The many books of the Bible, especially Genesis, were written and put together long before man started using the scientific method to understand the cosmos we inhabit. This did not mean they were ignorant of everything, as though they thought that obviously we can walk on water until science proved that this was impossible. They knew that we cannot defy gravity or come back from the dead. So I’m not trying to assert some modern arrogance over the past. Having said that it is safe to say that the ancients did not use the scientific method to understand the world around us, they had to understand it through other means. They could only use the tools they had, and so ancient Israel, along with the rest of the peoples of that time, had a very standard ancient geography of the cosmos. A flat earth with a solid dome around the earth with the sun, moon, and all the stars on the dome going around the earth, with the waters above the dome, and foundations below the earth to hold it firm.
In my Old Testament backgrounds class at Liberty we were introduced to the concept that God uses known constructs to reveal new truths. In this case he used this construct to reveal new truths about himself. One important fact to understand is that the Bible was written down by men to a particular audience at a particular time and place, it was not written to us, although the message is for all people of all time. But it was not written with our culture in view or even in mind, and that is why the work of Biblical and textual scholars is so important in understanding the background of the Bible and the peoples of that time. They interpret the culture for us.
This is why I have told others there is no such thing as a “plain reading” of Scripture or any text. including modern one’s. Every text must be understood in the context of its time or we are bound to misinterpret and not understand what is being said. It is true that some parts of the Bible are easier to understand than others. I think most clear and simple is the message of Christ to follow him. But, for instance, if we are to accurately understand the parables, we must understand the background, or our understanding of the text will incomplete. We must understand those constructs of the time in order to accurately understand the truth being conveyed.
Following the work of Dr. John Walton of Wheaton College, among others, I think the opening chapter of Genesis can be understood in multiple layers. At one level we see that Israel, along with the other ancient peoples of the time, was not interested in material origins, but in functional origins. All creations myths of the ancient world, including the story in Genesis begin with a cosmos in chaos, and is then brought to order. They start with the assumption of the material existence of the cosmos, they do not explain how the material of the universe came into being. In the case of Genesis we see creation being brought to order with the various functions of the cosmos being brought to order. On the first three days we see the functions come into being. On day 1 we have time, day 2 weather, day 3 food. On the last three days we have the functionaries. On day 4 the sun, moon, and stars marking out the times and the seasons. On day 5 the fish and the birds come into being, and day 6 the beasts of the land, as well as man, the image of God, is placed in the cosmos as a special kind of functionary to be a royal priesthood to all creation.
In a way we could think of this as the home story, and science giving us the house story. When a family moves into a house, they bring everything to order and make the house into a home. The story of the house is the story of how the house was built and how old it is etc. The home story is the family moving in and making it a place that is theirs to live in and have a home. That is an accurate way of looking at what we get in Genesis.
At another level we see a polemic against the gods of the pagan nations surrounding Israel. Creations myths in the pagan nations involve wars between the gods, and typically the cosmos is constructed from various body parts of the god involved. Also many pagan nations worshiped the sun and the moon. Israel’s creation narrative stands against these saying that Yahweh is sovereign over all of creation, and everything exists by his will. By placing the sun and the moon on the fourth day Israel is saying that God is sovereign even over the sun and the moon, that the Creator is to be worshipped and not the creation.
Lastly, and I think at the most profound level, what we have is the story of the cosmos as God’s temple. In all ancient societies the cosmos was a temple, and the local temple that was built stood in for the cosmos (temple is also synonymous with kingdom, which is important coming up). Now a temple inauguration was seven days, and it was not considered a temple until it began to function as such (there is that function vs material coming in again). Just because a temple had been materially constructed does not mean that it was a temple until it began to function as such. Thus, the creation narrative given in Genesis 1 is God constructing the cosmos as a temple for him to dwell in, and the last thing that was done in a temple (kingdom), before being complete was for the God, king, to insert an image of himself into that temple (kingdom). All ancient societies were like this, including Israel. The image of the king, god, reflected his rule over the kingdom. In Israel’s narrative we see God placing his own image into the cosmos as those who carry out his rule over creation and draw up the praise of creation to himself (a royal priesthood). On the seventh day we have God resting. In this case rest means rule, that it is time to get down to the business of running the cosmos. The temple was God’s dwelling place where he would rest and rule. This is reflected in Israel, including the Psalms, where the Psalmist longs for God to take his place of rest in the temple, and remember, the temple in Jerusalem stood in for the cosmos. So on day 7, the temple is complete and God takes his rest to rule, now it is time to get down to the task of running creation.
All this together gives us a doctrine of creation that has profound implications for us today, including the original human vocation of being a royal priesthood, and God’s redemptive task of getting creation back on track through the death and resurrection of Christ and now through the Church. It also means that everything exists by the will of God, he holds all of creation together and is Sovereign, regardless of how God chose to do it. This also means that there is no new scientific information, in this text, and I would assert, the Bible as a whole. To try to turn this into a scientific creationism is to grossly misread and misuse the text. It is really, in the end, being unfaithful to the text itself, because we are not dealing with it as it is. But reading it this way is not only richer, and more accurate, it provides us with an understanding that allows us to embrace science in all its fullness. No one should ever leave the faith, and no scientist should be kept out because we insist on taking Genesis in a literalistic and scientific way. This should lead us to reaching out to scientists, and anyone who is willing to hear and be brought into the fold, without having to choose between science and Christianity, which is a false dichotomy if there ever was one.