The Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate is slowly ebbing from the center of attention, so I thought I’d try to bring it back…because I know you are just dying to hear more.
I’m an Old Earth Creationist, which means that I believe that the God of the Bible created life and matter, and I agree with the scientific evidence that the universe is billions of years old.
I didn’t always hold this view. I grew up in a household that vehemently rejected it. In fact, watching Kent Hovind videos was a family pastime.
My rejection of an old Earth and evolution was predicated on a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1-11.
My journey away from such literalism toward the acceptance of scientific evidence began with a simple statement from a book I read for a college class on biblical interpretation:
“A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her hearers.”
That sentence was our mantra throughout the semester. All of our work and research in biblical studies centered on finding out what the text meant. Only then could we make sense of how it applied to us. (It’s called exegesis.)
That makes things more complicated for those of us who take Scripture seriously. For my whole life I have been taught to read the Bible in order to see what God can teach me. I learned to just take what it says at face value without ever questioning it (that is, without every questioning that particular way of reading of the Bible).
But, if the text can only mean what its author meant I’m going to have to learn more, study harder, and dig deeper.
It’s easier just to say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”
However, the more I learned the more I realized that the Bible is too big for me to reduce into some sort of answer book. It is complex—layered with hundreds of stories, poems, songs, laws, and letters from the voices of dozens of authors who lived in times and places utterly foreign to me. What’s more, each of those stories, poems, etc. are settled within a specific historical, grammatical, literary, and linguistic context.
It was too late for me to ignore the Bible’s complexity. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself had I decided to live in a vacuum, willingly ignorant of the vastness of Scripture. That would have been intellectually dishonest, not to mention unfaithful to my calling as a believer to know God and his word. So I learned more. I studied harder. I dug deeper.
I learned that the creation story of Genesis is in poetic form because it was born in an oral culture—meaning few people could read or write, so they told stories. The best way to tell a story that could survive was to do so with memory techniques. So, storytellers would structure their stories in poetic form (with parallelism, chiasm, acrostics, etc.) in order to make them more memorable.
Then I noticed that odd statement about God’s Spirit hovering over “the waters.” It’s the first statement in the whole Bible. Something like that should stand out to us, but I’ve never heard any preacher talk about it (other than to draw some sort of trinitarian doctrine from it). However, there is a very specific, very important reason for its prominence in the creation story.
Water is symbolic of chaos and disorder. It is the dark, mysterious place where Leviathan, the untamable monster from the book of Job, lives. Throughout Scripture, enemies have been associated with the sea. The Philistines, one of Israel’s main enemies, were part of a group known as the “Sea Peoples.” In Revelation, the Beast comes from the sea. In fact, there comes a point where there is no more sea. Evil and chaos will be vanquished and God will bring order to the world just as he did in its creation.
Water and chaos also play important roles in the creation stories of other religions.
In the Enuma Elish (the ancient Babylonian creation myth) the planets were mothered by Tiamat (Chaos) and fathered by Apzu (Water). (In fact, the biblical creation account is strikingly similar to the Enuma Elish.)
Several other creation myths contain what scholars call “Earth Divers,” in which a god sends an animal to the bottom of the sea to find mud from which to build land. (See section on Earth Divers here.)
In Greek Mythology, the primordial gods came from chaos.
Ancient people told these stories to make a theological statement about the problem of evil. Somehow we know that the way things are is not the way they should be. We long for a kind of goodness in the world—a goodness we have never even experienced. Ancient people attempted to solve the problem of evil in the belief that our makers must have given the problem to us. The world is out of sorts, so it must have been born from the dark waters of chaos and disorder.
However, the Bible tells us something different. In the biblical creation story the scene opens with a formless and empty mess of water. Chaos. Unlike other creation stories, the spirit of God hovered over the chaotic waters and they were under his command. He ordered the chaos and the chaos obeyed. Life and matter come not from the chaotic waters as the other religions taught, but from the mouth of the One who orders it.
First, he forms the formless. He makes spaces: 1) Day and Night. 2) Sea and Sky. 3) Land.
Then, he fills the spaces with life: 1) Sun, moon, and stars. 2) Fish and Birds. 3) Plants, Animals, and Humans.
The structure of this creation poem is called “parallelism.” It is abundant in Hebrew poetry. A statement is made and the next statement retells or corresponds to the previous one. Here, the first group of three days corresponds to the second group of three days. They are resolved in the seventh day when God rests.
It is no secret that the number 7 is symbolic of completion in the ancient world. What did God complete? We might think that he completed creation, but that isn’t so. Creation has just begun. God completed his Temple.
Knowing what we do about ancient creation myths and their use of water and chaos (not to mention other parallels, such as the creation of humanity from dirt, the creation of the sky to hold back water in the heavens, etc.), Gen 1:2 makes perfect sense. It points to the One who is in control. The story of Genesis 1 is a story about a God who brings order. Then, he tells humans to keep the order—to care for the world.
Perhaps you read Genesis literally. You believe in a literal, 24 hour, 6-day creation and a young Earth.
Just for a moment, would you be willing to consider the possibility that a different interpretation might be valid?
What if the author of the creation story did not write a story to tell how the Earth was created, but to tell who created it? All of the surrounding nations had their different stories about the origin of matter and life, and why the world isn’t the way it ought to be. So, inspired by God, someone tells a new story. A better story. A truer story.
We are not the product of chaos. We are made in the image of the one who orders the chaos.
Evil within the world does not come from our maker. It comes from us. And the God who made us in his image graciously and mercifully wants to reconcile us to himself.
Genesis offers theological truth in the form of an ancient, poetic origin story. Why would God do this? Because it was something that humans would understand—something with which we could identify. It would have been entirely pointless for God to give the ancient people scientifically accurate data concerning the nature of the cosmos, so he humbled himself and revealed his nature within their cosmological framework. This fits perfectly within the character of God. He did it again when he became flesh and dwelt among us.
God isn’t afraid to meet us on our level.
So, there is no reason to worry about whether this is literally true because that isn’t what the text originally meant to convey. Remember, the text can never mean what it never meant.
When we accept that a story can tell the truth without being literally true (think of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed), we can then begin to at least consider that there may be a better way to understand Genesis.
That’s the way it happened for me.
If Genesis isn’t literal then I am allowed to listen to scientists. I don’t have to fear them or seek to shut them up. I can appreciate them. I can even see the work of God in their discoveries!
More importantly, I can do so without devaluing Scripture or my faith in the Creator, his Son who was crucified and raised from the dead, or the Holy Spirit who empowers me to live for him.
Look out for part 2 in which I will discuss more reasons for a non-literal reading of Genesis and the evidence that led me to my current views.
 Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 75.