Genesis & Creation:
Definition of Terms:
The creation accounts in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25 provide insights into the universe’s creation. Although they are theologically sound and without theological errors, they may not be meant to be taken literally. The authors’ intent appears to use literary devices and symbolic language rather than providing a strictly historically accurate account in the modern sense. Genesis also seems to draw inspiration from other ancient creation myths, aiming to contrast them with the monotheistic God of the Hebrews. There have been many Church Fathers and modern scholars who have advocated for a non-literal interpretation of Genesis as the most suitable approach for understanding the author’s intent while acknowledging the scientific discoveries that have been made in cosmology, archaeology, geology, and paleontology.
Genesis itself may contain hints that it’s author did not intend it to be read literally. One of these hints is it’s frequent use of symbolic language. Genesis contains several references that are commonly interpreted as symbolic or metaphorical. For example; The Tree of Knowledge of good and evil is often seen as a symbol representing humanity’s capacity for moral choice and free will, while the Serpent is often understood as a metaphorical representation of temptation and evil.
Another hint is the apparent contradictions that are present within Genesis. There are a few verses in Genesis that some people interpret as contradictory when comparing different parts of the text. Genesis 1:25-27 states that God created animals first and then created man and woman together, while Genesis 2:18-22 suggests that man was created before the animals and woman was created from Adam’s rib. In Genesis 7:2-3 God instructs Noah to take two of every kind of animal into the ark, while in Genesis 7:13-14, it seems to imply that Noah took seven pairs of clean animals and birds and one pair of unclean animals. While Cain and Abel are depicted as the children of the first humans, after Cain killed his brother Abel, he expressed fear that other people would seek revenge on him; Genesis 4:14, “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
The New Testament also suggests that Genesis may contain symbolic or allegorical elements and should not necessarily be interpreted as a scientific or historical account of creation: 2 Peter 3:8 – “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” and Psalm 90:4 – “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night” These verses indicate the “days” of creation in Genesis could be symbolic rather than literal 24-hour periods. The Bible often uses the phrase “1,000 years” to indicate “a long time”, leaving open an interpretation allowing for the possibility of an extended timeline proposed by the theory of evolution.
Some biblical scholars and theologians have proposed interpretations of Genesis 2:7 and 2 Peter 3:8 that could be seen as compatible with the theory of evolution. This perspective, known as theistic evolution, seeks to reconcile the biblical texts with scientific understandings of the natural world and that evolution as the mechanism through which God brought about the diversity of living beings, including humans. They see the use of “dust of the ground” or “clay” as symbolic language conveying the idea of God’s intimate involvement in creating humanity from the natural elements of the earth. Several biblical scholars and theologians have taken this approach, including John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, and Francis Collins, a geneticist and physician who led the Human Genome Project.
The figurative approach to understanding Genesis is well attested to amongst the Church Fathers as well. There were several Church Fathers and early Christian theologians who interpreted parts of Genesis allegorically or non-literally.
- Origen of Alexandria: Origen’s allegorical approach can be seen in his work “On First Principles” (De Principiis). In this text, he discusses the spiritual and allegorical interpretation of biblical passages, including those in Genesis.
- Augustine of Hippo: Augustine’s non-literal interpretation of Genesis can be found in his work “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” (De Genesi ad Litteram). In this book, he explores various ways to interpret the creation account, acknowledging the possibility of allegorical meanings.
- Gregory of Nyssa: Gregory’s allegorical interpretation of Genesis is evident in his work “The Making of Man” (De Hominis Opificio), where he delves into the spiritual significance of the six days of creation.
- Basil the Great: Basil’s views on interpreting Genesis can be found in his “Hexaemeron,” a series of sermons on the six days of creation. He emphasizes that the narrative should not be understood solely in a literal sense.
- John Chrysostom: Chrysostom’s perspective on Genesis is seen in his homilies and commentaries on various biblical books, including Genesis. In these writings, he encourages seeking deeper spiritual insights while respecting the literal meaning.
The intentions of the writers of Genesis are multifaceted and may have included several purposes. The primary intention of the writers was likely to convey moral, theological and religious teachings to their audience. Genesis introduces fundamental concepts about God, the origins of the world, humanity’s relationship with the divine, the consequences of sin, and the unfolding of God’s plan for redemption. Genesis also served as a historical foundation for the people of Israel, providing them with a sense of identity, ancestry, and continuity.
Another purpose to Genesis may have been, in part, to counter other creation myths and religious beliefs prevalent in the ancient Near East. Several respected biblical scholars have proposed that Genesis was written as a response to counter the influence of other cultural beliefs. Some notable works include Richard Elliot Friedman: “Who Wrote the Bible?”, John H. Walton: “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate”, Peter Enns: “The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins”, and Hermann Gunkel: “Genesis: Translated and Explained”.
There are several ancient creation myths that scholars believe may have potentially influenced Genesis’ creation story. The Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish and the Sumerian creation myth Enûma Eliš share similarities with the Genesis creation account. The Akkadian creation myth Enuma Anu Enlil is considered to have influenced the biblical account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). The Mesopotamian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh” contains a similar flood narrative. The Canaanite creation myth from Ugarit, known as the Baal Cycle, bears resemblances to certain elements in Genesis. Ancient Egyptian creation stories, such as the Heliopolitan and Memphite cosmogonies, have similarities with Genesis.
Because of the striking similarities in themes, motifs, and narrative structures, scholars believe that the authors of Genesis were influenced by the cultural and religious ideas prevalent during their time. The ancient Near East, including Mesopotamia and Canaan, shared cultural, linguistic, and religious connections. The ancient Israelites were exposed to various cultures through trade, conquest, and interactions with neighboring civilizations. As they encountered these diverse societies, their beliefs and stories likely intermingled, leading to shared elements in their myths and religious narratives. Archaeological discoveries often complement the textual evidence, further supporting the idea of cultural interchange and influence.
However, Genesis contrasts with these other ancient creation myths in several significant ways. Genesis presents a monotheistic creation account, where one God, Yahweh, is the sole creator of the universe. Genesis also describes a creation ex nihilo, meaning “out of nothing.” In contrast, some other creation myths depict the world as emerging from a primordial substance or from the actions of the gods shaping pre-existing matter. Genesis also emphasizes the special relationship between God and humanity, stating man was created in God’s image. By referring to God as “Father” the writers of Genesis illustrate a more intimate relationship between God and man.
The concept of God as a Father, the creator of all things, also contrasts with the idea of gods or goddesses being birthed by a “Mother” Earth or other deities. This differs from some ancient creation myths, particularly those found in polytheistic cultures, where gods and goddesses are often depicted as arising from primordial or divine entities. By referring to God as a “Father”, Genesis implies a creation of the universe in which its Creator is somewhat removed as opposed to “birthing” it from His body.
There are some theological implications to a figurative interpretation of Genesis that must be taken into account. Pope Pius XII stated that the Church allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul. Although Adam and Eve’s body may have developed over the course of evolution, their souls were a distinct and direct creation of God. It’s the creation of Adams soul that makes him the first man and it is in this sense that Christ is referred to as the “new Adam”. As Pope Pius XII and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Bendecit XVI) stated;
“the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions . . . take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—[but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God” (Pius XII, Humani Generis 36).
“We cannot say: creation or evolution, inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we just heard, does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the “project” of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—realities (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall [Eerdmans, 1995], 50).
Genesis 1:1-2:3 (NRSVCE):
“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. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
Genesis 2:4-25 (NRSVCE):
“These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
Genesis 4:14 (NRSVCE):
“I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”
2 Peter 3:8 (NRSVCE):
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”
Psalm 90:4 (NRSVCE):
“For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.”
Church Father Quotes:
“For as Adam was told that in the day he ate of the tree he would die, we know that he did not complete a thousand years [Gen. 5:5]. We have perceived, moreover, that the expression ‘The day of the Lord is a thousand years’ [Ps. 90:4] is connected with this subject” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 81 [A.D. 155]).
Theophilus of Antioch
“On the fourth day the luminaries came into existence. Since God has foreknowledge, he understood the nonsense of the foolish philosophers who were going to say that the things produced on earth come from the stars, so that they might set God aside. In order therefore that the truth might be demonstrated, plants and seeds came into existence before the stars. For what comes into existence later cannot cause what is prior to it” (To Autolycus 2:15 [A.D. 181]).
“All the years from the creation of the world [to Theophilus’ day] amount to a total of 5,698 years and the odd months and days. . . . [I]f even a chronological error has been committed by us, for example, of 50 or 100 or even 200 years, yet [there have] not [been] the thousands and tens of thousands, as Plato and Apollonius and other mendacious authors have hitherto written” (ibid., 3:28–29).
Irenaeus of Lyons
“And there are some, again, who relegate the death of Adam to the thousandth year; for since ‘a day of the Lord is a thousand years,’ he did not overstep the thousand years, but died within them, thus bearing out the sentence of his sin” (Against Heresies 5:23:2 [A.D. 189]).
Clement of Alexandria
“And how could creation take place in time, seeing time was born along with things which exist? . . . That, then, we may be taught that the world was originated and not suppose that God made it in time, prophecy adds: ‘This is the book of the generation, also of the things in them, when they were created in the day that God made heaven and earth’ [Gen. 2:4]. For the expression ‘when they were created’ intimates an indefinite and dateless production” (Miscellanies 6:16 [A.D. 208]).
Origen of Alexandria
“For who that has understanding will suppose that the first and second and third day existed without a sun and moon and stars and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? . . . I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance and not literally” (The Fundamental Doctrines 4:1:16 [A.D. 225]).
“The text said that ‘there was evening and there was morning’; it did not say ‘the first day,’ but said ‘one day.’ It is because there was not yet time before the world existed. But time begins to exist with the following days” (Homilies on Genesis [A.D. 234]).
“And with regard to the creation of the light upon the first day . . . and of the [great] lights and stars upon the fourth . . . we have treated to the best of our ability in our notes upon Genesis, as well as in the foregoing pages, when we found fault with those who, taking the words in their apparent signification, said that the time of six days was occupied in the creation of the world” (Against Celsus 6:60 [A.D. 248]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“The first seven days in the divine arrangement contain seven thousand years” (Treatises 11:11 [A.D. 250]).
Gaius Marius Victorinus
“God produced the entire mass for the adornment of his majesty in six days. On the seventh day, he consecrated it with a blessing” (On the Creation of the World [A.D. 280]).
“Therefore let the philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six-thousandth year is not yet complete. . . . Therefore, since all the works of God were completed in six days, the world must continue in its present state through six ages, that is, six thousand years. For the great day of God is limited by a circle of a thousand years, as the prophet shows, who says, ‘In thy sight, O Lord, a thousand years are as one day [Ps. 90:4]’” (Divine Institutes 7:14 [A.D. 307]).
Basil The Great
“‘And there was evening and morning, one day.’ Why did he say ‘one’ and not ‘first’? . . . He said ‘one’ because he was defining the measure of day and night . . . since twenty-four hours fill up the interval of one day” (The Six Days Work 1:1–2 [A.D. 370]).
Ambrose of Milan
“Scripture established a law that twenty-four hours, including both day and night, should be given the name of day only, as if one were to say the length of one day is twenty-four hours in extent. . . . The nights in this reckoning are considered to be component parts of the days that are counted. Therefore, just as there is a single revolution of time, so there is but one day. There are many who call even a week one day, because it returns to itself, just as one day does, and one might say seven times revolves back on itself” (Hexaemeron [A.D. 393]).
Augustine of Hippo
“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20 [A.D. 408]).
“With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation” (ibid., 2:9).
“Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them” (ibid., 4:27).
“[A]t least we know that it [the Genesis creation day] is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar” (ibid., 5:2).
“For in these days [of creation] the morning and evening are counted until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” (The City of God 11:6 [A.D. 419]).
“We see that our ordinary days have no evening but by the setting [of the sun] and no morning but by the rising of the sun, but the first three days of all were passed without sun, since it is reported to have been made on the fourth day. And first of all, indeed, light was made by the word of God, and God, we read, separated it from the darkness and called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’; but what kind of light that was, and by what periodic movement it made evening and morning, is beyond the reach of our senses; neither can we understand how it was and yet must unhesitatingly believe it” (ibid., 11:7).
“They [pagans] are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of [man as] many thousands of years, though reckoning by the sacred writings we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed” (ibid., 12:10).