During my early days in the Church, I was reading the Bible with the opinion that it was somehow written to me. I did not consider that these sixty-six different books and letters were written to specific individuals within specific contexts. These individuals were part of real cultures who understood the world in a way that is foreign to me.
Nowhere is this contextual contrast better demonstrated than in the first chapters of the Bible. I have experienced many modern minds approach Genesis 1 and 2 within the mental framework of the 21st century. In most cases, Christians and non-Christians alike read these chapters through the lens of creation v. evolution, which in my opinion sets us up for misunderstanding right from the get-go.
As a young Christian, I held the view that the world was created in 6 literal days, and that the earth was probably somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. But a few years ago, I began to notice that many prominent Bible scholars and pastors felt the creation account was written in a form of Hebrew poetry. If this were true, then it meant I had to be open to the possibility that the author was not describing these events in a literal manner. Flash forward a few more years, and my understanding of how to read the Bible within its context has greatly developed. With the help of scholars N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, and John Walton, I have come to believe that the Bible does not make any scientific claims. The Bible is not a science book. God uses what the authors understood about the world to convey truths about Himself.
What does this mean for the creation account described in Genesis? It means we cannot read it as if the author is giving a literal representation of the creation of the universe. The Genesis account fits right into the views of other ancient Near Eastern creation myths, with a few notable differences. For me, I believe these chapters describe how God established sacred space within creation. The most common depiction of sacred space in the Bible is the temple, and the theme of the temple runs throughout the whole of Scripture from Eden in Genesis to the new creation in Revelation. In this view, Eden is the temple where God communicates with mankind through Adam and Eve, who serve as mediators or priests between God and man. John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, is a leading advocate of this view.
To be clear, I am not trying to cause a stir with some new interpretation of the Bible. As I have stated, other prominent figures in the Church have presented this view and others as viable interpretations of the Genesis creation account. What I am trying to do is figure out what the Bible is actually claiming, and in order to do that we have to do some work. We need to make every effort to understand the Bible as literature before we can make any sort of theological assumptions or practical applications, and it must be in that order. But we tend to approach it from the back-end, looking for immediate practical applications to our lives before considering context.
Nowadays, I would say I am certainly not a young earth creationist, but if you are one that’s okay. I do consider myself a creationist. However it may have occurred (yes, even using evolution), it is fine with me, but God did it. (I am not saying that I doubt God’s ability to create in 6 literal days, only that I do not believe the text is making that claim).
To help break this down a little bit, here are a handful of reasons why I have come to understand the creation account as an artful expression of how God established sacred space.
There is already material when the account begins. Genesis 1:1 is an introduction to what the following verses will describe, there is no actual action occurring here. So the first verse where God is acting is verse 2, in which there is already material. So either material precedes God (I think not), or this account is not about material origins.
For the most part, this account mirrors other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts. Egyptians, Babylonians, and other Mesopotamian cultures had creation accounts, all of which described how order was brought to the material world, but not how the material world came to exist. They were meant to show something about the gods and humanity’s role in relation to them. We can see this association in the use of ‘the firmament’. In most English translations today, this word has been changed to expanse, but the original idea was that of a firmament. The ancients believed that the stars were held in place by a solid surface in the sky, and that this firmament enclosed the earth. God did not correct this erroneous thinking when He led the Genesis author to write, but instead used what they understood about the world to reveal Himself. This further illustrates how the Bible should not be read as if it is a science book. As previously stated, the Genesis account also differs from other creation narratives; there is one God, and He alone is responsible for the ordering of the world. Mankind is also given a special role in this creation, and relates to the Creator in a way that is unique.
The names Adam and Eve were not the names of the man and woman in Eden. Genesis was written in Hebrew, a language that did not exist until the late first or early second millennia BC (depending on who you ask). If the events described in Genesis 1 and 2 are meant to be at the beginning of time, the man and woman in Eden would not have been named Adam (Hebrew word Adamah could mean red, like the color of human skin or could mean earth) and Eve (Hebrew word Chawah meaning living one or source of life). The author has given them these names in order to say something about who they are and what they represent. This is not to say that these people were not historical figures, only that there is more going on here than meets the eye. John Walton suggests Adam and Eve were real people, but were also archetypes of fallen humanity. There are several other examples of archetypes in Scripture (Abraham, Melchizedek), and we see Paul use Adam this way in Romans, so this idea seems logical.
God rests. In ancient thinking, when a temple was being constructed the god was not present in the temple until it was complete, and sometimes rituals would need to be performed in order to entice the god to reside in the temple. In Genesis, the temple of sacred space that God created was finished on that seventh day and God rested. This does not mean He was tired and needed to recuperate. This was a common way of describing how a god would indwell a temple, and reign or rule from a given place of residence. Jesus attests in the Gospels that God is still working, not taking a nap.
The Temple is a theme throughout the Bible. We see sacred space established and broken in Genesis 1-3, then we see man attempt to restore this themselves with the Tower of Babel. Slowly, God works to re-establish this on His own schedule; God calls out Abraham and creates Israel from his descendants, then Israel builds a temple in Jerusalem. Next, Jesus comes and says the temple in Jerusalem is obsolete for God will be sending the Spirit to indwell man, and the Apostle Paul confirms believers being temples of the Spirit. Lastly, God’s plan culminates with there being no temples whatsoever, for God will permeate all things and sacred space will be space itself.
You may disagree with me entirely on this topic, and that is okay. At the very least, I do hope that you take the time to understand the Bible as literature, before making any theological assumptions or practical applications. As Christians, I do not believe differing views on this matter should be divisive, but I do believe they should be discussed. This topic deserves greater attention than I gave it in this post, so if your interest has been sparked I would suggest reading The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve by John Walton.
Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns let’s talk.
Tyler B. Wilson