Genesis was apparently written by Moses after the Exodus, in the Middle Eastern language that came to Egypt with Joseph’s family. After 400 years, it probably varied somewhat from its original form. We assume there was an unbroken chain of manuscripts, each one carefully copied as the old one wore out, and as the characters slowly changed form over time. The oldest fragments of handwritten text are little more than 2100 years old, so at least 1500 years of previous scrolls have been lost. It seems that no scripture was put on clay tablets, but it was always kept in a portable form. Early Hebrew was an experiential language; its language and ideas were centered on behaviors and actions, rather than objects. The Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in the third century BC by Jewish rabbis (the Septuagint), who had the difficult task of molding the general, context-sensitive Hebrew words into the very specific Greek language. The New Testament was written in Greek. Early English translations of the Bible relied heavily on the Greek text. The cultural impact of the Hebrew text in its native culture was diluted by each successive language translation into more specific and more modern terms.
Most of what we know of the ancient Middle East comes from discoveries of clay tablets as old as 3400 BC made by the older urban cultures of the area; Ur, Ebla, Akkad, Sumer, Babylon, Egypt. Thousands of those have been excavated and deciphered, containing everything from business records and history to belief systems and poetry. Genesis 1-11 resembles some aspects of the origin stories of other Middle Eastern civilizations. They all reflect a way of thinking that is alien to the analytical Greco-Roman viewpoint common in Western civilization. The ancient cultures did not understand such things as weather patterns, the water cycle, and disease. They tried to explain events in terms of things that they could see or do. If water came out of the ground, there must be water under it. If water fell from the sky, there must be water up there, and something must hold it up there most of the time, and something must support that… and there must be some deities in control of all those functional elements. They did not have the extra resources to develop philosophy or science – productivity was low, most people were working hard just to live, and there were struggles between whatever earthly powers got far enough above the subsistence level to equip a small army.
Those who accompanied Moses were just transitioning from an oral culture to a literate culture. Egypt used hieroglyphs to record history and tell stories, but had not developed letters to represent sounds. Chinese characters also represent ideas, not sounds. Some North American tribes wove symbols of people and events into records called wampum, which were mnemonic devices to preserve their tribal story. If those were lost, or if they were not recited frequently to each generation, that history ceased to exist. Such symbols are very difficult to interpret for people of other times and cultures.
Languages with a phonetic alphabet take more time to engrave or write, but can express more complex ideas and take extra thought to follow rules of grammar. A larger portion of the people are likely to use and understand them, so phonetic languages tend to endure over time.
Oral cultures tend to lose details, and use major events for cultural reference points. Big events are invested with meaning to make them memorable and to guide the culture. Details may be added for that purpose. Such events can endure in story form for millennia, and gain force if they become culturally important. This is well explained in ‘The Lost World of the Flood’ by Longman and Walton. Written language stops the loss of detail, and inhibits further embroidering on historical truth. Literacy brings a need for more copies, improving the chance of a culture and language surviving.
Genesis varies from other Middle Eastern origin stories in some important ways. Genesis introduced a single divine personality who created everything step by step, rather than a group of competing deities with human-like personalities and needs. The creative steps in Genesis correspond to the sequence of events in Earth’s history as revealed by modern science, the others do not. Much is omitted that would have been foreign to the Hebrews’ experience, and therefore could not be expressed in their language. Genesis starts the human race with two individuals as God’s vice-regents given charge of the earth; other ancient cultures believed their deities created a large number of people whose duty was to build temples for the deities and serve their needs. God specified that he had no earthly needs, but he did supply a behavioral code that humans were to obey. Other cultures also had a story of a fall into violence, a flood, and some survivors. The flood appears to be a real event, dating to the filling of the Black Sea basin about 5600 BC, or perhaps the sea level rise at the end of the last Ice Age which flooded the shallow Persian Gulf. It seems to have covered whatever was the dominant culture of that time. These events seem to have preceded written language. Without written languages, the oral histories then diverge. The Tower of Babel story seems related to the building of ‘ziggurats’ next to temples by the old cultures; the Genesis story is interpreted as a divine correction of the idea that man could either ascend to the level of the gods, or get them to come down to man. At any rate, neither occurred and the peoples were scattered, after which God chose one group that he would associate his presence with. The ages given for the patriarchs may have symbolic significance, now unknown. The names of the first 10 patriarchs seem to tell a story. Since there are 10 patriarchs to Noah and 10 more to Abram, that may be a memory aid for telling the story in the old oral culture, one name per finger on our hands.
Some consider Genesis 1-11 to be mythology or merely something borrowed from neighboring cultures. Others try to ’read the story literally’ and turn to young-earth creationism, with the universe being only a few thousand years old. This ignores translation problems and leads to a lot of unfounded assumptions. Old-earth creationism accepts current science and a universe about 15 billion years old, with the Biblical account as a summary, and interprets some verses elsewhere in the Bible as showing further scientific knowledge revealed long ago but not understood. The heart of the debate centers on random, unguided evolution versus the purposeful design and creation of the various life forms, and whether there is an immortal spirit in every human being to be evaluated by a creative deity. This cannot be decided by scientific research, because the basis of science is the use of material instruments. The fossil record still fails to provide the necessary intermediate, transitional forms to support evolution. Species seem to appear and disappear rather suddenly. It comes down to what each individual finds persuasive, and what evidence or testimony they are willing to accept. All the evidence is not now available, and never will all of it be. Those who can handle the concept of the Judeo-Christian God then can decide which variety of creationism makes better sense to them – it’s not a salvation issue. The Bible speaks of Adam and Eve in several places, but makes equally good sense whether they are taken as archetypes or as literal individuals. Several recent scholarly books by John Walton examine Genesis in the context of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, with titles beginning ‘The Lost World of…’.
The story is being spread in our culture that science and religion are mutually exclusive. It is being told by some of the people on each side, in hopes of recruiting more people to their respective sides. It is also told by atheists who wish to use science to bash religion.This kind of polarization reflects the political battles of our time, and is equally counterproductive. Few of those who take a strong stand for either side are actually familiar with the other side. Let me present the case that they are complementary; neither can paint a complete picture of reality using only its own colors. Each one is necessary to fill the blank spots in the other. Special revelation, the Bible, gives ethics and morality and records examples and consequences. Science avoids those topics as it studies only the general revelation. It discovers ‘how’ to do things, not ‘whether’ to do them. Religion alone deals with ‘why’ and with human relationships. Science and religion must come to common ground without bringing weapons.
As a Christian believer, I seek to understand the Bible. As one interested in the world around me, I seek to understand it scientifically. Knowing that our present is a product of our past, I pay attention to history. After working in the computer software field, I have respect for logic. But language translation is tricky. Our modern languages are the product of a Greco-Roman world where abstract words are prolific. An abstract is a word or thought that cannot be related to one of the five senses; hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. However, each Hebrew word is related to a sense, an object, or an action. A good illustration of the differences is the word anger which, from a modern perspective, is an abstract idea. The Hebrew word for anger is אף aph [H:639]but literally means “a flaring of the nostrils in anger,” a substance of action. In fact, the word אף aph [H:639] is also the same Hebrew word for the nose. Context makes the difference. Search for ‘early Hebrew language’ or ‘ancient Hebrew vocabulary’. Hebrew thought is more concerned with function whereas we, and our Greco-Roman thought, are more concerned with appearance. When we read the Biblical text we are constantly creating a mental image of what the text is describing but the original author is not describing an image of appearance but an image of function.
|and this is how you are to make it, the length of the vessel is three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.|
Is this description telling us what the ark looked like? Not at all, it is describing its function by telling us that this ark is very large and capable of transporting a very large load of animals. The Hebrew language used a small number of words; they had general meanings, and were made specific by their context.
The purpose of religion is to form and maintain a relatively uniform culture with a common moral/ethical base. No culture can long survive without the mutual trust that is based on predictable behavior. The Bible specifically seeks to form and maintain a culture that honors the Judeo-Christian deity, Who inspired Moses to start the writing tradition that others added to historically and prophetically as they too were inspired. Job appears to reflect an inspired pre-Abrahamic religious and philosophical tradition. To hold a culture together, it is important to have a narrative of its origin which is plausibly true. When I was growing up, scientific knowledge seemed to contradict Genesis 1; we had not yet developed the tools and the observing power to reach far enough back into the past. The vocabulary of the early Hebrew language is also better understood today, and biblical translation brings somewhat broader meanings than before. It is now possible to verify the Genesis 1 narrative, adding scientific findings into the time sequence.
Belief in the details of Genesis 1 is not a salvation issue for believers, but it can be one for nonbelievers if it blocks them from believing in God or from reading the Bible. Those who have rejected the idea of a Creator should be offered the scientific parallels to Genesis 1 which fill in the details that Moses was not given. This can help overcome the amoral, materialist attitude which our public education system advocates. In the last 20 years, science has gained new tools that tell us much about the earth and the universe. The general validity of Genesis 1 testifies to the existence of the Deity Who was able to express that information through a very limited language.
Verse 1; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. This includes the ‘big bang’ event; God worked from outside this universe, with an enormous burst of energy which also included the origin of our time and our three dimensions of space. The energy quickly separated into matter, mostly hydrogen, and electromagnetic radiation. The space expanded rapidly. Gravity pulled the matter together into stars, whose lifetimes depend on their size. Large stars burn more quickly and explode as supernovas, forming heavier elements. Stars are continually forming as gravity collects matter, and large ones still explode, forming elements that completed the periodic table. The debris from these earlier stars formed our current stars, with a rich enough supply of heavy elements to form planets in the rotating dust cloud around them. One of those planets was our earth, sweeping dust and larger debris out of its path as it orbited our sun. When it solidified and cooled, it was enveloped in dense clouds of gas and dust and was a smooth ball covered in water. Time to completion of verse 1, about 10 billion years of our time.
Perhaps now we can see why Genesis 1 is so short; a lot happened in that verse, but it involved things for which Moses had no words. He was leading an early agricultural/herding culture, whose written language had about 10,000 words that covered only those things that they actually experienced; agriculture, trade, war, and simple craftsmanship. Any attempt to express the above would have been heavily symbolic and confusing. Psalm 19 points us toward astronomy as a path to learning about God; “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands”. Astronomers, with an array of expensive instruments, agree on the above narrative. God is a God of order and law, including the laws of nature. That is the principle upon which science is based. But God was not trying to build a technological culture then, so He did not explain everything. He wanted to build a God-honoring culture near the major trade routes of the ancient world, to be a witness to Him and His principles. He told Moses truth, but He gave only the bare outline. Yet each of these steps is in the correct sequence according to modern science, and represents a substantial period of time in which important changes occurred. Only one of the ancient creation stories comes close, and it invokes a series of conflicts among imaginary deities which finally created a mass of mankind to serve them. Genesis is alone in claiming one Creator and the creation of one couple who were given stewardship over the earth.
Verse 2; “Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
The point of view here is not the astronaut’s view that we tend to think of, but that of the spirit on or near the surface. This point of view continues throughout Genesis 1. There are no topographical features yet, only a global ocean under an atmosphere of thick clouds. The planet has cooled enough for liquid water to stay on the surface. The ocean contains minerals dissolved out of the underlying planet. Biochemical research indicates that life did not evolve by chance; the universe has not existed long enough for that to happen randomly. The word translated ’hovering’ also means ’brooding’ as a hen on a nest; that is consistent with God’s creation of the early anaerobic bacteria that metabolized the dissolved minerals and formed many of our deposits of iron, zinc and other metals. They do not need light or oxygen or photosynthesis. When the water has been cleared of poisonous minerals, those bacteria die off for lack of their kind of food, but some are still found in hot springs.
Verse 3; “And God said, ’let there be light’, and there was light.”
Eventually the planet cooled enough that water evaporated more slowly and the fog thinned from opaque to translucent. Faint sunlight reached the planet’s surface at last. God created more life forms when photosynthetic life became possible in the ocean, and began to put oxygen into the atmosphere.
Verse 4-5; “God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day‘, and the darkness He called ‘night‘. And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.”
Instead of a permanent twilight, the planet now had a dimly sunlit side and a dark side. Light is good in the sense of supporting photosynthetic plant life, most likely still single-celled algae. ‘Evening’ to the Hebrews implied the end of a period of work, ’morning’ meant the beginning of another. The word translated as ‘day’ has more than one meaning, but still a definite period. (Genesis 2:4; Joshua 24:7, ‘a long time’.
Verse 6-8; “And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water’. So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse ’sky’. And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day.”
The surface cooled enough that fog and clouds lifted above Earth‘s surface, and the day/night temperature changes started the water cycle of evaporation and precipitation.
Verse 9-10; “And God said, ”Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear”. And it was so. God called the dry ground “land”, and the gathered waters He called ‘seas’. And God saw that it was good.”
This is the beginning of plate tectonics. Heavy elements like thorium and uranium have settled to the core of the planet, generating heat that sets up convection currents in the Earth’s mantle. The top layer develops cracks and rigid plates that are moved by those currents and begin to slide under other plates, lifting them above the water. This became widespread about 3 billion years ago. The continents have slowly shifted positions since then.
Verse 11-13; “And God said, ‘let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that produce fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.’ And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the third day.”
The next big step for life is a move to land and more complex structures. Algae don’t do well on dry land, so God made other plants as conditions changed; lichens were probably first. Simple cell-division propagates algae, but requires huge populations to overcome the effects of genetic damage from cosmic rays. It was necessary to design specialized cells that can be combined from two different individuals; when combined, damaged DNA from one can be compensated for by undamaged DNA at the same location from another. There are so many locations in DNA that identical damage is unlikely. God invented sexual reproduction so that relatively small populations of a given species would not be lost to genetic damage, and so that the DNA would in fact continue as the same kind. The Hebrew phrase that is translated into ‘trees with fruit and seed’ is more of a broad category that can refer to any green plants. This is consistent with a long period of continuing creation.
Verse 14-19; “And God said, ’let there be lights in the expanse of the sky… the fourth day”.
The atmosphere finally clears from translucent to transparent, and there is no longer a continuous cloud layer. Rather than a daily bright spot in the cloud layer, the sun and moon and even stars can be clearly seen. Photosynthesis and oxygen production become stronger. Daily temperature changes are larger. Plant life can become larger and more complex. This probably includes much of the Carboniferous age. Nutrient production by photosynthesis can now produce enough food for land animal life as well, and bring atmospheric oxygen up to near present levels.. Time for verses 2-19, 4 billion years or so.
Verse 20-23; “And God said, “let the water teem with living creatures… the fifth day”.
The mention of large sea creatures and birds clearly makes this include the time of the dinosaurs – there is a design linkage from them to birds. Animal life in the oceans is not a new thing, but becomes more plentiful and varied about 600 million years ago, with land animals coming about 400 million years ago. There do not seem to be any dinosaur fossils from the Middle East, so God had no reason to mention them to Moses. These ‘days’ have been substantial periods of time, and numerous species were created and became extinct and were replaced by others.
Verse 24-25; “And God said, “let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds; livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals…”.
At this point the scene shifts to contemporary forms of life, those that people recognize now. It is the sixth day, and God creates animals that are designed to coexist with man. The Hebrew words designate three different general classes of animals:
behema, long-legged quadrupeds that are easily tamed, like sheep, goats, or cattle
remes, short-legged quadrupeds, like rodents or rabbits
hayya, long-legged quadrupeds typically considered ’wild’
Verse 26-31; Then God said ,”Let us make man in our image… the sixth day”. This would mean modern man with free will and self-awareness, not Neanderthals or earlier hominids. Genetic researchers can deduce whether we originated from many or just a few individuals, and from how many locations. Their conclusion is, a very small population in one place. Using our mutation rate, they can deduce the time of that population. Using a genetic marker found only in females, they place the most recent common female ancestor at about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. A marker found in males yields a date of about 42,000 to 60,000 years ago for the most recent common male ancestor; that would correspond to Eve and Noah respectively. If the mutation rate has not been constant, that would change those ages. Astronomers have found that there were four supernovas in the last 44,000 years that were close enough to increase the cosmic ray intensity by up to 40 times for years at a time, so those ages may be adjusted to more recent values.
Genesis 2-5, the family tragedy – sin enters the world. Free will and self-awareness now give the opportunity to turn against God’s will, and they do. The Fall is symbolically stated, in an effective communication for the early Hebrews. This narrative troubles our understanding of nature, but it offered an origin for sin which was easy for them to understand. More on that in the post ‘Pondering Original Sin’. It gives a prefiguration of ‘that old serpent’ as Satan is called in Revelation. The use of fig leaves as a covering is odd, since fig leaves leak an irritating sap and have a scratchy surface. But the fig tree became a symbol of Israel; its use might prefigure the mission of Israel, through Christ, to provide a covering for the sins of humankind at the Cross.
The description of Eden places it in the area of the Persian Gulf. The range of dates cited above is within one of the recent ice ages, during which the climate would be quite different and the sea levels dropped 200 to 300 feet due to the amount of water tied up in glaciers. Glaciers advanced and receded numerous times from 2,800,000 to 11,500 years ago. The Gulf seems to have been filled up as glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age. A similar flood occurred in 5500 BC when the Black Sea basin was filled.
The Persian Gulf is 615 miles long, covers 93,000 square miles, and is surprisingly shallow, with an average depth of 165 feet. The Persian Gulf area would have been a lush river-fed lowland of fertile soil with little rain and a mild climate, capable of supporting a sizable population if they did not become violent and wicked, but scripture says they did. The long lifespans are almost plausible if they stuck with a vegetarian diet as per Genesis 1:29. There may be a lost symbolism in the numbers of years given.
If the names of the first 10 patriarchs can be properly translated as
Mahalalel The blessed God
Jared shall come down
Methuselah His death shall bring
Lamech the despairing
Noah rest (or comfort) – (from Chuck Missler)
and this seems to be a very short summary of time up through the ministry of Christ, then what story is told in the names of the second 10, from Shem through Terah? Perhaps a summary of time after Christ? I have not seen any translation for those. The names above would have given the first four generations a poor self-image; I think this is a symbolic and prophetic sequence given to Moses as a prophecy of Christ, and the 10 names are a mnemonic aid, one name per finger. They may not have been actual individuals.
Science Daily, May 2016: The last Ice Age made much of the globe uninhabitable, but there were oases — or refugia — where people 20,000 years ago were able to cluster and survive. Researchers at the University of Huddersfield, who specialise in the analysis of human DNA, have found new evidence that there was one or more of these shelters in what is now Southern Arabia. Once the Ice Age receded — with the onset of the Late Glacial period about 15,000 years ago — the people of this refugium then dispersed and populated Arabia and the Horn of Africa, and might also have migrated further afield. The view used to be that people did not settle in large numbers in Arabia until the development of agriculture, around 10-11,000 years ago. Now, the findings by members of the University of Huddersfield’s Archaeogenetics Research Group demonstrate that modern humans have dwelt in this territory for far longer than previously thought. The new genetic data and analysis bolsters a theory that has long been held by archaeologists, although they had little evidence to support it until now. News item 7/17/18: Archeologists have discovered the burnt remains of a flatbread baked 14,400 years ago, more than 4,000 years before the advent of agriculture. The findings, excavated in northeastern Jordan’s Black Desert, reveal the oldest direct evidence of bread. Twenty-four bread-like objects were found at two fireplaces in a Natufian hunter-gatherer site known as Shubayqa 1.
Genesis 6-9, Noah and the flood – this story is found in many cultures, with some variations. The dates in the flood story seem to prefigure the Hebrew feast-days given later by Moses. Sea level rise is a gradual thing – some other factor would be needed to make it sudden enough to be remembered for millennia, perhaps an earthquake on faults to the north. Survivors would probably have moved up the river valleys toward Turkey. Forced onto less productive land without all the fruits and vegetables they were used to, high-calorie meat is made acceptable as food, and lifespans shorten.It must have been very early, since ancient dwelling sites all have animal bones near sites of fire. This may be when the telomeres were shortened, limiting lifespans to 120 years. Unfortunately, Noah seems to have carried the genetic predisposition for alcoholism.
Genesis 10-11, the spread of mankind – after the Ice Age, people remained in the Middle East as their numbers increased enough to build cities. There may have been an event that dispersed them, or it could have been a desire on the part of family groups to depart from a culture that was continually going sinful; we see evidence of urban sociopathology everywhere as cities grow larger. Scripture says they were directed to disperse across the earth. That is more easily done as nomadic herdsmen, since their food travels with them. The ten patriarchal names from Shem to Abram seem to be another mnemonic or prophetic series; the time from the Ice Age to Abram is around 10,000 years, and their ages do not fill that gap.
Genesis 12, the narrative enters recorded history with the details of Abram/Abraham’s life and the cultures of his time which are now known to archeologists. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the last ‘free-range’ Hebrews before Joseph invited them into the large and powerful Egyptian culture. Oral history would remember and celebrate the unique events in their lives after the Hebrews were immersed in the Egyptian influence. The deeds of the generations between Joseph and Moses went unremembered, along with most of those between Shem and Abraham, and must have been irrelevant for our lives.