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Genesis 1:6-8 confused me for the longest time.

6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

I was always confused by what the “waters above” were. Was it a thick mist? Was it simply the atmosphere? Was it just a poetic way of describing rain? Like many other Christians, I concluded that it was mist or rain. But the Bible says “waters,” not mist or rain.

The problem is further complicated by verses 16 and 17:

16 God made two great lights–the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth…  (emphasis mine)

If the sun, moon, stars, and even birds (see verse 20) are in the firmament, then the firmament has to refer to everything above the ground, from the atmosphere to the farthest galaxy. This understanding presents a problem for modern readers, however, because the “waters above” would then be located over the sun and other celestial beings. If we interpret the “waters above” as rain or a mist, then we run into a conundrum.

Perhaps the best way to reconcile the problem is to understand that God spoke to the Hebrews using the cosmology of the day*. He spoke in a language that they would understand. Almost all Christians recognize that this happens in other parts of scripture. For instance, when we read that the sun rises and sets, we understand that the ancients probably imagined a geocentric universe and that God is speaking within this understanding. Likewise, when a passage talks about the floodgates of heaven opening, it is likely reflecting the beliefs of the day about where rain comes from.

So what was the Hebrews understanding of the universe? Did they know that the earth was an orb, that the universe was unimaginably extensive, or that the earth revolved around the sun? I hardly think so. This article may be a helpful explanation of their cosmology. Check it out and decide for yourself. To summarize the article, here is an image (taken from this blog) that illustrates many scholars’ view of Hebrew cosmology.

According to the article, the Hebrews believed that the firmament was a solid dome that formed a physical barrier between two bodies of water–the waters below (oceans, etc.) and a body of water that existed above the sky. If this understanding of Hebrew cosmology is correct, then a whole lot of light is shed on the subject of the firmament. The firmament and the waters above are not actual objects; they represent the Hebrews’ understanding of the sky and the universe beyond.

Bringing an understanding of Hebrew cosmology to the text dramatically affects the way it should be interpreted. This is really the whole point of this little exercise in thinking out loud. I have heard many Christians say that the correct interpretation of Genesis 1 is a strictly literal one because this is the “plain reading” of the text. In my last post, I tried to show that the passage was poetic and finely-crafted, and therefore, it was not intended to be strictly a plain account. In this post, I am suggesting that the passage is told in a way that made sense to the ancient Hebrews and to their understanding of the universe, and therefore, the account is not wholly true to what we have observed in outer space. That is not the point of the passage. The point is that the giant blue dome-like thing in the sky where the sun, moon, and stars move and the birds fly was built by our God. The passage is not any less true just because some of the elements are not literal.

 

 

* It is true that Hebrew cosmology is a reconstruction of scholars looking at the Biblical texts.

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If you want to get a reaction from the Christian or the scientific communities (not that these are mutually exclusive), then ask how we are meant to interpret Genesis 1. Some will be dismissive, saying that it is just one of the many creation myths of early man. Others will say that it must be interpreted as a strictly literal account of how God created this world. Still others suggest a more figurative approach. So who is right anyway? With this post, I would like to begin walking through the Bible’s opening chapter and make some observations that may or may not be helpful in this dispute. I do not claim to have it all together, but I am beginning to form some opinions. (I also cannot claim to have come up with most of these opinions on my own, by the way.) Let’s get started.

The first thing I notice is that the passage has a sort of cadence. It is not poetry, but it is poetic and highly structured on a pattern of seven. The pattern more or less goes like this:  God speaks and creates;  he frequently separates one thing from another; he observes that the new creation is good; he names the new creation; and finally, the day draws to a close with an evening and a morning. The cadence seems to reach a climax in day 6, when God makes the animals and then man. In my Bible (NIV), this part of the story is six paragraphs long, compared to the one to two paragraphs of the other creation days. The real climax seems to be man, made in God’s image. The account concludes in a sort of epilogue with day seven.

The second thing to notice is something that I could not see on my own unless I were a Hebrew scholar:  the frequency of the number seven. The prominence of seven goes beyond the number of days it took to create. The passage in the original Hebrew consisted of seven paragraphs; the number of times the words “God,” “earth,” and “heaven” appear is a multiple of seven; the fourth Hebrew paragraph contains seven references to “light;” in paragraphs two and three there are seven references to “water;” the first sentence of the passage is seven words; the last paragraph consists of three sentences of seven words apiece; and in the middle of the last three sentences is the expression ”the seventh day.” Some of these occurrences of seven may be explained away, but I doubt one can explain them all away. It is pretty clear that the author of the passage carefully arranged it to express the perfection and completion that the Hebrews associated with the number seven.*

The third thing to notice is the parallelism between the first three days and the last three days. Observe: 

  • Day One:  the creation of light, day and night.         
  • Day Four:  the creation of the sun, moon, and stars to give light, govern the night and day, and to separate light from darkness.
  • Day Two:  the creation of the expanse that separates the waters from the waters.
  • Day Five:  the creation of sea and sky animals.
  • Day Three:  the creation of seas, land, and plants.
  • Day Six:  the creation of land animals, including man, who are given the plants to eat.**

All of these observations indicate that Genesis 1 is a highly structured passage. It is not a straight historical or scientific account of the creation of the universe. I am not saying that it is not historical or scientific, only that the literature is not merely a simple account, as some apparently think. It is very poetic. If the passage is poetic, then perhaps there is room for more than just a strictly literal interpretation. In fact, a strictly literal interpretation may stretch this passage beyond what it was intended to do.

* All these observations are taken from my former pastor, who took them from the Jewish scholar Cassuto.

**  Again, this paralellism is not unique to me. It has been pointed out to me by several pastors and teachers.

My parents taught me that Genesis 1-3 were literal, and that therefore, evolution could not be true. The earth, too, was not nearly as old as the scientific community indicated. For twenty-seven years I embraced this interpretation and countered the evidence of the scientific community at large with evidence from the Answers In Genesis organization. I thought that other Christians who embraced either evolution or an ancient earth were making a compromise that scripture would not allow.

Now, though, I am not so sure. For the past six or so months I have been reading books written by Christians defending evolution and/or a 4.6 billion year old earth. Everything I have believed about creation is now in the process of being re-examined, and honestly, it has been a disturbing process. If I accept an ages-old earth and/or evolution, will I lose my Christianity? And if I lose my Christianity, what hope remains in life?

The process of re-examination started when I realized that my scientist father-in-law, who was absolutely convinced that evolution was true, would never accept a Christianity that prohibited a belief in evolution or in an age-old earth. I began reading books by Christian scientists who explained the evidence for a universe that is many billion years old and for evolution occurring across species. It was so convincing that I began considering alternate ways of looking at Genesis 1-3.

What I want to do in the next couple of posts is consider the text of Genesis and then consider what science has said about the creation of the universe.

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