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05 March 2018

The “six days” of creation.

Genesis 1, and why it doesn’t mean what young-earth creationists claim it does.

Creationism is the belief God created the universe and life.

Creationism is an orthodox Christian belief: It’s found in the creeds. “I believe in one God… maker of heaven and earth, of all things, visible and invisible.” God initially created everything. He didn’t necessarily create everything since—fr’instance, he didn’t create evil. But he created their creators.

So yeah, technically all orthodox Christians are creationists. Problem is, the word “creationist” has been co-opted by the young-earth creationists (YEC for short), the folks who insist God created the universe only 6,000 years ago. Or if you wanna get specific, 6,021 years ago, in October. They’re the ones pushing the idea that if you’re a real Christian, if you’re truly orthodox, you gotta believe as they do.


A diorama from the Creation Museum of a primitive human and featherless dinosaurs. (Yeah, they’re a bit slow to keep up with the latest science. Be fair; so is Jurassic World.) Atlas Obscura

Of course young-earth creationism isn’t the only worldview Christians are allowed. I myself am an old-earth creationist (or OEC), who believes God created the universe 13 billion years ago, and the earth about 4 billion years ago. You know, like most scientists currently estimate. They tend to describe creation in terms of natural, physics-based processes, and they’re right to; that’s what science is supposed to do. Look at nature and make deductions based on the available evidence. Not, as the young-earth creationists do, start with a conclusion (“God made it in six literal days in 4004BC!”) then bend what they observe in nature so it’ll fit the conclusion. That’s how you get superstition. Or, as some folks charitably call it, “junk science.”

I admit I’m biased in favor of my view, but lemme briefly list a few of the other views for your consideration.

  • INTELLIGENT DESIGN. Creationism of any and every kind, but it downplays which specific creator, so as to be more palatable to those who object to religion.
  • THEISTIC EVOLUTION. Much the same as regular evolution, but instead of being solely by natural selection, the Creator had a hand in it.
  • DAY-AGE THEORY. A form of OEC, where the six days are described as six eras, thousands to billions of years long, during which God achieved what Genesis 1 describes for each day.
  • GAP THEORY. Same as YEC believe, but instead of happening in six sequential days, gap theorists posit there are some billion-year gaps in the timeline.

Back during my Fundamentalist upbringing, when I was taught YEC was the only acceptable interpretation of the bible, I was also taught all these other views were forms of compromise: The only faithful interpretation of the bible was a literal one.

So why’m I in the OEC camp today? Because I read the bible without the YEC blinders on. Genesis 1 describes a physically impossible universe, inconsistent with the one nearly everybody recognizes to be true. Yes, nearly everybody. YEC followers included!

(Flat earthers are an obvious exception: They believe Earth is flat because they are striving to stay true to a literal spin on Genesis 1, despite being literally able to see Earth’s curve—and despite seeing Earth’s shadow during every lunar eclipse. Hey, if you’re gonna deny commonsense in favor of your interpretation of the scriptures, okay… but you’re doing it wrong. But enough about them.)

Okay. So how’m I reading Genesis 1 and coming to the conclusion it’s not meant to be literal? Glad you asked.

Let’s read it first.

Yes I did bother to read it in the original, then translate it. Here ya go.

Genesis 1.1-2.3 KWL
1 In the beginning, when God made the skies and land, 2 the land was unshaped and had nothing on it.
The ocean’s surface was dark. God’s Spirit hovered over the waters’ surface.
3 God said, “Be, light.” And light was. 4 God saw light, and how good it was.
God distinguished between light and dark: 5 God called the light day, and called the dark night.
It was dusk, then dawn: Day one.
6 God said, “Be, space in the middle of the waters. Be, distinction between waters and waters.”
7 God made space. He distinguished between waters which are under space,
and between the waters which are over space.
It was so. 8 God called the space skies.
It was dusk, then dawn: Day two.
9 God said, “Gather, waters from under the skies, to one place. Be seen, dry ground.”
It was so. 10 God called dry ground land. The gathered water he called seas. God saw how good it was.
11 God said, “Sprout sprouts, earth. Sow seeds, grass.
Fruit trees, make fruit which has seed in it, by species, on the land.”
It was so. 12 The earth produced sprouts, grass sowed seeds by species,
trees produced fruit which had seed in it, by its species. God saw how good it was.
13 It was dusk, then dawn: Day three.
14 God said, “Be, lights in the space of the skies, to distinguish between the day and night;
to be signs, seasons, days, and years; 15 to be lights in the space of the skies; to light the land.”
It was so. 16 God made two great lights:
The great light for ruling the day, and the small light for ruling the night. And the stars.
17 God put them in the space in the skies to light the land,
18 and to rule the day and night, and to distinguish between light and dark. God saw how good it was.
19 It was dusk, then dawn: Day four.
20 God said, “Swarm the waters, you swarming, living soul.
Fly, bird, over the land, over the face of the space in the skies.”
21 God created the great serpents and every living, crawling soul which swarms the waters, by species;
and every winged bird, by species. God saw how good it was.
22 God blessed them, saying, “Bear fruit. Be many. Fill the waters of the seas.
And bird, be many on the land.”
23 It was dusk, then dawn: Day five.
24 God said, “Bring out, land, living souls: Species of livestock, animal, and vermin, by species.”
It was so. 25 God made life on the land, by species:
the livestock by species, every dirt-burrowing animal by species. God saw how good it was.
26 God said, “We’re making humanity in our shape, like we’re like,
to rule the sea’s fish, the skies’ birds, all the land’s livestock, and every land animal.”
27 God created humanity in his shape; in God’s shape he created it: He created male and female.
28 God blessed them and told them, “Bear fruit. Be many. Fill the land and take it over.
Rule the sea’s fish, the skies’ birds, and all life—everything crawling on the land.
29 Look, I give you every single seeding plant on the face of the earth,
and every tree, and every seeding fruit in it. It’s for food.
And to every life on earth, to all the skies’ birds,
and everything crawling on the land with a living soul in it, every green plant is food.”
It was so. 31 God saw everything he did, and look, it was very good.
It was dusk, then dawn: Day six.
2.1 The skies, the land, and all the creatures were finished.
2 God finished the work which he did on day seven,
and stopped all the work which he did on day seven.
3 God blessed day seven and made it sacred,
because on it God stopped working on his creation.

Got all that?

The primary reason the author of Genesis wrote this creation story, was to correct the other creation stories of the ancient middle east. The pagan stories always began with a pre-existing universe. Not one their highest god, father god, or head god created: It was already there, and their gods spontaneously sprang from it. To their minds, God didn’t create the universe: The universe created God. So verse 1 totally turns that idea on its head.

God created day and night. God created the šamáyim/“skies, heavens;” it’s not the other way round. God created the seas and the sea creatures, whereas middle eastern myths usually had him battling some great sea serpent for supremacy. God created the sun and moon, whereas Genesis’s author doesn’t even use the words for “sun” and “moon,” since middle easterners thought of Šeméš/“sun” and Yaréhakh/“moon” as pagan gods. God created humans to supervise Earth, rather than as an afterthought—“Oh, I need worshipers”—or as slaves, to feed him with our sacrifices.

The seven-day structure was to explain the Hebrew week, to focus the readers’ attention on God’s intentional acts of creation, and present the origin of the Hebrew Sabbath:

Exodus 20.11 KWL
“For six days, I the LORD made the skies and the land, and everything in it.
Day seven, I stopped, so I the LORD blessed a day of Sabbath. I made it holy.”

We stop work because he stopped work.

Genesis 1 was written to counter false religious beliefs. Not to create a structure for bad science. But in the hands of young-earth creationists, that’s precisely what many Christians are doing.

So let’s do what the YEC adherents claim they’re doing… and take it literally. Let’s see how well it holds up.

The ancient middle eastern cosmos.

First of all, the idea God made the universe 6 millennia ago, on day one. Yeah, the first verses can imply God created the universe on day one. But it doesn’t have to.

Genesis 1.1-5 KWL
1 In the beginning, when God made the skies and land, 2 the land was unshaped and had nothing on it.
The ocean’s surface was dark. God’s Spirit hovered over the waters’ surface.
3 God said, “Be, light.” And light was. 4 God saw light, and how good it was.
God distinguished between light and dark: 5 God called the light day, and called the dark night.
It was dusk, then dawn: Day one.

When does day one begin? When God turned on the lights. When’d God turn on the lights? After he created the unshaped, dark land which had nothing on it. How much time took place between the beginning and day one? We don’t know.

Notice God created light, and day and night, before creating the sun on day four. Since we recognize days depend on sunlight, exactly how does that work? God was hanging some specially-created shoplights before he started construction? God needs light to see by? You do realize as a spirit, Jn 4.24 he doesn’t have physical eyes, right? He doesn’t see because photons hit his optic nerves; he didn’t have optic nerves before he became human. How do you have light without the sun?

Well, to the ancient middle easterner, the sun didn’t actually light up the sky. The sun just happened to hang in the bright sky—but the sky itself was lit. Well, half of it anyway: The sky rotated around the earth—’cause you could see the stars moving, but you weren’t moving, as far as you could tell. For half the day the sky was bright, and for the other half the sky was black.

After all, the sky was light on cloudy days when the sun wasn’t around… so it appeared to middle easterners that the sun was optional. Light didn’t require sun.

If all this sounds completely wrong to you, it’s because you grew up with a view of the universe based on western astronomical science. Ancient middle easterners didn’t. Theirs was pre-scientific, based on observation and guesswork. And Genesis was written to them. Not us. It was written to conform to their beliefs. Not to endorse them, of course; the flat-earthers are still wrong. But Genesis’s author didn’t see any cosmological problems with what he was writing: He didn’t know astronomy. Neither did his readers. He only cared about theology: The bright sky? God created that. The sun? God created that too.

This is why we read, on day two, about God creating a giant air pocket in the waters which made up Earth, and calling it “space”—

Genesis 1.6-7 KWL
6 God said, “Be, space in the middle of the waters. Be, distinction between waters and waters.”
7 God made space. He distinguished between waters which are under space,
and between the waters which are over space.
It was so.

—then putting sun, moon, and stars into that air pocket on day four.

Genesis 1.16-18 KWL
16 God made two great lights:
The great light for ruling the day, and the small light for ruling the night. And the stars.
17 God put them in the space in the skies to light the land,
18 and to rule the day and night, and to distinguish between light and dark. God saw how good it was.

Wait, what?

Yep. Again, ancient middle eastern cosmology: The back end of space, which all the stars are fixed to, is a firmament (which is how the KJV translates raqíya/“space”), a massive wall which holds back all the water that used to cover the dry ground. The sun, moon, and clouds hover in the space between the waters above and the waters below.

Now. Whenever YEC adherents talk about the firmament, they never describe it on the far side of the stars. Even though the bible does. They always describe it on the far side of the clouds, holding back rain. That is, till the “windows of the heavens” dumped it back onto Earth for Noah’s flood. Ge 7.11


The universe… if we take Genesis literally. NIV Faithlife Study Bible

See, that’s the problem: Genesis doesn’t describe a universe any larger than a few miles up.

When Genesis was written in the 1400s BC, the ancients really had no idea how big their universe was. Eventually the Greeks got a better idea: Around 240BC, Eratosthenes of Cyrene accurately calculated out how big the earth is. Around 140BC, Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria inaccurately speculated the stars (which he assumed were attached to the firmament, and all equidistant from Earth) were about 3 trillion kilometers away. True, that’s only a third of a light year, but it’s a way better guess than only a few miles up.

Still, say the firmament is 3 trillion kilometers away—and only holding back a millimeter of water. That equates to about 113 sextillion liters of water. Earth only has about 1.26 quintillion liters on it. So there’s 90 million times as much water above as below? Well, that’d definitely flood Earth….

Oh, and let’s not forget God put plants on the earth a day before he put the sun in the sky. Ge 1.11-13 But I won’t get into that.

Nobody’s a literalist.

You see the diagram above of the ancient middle eastern cosmos. I’ve shown it, and similar diagrams, to young-earth creationists. Every one of them balks at it: They don’t believe the universe looks like that at all.

Nor should they! But that’s the universe as ancient middle easterners imagined it. The universe Genesis 1 affirms. As for the stuff beneath the earth—the foundations, the great deep, sheol—that’s confirmed by the rest of the Old Testament.

Nope, the diagram doesn’t look at all like the hourly photos which come back from our weather satellites, nor the views from the International Space Station.

My point is: Unless we’re willing to deny the work of every astronomer since Nikolaus Copernicus, deny the images from our satellites which provide our weather forecasts, deny the experiences of every astronaut and cosmonaut, deny the existence of the Global Positioning Satellite networks which make our electronic maps work… not one of us can describe ourselves as a biblical literalist. Our daily lives deny a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1.

And as I’ve demonstrated, young-earth creationists, for all their zeal, aren’t hewing to it all that closely either. They’re only picking and choosing the interpretations they like… ones which provide them a fun idea of cavemen and dinosaurs frolicking together. Which ain’t bible; it’s The Flintstones.

So what are we to do? Make the flat-earther mistake and deny reality in favor of a literalistic interpretation? Of course not. We simply recognize a literalistic interpretation is incorrect. It’s not the reason Genesis 1 was written. It’s not the reason a lot of bible was written; don’t get me started on the “prophecy scholars” and how they mangle apocalypses.

The proper interpretation of the scriptures requires us to look at the motives of the authors, and recognize what they were trying to say… and not trying to say. Genesis’s author wasn’t trying to teach science. He was trying to teach theology. Treat Genesis 1 as a scientific text, and you wind up with bad theology: One which claims God made a universe which deceptively looks older than it really is, and implies God himself is deceptive.

Leading people to suspect God is a liar: That’s as bad as bad theology gets.