The question of the meaning and proper interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis is one of the most heated subjects in Christendom today. Few other topics have evoked such polarised opinion and division. The diversity of views on Genesis, even among the most learned of exegetes and scholars, is staggering. While one extreme insists that the days of Genesis must strictly be interpreted as seven consecutive 24-hour periods (thus rendering the earth very young indeed — in the order of thousands, and not millions or billions, of years old), at the other extreme lies the notion that the early chapters of Genesis are devoid of any historical content at all. On the latter view, Genesis 1 comprises a mythological allegory; Adam and Eve are reduced to mere literary devices; and the historicity of Noah’s Flood is typically abandoned altogether. There is a plethora of competing views which reside in the middle of those polar extremes: Examples include the Day-Age Theory; the Gap Theory; and various forms of progressive creationism. In this article, I attempt to show that, while it is possible to interpret the book of Genesis in light of a young earth, there is no Biblical mandate for this conclusion: That is to say, Genesis could be interpreted in that manner, but it does not have to be.
I am trained as a scientist (I’m a postgraduate student in evolutionary biology). And, as a scientist, the arguments for an ancient earth seem to be very compelling (needless to say, when it comes to Darwinian evolution, it is a very different story). In this article, however, I simply want to read and understand the text on its own terms, not missing what the text is saying; but, at the same time, not adding to it what simply isn’t there. Having shown that Genesis does not require that one read it as conveying a young earth, I hope that readers will be convinced that we can thus read and understand the science on its own terms as well. It seems to me that there are three major subtopics which an article of this nature must address. These are:
- The proper interpretation of Genesis One.
- The question of the fall of man, human sin and its consequences.
- The scale and scope of the Flood of Noah.
The proper interpretation of Genesis One
In approaching the text of Genesis 1, we notice that there are certain features which are suggestive that the text need not be read as necessitating that we take a young-earth view. Let’s take a look at each in turn.
First, there is the fact that the initial creation act described in verses 1 and 2 is separated from the six days of creation which proceed it. Consider the first three verses of Genesis 1:
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Notice that there is a definite pattern associated with the days described in Genesis 1. Each one begins with “And God said…” and ends with “And there was evening and there was morning, the nth day.” This being so, there is the implication that day 1 commences in verse 3, while the description in verses 1-2 of God creating the heavens and the earth precedes it. This conclusion receives still further support from the fact that the verb “created” in verse 1 is in the perfect tense, whereas the use of the narrative tense begins in verse 3. When the perfect tense is used at the start of a pericope, its purpose is ordinarily to denote an event which sets the background and context of the storyline: That is to say, it takes place before the rest of the story gets underway. This implies that verses 1 and 2 occurred an undisclosed period of time prior to the first day! This means that, quite aside from how one interprets the days of Genesis 1, the origin of the Universe (and, indeed, the earth) occurs, as far as the information provided in Scripture is concerned, at an indeterminate time in the past.
Second, there is the fact that, in the original Hebrew, there is no definite article pertinent to the first five days, whereas there is a definite article associated with the sixth and seventh day, which seems to suggest there is something special — or different — about those latter two days. One possibility, which has been entertained by some, is that the writer did not intend us to take the first six days as consecutive days of a single earth week, but, instead, as a sequence of six creation days: That is to say, days of 24-hour duration in which God supernaturally infuses novelty at punctuated intervals. On this view, it may well be the case that the individual days were separated from one another by unspecified periods of time.
Third, there is this whole business of the seventh (or, Sabbath) day of rest. Consider the first two verses of Genesis 2:
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
Do you notice something peculiar about the seventh day? What ever happened to the “evening” and “morning”? For the first six days, the text, at the close of each day, states that “And there was evening and there was morning, the nth day.” This stands in stark contrast with the seventh day, for which it is curiously missing. This has led some exegetes to argue that the seventh day, on which God rests, may be continous, and that we may still be residing in it. This gains traction from Hebrews 4:3-7, which states,
3 Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world. 4 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.” 5 And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”
6 Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, 7 God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
If, therefore, it may be considered legitimate to take the seventh day as representative of a much longer period of time, then whence the mandate for supposing a commitment to interpreting the other six days as representative of 24-hour periods?
Fourth, there is the multiple-usage of the word “day” in Genesis 1. Let’s take a look at the manner in which the word “day” is used in the Genesis 1 (up to 2:4) narrative alone:
- Genesis 1:5a: “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” Here, “day” is contrasted with “night”: Thus, a 24-hour day is not in view, but rather “day” in the sense of “daytime” (i.e. 12 hours).
- Genesis 1:5b: “And there was evening and there was morning — the first day.” Here, the word does indeed mean a 24-hour day.
- Genesis 2:3: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” To this, I have already alluded — the key point here is the absence of “evening” and “morning”, which denotes all of the previous six days.
- The correct rendering of the Hebrew with respect to Genesis 2:4 is “This is the account of the heavens and the earth in the day they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.”
Fifth, it may be noticed that days 1-3 form a triad that corresponds to the triad formed by days 4-6. In day 1, God creates the light and distinguishes it from darkness; whereas on day 4, God creates the sun, moon and stars. On day 2, God separates the sky and sea; whereas, on day 5, God creates birds and sea creatures. On day 3, God causes dry land to appear; whereas on day 6, God creates the land animals and humans. This pattern may suggest that the exact chronological sequence of events is not in mind here.
Sixth, in verses 11-14 of Genesis 1, we read the following:
11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
Notice that the text says “Let the land produce vegetation…”. This may suggest that God allowed the trees and vegetation to germinate and grow by virtue of natural processes. This on its own may suggest that the duration of this day was significantly longer than 24 hours! Further notice that Genesis 2:8 says, “Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east…” This also suggests that God planted a garden which he thus caused to grow. Though I reject Darwinian evolution for scientific reasons, Genesis 1:24 could be interpreted as compatible with certain forms of evolution: “And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind. [emphasis added]”
Seventh, many features of Genesis 1 bear a striking similarity to texts concerned with the temple, a phenomenon which has given rise to various understandings of Genesis 1 as a description of the “cosmic temple.” For one thing, there is the curious fact that the number seven appears so pervasively in temple accounts in the ancient world and in the Bible. Thus, the seven days of the Genesis account of origins has a familiarity that can hardly be coincidental and tells us something about the seven-day structure in Genesis 1. Furthermore, in the outer courtyard of the temple were representations of various aspects of cosmic geography. For instance, there was the water basin which 1 Kings 7:23-26 designates “sea”, and the bronze pillars, described in 1 Kings 7:15-22, which perhaps represented the pillars of the earth. The horizontal axis in the temple was arranged in the same order as the vertical axis in the cosmos. From the courtyard, one would move into the organised cosmos as he entered the antechamber, which is where one would find the Menorah, teh Table of Bread and the incense alter. In the descriptions of the Tabernacle, the lamb and its olive oil are provided for “light” (which is the same word used to describe the celestial bodies in day four). Then there is, of course, the veil which separates the earthly sphere from the heavenly sphere which is the dwelling place of God (thus serving the same symbolic function as the firmament). One could continue on and on in the same vein. This parallelism is particularly striking when one considers that, as John Walton points out in The Lost World of Genesis One, the temple’s inauguration ceremony was completed by God taking up his rest in the temple, as he, in fact, does on day seven.
In regard to the fourth day of Creation Week, which is often a point of tension (it is on day 4 that God apparently creates the sun, moon and stars, after the creation of both plants and light, as well as the progression of days 1-3, which presumably required the sun), the verb “made” in Genesis 1:16 does not specifically mean ‘create’, but can instead refer to ‘working on something that is already there’ or even ‘appointed’. Such an interpretation makes sense in the context of the very next verse, in which we are told that the function of the sun in moon is as visible lights in the sky. If this interpretation is correct, it would entail that God appoints the role of the sun and moon, and is not a reference to their creation de novo.
A discussion of the meaning of Genesis 1 would not be complete without some mention of Exodus 20:11, which occurs in the context of the ten commandments which God gives to Moses. We read, “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” As John Lennox observes in his recent book, Seven Days that Divide the World, however, “there [are] similarities between God’s creation week and our work week, but also obvious differences. God’s week happened once; ours is repeated. God’s creative activity is very different from ours; God does not need rest as we do, and so on. So it is not possible to draw straight lines from Genesis to our working week. God’s week is a pattern for ours, but it is not identical. Thus Exodus 20:8-11 does not demand that the days of Genesis 1 be the days of a single week, although it could of course be interpreted in that way.”
While one could continue in this vein, enough has been said. Let’s move on to consider our second question, which is concerned with the Fall of man, human sin, and its consequences.
What Exactly Happened at the Fall?
One of the most frequent theological arguments for a young-earth pertains to the common presumption that death did not exist prior to the Fall. The claim is based upon several demonstrably false assumptions. For one thing, it cannot be dogmatically specified (from a young earth standpoint) which particular class of living creatures for which suffering and death before the fall is unacceptable. The insistence that physical death is the immediate (‘on the day’) result of the fall makes God a liar and the snake the truth-teller. Thus the argument is based entirely on a fallacy.
Further, the text of Genesis 1-3 nowhere states that there was no death prior to the Fall. Certainly, the second law of thermodynamics (things tending toward increased entropy) was in place, for they were eating plants and fruit. So, at least some kind of death and degradation preceded the Fall. We also know that God said to Eve that he would greatly increase her pains in childbearing, not give her ones which she did not have before. God’s statement, ‘in the day you eat of it you shall die’ was said only to the first human being and had no relationship at all to any of the other animals, as is indeed the context of Romans 5 which addresses this very issue. The view that all animals were herbivores and that following the fall there was an instant re-creation act, in which body chemistry and behaviour patterns were changed seems to be an enormous extrapolation and an unwarranted eisegetical reading into the text. The Tyrannosaur was a machine designed for killing. According to the young earth view, not only would its teeth and anatomical and physiological features need to be radically altered, but it would require a whole new digestive system. Then we have the fact that the names of the animals which Adam named prior to the Fall have connotations of violence. For example, the Hebrew name for lion is derived from the Hebrew root that means ‘in the sense of violence’.
As I said previously, Adam did not die physically on the day that he ate of the tree, but lived a full life afterwards. The conclusion is thus necessitated that God was not talking about biological death or that he was not intending it to be taken literally. To quote N.T. Wright, “The result is that death, which was always part of the natural transience of the good creation, gains a second dimension, which the Bible sometimes calls ‘spiritual death’.”
What About The Flood?
Another frequent objection to an old earth lies with the apparently global scope of the Flood. But this argument, too, hardly seems watertight. For one thing, it fails to take into account that the ancients often spoke of localized or regional events in hyperbolic terms. One does not need to look too far for examples. Consider the following from the Old and New Testaments:
- Genesis 41:57 – “And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world.”
- 1 Kings 10:24 – “The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.”
- Luke 2:1 – “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire world.”
- John 12:19 – “So the pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
- Acts 2:5 – “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.”
- Romans 1:8 – “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.”
- Colossians 1:6 – “All over the world this gospel is beairng fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.”
The ancient Hebrews did not think of “the world” as being a spherical globe, as one would today. Rather, to say that God had “flooded the world” would be simply to say that God had “flooded the known world” or “the land”. Indeed, 2 Peter 3:6 reports that, “By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. [emphasis added]“.
One feature of the Flood narrative, which is often overlooked, is the statement that“on the seventeenth day of the seventh month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat, [emphasis added]“. This stand in marked contrast with respect to the often quoted “the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat.”According to Armenian scholars, “the mountains of Ararat” cover an area of about 100,000 square miles of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iraq, and southern Russia.Since the focal point of the flood is Mesopotamia, it seems probable that the ark came to rest in the foothills of Ararat, which is just north of Ninivah. Moreover, it must be borne in mind, the Hebrew word for mountains, har, is a general term referring to any geologic relief, from a small hill up to a towering peak, which makes sense of Genesis 7:19, which reports that “They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered.”
In this short essay, I have hoped to show that, while Genesis 1 allows for the strict “seven-consecutive-24hour-day” interpretation, it does not demand that we take it that way. While one wants to be careful to consider all of Scripture, we must be similarly careful not to read beyond what the text actually says. While the issue of the age of the earth will undoubtedly continue to be a point of disagreement among Christians, it should not be made into a hill on which to die. It should not be a point over which the church should divide. As we read in Romans 14, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.” Old earth and young earth advocates ought to unite under the banner which is the glorious Gospel of Christ. Salvation is not contingent on what one believes about the age of the earth. This article has not, of course, dealt with the larger issues of science, nor has it offered a scientific critique of the young-earth perspective. What I have hoped to show, however, is that the Bible is silent on matters concerning the age of the cosmos and world. We may thus turn to science and other realms of epistemology — engaging with them on their own terms — for the answers to these questions.