How should we view and interpret Genesis? What is Moses' purpose with Genesis and specifically his account of creation?

Source: The Monthly Record, 2000. 4 pages.

Interpreting the Bible in an Age of Science

If one is asked, "Do you believe the Bible to be literally true?" the answer must be, "It depends what you mean by literally". A major response of Christians to negative criticism of Scripture, particularly in the 19th century, was to overreact to the supposedly safe bunker of literal­istic interpretation. This produced some strange interpretations: for instance, the Old Testament prophe­cies concerning Israel's future were interpreted so as to have fulfilment in a restored Israel as a political entity complete with a bricks and mortar temple and animal sacrifices. When mistakes like this are made, the church as God's covenant people is sidelined. The basic principles of Scripture interpretation are over­looked, distorted or rejected. New controversial positions take the place belonging to Scripture alone.

The Bible's Literary Character🔗

It is important to appreciate the simple fact that the biblical writers select and arrange their material. The way they record particular events highlights one or other aspect that they wish to emphasise. The Exodus from Egypt involved ten plagues as detailed in Exodus 7-12. We might suppose no writer would dare to describe such a significant event in another way, yet Psalm 105:24-37 lists only seven plagues and in a different order. There is another slightly different listing, also of seven items, in Psalm 78:42-51.  Evidently structure, literary effect and numerical symbolism are signifi­cant elements that can affect the crafting of the narrative. The early Genesis narratives provide further examples.

The same is true in the Gospels. As Jesus presumably usually spoke in Aramaic and the Gospel writers wrote in Greek, they did not give the exact words Jesus spoke but a trans­lation. They used freedom in giving the sense, hence differences of detail, though not actual contradictions, exist between their accounts, and they depart from historical order as it suits their purpose.

None of this should be regarded as at all threatening, and none of it undermines the integrity and author­ity of Scripture: "Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Spirit of God" (2 Peter 1:21). The human authors did not falsify or invent as they prepared their writings. Under a Divine compulsion, consistent with their own personalities and faculties, they set down the record of real events in the form God intended. Scripture was not written for students of earth sciences or astronomy but for sinners, and its message is there­fore always relevant.

Scientific Language?🔗

God's revelation is given in history and was intended for flesh and blood people. The personalities of the human authors were involved, and they were not speaking in a vacuum. They needed to be understood and they had a particular end in view – to teach God's covenant ways.

The Bible reflects the language of a three-storey universe in many places, not only Genesis and the Psalms, but even in the wording of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4). However, such passages contain nothing that suggests they approve of the idea that physical reality consists of the earth as a single continent floating upon an ocean with a dome above. Scripture merely uses the current way of speaking to convey its own message, which is nothing to do with describ­ing the nature of physical reality in a scientific way.

Similarly, when Isaiah speaks of the circle of the earth (Isaiah 44:22) he is not revealing that the earth is in fact a ball and not flat; he is merely speaking in an observational way. We do the same when we speak of the sun rising: in scientific terms this is erroneous, but as an observational description by everyday people it is quite proper. The same is true if we call the moon a light even though it produces none. So if we seize on expressions like 'the fountains of the great deep' and 'the windows of heaven' (Genesis 7:11) and read into them notions of underwater volcanic activity and a vapour canopy, we need to take care lest we mistake the language of simple men for the language of scientific men.

We might say that the Bible is culturally related, but it is not cultur­ally relative. It speaks both from within and to a particular culture, but it also speaks to all cultures its timeless message. If we think Gen­esis is in essence 'Bible science' then we easily lose ourselves in all the detail that may interest some people in the pews, but is irrelevant for their relationship to the Lord. So we may miss the Bible's rich message, which is relevant to the most unacademic and unscientific amongst us, and that the same time create barriers for faith to those who are scientifically trained.

Genesis and the Bible🔗

When we start to read Genesis we need to remember that it is a section of a five-part work. Genesis to Deuteronomy together form a single book called in the Bible 'the Book of Moses'. The Book of Exodus is cited as part of this larger work in Mark 12:26, Leviticus in Ezra 6:18 and Deuteronomy in 2 Chronicles 25:4.

Describing the five books as the Book of Moses does not mean that Moses wrote every word. It does not mean that Moses used no earlier written sources or that there has been no editing under Divine direc­tion subsequently. But it does mean that Moses is the fundamental human author, providing the substantial content in line with the fact that he received revelation from God that he was commanded to write.

Creation and Recreation🔗

If we appreciate the significance of Genesis as part of a larger work we will see that the author has crafted the narrative of God's acts to highlight his basic theme. Let me outline some examples.

In Genesis 1-7 God brings forth the earth from water, appoints Adam, places him in a garden under his covenant. Adam disobeys. The nakedness of this sin God covers by coats of skins, and he is expelled to the east. One is promised who will destroy the works of the devil. Meantime, we see the fruit of Adam's sin in his descendants, and the ultimate judgement of the flood, a reversal of creation, with a remnant saved in the ark.

Genesis 8-11 is a redemptive re­enactment. The world is recreated out of the waters of the flood. God appoints Noah and gives him his covenant (Genesis 8:15-20). Noah plants a vineyard where he sins in drinking to excess. The nakedness of this sin two of his sons cover with a garment. The fruit of Noah's sin is seen in his descendants, the godly family of Abraham and the wicked citizens of Babel who aim to make a name for themselves. Ultimate judgement is postponed. There is a new beginning with Abraham through whom God's people will be saved.

Genesis 11:27-50:26 records a more developed redemptive re­enactment in the events in the family line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham is like a dead man, for he has no children and his wife is barren. He also receives God's covenant and it results in life from death – the provision of a son and heir, Isaac – and assures him the possession of the land of Canaan as a free gift. God will make him a great nation, make his name great, bless those who bless him, and bless all peoples on earth through him.

The continuation of the covenant in Abraham's line is of God's grace for Isaac's wife is also barren and so is Jacob's wife, Rachel; it is also contrary to nature since the birthright is carried on by the younger: Jacob not Esau, Joseph, not Reuben, Ephraim not Manasseh. In Joseph's life there is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham: God is with Joseph in everything. Though he has many trials and his name seems to be cut off, yet his name is made great and he becomes a blessing to the nations (Genesis 41:57). Reckoned as the first born of his many brothers, he delivers and protects the seed of Abraham. But as yet they are a nation only in embryo.

The Book of Exodus also speaks of God's acts in terms of a new creation. Moses, like Noah was saved in an ark from drowning so as to bring salvation to others (the rare Hebrew word teba, ark, is used only of Noah's boat and Moses' basket). Israel is God's son (Exodus 4:22; cf. Luke 3:38), created by him (Isaiah 43:1) and saved from the waters of judgement  that engulfed the Egyp­tians at the Red Sea after the plagues had reduced their ordered world to a waste (cf. Genesis 1:2).

As the new Adam, Israel (=Prince with God) is brought into the new Eden, entering it from the east which was guarded by a mysterious angel with a sword (Joshua 5:13; cf. Genesis 3:24). The new Eden is a land flowing with milk and honey where the new Adam is to be fruitful and multiply (Deuteronomy 6:3), living under God's covenant. If he disobeys he will be expelled to the east once more, to Babylon. As inevitably he must fail, this second Adam must look in faith to the mercy of God, to the seed of Abraham, the Messiah, who is the true second Adam, the Son of Man and Prince with God. The law does not do away with the promise (Galatians 3).

The above features of the early narratives should remind us that easy dismissal of Genesis by an earlier generation of liberal scholars arose from a superficial acquaintance with Hebrew literary forms and a false understanding of the nature of Old Testament religion. Of course we are not wanting to return to the allegorical explanations of the medi­eval period, nor the rampant typol­ogy of others, but we do want to take the unfolding of the drama of re­demption seriously even if at times we are not sure of the meaning. The way in which the New Testament interprets the Old Testament events can be a helpful guide (for example, Matthew 2:15, 18; compare Luke 24:25-27, 44-47). The features noted may remind us that the plain (histori­cal, grammatical or intended) sense is not necessarily as literalistic as some seem to think.

The Days of Genesis🔗

Of course, the detail of events in Genesis 1 is very significant. But it is strange that the creation days should be seized upon as ordinary days, for the following reasons.

  1. Genesis 1:1 reminds us that God's relation to time is different from ours: time and space are them­selves part of the created order, as Augustine noted 1,600 years ago.

  2. The series of days is viewed from God's perspective beginning with day one, not from a human perspective. Hence Psalm 90:4, also written by Moses, is relevant: "for a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night".

  3. The first day is more correctly translated 'day one', the next four days lack a definite article (thus 'a second day' etc), whereas days 6 and 7 have it. Such features are not found in a series of ordinary days (for example, Numbers 29:17ff).

  4. Time during the first three days moves from evening to morning even in the absence of the sun. This points to something unusual about these days, and so does the absence of any reference to evening and morning on Day 7.

  5. Day 4 (the middle day of 7) has structural and theological signifi­cance in the narrative. It gives a further perspective on the related work of Day 1 and puts the heavenly bodies worshipped by the ancients in their true place. It anticipates Day 7 and marks the weekly day of rest and worship of the God who made sun, moon and stars.

  6. God's work is accomplished by his word, the expression of his will, not by effort and labour as is the case on our days; nor is God's rest the same as ours. The two other references to the creation days (Exodus 20:5; 31:17) cannot be taken literally so far as God's work and rest is concerned, although they do apply to our literal days.

  7. It seems that the narrative is given in a seven-day form to teach us God's purpose for man, and to show the basis and meaning of the day of rest. Recurring rest after work reflects God's plan for humanity; that his destiny after his work is done is to enter into God's rest, a higher form of bodily existence of which the tree of life in Eden was a pledge. To this rest the new Adam (Christ) brings us, hence Deuteronomy 5:15 gives a redemptive basis to the sabbath command, rather than a creational one.

We can certainly discard both the theory of a gap between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis 1, and the day-age theory as unsatisfactory attempts to provide harmony with scientific theories. We might do well to con­clude that the days are God-divided days, and leave it at that. On this view, Scripture, while suggesting a relatively recent origin for humanity, does not address the age of the universe or of other creatures.


We need to realise that Moses is like a good preacher, selecting the inci­dents and crafting his composition to bring out some very important points and using memory aids, repetitions and other devices to drive the mes­sage home. Moses is not simply a chronicler of events, but he records and interprets history. He is a com­mitted writer, not a detached aca­demic, but his bias arises from God's Spirit instructing and overshadowing him so that he records precisely what God intends.

Genesis and the other books therefore point forward. They speak of God's covenant, of God's blessing in God's time and place for his believ­ing people. That covenant has a provisional token fulfilment in the land of promise, but its lasting and real fulfilment is in the world to come, a new heaven ad a new earth, through Christ. It is not for nothing that Revelation 21 and 22 take up the language of Genesis both in the garden of Eden and in the covenant with Abraham, and celebrate the realisation of creation's goal by it.

God's redemptive plan is worked out in the historical process which God has ordained in order that the goal of creation, the fullest blessing of God on humanity, may be reached despite human sin. God's plan is not a rejection of creation (which was very good) but its restoration and perfec­tion. Hence we note in the Genesis history an emphasis on new begin­nings that suggests a renewal of creation fulfilled in a new beginning which has no end. In short, we can gain insight and perspective by treating Scripture reverently and contextually in the light of God's purpose in Christ.

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