Genesis 1 – It’s Almost Poetry

I became acquainted with the Angolan novelist Ondjaki in an interview not long after he won the Jose Saramago prize in 2013. The interviewer asked if the stories in the earlier Good Morning Comrades, and the award winning Gramma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret were true. Ondjaki carefully didn’t answer the question. Later when reading the books I came to understand how complicated the question and answer was. Truth and facticity are not the same things. “Just the facts” don’t always convey the truth because reality is more complicated than just the facts as we can grasp them. Listen to any politician and you quickly realize that facts are frequently used to avoid, obscure, and even obliterate the truth. Listen to a poet and you understand that what is true often transcends the events that convey the truth.

Similarly, the “facts” of Genesis 1 can easily get in the way of its truth. More often than not a presupposition of what the truth of the matter must be is imposed on the text and the text is then molded to fit into the particular version of the truth the reader wants to find. Consider three words in Genesis 1: 11, 20, 24, in which God tells the earth and sea to bring forth living creatures. “Let the earth bring forth grass …” (v 11). “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the living creatures” (1:20). “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after his kind.”

I’ve always found it amusing to point these three verses out to Christians who assume they adhere to a very literal interpretation of scripture. The KJV (quoted above) sounds very friendly to evolutionary theory because it attributes the direct agency of creation to the land and sea and only indirect agency to God. This is not to say that the earth is Creator; that is always applied to God. With this interplay in mind, let’s look at Gen 1:24-25 again, this time from the NRSV:

[24] And God Said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. [25] God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Note that in this translation (which is typical of English translations) the origination of creation is clearly attributed to God while the agency of creation is attributed to the earth, not of its own volition, or by chance, but according to God’s command. But is this translation an accurate rendering of the text?

The first extant translation of Hebrew scripture into another language is a translation into Greek, called the Septuagint three or so centuries before the birth of Christ. This is especially valuable because Hebrew, being a Semitic language, is radically different both in structure and thought process, to languages that grow out of the Greek and Latin lines, such as English. Rather than tense and mood, the force of verbs is expressed through something called stems and verb forces. This system is utterly disconnected from how we typically parse verbs. The Septuagint offers us an invaluable insight into how Semitic scholars translated their own language into Western form.

I will assume that my readers do not read Greek, so I will not quote the Septuagint directly. Rather I will quote a contemporary English Language version called “The Saint Athanasius Academy Septuagint, which is a very literal translation into English. “Let the earth bring forth (blastao) the herb of grass …” (Gen. 1:11). “Let the waters bring forth (exagageto) creatures having life …” (1:20). “Let the earth bring forth (exagageto) the living creature according to its kind …” (1:24). If one wanted to quibble, it might be argued that the first word, blastao, would be better translated “sprout” or “produce.” But again, the command is not given to the plants, but to the earth itself. “Let the earth produce or sprout plants …”

So we find that the translation is correct. But what does it mean? The answer to that question depends on what sort of literature Genesis 1 was intended to be in the first place. In the previous essay I noted that Augustine rejected the idea of interpreting Gen. 1 literally. A century before Gregory of Nyssa similarly didn’t treat it as a literal description of what happened but rather believed it was an allegory. Neither give a precise explanation of why they didn’t believe it was to be taken literally. That is interesting in itself. The fact that they didn’t feel the need to defend their position implies that it was obvious to them that it should not be read literally. Their opinions likely have something to do with its literary structure.

It would be a stretch to call Gen. 1 a poem but it does have a Semitic poetic structure. The opening words are no doubt familiar: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters …” (Gen 1:1f, NRSV) This is the initial creation, creation in an instant, creation in a Word. For whatever reason God chose not to make a beautiful, complete, well-formed, and static creation. Rather God’s initial creation was a “formless void” about which his Spirit (ruach, which can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit) blows. The rest of Gen. 1 then describes, in a highly formalized way, using the categories of “separation” and “filling” how this formless void was ordered and became “very good.”

Realm Separation Population
Heavens Day 1
Light and Dark
Day 4
Sun, moon, and stars
Waters Day 2
Day 5
Fish and birds
Land Day 3
Sea/Dry Land
Day 6
Land animals

Day six also includes the creation of man. Genesis never explains or defends its own structure, but we can assume that this part of creation is described separately because man is unique. While formed from the earth man is created directly by God (rather than being brought forth by the earth). Second, the Divine Wind (ruach) is breathed into him whereas in v. 1 the Divine Wind (the two uses of ruach in this chapter) blows over the formless void.

The sparse, impersonal character of the first chapter also brings attention to this poetic structure. Genesis 1 is declarative while Gen. 2 is narrative. The first chapter is impersonal, referring to God with the impersonal and generic title, “Elohim,” and the first created person with the equally impersonal “the earth creature.” The second chapter, on the other hand, describes creation through characters: God has a name (Yahweh — God’s personal name that contemporary religious Jews never say out loud). Adam and Eve are sympathetic characters in the second story. The serpent serves as a memorable and villainous foil who interacts subtly with Eve. While the first chapter is tightly crafted in its poetic structure, chapter two is a rambling narrative. The first paints the backdrop, the second assumes the backdrop (in the form of the Garden) and offers us the first human drama. Both are creation stories, but with fundamentally different interests and scope.

At this point I also point out that the cosmology of Gen. 1 is not only different, but simply incompatible, with what we know about the universe. It was assumed by early Semitic cultures that there was a hard dome over the earth. Scholars committed to a treating Gen. 1 as a text completely compatible with observational science have tried to soften or change this understanding of the firmament, but Paul H. Seely, in a monograph that appeared in the ultra-conservative Westminster Theological Journal [53 (1991) 227-240] demonstrates quite conclusively that the firmament (Hebrew: raqia) was conceived in the ancient biblical world as a hard dome. The sun, moon, and stars were either lights that slid across the bottom of the dome, or holes in the dome. And, in the Genesis account, the waters were divided above and below the dome. Below the dome they formed the seas, lakes and rivers; above the dome were the “storehouses of heaven” (i.e. Mal. 3:10) where rain was kept.

A second somewhat related point, is the close connection of sky and sea in the ancient Hebrew world. Although the sea is portrayed as part of the ordered universe in Gen. 1, the Hebrews never trusted it. Sky, and to an even greater extent, sea, if not the embodiment of chaos, were on the very outer edges of order. “Leviathan,” the great sea monster, was not so much an embodiment of evil as it was the embodiment of chaos and the unknown. Given that Hebrews were very much people of the land, and the belief that the firmament was a dome, the idea of three realms, all created, ordered, and populated by God — the land (where we live), the heavens (God’s abode), and the sea and sky (that unknown, still seemingly chaotic and certainly frightening place that existed between the land and the heavens) — was a powerful theological statement as to the ultimate power and authority of God.

And a third and final point: Grass, shrubs, and trees were not conceived as living in quite the same manner as the fish and animals. They are not creatures, per se, and thus are not created on the sixth day along with the land animals. Rather they are a part of the earth. God tells the earth to bring them forth on the third day.

In summary, although Gen. 1 offers a picture of an orderly creation with everything in its place, and ultimately “very good,” it is not a summary that matches what we know nor is it a conception of the world with which we are familiar, beyond the clear and unambiguous statement that God is ultimately the creator of everything. If you want to nit pick, it doesn’t even quite match the order of events in Gen. 2.

This is a reminder that we need to allow scripture to speak on its own terms. We should never try to force it into our framework. It is accurate in what it is trying to say, but not necessarily in line with what we might want it to say. This is more apparent to us in the Psalms, for instance, where it is more obvious that the text is poetry, and thus we more naturally allow for poetic license. Even the strictest literalist does not believe that trees have hands, much less clap them on a regular basis (Isaiah 55:12, another bit of biblical poetry). And yet anyone with the least bit of poetic sense realizes just how true a description of reality that is. So it is with Gen. 1. We need to allow this text, which is clearly structured in the popular parallel poetic fashion of the Semitic world, to be what it is trying to be rather than force it into a style (in this case, scientific rationalism) which is utterly foreign to it. That does violence to the trueness and literalness of scripture in a profound way because it forces scripture into our tarnished image and opinion of the day rather than allow it to reflect God’s image.

When we allow it to be what it is, what we find is a remarkably powerful affirmation of the power of God over everything. This power of God over everything, was in doubt, after all, among those who wanted to relegate the oceans to an utterly chaotic existence. Gen. 1 says that is not the case. Even the sea is ordered by God. That, given the context, is an amazing statement of faith in an all-powerful God.

When I taught confirmation class to Junior High kids they would often enter into the process as adversaries to the church and the faith. (Isn’t that what Junior Highers are supposed to start doing? Reject everything their parents stand for and begin to create an identity for themselves?) All my pastorates but one were in the Midwest and the other was in interior Alaska which might be even more conservative than the Midwest. Even though six day, young earth creationism is not the norm out there in the world, the parishioners I served seemed to assume that this was what the Church believed in. My Junior High catechumens were no different. It was inevitably one of the issues on which they would take a stand when they explained that they weren’t sure they believed all this church stuff.

I took great delight in saying, with all the gravitas I could muster, that the creation story of Genesis 1 actually taught evolution. I would pull out a King James pew Bible (not so much because of the translation, but rather because it was old and dusty with a slightly musty smell — nothing said, old-and-out-of-date-church like an ancient King James Version pew Bible) and have one of them read Gen. 1:24. Then I would ask them, “According to this verse, what brought forth the animals? God or the earth?” Of course someone would inevitably say, “God!” because that’s always the right answer in church. But I would have them read it again until the sense of it finally began to sink in.

That moment often changed the dynamic of confirmation class. With that secret knowledge (that even their parents didn’t know) that just maybe the Bible taught evolution, we could begin to have a serious conversation about living God who is active in our world instead of what they had come to perceive as old, musty, and dead religion.

But does Genesis 1 actually teach evolution?


Genesis 1 can be legitimately used as a defense of evolutionism to same degree as it can be used to support creationism. This text is an enigmatic description of Creation that has almost nothing to do with modern Rationalism and Enlightenment Rationalism’s two warring children, Atheistic Evolutionism and Biblical Creationism.

On the other hand, the character of Gen. 1 described above is why Gregory and then Augustine, both living long before the existence of modern evolutionary theory, were convinced that Gen. 1 was not literally true in the way we use that term today. It is profoundly true in so many different ways; it is a multifaceted gem that describes the majestic Creator in all his awesome glory. To try to turn it into a science text is to turn it into a macabre caricature of isolated modern man peering out into what he mistakenly assumes is the great emptiness of space and time. I encourage all of us to not do that. God is majestic. This text is majestic. Let’s keep them that way.


Creationism: We’re Still Arguing About This?

One would think the creationism/evolutionism debate would just go away, but it hasn’t. I have been surprised at how many staunch creationists still exist. They’re not noisy for the most part, but when they find out I used to be a pastor, they assume that I must be a creationist also. Because of the persistence of this old nineteenth century war between the two siblings of the Enlightenment (Rationalistic Fundamentalism and Rationalistic Scientism), I find myself revisiting again the question of creationism and the Bible.

This essay is a look back at a couple of notable approaches to Genesis 1 in the early church. I also explore a possible reason why the ancient approach to Gen. 1 was so different than it is today. In the next essay I’ll consider the first creation story specifically.

There is a notable difference in the focus of interpretation of Gen. 1 before and after the Enlightenment. In the current approach, there is an attempt to defend scripture. The earlier interpretations, on the other hand, were attempts to describe the majesty of God.

I’ll start with Augustine as someone who neither shared our modern presuppositions nor those of the very ancient Middle East. He was a Biblical scholar, churchman (Bishop of Hippo, a coastal city in the area that would be modern Algeria, in the 5th century) and devout Christian. Today he is best remembered for his little volume called Confessions.

Augustine struggled with the early chapters of Genesis his whole career and wrote about Genesis 1 at least four different times. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis (a book which I have not read, although I’ve read at it — it’s an impossibly dense neo-platonic tome) Augustine emphasizes that Genesis 1 cannot be read in isolation. For instance, Psalm 33 seems to describe an instantaneous creation not unlike Gen. 1:1. “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth … For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (vv 6, 9). But Augustine compares this with John 5:17 (a text we may not necessarily associate with creation). “My father is still working, and I am also working.” From this Augustine observes that God is still active in creation. Adding these texts together, he argues that creation is dynamic and not static. Looking at the instantaneous creation in isolation would tend to reduce it to a static thing which God put in place long ago. Although his argument goes into a great deal more depth, his conclusion is that he rejects the idea of a literal six day creation, largely because of his dynamic view of creation. The text is not describing what happened, but rather is categorizing creation. It provides a framework so that God (the actual subject of Gen. 1) can be better understood in view of the various pieces of creation and parts of the story.

Far to the east in Turkey and Syria and a century prior to Augustine, the burning question was whether the material world was eternal alongside God (or the gods), as in Greek philosophy, or whether the material world was created by God, and thus subject to him. Closely tied to this question was whether the Son of God, who was “eternally begotten of the Father,” was “very God of very God” or on the same side of the divide as the supposedly eternal material world. (This is the philosophical background of the Arian heresy.)

One of the key debaters in this controversy, Gregory of Nyssa, had quite a lot to say about the nature of creation as he defended the divinity of the Son. He rejected the idea that Gen. 1 could be treated literally (in the sense that conservative Christians use that term today). Rather, he implied that we simply have no idea how it all actually got started. Genesis 1 is not a description of the beginning, it is an allegorical reflection explaining how the immaterial God could bring about the material world.

What we see with both Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers (of whom Gregory is representative) is a common method of interpreting Gen. 1 shaped to meet the needs and challenges of the day. Until modern times the creation stories were used primarily to say something constructive about the true majesty of God in the face of non-Christian systems of thought that either reduced God to manageable dimensions or elevated the material world to something outside of God’s control.

The contemporary creationism/evolutionism debate is rooted in similar challenge, but the creationism side has focused, not on a proclamation of God and his majesty, but on the defense of scripture itself. Scripture has become the object of interest rather than a tool in the battle to maintain a proper view of God. The perspective has changed, becoming increasingly Bible centered and less God centered.

This reflects the epistemology of post-Enlightenment Protestant Christianity (a subject I chew upon in these pages frequently). In the Protestant West, nous is the mind or intellect. [Rom. 1:28, where it is translated “mind,” is typical.] In the Orthodox East, the intellect is part of the problematic passions (along side the will and emotions). In contrast, the nous is the deepest inner being with which God can communicate directly. (This, by the way, was the attitude of both Augustine and Gregory.) If, as most Protestants assume, the nous is the mind, then scripture is the heart and soul of our link with God; its defense is paramount. If the nous is the deep heart, then it is God’s quiet voice of stillness that matters, scripture being a tool in that quest.

Of course, all of this “deep thought” stuff has no place around the water cooler (… yes, my place of employment still has a water cooler! It’s just under the coffee pot …) or even the weekly men’s Bible Study. Instead, when the subject of creationism/evolutionism comes up, I sometimes treat the conversationalist like my Jr High kids in confirmation class many years ago. More about that in my next post.

The Circles of God and Evolution (5 of 5)

In this final formal essay on the evolution series, I want to compare the uproar over evolution by natural selection with a previous uproar over cosmology. Harold Nebelsick, in his marvelous book, The Circles of God: Theology and Science from the Greeks to Copernicus (Scottish Academic Press, 1985), traces the development of the driving theological force that got Copernicus and the Copernican theory in such trouble with the church.

The ancient Greeks came to believe that a circle, because of its utterly simple structure, was an expression of perfection. Among these ancient Greeks, and then in turn, within the medieval western church that came to rely heavily on Greek philosophy, it was assumed that the orbits of the heavenly bodies had to be circular. They were heavenly bodies, after all and it was a theological given that heavenly bodies weren’t affected by the fall. (The fallen angels fell out of heaven, after all, according to standard interpretation of Isaiah, leaving heaven, and the heavenly bodies, pristine.) Since these heavenly bodies reflected divine perfection, it was a theological necessity that they orbit in circular patterns, because the circle is the essence of perfection in geometry.

Of course, this idea seems silly to us today. It’s why Prof. Nebelsick spent 250 pages (of small print!) in demonstrating that this was indeed the theological assumption of the medieval western church. To them this teaching was obvious to anyone who just read the Bible! If you doubt it, I encourage you to read the book.

Copernicus used science to demonstrate that the orbits of the heavenly bodies were actually elliptical rather than circular. If you’re a bit rusty on your geometry, an ellipse is an elongated circle. Geometrically speaking it has two focus points rather than the single focus point of the circle. (Still confused? The Wikipedia article will tell you all about it.)

This created a crisis for the church. For the first few hundred years the science was declared wrong, scientists who persisted in these demonic beliefs were declared heretics, and the church stubbornly held on to its core theological principle (unwittingly borrowed from the godless ancient Greeks) that the circle expressed divine perfection and anything with the imperfect two foci rather than the perfect single focus (ie, an elliptical orbit) was imperfect. To say that heavenly objects were imperfect was the equivalent of saying God was imperfect and the Bible was untrue.

Eventually the church came to terms with the science by recognizing that there was nothing biblical about this idea of the circle. A more reasonable understanding of perfection was eventually developed and the church finally embraced as truth what the scientists had known for generations.

Nebelsick tells this story because he believes (and has given evidence elsewhere in various journal monographs – it was one of his favorite subjects) this is a standard pattern for the church. Christians embrace an idea to such an extent that the idea becomes equated with biblical truth and, in turn, becomes foundational to theology. But on occasion the source of the idea isn’t the Bible at all, but something else that sounds completely reasonable and obvious.

I believe that Biblical Creationism is one such idea. It is based on an erroneous understanding of Genesis 1 that fails to distinguish between scientific and metaphorical uses of language. The idea has both become a bedrock principle of theology and a “Maginot Line” against the seemingly godless scientists who are clearly heretics. (Where have we heard that before?)

Both science and theology need to be immersed in humility if they are to ever discover the truth. Most evolutionary biologists that I’ve run into (and I make a habit of talking to them when I have a chance) are quite humble about the possibility that the theory of evolution by natural selection could be set aside by a better theory of origins. There are just enough holes in the evolutionary chain to create doubts, after all.

(Of course the arrogant and very loud ultra-orthodox defenders of evolution, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Douglas Adams – who no doubt knows better now – give humble scientists a very bad name.)

In turn Evangelical theology needs to be humble about its understanding of scripture, allowing all sources of divine truth (both from the book of scripture and the book of God’s creation) to inform its theology.

(Of course the arrogant and very loud ultra-orthodox defenders of Biblical creationism, such as the various school boards in the state of Kansas give humble creationists a very bad name.)

In the end we’ll get past the impasse just as the church got passed its damnable ideas about circles and heavenly perfection. Someday we’ll be able to look back and see the error on both sides.

But of course, by that time a new battle ground between science and theology will have developed.

Evolution and Salvation (4 of 5)

In the three previous essays I explained why I find so-called Biblical Creationism unconvincing from a biblical point of view (here and here) and why I believe there is a logic, in terms of the ways of God, to prefer evolution by natural selection over creation by fiat as the assumed method of divine activity (here). In this essay, I want to turn to a fundamentally important Orthodox theological principle that pushed me over the edge firmly into the evolutionist camp.

One of St. Gregory’s (Nazianzus) most famous aphorisms is, “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” It expresses the fundamental Orthodox sense of salvation. Three things need to be said about the Orthodox understanding of salvation:

  1. Sin is not viewed primarily as a moral problem but rather as death or disease (in the broadest sense of the word). Sin is a profound sickness caused by the draining away of life from creation. In turn, salvation is understood primarily as the gift of life or the healing of this brokenness and sickness rather than delivery from judgment.
  2. This problem of sin and death is universal and not only a human problem. So salvation is conceived as affecting all of creation, not just we humans.
  3. Salvation is accomplished through participation in God’s life given to us in Jesus Christ. And (specifically to the point of this series) this gift of divine life and healing is offered not only to humans, but to all creation.

There is a corollary to this broad understanding of salvation. While both sin and salvation are universal (that is, affecting all creation), it is humans that mediate the process. Just as through Adam sin came into the world, so through Jesus Christ life is offered to all creation. As earthly creatures given God’s breath, as humans created in the image of God, and now, as members of the Body of the life-giving Christ we are the priests who mediate this healing life to the rest of creation.

St. Gregory took these principles and expressed them with a breathtaking simplicity: that which was not assumed is not healed. He said this while he was making the case for the two natures of Christ. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. Before the importance of this point was fully understood and the point settled, some theologians believed that Jesus had a human body but a divine nature; in other words, that he was human on the outside but God on the inside.

St. Gregory’s insight was that, if salvation is accomplished through participation, then only a human could bring about the salvation of other humans. If Jesus wasn’t fully human, salvation would be a sham.

Of course, the church quickly realized the truth of Gregory’s insight, and the doctrine that Jesus is fully human and fully God is believed by the whole church everywhere.

But since salvation is universal, affecting all creation, this insight into the nature of Christ must be extended to all creation. Christ has two natures in his one person: a human and divine nature. That is clear enough. But something more must be said about human nature (not only Christ’s human nature, but our human nature) if salvation is going to be truly universal. Human nature must be the same stuff as the nature of all creation. There must be a continuum between humans and the rest of creation. If this continuum doesn’t exist, then Christ’s gift of divine life could not extend to all creation. Salvation would become an escape from a foreign creation rather than the renewal of all creation, of which humans are a part.

So, just as it is incorrect to think that Jesus is God on the inside and human on the outside, so it is incorrect to think that humans are created from the earth on the outside and created from the breath of God on the inside. When God breathed the gift of life into Adam, God was not creating a bifurcated creature, but rather animating an utterly creaturely being.

Early Darwin detractors raged against the implications of evolution by natural selection. We are not cousins of the monkeys, so the argument went at the Scopes trial. The implication was that we were somehow transcendent and quite distinct from the rest of creation. The danger was that with such creationist thinking, the profound connection between humans and the rest of creation would be lost and, in turn, the breadth of salvation as a universal gift (and not just something given to us special humans) would be lost.

Evolutionary theory, on the other hand adds a great deal of significance to St. Gregory’s insights. “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” Humanity assumed all creation because we arose out of creation. The whole creation is recapitulated in our being. So when the gift of divine life was given to the sin-sick creation in the God-man Jesus Christ, it seeped, not only through humanity, but into all creation itself, from whence humanity came.

Let me be clear. This connection between St. Gregory, Orthodox soteriology, and evolution doesn’t prove anything. It is possible to maintain this connection within a creationist framework. But the elegance of the connection was the thing that pushed me from having no strong opinion about evolution solidly into the evolutionary camp. Once the profound implications of Gregory’s insights began to sink in to my thinking process, evolution by natural selection seemed the most obvious thing while so-called “biblical creationism” smacked of the same weaknesses as the early theologies that rejected the two natures of Christ.