Will the earth be “destroyed by fire” or “found”?

Q. I recently heard someone say, in order to support the idea that we need to care for creation, that the statement in 2 Peter often translated as “the earth and everything in it will be burned up” would be much better translated “the earth will be found.” Do you agree with that? I was always under the impression that the Biblical teaching was that the earth would ultimately be destroyed, which seems consistent with Revelation 21 when it talks about a new heaven and a new earth “coming down” to replace (?) the first heaven and the first earth after they have passed away.

Is this the fate the Bible predicts for the earth?

The issue in the 2 Peter passage is not actually one of translation, but of textual criticism. This is one of the many places where the ancient manuscripts we have of the Bible differ in what they say, and so we need to try to figure out what the original reading was.

One principle of textual criticism is that the reading that best explains the origins of the others is most likely to be the original. And while there is actual a much wider variety of readings than usual in this case, there is one reading that does seem to account for all the others. But this is only because that reading seems to make so little sense in the context that it appears to have generated a variety of attempts to account for it.

Many ancient manuscripts do indeed read, “The earth will be found.” This would mean, on the face of it, that if you look for it, it will still be there. But this seems to contradict the other things Peter says will happen on the “day of the Lord”: “the heavens will disappear with a roar, and the elements will melt and disintegrate.” So we would actually expect Peter to say just the opposite, that the earth will no longer be found. He seems to be offering a Hebrew-style poetic parallelism, with the three-fold repetition that was used for finality and emphasis. Creation is being depicted in three parts, and so we would indeed expect something like, “The heavens will disappear, the elements will melt, and the earth will be gone.”

As Bruce Metzger helpfully documents in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament, ancient copyists dealt with this apparent problem in a variety of ways. Some added a negative: “The earth will not be found.” Others added an extra term to create readings such as, “The earth will be found dissolved.” And still others changed the verb: “The earth will disappear,” or, “The earth will be burned up.”

Modern scholars, Metzger continues, have made their own proposals. One has suggested that arga, “useless,” dropped out after erga, “works,” because of the similarity between the two words, and that the original reading was, “The earth and the things in it will be found useless.” Other scholars have proposed Greek terms that are similar in sound and spelling to “will be found” and that seem to accord better with the context: “will flow,” “will flow together,” “will burn to ashes,” “will be taken away,” etc. (If I had to choose one of these, I’d choose arthesetai, “taken away,” because it’s the most similar to eurethesetai, “found.”)

Finally, I would add, Bible translations, if they don’t choose one of the alternatives (“burned up” is most common), offer their own interpretations of what “will be found” might mean. But these are uniformly negative, in keeping with the general sense of the passage, rather than positive in the sense of the earth being preserved: “the earth and the works on it will be disclosed” or “exposed” or “seen for what they are” or “laid bare” or “exposed to the scrutiny of judgment.” So there really isn’t a mandate for creation care in those translations.

I personally think that if “found” is the original reading, it most likely has a sense of “laid bare” or “exposed,” that is, of everything being stripped away. But even if this is a description of the destruction of the physical creation, and even if the passage you cite from Revelation does depict the present heavens and earth ultimately being replaced, I still think there is a mandate for us to take good care of the creation while it’s here and while we are living on it.

As I say in another recent post on this blog, “We express our faith in what we believe Jesus will do when he returns by the way we live as we are expecting him. Under the reign of Jesus, the physical creation [whether new or renewed] will be healthy and beautiful. And because we believe that, we should do everything we can to help it be as healthy and beautiful as possible even now. Otherwise, Jesus would have every right to ask us, ‘If you knew that this was what I was going to do when I came back, why didn’t you get started on it while you were waiting for me?'”

So I think it’s actually helpful to point out that there likely isn’t a direct statement in 2 Peter to the effect that “the earth and everything in it will be burned up.” I think it’s helpful to observe that this statement rather says, more cryptically, that the earth will be “found.” As we’re trying to puzzle out what that means, we might end up thinking a little more carefully about how we can take good care of this earth while we still have it. And I believe that would be a good thing.

Introduction to Jonathan Edwards’ The End for Which God Created the World

In my post in response a reader’s question, “Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?” I suggested, among other things, that the “man” Jacob wrestles with (he’s actually a representative of God, like the “angel of the Lord” elsewhere in the Old Testament) was probably “giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout twenty difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him.” I noted that Jonathan Edwards had written in The End for Which God Created the World that when things are “in themselves excellent,” it is also “an excellent thing” for them to become known. And so this wrestling match was a chance for Jacob’s acquired excellent qualities to be demonstrated. A reader of that post commented, “I would love to hear more of your thoughts about the Edwards book. It’s tough sledding.” So here is an overview of the argument that Edwards makes, which I hope will be helpful.

Today we might express the question as, “Why did God create the world?” (I’m sure many of us have wondered this.) But Edwards puts it this way: “To what end did God create the world?” That is, what “end” or purpose was God pursuing through the creation?

Edwards begins his treatise by explaining what kind of “end” he’s talking about. He notes that a person might pursue one end as a means to another. For example, someone might go on a journey to get some medicine to heal a sickness. The ultimate end being pursued is healing. Getting the medicine is a subordinate end to that purpose, and going on the journey is a subordinate end to getting the medicine. (Even if we took a walk just for the pleasure of it, the pleasure would be the ultimate end, and taking the walk would be a subordinate end towards that goal.)

Edwards explains that he wants to explore what God’s ultimate end was in creating the world. That is, God might have made the world in pursuit of a number of purposes, but some of them might have been means to other ends. So what was the “bottom line,” as we would say today?

Edwards also specifies that he’s looking for God’s original ultimate end, that is, the one that God began with before the creation existed. This distinction is necessary because it’s possible that once the world had come into being, some other ultimate end might have been recognized that creating the world was also an appropriate means of reaching.

For example, a man and a woman might get married because they feel called together into a lifetime partnership. But after they got married, they might have children, and they might realize that they now actually value being a family even more than they valued being a couple—their original ultimate end. In such a case, Edwards would say that becoming a family turned out to be their chief end, that is, the one they valued most highly. But it would still not be their original ultimate end.

In the same way, it might turn out that God considered the relationship with his creatures to be the most valuable thing that had come out of the creation. But that would be after the fact; what purpose did God begin with? Edwards leaves off this line of the argument there; he doesn’t follow up on the question of God’s chief end in creating the world, since his task is to explore God’s original ultimate end.

Edwards approaches this question from two angles. He asks first what reason suggests the answer would be, and he then seeks to confirm this from Scripture. We today might approach things in the reverse order. We would first ask what the Bible teaches, and then we would try to make sure that we had understood the Bible correctly by asking whether our answer was reasonable.

But Edwards was living right in the middle of the Enlightenment period, when Western societies had great confidence in reason as a gift that God had redeemed. “The revelation which God has given to men,” he wrote, “has been the occasion of great improvement of their faculties” and it has “taught men how to use their reason.” Edward acknowledges that “it would be relying too much on reason” to try to use it to answer the question at hand “without being . . . principally guided by divine revelation.” But since, he says, some have offered objections to a proper Scriptural understanding of the question “from the pretended dictates of reason,” he will begin by explaining “what seems rational to be supposed concerning this affair,” and then turn to the Scriptures to “consider what light divine revelation gives us in it.”

Edwards then observes that it would not be “agreeable to reason” to think that God created the world because he needed something from the creatures he would make. Rather, God must have had himself in view as the ultimate end of the creation. “God esteems, values, and has respect to things according to their nature and proportions,” and so “he must necessarily have the greatest respect to himself.” Specifically, Edwards says, God created the world with his own glory in view as its ultimate end.

“It seems to be in itself a thing fit and desirable,” he continues, that the glorious attributes of God should be exerted, that they should be known, and that once seen and known, that they should be “valued and esteemed, loved and delighted in,” in a way suitable to their dignity. All of this was accomplished by the creation of a world whose “rational, intelligent creatures” could witness and value God’s glory. (However, Edwards specifies, we should not conclude that God’s desire to “communicate himself to the creature” led him to create the world. Rather, “a disposition of God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fullness, was what excited him to create the world.”)

After addressing at length various questions and objections that his argument to this point may have raised, Edwards then concludes his treatise by offering an extensive demonstration that “the Scriptures represent God as making himself his own last end in the creation of the world.” I will not even try to summarize Edwards’ elaborate and comprehensive Scriptural argument here. It is certainly not a matter of a handful of proof-texts that could be taken to say, “God created the world for his own glory.” Rather, it is an exegetically grounded case that reaches throughout the whole Bible to establish this point. So I will commend it to the reader of The End for Which God Created the World, trusting that I have at least helped thereader get to this point in the treatise, that is, onto what should be more familiar ground for us today.

Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758

Review of John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One

A reader of another of my blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, has asked how the interpretation offered there of the Genesis creation account compares with the one in John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. In response, I have offered a review of Walton’s book in a series of posts that begins here. I’d like to invite readers of this blog to read the review as well, since it deals with many “good questions” about the Bible.

Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts?

Q. Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts regardless of whether they know Scripture or have access to it? Paul wrote to the Romans that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” But he also wrote that “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they . . . show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” Does that mean we are not only cognizant of the existence of God, but also without excuse concerning obeying His laws?

Does nature speak not just of a Creator, but of that Creator’s intentions for human life? (Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)

God did say through Jeremiah, in a passage later quoted in the letter to the Hebrews, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.” But this promise was made specifically to those who would become part of the new covenant by trusting in Jesus. And in context, it refers to people not just knowing God’s laws, but obeying them willingly and eagerly, because they are being transformed within by the Holy Spirit.

The comment you quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans about the Gentiles keeping the law is actually talking about something different. It says literally in Greek that the work of the law is written on their hearts—not the specific requirements of the law, but what it looks like to “do” (live by) the law. Paul talks immediately afterwards about the conscience bearing witness along with the heart, i.e. at the same time—not “also” or “in addition,” as many translations have it. I therefore think these two versions capture his meaning pretty well:

“The conscience is like a law written in the human heart.” (CEV)

“In their hearts they know what is right and wrong, the same as the law commands, and their consciences agree.” (ERV)

Similarly, when Paul writes just before this that at times Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires,” he’s using a phrase that’s synonymous with “conscience.”

The whole point of Paul’s argument here is to respond to the claim of the  church in Rome, to which he’s writing, that the Jews have a greater right to the gospel. (“To the Jew first” seems to have been their motto.) Paul is working to transform this claim into a recognition that Jews and Gentiles have an equal need for the gospel. (“To the Jew first, but also to the Gentile.”)

And so, he argues, the Jews have the law, but they haven’t kept it; the Gentiles have conscience, but they haven’t followed that, either. (Most of the time, that is; they are capable of following it). Both groups have failed to follow the means of moral guidance that God has given them, and as a result, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but all can and must be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

So in this statement about the Gentiles, Paul is basically saying that everybody has a conscience that enables them generally to know right from wrong in their hearts. If they don’t follow their conscience, they can’t plead that they didn’t know any better. They need to admit that they’ve done wrong and come to God for forgiveness and justification by grace.

In short, while everybody may not have God’s actual moral laws innately stamped on their hearts, the Bible does say here that everybody has a conscience. However, we should recognize that a given person’s conscience, and thus their sense of right and wrong, will be influenced by their own family, society, and culture. Nobody starts out with a “blank slate,” the conscience they would have simply by understanding about God through the creation.

In addition, unfortunately, it’s possible to disregard or resist our conscience to the point where it becomes hardened and is no longer a reliable source of moral guidance. As Paul puts it in a vivid phrase in his first letter to Timothy, the conscience then becomes “seared as with a hot iron.” This frightening possibility should make us all eager to maintain a tender conscience before God!

Does the reading of “sky” for “heavens” in the Genesis creation account rule out the creation of invisible, spiritual things?

This question was asked as a follow-up to my post entitled “In the beginning, God created the sky and the land.

Q. I had never before noticed the relationships between the three pairs of days. Laying out the text in such a manner as to highlight these relationships is helpful. Thanks.

I wonder, though, whether the Hebrew word which I will transliterate as shemayim, traditionally translated in this passage as “heavens” and here translated “sky” (in contrast to “land”), must mean only “sky” in this passage. After all, the word translated “Spirit” also can mean mere “wind.”

What if we read the word translated “sky” to include both English meanings contained by the one Hebrew word? Could the meaning include not only the concepts that contrast with “land”(that is, sky), but also the concepts which contrast with that realm in which we humans are grounded and can touch (that is, heaven)?

My denomination’s catechism cites the Genesis creation account to support the assertion from the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…”, and goes on to explain the meaning of “heaven” to include the unseen, which it identifies as the spiritual part of God’s creation.

I do note, however, that on Day 4 the sky is populated with items that are not spiritual (sun, moon, stars). Not, say, angels.

Limiting this scripture to refer merely to “sky” seems to diminish its meaning from that claimed by the catechism’s commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. Any thoughts on how I might reconcile this reading of the beginning of Genesis and my understanding of the historic catholic creeds of the church?

Thank you very much for this thoughtful question.  First, let me say that I do not feel that my reading and translation of the Genesis creation account limit its meaning to God creating the sky and nothing beyond it, whether physical (outer space) or spiritual (angels and the heavenly realm itself).

Rather, I would say that I see the Genesis author proclaiming God as the Maker of the entire created universe and depicting that creation as it was then perceived and understood.  We can join in this very same proclamation even though we would depict the creation much more extensively, beyond what appears to an earth-bound observer.

This is true not just of the visible, physical part of creation, but also of the invisible, spiritual part, because the Hebrew biblical writers tended to see the shemayim that God created as the location where God then established His throne.  Psalm 11 says, for example, that “the Lord‘s throne is in heaven” (shemayim).  Psalm 103 says similarly, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens” (once again shemayim). These are just two of many examples that could be given.

However, this is not to say that the Hebrew word shemayim had two different meanings, “the sky” (in which we would now include “outer space”) and “heaven” (the abode of God and the angels).  Rather, the biblical writers were envisioning one physical place in which both the sun, moon, and stars, and the throne of God, were all located.

While it is true, as you noted, that some Hebrew words can mean more than one thing–ruach, to cite your example, means both Spirit and wind, as well as breath–that is not the case with shemayim.  It does not mean two different things, but one single thing, the physical realm above the earth.

But this is not an insurmountable problem.  I would simply make the same move as in the case of “outer space” and say that we now understand today that what the earth-bound observer who is speaking in the Genesis creation account understood as a single entity is actually a more complex entity.  Shemayim, we now realize, encompasses both sky and space, and since it is the site of God’s throne, it also encompasses “heaven.”  In this way we can see the Genesis creation account proclaiming God as the “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, once we translate the ancient understanding of the created universe into our own contemporary understanding.

(And I don’t doubt that centuries from now, our own limited understanding of the universe will have to be updated by later generations of believers!)

This photograph accompanied the text “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” on a recent Christian Post devotional. The photo, in my view, illustrates better what the Genesis author was envisioning than the “outer space” photos that often accompany that text.

Do the first three days of creation really parallel the next three days?

This question was asked in response to my previous post, “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.”

Q. I like that you translate the opening of the account as saying “sky” and “land,” since most people assume what’s being mentioned there is the creation of the universe.

Several people I’ve read have been fairly critical of the “Framework View” of this account, mainly because they don’t see the parallelism between the days. I would tend to agree that it does seem like day 2 is the better parallel for day 4 than day 1 (since, if I’m not mistaken, the Hebrews thought that the sun, moon, and stars were in the dome). It also seems like day 3 describes the space created for the sea creatures in day 5, not day 6. Finally, in day 3, there isn’t just a domain created for something to fill but there is also the simultaneous creation of plants to fill the land.

How would you interpret these observations?

My layout of the opening creation account in Genesis does follow what is customarily known as the “Framework View.”  Here’s how I’d answer the criticisms of that view which you cite.

First, I see Day 4 as the clear counterpart to Day 1 because Day 4 provides the rulers for the realms created on Day 1.  And the language is clearly reminiscent: On Day 1 God separates the light from the darkness, and on Day 4 God creates lights to “separate the day from the night,” to “separate the light from the darkness.”  On Day 1 God calls the light “Day” and the darkness “Night,” and on Day 4 God creates two great lights to rule the day and the night. (As I explain in my Genesis study guide, that’s how this account operates. Each realm of creation has its sub-regents, under God’s authority. Humans are created at the end as God’s vice-regents, responsible for all of creation under God.)

Day 2 is the clear counterpart to Day 5 because on Day 2 God makes the dome to separate the waters below the dome from the waters above the dome, i.e. to carve out a demarcated space within the chaotic pre-existing waters. (See this post on the Hebrew view of these waters, which seem to us like eternally existing matter.)  Then on Day 5 God populates this carved-out realm, the sea, along with the realm created by the dome itself, the sky.

Day 3 is not about the creation of the seas, it’s about the creation of the land—this is the clear purpose of God’s creative fiat:  “Let what is dry appear.”  But it is by contrast with the new thing, the land, that the sea is definitively differentiated and named—just as the already-existing darkness gets a name, “Night,” by contrast with “Day.”  Sometimes to know what a thing is, you need to know what it is not!

Finally, the green plants are created in the second creative act of Day 3 (“The land brought forth greenery, plants that bore seeds according to their kind, and trees whose seed was in their fruit according to their kind”), and they are mentioned again, in parallel language, in the second creative act of Day 6: “ I have given to you humans as your food every seed-bearing plant that is upon the face of the whole land, and every tree whose fruit makes it a seed-bearing tree.”  So we need to understand these plants, even though they are living things (in our view), not as part of the population of the land, but rather as part of that realm itself, making it habitable for people and animals, who are its population proper.

Thanks very much for your questions, and I hope these clarifications are helpful!

Land emerges from the sea as a new volcanic island is formed south of Japan. Land emerging from the sea is the concern of Day 3 of creation in the Genesis account, although a very different mechanism is envisioned.

“In the beginning, God created the sky and the land”: A visual layout of the Genesis creation account

I thought it would be good to start the new year with a fresh look at the start of the Bible.

As I explain in this post, one of my keen interests is to explore how we can illustrate the structure and composition of biblical writings by the way we lay out their text on the page.  Here’s another one of my recent endeavors: a layout in twin columns of the Days of Creation from the beginning of Genesis.  Click on the link just below to view or download a PDF of this layout so that you can follow my discussion of it in the rest of the post.

Click here to see layout

When we lay out the text in this way, we get a number of insights into it. (These features of the account have long been noted by interpreters, but I try to illustrate them visually here.)

First, we see that the account begins with a summary heading and ends with a summary conclusion.  Each epitomizes the basic project of creation, which is to make “a place for everything” and then put “everything in its place.”  At the start, the land has no “shape” (or structure)–no place to put anything.  It has no “substance”–nothing upon it.  But by the end, “the sky and the land” (realms of habitation) have been created, as well as “everything in them” (their inhabitants).

This layout uses my own personal translation of the Genesis creation account, which first appeared in the book I co-authored with Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation (now available free online through the link provided).  I use the terms “sky” and “land” in the introduction and conclusion because these are the very same Hebrew terms used for the “sky” when it is created on the second day and the “land” when it is created on the third day, and for these locations everywhere else in the account.  This translation brings out the fact that creation is being described from the perspective of an earth-bound observer.

I also follow the textual choices recommended in Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia, which are supported by ancient versions and some Hebrew manuscripts. These make the account much more regular and consistent in terms of what happens on each day and in what order. With slight variations along the way, this is basically:
Divine creative command:  “God said”
Compliance report (summary): “It was so”
Compliance report (detailed):  “God made . . .”
Divine approval: “God saw that it was good”
Naming/blessing
Refrain: “There was evening, and there was morning . . .”

This is, in other words, a royal command and compliance chronicle, much like the other places in the Old Testament where God’s commands are recorded and then the narrative is very careful to document how so-and-so did exactly what God had commanded.

This is what we see when we read each column down.  When we read across, we see the parallels between opposite days.  On Day 1, God makes day and night; on Day 4, God populates the day and the night.  The language of Day 4 echoes that of Day 1:  “God separated the light from the darkness”; “to separate the light from the darkness.” The same process of first creating realms and then populating them, with similar echoes of language, also happens on Days 2 and 5, and on Days 3 and 6.

When we read across the columns we also see that the first two pairs of days have one divine command, while Days 3 and 6 have double commands.  This is a nice echo of a feature of Hebrew poetry: a third line, when used, typically is “weighty” and has an anchoring effect.

I’ve used italics to show how each day ends with the same refrain.

As you look at the text in this translation and layout, what else do you notice that you might not have seen in a more traditional presentation?

A reader interacts with the layout and I respond in this post.

Winslow Homer, “Eastern Point.” For me this painting captures well the elemental realms of creation: sea, sky, and land.

Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

Q. It would seem that strictly on the basis of the Genesis creation account, one could conclude that matter is eternal, because in the beginning there were the unformed (already existing) waters. That is, if one reads the first sentence as a sort of header, as you and others do.

I agree that if we take the first sentence (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) as a heading that summarizes the eventual action of the entire creation account, then we do find primeval waters already existing before God began to create anything else, and this would be eternally-existing matter.  But rather than allow such metaphysical considerations to influence the way we interpret the account, let’s look carefully at the text, draw our conclusions from there, and then think about the implications.

I see the first sentence as a summary introduction because while it announces that God created the shemayim and the ‘erets, the actual crafting of those two things is only described as the account progresses.  On the second day: “God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters’ . . . God called the vault shemayim.”  On the third day: “God said, ‘ . . . let the dry ground appear.’ . . . God called the dry ground ‘erets.”  So the creation of these two things is anticipated in the opening line, but they are actually created as the account progresses.

We often miss this because English versions typically translate these two Hebrew terms as “heavens” and “earth” in the first sentence, and “sky” and “land” later in the account.  Accordingly, in Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, a book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, we suggest that the opening of the creation account be translated instead, “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.”  That’s what the account is really talking about. (The book is now available free online through the link provided.)

Further confirmation that the first sentence of the creation account is a summary introduction comes from the way the account ends with a matching summary conclusion:  “Thus the shemayim and the ‘erets were completed, and all their hosts,” that is, their population—the sun, moon, and stars; birds, animals, and people; etc.  The process of creation, according to the Genesis account, was to make habitable realms and then populate them.  The shemayim and the ‘erets—the sky and the land—are the two prominent realms mentioned in summary statements at the beginning and end of the account.

This means, however, that the narration of the actual creation itself begins at a point where “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  Does this mean that matter, at least in the form of these primeval waters, actually does exist eternally, and that God did not create the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing)?

We need to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the watery ocean was the equivalent of “nothing.”  Because they were not a seafaring people, they considered the sea a place of unformed and unorganized chaos.  It was constantly shifting shape; nothing could be built on it; no crops could be grown there; and no one could survive for long on its waves.  “The great deep,” the ocean depths, was the equivalent for them of “the abyss” or the pit of nothingness.

So even though the concept is expressed from within a different cosmology, when the Genesis author says there was nothing but the waters of the deep, this is the exact equivalent of someone today saying that there was nothing, period.  We can’t get from here to there through a literal reading of Genesis; we need to do a bit of cultural and cosmological translation first.  But once we do, we realize that the Bible is not saying that matter coexisted eternally with God.  Instead, by depicting creation de aqua (as Peter writes in his second letter: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water”), Genesis is actually claiming that it was ex nihilo, as we would say today.

Is the “firmament” of the Genesis creation account “space” or a solid “dome”?

Q. In his book Genesis in Space and Time, Francis Schaeffer briefly argues that the word “firmament” in Genesis 1:6 should not be taken to mean a solid dome or brass covering, but is instead best translated as “expanse.” He says it is a fairly broad word that can be understood as “space” or “air” and that the notion that the Hebrews believed that the earth was covered by a solid dome is mistaken. How would you respond?

Here is what Schaeffer writes in his book:

“Some scholars who have tried to minimize the teaching of the Bible have said that the word firmament indicates that the Jews had an idea of a brass or iron covering over the world.  But this is not the picture at all.  Firmament simply means “expanse.”  It is a rather broad word, as we can see from the fact that the firmament is where the moon and the sun and the stars are (v. 14).  Perhaps for our generation the word space would be the best equivalent.  But it is also the place where the birds fly (v. 20).  In any case, the idea that it is merely a hard covering and reflects a primitive notion of a three-story universe is in error.  Rather what is being referred to is differentiation in the area of being—a differentiation of the openness that is about us.”  Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 37.

We can evaluate Schaeffer’s claims here by considering both the derivation and the usage of the Hebrew term in Genesis that English Bibles variously translate as “firmament” (KJV), “expanse” (ESV, NASB, HCSB), “space” (NLT), or “vault” (NIV).  (I don’t believe that respect or disrespect for the teaching of the Bible is at stake in this inquiry.  We should determine the meaning of the word objectively and draw our conclusions from there.)

The Hebrew term in question is the noun raqiya’.  It is derived from the verb raqa’, which means to beat out, stamp, or spread out a solid object, usually metal, to make it thinner, flatter, and broader.  The verb is used, for example, in the description in Exodus of the construction of the tabernacle: “They hammered out gold sheets and cut them into threads to be woven in with the blue and the purple and the scarlet material.”  Similarly in the book of Numbers, the bronze censers that were used by some rebellious Israelites to challenge Aaron for the priesthood were “hammered out to overlay the altar.”  And Jeremiah speaks of “hammered silver” that is used in the construction of idols.

So if raqa’ means “to beat out, to flatten” (and thereby “to extend”), then raqiya’, by derivation, means “an extended surface (solid),” as the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon defines it, or “a beaten (metal) plate,” as Holladay’s Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon puts it.

Numerous biblical writers indeed reflect an understanding of the “heavens” as a solid object that God has “spread out” like beaten or molten metal.  Elihu asks Job, for example, whether he can join God “in spreading out [raqa’] the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze.”  Similarly in Isaiah God says, “My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens.”  (In this case the verb is not raqa’ but the synonym tapach.)

Other biblical writers, using the further synonymous verb natah, say that God has “stretched out” the heavens.  Isaiah, for example, describes God as “the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out [natah].”  Jeremiah says similarly that God “founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out [natah] the heavens by his understanding.”  In some cases the biblical writers compare the “stretching out” of the heavens to the unfolding and spreading out of a tent or canopy (a  metaphor drawn delightfully from their former nomadic culture). Describing the creation, for example, Psalm 104 says, “The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment, he stretches out [natah] the heavens like a tent.”  And so forth.

Whichever synonym is used, in all these cases the heavens are envisioned as a solid object that God has spread out above the earth.  This consistent biblical understanding of the created world clearly extends into the Genesis creation account as well, as the use of the term raqiya’ shows, since it is identified directly with the “heavens.”

But what about Shaeffer’s claim that the “firmament” in Genesis can’t be a solid object, but must be an “expanse” of space or air, because it’s “the place where the birds fly”?  In the creation account God actually says, to translate the Hebrew literally, “Let birds fly above the earth on the face of the raqiya’ of the heavens”–in other words, in front of the dome of the sky, that is, in the space between it and the earth.

Then what about the heavens as the place “where the moon and the sun and the stars are”?  There’s no question that the Genesis creation account says that these are in the raqiya’ of the heavens.  But I take this to mean that they were envisioned to on its solid surface, moving around there.

So do these conclusions minimize the teaching of the Bible, since we know today that the sky is not a solid dome?  Not at all.  They simply show that the biblical authors wrote consistently from within an observational cosmology.  We should have no more problem with their idea of a solid sky than we do with their notion that the sun moved around the earth, even though we know today this only appears to be the case and it is actually the earth that is moving (revolving).

When we accept that the biblical authors were not supernaturally given a knowledge of cosmology that transcended the understanding humanly available in their own place, time, and culture, we can recognize their statements as accurate within that understanding, and we appreciate the points they are trying to make about God as creator and about creation as an ordered and harmonious whole–points that are still perfectly valid and well taken within our own understanding of cosmology, which is itself culturally bound and limited.

 

The so-called Flammarion engraving, thought to be intended to illustrate an ancient cosmology that included a flat earth bounded by a solid and opaque sky.

 

Questions about the creation of man and woman in Genesis

Q.  My last set of questions after reading your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage is about what to do with Genesis chapter 2.  It is quite clear to me from your book that reading Genesis chapter 1 the way Young Earth Creationists do is unfair to the text and hermeneutically irresponsible. It is obviously written in a very poetic literary style and immediately conflicts with chapter two in terms of the alleged order of creation and so on. On coming to chapter two, though, it isn’t written in such a poetic literary style and does assume a natural order in its account of creation, which leads to a couple questions.

First off, would you say that Genesis 2:4 is something of a header introducing the section as Genesis 1:1 does following Hebrew writing conventions?

This statement is a header not just to the story of the creation of the man and the woman, but also to the stories of the fall and of Cain and Abel.  It’s one of eleven instances in Genesis of the same formula, translated “This is the account of” in the NIV.  These formulas divide Genesis into twelve parts that each discuss what came from the figure named in the formula, e.g. Adam, Noah, Noah’s sons, etc.  The first one is the most elaborately stated.  It’s actually a chiasm:
A  This is the account of the heavens and the earth
B  when they were created
B  when the Lord God made
A  the earth and the heavens.
This formula introduces what “came from” the heavens and the earth, what they “brought forth.”  In the account that follows, God “forms from the ground” all the wild animals and birds, and God also forms the man from the “dust of the ground.”

Secondly, since Genesis 2 isn’t written in a poetic style, would you say that it is trying to be more of a literal description of how and in what order creation occurred?

The account of the creation of the man and the woman belongs to a particular literary genre known as an “etiology,” which tells the story of how some contemporary phenomenon first originated.  Most of the stories early in Genesis belong to this genre.  They explain, for example, why there is a rainbow in the sky after it rains, or why people speak different languages.  The story of the man and the woman flows into the story of the fall and together these stories explain why weeds come up when you only plant good seeds, why women have pain in childbirth, and why the snake crawls on its belly.  So we need to take these stories for what they are and understand the meaning and message behind them, without regarding them as a literal, journalistic description of exactly what happened at the beginning of the human race.

Thirdly, in verses 8 and 19 it says, “Now the Lord God (had) formed…”. Depending on the translation, the word “had” isn’t always there, which kind of messes with the order of creation. If it is there, evolution is pretty easily accounted for within the text.  But if it isn’t, then the text more or less says that man came before plants and animals, which contradicts the claims of the scientific theory of evolution.

Hebrew verbs are not marked for tense, indicating time.  They are only marked for aspect, indicating either continuing or completed action.  The verbs in this account all indicate completed action.  So they could be translated either “formed,” “made,” “took,” etc. or “had planted,” “had formed,” etc.  I personally see no reason, linguistically or grammatically within the account, why any of them need to be translated with “had.”  I think we have a simple progressing narrative without review statements referring to earlier actions.  I think “had” is only introduced in some translations as a means of harmonizing the chronology with the earlier account.  I don’t think we need to do this.  The original author of Genesis was comfortable with the two accounts side-by-side even though their chronology doesn’t seem to line up, and we need to work out how we can be, too.

Finally, if evolution does account for the rise of all animals and eventually people, it seems strange that God would have had to make Eve because there was no suitable helper for Adam. If during the evolutionary process God granted consciousness, etc. upon early humans, there should have already been women present who would have been suitable for Adam. Of course, all these questions may simply arise from me trying to fit the story of Genesis 2 to actual history and not taking it from the observational perspective and so on. However, since Genesis 2 isn’t written in a literary style like Genesis 1, how exactly should it be taken?

I think you’ve identified where the problem comes from when we ask why a helper was needed for Adam if people had been around for so long.  It comes from trying to line up the details in these stories one-to-one with the events of natural history.  I don’t think we can or should do that.  As I say in response to your second question above, this account of the creation of the man and the woman should be taken as an “etiology.”  It answers the question of how some contemporary phenomena came to be by relating a story from the past that ultimately has a moral message.

Thanks very much for your thoughtful questions after reading our book.  I hope it continues to be helpful to you in your reflections! (The entire text of the book is now available free online.)