Analysis

‘In The Beginning’: The Real Purpose Of The First Chapter Of Genesis

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The first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1, tells the story of the creation of the heavens and the earth, culminating with the creation of the human race. Due to its content and its prominent place in the Scriptures, it is one of the best-known chapters in the Bible.

It is also one of the most controversial chapters, leading to the obvious question: Should Genesis 1 be interpreted literally?

If so, does it point to the earth being young, in existence less than 10,000 years? Or does it point to an old earth, perhaps many millions of years old? Is it in harmony with the findings of modern science? Or are these questions unrelated to the purpose of Genesis 1?

For those who have studied this chapter in depth, there are many questions that arise.

Should the opening verse be translated as a self-contained statement, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”? Or should it be translated, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth,” serving as an opening clause for the verses that follow?

The next verses describe the earth as a shapeless mass, but we’re not told how the earth got into that condition. Did something cataclysmic take place between verses 1 and 2?

We’re also told the darkness covered the deep waters, but again, we’re not told where the darkness came from. How should this be explained?

Then, on the first day of creation, God calls forth light, yet the sun is not made until the fourth day. How can there be light without sun? Does this point to scientific ignorance on the part of the author? Or could it be Genesis 1 is not about science at all?

But are we asking the right questions? Could it be we are misunderstand the very purpose of Genesis 1?

Let’s first consider the question of the Bible and science.

Let’s say the Bible rightly taught that the earth rotated around the sun rather than the sun rotated around the earth. If that were the case, then everyone would have thought the Bible was wrong until Copernicus in the 15th century!

People would have said, “It’s clear the Bible is not the Word of God, since it wrongly teaches that the earth goes around the sun, whereas science tells us the sun goes around the earth.”

That is something we rarely think about when it come to Genesis 1. If it were here to teach us about science, then past generations would have rejected it as the Word of God because it was out of sync with the science of the day.

Does the Bible use observational language, speaking of the sun rising and sun setting? Yes it does. We use those expressions too.

But did the biblical writers believe the sun went around the earth and literally rose and set? Probably so, since they were people of their times, and when they talked about the sun rising and setting, they were describing what they saw.

But that was not the point of their message. The point was to teach us about God and how He wanted us to live. And that’s why we read the Bible to this day, not to learn whether the earth goes around the sun but to learn about the Lord.

Returning to Genesis 1, scholars have pointed out how carefully crafted the text is, containing an elaborate sequence of sevens, all of them framed in the seven-day creation story. For example, as noted by Catholic theologian Jeff Morrow (and summarized here), “Gen 1:1 contains seven words; 1:2 has fourteen words (2×7), and ‘God’ occurs thirty-five times (5×7) in the seven-day account. The term ‘earth’ occurs twenty-one times (3×7); ‘heavens/firmament’ twenty-one times (3×7); the phrase ‘and it was so’ appears seven times, as well as the phrase, ‘God saw it was good.’”

This is just the tip of the iceberg, reminding us that there is more going on here than just a scientific summary of creation. Instead, an important story is being told, described in a 7 day sequence.

And this brings us to the crux of the matter.

In the midst of endless debate about Genesis 1, what is the one message we all recognize? What can every reader tell you after reading the chapter? They can tell you that, according to Genesis 1, God created the universe. And that is the whole point of the chapter.

Contrary to all the other ancient accounts of creation, multiple gods were not involved, only one God, the eternal God who reigned supreme.

And what can we learn about this God through Genesis 1?

After all, the reason that people in the ancient world wrote their creation accounts was not to teach science as much as it was to speak about their gods. What can we learn about the one true God by reading Genesis 1?

We learn He has no rivals or equals. We learn He brings light out of darkness and order out of chaos. We learn that He speaks, and it is done. We learn that He puts the seeds of re-creation within His creation, with everything producing after its own kind. And we learn human beings are uniquely created in His image and likeness, with a unique responsibility on the earth.

In short, we learn He is a God of redemption, of order, of power, of authority, and of purpose. That is just some of the message of Genesis 1.

To be sure, there are scientists like Jonathan Sarfati, with a Ph.D. in chemistry, who are convinced Genesis supports a young earth, as well as scientists like Hugh Ross, with a Ph.D. in astronomy, who are convinced it supports an old earth. And there are other top scholars, like Oxford professor and mathematician John Lennox or the late MIT nuclear physicist Gerald Schroder, who believe Genesis 1, rightly understood, is in full harmony with science.

That is for the scientists to debate.

For me, as a biblical scholar trained in ancient Near Eastern languages, my focus is on why Genesis 1 is in the Bible.

The answer is, it intends to teach us about the nature and character of God. And that it does, exceedingly well.

Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University and has served as a professor at a number of seminaries and is the author of 40 books. Connect with him on FacebookTwitter, or YouTube.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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