Interpreting Genesis

The prevailing view of the universe among most people at the time that Genesis and the other early books of the OT were written — Israelites and pagans alike — was that the Earth was flat, supported on an unmoving foundation, with an expansive ocean in the sky separated from the Earth by a firmament, or dome (Hebrew “raqia”). Some modern translators translate the word raqia as “expanse” instead of “firmament”, hoping to accommodate some notion of an expanding space which we now know to be true. But it’s clear that the original writers actually meant to describe a hard, solid surface. In describing the firmament, Job 37:18 states, “can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?”

At that time, the Earth itself was still the immovable center of the universe fixed upon a solid foundation, for this is clearly stated, in very strong language, in multiple places in the Bible, including 1 Chronicles 16:30, 1 Samuel 2:8, Job 9:6, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and Psalm 104:5. In 1543, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus announced that the Earth moved around the Sun. Blasphemer! Or so the prevailing leaders of the Church — even the Reformed Church — said. Martin Luther is credited with saying, “People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolved, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon… This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but the sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

Even the foremost Reformer of our faith was completely wrong when it came to understanding the natural world through the Bible. How could God in His glory cause the Earth to circle an object that was the subject of so much pagan worship? But now we know that it is true. He grossly misinterpreted Scripture as a scientific text. If Martin Luther can botch this one, it can be forgiven that many Bible teachers with a “creation science” agenda do the same today. But they stand to be corrected.

John Calvin, in his doctrine of accommodation, explains that God accommodated his style of explanation in the Word to match the sensibilities of the people to whom it was written. Calvin explicitly wrote that he did NOT believe there were waters above the firmament, even though this is specifically and literally stated in Genesis 1, because science had clearly revealed by his time that this was simply not true.

Calvin did believe in a literal six days of creation, for there was no evidence to the contrary during his lifetime. Augustine of Hippo, one of the earliest Christian theologians, rejected a literal six-day creation, but he did believe that the Earth was approximately 6000 years old. Like many others throughout early Church history, he calculated this age using only the genealogies of Genesis. However, his many other writings about science and Scripture made it very clear that he would adhere to this belief only if there was no evidence to the contrary. We now have an abundance of evidence to the contrary — solid evidence verified by every branch of scientific investigation.

So now we come to evolution.

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is inerrant in its original languages. The verses in the Bible, particularly in Genesis Chapter 1, which would be used to argue against evolution (v. 11-13, 20-27) are interspersed with the very same verses that explain the nature of the firmament (v. 6-8), the Sun and the Moon (v. 14-18), and the waters above the dome (v. 6). However, we have already accepted that there is no dome, and there is not (and never was) any water hovering above such a dome.

Common sense tells us that we should use the same Biblical hermeneutic to interpret ALL of these verses together, in the only way that would render ALL of them inerrant. We can’t pick and choose which verses to take literally based on our emotional response to them. If our interpretation of Genesis doesn’t coincide with what is shown to be true, then it is our interpretation and understanding of the Word that is incorrect, not the Word itself. God used a picture of the universe that the ancients were already familiar with, not to instruct them about how the universe was made, but to reinforce the idea that the universe as they knew it was made by God — the God of Moses. As time advances, the Word remains the same, and its original meaning remains the same, but translations and interpretations are fallible. Thus, it is critical that our interpretation of any Biblical text grasps its true purpose.

If we understand the purpose and style of the first chapter of Genesis, we understand that it is not a scientific description of the “how.” Even so, there are some truths to be found about the natural world. The order of progression of animal life on Earth from sea creatures to land animals is somewhat in line with the ordering of the days of creation, although we now know that land plants appeared after sea life, and birds appeared much later. And it’s subtly stated that God did not create life directly — verses 11, 20, and 24 show us that God commanded the earth (meaning the ground) and the waters to BRING FORTH plants, fish, birds, and all other animals. It does not say that God brought forth the plants and animals from the earth and the waters, but rather that the earth and the waters BROUGHT FORTH plants and animals under God’s direction. The earth and waters do not have any supernatural powers, for the primary message of Genesis 1 is clear — there is no god of the earth or god of the water. There is only the one true God. Under God’s governance and providence, the earth and waters brought forth all living things, naturally, not supernaturally. If all of these plants and creatures were not created through natural processes, but were instead created fully formed, why bother to identify the earth and the waters as the agency through which God created life?

Even Adam was made from the dust of the earth, but Adam was something special. God could have made Adam’s body out of nothing, or through supernatural means, but there’s nothing in the text that specifically indicates anything supernatural other than the breath of life, which is identified as the source of Adam’s soul, not his body. For Adam’s body, Genesis shows that like the animals, Adam’s body was formed from the earth, but he was not a living soul until he received God’s supernatural breath of life.

This article is an excerpt from my longer article, “On Matters of Faith and Science.”