As we begin studying these very familiar first 11 chapters of the Bible, people in our groups will have a variety of thoughts in mind, (much like they may have had as we were studying Revelation!). Some will be eager to put forward a pet theory about how Genesis is to be read. Some will be fearful that it will descend into arid philosophical arguments. Some will feel inadequate to understand it. Some already expect they will be offended by what they read about the roles of men and women, about fratricide, about gross immorality and about some aspects of the character of God. It won’t all be negative, however! Some will be delighted to fall in love all over again with our gracious and good God, with his explanation of the purpose of this world and human life and with his sheer greatness. And we must pray that all who study with us at this time will come to see Jesus more clearly in all his glory.
You will know your group and therefore how deeply to explore some of these issues. We are sure you will be aware of the need to ask people to put aside any pre-conceived ideas about Genesis in order to understand the text in its own terms, follow wherever it leads, and to acknowledge the reality that it points to the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44-49).
We suggest as leaders you would profit from reading this succinct essay on the type of literature Genesis’ creation accounts are, and perhaps sharing all or some of it with your group:
Background Briefing for Leaders, taken from Bruce Walkte’s Commentary, “Genesis”.
“What kind of literature is Genesis?
“The Spirit of God who spoke through them did not choose to teach about the heavens to men, as it was of no use for salvation.” AUGUSTINE
“The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.” GALILEO GALILEI
“The function of setting up goals and passing statements of value transcends the domain of science.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
The historicity and scientific accuracy of the Genesis creation account has been the subject of much controversy and debate. Questions concerning the relationship of the Genesis creation account and science can only be addressed intelligently by determining the literary genre of Gen. 1:1–2:3. Generally, the creation account is slotted into one of four categories: myth, science, history, or theology. The determination of the genre of any passage must always be founded on the text, and careful textual analysis of Genesis 1 reveals that it is problematic to assign this passage to any one of these categories.
Creation and Myth: Is Genesis myth?
That question is complicated by the many definitions of the word myth. If by the word myth one means a story that explains phenomena and experience, an ideology that explains the cosmos, then the Genesis account of creation is myth. In this sense, myth addresses those metaphysical concerns that cannot be known by scientific discovery. However, most commonly the word myth is understood to represent things fanciful or untrue. In this case, the word myth misrepresents the Genesis account and does an injustice to the integrity of the narrator and undermines sound theology.
Creation and Science: Is Genesis scientific?
As an account that describes life-support systems, heavenly bodies, species of flora and fauna, and other natural elements of earth, the creation account has a scientific dimension. But the Genesis creation account has distinct differences from a scientific document. First, Genesis and science discuss essentially different matters. The subject of the Genesis creation account is God, not the forces of nature. The transcendent God is a subject that science cannot discuss. Second, the language of Genesis and science is entirely different. The creation account is formed in everyday speech, non-theoretical terminology, rather than mathematics and technical terminology. More important, Genesis 1 is concerned with ultimate cause, not proximation. The intent of the creation account is not to specify the geological and genetic methods of creation but to definitively establish that creation is a result of God’s creative acts. When the psalmist says “You knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13), he is not intending to comment on genetics or immediate cause. To suggest otherwise is to distort the text. This is a clear example of why scientific and theological accounts should not be pitted against one another. In Genesis, the narrator only tells us that God commands the earth to bring forth life. He does not explain how that bringing forth occurs. Third, the purposes of Genesis and science also differ. Genesis is prescriptive, answering the questions of who and why and what ought to be, whereas the purpose of science is to be descriptive, answering the questions of what and how. The narrator of the creation account is not particularly concerned with the questions a scientist asks; rather, he wants to provide answers to the questions science cannot answer—who has created this world and for what purpose? Fourth, since they are addressed to different types of communities, Genesis and science require distinct means for validation. Science, speaking to the academic scientific community, requires empirical testing for validation. Genesis, addressed to the covenant community of God, requires the validation of the witness of the Spirit to the heart (Rom. 8:16). For these reasons, the Genesis creation account cannot be delineated as a scientific text.
Creation and History: If not science, is Genesis history?
It certainly has historical elements. It is factual in the sense that God created the cosmos and all that is in it, and the genealogies that trace the history of Israel back to Adam and Eve speak to the narrator’s concern with historicity. However, Genesis bears little resemblance to modern conceptions of history. In short, it is not straightforward or positivistic history. The creation account is unlike any other history. History is generally humanity recounting its experiences. The Genesis creation account is not a record of human history, since no humans are present for these acts. Even in modern history, there is a tension between the historical referent and authorial creativity in the writing of history. The Bible gives great scope to creativity in interpreting and presenting the data. The biblical narrator even feels license to dischronologize the events. Certain “difficulties” in the order of the days seem clearly to represent a dischronologization. On the first day (1:5) God creates the evening and morning, but he does not create the luminaries to divide them until the fourth day (1:14). If this is a straightforward historical account, God created evening, morning, and days without luminaries and then created luminaries in order to affect them. Are we really to conclude that the division occurs without the dividers? It seems reasonable to assume that the narrator has offered a dischronologized presentation of the events in order to emphasize a theological point. God is not dependent on the luminaries. The narrator also subtly suggests a dischronologization by speaking of each of the first five days as “a day,” not “the day.” The narrator’s concern is not scientific or historical but theological and indirectly polemical against pagan mythologies. The narrator wishes clearly to establish that it is God who has created all and has dominion over all, including the seas, sun, and moon. Other aspects of the Genesis creation account likewise suggest that it is not concerned with presenting a strict historical account. The symmetrical nature of the account and the similarities of patterns with ancient Near Eastern material, including the use of the widely attested seven-day typology of the ancient world, may suggest that the narrator is using a stereotypical formula to speak of divine activity and rest. Youngblood adds, “I would point out that the omission of the definite article (“the”) from all but the sixth day allows for the possibility of random or literary order.” The days of creation may also pose difficulties for a strict historical account. Contemporary scientists almost unanimously discount the possibility of creation in one week, and we cannot summarily discount the evidence of the earth sciences. General revelation in creation, as well as the special revelation of Scripture, is also the voice of God. We live in a “universe,” and all truth speaks with one voice. One of the key ways in which the text distances itself from a bare-facts retelling of the events of creation is its metaphorical language. As soon as we talk about God in heaven, we are in a realm that can only be represented by earthly figures. The narrator must use metaphor and anthropomorphic language so that the reader can comprehend. When the text says that God said, commanded, called, and saw, are we to understand that God has vocal cords, lips, and eyes? Obviously this language is anthropomorphic, representational of the truth that God creates. If the narrator’s descriptions of God are anthropomorphic, might not the days and other aspects also be anthropomorphic? The anthropomorphic allows us to enter into and identify with the creation account. The time of creation is presented in the anthropomorphic language of days so that humankind might mime the Creator. Since we cannot participate in vast stretches of time, how else could we imitate the creator, except with finite terms such as a week? In sum, the narrator has an agenda very different from the modern historian. He has a theological agenda: to tell us that God created the earth and that it is all very orderly.
Creation and Theology: If the narrator has so clearly crafted the Genesis creation account around theological concerns, can we call the account theology? Once again the answer is yes and no. Genesis is theological in that it is concerned with divine matters and with teaching the covenant community important truths about God and his relationship with his world, but it is not theology as we usually understand it. The narrator does not systematically present abstract truths about the divine; rather, he tells us a story about the Creator and his creation. What, then, is the genre of the Genesis creation account? Following Henri Blocher, (“In the Beginning: The Opening Chapter of Genesis” InterVarsity, 1984, pp50-59) we can describe the creation account as an artistic, literary representation of creation intended to fortify God’s covenant with creation. It represents truths about origins in anthropomorphic language so that the covenant community may have a proper worldview and be wise unto salvation. It represents the world as coming into being through God’s proclamation so that the world depends on his will, purpose, and presence.””
Waltke, Bruce K.. Genesis (pp. 73-78). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
The first section we are studying is Genesis 1:1 – 2:4, found here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+1&version=NIV
Some suggested discussion questions:
Think of a discussion you have been involved in over the Book of Genesis. How did it go? Were you happy with the way the discussion ended? Why? Why not?
What is the understanding of the purpose of human existence most of our contemporaries hold to? How does this play out in discussions about euthanasia, abortion, the purpose of education, relations between races, our view of ourselves?
Let’s look at the text:
- Summarize the main ideas of Genesis 1:1 – 2:4 under the following headings:
Help the group see that not only is God “there” (NOT created at some point), but he is the powerful creator of all things (compare Romans 1:20); that he created all things out of nothing; that he is a God of order; that he creates with a purpose in mind (cp Isaiah 45:18); that he creates by his word (cp Psalm 33:6)
• The creation
Help the group see: the creation is dependent on its creator (Psalm 104); the creation is orderly and habitable; and the creation is good. Explore how different all this is from what so many religions teach and modern Westerners believe
Help the group see the utter dependence of humankind as a creature: This is deeply offensive to us humans—especially 21st- century humans. We hate the idea that we are made by someone else, are dependent on someone else, and are given purpose and meaning by someone else. Yet we cannot face the alternative—that we are an absurd accident, a cosmic joke occasioned by time plus matter plus chance.
And help them see that Genesis portrays humankind as unique – explore what the image of God means (cp Psalm 8, Hebrews 2)
- Help the group follow through the parallels to Genesis 1 found in the New Testament – e.g. John 1:1-14, Colossians 1:15 – 17
- Help the group re-examine in the light of Genesis 1 how they think of
- Humankind – I.e. themselves
- The creation