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.

Are dinosaurs described in the Bible, in the book of Job?

Q. I heard that dinosaurs are mentioned in Job. If so, can you explain?

In His second speech to Job at the end of the book of Job, the LORD mentions two powerful and fearsome creatures, behemoth and leviathan.  Some interpreters have taken these to be dinosaurs.  However, here’s what I say about them in my study guide to Job:

The LORD’s first speech from the storm addressed two important concerns arising from Job’s opening speech. The LORD countered what Job said he wanted to do—un-create the day of his birth—by depicting the glories of the creation thriving and pulsating with life. The LORD also spoke to why Job wished he’d never been born. Job felt that his life wasn’t worth living if there was no coherence between his most deeply held beliefs and his actual experiences. The LORD showed him that his experiences were in fact coherent with a more profound and mysterious vision of the world, in which the cause and explanation of events within the human sphere may lie outside that sphere and may never be completely understood. Job responded to this first speech by admitting how limited a grasp he had of the world’s workings.

But there is still one more concern from Job’s opening speech that the LORD must address. There’s a serious problem with how Job wanted to accomplish his purpose. He called on those who could “rouse Leviathan” to unleash this chaos monster against the day of his birth so it would no longer be an ordered, bounded period of time and would dissolve back into nothingness. In response, the LORD describes two fearsome animals, behemoth and leviathan, and uses them to represent the chaos monster. He tells Job that no one should be foolhardy enough to rouse them. He asks, in effect, “Are you sure you want to turn such forces loose against my ordered creation? Once you got them started, how would you ever stop them?”

I explain further in the guide:

The LORD illustrates the limitations of Job’s power by describing two great beasts, which he calls behemoth and leviathan. Many interpreters believe that these descriptions are initially of the hippopotamus and the crocodile, two fearsome river creatures known from the Nile in Egypt. Simply by comparison with these, Job has to admit the limits of his own power. But the LORD then draws an even stronger contrast. Halfway through the long depiction of leviathan, after a significant transition in which the LORD warns against rousing such beasts and mentions Job’s case against him, the portrait moves from realistic to mythological. Leviathan now takes on the characteristics of a fire-breathing dragon and comes to represent the chaos monster. As the speech ends, the LORD describes humans trying every weapon they have against this monster—swords, spears, arrows, stones, clubs, etc.—to no avail. Leviathan swims powerfully off into the deep unvanquished, leaving the seas “churning like a boiling cauldron” in his wake. So how does Job think he can rouse this monster but then get it to stop destroying God’s creation after it has turned only one day of the year into chaos?

But even though Job believes that the chaos monster can be called upon selectively to undo specific aspects of the creation, the LORD explains that even behemoth and leviathan are not his eternal enemies, existing independently of him and forever opposed to his purposes. Rather, they are magnificent creatures of his own design and are under his power. God says that as behemoth’s Maker he can “approach it with his sword,” and he refers to leviathan as a “creature.” “Everything under heaven belongs to me,” he tells Job. The universe is not a battlefield where two opposing forces are locked in perpetual combat. Ultimately God controls everything, even forces of destruction that people are powerless to resist.

In other words, the descriptions of behemoth and leviathan are not of dinosaurs.  They begin as poetic but realistic descriptions of actual animals, probably the hippopotamus and the crocodile, and they then move into mythological symbolism to make points that serve the larger themes of the book of Job.  I hope this explanation is helpful to you.

Gustave Doré, “The Destruction of Leviathan,” 1865

Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths?

Q.  Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths?  Some argue that the Israelites were influenced by surrounding cultures and so they told similar creation stories when forming their own national and religious identity.  One can take the similarities between Israelite creation stories and those of the nations around them to argue that they were simply a product of human culture. Alternatively, one can say that the differences between the Israelite stories and those of other nations show where they drew the line in defense of revealed transcendent truths (about God as sole creator and so forth). There are a myriad of other positions in between, of course.  What do you think?

To the extent that there may have been borrowing, I think this is actually another case of the phenomenon of appropriation that we find throughout the Bible.  The community of faith takes objects, practices, institutions, etc. that are being used in the worship of false gods and reclaims them for the praise and honor of the true God.

For example, Israel made regular use  of the bull in its sacrificial system, even though this animal was also a prominent symbol of Baal.  The tabernacle in Israel consisted of an outer court, main hall, and inner shrine, even though this threefold architectural division also typified Canaanite temples.   The Israelites offered some of the same kinds of sacrifices as their neighbors; they sometimes even called them by the same names.  For example, both Israelites and Canaanites had a fellowship offering or “peace offering” that they described by a shared Semitic root, sh-l-m.

This process of appropriation is also seen in the case of literary archetypes.  Many interpreters believe that Psalm 29, for example, which the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) calls a “hymn to the God of the storm,” has been appropriated from a song that was originally sung in worship of the storm-god Baal.  But it has been judiciously altered to make sure that the true God is honored as the master of such powerful natural phenomena.

And so, if a creation story was in circulation among ancient Israel’s neighbors that depicted the realms of sky and land being separated out from the watery chaos—for example, as in the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, in which Tiamat, goddess of the oceanic waters, is slain and the land and the sky are fashioned from the two halves of her divided body—then I think the similarities between such a story and the Genesis creation account are best understood as another case of appropriation.

Even so, the differences are significant.  As you say, the Genesis version maintains crucial theological distinctives such as the unique status of Yahweh as the only true God and the position of humans as divine image-bearers and vice regents over creation—not slaves of the gods, as in the Enuma Elish.  In fact, what strikes us most about the Genesis account, when we compare it with similar ancient creation stories, is its thoroughgoing monotheism.  Creation and humanity are not by-products of a battle between the gods for supremacy.  Rather, everything in Genesis proceeds with stately grandeur as a single all-ruling God speaks and is obeyed.

However, I’m not sure that we actually have to posit borrowing or appropriation to account for the similarities.  It seems to me that all of these accounts can be understood as a response to the same observed phenomenon—the three-fold division of creation into land, sea, and sky (even as we today observe matter existing in three states: solid, liquid, and gas).  This common object of observation is interpreted within the framework of an ancient world view, but in the Israelite case, the interpretation is informed by a relational understanding of the true God.  That may be all we need to say.

Below is a sketch of the Genesis cosmology from the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. The designer of the sketch notes, “This is remarkably similar to the cosmology of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures contemporary to the biblical authors.”

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.)

Another question from Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Was Noah’s flood local or global?

Q. Another question I have after reading your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage is what to do with the story of Noah’s flood. Creationists claim that many cultures across the world in isolated regions have “flood legends” in which one of their ancient ancestors is said to have survived a world-wide flood. This ancestor was named something similar to “Noah” like “Nehu.” I don’t know how to interpret such claims if Noah’s flood was just a small scale or local flood. I also don’t know what to do with the Bible’s claims that God essentially wiped out all life except sea life if it wasn’t a global flood. Of course, the section in your book in which Dr. Godfrey discusses trace fossils is pretty much the scientific nail in the coffin of there having been a global flood, but I don’t know how to reconcile these other details with the Bible’s description of the flood.

I think the most important thing to realize when considering your question is this: whether Genesis is envisioning a local flood or a global flood, it’s not picturing it happening in the world as we know it today.  Rather, it’s describing the flood within an observational ancient cosmology, so that the very word “global” is misleading.

Genesis doesn’t envision the earth as a globe, but rather as a flat stretch of land surrounded by heaped-up waters on all sides.  As I say in response to a comment on the previous post (which was also written in response to one of your questions about our book), any attempt to “establish a one-to-one correspondence between details in the biblical text and events in natural history” is doomed, precisely because of this difference in cosmology.  “You can’t get there from here.”

In the flood episode, God is basically wiping out the wicked human race by destroying the place of its abode.  In the creation account, God makes “a place for everything” and then puts “everything in its place”:  birds in the sky, fish in the sea, humans and animals on the land.  The flood is an un-creation scene:  the dry land disappears beneath the waters, just as it originally appeared from under them, and the whole race of wicked people disappear with it.

That’s the theological message of the account from within its ancient cosmology. We really can’t extrapolate from that to try to determine what actually happened in natural history.  Comparative anthropology, as you note, may shed some light, and geology can as well, but we’re not getting natural historical details about the world as we know it today from the flood story in the Bible, precisely because of its ancient observational cosmology.  This is a case like the many others we discuss in the book in which the Bible answers questions of “who” and “why,” but not (at least to our satisfaction) questions of “what,” “how,” or “when.”

(I earlier shared some additional thoughts about the question of a local versus worldwide flow in this post.)