How Can Modern Readers Better Understand the Creation Story in Genesis 1?

The culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE), including the early Hebrews, was very different from ours today. As a 21st century Westerner, it is nearly impossible to put myself into the mindset of an ANE’er. Our worlds are just too different. But if we are properly going to understand this first chapter of Genesis, it is essential that we at least attempt to do so.
How Can Modern Readers Better Understand the Creation Story in Genesis 1?

Author’s Statement Concerning Inspiration and Truthfulness of the Bible

As you read this you may question my position on the inspiration and truthfulness of the Bible. So let me state up front that I am a firm believer in the divine inspiration of the Bible. I also hold firmly to the truthfulness of the Bible. And that includes this first chapter of Genesis.

The Ancient Culture of Genesis 1

The culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE), including the early Hebrews, was very different from ours today.

So much of what we take for granted today was unknown then. Science, technology, communications, modern healthcare and sanitation, education, 40-hour work weeks. None of that existed. Life was hard and uncertain. Travel was slow and uncommon. Your world was generally limited to your immediate surroundings. Family was immensely important.

How the world worked was mysterious. Why did the rain sometimes come, and sometimes not? What caused the seasons, plants to sprout, and apparently healthy people to get sick and die? There must be something to cause those things to happen – something beyond themselves. And so they personified the forces of nature as gods. Gods who were oftentimes capricious and needed to be appeased or cajoled into making life easier rather than harder.

As a 21st century Westerner, it is nearly impossible to put myself into the mindset of an ANE’er. Our worlds are just too different. But if we are properly going to understand this first chapter of Genesis, it is essential that we at least attempt to do so.

An ANE culture produced the Bible, for that culture. While it has great value to us today, it is all too easy for us to read it with a modern mindset. And when we do, we are prone to misunderstanding it.

Out of Egypt

Later in Genesis we find God calling a man, Abram, later known as Abraham. He brings Abraham to Canaan and promises that land to him, as well as an immense family. Eventually his grandson Jacob takes his family to Egypt where they live for some 430 years, eventually as slaves. After the 430 years is up, God calls Moses to lead Jacob’s family out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai and then back into Canaan.

It seems clear that during the time that Jacob’s family, Israel, lived in Egypt, they were immersed in Egyptian culture and served the Egyptian gods (Joshua 24:14). After centuries in Egypt the thought of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would have faded into a distant memory. They had become a part of Egyptian culture.

Bringing Israel out of Egypt was only the beginning of what needed to take place. They also needed to have a cultural transplant. And that ultimately proved to be a much more difficult task. The covenant at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Law were a major part of that transformation. But Genesis also played an instrumental part in that transformation. It gave them a sense of history and belonging independent of Egypt. It told them where they had come from.

Egyptian Creation Account

Egypt, where Israel had been for 430 years, had their own origin accounts. And while we have no complete account of them, the pieces can be assembled together to give us a general view of their cosmogony.

For the following Egyptian creation account, I am indebted to the book “In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood” by Johnny Miller and John Soden.

1. Before creation there was only the dark and watery sea; nothing else.

2. Atum, the chief god, brought himself and light into existence.

3. At Atum’s command the water separated, producing an atmospheric bubble.

4. The lower waters receded, and earth appears.

5. Atum commanded the creation of plants and animals.

6. Re (another god) formed man in his image, with his breath.

7. All the other gods were personified in the elements of the creation.

8. Then, Atum rested.

For more information on Egyptian cosmogony see: https://bible.org/article/genesis-1-2-light-ancient-egyptian-creation-myths.

Ancient Cosmogony

The ancient world, including the ANE, had no access to modern scientific instruments or technologies. All they had were their physical senses. And they used them to make sense of the world around them.

Imagine trying to figure out what the world was like without access to books, the web, or any kind of science. I suspect you would end up with something like what the ANE cultures did. For a look at ancient cosmogonies see: The Three-Story Universe.

What We Observe

Assume you have no science and no way to understand the world apart from your senses. What would you believe?

  • Obviously the earth is flat. If not, you would fall off of it.
  • The earth would also have appeared to be stationary since there is no sense of motion. In contrast, the sun, moon, and stars appeared to be moving in relation to the earth; each moving at different rates.
  • When you look up into the sky on a clear day, you see blue all around you, touching the earth in the distance. And sometimes water falls out of the sky. Clearly there is water up there. With something holding it back. A dome with windows to allow some water to fall from the sky would make sense. The sun, moon, and stars are also visible moving across the sky and inside the dome.
  • Water comes up from the earth in places, so the earth must be floating on water as well.
  • But why doesn’t it sink? There must be pillars running from some lower foundation up to the earth to keep the earth afloat.

All of this makes sense to the ANE mind. And it would to us as well, if not for modern science. The change from that model was not easy for our ancestors. Accepting the earth was not flat and that the earth circled the sun were challenging concepts to accept.

Accommodation

If you have read through the preceding two sections you will have noticed some resemblance to the first chapter of Genesis, as well as to other places in the Scripture. The first chapter of Genesis is very similar to the Egyptian creation account. And you may have noticed references throughout the Scriptures to the ANE cosmogony. So much so that the church at one time resisted the belief in a round earth and a heliocentric solar system because it seemed to be contrary to what the Bible taught.

It appears that God was not interested in correcting our (mis)understanding of the structure of the physical earth we live on. Instead he accommodated his message to the cosmogony of the day. The truth he was trying to get across to them was independent of the shape of the earth or its relation to the heavenly bodies. To correct their understanding of the earth’s physical nature would have unnecessarily complicated the message, with little gain.

Two Types of Accommodation

Accommodation shows up in the first chapter of Genesis in two ways.

1. The Physical Description

The most obvious is in the similarity between the Genesis and Egyptian accounts of creation. The physical description of the creation is not changed all that much. But what has changed dramatically is the theological message, what God has to say to us in the passage.

2. The Dome

The other place where you will see this accommodation concerns the structure of the creation. In particular concerning the creation of a dome, vault, or firmament that separates the waters above from the waters below on day 2 (Gen. 1:6-8). Followed by the placement of the sun, moon, and stars within that firmament in day 4 (Gen. 1:14-18). Later, during the flood, the windows of the firmament are opened (Gen. 7:11), and then later closed (Gen. 8:2). And periodically after that you see mention of this vault, especially in the book of Job (Prov. 8:27-29; Job 22:14, 37:18).

How should we understand Genesis 1?

Many Evangelicals

There is a great debate in evangelical circles as to how to understand this chapter. There are those who are adamant that the chapter is real history. That it accurately describes the creation of the universe in six days just a few thousand years ago. And, frequently, they hold to the belief that this position is essential to the Christian faith.

Many Skeptics

At the other extreme are those who reject any historicity or scientific basis for this chapter, as well as the following 10 chapters. They understand the findings of modern science as authoritative in this matter, understanding the universe to be billions of years old. While this camp includes skeptics, it also includes some devout believers.

Ancient Hebrews

But how did the ancient Hebrews understand the chapter? If I understand them correctly, it is likely they accepted it as a historical account and did not question it. But at the same time, they didn’t really care all that much about detailed accuracy like we do today. The story itself and what it taught was more important that the detailed accuracy of the story.

You and Me

And, if that is the case, it would seem appropriate for me to take it in the same way. What is God telling me in this account? Don’t get caught up in the debate over details that would not have interested the ancient readers. They would not have wondered about light coming before the sun. It wasn’t important to them.

What is God teaching us in Genesis 1?

If this chapter is not teaching a six-day creation event a few thousand years ago, then what is it teaching?

I think the answer to that entails, at least in part, comparing the Genesis creation account with that of their neighbors, especially Egypt. As mentioned above, the two are very similar in many ways. But the theological implications are quite different.

1. In the Egyptian account, Atum creates himself out of the preexisting sea. In Genesis, it is God who is preexisting and who creates the sea, as well as everything else.

2. In the Egyptian account, there are a multitude of gods, representing all of the elements of creation. In Genesis, it is God alone.

3. In the Egyptian account, the gods create man for their own benefit. In Genesis, God creates man in his image to rule over the creation.

I do not believe this chapter is teaching us the mechanics of creation. Rather it is teaching us about the creator and his creation. It does not matter if it took six days or 6 billion years. The lessons are the same.

Trying to reconcile the Genesis creation accounts to modern science is, in the end, a losing proposition. Focus instead on what God intends us to learn from them. The first chapter of Genesis affirms that God alone is the creator of all that is. That the creation is good. And that humanity is the high point of the creation. God has made us special and has given us rule over the creation.

Ed Jarrett is a long time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way BaptistChurch. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of two lovely girls. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Priscilla du Preez


Originally published June 10, 2019.