Christians and scholars would underscore the crucial importance of Genesis 1-2. In a sense, without Genesis 1-2, the rest of the Bible becomes incomprehensible.
Despite the consensus about the importance of these 2 chapters, the debate and questioning of the interpretation and meaning of Genesis 1-2 are as old as the Christian church and among theologians, this debate still continues.
Our looking at these 2 chapters is along the line that may be helpful to allow us to come to terms with an understanding that does not contradict our orthodoxy (right belief) and our orthopraxy (right living). This will not be comprehensive but I find it helpful and satisfying to look at these chapters in this manner.
To interpret these passages, we have to deal first of all with 3 areas. We must put ourselves in the shoes of the writer and the readers he was addressing. We must be aware of the culture milieu to which they both belong; in other words, we must recognise that it was written primarily not to us but to those who shared the same cultural background as the writer, and they would understand what was written and communicated more accurately with their common background.
Secondly, what does this message, given long ago by a man of God concerning the worship and service of God in his day mean to us as the Word of God? We have to move from what it means historically to what it means to us in the present. Are there cultural prejudices and blind spots in us that prevent us from seeing how this applies to us in our own context?
Thirdly, what does obedience to this Word of God mean to us in our thought and action today? In all these, we must look to the Holy Spirit to teach us and to guide us and we must always be conscious of His activity and operation in all these 3 areas.
We must begin first of all with the theological concept of creation:
“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of His mouth…For He spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm” (Psalm 33:6,9).
“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:3).
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
Creation is a mystery; we do not know how God did it; we could not do it ourselves; we must therefore stand in awe of it, for we do not know how creation can happen. All we know that God spoke and it was done. It is a marvel and a matter of praise and adoration – He created the world; He brought into being the entire universe without use of pre-existing material and gave it an existence dependent on His will and for His own glory!
Next, we need to recognise that the sciences neither ask nor answer the questions about the world which the Bible answers. The sciences study the processes and behaviour patterns that operate within the created system; they look at what used to be called second causes within the system. They have no means of telling how the system started, nor have they any means of telling how God stands related to it now. For instance, scientists may declare that there was a big bang, but they cannot account for the existence of whatever it was that went bang. Science is not able to take us outside, or beyond, the system that is studies. At best, science can only postulate, starting with hypotheses, concluding sometimes with theories which may change with new findings which contradict the earlier theories.
Scripture, by contrast, deals always with the first cause, God Himself, and speaks to concerns that are beyond the scientists’ reach. The scientific method is to go and look, guess and check. It is an empirical study. The biblical method is to listen and learn, let God tells you. From science, we learn how things did, do, and will happen; from Scripture we learn what they mean.
Science is best described as areligious. It does not of itself speak either for or against religion; scientists trying to do this are straying into a territory that is beyond them. Scripture is best described as a-scientific. It does not speak scientifically, nor does it speak either unscientifically, nor does it speak unscientifically. If focuses on the Creator who is behind and beyond the cosmos, transcending it while working in and through it. Scripture speaks about created things in non-technical, observational language, the language of ordinary human experience which simply record what things look like and what impressions they made on the ordinary observer. Science has its technical language, but the Bible does not talk that language; the Bible is not teaching science.
Biblical and scientific accounts of natural events do not contradict each other; they in fact complement each other. They supplement each other, but they do not challenge each other because first and second causes do not overlap!
Going back to the first 3 areas mentioned in the beginning, Genesis 1-2 is history. What sort of history writing we have here? It is a unique kind of history, told pictorially and symbolically and interpreted as it is told, interpreted in fact by the way it is being told. It is history told by the use of didactic symbols that enable us to understand very well its meaning even though the style keeps us from being able to visualise what we would have seen if were there watching.
In other words, the events were space-time events, though their location, date and visual aspects are veiled from us by Moses’ symbolic, parabolic style. For instance, Eden, the Hebrew word for delight, pictures the total happiness and fulfilment that the first man and woman enjoyed before they fell; the tree of Life is a symbol of the enjoyment of God and all things in God that would have been mankind’s still had man not fallen; and the list goes on.
What is there in our minds and culture which would make it hard for us to appreciate narratives told in this way?
Firstly, our barrier is our literary culture; it does not attune us to this kind of symbolic, imaginative writing, poetry in prose as it almost is, and we find it hard to appreciate it. We are used to unimaginative narrative as seen in newspapers and works of fiction.
Secondly, it is our scientific mind-set which is so much part of our culture. We assume that any account of the natural order must be written in order to answer the scientists’ question about it, and that is wrong. Christians need not labour to assume it or demonstrate it.
Thirdly, we are rightly committed in apologetics to countering evolutionism as a philosophy of life. Because evolutionism originates with a particular view about the origin of species, we try to bring Genesis 1 and 2 into line to become ammunition for countering evolutionism. This was no part of the purpose of Moses in writing these 2 chapters. Believers also need not feel compelled to debate with science regarding the age of the world or other scientific findings because as stated earlier, first and second causes do not overlap.
I trust that this brief look at Genesis 1 and 2 would help us in our belief and our living as believers who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.
(With appreciation of J.I. Packer’s comments on Creation in his book “Engaging in the Written Word of God”)