I am now going to start an intermittent series that will explore the many questions that Genesis presents to us. The purpose of these posts is not to provide answers to these questions, but to highlight the many ambiguities within the text itself that have led theologians and biblical scholars to debate the interpretation of Genesis for more than 2000 years. I hope that these will also reveal that to try and base a scientific theory on the opening chapters of Genesis is itself a hopeless task, because the text does not present any neat hypotheses to be verified by empirical testing. Indeed, if there is a science in Genesis, it is an ancient one that is foreign to us (which, contrary to some, does not undermine divine inspiration, but helps us makes sense of it in a new way).
The first question I want to begin with is right at the beginning. Genesis 1:1 states, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This verse can be read in multiple ways. It can also be read, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth”, or “In the beginning when God began to created the heavens and the earth.” If that were not ambiguous enough, we are faced with an immediate question. Is this a preliminary statement that introduces the texts which follows, or is this the moment of creation? To put this question in context, the next verse reads, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God (or the spirit of God) swept over the face of the waters.” Now in an ancient society, this is a statement of chaos. Read like this, the seven days of creation are bringing order out of the chaos, but that is besides the point. On to the questions.
If Gen. 1:1 is the statement of creation, we have further questions to explore. Is this happening on the first day? If not, how long before the first day? Genesis 1:1 doesn’t have God speaking anything into existence, so how did he create it in that initial moment(s)? (Note: I am not trying to introduce the gap theory here, and make the text try to fit with modern science. I am merely trying to show the nature of the text and that reasonable people can approach the text and come to different conclusions, rather than coming out with certain and clear-cut “plain-meaning of the text” answers.) If Gen 1:2 is a statement of chaos, did God create that chaos in 1:1, or was there another force at work?
If Gen 1:1 is an introductory remark, then we start creation out with the chaos of Gen 1:2 (if indeed it is chaos?). At the very least we are starting out with material preexisting, regardless of the existence of chaos, although that would seem to make sense of the text. How long has the material been there, and how did it get there? God, yes, but the Bible doesn’t give us an answer besides that. Was the ancient writer not interested in how the material of the cosmos came into existence? If so, what does that say about their approach to “science” versus how we would approach it, where we are so concerned with material origins? From the question above, if Gen 1:2 is a statement of chaos, did God create that chaos previously, or was there another force at work?
There are many other questions we could ask, but hopefully the point has been made just in the first verse or two. Even if we wanted to try to make the Bible fit modern science (and I don’t think we can), there is a great amount of difficulty from the beginning. Simply put, we aren’t able to answer these questions with absolute certainty. Perhaps we need to approach this text with more humility, rather than thinking we already have all the answers from a plain reading of the text in the 21st century. More epistemological humility, and a little less epistemological certitude.