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.