The creation account(s) in Genesis can be rather puzzling. Only so much can be ascertained from a literal reading of the text itself. Enlightened inquiry begins by posing questions and seeking to answer those questions. There are certain deductions and interpretations that can adduced from the self-referential metatext (that is, each creative iteration implicitly depends on predicate iterations and thus subsequent passages reveal things not explicitly disclosed by former passages). This post seeks to elucidate some of those readings, but it cannot conclusively explain everything. For that reason, one of the principal aims here is to pose more questions than answers so as to invite the reader’s own contemplation. Ultimately, though, full understanding probably depends upon prophetic revelation apart from the text proper.
One thing to bear in mind is that the oldest Hebrew manuscripts were composed at a time when written Hebrew was in its infancy. The oldest manuscripts generally contain no vowels, little or no punctuation, and irregular or missing spacing between words and sentences. These texts, moreover, were written accounts of what had existed and been perpetuated as oral tradition for at least 1,000 years. And when these oral narratives began, the Hebrew lexicon (i.e. the number of words in the language) was much, much smaller so specific words often had multiple meanings. To see how this might play out, consider the concept of fire. Fire has many properties. It consumes, it destroys, it injures, it kills, it illuminates, it warms, it cauterizes, it sanitizes, and it cooks. One might say that fire is “powerful” but with a limited vocabulary how does one convey its degree and quality of power? An evolved vocabulary along with scientific understanding enables one to specify both the particular characteristic (heat, light, etc) but also its potency (i.e. calories, joules, lumens, etc). But primitive language might not differentiate at all between, say, heat and light because the two are so closely related. A fire’s power might therefore be described in words based not on the fire itself but upon the fire’s observable effects. So rather than saying the fire had x amount of energy, one might instead say that the fire was so powerful that it cooked the meal in just x minutes or that it provided light for y minutes. But if one does try to describe the fire’s essence without the vocabulary or scientific understanding to articulate some particular characteristic, then it falls to the reader to infer which fire characteristic(s) was (or were) being discussed. This could well be the case with “light” as used in Genesis 1:3.
Creation in General (Genesis 1:3-31)
One thing left unsaid in the creation narrative is the maturity of creation. By this I mean not to revive the chicken-egg/oak-acorn paradox, but yet I must. In simpler terms, we must ask whether God created acorns that grew into mighty oaks, oak saplings that grew to mature oaks, or mature oaks that immediately produced acorns. And what of diamonds and coal? Both are comprised of elemental carbon, but it is believed that eons of pressure convert coal into diamond. So did God create diamonds or simple coal that later became diamonds? How one answers these questions will inform that person’s answer to the question: how old is Earth? As I pointed out in another post about the age of the cosmos, the simple answer is that, regardless of how one approaches these questions, the answer is the same: Earth has the appearance of being billions of years old. That does not, however, mean that Earth is billions of years old. Nor is Earth only six-thousand years young.
Let There Be Light (Genesis 1:3)
The first thing that must be understood of this use of “light” is that, according to the text itself, it is not sunlight. This is because the sun, moon, and stars are not created until the fourth day (Gen 1:14-19). Alternately, this could be a cosmic light source such as the auroras but on a much grander scale. It could also be light from incipient nuclear reactions of matter as it was becoming the sun without actually being the sun as we observe it today. I, however, prefer to think of this articulation of “light” as a metaphor for “energy” in part because Genesis 1:2 (depending on the translation) speaks of the earth as being “void and without form” or “formless and empty.” Genesis 1:2 also speaks of Earth being in total darkness. I take these to mean that planet Earth was at a complete stand-still: no waves, no volcanoes, no wind—nothing! But God’s spirit/presence was there and with speech (an action) imparted life (energy) into a dead (energy-less) planet.
Creation of Celestial Lights (Genesis 1:14-19)
In keeping with the first day’s establishment of “light,” the narrative account that the sun was created on the fourth day is communicates a great deal about the other days. First and foremost, if the sun did not exist until the fourth day, how then could the first three “days” be days at all since we define a day as one full rotation of Earth on its axis which causes the sun to appear and disappear from view? But if the sun does not exist until the fourth day then we must conclude that “evening,” “morning,” and “day” are not to be read literally as a precise twenty-four hour interval but rather as discrete phases of the creation process.
As a corollary to the creation of celestial lights on the fourth day, it is inferable that there was no sunrise but indeed a sunset that day. This passage also specifically records that the celestial bodies will serve to determine the days, months, seasons, and years. Scientifically, we know that “days” means Earth rotates on its axis, that “months” mean the moon is revolving around Earth, that “years” means Earth is revolving around the sun, and that “seasons” means star constellations change as a consequence of the foregoing.1 So this then revives the former question of Genesis 1:3 regarding the construal of the “light” that had been created. This is to say, if the first day’s light was indeed from the sun, then this light illuminated only one side of a non-revolving, non-rotating Earth. This also means that one side of Earth enjoyed perpetual sunlight without darkness, which would have been an incredible incubator of plant life—the quintessential greenhouse! This would be particularly true if all the continents were then joined as Pangaea which is consistent with Genesis 1:9-10 in which land and water are gathered into one place. In any event, the fourth day of creation establishes a “winding up” of the solar system which distorts or elongates the calendrical intervals that we equate with the hour solar day (a full rotation of Earth), the lunar month (twenty-eight days), and the orbital year (thirteen lunar months).
Creation of Plant Life (Genesis 1:11-12)
There is a slight problem in the creation cycle because plant life requires sunlight to flourish. Different flora also require different climates (i.e. tropical, temperate, arid, polar, etc) which presents a problem since we know these things to be a result of sunlight, latitude, and axis tilt. There is also an implication that insects and low-order animals had already come into existence in order to carry out pollination (such as bees), soil aeration (such as worms), and insect population control (such as frogs). But these life forms must certainly have existed by the fifth day when fish and birds are created in order to serve as food for those species. Of course, this also raises the possibility that bacteria already existed in order to nourish the many plants that symbiotically depend on them. But certainly simple life forms such as plankton (phyto, zoo, bacterio, and myco) must have existed for sea life to flourish.
Creation of Birds and Fish (Genesis 1:20-23)
By now it is fairly certain that insects and bacteria exist since the former is needed as food, and the latter is needed for digestive processes. Birds are also responsible for biodiversity by spreading seeds far beyond one epicenter of growth.
Creation of Animals and Humans (Genesis 1:26-28, Genesis 2:7-22)
The two chapters offer differing accounts of the creation of humans. Genesis 1 makes no mention of the Garden of Eden while Genesis 2 refers to a garden “in the east” in the land of Eden. This begs the question: east of what? Genesis 1 also speaks of a plural human creation while Genesis 2 describes a singular human—Adam—from whom Eve is later created. I believe that these are, in fact, two separate creations of humankind. First, the Garden of Eden was not the whole of creation because when Adam and Eve sinned, they were driven out of the garden into the land that produced flora for Cain and fauna for Abel. So there was extensive life outside of the garden. Second, after Cain killed his brother Abel and was exiled from wherever Adam and Eve had settled, Cain is said to have taken a wife in the land of Nod (Genesis 4:16-17). The narrative continues to describe how God marked Cain with a symbol so that other people whom he might encounter would be deterred from harming Cain. This, of course, seems strange. If Cain were related to such other people, they would logically share the same language and Cain could easily warn the others of the consequence of harming him. Cain’s fear of outsiders also suggests that the “others” were hostile to Adam’s lineage, or that the “others” were savage in the way that a tiger or lion will instinctually attack a gazelle or a zebra. But perhaps most telling is the use of a symbol as a warning. Symbols and tattoos are among the most basic of signifiers and could indicate an intellectual or cognitive disparity between Cain and those other humans. There is also an interesting aside in Genesis 2:19-20 where God causes all animals to present themselves to Adam for naming. This is very similar to the way that parents present objects to children to teach language. Adam’s mental exercise demonstrates both creativity and memory. These are fundamental elements of language as well as the fundamental characteristics of homo sapiens. For all the foregoing reasons, I believe that Adam signifies the first homo sapien (or perhaps the first homo sapien sapien) and that the humans created in Genesis 1:26-28 depict the now-extinct archaic humans (i.e. homo habilis, homo erectus, or homo sapien neanderthalensis).
LIfe Span of Patriarchs
The subsequent chapters of Genesis describes numerous patriarchs of incredible age—as much as 800 or 900 years! Early humans certainly had some advantages over modern humans, but they also had disadvantages. On the one hand, there would have been far fewer pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc) in the time of Genesis’ patriarchs. Those early patriarchs probably would not yet have developed in their DNA most of the genetic mutations that now afflict modern humans (Down Syndrome, autism, poor vision, just to name a few), but those early patriarchs might also not have had the knowledge of nutrition that we possess today (such as prenatal folic acid to prevent spina bifida) and they certainly would have lacked the pharmaceuticals (antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, etc) upon which we moderns rely to arrest disease progression.
One possible explanation of the incredible life spans is that the stated ages refer not to the life of a given patriarch but rather to his lineage. For example, Genesis 4:12 records that Cain had a son in the land of Nod and built a city there which he named after his son. This is a common human practice and one need only consider American cities such as Jonesboro (Arkansas), Frederick (both a county and a city Maryland), Carson City (Nevada), Helena (Montana), Sylvester (Georgia), Crawford (Texas), Elizabethtown (Kentucky), and/or Alexandria (Virginia). Sometimes, settlements even split such as New Haven (Connecticut) which was founded in 1638 by Puritans. Over the centuries that followed, the New Haven colony split into as many as twelve cities including North Haven, West Haven, and East Haven. While “New Haven” still exists in its own right, one might say that it was the ancestor of those other cities. Alternately, cities usually give rise to outlying suburbs which eventually become cities themselves and those would certainly be considered “children” of the original city. This actually works pretty well in construction with other Bible passages. For example, Genesis 10:2 states that “the sons of Japheth [were] Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshek and Tiras,” but the Hebrew word translated as “sons” can arguably be translated as “descendants,” “successors,” or “nations.” Likewise, Genesis 10:8-11 states “Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord [. . .]. The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh, in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.” Here, the Hebrew word that is usually translated as “father” does not narrowly signify a parent-child relationship but also “ancestor,” “predecessor,” or “founder.” (Compare also Joshua 19:47, Judges 18:29, 1 Chronicles 1:3, and 1 Chronicles 1:10.) Furthermore, the Genesis patriarchs are often described as begetting their first “children” in their 80s or 130s! One thing that is certain is that humans do not wait eighty years to commence sexual relations, nor could one be expected to engage in sexual relations for that many years with at least one pregnancy! But this is a reasonable time for new cities and suburbs to emerge. All this suggests that the stated life spans refer to lineage, ancestry, and progeny rather than to a single person’s life.
The dimensions of Noah’s Ark were approximately 450 feet by 75 feet which is as long as one and a half football fields. That is certainly huge, but nowhere nearly large enough (even with multiple floors) to hold two of every animal on the face of the earth. As a preliminary list, it is simply impossible to fit two of all the largest animals—elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, gorillas, polar bears, grizzly bears, oxen, cows/bulls, horses, donkeys, zebras, gazelles, moose, dear, elk, lions, tigers, cheetahs, ostriches, emus—not to mention the enormous quantities of food required by those beasts nor the smaller animals like lizards and squirrels. It is much more likely that Noah’s flood was a regional event rather than a global occurrence. Very similar narratives can be found in the Sumerian/Akkadian epics of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh which indicate a regional flood.
Tower of Babel
Most Bible and archaeological scholars agree that the Tower of Babel was one of the ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats constructed by the Sumerians and Akkadians who populated present-day southeastern Turkey, eastern Syria, all of Iraq and Kuwait, and northern Saudi Arabia. While those structures were impressive for their day, none was designed to reach all the way to the sky as is commonly suggested by Genesis 11:4. A better conceptualization would be our modern word “skyscraper” which no one actually takes to mean that the buildings actually touch the sky nor that they were intended to. Rather, “skyscraper” is hyperbole meaning that those buildings were the tallest that the technology of that day could construct.
The Great Ziggurat of Ur is also notable for containing the oldest written account of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was written in cuneiform which was a unique invention of its day because it could be written and read by anyone regardless of spoken language. Genesis 10:4 and 10:31 indicates that people had already dispersed broadly throughout Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean and developed different languages. So there is no reason to concede a literal reading to Genesis 11:1 that “the whole world had one language and a common speech.” Rather, this could indicate the wide adoption of cuneiform or that all only homo sapien sapiens remained in the area (any other homo species having perished in a regional flood). It could also indicate a prevalent multilingualism in the region (for example, between Sumerians and Akkadians which is well documented in the archaeological record).