I don’t interpret the first half of Genesis. Some people say this and mean “I stick to a literal interpretation of Genesis.” But notice the expanded explanation includes the word “interpretation.” I don’t do that. God has always spoken to me through deep study and cross comparison between different areas of study. I haven’t found any particular view of Genesis as overly compelling when I’ve looked into the various interpretations of the first half of Genesis.
There are always at least three things that need to be considered when you’re looking at a Biblical passage. First, and in some ways most important, it’s always relevant to ask, “What is God saying to me in this passage right now.” There’s a sense in which every other interpretative framework is just an attempt to help answer this question. It’s also a question I don’t get into much in this blog. I’ve seen God use things in his Word that are “out of context” and “using the wrong understudying” and yet the fruit they produce could only come from God himself.
That kind of thing can be difficult to bottle. While I’m perfectly confident that the friend I once had who read the parable of the prodigal son to learn that his child would eventually outgrow their wild ways was given peace from God, I’m equally confident that’s not the message that everyone should take from that parable. In that one case with that one friend that one time, it worked out and it helped repair their damaged relationship and it came with signs of confirmation. I can’t put that in a blog post.
The next most important thing is what God is saying to all people in all times and places through this text. There’s a mistake that some people make in thinking that this is the only message that scripture has, but I’ve already mentioned that I’ve seen scripture taken out of context and in bizarre linguistic directions to produce the works of God, but that message cannot be the message for all people. That message can only be for that individual. And yet, if God is speaking directly to you by whatever verifiable means, what could you do except put that message first? The most common mistake I’ve seen is for someone who sees one of these private messages to think that it applies to everyone. This stems from thinking there’s only one meaning to the text, and since they’ve “found it.” When the results are undeniable in their life, then it must be the message for everyone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to me to work like that.
The final most important thing to ask when looking into a passage is what it meant to the original author and audience. This is often a clue to what God intends the message to mean for you here and now and for all people in all times and places. If God already meant for the text to mean something, he might mean for it to mean that again. If it’s never meant something to the people of God, the chances are less that it will actually mean that to you now. Not impossible, but less likely. It has not been my experience that God generally hid a message from his scribes. It has been my experience, as I get deeper into the text and the original languages, that the inspired scriptures really are written by men moved by God, not by empty men dispossessed by God.
When we examine the interpretation of any passage of scripture, it’s important to clarify which meaning we’re trying to pull out. Something like a blog post or an academic journal is poorly equipped to answer the first. I mean, I suppose you could write to me and ask for help with what feels like the interpretation, and give me the things that are going on in your life, and we can make sense of it all together. But that’s not my interest and frankly sounds exhausting. That’s what pastors are for. Go see a pastor.
So that leaves two levels that are left to discuss: what God means for all time and what he meant for the original audience. It’s easy to think these are always the same, but I’ve shown elsewhere that they are not always the same. So it’s important to distinguish which one of these we are answering when we provide an interpretation of a passage of scripture.
For the first half of Genesis, I haven’t yet found a model that either unifies or divides the intention toward the original audience and the intention of all time. So for that reason, I don’t even feel equipped to begin the process of interpreting these scriptures.
But it’s a hot button, controversial topic, and when I can legitimately and truthfully throw fuel on the fire of controversy, I will. So don’t think for a second that I haven’t tried my darndest to find the “right” interpretation of Genesis. At one time, I did a deep dive into four different interpretations of Genesis. These were The “Plain Reading,” The Gap Theory, The Day Age Theory, and Genesis as Apocalyptic Literature. Since then, I’ve also read The Lost World of Genesis 1. I’m going to give a brief overview of my thoughts on each of these. I don’t think this is an exhaustive list of interpretations, but it’s what I’ve been exposed to and been able to put real thought into. Please leave comments to other interpretations that don’t follow these models and I’ll add my thoughts on those as well.
The “Plain Reading” has a deep respect for the text, but it isn’t as traditional as some try to pretend it is and tends toward conspiratorial thinking. The Gap Theory takes both the science and the text seriously, but there’s not really a good place to put the gap. The Day Age Theory also takes both the text and the science seriously, but it isn’t clear what kind of age is intended or how to apply the text to a study of geology or archeology. Reading the first half of Genesis as apocalyptic literature has the advantage of disconnecting the text from scientific pursuits completely, but it’s not clear how to separate the apocalyptic views from the historical narrative. Dr. Walton’s Lost World of Genesis 1 does a good job of connecting the story to its time and place, but still has a lot of unanswered questions.
No matter what else you say about the plain reading of Genesis, there’s a certain harmony and simplicity to it. If God is not the author of confusion, then there’s a sense in which we expect the plain reading of all scripture to have a real and important message for everyone at all times, or at least to the people in their own generation. A day can mean a lot of things in both Hebrew and English, but let’s face facts: the plain reading strongly implies that the days of Genesis are more akin to our current 24 hour day cycle than anything else. Days as ages don’t have mornings and evenings and don’t get numbered in quite the same way.
It’s commonly asserted that no one would ask the question about the first half of Genesis if modern evolutionary theory weren’t on the table. This is very clearly not the case, if you’ve ever read history. Great church thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas noticed “blips” in the text. On the fifth day, God blesses the sea animals and birds to be fruitful and multiply, and they’re shown to have populated the Earth by the seventh or eight days. I don’t know about you, but if God showed up on my doorstep and told me and my wife to fill the Earth and he’ll be back in three days to check my progress then I’ll be willing to give it the ol’ college try, but without some serious divine intervention I’m pretty sure we’re coming up short. There’s also the mirror of events between the first three days and the second three days: that which is prepared on day one is filled on day four, that which is prepared on day two is filled on day five, and that which is prepared on day three is filled on day six. This is a very obvious literary technique that’s used in other places in scripture.
Also, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 seem to describe creation differently. It’s unclear if Genesis 2 is a separate creation event or retelling the first creation event in a different way.
These and other “blips” in the text have caused deep thinkers to suspect that God has something else going on in the text for centuries. So it wasn’t just evolution that sparked these questions. Long before evolution was thought up, the text inspired these questions alone. However, a dedication to this particular plain reading or that particular plain reading (because there’s more than one “plain reading”) has gone the other way. It’s associated with beliefs in conspiracy theories and distrust of science.
As a father of a son who has been saved by modern science multiple times, and as someone whose first adult job was working with technology, I have very little patience for distrust of science. If you don’t want to trust the current science, then make something more trustworthy. The problem with believing that science is full of conspirators is the sheer number of scientists with conflicting interests. As the old saying goes, the only way two people can keep a secret is if one of them is dead. Don’t believe me? Look up the story of unkillable Iron Mike Malloy. If a barroom full of men with money motivating them to keep their secret couldn’t keep their mouths closed, I find it hard to believe that an international network of thousands of scientists could do it for no good reason.
The Gap Theory and The Day Age Theory both have something in common: they both try to take the text seriously and take the science seriously. The Gap Theory tries to find a place to squeeze in a million years or so at some point in the text of Genesis 1. This is a way of trying to take the text seriously, of envisioning the days as days, the evenings and mornings as evenings and mornings, and yet allowing for the millions of years between creation and today that would be necessary for all the stuff we see in the ground and sky.
The biggest problem with The Gap Theory is that there’s no place to put the gap that answers all our problems. If you put the gap after Genesis 1:2, then you still have the sun and stars made less than a week before humans, which doesn’t seem to match the geological record. If you put it after day three, all of life is made in half a week. If you put it after day six, then we have prototypal humans wandering the Earth for millions of years, but everything is made in a week. The gap just doesn’t fit anywhere nicely.
The other problem that I have is that the text never hints at a gap. This may not be a problem among dispensationalists, but I’m not a dispensationalist. If you’re going to take the text that particular kind of seriously and yet add in an unmentioned gap, then I start to question your motives. I’d definitely be willing to accept the unmentioned gap as a reality if it was hinted at by other data such as the geological record or something, but it’s not. I think Occam’s Razor supplies: if there’s no evidence for the gap in the text and there’s no evidence of the gap from other sources, then the gap may not be the solution you’re looking for.
Like The Gap Theory, The Day Age Theory tries to take both the text and the science seriously. There’s a lot of variation in theories that fall under this general heading. Some of them are essentially multi-gap theories, others are true theories that apply multiple millions of years to each “day” of the text. In either case, the strengths and weaknesses are kind of the same.
So, to make my next point, I’m going to say something that will confuse some who are even less well versed in taxonomy than I am, so I’ll go on the justify it afterwords, then I’ll apply it. If you accept the next statement, then you can skip a paragraph. Monotremes are to placental mammals what crocodilians are to birds.
This is not an unfiltered acceptance of evolution. This analogy works by whatever means you think we are able to group animals into groups. Monotremes have a lot of chemical and functional mechanisms in common with placental mammals. They also have a number in common with basal reptiles. In a similar way, crocodilians share a number of features in common with birds, others in common with reptiles.
With this in mind, if we look at the order of animals created in Genesis 1 and consider that crocodilians and dinosaurs were birds, then a bunch of things make a lot of sense in the order of creation compared to the order of things in the fossil record. I mean, it’s not a tight fit, but it’s not a bad fit, either.
If each day represents an “age,” where do we get the boundaries for these ages? These boundaries aren’t present in the geological record. You wouldn’t reconstruct the day model from the geological record. And what does “evening” and “morning” refer to? If the problem with The Gap Theory is what it adds to the text, the problem with The Day Age Theory is all the stuff it ignores. Why do some separate creation events, such as the creation of dry land and seed bearing plants, happen on the same day? Why not put an evening and morning between them? What is the event that evening and morning represent? They don’t seem to be fixed lengths of time. So what are they? Answers evade us.
This category is actually quite broad and covers a lot of different interpretations. Sometimes I’ve heard that the seven days of creation are actually seven periods in history and that we are currently in the fifth, sixth, or seventh. Sometimes I’ve heard that the seven days of creation correspond to the history supplied in Kings and/or Chronicles. Sometimes I’ve heard that they actually describe things yet future. I’ve heard that the creation events in Genesis 2 and 3 actually explain the crucifixion. The interpretation that Genesis 10 is actually a map of the region more than a literal genealogy is pretty well established. All of these would fall under this category.
This method takes the text seriously. It ignores the science by saying that putting science into the question is a wrong approach from the start. To the one reading Genesis as apocalyptic literature, asking how long each day lasted makes the same kind of nonsense as asking if the coin that the woman recovered in Luke 15:9 was minted under Augustus or Tiberius: it takes the text seriously in the wrong way.
One clear point that this has in its favor is that some of the story elements really do fit well with apocalyptic literature: the cataclysmic changes, the talking animal, the angelic imagery. Another is that it sidesteps the scripture vs. science issue altogether. Another is that we know God speaks through apocalyptic poetry: Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel. Even if this method of interpreting Genesis isn’t the only right way to interpret Genesis, it’s found a lot of utility in understanding Genesis 10 and 11. So it’s definitely not “wrong.”
Even though we know that this method isn’t “wrong,” it doesn’t immediately follow that it’s automatically the one and only right and true way to read the first half of Genesis.
For one thing, Genesis transitions from “maybe apocalyptic” to “probably historical” right about Genesis 12. Why the change? Is it an abrupt change or a gradual change? Might there be historical elements a few verses back? A few chapters? Right to the beginning?
The other obvious problem with this is that it’s not really falsifiable. I could claim that Genesis 1 and 2 are actually describing the establishment of a chicken farm and another guy could claim that they describe a particular cattle drive, and there’s no way to look at one or the other and say, “No, that’s not it. Must be the other one.”
So I think that if you’re working with a pastor who says that maybe you’re personally getting guidance in this direction, reading Genesis in some apocalyptic way, then that may be helpful for you. But if you’re going to put out a way to read the first half of Genesis this way and expect everyone else to as well, then you’ve got to get a bit more specific and find a way to ground your interpretation.
Up until this point, I’ve just been rehashing thoughts that I actually put into the text almost twenty years ago. I had no kids back then, and of course I was way smarter back then and thought I could crack any intellectual nut over the weekend. Categorizing the different views of Genesis was a good first step for me, and I thought that the four categories that I had created encompassed all of the interpretations available for the first half of Genesis.
Then I started hearing rumors about a book by Dr. John Walton that finally answered the question. The first description I heard of the book was to claim it was “just the gap theory rehashed over again.” This turned out to be from someone who thought that there were only two interpretations, The Plain Reading Theory and The Gap Theory. Which, if you haven’t gathered by now, isn’t a very helpful way of looking at the problem.
More robust descriptions made it sound like an apocalyptic interpretation, but the people I listened to that had actually read it never used that language.
Finally, I accepted that there might be a fifth interpretation of Genesis and read the book. And you know what? There’s a fifth interpretation. I mean, I could wrangle this in under apocalyptic literature in a way, but not really.
The main thesis seems to be that Genesis 1 (and to a lesser extent Genesis 2 and 3) describe creation as the construction of a temple. The difference between this reading and more typical apocalyptic views is that it makes no attempt to connect the creation story to historical events. It would be as if I said, “Writing a blog post is like building a house: first you lay the foundation, then you build the frame, then you establish the walls, and finally you decorate.” You’re not really going to use that as a guide to build a house, nor are you going to be overly concerned with how much of the outline and how much of the rough draft are “laying the foundation” and how much is “building the frame.” It’s okay to be flexible.
John Walton’s view has a lot of merit to me. It seems to sidestep the whole scripture vs. science question at least as well if not better than the apocalyptic views, and it’s definitely more grounded and testable than other apocalyptic views. It’s based on the idea that we can cross reference with other creation stories in the area and get a sense of how these things lay out to get a deeper sense of their meaning.
But being falsifiable also means that it runs the risk of being falsified. So far, all I’ve seen from Dr. Walton or those following his views is a general hand waving in the general direction of understudying what the text might be saying. To be fair, this view is very much the new kid on the block and it may just take another genius to pull it together or another turn of the archeological spade to turn over the other Ancient Near East tablets containing similar creation stories to help us really make sense of the meaning. For now, when I ask what the creation of light on the first day means, all I get is, “It might mean a few things: organizing the temple ground, lighting a candle, or offering the first sacrifice. We don’t know enough about the construction methods of the time to really answer that.” Which means we don’t know enough to really say what this interpretation is saying, which means we don’t know if it’s right or wrong.
Even if it is completely right, it also doesn’t rule out the possibility of another, historical based approach. God can say more in the text than what the original author and/or audience realized. So even if we do make the connections that Dr. Walton would need for this to become the mainstream interpretation, it wouldn’t exclude the possibility of a literal six day creation or a day age or even an accurate description that added a gap. As the old saying goes, more research is needed.