The Bible Doesn't Say How God Created the World

But it probably didn't take six days.

For many Christians, the origin of the universe is a simple conversation: God did it. According to Genesis 1-2, he created light and darkness, sea and atmosphere, land and plants, moons and stars, sea and flying creatures, land animals and people--all in six, literal days.

Forget what scientists tell us because the same book we trust for our salvation says that there was an evening and a morning each day, not millions of years in between. Likewise, Scripture says that all creatures were created after their kinds, not by evolving into different kinds.

In other words, the biblical account of creation seems pretty straight-forward so any attempt to allegorize it must be false and fueled by a lack of faith in the narrative's face-value reading. However, I submit that any biblical text we consider clear is suspect. When the meaning of Scripture seems immediately apparent to us, it's likely because we're not reading it how the original recipients did.

Reading Genesis as a twenty-first century American Christian is quite natural, but reading it as an Egyptian-raised Israelite possibly in the fifteenth century B.C.E. is a tall order. But if Moses wrote Genesis or at least portions of it, we have to at least try to imagine how the recently-emancipated Israelites would understand the book.

The Egyptians had a rich mythology, and since the Israelites lived under their rule for a number of years, we have to assume that they would've been familar with it. This should be evident given the plagues that God used to free his people. As he told Moses, they were designed to judge Egypt's gods from Hapi, the god of the Nile, to Ra, the supreme sun god.

While some of the Israelites certainly feared the God of their fathers, even Moses asked God who he should say sent him. They had lived in a foreign land for so long, many probably forgot God and feared Egypt's gods instead. So we should expect after such a symbolic display of judgment that God would teach his people their history in terms they understood.

For example, according to Egyptian myth, the world was created out of the lifeless, chaotic waters of Nun. The first god arose from these waters and created air, moisture, earth, and sky. Sound familiar? There are an awful lot of parallels between the Egyptian myths and the Genesis account except for one, key distinction: God was there in the beginning, uncreated.

The gods of Egypt were primarily personified aspects of nature who were more capricious than deliberate and nothing like the God who commanded earth and sky and life itself. The fear Pharaoh felt during the plagues is hard to capture because God not only had power over his gods but also listened to Moses--a completely foreign concept in the ancient world.

Thus, the creation narrative should be read as corrective rather than informative.

So were Adam and Eve real people? Possibly, as all things are with God, but probably not. When reading Scripture, we have to divorce ourselves from the modern notion of historical documentation as most writings of the day used and often embellished history for specific purposes.

Don't misunderstand me. God's revelation of creation in the style of myth is not intended to be misleading. Again, creation myths were common at the time and would've been known to the Israelites. Ignoring the literary context and reading the Genesis account as literal history is similar to how some children think that Santa is real. God isn't being dishonest anymore than parents creating memorable traditions. He's simply asking us to focus on what matters.

Human thought on cosmogony hasn't departed much from the ancient epics as the prevailing theory today bears witness. You'll recall that the Egyptians believed the world was formed out of waters of chaos similar to how Darwinian evolution attributes the origin of life to chance. Indeed, the Egyptians saw humanity as an accidental byproduct of the creation process.

But Genesis tells a different story. We learn that not only was there a divine architect at the very beginning, but that all of us were created with a purpose and endowed with the breath of divinity. We are not meaningless products of chance and chaos; we are children of God whose very image foreshadows a relationship with the infinite.

Throughout history, humanity has wrestled with the meaning of our existence and without God, we always come back to chance and futility. From Egypt to evolution, we're incapable of knowing who we truly are apart from him. Genesis may not satisfy our thirst for details but it answers the most important question: why we exist and, more importantly, for whom.

Which brings us to the six days. Reading Genesis as a myth might be easier to swallow if not for the specificity of time given creation. And the answer should be somewhat obvious. God explained creation in six days to teach us about rest.

The God who raises the dead certainly doesn't need to rest but according to Genesis, he did. We don't take this literally, that he was so tired after creation he needed a day to recuperate. No, we understand that God did so to model the Sabbath and illustrate the life he desires to have with us. As we read in Hebrews, there yet remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God where we will be one with him for eternity.

We don't need to know the length of creation or the age of the earth. These are the same distractions that have led people away from the truth for centuries. All we need to know is that God was there in the beginning hand-crafting each and every one of us to rest in him. Rest in that knowledge and submit your need for details to the one who has determined we don't need them.
Photo credit: Dreaming in the deep south via Foter.com / CC BY

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