The following is a comment on my earlier post on the question of how there could have been light on the first day of creation when the sun was only created on the fourth day. Because of its length and detail, the comment is printed here and my response follows.
What a great question. Whilst I don’t believe that Genesis was written as a science textbook, I believe that there should be harmony between what we see in the Bible and what we observe in science. This is because God is the author of both.
One of the most important things one needs to do in scientific research and in Biblical hermeneutics is to determine the frame of reference. I think that it is important that readers of Genesis 1 understand that the days of Genesis come from the Hebrew word “yom” which can mean a very long indeterminate length of time . . . an age.
Furthermore, a change in the frame of reference takes place between Gen. 1:1 [“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”} and Gen. 1:2 [“Now the earth was formless and empty”]. It moves from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth.
The text does not say that light was created in Gen. 1:3 [“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”]. The actual Hebrew word is “hayah” which means to “appear” or to “cause to appear”. According to the best planetary theory the primordial earth had a dense and opaque atmosphere. This is exactly what the Scriptures say. Planetary models describe how the atmosphere slowly cleared and day and night were distinguishable . . . they “appeared”. Later on the atmosphere becomes translucent and then transparent. This explains the sun and moon “appearing” only on creation Day 4. This scientific model is in harmony with what the best science describes.
The rest of Genesis is also completely consistent with science. The establishment of a stable water cycle, the appearance of continents and plants, the clearing of the atmosphere, the appearance of sea animals and birds, followed by land animals and humans. Science tells us that this is the order that these things happened. But the Bible said it first! For an ancient writer to just get one of these creation events correct would be something. But to get them all correct and in the correct order is truly remarkable. The probability of an ancient writer getting the order of the 13 creation events correct is 13 factorial or 1 chance in 6.227 billion.
Don D. Wallar, M.Sc.
President, Toronto Chapter
Reasons to Believe
Don, thanks so much for sharing your own reflections on the Genesis account. It’s great to engage these questions with you.
It seems to me that we are approaching the account with different expectations. You’re expecting that it will be possible to match up its narrative details with the facts of natural history. I’m not necessarily expecting this; rather, I think we need to try to understand the account as a whole from its own perspective and then ask how it speaks to us today.
But this difference in approaches doesn’t mean we can’t talk. In the Genesis study guide in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series, I invite small group members to state their opinions briefly about how the Genesis creation account relates to science, but then “leave them at the door” and not debate them, so that the group can explore the text on a literary level. And that’s what you’ve allowed the two of us to do by your references to its literary structure and vocabulary. Let me then engage each of the points you made.
• The meaning of the word “yom.” The basic and most common meaning of the Hebrew word yom is “day.” In most cases this is an ordinary day. It’s true that the term can also be used figuratively to mean a longer, even an indeterminate, length of time. In Deuteronomy, for example, Moses tells the people of Israel to celebrate Passover so that they will always remember “the day of your going forth from the land of Egypt.” The NIV translates this as “the time of your departure,” recognizing that a longer period of time is in view. The prophets, to give another example, often begin their oracles by saying “In that day,” referring to an indefinite future period. And so forth. So how can we tell whether yom means a simple day, or a longer time period? We have to depend on the context. And the Genesis account says that for each “day,” “there was evening, and there was morning.” I take this as an indication from the author that we’re meant to understand these as ordinary days, which the Hebrews considered to begin at sunset. From the author’s observational perspective, creation looks like six days’ work: realms are created on the first three days (day vs. night, sky vs. sea, sea vs. land), and these realms are populated on the next three days. “A place for everything, and everything in its place”: the account communicates the original order, beauty, and harmony of God’s creation. But it doesn’t necessarily say that creation took place over a long period covering many ages.
• Change in reference after the start of the account. Our English translations give us the impression that there is a change in the frame of reference after the opening sentence of the creation account, a change “from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth,” as you put it. We hear about God creating “the heavens and the earth,” and then the action apparently shifts to the waters of the sea, grass on the ground, etc. But the words used for “heaven” (shemayim) and “earth” (‘erets) in the opening sentence are actually the very same words used for the “sky” and the “land” everywhere else in the account, for example, “God made lights for the expanse of the sky (shemayim),” “The land (‘erets) produced vegetation,” etc. So it would be more accurate to translate the opening line of the account this way: “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.” We would then realize that this is a summary of what follows, in the characteristic Hebrew narrative style. (For example, later in the book of Genesis we’re told in summary, “Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more.” Then we get the details.) So as I see it, there is no change in the frame of reference. An earthbound observer is describing “the sky and the land” throughout the whole account.
• The meaning of the word “hayah.” The Hebrew word for “to appear” is actually ra’ah, “to see,” in the Niphal or reflexive stem meaning “to be seen” or “to appear.” That’s the word that’s used in the creation account when God says, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” The word hayah means “to be.” It can also mean “to become,” that is, “to come into existence,” and that’s what I understand the term to mean with regard to the light of the first day: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and the light was (hayah),” that is, light came into existence. This is not a case of a previously created entity becoming visible.
Even though these considerations related to the vocabulary and structure of the account leave me convinced that it is literally intended but written from an observational perspective, I share your belief that there is an ultimate coherence between scientific discoveries of the wonder and beauty of the created universe and the Bible’s revelation to us of God as Creator. I happen to believe that these operate on two different levels, while it seems you believe they operate on the same level. But we both agree that we can learn much about God from what are often called the “two books” of God’s revelation, nature and Scripture. The fine organization you work with, Reasons to Believe, encourages believers and seekers to reflect with wonder and respect on the universe that God created, and I feel that the Genesis author is doing exactly the same thing, speaking out of an ancient culture to readers down through the ages.