Biblical Views of Creation
Although the Bible has been read and studied as Holy Scripture for over twenty centuries, two developments within the last few generations have radically affected the way in which we understand this most important book. The more spectacular of these is the impact of archeological research, which is uniquely able to provide us with new sources of information, whether in the form of material remains or through the uncovering and eventual decipherment of additional texts from the ancient world. The second is the rise of modern biblical scholarship, which brings to bear all available tools in an effort to understand the Bible in much the same way that other academic disciplines deal with their subject matter. To be sure, neither of these methods is entirely without precedent. The Bible itself describes how a seventh century Judean ruler was forced to react to the discovery of a "new" text which most scholars today consider to have been some form of Deuteronomy, while the authors of late biblical books had to reconcile contradictory claims in earlier sources.1 Still, modern biblical studies are usually regarded as beginning some time within the last century or so as the pace of both research and discovery increased to the point where we simply had access to vastly more information than was available to even the most brilliant of earlier generations. As a result, modern scholarship has been able to provide substantial insights into this ancient and revered text.
Relying on our accumulated knowledge of history, languages, and literary techniques, this discipline strives, within the limits of human ability, to understand the Bible and the society from which it emerged on their own terms just as we might any other document or culture. And while, as in any academic discipline, many questions remain open, one can trace a rather clear consensus as to the nature of the Bible, a consensus shared by most scholars whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. It is that consensus which I will attempt to present here insofar as it pertains to the issue of creation. To do so clearly, I will focus on three major points which can be summarized as follows:
- The Bible (Old Testament) contains several points of view which, despite certain fundamental commonalities, are not always in complete harmony with each other.
- The biblical accounts of creation are most often a response to other ancient teachings with which the authors have chosen to take issue.
- The fundamental purpose of the creation narratives is to interpret the meaning of the universe rather than to make a scientific statement as to its origin or history.
One way to recognize the diversity of viewpoints found in the Bible is simply to glance at its table of contents. There are books by Amos and Jeremiah, Malachi and Ezekiel. Whatever overall harmony may exist among these figures, no one would expect them to agree on every detail. Scholars recognize that the same kind of compilation process which led to the inclusion of all these writings in our Bible and the exclusion of others was also responsible for the present shape of many individual books.
The most famous, but by no means the only example of this can be found in the first pages of Genesis itself. Chapter one describes the creation of man on the sixth day, after vegetation had been made on the third and animals earlier on the sixth; according to chapter two, however, man preceded these other creations. Chapter one states that woman was created at the same time as man, whereas in chapter two she follows both man and the animals. There is also a rather different tone in each of the two passages. In the first, God creates by fiat; as the psalmist put it, "He spoke, and it came to pass" (Ps. 33:9). In Genesis two, on the other hand, rather than being called into existence, things are formed out of other things. A final distinction is stylistic: in the first chapter God is consistently called "God" (elohim), whereas in the second He is spoken of as "LORD God" (yhwh elohim). On the basis of this kind of evidence, scholars infer that two originally separate traditions about the creation of the world have been placed side by side at the beginning of Genesis. Of course, there are many common themes running through both passageshuman uniqueness and preeminence being just one obvious example. But the stories seem to have separate origins and purposes. The first is concerned to explain the origin of the entire universeoceans and stars, animal life and vegetationwhereas the second focuses almost exclusively on mankind.
Although most people are familiar with the passages to which I have referred and may even be aware of the arguments used to demonstrate their separate origins, not as many people know that Genesis is not the only place in the Bible where creation is described. The book of Proverbs, for example, deals with this theme when it states:
The LORD by wisdom founded the earth;
He established the sky with understanding.
By His knowledge, the deeps broke forth
and the clouds dripped down the dew. (Prov. 3:19-20)
What this means is made clear in a later passage where wisdom, personified as a woman, describes her role in creation:
The LORD created me at the beginning of His work,
the first of His deeds of old.
Ages ago I was set up, from the beginning, before the earth.
When there were no depths, I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
When the mountains had not yet been sunk in place,
before the hills, I was brought forth.
Before He had made the earth and fields or the world's first dust,
When He established the sky, I was there,
when He drew a circle on the face of the deep.
When He made the clouds firm up above,
when He strengthened the fountains of the deep,
When He set a limit for the sea
so that the waters would not transgress His command,
When He laid out the foundations of the earth
then I was beside Him, a master workman.
And I was His delight every day, rejoicing before Him all the time,
rejoicing in His world and delighting in mankind. (Prov. 8:22-31)
In other words, Proverbs is describing how something called "wisdom" existed before anything else had been made and actually helped God in the process of creation, even though such an entity is not mentioned anywhere in Genesis. This is an important philosophical assertion with obvious neo-Platonic analogs. Interestingly, later Jewish tradition came to understand wisdom as being Torah while Christianity regarded it as Christ.2
The book of Job speaks of God's creating the universe when it describes how
He hung the earth upon nothing and put water into the clouds . . .
He drew a circle on the waters, making a boundary between light and darkness . . .
By His power He calmed the sea, and by His understanding smote Rahab. (Job 26:7-12)
According to Isaiah 51:9, Rahab was a dragon (the Hebrew word is tannin). Like the "wisdom" mentioned in Proverbs, Rahab is absent from the Genesis account.
Psalm 74 also speaks of creation when it states
You did divide the sea with Your might;
You smashed the dragon's heads on the waters.
You did crush Leviathan's heads,
Giving him as food for the desert creatures.
You did split open springs and brooks;
You did dry up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, Yours also is the night;
You established the lights and the sun.
You set all the earth's boundaries;
Summer and winter You made them. (Ps. 74:13-17)
Here, in addition to destroying the dragons (tannin), God defeats something called Leviathan which, according to Isaiah 27:1 where it also appears alongside tannin, is a snake-like creature. Leviathan is now known from texts excavated from the ancient city of Ugarit, located along the Mediterranean coast somewhat north of Israel. Written in the thirteenth pre-Christian century, these tablets describe Leviathan (there called "Lotan") as a seven-headed, rather convoluted snake.3 Like Rahab, Leviathan is not mentioned in Genesis.
By examining all such passages throughout the Old Testament, one can reconstruct a story of creation quite different from the more familiar Genesis accounts. Although it obviously never achieved the status of the "canonical" versions, this Israelite myth must have been well enough known for ancient poets to be certain that their audience would understand the allusions. In broad outline, it would have gone something like this:4
At the dawn of history the waters of the sea, acting with the help of Leviathan, Rahab, and the dragon, rose up against God. The Lord's anger was kindled against these rebels whom He rebuked with the thunder of His voice. The rebels trembled and quaked at the sound of the Lord's rebuke; they were smitten by His mighty arm. The Lord calmed the waters and dried up the sea, setting a boundary which it cannot pass so that He might reign forever and ever.
The fate of the various rebels is not entirely certain. Some passages imply that they were pierced or crushed; others, that they were merely forced to acknowledge God's supremacy. In any event, the thrust of this account is clear enough.
Once this tale has been reconstructed, it is easily recognizable as a type well-known from several cultures, most especially those of ancient Mesopotamia, the region to which the Israelites traced their own origins (cf. Gen. 11:27ff). These stories describe how the leading god defeated the god of the sea who represents the forces of chaos. Only after his victory could he create the world, using the corpse of his foes or some other divine being. At the end of this process, man is made in order to do the gods' bidding.
Such accounts are known from several myths; the most famous, called "Enuma Elish" on the basis of its first words, comes from Babylonia.5 The main points of this myth are common to most or all of its various versions. These are:
- The belief that creation was the result of a divine battle resulting in the defeat of the chaotic waters or the god who represents them;
- The fact that the creation of the universe is incidental to the story's main focus;
- The sense that mankind was created to be a servant of the gods.
All of these, except the last which is not reflected in the available references, find their analogs in our reconstructed Israelite myth in which Israel's God was believed to have defeated the forces of the rebellious waters. More important still is the fact that this same myth is reflected in the much better-known account with which Genesis begins. To be sure, the relationship is not quite so obvious as with the more mythic version reconstructed from poetic allusions; but careful examination reveals the relationship to be every bit as important.
After He had created light on the first day, Genesis 1 tells us that
God said, "Let there be an expanse in the middle of the waters so that it will separate the waters into two parts. (Gen. 1:6)
In other words, the waters themselves already existed. This can also be seen from the very beginning of the story. Improvements in our understanding of Hebrew grammar, based in part on increased knowledge of other Semitic languages, clearly shows that the first few verses of Genesis actually constitute a single sentence which should be translated:
When God began to create the heavens and the earth the earth being chaos and confusion with darkness on the face of the deep and God's wind sweeping over the water God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. (Gen. 1:1-3)
Again, water is primordial; it need not be created because it already existed when God began the process of creation. A similar idea is reflected in the most ancient of Greek philosophy and, as we have already seen, in Mesopotamian mythology.6 The result of God's creative activity on the second day was, therefore, to divide this water mass into two parts water above the sky and water beneath.
On the third day
God said, "Let the waters which are under the sky be gathered together in one place so that the dry land can be seen." (Gen. 1:9)
Notice that the land was not so much created as made visible by putting all the water to one side, so to speak. This is strikingly different from the other Near Eastern stories, including the reconstructed Israelite myth, in that there is no threat from the water nor any battle against it. God's control is absolute: He speaks and it obeys. His sovereignty is demonstrated again on the fifth day when
God created the great sea monsters. (Gen. 1:21)
The Hebrew term for "sea monsters" is, as you might imagine, tannin. We have already observed that this term is a relic from ancient Near Eastern mythology which believed in the existence of primordial monsters. But these monsters do not fight against God on behalf of the forces of chaos; they are rather creatures made by God, part of the very order which permeates this account. Some people may be bothered by the thought that the Bible refers to creatures of this sort; after all, most of us are inclined to doubt the existence of dragons, whether in the ocean or on land. But the point is terribly important for an understanding of Genesis: what other ancient traditions, including some in Israel, considered a threat or enemy of God, Genesis regards as just another divinely made creature.
Once we realize the story's background, then its scientific accuracy becomes quite irrelevant. The message is not so much scientific or historical as theologicalthat God exercises absolute supremacy and control over a world which is not the accidental by-product of a cosmic struggle between forces of order and chaos, but rather the result of careful planning and organization.7
With mankind, too, there is a theological message. To be sure, the Bible regards humanity as subservient to God (we would be surprised if it were otherwise), but not as slaves to a lazy deity in the way Mesopotamian traditions did. Instead, man (and woman as well) is the culmination of the creative process. In Genesis 1 this is implicit in the assertion that Manboth male and femalewas created in God's image; in Genesis 2 the same idea emerges from the statement that of all created beings mankind alone is the product not just of soil but of the divine breath as well. And so man is placed as the superintendent over God's new world, an echo perhaps of the pagan point of view which saw man as serving the gods, but with infinitely more dignity than they suggest. According to Genesis, we are God's surrogate, not His slave.
How to regard stories like those of Genesis is not, for most of us, simply a matter of personal predilection. We would like also to know how they were regarded by those who decided to include them in the Bible as well as by Jewish and Christian authorities over the centuries since.8 For this last question one cannot in all honesty give a simple and straightforward reply. The Bible's role in Judaism and Christianity has been complex and multi-faceted. Still, both religions have historically agreed that Scripture incorporates many levels of meaning so that it can be interpreted in various ways. In general, Judaism and Christianity are inclined to see the Bible as a source of religious truth, rather than as a book filled with scientific facts. That does not mean that past authorities would have been comfortable with the thought that the Bible might lie or slant the truth; but, for the most part, they would not have been upset with the notion that some parts of the Bible are parable rather than history or that the biblical authors might have used metaphor rather than literal statements of fact. Augustine, for example, developed a doctrine according to which God revealed His teachings in accordance with the parameters of human understanding; rather than overwhelming us with the full depth of His knowledge, He accommodated Himself to our limited abilities in much the same way that He had lowered Himself by taking on human form for our benefit.9 Jewish tradition expresses a similar concept in its assertion that the "Torah speaks in human language."10 The Bible, then, is conceived as God speaking in a way we (or our ancestors) are capable of understanding, rather than in accordance with His own abilities.
In this regard, we would do well to remember that our own use of the word "truth" is not without its ambiguities. After all, there is the truth of a mathematical proposition like "2 + 2 = 4," the truth of a fable such as Aesop's tortoise and hare (which we accept as true even though we know it never actually took place), and the truth of poetry or other art forms.
Some people view the Bible as embodying the kind of truth found in fables; they expect each biblical narrative to have a moral of some sort. But a fable is a story that is obviously fictional and told solely in order to teach a particular lesson. It is rather doubtful that the authors of Genesis thought of their stories as patently fictitious in the way that Aesop obviously did. Most scholars are therefore more inclined to view the early Genesis narratives as "mythopoeic." Used in this sense, "myth" is not intended to assert that the story is either true or false, but rather that it pertains to a totally different dimension of reality from that which we ordinarily encounter; similarly, "poetic" suggests that the purpose is not merely to assert a scientific fact, but rather to make a very different and perhaps more important kind of statement.
Let us reexamine the Bible's story of creation in this light and seek to understand the point of view on which it is based. For the various myths which regard the universe as resulting from some sort of battle, existence is characterized by competing forces of chaos and order. Our world is an accidental by-product of that struggle, and man plays a limited and wholly subordinate role. For the first chapter of Genesis, everything is reversed. The cosmos was created intentionally and in a conspicuously orderly fashion. The sequence is logical. Nothing is created until its needs have been provided for: fish come after oceans, trees after the earth. Nor is this accidental. That things turned out as they were planned is emphasized by God's observation that "it was good," which is repeated after almost every act of creation. This is the world that He meant to be. Moreover, it is not a world in which conflict is the rule. Whereas the ancient Mesopotamian myths see a world in which order and chaos are continually at odds, Genesis sees order as transcending and dominating chaos. For the author of Genesis, there is one power which transcends all others. Mankind is the earthly representative of that power, created in its own image and charged with supervising its world as a kind of mediator between creatures and Creator.
None of this is explicitly stated, but then the book of Genesis is not a philosophical treatise or a scientific monograph. Indeed, there is a striking lack of abstract theology throughout the Old Testament. Consider its first verse: "When God began to create . . ." We are not told who this God is or what; His characteristics are not listed nor His nature probed. He is simply a given, whose nature must be inferred from the acts which are described. The Bible does not often assert its truths in the form of propositions such as we associate with a geometry text; instead, its message is communicated in the manner used by a poem or a painting. The question is not, therefore, whether the Bible is true or false, but rather what kind of truth it seeks to convey.
Having examined evidence from throughout the Bible as well as other ancient Near Eastern cultures and the relevant scholarly disciplines, we are now in a position to reiterate the main theses with which we began and to seek to understand their importance. It perhaps bears repeating that these conclusions are neither radical nor irreligious. They are, essentially, the consensus of modern biblical scholars who come from throughout the Jewish and Christian theological spectrum. Moreover, most of them do not see these conclusions as particularly threatening to their religious faith. Quite the contrarythey tend to believe that true faith must be willing to face facts honestly and that the Bible's religious values can be found only if one is willing to explore it with an open and curious mind rather than with preconceptions as to what we would like it to say.
The Bible, as we have seen, contains a diversity of viewpoints on this as on other matters; its descriptions of creation must be understood in light of the other differing points of view which were prevalent in its own time. Moreover, the Bible is not a science text but a religious one, a fact we overlook with surprising frequency, even those of us who regard ourselves as religious. And religion deals not so much with the facts of existence as with their meaning. This is precisely what we find in Genesisa statement not about the way things came to be, at least not in the manner we associate with modern physics or biology, but rather an assessment of their importance and purpose. Such truths are no less true than those of science, unless one believes Einstein's work is more valid than Mozart's or Newton more important than Rembrandt. They are simply of a different order. Rather than denigrating the Bible, such a view elevates it from the realm of the physical to that of the spiritual, from dealing with ephemeral trivia to communicating concepts about subjects to which we ascribe eternal worth.
1. For example, Exodus 12:8-9 commands that the Passover sacrifice be roasted (tsli eysh) and not boiled in water (bashel . . . bamayim), whereas Deuteronomy 16:7 commands that it be boiled (b-sh-l). The Chronicler, among the latest of the biblical authors, states that it should be "boiled in fire" (b-sh-l. . . ba-eysh, 2 Chron. 35:13). The discovery of the book commonly regarded as Deuteronomy is related in 2 Kings 22-23.
2. The Jewish view is stated explicitly in Genesis Rabba 1: 1 (see A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud [New York: E. P. Dutton, 19831, pp. 30-31); it is implicit already in Ben Sirach 24. For the Christian view see the Gospel of John 1:1-3.
3. Translations of these texts can be found in James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3d edition; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 138-9.
4. The evidence for this assertion and a detailed description of this tradition are presented by Umberto Cassuto, "The Israelite Epic," in Biblical and Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1973) vol. 2, pp. 69-109.
5. The Enuma Elish is translated in Pritchard, op. cit., pp. 60-72; other Mesopotamian creation traditions can be found in Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1951), pp. 61-81.
6. See G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge: University Press, 1960), pp. 15-19 and 87-93.
7. See Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken Books, 1966), pp. 1-23.
8. For a survey of Christian and Jewish attitudes towards the Bible see Frederick E. Greenspahn, Scripture in the Jewish and Christian Traditions: Authority, Interpretation, Relevance (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982).
9. The development of this doctrine is described by F. L. Battles, "God Was Accommodating Himself to Human Capacity," Interpretation 31 (1977), pp. 19-38.
10. E.g., b. Yebamot 71a and often in the Talmud.