Genesis – Chapter 1?

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In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Gen. 1:1 NIV

In the beginning. Perhaps no other sentence in Scripture has given modern man more heartburn than this one. On the face of it, it is simple and uncontroversial. The verse just says that God created the Universe. If we even pretend to be Christians, how can it be any other way? Of what use is a god who did not create us, and the universe that we live in? There is no controversy here.

If God had left it at that, we would be good to go. But the rest of the chapter is very disquieting to our modern sensibilities. What follows in that first chapter of Genesis is an account of the six days in which God created the Universe, giving concrete but enigmatic details of that creation process. The detail of that creative process doesn’t at all agree with what we think we know about the Universe and the logic of its creation.

Hidden in the background but even more troubling, the apparent conflict between Genesis and Science has provided the wedge, the opening, by which our culture questions the very moral and ethical basis of what we as a culture believe. Our culture, the West, has been built on a foundation of Scripture and the interpretation of that Scripture by a long line of Jewish and Christian thinkers over more than 3,000 years of recorded history. Our ideas of right and wrong, how we are to live in this world, the rights and obligations of human beings to each other solidly rest on what we have interpreted the Bible to say. But the questioning of that foundation, given credence by the apparent error of Genesis, has begun to change our culture in ways that would have seemed unthinkable a generation ago.

While the Church recognizes the war in our culture over foundational truths, it has been silent, weak or confused in dealing with the assault on its authority, its credibility, in the area of Genesis. Seen in strategic terms, Genesis is the key to our culture’s foundational reliance on the Bible for moral authority. If Genesis is wrong, then anything based on a scriptural understanding of the Bible is open to question. If Genesis is right, then all of the moral truth upon which our culture is built is both valid and unquestionable.

But the response to that assault, such as it is, of the Church to the debate around Genesis has been weak. That response has generally been in one of the three main categories. The first and probably most prevalent response is to simply ignore Genesis. Genesis is the crazy old aunt of the Bible whose house is filled with cats and mothballs. When the subject comes up, we smile, joke about eccentric behavior and move the conversation along to other topics. It’s not something we talk about it to strangers or in polite company.

A second school of thought is to treat the early chapters of Genesis as allegory and myth. The things spoken of in Genesis did not really happen, but God has put them in the Bible to illustrate a point. In essence, we might say that they are Jewish foundation myths, such as any culture has. The Jews believed that God created heaven and earth in six days, just as the Hindu’s believed that the world began with a lotus flower growing out of Vishnu’s navel when he awoke sleeping on a giant cobra in a vast ocean. Everybody has to believe something. Lets not get too hung up on those old myths, give everyone a break and move on to things that matter in today’s world.

This body of thought has some believability. There is no question that the Jesus often used parables to teach. The writings of the Prophets, Psalms and the Wisdom Books use vivid metaphors to either prophesy or illustrate points. Also, the Bible often uses “types”, a form of metaphor, to point to the Messiah, what he will do and what will be the circumstances of his coming.

But the fact is that the parables and metaphors are usually marked out, either by the speaker or by the context of Scripture in a way that they can be seen as non-literal. But Genesis is put forth in such a way as to appear as a straightforward account of the facts of the matter. If it is intended by God to be allegorical or mythical, there is no context or other indication that points us in that direction.

In fact the genealogies, which are such an important part of the proof of Jesus legitimacy, depend on Genesis being a factual and accurate historical record. Again, if the promises of the New Testament are to be believable, Genesis must be accurate in its particulars. To assume that the parts we like in Genesis are accurate and factual accounts, while other parts that we don’t like are allegorical, is to make great leaps of logic. The fact that our logic is badly flawed is not unnoticed by the world with resulting great damage to our testimony.

A third school of thought is to accept Genesis as the literal truth, at least as interpreted by various schools of literal thinkers. By carefully counting the ages of the pre-flood patriarchs noted in Genesis and combining with the dates and time spans known in the Old Testament, scholars of this school date the creation of the world to approximately 6,200 years ago. Therefore, the findings of physics, archeology, geology and biology must accord with this time span. No exceptions allowed. As an example, if we allow for the existence of dinosaurs, they must have co-existed with Adam.

It can be hard to argue with this third school of thought for two reasons. The first is the reluctance of the Church to engage meaningfully with any questioning of belief in this area. While the Church is ordained by God and will someday be the Bride of Christ, today it is a human institution, and as all such, prone to error and sin. Any institution made up of sinful men must by its very nature be prone to all those sins typical to sinful men.

Among those sins is the one of intolerance. It is a truism that people and institutions are most dogmatic and intolerant about those things that are most doubtful. While many in the Church respond with thoughtful, well-reasoned answers to questions of doctrine on the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, Genesis brings forth emotional responses. Witness the fierce controversy over Darwin and evolution. One must be purposefully blind to ignore the readily observable fact that life changes to meet different conditions, more or less the definition of evolution. And there is nothing in Scripture that speaks to evolution, one way or the other. But it is orthodoxy within much of the Church that Evolution is absolutely and unequivocally wrong, even without a scriptural basis in so saying. Evolution is simply declared damnable error based on what I perceive to be questionable error in interpretation of Scripture.

The second reason that it is difficult to argue with this school of thought is that, in fact, Genesis does say that the heavens and earth were created in six days. It does give the length of life spans for the patriarchs that do calculate the beginning of the world to some 6,200 years. When Genesis is read and interpreted by technological man of the 21th century with a worldview shaped by the Enlightenment and the subsequent march of Science, what else could Genesis mean other than what we have interpreted it to mean? We are so much a part of the worldview of our culture that any other explanation makes no sense to us. Similar to the fish, we ask “What water?”

I have no ready answer to that, as I swim in the water myself. Thinking outside of my fishbowl is very difficult. But I have given Genesis a great deal of thought. The apparent paradox between my grasp and love of Science and Scripture has made me question my faith. Faith and logic always live in uneasy coexistence. However, as happens when faith is questioned, faith emerges strengthened and more solid from doubt. God honors questions asked with an open heart. Perhaps that insight might be a guide and a help to all of us in the Church when questions of Scripture arise. But while faith lives and grows stronger, the questions remain. I have come to my own accommodations with Genesis that I will share. But I point out in advance that they are not answers and are very much a work in progress.

So often the Church has stood and, with brow darkened and pointed finger outstretched, cursed those who dared to contradict it about the Science of this world. Galileo was faced with being burned alive at the stake for saying that Jupiter was a separate world with its own moons. Galileo recanted and said it wasn’t so to save his life. But his colleague Giordano Bruno did not recant and was burned at the stake. The great astronomer Copernicus, who proved that the sun was the center of the solar system rather than earth, did not publish his ideas until he was on his deathbed because he knew that fire and stake awaited him otherwise.

Galileo, Bruno and Copernicus are only a few of the men who have run afoul of the Church because they could not ignore the evidence of their eyes and the conclusions of their mind. Time and again through the history of the past 600 years, the Church has often been proven wrong when it declared the physical world conformed to its interpretation of Scripture. What are we to do when we see the physical world be at odds with our interpretation of Scripture?

A good start to any question about Scripture is to read Scripture. Read it without the baggage of interpretation and commonly held belief. Read it with a humble heart and a suspension of disbelief. Read it with a heart open and a mind quiet. As the Psalm advises us, “Be still and know that I am God”.

The first thing that comes to my mind in struggling with this question is that  the Bible seems to be completely indifferent to the physical world, other than to use it as an illustration of God’s power and majesty. Given the rest of the Bible, why does Scripture begin in the first chapter of the first book with an apparently detailed description of God’s creation of the physical world? Why would God do this? What is He saying to us? To me?

I see the whole of Scripture, the coherent complete body of Revelation, concerned with the relationship of God and man. Everything in the Bible centers on God’s desire to be in relationship with man. Why does the Church feel the need to make pronouncements about the way that the physical world works? God seems to show no interest in that topic other than to point out, almost in passing, that He made the world and that it belongs to Him. It is there for our use and we are to exercise responsible stewardship of His property while we use it.

There is no doubt that we are engaged in battle with the Forces of Darkness for the hearts, minds and souls of the people of this world. Many in this world simply ignore our Bible because they have the view that Science has proven us, and the Bible, willfully ignorant of reality.

As a practical matter, it is a poor general who chooses to fight on the field chosen by his enemy. The physical world works the way that the physical world works. Why do we as Christians see the need to make pronouncements on the subject? We are prone to error if we are dogmatic about that which is not explicitly stated in Scripture. We are so eager to die for beliefs that have nothing to do with what we believe. There is interpretation of Scripture to be sure, but we need to understand and know the difference.

Reading Genesis Chapter 1 with new and questioning eyes brought new light to my understanding. It proceeds in a way that seems to have unmistakable problems to my earthbound engineering mind. If it is a straightforward account of the creation of the Universe, then why does it begin as a formless chaotic body of water? Where did that water come from? Why are green plants and dry land created before the sun, the moon and the stars? What is the meaning of a day before there is a sun to define what a day is? How can this possibly work?

The simple answer is to these and many more questions are to take them on faith and go on to other things. While I am both humbled and convicted by the need for faith, I became an engineer because God created me with a certain set of gifts, a certain turn of mind. I believe that He expects me to use the gifts that He has given me. To turn away from questions without searching for answers seems to deny God’s creation of me as I am. I am ever mindful of the Parable of the Talents. I must look deeper.

I am fascinated by the way our minds create patterns. The existence of a few scattered pieces of information allows our minds to create entire pictures of the world. Our life experience, our education and training all give us a background of understanding. My granddaughter knows that sliding her fingers over an iPad makes things happen. The logic of her world did not exist ten years ago.

Our ideas of what is logical are very much a product of our common sense, our water if you will. An example to me of my human ability to miss the obvious because of my common sense is one that I learned at a young age and in a very unlikely place. One of my favorite novels is Foundation by Isaac Asimov. It tells of a dying civilization that founded two colonies to survive the coming collapse of that civilization. The two colonies were located at opposite ends of the empire, as far apart as they could be so that at least one would survive. The novel revolves around the one colony’s search for its sister colony, which remains hidden. While an enigma, the second colony is in plain sight, hidden by the conceptual errors of the first colony created by its common sense.

Perhaps the first chapter in Genesis is a mirror. We see in it ourselves. We are a culture proud of our knowledge, our ability to bend God’s handiwork to our own ends. We read the first chapter’s account of how God created the Universe and compare it to the instructions for putting together a table from IKEA. We start with parts and put them together in a logical order. Single celled algae become multi-celled become plants become fish become animals become monkeys become men.

We presume that since we can put together a table, or build a jet plane, we can speak with authority of the way things are and how they came to be. We have left humility far behind us. Though we joke about the weatherman’s mistaken forecast of rain this afternoon, we speak with surety about how it was in the beginning. We are sure of many things that are forever beyond our comprehension.

For in speaking about the beginning, we are speaking about the limits of our understanding, something we are loathe to do. In our pride, in our hubris, we refuse to acknowledge that there exist things forever beyond our comprehension. At the same time that we acknowledge animals as our equals in intrinsic worth, we deny the existence of any limits on our ability to understand and to know. But the beginning is a black emptiness that we cannot see beyond or through. By definition, it is beyond us. A creation is necessarily less than its creator.

God tells us that He created the Universe, “in the beginning”. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that before the beginning is completely beyond us, even our imagination. It is a concept like eternity. It is forever beyond us. If God tells us that it happened in six days and that it began with Him hovering over the deep, who are we to say no?

Perhaps it is here that my prejudice betrays me. I think that engineers come to humility more easily than scientists. After all, the patron saint of Engineering is the slightly profane Murphy, who gave us our guiding star when he put in place his legendary Law:

Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Edward Murphy – Murphy’s Law

But Science is more about beauty than utility. One can imagine engineers and scientists as sisters. The one, blessed with ethereal grace and beauty, is an elegant ballet dancer at home in the salons of the rich and famous. The other, blessed with a face and figure more suited to utility, cooks and cleans for her artistic sister.

While Science often sees the Universe as a concert hall in which they pursue their art, Engineering knows that the Universe is a House of Mirrors in which nothing is as it seems. Engineers know the truth of God’s cursing of Adam later in Genesis.

“Cursed is the ground because of you . . . It will produce thorns and thistles for you,” Gen. 3:17-18 NIV

The first chapter in Genesis sets the stage for the rest of God’s revelation to us. God tells us that He created the Universe. All things were created by Him. He tells us that the creation was done in a logical and orderly way. But He tells us that his logic is beyond our understanding. Not because He is hiding truth from us, but because it is outside our ability to comprehend. It is enough for us to know that God does things in his own time and according to his own plan.

But while the logic of the creation is beyond us, there is much for us to learn from the chapter beyond the need for humility before God. There is a definite hierarchy to the creation. We proceed from chaos to Man. There is a definite ordering as the six days of creation go by. Plant life is created before animal life. Sun, moon and stars are created to give order in the sky for the use of animal life. Animal life was created before Man, who is to rule that creation.

We are taught of our need to be humble before God because what He does is beyond our ability to understand, but we also learn that Man is his highest creation; that God, Himself, is the template for our creation. We are not animals. We learn that Man is not to simply exist in this creation; but has a higher duty given to us by God. We are to reproduce and we are to rule this creation.

And it is here that we come to a real test of our faith. This idea that we, Man, are the highest creation; that we are to increase in number apparently without limit and to rule over that creation is not well received in our culture. Genesis, Chapter 1, holds not one, but two, messages to us that are disquieting to our modern sensibilities.

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