The following article probes into an issue close to all Adventists. The author touches on sensitive points, which, whether we agree with him 100 percent or not, invite our thoughtful reflection and response.—Editors.
N THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED THE heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).* These are the first words in the Bible. And the final message from God to the inhabitants of earth, as recorded in the last book of the Bible, begins with a call to “Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Rev. 14:7). The last chapters in the book of Revelation, chapters 14-22, outline the closing events in the experience of the universe with sin.
We can expect, then, that a correct understanding of the first two chapters of Genesis, the Creation chapters, is basic to obtaining the appropriate benefits from the remaining chapters of the Bible—from Genesis 3 down to Revelation 22.
Not the Echo of Our Own Voice
To get off to a good start in the exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2, we must be aware of the danger of reading into the text what we expect to see or what we want to see. We must hear the text—not the echo of our own voice. Since the text we have possibly came through several stages of translation and is moreover the product of a culture entirely different from ours, there is a danger of reading it from a different perspective than the initial writer intended.
With prayer for guidance, therefore, let’s begin with Genesis 1:1.
Genesis 1:1 is what’s called an independent clause. As such it may be (a) a title, (b) a formal introduction, or (c) a summary statement for the rest of the chapter. It does not convey scientific inference regarding the nature or history of the entire physical universe. Such inference made by the reader is correct only if it does not contradict any specification in the rest of the account.
If Genesis 1:1 is an introduction, there should be a corresponding conclusion. And the conclusion is given in Genesis 2:1, 4a: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. . . . This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”
The King James Version (KJV) translators should have divided the first two chapters of Genesis at a point between what’s now Genesis 2:4a and Genesis 2:4b. (Keep in mind that there is no punctuation in the Hebrew text.) Their error has been perpetuated in all subsequent translations that carry chapter and verse designations. We might note that the New International Version (NIV) begins the book of Genesis with the header: “The Beginning,” and it makes a major paragraph division between Genesis 2:3 and Genesis 2:4, using for the header: “Adam and Eve.”
Although the Hebrew term for heaven, shamayim, is in plural form, the KJV and The New English Bible render Genesis 1:1 as “heaven and earth” (not “heavens and earth”), possibly for consistency with Genesis 1:8. Just because we are interpreting an account of Creation by the Supreme Deity, we may tend to think of it as a treatment of the totality of reality—as if the writer is referring to the entire physical universe. This is the position implied by the NIV, and advocated by prominent creationist organizations (such as the Creation Research Society, the Institute for Creation Research, and Answers in Genesis).
But before pressing ahead with an exegesis based on seventeenth-century definitions of key terms (KJV) or corresponding twentieth-century usage (NIV), we must go back 34 centuries to the time of Moses to find the intention of the writer of Genesis.
Genesis 1:8 (KJV) specifies the word “heaven” to designate the gaseous/vapor envelope of Planet Earth, as created on day two. In Genesis 1:10 (KJV) the word “earth” is used to designate the dry, solid surface of the planet, as created on day three. Regardless of the meaning these words may have acquired over the past 34 centuries, we must allow the original writer consistent usage—in the introduction (Gen. 1:1), the conclusion (Gen. 2:1, 4a), and in respect to any specific designations (Gen. 1:8-10).
And we should allow for inclusion of such designations or definitions by inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to prevent crucial misinterpretations. The NIV indulges in unwarranted interpretation by translating erets and shamayim differently in Genesis 1:8-10 than in the introduction and the conclusion—as (“land” and “sky,” rather than “heaven” and “earth”). In our efforts to establish faith in God’s Word, we should not be handicapped by attributing to the Bible writers more than they intended to specify.
In his introductory statement Moses specified that at the beginning of Creation week “earth was formless and empty” (Gen. 1:2). According to Genesis 1:10, 13 (KJV), “earth” was formed on day three. The “filling” of earth was in two stages—with plants on day three (Gen. 1:11-13) and with animals on day six (Gen. 1:24-26, 31). Genesis 1:2 contains three noun clauses, indicating (in Hebrew) something fixed—a state, not a sequence or an action. Hebrew grammar does not allow “became formless and empty” for the first clause, as suggested in an NIV footnote.
Nowhere throughout the Bible is there any specific reference to the creation of water. Water is always presumed to be in existence. Only in the New Testament do we find firm statements that water, as well as earth, was created (John 1:3; Col. 1:16, 17a).
How I See It
I consider that Genesis 1:2 is outside of, and therefore deals with circumstances before, the first day of Creation week. Genesis 1:3–2:4a outlines what an observer on the surface of Planet Earth would have seen during Creation week. According to verses 14-19 the sun and moon were not visible until day four. The account also affirms that sun, moon, and stars were created by the Deity featured in the preceding days of Creation week. This specification identifies the Creator featured in the biblical Creation week as the Creator of the entire physical universe—a revelation that is not made in Genesis 1:1. In other words, we get this insight from Genesis 1:16, not Genesis 1:1. Part of the potential confusion comes from the limitations of Hebrew grammar, which, not having the pluperfect tense, prevent a clear distinction between “made” and “had made.”
Does the limit on when sun and moon were first visible from the surface of Planet Earth place a corresponding limit on the time of their creation? Since the context of the testimony concerning day four is creation of the surface features of Planet Earth (Gen. 1:6-10, KJV), either option for translation of asah (“made” or “had made”) is allowable. This insight allows freedom in interpretation of scientific evidence concerning the age of meteorites, moon rocks, our sun, and other extraterrestrial objects.
The second noun clause in Genesis 1:2 indicates that Planet Earth was shrouded in darkness before Creation week. The planet Venus continues to be in a similar situation—completely enshrouded with dense cloud cover.
The existence of a physical universe prior to the Genesis Creation week is strongly indicated in the thirty-eighth chapter of Job—God’s words to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (verse 4), and “all the sons of God shouted for joy” (verse 7, KJV and NIV—margin). (For Adam as a “son of God,” see Luke 3:38.) The apostle Paul says a “whole universe” (1 Cor. 4:9) is observing the drama of sin on Planet Earth.
The Days of Creation
Since the word “day” may be used in a figurative sense and is often so used elsewhere in the Bible, there are individuals who advocate symbolic intent for its use in the first chapter of Genesis. But whenever the word “day” is modified by an ordinal number in the Bible, the context clearly indicates a literal, solar, 24-hour day. With his stipulation of the sun and moon as “governors” (definers) of day and night, and his repeated use of “evening and morning” in association with an ordinal number for a specific day, how could the writer of Genesis more clearly indicate his intent regarding the word “day”? How could the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:8-11) provide significant instruction if the days of Genesis 1 were not of the same nature as those designated on our calendars?
In scholarly circles the first chapters of Genesis are commonly regarded as mere legend—the product of effort in a primitive culture to find a satisfactory concept of origins. Modern science with the theory of evolution and long-age geology is considered to provide the “truth” regarding origins. However, all New Testament writers—and Jesus—presumed the first 11 chapters of Genesis to be a literal and reliable historical record. In the NIV Genesis 2:4 begins: “This is the account of. . . .” The KJV reads: “These are the generations of. . . .” The key Hebrew word for “account” or “generation” here is toledoth,
a word used 13 times in the book of Genesis, six of which are in the first 11 chapters. This usage indicates that the writer intended his account of Creation to be just as literal as the rest of the Genesis narratives. Yet there are prominent scholars who in their personal belief structure reject a literal historical interpretation.†
Individuals who attempt to accommodate the testimony of the Bible to the popular concept of evolutionary progression over long ages reaching into millions of years have assigned each day of Genesis 1 the equivalent of millions of years, in which God supervised gradual evolution (theistic evolution), or during which “He spake and it was done,” creation, thereby initiating a higher stage of world order (progressive creation).
But the Creator depicted in the Bible has the capability to re-create (resurrect) every human being who has lived since Adam. Would such a Creator be expected to spend millions and millions of years in bringing into existence the world described in Genesis 1:31 as “very good”? Would a God of love call stages of Creation in which there was death, suffering, and competitive struggle for survival “good” (Gen. 1:25)? According to the Creation account, everything was good when it was made; they did not become good. How many years could the plants created on day three survive without sunlight, or without the services of insects and birds?
And as for us, humans are a unique creation, not merely the product of a creation process.
Two Different Accounts?
The Bible is commonly considered to contain two different Creation accounts. Are the first two chapters of Genesis a single Creation account? Or do we have in Genesis 2:4-25 an independent story of the beginning? Did Moses preserve for posterity two Creation documents that were available to him? Did Jewish scribes in preparing the book of Genesis select one Creation account written by Moses and another written by a later author?
The principal difference between the supposed two accounts is the name assigned to the Creator—Lord God (Gen. 2:4b), and simply God in Genesis 1. Translation from Hebrew requires the pluperfect in 2:8 and 2:19 to secure harmony with chapter one, as the NIV does (the Lord God “had planted”—2:8; and “had formed”—2:18, 19). The second chapter is in summary style, in contrast with the narrative style of chapter 1. Chapter 1 emphasizes origin; chapter 2 emphasizes relationships. (The added details concerning Eve in chapter 2 are given in the context of the male-female relationship.)
These considerations, taken together, favor the general opinion among conservative scholars that the first two chapters of Genesis are one treatise, in which Moses accomplishes two objectives—with a section on origins and an independent section on relationships. In my judgment, his communication would have been less effective if he had chosen to blend the two.
*Unless otherwise indicated, all texts are from the New International Version.
†See John Davidson, Journal of Adventist Theology, vol. 14, no. 1, 2003, pp. 4-43.
______________________________Robert H. Brown, Ph.D., has served as a teacher and administrator in the Adventist Church for many years. One of his last functions before retirement in 1980 was as director of the Geoscience Research Institute of the General Conference.