What follows is an approximate transcript of the 20 Nov 2008 AAS meeting, at which Jim, a Christian and ISU alum, spoke with us about alternative interpretations of Genesis. It is by no means complete, and if you remember any particularly interesting parts that were left out, please comment. All hyperlinks and comments within brackets were added by AAS to help readers understand the background behind this discussion.
There are many views on genesis, including: theistic evolution, young earth creationism, and old earth creationism [which has many subsets, including framework theory and day-age]. Jim considers himself an old earth creationist. [Answers in Genesis, a well known creationist group, is known for young earth creationism.]
Creationism is not black and white. It follows a biblical script but prevalent ideas in society and science also impact how creationism is thought about.
Today’s young earth creationism was started by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb in 1961 with their book called The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications that looks scholarly but isn’t [for examples of how it isn’t, see Talk Origins]. The book is essentially flood geology and was originally a 7th Day Adventist view. The book took the Christian community by storm.
Young earth creationism tells that the length of the day in Genesis was iron clad but there isn’t any literature on it. Religious leaders teach that their flocks should go deep into bible, examining it for themselves, but also tell them to take genesis literally.
Jim grew up leaning about young earth creationism. He didn’t get enough science in school to know about the true age of the earth. Learning about the age of the earth would have caused problems for his faith because if genesis is wrong, then maybe the rest of the bible is wrong also. It just didn’t make sense – could thousands of scientists be wrong? or was the problem with one man’s interpretation of the bible?
The bible written in the midst of many deities being believed in. It was not mainstream. The Old Testament was oral tradition originally, needed to be memorized so it was fairly simple, easily distilled to one main point: “there was one god and he created things” that was easily distinguished from the many different creation views that existed at the time. A more detailed story of creation would not have been so easily passed from person to person.
Until recently, one problem with biblical studies is that different translations of the original Hebrew and Greek were not available to most people. Today, with the internet, the Hebrew is available so people can interpret the words for themselves, instead of relying on one or another English translation. Because of this and because of organizations like Reasons to Believe who are attempting to unify the biblical view of creation with modern science, the age of fighting over creationism is going to end. [While Reasons teaches that the age of the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years, they reject the theory of evolution so are considered old earth creationists.]
If we examine the Book of Genesis verse by verse then we see how it matches with what is known by modern science. [Jim uses the New American Standard Bible because he believes it most closely matches the original Hebrew.] Since learning about this way of interpreting Genesis, Jim taught a 10 week class at his church on old earth creationism.
On this chart from Reasons to Believe: “The following creation timeline reflects an integrative approach to biblical interpretation known as “concordism“, belief that the facts of nature, as discovered by scientific investigation, will be discernibly consistent with Scriptural statements about the natural realm. This interpretive approach, like any other, invovles [sic] certain assumptions about both science and Scripture, and is (like any other human endeavor) subject to imperfection and imprecision. Typically the sequence of events is known with more precision than the timing of specific events in the creation scenario. As new evidence emerges, date estimates may be revised.” [Click on the image to see a high-resolution pdf of the chart.]
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
This is the first reference to god in the bible, and is a plural reference to god in the beginning. void actually means something like desert, unfit for life. Moving means hovering with a constant focus or caring.
Day 1: Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 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, one day.
Let there be is a verb having nothing to do with manufacture or creation. The light on the surface of the water is diffused light, enough for photosynthesis. Evening and morning can mean parts of the day, or an unspecified length of time. There are four possible literal translations of the word used for day. One day does not necessarily mean that this was the first day, nor that it was 24 hours or even 12 hours.
Day 2: Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
This was the creation of the atmosphere.
Day 3: Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them”; and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a third day.
Singular land mass indicates Pangaea. The word sprouting is the same as the Hebrew word for normal plant growth which takes time. This also indicates that plants may have started to appear on the 1st day but not necessarily that they appeared all at once. There are only 2000 or so words in Hebrew so it doesn’t have the specificity of English, we are imposing our specific interpretations on the words. When the bible says begat, it indicates not a child but a descendant because there is only one word in Hebrew for son/descendant.
Day 4: Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
Let there be light actually means a change from diffused light to more direct light. Again the words “let this be” indicates a lack of involvement. However the verb used in “god made the two great lights” indicates a creation that had already taken place, which could be back before the first “day”.
Day 5: Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
The teeming sea is the Cambrian explosion, then birds were created later on. No words existed for dinosaurs so that’s why they aren’t mentioned. The word “in god created the great sea monsters” is in the tense of this happened now unlike the moon and sun. Again there isn’t an indication of how long it took for the fish and birds to appear.
Day 6: Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind”; and it was so. God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Cattle means a long legged easy to tame animal, creeping animals means rodents, beasts means wild animals that are harder to tame such as carnivores. The word “make” used for humans is the same one as the one used for the animals – so we should expect a commonality between us and the animals, but people are in god’s image and animals are not. Man and woman are blended in two sides of god – justice and compassion. When animals die they aren’t thinking about walking their daughter down the aisle. We think about things that are undone that we wanted to accomplish in our lives, always thinking about purpose and destiny and hope. God gave us plants to eat but didn’t say that we couldn’t eat animals. At the end of the sixth day, god was done creating, and the fossil record indicates that major speciation events are past.
Q – Is mankind greater than all other animals and plants? Doesn’t genesis say that humans should be vegetarians? Does rule over mean stewardship or dominion? Do you have a problem with farming the way it is now? Why do we have an animal centric view?
A – After the flood, god said that we can eat animals. Rule means “to subdue things that don’t want to be subdued”, but this could also indicates research and agriculture. We should be good stewards of the earth. It is important how we do the things that we do. Diversity in living systems is healthier and more resistant to extinction so we should care about the plant species but not individual plants because those were given to us for food.
Q – Where do you go to church, and if they are young earth creationists, why do you keep going there?
A – Johnston Evangelical. They don’t believe this interpretation, but I don’t go to church to have everyone agree with me. The purpose of church is to come to greater understanding and to encourage others in greater understanding.
Q – The Quran is written in Arabic and has remained unchanged over time. To study the Quran, people must learn Arabic. Would we be better off if the bible had remained in Hebrew? What do you think about bibles that are targeted to a particular group or culture, or about Jesus being one shown as one race or another?
A – Christianity is meant to spread to all peoples, regardless of language, and some inconsistent translations are inevitable. Not opposed to bibles that make things easier for people to understand.
Q – How much of the bible is due to the culture of the translators?
A – The culture of the Old Testament was brutal. Woman needed a husband for protection, so the way they were treated was necessary. The bible doesn’t degrade women.