How to understand the creation narrative?

April 8, 2015 — Leave a comment

I take great interest in hermeneutical questions, of which how to interpret the creation account is a very good example.

I see myself as a fervent believer of the Bible. I would even go so far as to describe myself as “theologically conservative“. However – and here is the big “but” – I am very uneasy with a fundamentalistic interpretation of the Bible.

One’s interpretation of the creation account, often exposes your hermeneutical beliefs and practices. My research has lead me to believe that Genesis is not trying to answer the question “how” the creation came to be, but rather the question of “who” is responsible for it. When you ask: “who made heaven and earth?“, you are asking the correct hermeneutical question and the book of Genesis will find pleasure in answering you. But if you ask “how did the Lord create heaven and earth?“, you are asking a question that the book of Genesis is not prepared to answer. You will end up “putting words into the mouth of Genesis” – words that the book never intended saying. You are asking the wrong hermeneutical question.

But why then does the creation account give so much detail on how the Lord created?“, I hear you ask. “Does the Bible not sayGod made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day’ (Gen 1:16-19). It sounds pretty obvious that the Bible does not only focus on the “who” but on the ‘how’ too“.

Well, yes, it does sound obvious. But that’s because we are projecting our own hermeneutical question into the Biblical text, presuming that the first listeners of Genesis had the same need as us, to scientifically understand “how” God created. When in fact that presupposition is totally erroneous. What we see as “how-detail” in the creation account, is in fact “who-detail“. The writers of the creation account is taking aim at the astrological beliefs and polytheistic religions of the time. By mentioning the stars in a offhand manner and insisting that the Lord created the sun and the moon – the gods of that time – the writers are displaying a blatant disregard for the pagan idols. They are “pulling rank” on the gentile pantheon by saying that everything the heathen worship, was actually made by the one true God! Do you see the author’s point he is trying to make? It is like Conrad Hyers puts it: “Astrological beliefs are being rejected in order to make a theological statement, not an astronomical one“.

I am obviously not alone in taking this approach when interpreting Genesis. I was gladdened to see that the formidable N.T. Wright takes the same stance. In this video he discusses the question of how to interpret the two different creation accounts in Genesis. I think he did a fabulous job…


So when we talk about how to understand the Bible’s creation account, I believe one misses the whole point of the narrative when you feel that it is your duty to fiercely advocate a literal interpretation of Genesis, wherein God created the heaven and earth in 6 days of 24 hours each. By the way, this approach more often than not goes hand in hand with the practice of labeling everyone who disagrees with you as “false teachers” and other derogatory names. If you resort to this kind of rhetoric, you really show no comprehension for the complexity of the issue. It is a mean and narrow minded thing to do.

No, let us rather just acknowledge that we never compare a photo and a painting of the same object, and argue that the photo is the “truer” version of the object. If you should ever do this, you would be missing the point of the beauty of art. In similar fashion, science and theology is not competing against each other in a gridlock fight, with you as the judge who must accept the one and reject the other’s “truth“.

The same can be said about poetry – which is by the way much closer to the genre of the creation account, than scientific or historical prose could ever be. A poem of a sunset in the South African Bushveld, cannot be scientifically measured as “true” or “untrue“. It needs no scientific validation. It does not have to be harmonized with scientific facts. It is unrelated to that sort of truth. Yet it conveys an undeniable truth which you dare not miss. Similarly, the truth that the creation account presents, need not undergo scientific interrogation – because the claims it makes is not scientific in nature. Please note, that does not mean the claims are unimportant. A more important claim you cannot find. But the claim is of a different kind of truth.

There are many possible ways “how” the expanse came to be. I contend that when you want to know “who” created it, you go and study the Bible. And when you want to know “how” he did it, you go and study science. Let us use Scripture for what it was intended for: Not as a quasi-scientific manual, but as a collection of manuscripts – inspired by the Holy Spirit – on how to discover who God is and how we can be in a relationship with Him.

The Meaning Of CreationThus, it really is possible to be a devout believer, a conservative theologian, and still embrace science all at the same time. In fact – I would want to argue – that if we really esteem Scripture like we say we do, we would actually take the time of studying a text’s “sitz im leben“. If you do that with the creation account, you will find that Genesis is answering very real problems for it’s first audience. Like “Who is responsible for this creation?“, “Where does our pagan neighbors’ deity, fit in?“, “What is wrong with mankind?” and “Who do we need to worship?“. When we appreciate the book for what it was intended for, we find in it no prohibition against embracing modern scientific hypotheses regarding the origin of our planet. In fact, I could make a strong case that the more scientific discoveries are made, the bigger our sense of awe and wonder towards our Creater will become. So let us not shy away from science!

A book that does an excellent job at uncovering Genesis’ “sitz im leben“, is “The Meaning Of Creation. Genesis & Modern Science.” by Conrad Hyers. To my knowledge there is not a better book on the subject. Please pick it up if you ever see it. It truly is a gem.

In the meantime, always remember that faith and science are not on two opposite ends of the conundrum. The one is not a threat to the other. To believe that they are at odds with one another, is to believe in a false dichotomy.

Nati Stander

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Firmly anchored in the father heart of the Lord, the finished work of Jesus Christ & the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

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