A Reflection on Genesis 1

genesis-1

It has often been pointed out that the opening chapters of Genesis contain two separate creation stories that have been carefully combined by later redactors/editors. The first account (Gen 1:1—2:4a) is assigned to a priestly writer, and the second (Gen 2:4b–25) to an author who knows God as YHWH, rather than Elohim. Furthermore, the understanding many Christians have on divine inspiration results in God being regarded as the ultimate author of Scripture. Consequently, some see it as appropriate to conflate these two accounts of origins. However, the redactor(s) obviously left the two stories intact, rather than try to merge them, so honoring their different traditions. Moreover, their literary styles are distinctly different and we do a disservice to Scripture if we ignore this fact.

A further complication is that many Christians assume these two accounts are both historical and scientific descriptions of origins, as we understand those terms today—which is also why some attempt to combine the accounts. This can result in a desire to read the well-established findings of modern science into scripture in order to harmonize the two. Concerning Genesis 1, one popular approach is to introduce the six days of creation as ages or epochs of time. Consequently the Hebrew word for “day” (yom) is interpreted figuratively in terms of an unspecified period of time which is then linked to the millions of years required for the evolutionary process and the fossil record. However, this is problematic since it disrupts the author’s rhythmic use of “evening and morning” on each of the six days of God’s creative acts.[1] It seems to me that it is exegetically unacceptable to interpret the text in this way. Rather, this approach is an example of eisegesis where one reads into the text the desire to see concord with the timescales required by geology and biology. We need to move beyond seeing Genesis 1–3 as a divinely inspired explanation of origins in a scientific sense, or view it as a factual historical account of events.

Instead, these two pre-scientific accounts need to be appreciated in the context of the stories of origins from the neighboring cultures of Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt. After all, the Genesis that we have today emerged in its final form at the time of the exile (sixth century BCE).[2] As such, there is a contrast between the God of Israel and the Babylonian deities. In other words, the writers and redactors were telling Israel’s own story in a given context, rather than some universal narrative articulated in an abstract manner for the whole of humankind. These early chapters of Genesis, then, describe Israel’s own understandings of themselves and, at a time of dispersion and exile, they become community-defining texts that affirm their God-given identity—one that is covenantal (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David) from the very beginning.

That being the case, it does not matter how the original audience understood these accounts in terms of our modern categories of science and history. But that does not mean that their theological messages are unimportant for today. Indeed, they are foundational, since they reveal God’s redemptive acts. If they are not scientific or historical accounts, how might we view, say, the first chapter of Genesis?

Table 1: A Framework of God’s Creative Activity in Genesis 1

God Creates “Spaces” (or Domains) God Fills “Spaces” (or Domains)

Day 1

Day 4

God separates light from darkness (v4).[3] God fills the sky with lights: the sun, moon and stars—to rule the seasons and maintain the separation between darkness and light (v14–18).

Day 2

Day 5

God separates the sky from the “waters” (v7,8). God fills the waters with living creatures and the sky with birds (v20–22).

Day 3

Day 6

(a) God separates the land from the seas (v9,10).

(b) God fills the land with vegetation.

(a) God fills the land with domestic and wild animals (v24,25).

(b) God makes humankind (v26–30).

In Genesis 1, we see that God is the primary subject of this chapter and whose ultimate origin is unquestioned by this community of faith. The poetic, liturgy-like pattern introduces a seven-day structure ending with a Sabbath—most appropriate if the writer is of a priestly class. While 7 is the number of completeness, unity, and perfection, 8 creative acts are to be found within 6 days (two acts occur on days 3 and 6). Rather than viewing God’s activities on these six days in a literal sense, or one that is meant to correspond to a scientific sequence, it is better to view the days in a literary fashion. Table 1 provides a framework of God’s activity in Genesis 1, in which God first separates spaces or regions (days 1–3) and then fills each of those spaces (days 4–6). This elegant schema is not too rigid, resulting in the text being artificially constrained; rather it mirrors a literary pattern corresponding to the general theme of God bringing order out of disorder (1:2).[4] Viewing Genesis 1 in this way takes so much heat out of the debate, which tries to force science into the text—rather than focus on divine action.

There is a poetic regularity to each day’s activities:[5]

  1. Command: “God said let there be . . . ”
  2. Execution: “And it was so.”
  3. Assessment: “God saw it was good.”
  4. Sequence/Time: “There was evening and morning . . . ”

While this pattern is not perfectly symmetrical throughout all the 6 days, the overall effect is to give a melodic crescendo that peaks at the end of day 6, followed—appropriately—by relaxation and blessing on the 7th (Sabbath) day. Indeed, as theologians remind us, the true climax is on the 7th day with the story beginning and ending with God—not culminating with the creation of humankind! We see in each of the 6 days that God’s speech is actionable and nothing thwarts God’s intentions. Creation is not an accident but a deliberate act of the divine will. Creation is purposeful and dynamic; the potential of becoming is built into the very structure of things. Moreover, God approves and delights in his creation, affirming it as “very good” at the end of day 6.

There is, of course, much more that could be said concerning Genesis 1, and nuance to refine what I have said! However, this way of understanding the text liberates us from an unnecessary war that has been waged for far too long. It is a battle not about the authority of Scripture, but on its interpretation. Treating Genesis 1 in this way is still being totally faithful to Scripture. In summary, reflect on the words of Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, written over 30 years ago:

“[Gen 1:1—2:4] is not a scientific description, but a theological affirmation. It makes a faith statement. . . . This text has been caught in the unfortunate battle of ‘modernism’, so that the ‘literalists’ and ‘rationalists’ . . . [are] nearly ready to have the text destroyed in order to control it. Our exposition must reject both such views. . . . Rather, it makes the theological claim that a word has been spoken which transforms reality. . . . The claim made is not an historical claim but a theological one about the character of God who is bound to his world and about the world which is bound to God. . . . In interpreting this text, the listening community must speak its own language of confession and praise, which is not the language of ‘scientific history’ nor the language of ‘mythology and rationalism.’ These tempting epistemologies reflect modern controversies and attest to a closed universe. . . . Against both, our exposition must recognize that what we have in the text is proclamation. The poem does not narrate ‘how it happened’ . . . [rather] Israel is concerned with God’s lordly intent, not his technique. . . . The text proclaimed a newness which places the world in a situation which did not previously exist. . . . Our interpretation must reject the seductions of literalism and rationalism to hear the news announced to the exiles. The good news is that life in God’s well-ordered world can be a joyous and grateful response.”[6]

Good news indeed!

Notes

[1] Moreover Ex 20:11 and 31:17 only makes sense if the “days” are actual days. Literalists, of course, will see it that way.

[2] In the Adam and Eve story, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden needs to be seen in the context of the Babylonian exile. This is also alienation and an enforced removal from their homeland, one brought about—as they understood it—by their persistent breaking of their covenantal relationship with God (see Deut 28).

[3] Old Testament scholar, Terrence Fretheim, points out that light was thought to have another source (Job 38:19) and only augmented by the sun, (e.g., light on a cloudy day, and before sunrise and after sunset.) Fretheim, “Genesis,” 343.

[4] On day 3, God not only creates the space of dry land but provides vegetation of all kinds to make it habitable, or ready, for all animal life and humankind who will fill the space on day 6. In light of Gen 1:28–29; 9:2–3, all air-breathing animals were intended to be vegetarian! (Yet tyrannosaurus-rex was not!) In keeping with this picture, Isaiah 11:7; 65:25 imply that animals will be herbivorous in the new creation.

[5] Brueggemann, Genesis, 30.

[6] Brueggemann, Genesis, 25–26, his emphasis.

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox, 1982.

Fretheim, Terence E. “Genesis.” In vol. 1 of New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, edited by Leander E. Keck. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.

———. God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.

Reddish, Tim. Science and Christianity: Foundations and Frameworks for Moving Forward in Faith. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009.

 

Prayer in an Open World

“What’s Prayer Got to do with it?”

(A short essay by Tim Reddish in Uncontrolling Love.)

If we are honest, most of us do not find prayer to be easy. It is, after all, a spiritual discipline, and such practices require effort. We can also be disinclined to pray if we are not entirely sure what good it does.[1] Here are two reasons why this is so, one scientific and one theological.

There is the scientific reason. If, as literal thinkers, we imagine God to be outside of an ever-expanding universe, then God is perceived to be ultra-remote and becoming more distant all the time. In addition, if we have subconsciously absorbed into our worldview an image of a mechanistic universe, then this leads us to think of the cosmos as a closed system of pure cause-and-effect. For the modern mind, then, a strong emphasis on God’s transcendence can lead to the difficulty of relating to a God who is beyond the bounds of a closed and expanding universe. It is no wonder God can seem both silent and distant.

Here is the theological reason. What is the point of bringing our prayer petitions to an omniscient God who knows all that can be known? Even worse, another of God’s traditional attributes, impassivity, asserts that God cannot be affected by creation, including being influenced by our prayers. Some theologians respond by saying that although prayer does not sway God or alter the physical world, it changes our perspective. Prayer is therefore only for our psychological benefit. This is totally uninspiring! In addition, if we believe the future is already fixed in the mind of God, then prayer cannot modify what God has already decided. If this is the case, in what coherent sense can we honestly say that God ‘responds’ to our prayers?

We are left praying simply out of obedience, because we believe we should pray. Some even feel guilty for not praying. If we could better understand the process and potency of prayer, then we would be more motivated to pray. This requires us to change our view of both God and creation—and the relationship between the two.

Physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne states that there are two necessary criteria for theological coherence in prayer.[2] The first is that prayer only makes sense in a certain kind of world. Prayer is illogical in the rigid framework of a clockwork universe. Although modern physics insists that our world is not closed like that, the legacy of that Newtonian paradigm lingers in our consciousness. That mechanistic worldview is officially dead; let us not resurrect it within our theology and so inhibit our view of God’s capabilities and activities in the world. Instead, let us embrace a world that is open to new and emergent possibilities. Our universe is a mixture of regularity (laws of nature) and randomness (or chance); both elements are necessary to describe God’s good creation. Another thing we must remember is that the physical universe is not a self-sufficient system. God has enabled creation to be the ‘other’ and given it room to become so, but its autonomy is relative to the Creator―who is the ultimate source, sustainer, and goal of all things. “If nature is an open, emergent, and transcendently oriented set of physical systems, there is little reason to exclude the activity of God as a positive causal factor in the ways things go.”[3] Second, prayer only makes sense with a certain kind of God. God needs to be relational and engaged with sequential events as we experience them, rather than purely ‘outside’ of time. Only from this perspective of openness and relationality will we have the confidence to engage in the discipline of prayer.

Nevertheless, prayer is not magic and cannot change the facts of the present situation—just like the past cannot be altered. Neither can a prayer’s effectiveness be proved or disproved logically. Just because a specific request was ‘granted’ does not mean that the outcome would not have been realized had we not prayed. We are bound by the arrow of time; we cannot go back and run through the exact same scenario again, this time without prayer, to see if the same result is achieved. We need not, unless we choose to, believe in the causal connection between the prayer and result. The effectiveness of prayer, like the significance of miracles, is a matter of faith. Consequently, prayer is a living expression of our relationship with God and his covenantal commitment to us.

For others, prayer is unnecessary because there is a fatalistic expectation that God will always do what is ‘best’ anyway. However, there are a myriad of complexities in an open world; this means it is far from likely there is only one ‘best action’ for God. Rather there is a range of creative alternatives open to God. Consequently, what is ‘best’ if we don’t pray might well be different from what is ‘best’ if we do pray![4]

Returning to the earlier question, why articulate prayer if God already knows what we want and need? Yes, God may know what we want better than we do, but God only knows what we request if we actually request it. There is a difference between wishing and asking. We can wish for something without putting any conscious or physical effort into bringing that desire about. In contrast, to request something of God requires us to think of him, rely on his ability, and trust in his character. It is both an act of our will and our faith. This is why it is necessary for us to deliberately articulate our request in prayer, either aloud or silently, and not just hope that God might give us what we desire.[5]

How God will respond to our requests we cannot say, since we do not know the constraints of the whole system or the involvement of others—not forgetting that they too have freewill. Nevertheless, in the complex web of possibilities within an open world, our prayers become part of the causal matrix. Consequently, prayer will always make a difference to the world—even if it does not expressly give us the outcome we desire.[6] Put another way,

Prayer makes a difference, but so do the necessary regularity of the world and every free choice humans and angels make. We have no way of knowing how the power of prayer intersects with these and other variables. We can pray with confidence, knowing our prayer is heard and makes a difference. But we can’t pray with certainty that the difference our prayer makes will have the precise outcome we desire. In this sense we can’t be certain our prayer will be answered.[7]

While I—as a scientist—value this logic and find that it encourages me to pray, I can appreciate that for others this rationale may seem cold, perhaps even disturbing! Regardless, as mentioned earlier, we need to have confidence in the power of prayer if we are to practice it. Moreover, the more we engage with God in prayer, the more it will become second nature, i.e., evidence of our dynamic relationship with Him.

Two further thoughts: Matthew tells us that Jesus taught his followers to ask for God’s “will to be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.”[8] We repeat this phrase all the time in the Lord’s Prayer to the point that we have forgotten what the words imply. That statement says that we should continue to pray for God’s kingdom to be established because what we see here and now is not all that God desires. Moreover, our prayers are, it seems, needed to help bring about God’s rule—his kingdom—here on earth. In fact, more than our prayers are needed. We also need to act—to be empowered by the Spirit and work to bring about the things God values. Saying “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is, then, not merely an expression of eschatological hope—although it is that—but it is an affirmation of our commitment to partner with our Trinitarian God to further God’s kingdom. Second, it is quite legitimate to say that the Christian and the Spirit are “co-praying.”[9] As Princeton theologian Daniel Migliore says: “Prayer is the fundamental exercise of the new human freedom in partnership with the Spirit of God.”[10] Since our prayers are in partnership with the Spirit, who is intimately involved in the divine dance with the Father and the Son, this adds significant potency to our prayers and provides a further powerful motivation for the believer to pray.

[1] See also, Tim Reddish, Science and Christianity: Foundations and Frameworks for Moving Forward in Faith (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 138-143; David Wilkinson, When I Pray What Does God Do? (Oxford: Monarch, 2015).

[2] John Polkinghorne Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (West Conshohocken: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), 84.

[3] Keith Ward, Divine Action: Examining God’s Role in an Open and Emergent Universe (West Conshohocken: Templeton Foundation, 2007), 178.

[4] Ibid, 161-2.

[5] Ibid, 162.

[6] Ibid, 163, 169.

[7] Gregory A. Boyd, Is God to Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 134.

[8] Matt. 6:10 (NIV)

[9] See Rom. 8:26-27

[10] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 242; emphasis mine.