Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 2

I’m continuing my blog series on why Genesis 1 should not be interpreted in a literal fashion. I discussed in the previous blog on this subject the highly poetic and stylized nature of the chapter. Northrop Frye rightly agrees that “Symmetry, in any narrative, always means that historical content is being subordinated to the mythical demands of design and form.”  Another reason why one should not interpret Genesis 1 in a literal fashion is the temporal incoherence within the narrative involving the nature of light and light sources, the nature and breadth of all that is done on the sixth day, and the incongruence between the first and second creation narrative.  This blog will focus on the first issue that is internally incoherent: the issue of light and light sources.

Genesis 1 describes the creation of light and darkness on day 1 (Gen. 1:3-4). Fair enough. God is responsible for the creation of light. The only problem is that the sources for the light were not created until the fourth day (Gen. 1:14-19). The problem is analogous to giving your wife a gold ring without the dense metal ever existing. This problem is not new and was highlighted in support of a non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1 by the Alexandrian scholar and theologian Origen. He said in his book De Principiis Book 4:

Not even the law and the commandments totally convey what is reasonable to reason. For who that has understanding would think that the first, second, and third day- and the evening and the morning- existed without a sun, moon, and stars? Or, too, who would think that the first day was, as it were, without the sky?… I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries-the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.

Bruce Waltke adequately describes the problem in his Old Testament Theology. He noted:

On the fourth day, God creates the sun and the moon to mark off the days, yet there were three days prior to their creation, each with an “evening” and a “morning,” terms that elsewhere signify a sunset and a sunrise. Moreover, day 1 and day 4 represent the function of the light and of the luminaries in precisely the same way. On the first day, God creates the light to “separate the light from the darkness,” and on the fourth day, he creates the sun and the moon to “separate the light from darkness.” To be sure, light can exist apart from luminaries, but the refrain elsewhere does not mean “it was ‘lightset’ and it was ‘lightrise.’” Which is more probable? That there were three “light sets” and three “light rises” without a source of light before there were sunsets and sunrises? Or, in view of what we know about Hebrew literature, that the narrator anachronistically structures his plot in an alternating pattern to teach that the ultimate Source of light is not dependent on luminaries, and that the Creator of light should be worshipped and not the luminaries whom the pagans worshipped? Is it a fair analogy to liken the sequential relationship to the events of day 1 and day 4 as well as in the plot to the notion that God creates a breathing human being and then three days later gives him a nose? In other words, is it likely that God first created the effect and then three days later created the cause?

Some will not find this line of reasoning correct. Various young earth creationists have looked to Revelation 21 and 22 for an apologetic response. Both chapters mention the end of the sun’s existence (“…the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb [21:23]” and … “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. [22:5]”). The implication is that there will be no more sun and moon and light still exists despite the lack of source of the luminescence. My problem is that the YEC’s are appealing to a more complicated text to explain an already complicated text. If there is one genre of biblical literature that is the hardest to interpret, it is apocalyptic texts (e.g. Revelation and Daniel)! Apocalyptic literature is known by its bold pronouncements that come in picture form, contains the presence of strange visions, contains ghastly figures, forcefully uses dramatized symbolic imagery, abounds in the use of metaphor, has an abundance of cataclysmic events that signal the end of the world, and has action that leads to a final judgment and the ushering in of a new world. Gordon Fee in his commentary on Revelation that “many of the images are intentionally bizarre and thus their meaning is uncertain.” The appeal to obscure verses in an apocalyptic text to alleviate the scientific problem of an effect without a cause in an ancient, Jewish cosmogony is akin to asking a 5th grader who only knows English to explain an Egyptian poem with the help of a Chinese dictionary. It is wholly unwise.

Young earth creationists also appeal to God’s omnipotence to explain the logical inconsistency. “God can create the effect without the cause. It is illogical but God is all-powerful and can do all things.” My only problem with this is that it makes the definition of omnipotence illogical. Some people claim that any limitations placed upon the power of God undermines our claim of God’s omnipotence. To them God is not subject to any law or human understanding (God can do anything whatsoever because God is not bound by our reasoning and our own way of thinking). The only problem with this is that it makes the doctrine of omnipotence unsound. Omnipotence should rightly be described as “the doctrine that God is able to do all that is able to be done with all power and might in his own self and good pleasure.” To say that there are certain things God cannot do does not mean God is bound by our logic. Scripture itself puts limitations on omnipotence: God cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18), God cannot be tempted by evil (Jas. 1:13), and God cannot swear by a greater being (Heb. 6:13). It is not wrong to assert God follows the laws of logic or rationality. Thus, the appeal to divine omnipotence is dubious.

In closing, it is wise to interpret Genesis 1 in a nonliteral fashion based upon the highly stylized nature of the chapter and the incoherence of having light from the sources before the sources are even created. Stay tuned for the next blog.

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4 responses to “Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 2

  1. Interesting article, thanks.
    Why „mythical demands of design and form”? Do not you think it says in Genesis is literally true?
    Do you think the author was influenced by pagan peoples myths?

    • I think the author is using the language and metaphors of the ancient near east but not the theology. The Israelites’ ethical monotheism rules out borrowing their theology. It is true as other poetic prose is true but i don’t know what it would look like if we were standing their watching God create and order the cosmos.

  2. Pingback: Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 4 « Austin's Blog·

  3. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. The sun was already created in the first verse of the bible. The days of creation are in the context of the earth. In Day 4 the sun was “made”, as in the past tense (i.e. set/revealed in the sky), not created. This is why a different Hebrew word is used (asah). The sun and moon were revealed in the sky by God removing the dense atmosphere to clear so that the birds and animals could actually see the sun and moon from the earth.

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