Some years ago a woman phoned me to ask if I would attend a meeting at which scientists and university professors would be advising public school teachers on how to resist pressure to include creation science ideas in high school science classes. She wanted me to voice my support for the creation science position. As diplomatically as I could, I informed her that, based on my study of biblical texts that speak of cosmic origins, I was uncomfortable with the creation science approach. Her response was stunned silence.
Christians have debated the nature of the relationship between the Bible and science since the time of the early church fathers. When one reads relevant Scripture passages in context, however, one observes that the biblical authors were focused on issues other than those often raised in our debates. In this article, I would like to suggest what some of those issues are and how one goes about bringing them to light.
Creation stories in the ancient Near East
Ancient Mesopotamian and Canaanite texts that talk about creation and what we would call “the forces of nature” tell of bloody combat between certain deities who struggle to establish cosmic order and the primeval gods of the watery depths. In the Babylonian epic known as Enuma elish, Marduk causes fierce winds to enter the sea goddess Tiamat. After killing her, he constructs heaven and earth from her remains and establishes stations for the celestial deities – the stars, moon, and sun. Using the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s slain commander-in-chief, Marduk fashions humankind to serve the gods so that “they might be at ease.”1
In Canaanite mythic poetry, Baal, the storm deity, defeats the sea god Yamm (also called Nahar = river), muzzles the dragon Tannin, and crushes the seven-headed serpent Lotan/Litan (= Leviathan). Baal, however, is killed by Mot, the god of death, and as a result the rains that bring fertility to the earth cease. Then Baal’s consort Anat, the warrior goddess, slays Mot. Baal is revived, the seasonal rains return, and as he and Anat resume their sexual relationship, fertility for the earth and its inhabitants is restored.2
These tales sound rather different from the most well-known account of origins in Scripture, whose opening words are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep (tehom), and the Spirit (ruakh) of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1–2).
This is not, however, the only place in the Bible that talks about beginnings. Israelite poets crafted vivid images of the God of creation and salvation in action, sometimes as a warrior subduing the forces of watery chaos so that he might establish an orderly cosmos (in a manner reminiscent of the gods in the Babylonian and Canaanite stories).
But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.
It was you who split open the sea (yam) by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster3 (tanninim) in the waters.
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan (liwyatan)
and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
It was you who opened up springs and streams;
you dried up the ever-flowing rivers (naharot).
The day is yours, and yours also the night;
you established the sun and moon.4
It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;
you made both summer and winter. (Psalm 74:12–17)
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
their starry host by the breath (ruakh) of his mouth. (Psalm 33:6)
Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?….
I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep (tehom),
when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep (tehom),
when he gave the sea (yam) its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. (Proverbs 8:1, 27–29)5
The message of the first Genesis creation account
While creation is also portrayed in Genesis 1–2 as a matter of bringing order out of chaos, there is no explicit reference to conflict. In 1:1–2:3, the creation of the universe is accomplished by the word of God who establishes a functional cosmos within the span of a typical work week. To remedy the formlessness and emptiness described in 1:2, God separates the unstructured substance into cosmic zones on the first three days (1:4, 7, 9), and then populates those zones with creations/creatures appropriate to each on days four to six. On the seventh day, which he blesses and hallows, God rests (shabat).
This passage underscores a number of significant points, three of which I will mention.
First, the Creator is not a deified component of the cosmos who battles other such gods, as is the case in the Babylonian and Canaanite myths referred to above. He is transcendent and unrivalled. The deep (tehom) is not a divine foe like Tiamat, to be assaulted with hurricane force winds, or like Yamm, Tannin, and Lotan/Litan, to be vanquished by the storm god Baal. Instead, the deep is part of the formless void over which the Creator’s breath/wind/spirit (ruakh) moves. In fact, “the great creatures of the sea” (tanninim) are part of God’s good creation (1:21).
Second, fertility is not a deity like Baal, who must be encouraged through religious ritual to cohabit with his consort so that crops, flocks, and herds will be bountiful. Rather, fertility is a built-in capacity to reproduce which God includes in his design for all living things.
Third, humans have been created, not as slaves to the gods from whom they have received some aspect of their essence, but as beings in the image and likeness of God, who gives them the mandate to subdue the earth and rule over the fish, birds, and land animals (cf. Psalm 8). Furthermore, the Creator’s rest is not something achieved at the expense of human effort on his behalf. Instead, it is the theological foundation for what will become the gift of the Sabbath (shabbat [Exodus 20:8–11; 31:12–17]).
The message of the second Genesis creation account
Genesis 2:4–25 presents a second portrait of creation that is quite different from the one in the preceding chapter. There is no mention of a period of seven days. In fact, the only reference to a day occurs in 2:4, where the Hebrew text literally says, “In the day that Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens” (something that is not explicit in the NIV’s rendering, “when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens”).
Furthermore, the sequence of events is completely different from that of the earlier account: man is formed from the dust of the ground before vegetation and the other living creatures make their appearance, and woman is fashioned last of all from a rib or part of the side of the man. This juxtaposition of two distinct creation stories is evidence that – like the New Testament Gospels with their different plot sequences – the primary purpose of each is to communicate theological truth rather than to provide an absolute chronology of events.
In comparison to the first creation account, in which the appearance of humans on the last day of God’s creative activity emphasizes their privileged status, the second account highlights humanity’s priority in the created order by placing one first and the other last in the narrative, and by stressing their suitability for one another as equal partners in contrast to the other living creatures.6 Implicit as well in chapter 2 is the idea of a covenant between God and humankind with the covenant stipulations set out in verses 16–17.7
The cosmos as sanctuary
The description of the cosmos and Eden in Genesis 1–3 also evokes the picture of a sanctuary in which humans function as priestly ministers. What is implied in Genesis is often made clear through comparison with other Scripture passages and extra-biblical literature. For example, Psalm 78:69 compares creation to God’s sanctuary, while Isaiah 66:1–2a makes the connection between heaven and earth – depicted as God’s throne room – and his place of rest. These passages draw attention to the fact that Genesis 1:1–2:3 brings together the themes of creation, temple-building, and divine rest, which are likewise often combined in Mesopotamian and Canaanite religious texts.
Furthermore, the garden where the LORD God walks in the cool of the day and interacts with his human creatures (3:8) resembles the temple complexes in the ancient Near East that featured treed parklands and sources of abundant water (2:8–15). The Hebrew verbs that are translated “work” (‘abad) and “take care of” (shamar) and that describe the activity of man in the garden (2:15) are the same ones that are employed in Numbers 3:5–10 to characterize the service of priests in the Israelite tabernacle: “perform (shamar) duties…by doing (‘abad) the work of the tabernacle” (7); “take care of (shamar) all the furnishings…doing (‘abad) the work of the tabernacle” (8); “serve (shamar) as priests” (10).
Among the tabernacle’s furnishings is the lampstand or menorah, which appears to symbolize the tree of life (Exodus 25:31–36; 37:17–21). The garden’s orientation with an entrance on the east side that is guarded by cherubim (Genesis 3:24) suggests comparisons with the Israelite tabernacle and temple which faced east and contained images and depictions of these creatures (Exodus 25:17–22; 26:1; 38:9–20; 1 Kings 6:23–32; Ezekiel 41:15–26; 43:1–5; 46:1).8 These and other aspects of the depiction of the cosmos and humanity’s role in it are consistent with the calling that God’s people have to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6; cf. 1 Peter 2:9).
The enduring significance of biblical creation texts
This article provides only a few glimpses of the theological richness of biblical creation texts. It’s clear that the authors of these texts focused on revealing the Creator, his purposes, and the nature of his relationship with his creation, rather than on questions of when and how the universe began. They did so using language and imagery that resonated with their contemporaries, but in the process, they challenged many of the prevailing notions of their day regarding origins.
The message that God has endowed all humans – not just the political or social elite – with viceregal and priestly dignity, and that he has created them to be in a covenant relationship with himself, is just as radical in its implications for us in the 21st century as it would have been for the Israelites of old. Indeed, with such privilege comes the responsibility of serving the Ruler of all in his cosmic temple and of partnering with him in seeing to it that “[his] kingdom come, [his] will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
–Robert J. V. Hiebert, PhD, is professor of Old Testament at ACTS Seminaries and director of the Septuagint Institute at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. His translation of Genesis appeared in A New English Translation of the Septuagint (ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin Wright; Oxford University Press, 2007). He is a member of South Abbotsford (B.C.) Church.
1. James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd edition with supplement, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 60–72.
2. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 129–42.
3. More accurately, monsters.
4. More accurately, you established luminary and sun (ma’or washamesh).
5. Examples of other biblical poetic passages that make use of mythic imagery include Job 26:10–13; Psalm 48:2; 68:33; 89:5–13; Isaiah 14:12–15; 27:1; 51:9–10.
6. It should be noted that the term ‘ezer, with which the woman is associated in 2:18, 20 and which the NIV translates as “helper,” is also used of God in the Old Testament when he gives aid to people (e.g., Deuteronomy 33:29; Psalm 115:9–11), so the contention by some that it connotes woman’s subordination to man is insupportable.
7. Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (trans. David G. Preston; Leicester / Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1984), pp. 111–34.
8. John H. Walton, Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), pp. 146–57, 166–75, 180–87.