their existence. Myths and legends, together with rituals, provided the overarching frame of reference within which to live and experience and celebrate the world. As such they are not superseded by modem science or historiography, for they belong to a different level of meaning and expression. Insofar as there is an explanatory element in the stories, such as the origin of languages in a divine judgment on building the Tower of Babel, this may be supplanted by later understandings of linguistic development. But the central religious affirmations can neither be supplanted nor supported by subsequent knowledge, any more than Sophocles’ Oedipus is replaced by Freud’s Totem and Taboo or Michaelangelo’s Pieta by NASA’s moonlander.
To be sure, there is a child’s level—generally unreflective level—in which the literal and symbolic, explanation and interpretation, are not clearly distinguished. And it may be that at some earlier time, or at the popular level of their own time, these biblical stories were understood in a simplistic fashion. But this does not mean that the Genesis authors themselves necessarily understood matters in this way. They appear rather to be collecting and arranging and reworking ancient stories, cosmological images, and the like, which are a familiar part of the Judaic heritage, or familiar to the Judaic heritage. And they appear to be doing this, not for the purpose of teaching these stories as such (in the modern sense of teaching history or science), but in order to preserve them as an important part of that heritage, to organize them, and to use them as familiar vehicles for conveying theological, moral, and spiritual truths. The narrative form is not the message; the religious content is the message.
But, in spite of all this, there is indeed some historical value or basis in the Genesis stories. The Garden of Eden, for example, contains a postulation, if not ancient remembrance, of a food-gathering stage which preceded sheepherding (represented by Abel and, later, Seth) and agriculture and urbanization (represented by Cain). Eve’s first eating of the fruit of knowledge, which led to agriculture and eventually urbanization, may have some historical basis in the probable origins of agriculture in simple plantings by women, and certainly in the association of women with earth, water, fertility, and sedentary life. After he is expelled from the food-gathering paradise, Cain becomes the first farmer and first city-dweller; his name literally means “smith.” He bears the mark on his forehead used to set apart smiths, and among his descendants is Tubal-cain, “the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron” (Gen. 4:22) (For extensive discussion of this, and other mythological and cultural data which illuminate Genesis 1-11, see Gaster, 1969). Cain’s quarrel with Abel is certainly an accurate historical reflection of the tension between nomadic pastoral peoples, who lived on the perimeter of the fertile grassland and farmland of the plains, and the sedentary agriculturalists—not unlike the conflicts of farmers with cattleherds and shepherds in the American West of the nineteenth century.
Similarly, the flood story in Genesis 6-9 (and in the kindred Epic of Gilgamesh) is based in the flood experiences of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, and in particular in one great flood that inundated the Mesopotamian plains before 3000 B.C.—which for the people of that region and time would have been their “world.” It is also quite plausible that some escaped in boats and took animals with them. Sir Leonard Wooley’s excavations around Ur in 1929-30 uncovered a silt deposit eleven feet deep, with artifacts of human habitation above and below, which he estimated would have been made by a flood that covered the whole Mesopotamian region, as much as 30,000 square miles, twenty-six feet deep—corresponding to the fifteen cubits depth mentioned in Genesis (Daniel, pp. 39-47).
Still, to dwell on the historicity of the accounts, even only an historical core, is to stray from the purposes of the writings. They are not aimed at providing a “truer” picture of the universe or of human history, let alone the only true picture, in the modem scientific or historical senses of true. They are aiming rather at providing a truer theological and moral picture of the universe, using accessible and time-hallowed materials. One of the many ironies of creationism is that, in its consuming passion to be faithful to its scriptures, it turns attention away from the central religious concerns of the biblical authors and focuses it on issues that are largely modern and secular. In so doing, creationists are not nearly as conservative as they suppose. They are modernistic and secularistic. And they have sold their religious birthright for a mess of tangible pottage.
By Conrad Hyers