The Weird World of a Literal—and Literary—Creation
I wasn’t a Christian in eighth grade, but I didn’t let that stop me from agonizing over the eternal destiny of Mr. Upshaw, my science teacher. If you grew up in evangelical culture, you know the feeling—the certainty that the person teaching you the theory of evolution is definitely, definitely, going to burn in hell for all eternity. I’d learned that Genesis 1 is where God owns the libs and answers for all time the question of evolution. There remained, though, the pesky problem of reconciling the Genesis account with science, and that’s where things started to get a bit weird.
I’d been taught that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together when everything was created about six thousand years ago. The prehistoric animals were so big then—but not now—because of something to do with elevated oxygen levels and a perfect environment for growing stuff, which all fell apart when Adam and Eve ate from the one tree. Alternatively, maybe all the dinosaurs and the fall of Satan and whatnot happened between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 (the “gap theory”). Or maybe evolution is correct and each “day” in Genesis was really just an indeterminate amount of time (the “day-age theory”). Or perhaps God just created everything to look old (the “apparent-age theory”). Or it could be that between each day in the creation story there are millions of years in which evolution and all that happened (the “punctuated twenty-four hour theory”).
I’d learned that Genesis 1 is where God owns the libs and answers for all time the question of evolution.
I’ve studied the Old Testament for a lot of years now, and I still don’t know how old the earth is, and to be honest, I cower in fear when my kids (and basically everyone who finds out that I teach Old Testament) ask me what in the world happened to dinosaurs. But this is what I do know: Genesis doesn’t care about evolutionary theory or trying to fit together modern views of science with ancient views of creation. Genesis wasn’t written to answer those questions because its original audience wasn’t asking those questions. The original audience was asking questions like, “Is the universe the result of an epic fight to the death between warring gods, with the winner using the loser’s blood to create everything?” And, “Are the Tigris and Euphrates here because a god dug out trenches with his penis and then filled them—and the rest of the world—with his semen?”
It’s still weird—but a different weird. Those are the questions that Genesis answers, giving its original audience the true story of how all this came together. Genesis’s story doesn’t feature multiple gods or cosmic rap battles or creation-via-phallus. Instead, it tells about a majestic God who created the world and everything in it with nothing more than his voice. He spoke, and there was light and trees and the moon and stars. If we keep reading, we’ll learn that not only is Genesis’s God powerful and mighty and singular in his existence, but he’s also good and kind and loving.
While our culture isn’t struggling with the questions of whether Enki irrigated the world with his penis or if Marduk created everything from the blood of his slaughtered foe, Tiamat, many of us are asking the same basic questions as the ancient Israelites: Who created all this stuff, and what is that being like? And answering that question is where the biblical creation account shined for the ancient Israelites, and it’s where it likewise shines for the modern audience. Genesis tells us a true and better story about who made everything and what that Maker is like.
So while I appreciate the efforts of some to figure out a way to have our evolutionary cake and eat it too, the truth is that Genesis 1 isn’t about dinosaurs and fossil records or how long a day is. And if we try to make Genesis into our own image by forcing it to answer questions it isn’t trying to answer, then we risk missing what these first few chapters in the Bible are actually doing: introducing us to the creator of everything—including us, which we’ll talk about in the next column. And later in this story we’ll learn that the God who created everything also enters into this world just as we did, and he’ll even make a way for us to return to him. But that’s a column for another non-literal day.