The Right Lens: An Introduction to Genesis
The Right Lens:
An Introduction to Genesis
by William Klock
How many of you have been to the Royal BC Museum down in Victoria? It’s an amazing museum, isn’t it? My favourite part is the Natural History floor. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved natural history museums. I liked to stand in front of the habitat displays with the stuffed animals and birds, I always loved the hands-on displays about geology and volcanoes, and most natural history museums or aquariums seem to have cool, kid-friendly oceanographic exhibits. But, friends, the exhibits we see in our museums tell us something of the way we as modern people approach God’s Creation. We even see it in the name; we talk about natural history. We talk and we think in two categories; on one hand we have the natural world and on the other we have the supernatural. Physicists and chemists and biologists tell us about the natural world; theologians tell us about the supernatural. And on one level that’s usually a good thing. We’re all specialists in our own field and when we start encroaching on someone else’s field we often get ourselves into trouble. I struggled enough with physics and chemistry and biology when I was in University that I know well enough to stick to my field of theology and biblical studies.
It’s especially easy to see this division when we hear secularists mock the whole idea of the supernatural. And yet even we Christians tend to think in these same separated categories. We think of the natural world as the ordered Creation of God and then we talk about the supernatural as those miraculous instances when God breaks into his Creation to do something that the natural order isn’t capable of doing on its own. But brothers and sisters, this is not the worldview of Genesis or of the Bible. To the Israelites the entire cosmos was supernatural. God not only created it with order and purpose, but he continues to sustain it, to move it, to work it. In the biblical worldview there is no differentiation between natural and supernatural.
I say this to make an important point. Today we’re starting in on a study of Genesis, but before we jump into the biblical text we need to realise that our modes of thought and way of seeing Genesis as modern people is very different from the way ancient people—in this case the ancient Israelites—thought and spoke. The biblical text, or at least the core of it in Genesis, is at least 3000 years old, and during those 3000 years the way we think and see the world has been influenced by everything from the Greek philosophers to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Method, by men like Eratothenes and Copernicus and Darwin and Einstein. One of the most important principles of Bible study is context—to understand what a biblical text means, we have to first put ourselves in the shoes—and mindset—of the people to whom God first spoke these words. Yes, God wrote them for us, but first he wrote them to someone else—to the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt, or to the people of Judah as they were in exile in Babylon, or to early Christian as they struggled with persecution. Before we can make assumptions about what the text says to us, we first have to ask what it meant when God spoke these words to them. And that means we have to realise and accept that God spoke to them in their language in their way of thinking and of seeing the world. If we simply jump into the text and assume that everything written there is spoken in our language and our categories of thought—that we can take it at what looks like face value to us—there are many times when we’re going to misinterpret the text. We’ll come to the text with wrong assumptions and asking the wrong questions.
To illustrate this problem think about the word “creation”. This is one of the concepts at the core of Genesis 1. There are philosophers who spend their lives pondering what “creation” means and what “existence” means. That’s not us. Most of us just accept that “to create” means to bring something into existence. And we all know what it means to exist. I don’t want to get overly technical here, but it’s important we understand this. There was a point in time, not quite forty-one years ago when I did not exist. But one day two cells joined together with all the right genetic material and I came into existence—and you and I know I exist at least because I’m standing here talking to you right now. I know that the pulpit I’m standing at exists because I can feel it, I can lean on it, I can see it, I could take out a tape-measure and measure it. And yet when you and I define existence this way we’re showing our modern scientific bias.
Secular scientists think of existence and creation this way: They look at creation in very physical and material terms. They know the cosmos exists because they can observe and measure and test it. When they ask where it all came from they’re thinking in physical and material terms. The “Big Bang” theory says that at one point all the matter in the universe existed in one point and that it exploded out and what we see today is the result. It’s easy to approach Genesis the same way: At one point there was nothing, then God spoke and suddenly everything that we can now observe and measure and test came into being. One moment it wasn’t there and the next it was. Whether modern scientist or modern Christian, both are looking at existence through a modern lens that focuses on the physical and material.
But God was speaking to the ancient Israelites when he gave them Genesis. One of the things we realise as we look not only at the Hebrew language but at the cultural context in which the Israelites lived is that they thought of existence in very different terms. Ancient people thought of existence in terms of function and purpose. Something “existed” when it worked and when it had an orderly place and purpose in the overall scheme of the cosmos. It’s not that they didn’t understand that things exist in physical terms, it’s just that they didn’t think of existence that way. As natural as it is for us to think of existence in terms of being able to see and touch and measure something, it was just as natural for them to think of existence in terms of what that thing’s place and purpose is in the created order.
This is what these first chapters of Genesis are about: creation and existence—but in whose terms? Christians have struggled with these chapters for 2000 years, but especially so in the last century. And yet an awful lot of our problem is that we’re looking at Genesis with modern eyes. Modern people think of creation and existence in physical and material terms and when we look at Genesis that way it doesn’t fit our observations of the world around us. Secularists see it in modern terms and dismiss it as ancient myth. As Christians we know we can’t do that, but the majority of modern Christians who are trying to save the Bible from the secularists are perpetuating the problem by looking also looking at it through that same modern lens. We try to force Genesis into the mould of the modern scientific way of thinking and we get into heated debates about whether the six days were literal 24-hour days or six long ages. Some Christians try to stretch the meaning of the Hebrew words in order to make them conform to what modern science tells us about the cosmos. And yet all of these folks, whether “Young Earth Creationist” or “Old Earth Creationist” or “Concordist” end up missing the text’s point because they’re not looking at the text through the eyes of the people to whom God originally gave it. They’re not asking the right questions.
When I was growing up my dad had a friend named Charlie. Charlie was bald, but he often wore a cap that said, “God made a few perfect heads; the rest he covered with hair.” When I think about the current debates taking place over Genesis I remember Charlie’s hat, because these arguments are an awful like arguing about the colour of a bald man’s hair. If God’s given someone a perfect head, we should be looking at and admiring the perfection of it. We would miss the glory of God’s creation—even in something so inconsequential as a head—if we were instead to get bogged down in a heated argument over the colour of the hair that the man doesn’t have.
Lord willing, what I hope to do this morning is give you the right lens to look at Genesis with—to get you asking the right questions so that you can appreciate what God does say in these chapters instead of asking the wrong questions and getting sucked into debates about what’s not here and things that God has chosen not to speak to in Scripture. And so this morning I’d like us to set aside our material lens and instead pick-up an ancient lens that looks at the world in terms of purpose and function. This is a hard thing to do because it means trying to look at the world in a way that’s very foreign to us, but this is what we need to do if we want to see Genesis as the Israelites saw it.
If you’ve got your Bibles with you, please open them to the first chapter of Genesis. I want to show you what this kind of functional interpretation looks like. Look specifically at verse 5. (We’ll work backwards from there.)
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Notice: God called the light day and he called the darkness night. Now let me ask: Why didn’t God call the light “light” and the darkness “darkness”? If we’re naming things, light is “light”. Yes, the sun produces light, but we can get light from all sorts of other sources—the sun is not the only source of light. And if we’re thinking in terms of “things”, well, darkness isn’t a thing. It’s actually the absence of the thing we call “light”.
I’m indebted to Dr. John Walton for asking this question. Some of you will remember him from the videos we watched while we read the Old Testament in the Bible in 90 Days course. Dr. Walton asked this question and I’ve found it incredibly helpful, because it’s a question that forces us to examine our interpretive lens; it’s a question that’s shows us this text is about function and purpose, not physical matter.
If you ask this question you’ll realise that Genesis isn’t talking about light and dark in general terms. What it’s saying is, “God called the period of light “Day” and the period of darkness “Night”.
Now backup to verse 4:
And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.
If we’re talking about light and dark as material “things” this doesn’t make any sense. Light and darkness can’t exist together and if they can’t exist together you can’t separate them. But it makes perfect sense if we’re talking about a period of light and a period of darkness. So again, Genesis isn’t talking about God creating light and darkness in some general sense, what’s it’s talking about is God establishing periods of light and darkness—it’s talking about God establishing an orderly cycle of day and night. Now back to verse 3:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
What’s God creating here? We might have said that he was creating light itself, but that doesn’t fit. What he’s really creating is the day itself. He speaks into darkness and creates the orderly cycle of day and night. In fact, in verse 5 it then says: “there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
But more importantly, if God is creating day and night, what’s he really creating here? God doesn’t create the sun until the fourth day. This isn’t about the sun and moon, it’s about time. The Creation story in Genesis 1 is about God creating order out of chaos and the first step in creating order is to create time.
We see more of this making order out of chaos as we backup now to verse 2:
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Those two words “formless and void” are important. This is the description of the world before God began to “create”. It’s interesting that the basic physical stuff of creation is already there. That points us to the fact that Genesis isn’t concerned with where physical matter came from, it’s concerned with how it functions and what its purpose is. “Formless and void” (or tohu wabohu in Hebrew) describe non-fuctionality and non-purposefulness. More importantly they describe something or some place that isn’t fit for human life. “Formless and void” was how the Israelites and the Egyptians described the desert and the wilderness. It’s not that the desert wasn’t physically there, but that as far as they were concerned it served no useful function—it was hostile to human life—and so it didn’t “exist” in the way they understood existence.
Now go back to verse 1:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
“Heaven and earth” is the cosmos—everything. And in Hebrew “beginning” refers not so much to a point in time, but to a period of time at the start of something. These words introduce the account of creation as an introduction to the rest of the book of Genesis. The rest of the book is broken up into eleven sections or historical periods—we’ll see this later—but this is the introduction and it’s like a twelfth period time: the seven-day period of Creation. So it’s not saying, “At a point before all this, God created the cosmos.” It’s referring to the coming seven days and saying, “This is the beginning—the time when God created the heavens and the earth.” What Chapter 1 then goes on to describe is not the creation of physical matter itself, but God’s giving order to chaos and giving function and purpose to each part of his Creation.
Even the word “create” is loaded with meaning. The Hebrew word is bara and it shows up about fifty times in the Old Testament. What’s interesting is that only God creates in this way. Humans never bara. To bara is a divine action. But it’s also interesting to look at what God bara-s, because God doesn’t bara physical things. He bara-s nations and peoples. He bara-s phenomena like wind and fire and calamity and destruction. He also bara-s righteousness and purity. God bara-s humans, but even then it’s not in a physical or material sense; he bara-s them as male and female—he creates them not in physical terms, but in terms of their roles and functions within the created order. Bara is all about function and purpose. That’s how God creates. He brings things into “existence” by giving them a place and a purpose within his created order. This doesn’t mean that God didn’t create the physical material of the cosmos, it just means that that part of creation wasn’t what was important to the Israelites or to Genesis.
So far we’ve only covered Day One. Let’s quickly look at Day Two in verse 6. God speaks and creates an “expanse” or a “firmament” to separate the waters above from the waters below. Concordists—the folks who try to harmonise this with modern science—have a terrible time with the firmament. I’ve heard a number of explanations over the years, but they all ignore the simple fact of what the Hebrew word actually means and they all ignore what we know of how ancient people, including the Israelites, thought about the world. They didn’t have telescopes or microscopes, but they still were very logical. They knew that water sometimes came up out of the ground and so they concluded that the earth—which everyone thought was a flat disk until Eratothenes proved otherwise about 250 years before Christ—they figured that that flat disk must be floating on water. And since water comes down from the sky, there must be water above the sky too—the sky is blue, after all. And if there’s a sea of water in the sky, logically there must be some kind of dome—or firmament—to keep it up there.
If we take a materialistic approach to Genesis this is a problem. Airplanes, rockets, and space shuttles have never crashed into the firmament on their way up. But once we start looking at this in terms of purpose and function it’s not a problem. If this is about purpose and function, it’s not a problem for God to speak in terms of how the Israelites understood the world structurally.
This is where some people have trouble. As Christians it’s important for us to affirm the reliability of the Bible. But as Christians it’s also just as important for us to affirm that God speaks Scripture to us through human beings and using human language. It’s easy to take set these two truths at odds with each other, but doing so isn’t a valid option. There are a couple of examples that, I think, can help us understand how God uses limited human language to communicate truth.
First, think of all the times the Bible describes thought or will or emotion in terms of the heart. Every Sunday we affirm that we are to love God with all our heart and mind and strength. You and I know that we don’t think or feel with our hearts—those are mental processes. And when our English translations refer to “mind” they’re actually translating a word that refers to our guts—to intestines and kidneys and liver. We think of “heart” as a metaphor, but ancient people believed that because we feel things in our chest and our guts, that that’s where we think. They didn’t know what the brain did—in fact when the Egyptians mummified people they carefully put all those other organs in sacred jars, but they pulled out the brain and threw it away. But when God spoke to his people, he didn’t see a need to correct their primitive physiology, he just spoke in words they understood. Ditto for their understanding of the cosmos. God spoke to them in terms of sunrise and sunset. We don’t give those words much thought because we still use them ourselves, but those words describe the movement of the sun from geocentric terms. They come from a time when people believed that the earth was the centre of the universe and that the sun moved around us. Again, God didn’t see a need to correct that understanding of the world, he used it to speak to his people.
So here in Day Two, God isn’t talking about the creation of physical structures. He simply uses the Israelite’s ancient understanding of the world to communicate function to them. In this case, as he separates the water, putting half of it up in the sky—he’s creating the weather. The Israelites talked about weather in terms of widows in the firmament or the heavens that would open and close to let rain through. We talk about pressure systems, Jet Streams, and el Niño. Either mode of speech works just fine to communicate the point that on Day Two God put the systems in place by which he gives us weather and gives needed order to his Creation and makes it habitable for humans.
Then on Day Three God shows his control of the sea and creates dry land. And once he’s created dry land he causes plants to grow. From a material standpoint it looks like he’s doing two different things on Day Three, but if we see it from the standpoint of purpose and function we see that what God’s doing is creating a system of agriculture. In these first three days he’s created time, he’s created weather, and he’s created a source of food. He’s taking what was formless and void—what was without purpose or function—and he’s making it fit for human beings to inhabit. Think about how these things are the basics of life. When we make small talk with people what do we talk about? We talk about the things that are the most common to all of us: time, weather, food. Genesis tells us that we have them all thanks to God. He established them and he sustains them.
We don’t have time this morning to go into Days Four, Five, and Six—we’ll do that in the coming weeks—but in them we see more of the same: God puts the sun, moon, and stars in the sky. Why? Genesis describes their purpose: for signs, seasons, days, and years. On the fifth and six days God fills the seas with fish, the skies with birds, and the land with animals—ending with human beings—but each to have dominion over its sphere of Creation.
And then finally we get to Day Seven and we’re told that God rested from all his work. To our ears it sounds like God was exhausted from all his work and now it’s time to kick back and relax for the weekend. This is where we need, again, to understand how the Israelites thought—and not just Israelites, but Ancient Near Eastern people in general—because Day Seven is the key to this whole sequence. When ancient people read this and saw that God rested they would immediately think: “temple”. In the ancient world when you talked about a god resting you were talking about temples. That’s why ancient people built temples: it was a place for their gods to rest.
But we also need to understand what it meant for a god to “rest”. We think of rest as kicking back and doing nothing or doing something fun as opposed to work. For us it’s disengagement. That wasn’t the case for these people. A god rested in his temple, but his resting there basically made it a control room or a helm or a pilothouse from which the god would oversee his people and control his creation. To have your god resting in the temple you made for him meant that he was in charge. It meant that he was overseeing your family, your crops, and that he was protecting you from your enemies.
This was how ancient people thought. And so they built temples for the gods. They made special furniture and ordained priests to serve in the temple as their god’s functionaries. And then they built images of their gods—idols—and in an elaborate dedication ceremony that typically lasted seven days, the idol was brought into the temple to take control and watch over the people. And yet every people had a different god and every god had limited power and authority over his land and his people.
Now consider what Genesis 1 meant to a people living in that kind of world. This is God’s way of showing the Israelites that he was the one, true, God. He wasn’t limited to one people. He wasn’t limited to one place. He doesn’t rely on human beings to build him his house. He builds it himself. That’s what Genesis 1 is. It’s God’s narrative to Israel that as Lord of Creation he has built his own temple, he furnished it himself in glorious and beautiful fashion, and he has created human beings to be his priests—to care for his creation and to worship him. All the while he sits on his throne in the heavens with the earth as his footstool as he sustains it and cares for it all.
Brothers and sisters, this is the truth of Genesis 1. There’s a lot more here to look at in greater detail and we’ll do that in the coming weeks, but this gives us the big picture; it gives us the lens that we should be looking through as we study Genesis and when we’ve got the right lens we can start to ask the right questions. The point of Genesis is not the age of the cosmos or the technical details of exactly how God created the various parts of it—as if we could understand those things anyway! The point here is that God shows his glory as he tames chaos and makes it a fit place for our habitation. And he doesn’t just make a fit home for us, but he rests in the midst of his Creation. There is no natural or supernatural; there is just that which God creates and continually sustains out of love for his people and to show forth his glory.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father and mighty Creator, thank you for life and thank you for the way you so lovingly care for us by creating and sustaining the world we live in. And thank you Father for stooping down and lisping to us in our language and on our terms that we might know you as our Creator and Sustainer. Give us an appreciation for your holy Word and help us to understand it and see it aright as we embark on this study of Genesis. Help us to know you and your mighty deeds better that we might give you the praise and glory and honour you are due. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.