When the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis are talking about the origins of the universe, should we read it like a scientific textbook…. or something else?
Many Christians today read the first part of Genesis assuming that God is supernaturally revealing to us the natural history of physical creation. This is a reasonable assumption. The Bible claims to be God’s Word, and we all want to know how it all got started.
So it would appear that God is simply stepping in Himself and giving us “just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday said on the classic 1960’s TV show, Dragnet. But what exactly does that mean? Before Adam gets created, there are no human eyewitnesses peering over God’s shoulder to see what He was doing. Even if you believe that Moses was the author of Genesis, you have to grapple with the reality that Moses was not hanging out in a tree in the Garden of Eden with a video camera or an iPhone camera app, recording the interaction between Adam, Eve and the Serpent. Joe Friday is wondering what to make of all this! So then, how does that historical information get from God to Moses, and then finally, to us?
Unlike the Gospels that are built on eyewitness testimony, in early Genesis many wrestle with God’s meaning of things like “days” and try to figure out how it all fits in with modern science. Are they 24-hour periods of time, or long epochs of time? How do you get “light” on day one when the sun does not appear until day four? What about the Big Bang?
But these are modern types of questions that today’s Bible readers bring to the text. Have we really taken the time to consider how the ancient Hebrew readers from several thousands of years ago understood the Genesis text? Centuries before NeoDarwinian genetics, the telescope, Google, and… we can not forget, Joe Friday… what did God’s people think when they originally read Genesis One?
Meet John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (uh, not the guy in this photo… you will see a photo of Walton later). Walton argues in The Lost World of Genesis One that though Genesis was written for us, it was not written to us. It is a subtle distinction, but it emphasizes the reality that we must not pretend that Moses, or anyone else in the Old Testament era, originally wrote for a 21st century audience. Instead we must first understand the mindset of the ancient Hebrews before we try to apply the Truth of Genesis to modern-day concerns.
To put it the way that a William and Mary chemistry professor and friend of mine would say it: Is Genesis talking about “Adam” or “atoms”?