Contemporary Questions

Psalm 104:2-5

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2014

Last week, we gave an introduction to the Book of Genesis.  We saw that the book was written by Moses.  It has two parts and is a book of beginnings.  Today, we come to Genesis 1.  I want to read this chapter together and then raise some very important questions for us to discuss before we even look at the first verse.  How should we interpret Genesis 1?  There are many different ways to interpret the chapter.

There are many different ways to read the chapter. Some read it at face value.  They take it as literal.  The Bible says it.  That settles it.  Liberals see the whole chapter as myth.  It is no different from the other creation myths in the Ancient Near East.  Others see Genesis, not as history or myth but as poetry.

It is not literal but symbolic.  It is a poem about creation.  It is not teaching science, so it has no bearing on the creation/evolution debate.  Who is right?  How should we read this chapter? We need to look at some of these questions before we interpret the chapter. 

Is Genesis 1 Poetry?

Francis Collins is one of the most famous scientists in the world.  He used to be the head of the Human Genome Project.  He is now the Director of the National Institutes of Health.  He is a Christian.  He is also an evolutionist.  In 2006 he wrote a book called The Language of God. In that book, he explains how he interprets Genesis.  He says that it is just poetry and allegory.[1] He says, “unquestionably the language is poetic”[2]

Many agree with Collins.  This has become very popular in some circles, even among some evangelicals.  You can find many websites that say that Genesis 1 is a poem about how God created the earth.  Why do many believe the chapter is just poetry?

Reasons for the Poetic Interpretation

1) It has a lot of repetition and many poems have repetition (Psalm 136).

Genesis 1 says “God created” four times (1:1, 21, 27), “And God said” eight times (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26), “God saw” seven times (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31), “and there was evening and there was morning” six times (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31), “and it was so” five times (1:9, 11, 15, 24, 30) and other terms that are repeated in the chapter.

2) It has some parallelism which is a characteristic of Hebrew poetry,

It is a little different from regular Hebrew poetry (parallelism of juxtaposed couplets) but there is some clear parallelism in the chapter. The creation week is done in six days and the six days are divided into two parts – the first three days (days of forming) and the last three days (days of filling). They are symmetrical. They correspond with one another.[3]

3) Genesis uses some figurative language.

Personification is a literary device that gives human qualities to non-living objects.  There is personification in Genesis 1:16.  It describes the sun and moon as “rulers”.  It describes them as people.  The sun rules over the day and the moon rules over the night (1:16).  The sun and moon do not literally rule over us and tell us what to do.

Genesis also has some exaggeration.  It says that God rested on the seventh day from all the work of creation that He had done (2:2-3).  That is hyperbole.  God did not get tired and have to rest from a hard week of work.  He didn’t have to rest because He was exhausted.  The Bible says that God never gets tired or weary (Isaiah 40:28).

When the serpent is cursed after the Fall, we are told: “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14).  That is not literal.  Snakes do not eat dust.  That is not the diet of serpents.  Snakes eat animals.  This is an idiom.  It is a picture of humiliation.

There are many reasons why the entire chapter is not a poem.  Just because you have some literary structure does not mean that you have a poem.  Just because you have some figurative language does not mean that you have a poem.  There are three reasons why Genesis 1 is not a poem.

Arguments Against the Poetry Interpretation

1)  Genesis 1 does not read like a poem.

Genesis 1 may have some figurative language but it has very little.  It is written as historical narrative[4].  It is written as prose. The Bible has a creation poem.  It is Psalm 104.  It is a nature poem.  There is no doubt that it is a poem.  Genesis 1 does not read anything like Psalm 104[5].  Genesis 1 describes events in clear sequential order.  Psalm 104 is full of figurative language. Psalm 104:2-5 NLT reads:

The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment (simile)
He stretches out the heavens like a tent (simile)
He lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters (imagery)
He makes the clouds his chariot (figure of speech)
He makes winds his messengers (personification)
He rides on the wings of the wind (personification)
Flames of fire are his servants (metaphor)
He set the earth on its foundations (imagery)
It can never be moved (hyperbole)

2) The NT accepts the Book of Genesis as history, not poetry.

As we saw last week, Jesus cites the story of Adam and Eve (Matthew 19:4-6), Cain and Abel (Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:50-51), Noah (Matthew 24:37), The Flood (Matthew 24:38-39), Abraham (John 8:39-40), Lot (Luke 17:28) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire (Luke 17:29-32) all as literal history.

Jesus did not read these accounts as poetry or allegory but as real history. He did not take these accounts as symbolic but as literal. Was the Son of God mistaken? No. He was an eye-witness to each one of these events.

3) The structure of the book refutes that interpretation.

Genesis is a book of history. It is not a book of poems. It is divided into two parts, as we saw last week – the first eleven chapters of the book and the last thirty-nine chapters of the book. No one has ever questioned whether Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph existed. They accept the second half as historical but not the first half but that will not work because of the structure of the book.

There is one phrase that runs through the whole book – “these are the generations of” or “this is the history of” (toledoth). It says these are “the generations of Isaac”, “these are the generations of Ishmael,” “these are the generations of Jacob.” That is the way the whole book is organized. These are like chapter divisions.

The toledoth formula occurs about ten times. Half of the time it occurs in the first half of the book and the other half occur in the second half of the book. There is no way that you can take the first part of the book as fiction and the second part of the book as history.[6] You cannot say that Abraham was a literal person but some of his ancestors (Adam, Noah) were mythological.

Is Genesis 1 Mythology?

Every society and culture has a story about how the world began.  There were all kinds of other creation myths in the Ancient Near East.  Egypt had about six different creation myths. The ancient Hebrews must have been familiar with these.  They lived in Egypt for four hundred years.

Perhaps the longest and famous creation myth from the Ancient Near East was called the Enuma Elish.  It was Babylon’s creation myth.  It was very popular.  It was written three hundred years BEFORE Genesis.  It was discovered in 1850 by a British archaeologist named Austin Henry Layard who was like Indian Jones, traveling around the Middle East on horseback.  He discovered it in Ninevah which is in Iraq (modern-day city of Mosul, one of the oldest cities in the world).

The Babylonian creation myth is called the Enuma Elish.  It is called that because those are the first two words of the story.  It took twenty-five years before anyone could figure out how to translate it into English.  It was written in Akkhadian on seven cuneiform tablets.  One man who worked at the British Museum in the 1850s spent his lunch hour studying these cuneiform tablets and eventually cracked the coded.

Liberal scholars say that the Genesis 1 just borrowed these pagan Ancient Near Eastern creation myths.  That is what students are taught in secular universities.  I was a history major in college.  That was what I was taught when I took history classes from Ohio University in the 1980s.

There are some similarities you can see on a superficial level (darkness, primordial sea, separation of sky and earth, people made out of clay) but these creation myths in the Ancient Near East had several characteristicsLet’s look at some of these characteristics and then compare them to Genesis.

Characteristics of Pagan Creation Myths

1. Pagan creation myths contain many gods. They are polytheistic.

2. Pagan creation myths contain gods which are sexual beings. They produce other gods.

3. Pagan creation myths contain gods which are not eternal. These gods are created beings.  They had parents.

4. Pagan creation myths contain gods which are not all powerful. They are always in conflict with other gods and they can die.

5. Pagan creation myths contain gods which are not even good.

In the Sumerian Creation Myth the gods have a large drunken banquet in heaven.  In the Babylonian Creation Myth, the god Apsu wants to kill his own children because they make too much noise when he is sleeping. The gods in the creation myths are glorified humans.  They are male and female.  They need companionship, food and sleep.  Man was created in the Babylonian Creation story to help the gods get some work done because they have too much to do.

6. Pagan creation myths begin with some kind of violence.

The gods are always fighting each other.  In the Babylonian Creation Myth, the god Marduck shoots the godess Tiamat in the stomach with an arrow, kills her (IV.101-104), chops her body up into two parts (IV.137) and uses her dead carcass to create the world. The upper part becomes the sky (IV.138) and the lower part of her became the earth (V.62).  From her eyes flow the Tigris and Euphrates River (V.55).

7. Pagan creation myths describe nature created as gods.

They describe nature as gods.  The ancient world worshiped the sun and the moon.  Ancient Egypt was full of sun worship.  They worshiped Ra.  Ra was the Egyptian sun god.  They also worshiped the moon.

Genesis and the Enuma Elish

There is really no comparison between the two.  Genesis describes one God who created the world.  That God is sovereign.  He eternal.  No one created Him.  He is a non-sexual being.  He does not reproduce like all of the pagan gods.  He is a good God.  He is all-powerful.  He rests on the seventh day but not because he is tired.

He has no rivals.  He does not have to fight any cosmic monsters when He created the world.  There is no battle or contest.  He does not express His will through violence.  He just speaks a word and it is created without any effort at all.  His word is supreme.

The things He creates are not to be objects of worship. There are many examples of this in Genesis.  Genesis calls the sun and moon lights in the sky (1:14-16).  They are lights in two different ways.  The sun emits light and the moon just reflects light.  The moon just reflects the light of the sun.  If you take the sun away, the moon would be pitch black but they are both lights (one for the day and one for the night).  We should be thankful for them but not worship them.  They are called “lights,” not gods.

Genesis mentions God creating a dark deep ocean right after the earth was formed (Genesis 1:2).  The Enuma Elish also mentions a dark deep ocean at the time of creation but that ocean is a god named Tiamat, the primordial goddess of the ocean.  In Genesis, it is just water.

Genesis 1:21 says that God created “great sea monsters” (NASB) or “great sea creatures” (ESV) but even those are not evil beings that God has to fight.  They are just his creatures.

In Genesis, God creates man and then tells him what to eat.  He gives him food to eat (1:29-30).  It is the exact opposite of the Babylonian creation myths in which man was created to give food for the gods.  In the pagan creation myths, the gods are created in the image of man.  In Genesis, man is created in the image of God.

As we saw last week, Genesis is the opposite of myth.  It is anti-myth.  It is a myth buster.  Genesis is actually a polemic against Ancient Near Eastern creation myths.

It had an apologetic purpose. It was written to correct false ideas about how the world began and to refute the idea that the world was made by many gods and that the created elements were gods with independent powers.

Myths in Biblical Perspective

Many think that the Bible is a book full of myths.  It is actually anti-myth.  The word is used five times in the NT.  Myths existed in the ancient world.  The writers of Scripture were aware of them and told people to avoid them.  A clear distinction is made in Scripture between history and myth.  The Bible tells people to avoid myths. It preaches against myths.  It doesn’t endorse them, as we saw last week.

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer 4 or to devote themselves to myths [μυθος] and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.” (I Timothy 1:3-4 NIV)

“Have nothing to do with godless myths [μυθος] and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” (I Timothy 4:7 NIV)

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths [μυθος].” (II Timothy 4:3-4 NIV)

One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths [μυθος] or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. (Titus 1:12-14 NIV)

 “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories [μυθος] when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (II Peter 1:16 NIV)

Does Science Contradict Genesis?

We now come to the area in which there is much debate.  Are science and the Bible compatible?  Is Genesis at odds with science?  Does the Bible contradict science?  The answer is that there is no contradiction between the Bible and science.  God has given two revelations.  He has given a revelation in nature and He has given a revelation in Scripture.  One is called general revelation and one has called special revelation.  There is no conflict between the two.

You can believe the Bible and be great scientist at the same time. You can be a scientist and a Christian at the same time.  Science is not an enemy to Christianity.  It is a complete lie that science has somehow disproved the Bible.  It hasn’t.  As Normal Geisler says, “There is no contradiction between the FACTS of Genesis and the FACTS of science.  There is a difference between some INTERPRETATIONS of Genesis and some THEORIES of science.”[7]

There are two very common errors people make when it comes to the Bible and science.  One error is common among Christians and one error is common among scientists.

First Error – Genesis 1 was Intended to Teach Science

This is the error that many Christians make.  In an effort to prove that there are no scientific errors in the Bible, which is perfectly valid, many have concluded that Genesis was intended to teach science.  It is not.  It is an abuse of the Bible to see it as a textbook on astronomy or biology.  It is wrong to use it as a textbook on geology or physics.  Historically, Christians have gotten themselves in trouble when they believed the Bible was intended to teach science.

Psalm 93:1 says, “The LORD reigns, He is clothed with majesty; The Lord is clothed, He has girded Himself with strength. Surely the world is established, so that IT CANNOT BE MOVED.”

If you take that verse literally and scientifically, you would come up with the idea that the earth is stationary but this verse is not making a scientific statement but a statement from ordinary observation.  It was written form the language of appearance.  It does not appear to move to us.

From a scientific standpoint, the earth does move.  We even have things called earthquakes.  The earth is not stationary.  The Bible no more teaches that the earth moves than it teaches that we are stationary when it says “I shall not be moved”.  Psalm 16:8 says, “I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” (RSV).  The problem is that many Christians mistakenly read Psalm 93:1 as teaching science.

Copernicus and Galileo actually believed that the earth is not stationary but is a moving planet.  It goes around the sun and they were told this contradicts Scripture.  Galileo was brought before the Inquisition, charged with heresy by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and threatened with torture unless he changed his mind.  They taught the idea that the earth is not only moving, it moves around the sun.  They taught the heliocentric model of the solar system, rather than the geocentric model.

The heliocentric theory seemed to go against the Bible.  The Bible says that the sun rises and sets.  Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises” (NIV).  Malachi 1:11 says, “From the rising of the sun even to its setting, my name will be great among the nations” (NASB).  People who read that passage would wonder how the earth could go around the sun if the sun is rising and setting.

They also questioned this theory because of Joshua’s long day, one of the greatest miracles in the Bible.  Joshua 10:13 says, “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.”  It says the sun stood still for the day to be prolonged.  It does not say that the earth stood still.

Is Joshua 10:13 a scientific error in the Bible?  Perhaps no miracle in the Bible has been more ridiculed than this one.  Joshua 10:13 was written from the language of appearance.  It was not teaching science, although scientifically the Sun is not stationary.  It moves along with the earth.[8] The same is true of Genesis 1.  It is an inspired account of origins.  It is intended to teach history but it is not intended to teach science.  It is not intended to teach astronomy, geology, biology or physics.  We see this in Genesis 1:16.

Genesis 1:16, says, “Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. HE MADE THE STARS ALSO.”  Was it intended to be a scientific statement?  No.  The sun is a star, not a planet.  Genesis distinguishes the sun and moon from the stars.  Genesis says that God made the sun and moon and that He also made the stars.  To someone on earth, the sun looks like a planet.  It is actually a star.  Prior to the birth of modern astronomy, it was regarded as planets.

The Bible is written from the language of appearance.  It describes things as they appear to the senses, rather than as they are scientifically. We do the same thing today.  Every single day, meteorologists talk about the sun rising and setting.  That is what we see happening, even though from a scientific point of view, it is the movement of the earth as it rotates on its axis, not the sun that causes this.

Genesis and Scientific Language

1) Genesis does not use scientific language because it would not be understandable

That is why Genesis 1 does not read like a PhD thesis.  No one in the ancient world would have understood what it was saying if it was written in technical language with complex mathematical equations.

2) Genesis does not use it because science is always be changing

The science of today is different from the science of one hundred years ago. One hundred years ago, we did not even know about DNA contained genetic information.  It would never be a good thing if the Bible harmonized completely with science because the science of today will one day be out of date.

Second Error – Science Can Explain of the Origin of the Universe

There are limits to what science can do.  Science can describe how something works but not necessarily where it came from.  Science deals with natural laws and processes. It does not deal with the supernatural or miraculous.  There is no scientific explanation for God creating the universe OUT OF NOTHING. That goes beyond natural laws and processes.  You cannot explain a miracle scientifically or it would not be a miracle.

If there is a scientific explanation for something, it would not be a miracle. That is why there is no scientific explanation for the feeding of the 5000.  That is why the turning of water into wine cannot be explained scientifically.   The resurrection of Jesus from the tomb is also outside of the field of science.  Because of the nature of the case, Genesis 1 could not be scientific.

[1] Francis Collins, The Language of God, p. 206.

[2] Ibid., p. 83.

[3] Parallelism can also take place in historical narrative, as Noel Weeks points out.  Both Abraham and his son Isaac had barren wives (15:2; 16:1; 25:21), lied about their wives (20:2; 26:7), faced famine in the Promised Land (12:10; 26:1) and make a covenant with the Philistines (21:22–34; 26:26–33).

[4] This is demonstrated by the repeated use of the waw consecutive, which is an essential characteristic of narrative adding to the past narration an element of sequence, helps to identify it as so [Kaiser 2001, p. 80]. Appearing 55 times in the 34 verses in Genesis 1:1–2:3 the waw consecutive is consistent with the narrative material found in the remainder of Genesis [McCabe 2009, p. 217] (

[5] Another passage which describes creation poetically with figurative language is Job 38:8-11.

[6] Stephen W. Boyd uses statistics to demonstrate that Genesis 1 is not poetry based on the distribution of Hebrew finite verbs in his technical online article (See

[7] Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), p. 43 (emphasis mine).

[8] It is a complete myth that the Sun does not move.  Many were taught in school that only the earth moves. Actually everyting moves in the universe.  The earth moves around the Sun.  The Sun moves around the Milky Way Galaxy and our galaxy moves in the universe as well.

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