“Higher critics” of the last two-hundred years have missed some of the most important historical features of the Genesis account of creation in the first chapter of Scripture. A casual reading of the order of creation might lead the reader to believe the account suggests the creation of the stars before the Sun, or plant life existed prior to sunlight.
Does this mean the ancient writer of Genesis who lived in an agricultural society could believe plants existed before the Sun, or is there a more likely explanation? Is the story of Creation purely a mythological story or perhaps written by scientifically ignorant people?
But even more ominous, do these apparent “mistakes” mean this part of Scripture is guilty of basic scientific errors? Do these apparent errors contradict the New Testament assertion that all Scripture is inspired by God? (2 Timothy 3:16, NLT).
Modern Christian astrophysicists have pondered these questions and some have developed plausible explanations based upon a closer reading of the text. Sometimes, the explanation is all a matter of proper perspective.
Higher Criticism Theology
Ironically, the most serious claims against the truth of Scripture were written by theologians several hundred years ago. These included Richard Simon who was an Oratorian priest writing in 1678 and a Dutch Reformed theologian Campegius Vitringa, writing in 1707. These works are interesting from a historical perspective but were largely ignored by their contemporaries.
A French physician, Jean-Astruc, wrote extensively on physiology as it was understood in the 18th century. These works earned him a teaching position at a local school but are not all but totally forgotten. What is not forgotten is his seminal work which secured his reputation, This book, brought out anonymously in 1753, was entitled Conjectures sur les memoires originaux dont il paroit que Moyse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Genese. Avec des remarques qui appuient ou qui éclaircissent ces conjectures (“Conjectures on the original documents that Moses appears to have used in composing the Book of Genesis. With remarks that support or throw light upon these conjectures”).
Astruc saw himself as being an orthodox Catholic and was actually defending the Torah as having been written by Moses. He used the textual criticism techniques available to him at the time and determine Moses had written four parallel accounts which he believed were later combined into the one account we have today. In particular, he said Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 contained two contradictory creation accounts written by different authors.
Johann Eichhorn would substantiate Astruc’s conclusions and declared the discoveries of geologists contradicted both of the Genesis chronicles. Soon, Eichhorn and his German colleagues were suggesting the entire Old Testament was a compilation of many later documents probably written between 800 and 500 BC, fully one-thousand years after Moses.
The “higher criticism” of these theologians was “simplistic” presuming the order of mention for the creation events in Genesis 1 represented the intended chronology of the text. Verb forms suggesting parenthetical comments and other syntactical features were ignored.
As a result of these criticisms, many academic theologians concluded the Bible as a whole was unreliable with respect to science and history. God became discoverable only through “faith” – and blind faith at that. This made faith subjective, based upon the feelings of the faithful rather than informed by science and logic.
Reaction to Higher Criticism
Those holding the Bible to be the Word of God and therefore reliable reacted predictably to the conclusions of higher criticism. Unfortunately, many of their criticisms merely denied the established discoveries of newly emerging sciences such as physics and astronomy.
The view that the creation order listed in Genesis 1 represented the actual events of creation would force the untenable belief that the earth, light, and water predate the formation of the sun and the stars. This, of course, is not the case – and this problem with the sequence of creation events described in Genesis 1 would be a problem – but not an unsolvable problem.
The scientific method was a product of the Renaissance of the period in which Astruc, Eichhorn, and the higher critics lived. The scientific method allowed for the formalization of science so that a hypothesis is proposed, tested, discussed, and conclusions are drawn. It was largely derived from the experimenters’ perception of the order of physical events described in Scripture.
When describing sequences of physical events, Scripture always begins with a statement of the point of view, the frame of reference, or perspective. Next, there is an indication of initial conditions – the “methods” of an experiment. There is then a chronological account of the physical events or the “experiment” itself, and finally the “conclusions” of the entire study. In this way, Scripture follows the fundamental principles of the scientific method – even in Genesis 1.
Origin of the Universe – Genesis 1
The first verse of the Bible opens with the statement: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
The Hebrew word for “created, ” bara, always refers to divine activity and always emphasizes the newness of the created object. It means to bring something entirely new into existence. The verse speaks about God creating all there is at the time of the “beginning” – all space, time, matter, energy, galaxies, stars, planets, etc) of the universe.
Bara is evaluated in the Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary as Strong’s Concordance word 1254. This definition notes that bars means,
to create, make” (1) This verb is of profound theological significance since it has only God as its subject. (1a) Only God can “create” in the sense implied by bars. (1b) The verb expresses creation out of nothing, an idea seen clearly in passages having to do with the creation on a cosmic scale (1c). All other verbs for “creating” allow a much broader range of meaning; they have both divine and human subjects and are used in contexts where bringing something or someone into existence is not the issue.
A careful study of the passages where bars occur shows that in the few non-poetic uses, the writer uses scientifically precise language to demonstrate that God brought the object or concept into being from previously nonexistent material.
Perspective – Specific Point of View
Sometimes, having the correct perspective can make all the difference with respect to the truth of a statement. Nowhere else is this more obvious than in the proper understanding of the first few verses of Scripture in Genesis 1.
Unfortunately, most Bible commentaries will err along with the “higher criticisms” of Jean Astruc. The most common error is to place the point of view for Genesis 1 out in space looking down upon the earth. Using this perspective, the writer of Genesis has plants growing on the earth before he made stars which cannot be the case.
The answer is provided in the second verse of the Bible where our point of reference is pointed to the surface of the earth and not out in space,
and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
This seemingly small statement has a profound influence over our understanding of Genesis and the order of creation, aligning it with our modern understanding of early Earth history.
Genesis 1:2 indicates there are four initial conditions of the primordial planet Earth,
- Water covered the whole planet
- It was dark upon the surface of the ocean,
- The earth was formless, or disorganized,
- The earth was void or empty.
Modern science indicates the early earth may have been formed with much of the water it currently possesses and was covered with water early in its development. The alternative hypothesis is that water was brought to the earth through asteroids and comets, although that would seem to require too many to bring all the water that now covers the earth.
During the first few hundred million years of its existence, the Earth was a “hell on Earth“, being constantly bombarded by huge meteors which boiled away the oceans into clouds, melting the surface of the planet. It was a very dark and dismal place, covered by thick clouds of water and volcanic ash obscuring the night sky. The Sun would look as just a feebly bright place in the dark daytime sky.
The initial earth over multiple hundreds of millions of years was void of life; it was far too hot to enable any life to form. The earth was empty of life until further creation events.
Order of Creation Events
One of the more interesting aspects of the Genesis account is the further use of the verb bara. As noted above, “bara” refers to creation ex nihilo or out of nothing. It is used two more,
- once for the creation of nephesh or “soulish” animals – those animals which are endowed with mind, will and emotions (birds and mammals mostly), and
- Creation of adam or “spirit” beings – those creatures with the ability to respond to God.
This may imply that these two orders of creation were special creations made from nothing – no derivation from prior creatures.
The order of the Genesis 1 Creation (expanded)
- Creation of the physical universe (space, time, matter, energy, galaxies, stars, planets, etc.)
- transformation of the earth’s atmosphere from opaque to translucent
- formation of a stable water cycle
- establishment of continents and oceans
- production of plants on the continents
- transformation of the atmosphere from translucent to transparent (exposing the Sun, Moon, and Stars to the surface of the planet). The metabolism of plants uses up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and produces increasing amounts of oxygen
- production of small sea animals
- creation of sea mammals (nephesh)
- creation of birds, possible at the same time as mammals
- making of land mammals
- creation of mankind
This order of creation is in line with modern science. While some may find fault with some aspects of this more detailed representation, it is important to remember that Moses was writing at a time before bacteria were known, for example. The account is also brief and selective – it is not a scientific treatise. The account documents various aspects of God’s miraculous power in forming the Earth and life upon it. Only the highlights are given, the events most important for achieving God’s final goal – the creation of mankind.
The odds that Moses could have guessed the correct order of events from the perspective of Earth’s surface is small indeed. The random placement of these eleven events in the correct order is 11! or one chance in 39,916,800.
It would seem like the human author of the Creation account was indeed inspired, just as 2 Timothy 3:16 says.
But Wait – There’s More!
The Bible is not meant to be a scientific book, but the fact that it is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) implies it should be accurate. Christ quoted from the Old Testament many times implying he felt it was an accurate representation of truth. These quotes include the following:
When Christ was tempted,
It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4, cf. Luke 4:4)
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:7; cf. Luke 4:12)
You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” (Deuteronomy 6:16)
Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Matthew 4:10, cf. Luke 4:8)
It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. (Deuteronomy 6:13)
Sermon on the Mount
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ ” (Matthew 5:21)
You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” (Matthew 5:27)
You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18)
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” (Matthew 5:31)
When a man takes a wife and marries her if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house . . . (Deuteronomy 24:1)
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’” (Matthew 5:33)
If a man vows a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Numbers 30:2; cf. Deuteronomy 23:21)
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” (Matthew 5:38)
But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:23–25; cf. Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21)
There are many other Scriptures that Christ quoted from the Old Testament. Suffice it to say that Christ had confidence in the historicity of the Old Testament as he quoted from it frequently to make preaching illustrations.
But Wait – There’s Still More!
What is exciting from the scientific perspective is how timely ancient scripture is with modern cosmology and even confirms the best model of creation. More specifically, the Bible’s prophets and apostles explicitly state the three most fundamental components of big bang cosmology;
- a transcendent cosmic beginning a finite time ago, and
- the universe is undergoing an expansion, and
- cosmic cooling from an extremely hot initial state
For example, The Bible is the only holy book to explicitly state time had a beginning,
This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time. (2 Timothy 1:9)
…in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time. (Titus 1:2)
The first theoretical scientific evidence for the big bang universe dates back to 1916 when Einstein’s theory of general relativity. He noted that these field equations predicted an expanding universe suggesting a starting time for this expansion – a beginning.
The idea of an expanding universe or “heavens” is suggested multiple times throughout Scripture. For example, Isaiah 42:5 notes,
This is what God the Lord says – the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out …”
Also, Isaiah 45:5-22, John 1:3, and Colossians 1:15-17 note that God alone is the creator and responsible for the universe.
The most frequently described characteristic of the universe described in Scripture is that it is being “stretched out.” Modern science knows the universe is everywhere expanding after an initial extremely high period of “inflation.” The Scriptures demonstrating this expansion include,
He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea (Job 9:8),
The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent (Psalm 104:2),
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. (Isaiah 40:22)
God, the Lord, created the heavens and stretched them out. He created the earth and everything in it. He gives breath to everyone, life to everyone who walks the earth. (Isaiah 42:5 – NLT)
It is I who made the earth and created mankind on it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts. (Isaiah 45:12)
My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they all stand up together. (Isaiah 48:13)
That you forget the Lord your Maker, who stretches out the heavens and who lays the foundations of the earth, that you live in constant terror every day because of the wrath of the oppressor, who is bent on destruction? For where is the wrath of the oppressor? (Isaiah 51:13)
But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding. (Jeremiah 10:12)
He made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom, and stretched out the heavens by his understanding. (Jeremiah 51:15)
A prophecy: The word of the Lord concerning Israel. The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a man, declares; (Zechariah 12:1)
Can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze? (Job 37;18)
The universe is cooling down as it expands from the initial big bang. The Scriptures in this way indirectly confirms the big bang universe by stating that the laws of thermodynamics, gravity, and electromagnetism have operated throughout creation since the beginning of time.
For example, Jeremiah 33 uses the stability of the laws that govern the universe to illustrate his unchangeability.
This universal decay of the universe is illustrated in Romans 8:20 where Scripture describes creation to be subject to “frustration” and “futility” while the next verse describes it as being in “slavery to decay” and in “bondage to corruption.”
The description of being in “slavery to decay” describes results of the second law of thermodynamics which states the universe becomes progressively more disordered over time.
The developmental order of creation depicted in Genesis 1 has been a topic of controversy for many years. The order of creation taken from the perspective of an observer in space would seem seriously out of place. Many have tried to excuse the Genesis account as not being a scientific explanation but only showing how God created the Universe. Others have suggested that it is only a mythological explanation of an ancient Jewish culture and is not meant to represent Truth.
Others hardened by their secular materialism, point to the Genesis description of the creation order and yet another reason not to believe Scripture is inspired at all.
The entire quandary can be solved by changing the perspective of the observer from space to the surface of the planet. This perspective is suggested by the narrative itself, as the creative Spirit is moving across the waters of the forming world. From the perspective of the Earth’s surface, the order of creation makes much more sense and is in alignment with what modern science knows today.
Far from supporting a mythological interpretation of Genesis, the account when understood from the correct perspective supports the metaphysical origins of the account. This is in agreement with the New Testament which states that all scripture is God-breathed,
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. (New Living Translation)
Scripture also paints a picture of Creation that is in agreement with the most recent advances in astrophysics. The universe has a beginning in time, is constantly expanding, and during this expansion it is constantly cooling.
While Scripture is not a scientific text, it does fundamentally agree with science.