Friday, 1 March 2013

Does the creation narrative of Genesis 1 support the idea of a young earth?

In this essay I discuss the creation narrative of Genesis 1. I develop a new approach which deals with the issues in a different way. Both the ancient origins of the story and its relevance in the context of current scientific thinking are discussed. This essay is the first in a series on the Book of Genesis.

The creation narrative in Genesis 1 has been studied extensively for ages. It gives the Biblical account about the origin of the cosmos. Although there are many other ancient creation stories, this one is of special importance to Jews and Christians since it is found in the (Hebrew) Bible – which they regard as divinely-inspired. Most Christians believe that this narrative gives a "true" and correct account of the creation of the cosmos and more specifically, of the earth. But how does it compare with the current scientific view about the origin of the cosmos? Is it possible to subscribe to the Biblical account of creation in the face of scientific data that shows the earth to be billions of years old?

Any interpretation of Genesis 1 is confronted with the difference between the Biblical narrative of creation and the scientific narrative about the origin of the cosmos. Various strategies have been developed to achieve harmony between these narratives – some more successful than others. Any sensible interpretation should not only include good textual exegesis, taking the ancient worldview of the author into account; it should also – for those who believe in the divine inspiration of the Biblical text – be credible and believable.  For Christians who believe in the divine inspiration, the Biblical text has a certain integrity which transcends time – implying that although the creation account was written so long ago, it is valid even today. 

The most popular interpretations of the creation narrative of Genesis 1 could be grouped under three headings, namely 1) The young earth view, 2) The old earth view and 3) The polemical text view. Each of these follow a different approach to the text. What is interesting about these interpretations, is the extent to which they reflect the background of the communities who subscribe to these views. And all of them have some drawbacks – some more serious than others.

The young earth view

Some Christians believe that Genesis 1 teaches that the earth is young. In their view the Bible (Genesis 1) teaches that the earth was created a few thousand years ago in six days of 24 hours each. This interpretation accepts uncritically that the days mentioned in Genesis 1 refer to solar days. They argue that not only the word "day" (yom) but also the expression "evening and the morning" which accompany each day of creation in Genesis 1 shows that solar days are spoken of since this expression reflects the Jewish way of reckoning days from sunset ("evening") to sunset.

This view is typically found in conservative communities who try to uphold a "literal" understanding of the Bible. Groups like the Answers in Genesis organization promotes this young earth creationism. Among these readers are those who follow a very simplistic approach to the text. Some of them do not even recognize that there is an unbridgeable distance between us and the original context in which the text was written. They think that they have in some way (through the Holy Spirit) access to the mind of the original author (Moses). They would typically argue: If the Bible says "days" then it is days. This is what the Moses meant by the word "day" and we should not doubt that. In this way they unconsciously establish their interpretation as the only valid view that is truly and uncompromisingly Biblical.

The truth is that we all interpret the text. Nobody have access to the mind of the original author. Nobody can boast of that. Even with the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are still humans who access the text with limited understanding and who bring our own particular background, insights and blind spots to the text. And once we understand this, that we are interpreting the text (as all humans do), then we recognize that our view is just one among various possible interpretations. Then we can be more open to acknowledge the weak arguments in our own position and consider the strong points of others.

There are various problems with the young earth view. It's interpretation of the word "day" as referring to solar days are particularly problematic. If it is assumed that the days in Genesis 1 refer to solar days of 24 hours each – days which exist because of the rotation of the earth in relation to the sun – then a fundamental contradiction arises, namely that we have to assume the existence of solar days without the sun! Why? Because the sun was only created on the fourth day. So one can ask: How is it possible to have solar days (the first three days) before the sun was created? It is not possible. How is it possible to have "evening and morning" without the sun? It is not possible.

Various proposals have been made to solve this problem. It is often assumed that the light that appeared on the first day have some connection to the sun which was created on the fourth day. But how could the gulf between the first and fourth days be bridged? Some have proposed that the first three days and the last three days (starting with the fourth day) of creation run parallel (there are some similarities between them). This view, however, contradicts another important feature of the Genesis narrative, namely that the days are not only numbered; they are consecutive. There can be no doubt that the reason for dividing the period of creation into seven days, was to establish creation as a model for the work week, with the seventh day (the Sabbath) as a day of rest (Gen. 2:2-3).

Another proposal is that the sun existed before the fourth day but that the atmospheric conditions made it impossible to see it. The sun therefore became visible only on the fourth day. This solves the problem to some extent because some brightening during daytime is now possible although the conventional meaning of "evening" (sunset) and "morning" (sunrise) has to be changed somewhat. But another problem is created, namely that it compromises the "literal" approach for which the proponents of this view are known – it assumes that the sun existed before it's creation is mentioned on the fourth day of creation (Gen. 1:16). If one allows for this, why not also allow for the word "day" to have a broader meaning? Some days seem to be longer – during the third day the land produced trees bearing fruit (Gen. 1:12)! And the seventh day during which God rested seems to be ongoing (Heb. 4:3-7). No literal interpretation should ignore the wider context of the text.

The other problem with this view, however, is that it contradicts all scientific evidence. Scientists have demonstrated that the cosmos is billions of years old (findings in physics (radioactive dating), astronomy and geology affirm this). Surely God's revelation in Scripture would not contradict His revelation in nature! Why should the days of creation be taken as solar days when this interpretation creates such insurmountable problems? Why can't Christians accept an old earth? Surely God cannot be restricted to our limited conceptions of time (He is beyond time)!

Many evangelical scholars - most among those who produced the famous "Chicago Statement" on the inerrancy of the Bible (1978) - hold that the universe is millions or billions of years old. A similar situation existed a few hundred years ago when the geocentric view of the cosmos was still widely accepted. Christians found support for this view in the earth-centered perspective of the Biblical authors. But the Copernican revolution overturned this view. At that time Christians recognized that an earth-centered perspective does not necessarily imply that the earth is the center of the cosmos (even though the earth is of special importance in God's plan). It merely shows that those people described the world from their earthly viewpoint.

Some interpreters have tried to accommodate the scientific evidence for an old earth with the solar days view. C. I. Scofield propagated the view that there is a time gap between the first two verses of Genesis 1. According to his "gap theory" the earth was originally created perfect, but became "without form and void" with Lucifer's rebellion. In this scenario the creation narrative of Genesis 1 was in fact a recreation. But this interpretation does not solve the basic problems of the solar days view mentioned above. And there is no scientific evidence to support such total destruction of the earth or the reappearance of plants and animals a few thousand years ago.

The old earth view

Other Christians accept the scientific evidence that the cosmos is billions of years old and believe that Genesis 1 supports this. They affirm that the word "day (yom)" sometimes refer to long periods of time (see for example Gen. 2:4). In this interpretation the days of creation can in principle be billions of years long. Even though they acknowledge that the expression "evening and the morning" has reference to solar days, they view its usage here as metaphoric, referring to the "beginning and continuation" of each creation period. We can compare this usage with expressions like "the dawn of history" or the "evening of his life".

This view is especially popular among Christian scientists. They see a remarkable agreement between the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and the current scientific model of the origin of the universe (The Big Bang model). For example, in Genesis 1 the process of creation commenced when God said: "Let there be light". This appearance of light marks the beginning of the first period (day) of creation. According to the scientific view the cosmos came into being with the Big Bang some 13-15 billion years ago, when there suddenly (without any obvious reason) appeared a point of energy which rapidly expanded spatially to form the universe. The appearance of "light" in Genesis 1 corresponds with the sudden appearance of "energy" during the Big Bang.

There are also many other correspondences between the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and the scientific view about the history of the earth and the appearance of life on it. I mention some. 1) On the second day of creation the firmament of heaven was created. Similarly the cosmos expanded spatially after the Big Bang. 2)Water played an important role during the first few days of creation. Similarly hydrogen (which together with oxygen forms water) formed in the early stages after the Big Bang; hydrogen is the most basic and abundant element in the universe out of which all other elements (water included) came into existence.  Water was already present in the material from which the earth was formed. 3) The earth - dry ground surrounded by seas - only appeared after two creation periods. Similarly the earth formed some time after the Big Bang, about 4.6 billion years ago (as a planet of the sun - the planetary system formed from the debris of an earlier star). Over time a supercontinent (called Pannotia) came into existence; the water which originally accumulated in the atmosphere condensed to form the oceans. 

4) Life forms appeared on earth since the third creation period and became more complex in the following periods. During the third period seed bearing plants and trees appeared. Similarly the life forms that appeared since 3.6 billion years ago on earth became more complex with time - especially since the so-called Cambrian explosion (540-480 million years ago).  Land plants appeared about 500 million years ago.  More complex plants with seeds, flowering plants and trees appeared about 420-360 million years ago and trees with seeds about 300 million years ago. Great forests formed around the globe. 5) Water animals (and reptiles according to the Septuagint) and birds appeared during the fifth creation period. Similarly reptiles appeared about 300 million years ago, dinosaurs about 200 million years ago and birds about 150 million years go. This was the great age of reptiles and dinosaurs. 6) The mammals multiplied on earth during the six creation period. Similarly, the age of the mammals arrived after the extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. 7) Humans were also created last during the six creation period. Similarly anatomically modern humans came into existence only very recently (about 200 000 years ago).

Although some groups like the Reasons to Believe organization believe that God was directly involved in creating the species (called old earth creationism), others view the Biblical process of creation as a process of theistic evolution. These readers find support for this interpretation in the ambivalent way in which the process of creation is described in Genesis 1. We for example read that God commanded the earth and the waters to bring forth the various species of plants and animals (Gen. 1:11,20, 24), which is then equated with God's acts of creating. Both the Hebrew words "made" (âsâh) and "created" (bârâ) are used in this regard (Gen. 1:21, 25). But how did the earth or water brought these species into being? Does it mean that the earth or water provided the milieu wherein new species were generated? Since this process of creation seems to have happened spontaneously, they argue that there is no reason why it could not have happened through the evolution of one species into another.

Does this mean that the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is accepted? Not necessarily. But it does mean that the unfolding process of biological evolution occurred according to the design that God built into the structure of the universe. Some Christians, like those from the BioLogos organization (evangelical Christians), believe that God worked through the Big Bang to create the cosmos and Neo-Darwinian evolution to form the species. They, however, do not support the "scientific" view of Genesis 1 described in this section; they support the polemical text view described in the next section.

This view also has its problems. A glaring problem is that in the Biblical account the sun was created on the fourth day of creation while in the scientific account the sun came into existence even before the earth formed. The answer given is that the sun already existed before the fourth creation period but that it, as well as the moon and the other stars, were not yet visible due to the dense atmospheric conditions (throughout Scripture the earth is taken as point of reference). It was the oxygenating of the air by the thriving plants (that appeared during the previous period) which changed the atmosphere from translucent to occasionally transparent. The fact that all the heavenly bodies became visible at the same time is in accordance with the interpretation that the sky cleared during this period. This interpretation solves the problem of life existing before the creation of the sun on the fourth day of creation.

Another point of critique is that this interpretation of Genesis 1 implies that the plants (created during the third period) existed long before the animals (created during the fifth period), which is impossible because of the interdependence between them. But which animals appeared during the fifth creation period? It seems that these were advanced species of animals, namely water animals and birds. Among the water animals mentioned are "great sea animals (whales in some translations) and every living creature that moveth" (Gen. 1:21), which the Septuagint gives as "great whales and every living reptile". This fits the overall pattern of creation according to which the more advanced species were created during the later periods. In this case there is no reason why the plants could not have existed long before these animals. (It is interesting that fish as such are not mentioned in Genesis 1. In the geological record, fish appear very early and became abundant about 420-360 million years ago. The well-known bone fish species, however, only became dominant at the time of the reptiles which corresponds with the fourth creation period.)

Genesis 1 does not give a full catalog of created things. It mentions some basic orders of things like seed bearing plants, trees, water animals (reptiles), birds, land mammals and humans. But elementary plants and animals like seaweeds, snails or insects are not mentioned. When were they created? If we take the overall pattern of creation into account (with more complex species appearing later), then these would have come into existence early during the third period of creation. What we find in Genesis 1 is only the most important features of each period (which were not of the same time length), namely plants and trees during the third period, the visible sun, moon and stars during the fourth period, water animals ("great sea animals" and reptiles) and birds during the fifth period and finally, land mammals and humans during the sixth period of creation. In this view the various creation periods overlap and could even merge into each other.

A more serious charge against this view is that it does not take the milieu in which the narrative was written into account. Although the creation narrative of Genesis 1 corresponds quite well with the current scientific view about the origin of the universe and the development of life on earth, the author had a very different worldview from our own. Even if we assume that divine inspiration accounts for this remarkable "correctness" in the Genesis account, we can still not divorce the text from the original world in which it originated. We should also study the text with that early worldview in mind.

The polemical text view

In contrast to the previous views, these students of Genesis 1 are especially interested in this narrative as ancient text. Their primarily concern is with the ancient situation in which the text originated – the world in which the author engaged with the people of his time. For them, it is first of all an ancient document speaking to the people of that time. Typical questions asked are: What was the purpose of the author in writing it? How is the issues of that time reflected in the text? For them the applicability of the text to our current concerns is secondary; they even argue that Genesis 1 is not in any sense a literal account of the creation of the world. They therefore do not see any contradiction between the Genesis narrative and the scientific narrative about the origin of the universe – these apply to different times, to different situations.

This view is especially popular among theologians and textual scholars - especially in Biblical Criticism circles. They are interested in the Hebrew author's concept of God and the way in which he defends his own view against that of the surrounding nations. To explore this, they study the surrounding influences found in this narrative. These provide the necessary information to gain a better understanding of the text. As theologians they are interested in theology, in the same way that the old earth view of Genesis 1 reflects the interest of Christian scientists.

Scholars holding this view believe that it is wrong to interpret this narrative as a "true and correct" account of the origin of the world. Some argue that it was not the intention of the author to present such a correct account in the first place. No, he only wanted to affirm that God created everything and that He is above all other gods. Some argue that even if he wanted to say something about the real origin of the world, he was obviously not in any position to say anything useful to us about it. His pre-scientific worldview excludes such a possibility. We should therefore not use it as a guide to the true origins of the universe, but acknowledge that it is a religious text that came into existence in a particular environment. Its value for us lies in the study of the author's view about God.

As expected, the creation narrative in Genesis 1 shows some agreement with other ancient Middle Eastern creation stories. The creation out of water (Gen. 1:2, 6-10) is an old theme in the ancient Middle East. In the Mesopotamian tradition it reflects the early human endeavors to create dry land in the southern morasses. Closely connected to this was the idea of creation as an act of ordering; of bringing order to chaos. In Genesis 1 God's acts of creation changed the original world, which was without form and void, with darkness upon the face of the deep (Gen. 1:2), into a place that humans could inhabit.

But why did the author of Genesis 1 placed the creation of the sun on the fourth day? This is a very important question that any sensible interpretation of Genesis 1 should answer. The typical answer given in these circles is that the author wanted to show that the sun and the moon, which some surrounding nations held as important gods, could not be compared with the great creator God of the Hebrews who brought all things into existence. God is so powerful that He could create light and let the plants grow even without the presence of the sun. According to this interpretation the Genesis 1 narrative is an ancient polemical text in which the Hebrew author was arguing his case against those who worshiped other gods.

On the face of things it seems to be a sensible answer. But is it correct? We have absolutely no way of knowing! We do not know what the intention of the original author was. There are even some reasons to reject this assumption. This answer, for example, does not make sense if we explore the context in which this narrative is supposed to have come into existence, namely during or after the Babylonian exile (in the six century). Although scholars first associated this narrative with the so-called E (Elohim) source (due to the fact that the author used the divine name Elohim), it is nowadays associated with the so-called P (Priestly) source used for the Pentateuch. This implies that the author wrote against the background of the Babylonian milieu. But the most important Babylonian god was Marduk, who was a weather god. The sun and moon gods did not play an important role in the Babylonian (or Mesopotamian for that matter) theology! So why would the author try to assert the authority of the Hebrew God against these unimportant gods?

The supposed Babylonian background of Genesis 1 is also problematic from other angles. We, for example, find absolutely nothing in this creation narrative that is distinctively neo-Babylonian (or neo-Assyrian). Neither the overall worldview of the author nor the particular creation motifs show any particular Babylonian influences. We do not find any of the complicated creation motifs typical of the Babylonian creation story (for example, of the conflict between the gods or the creation of the world from the body of the killed dragon) in Genesis 1. Although there are clear Mesopotamian influences, these are typical of the early Sumerian traditions (the world of Abraham and his forefathers) [1].

Some scholars try to salvage this interpretation by proposing an Egyptian background for the text. This means that the author was directing his arguments towards the Egyptian gods. This is possible if we assume that the text was written in a period when the Israelites had some interaction with the Egyptians, which happened during various periods in Israel's history. In this case the argument could work: One of the oldest and most prominent Egyptian gods was the creator god Atum who was syncretized with the sun god Ra. So in this scenario the Hebrew author wanted to show that his God was greater than the great Egyptian sun god – He created the sun only on the fourth day. And the motif of the primaeval earth coming forth out of the primaeval waters is also an old Egyptian concept (as it is an Mesopotamian one).

Although this view makes sense, one can ask if there are not other proposals that make even more sense? The problem with the Egyptian context for Genesis 1 is that the rest of the ancient history in Genesis is clearly taken from ancient Mesopotamian (more correctly, Sumerian or Akkadian) sources. Why would only this narrative reflects the Egyptian milieu? And why should we cling to the view that the author tried to assert the might of his God over the other gods. Maybe it was never his intention at all! 
This view has other problems also – especially for those Christians who believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture. Although it correctly asserts that the author did not write a scientific account of creation – he was a person of his time and his view was influenced by the ancient thinking about the world – it also rejects the possibility that the narrative (through divine inspiration) could in fact be a creditable account of creation as it really happened. In viewing the author's perspective as useless for any serious consideration in any current debate on creation, it undermines the credibility of the text as a divine source of revelation. It is in this regard that this view is in danger of undermining or even rejecting any sensible view on the inspiration of Scripture.

A new approach

In my opinion both the old earth view as well as the polemical text view have some merit. The value of the polemical text view lies in its study of the ancient motifs found in the text. Obviously the author was a person of his time who's view was determined by the ancient worldview current at that time. Any sensible view of the divine inspiration of the text should incorporate some serious consideration of the personal, social and historical factors influencing the author. On the other hand, the value of the old earth view lies in its affirmation of the remarkable "correctness" of the Genesis account when compared with the current scientific view about the origin of the cosmos and the appearance of life on earth. It shows that the account does not only have an historical dimension (reflecting the ancient context in which the text originated); it is also applicable to the current debates about creation. It shows that the origin of the cosmos can be studied both scientifically and theologically. It is at the end of the day God who created the world and affirmed it in his Word.

What is striking about Genesis 1 is the presence of many Sumerian motifs in this creation narrative. Genesis 1 is not unique in this regard.  There are many other Mesopotamian influences in the opening chapters of Genesis – all of which is taken from the old Sumerian or Akkadian stratum of thinking. (There is no sign that the author of Genesis knew anything about the Neo-Assyrian/Neo-Babylonian world of the exile.) [2] So, who were the Sumerians who's ideas had such an influence on the author of the Book of Genesis? 

Although scholars differ about the time of the first appearance of the Sumerians in the southern plains of Mesopotamia, most accept that this happened at least as early as ~4000 BC (some would argue for ~6000 BC).  The Sumerian rule over the city states of southern Mesopotamia lasted until ~2000 BC. They created the world's first civilization in ancient Mesopotamia and their culture had an enormous impact on all the later civilizations in the ancient Middle East. From a Biblical perspective, Sumer is important because this is the country where Abraham's family is said to have originated (according to Gen. 11:28, 31 they came from the city of Ur, one of the most important Sumerian cities). In my book Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012) I argue that the ancient history mentioned in the the first part of Genesis (Gen. 2-11) not only refer (in large part) to events that happened in that country, but also shows that the knowledge of those events came with Abraham's family to Canaan where it later became part of Israelite tradition. This implies that it was part of the patriarchal source material that was used by the author of the Book of Genesis.  It is therefore not strange to find these motifs in Genesis 1.

When we read "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen. 1:1) it is a grand statement that God created the cosmos and all in it – the term "heaven and earth" is an old Sumerian expression referring to the cosmos. In Sumerian literature the first sentence gives an important hint as to the nature of the work – the same is true in this case. The next statement, namely that the "earth" was without form and void simply states that the earth as we know it did not exist. What existed was the "deep" (Gen. 1:2). This is the Sumerian "apsu", the primaeval waters (later the subterranean waters), the original chaos out of which "heaven and earth" were created according to various Sumerian sources (This is typical of the Eridu mythology as described in Sumerian works like Enki and Ninmah).

Then God created "light". This also reflects the Sumerian tradition according to which a brilliant light (associated with the fire god Gibil) appeared out of the original deep. The cosmos that came into being, in which the "firmament" plays an important role, is also typical of the ancient Sumerian worldview which is found all over the ancient Middle Eastern world (in my book Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012) there is a discussion of this worldview). An important feature of the Genesis 1 narrative is that God created the sun relatively late in the process of creation. This also corresponds with Sumerian thought - the sun god was thought to be a later addition to the family of the gods. In some early mythologies the sun god is listed as the later offspring of the original waters [3]. 

There is therefore no need to view the Genesis 1 narrative as a polemical text except if the author wanted to affirm that the Hebrew God was the creator of the cosmos.  In general the narrative (with the creation of the sun at a later stage) reflects the old Sumerian worldview of the early forefathers of the Israelites.  Anybody who knows the Sumerian traditions will recognize the strikingly Sumerian flavor of the Genesis 1 narrative - this Sumerian input in the Israelite tradition is also visible in the next few chapters of the Book of Genesis. The author of the creation narrative in Genesis 1 reworked the well-known motifs which originated in the Sumerian age, adding the creation of all sorts of plants and animals, as well as humans. He also replaced the earlier polytheistic perspective with the monotheistic view of the Hebrews.

What is unique about the Genesis narrative, over and above the monotheistic view, is the way in which the author divided the process of creation into seven days. The seven day week was already known at least as early as the Ur III period in Sumer (~2100-2000 BC). It is also mentioned in early Canaan in the Ugarit texts (~1400-1200 BC). But it got special significance in Israel where it is mentioned already in the "ten commandments" attributed to Moses (Ex. 34:27, 28). It is clear from the statement at the end of this narrative (Gen. 2:2-3) that the reason for dividing the process of creation into seven days was to establish it, not only as a model for the work week, but especially as a model for the seventh day of rest (the Sabbath): "God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made". This implies that the narrative was not so much directed towards the surrounding nations; rather, it was written for an early Israelite audience.

The author of Genesis 1 used motifs typical to the ancient worldview and rearranged them into a new pattern – into seven creation days. He did this to establish a divine model for the practice of keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest. This approach – to write a creation narrative which serves as model for cult practice – is found all over the ancient Middle East.  It also shows that this narrative probably originated at the time when the Sabbath was first introduced as part of Israel's cult practice - which go back to the time when Moses received the "ten commandments" [4].  In reworking the old motifs handed down by the patriarchs he wrote a narrative that Jews and Christians to this day view as a "true" and "correct" account of creation as it really happened. This is what is so remarkable about this narrative – and what distinguishes it from all other creation stories – that it has such a dynamic potential for interpretation that it could be viewed to this day by Christian scientists as a credible account of creation.

The close connection between the work week and the seven days of creation should not mislead us to think that the author necessarily had solar days in mind when he wrote this narrative. The word "day" (yom) is used in three different ways in Genesis 1-2. In Genesis 2:4 it is used to refer to the whole process of creation: "the day that the Lord God made the heaven and the earth" (Although the Masoretic text have "the earth and the heavens", the Septuagint reading which I quote is clearly the correct one). This proofs that the word "day" was used in Hebrew tradition to refer to a "period of time". In this case this period of time (the day of creation) includes all seven days of creation.

The other use of the word "day" occurs in Genesis 1:14-17. In this case it clearly refers to solar days. This is the days that came into existence with the creation of the sun on the fourth day of creation. With the creation of the sun, "day" and "night" became divided: "And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night" (Gen. 1:14) – there was a certain boundary which divided them. This means that these days have a certain beginning in the morning and an end in the evening (i.e. evening and morning started with these days). We read further: "And God made the two great lights, the greater light for regulating the day and the lesser light for regulating the night. And God placed them in the firmament of the heaven, so as to shine upon the earth, and to regulate day and night, and to divide between light and darkness" (taken from the Septuagint).

In line with the origin of the solar days with the creation of the sun, we read that the sun and moon were created to be "for signs and for seasons and for days and for years" (Gen. 1:14). It is quite interesting to find the word "days" here. It clearly states that solar "days" made its appearance with the creation of the sun on the fourth day of creation. "Seasons" and "years" also started with the creation of the sun on the fourth creation day (this is actually a very basic observation). This statement seems to imply that the author had longer periods in mind when he used the word "day" in the context of creation – clearly the fourth period of creation could have included many of these solar days, seasons and years.

The third use of the word "day" occurs throughout the creation narrative. It refers to the seven days of creation. It is already clear from our discussion of the second use of the word "day" (i.e. as solar days) that the author could not have meant solar days when he wrote his creation narrative. He is using the word to refer to longer periods of time in accordance with the first use of the word – but in this case it refers to the seven periods into which the process of creation has been divided.

There is, however, a certain resemblance between creation days and solar days. Both of these begin with darkness, followed by the appearance of light – on the first day of creation light appeared and on solar days the first sunlight appears in the morning. When the light appeared on the first "day" of creation, it was divided from darkness (Gen. 1:4), even though days were not yet divided from night (that happened only on the fourth day of creation). This period which included darkness as well as the first appearance of light, is called "day" (Gen. 1:5) – in analogue with the solar days which came later. In this case it was only the first day that involves the appearance of light.  

Although the days of creation is clearly not solar days but longer periods of time, there is no indication how long these periods were. Were they relatively short periods? Or were they long periods of billions of years? The text gives no real clues. It is not even clear if they were of the same length. It seems quite possible that it was never the author's purpose to answer these questions. He did not write within a scientific framework where these questions are important. His primary concern were the grounding of the Sabbath in the divine model of creation – not to answer scientific questions about the length of these periods. But this vagueness is at the same time the reason why this account has such potential for interpretation – why it is relevant to our present day concerns. This is the reason why we can read it as a credible account of creation in the light of scientific evidence that the cosmos is billions of years old (even if we do not agree with all the arguments of the old earth view). 


We can draw some conclusions from this discussion. The young earth view should be discarded, not only because it goes against all scientific evidence, but also because it does not offer any sensible explanation as to how solar days could have existed without the sun. The old earth view has merit in that it shows that Genesis 1 gives a credible account of creation – and thereby establishes the timelessness of Scripture as divine source of revelation. The problem with this view is, however, that it does not take the original milieu in which the text was written into account. Genesis 1 is not a scientific account of creation; it is a divinely-inspired account written within the context of the ancient worldview, which is applicable even today. The polemical text view, which is so popular in the circles of critical Bible scholarship, gives a possible context wherein the text could have been written, but there are other possibilities that seem to be more likely. And it is in danger of undermining the divine inspiration of Scripture that Christians believe in.

In my approach I evaluate the ancient context of the Genesis 1 narrative – which shows that it originated at an early date within Israelite circles (definitely not during or after the time of the Babylonian exile) which was influenced by the old Sumerian worldview that spread all over the ancient Middle East. It is possible that these influences (together with other material used in the first part of the Book of Genesis) originally came with Abraham's family from Sumer after which it became part of the patriarchal source material that the author of Genesis 1 used to construct his narrative.   

I also showed that the Israelite author reworked the old Sumerian motifs in a new way – and in doing so he established the divine creation as a model for the work week and the Sabbath. This most probably happened at the time when the Sabbath was first introduced into cult practice in Israel - which according to Biblical sources go back to the "ten commandments" of Moses [5].  The author divided the creation period into seven consecutive periods in analogue to the seven days of the week. He did not give any real indication of how long those periods were. This allows us to find common ground with the scientific view on the origin of the universe. And it underscores what Christians believe in: that the Scriptures are the divinely-inspired Word of God.

[1] Some early scholars have argued that the Hebrew word tehom (deep) in Gen. 1:2 has a definite relationship with the Babylonian monster Tiamat. More recently, however, any direct borrowing has been rejected (see, for example, Hasel, G. H. The significance of the cosmology in Genesis in relation to ancient Near Eastern parallels, in Andrews University Seminary Studies 10 (1972), 1-20.) Even if borrowing is allowed, it says nothing because the name Tiamat also goes back to Akkadian times (~2350-2150 BC). The Akkadians were eastern Semites living in ancient Sumeria who came to power during the Akkadian period. Some scholars see agreements between Genesis 1 and the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elis, in which Tiamat also appears, but in my opinion the possible agreement is far too distant to think of direct borrowing.  
There is as a matter of fact no Mesopotamian motifs in the Pentateuch which dates after the Old-Babylonian period (the time of Abraham). This casts doubt upon the scholarly view that those Mesopotamian influences came from Babylon during the exile. It suggests that these motifs came with Abraham's family from Sumer to Canaan. See my book Op soek na Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012).
[2] The Sumerian origin of the Mesopotamian motifs in Genesis is not negated by the later editing of the book in Neo-Babylonian times, for example Gen.11:28, 31 (the words "of the Chaldees" date from Neo-Babylonian times). See also Gen. 36:31.
[3] Van Dijk, J. 1976. Le Motif Cosmique dans la pensée Sumérienne. Acta Orientalia 28:1-59.
[4] We find the same idea in Ex. 20:11 where the original giving of the ten commandments is described. There is clearly a strong connection between the views expressed in Gen. 2:2-3 and Ex. 20:11. When these commandments were repeated (Deut. 5), this reason for keeping the Sabbath is not mentioned. A new reason is given, namely that the Sabbath rest reflects the rest that Israel was about to enter after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Deut. 5:15). Why a new reason? The background for the repetition of the law provides this. According to the Deuteronomy narrative they were encamped across the river Jordan when the commandments were given anew - Deut. 1:1; 4:44-46. This seems to imply that the institution of the Sabbath has become an integral part of the cult practice in Israel by the time that they reached the Jordan, i.e. there was no need to reaffirm the earlier justification for the keeping of the Sabbath. Rather, the exodus and delivery from slavery is now called into remembrance and related to the Sabbath. The reason for this is clearly because the reason for the exodus was the eventual entrance into Canaan (see Deut. 6:23). After the exodus and the 40 years of sojourning in the desert, the association of the Sabbath with rest was more directly applicable. In later Israelite thought Canaan was therefore also viewed as the land of "rest" (Ps. 95:11).
[5] One expects that this creation narrative, which posits the divine creation as a model for the work week and the Sabbath, must have been written at the time when the Sabbath was first introduced into cult practice in Israel. The person who is closely associated with this first introduction of the Sabbath, or more correctly, with the ten commandments in which the Sabbath is first mentioned, is Moses. This strongly suggest that Moses was the author of the Book of Genesis as is traditionally held.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. Posted on
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Op soek na Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a scientist (PhD in Physics). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology.

To read more about the Septuagint: The importance of the Septuagint in Biblical studies

The book of Genesis, Intro: The Book of Genesis: The Sumerian Hypothesis
The book of Genesis, part 2: Adam and Eve: were they the first humans?  
The book of Genesis, part 3: The Garden of Eden: Was it a real place?
The book of Genesis, part 4: The Serpent of Paradise
The book of Genesis, part 5: Reconsidering the Fall

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