When God Created
In my last post I explained that I still like the Bible despite how much has changed about my views of it. I'm also a science nerd and have been my whole life. First, a biographical prelude:
One of my more consistent habits later in high school was to visit a website that explained the science of Young Earth Creationism (YEC), the belief that God created from nothing all that exists by speaking it into existence over the course of a literal week of time about 6,000 years ago. I already had books on the science of YEC that talked about geology, biology, chemistry, and any other field that would help a young and curious apologist learn about and defend YEC to the poor mistaken people who believed in the Theory of Evolution—or as I wrote in my assignments in 6th grade, the THEORY of Evolution, because no one had taught me what a scientific theory actually was—but I continued learning more so I could defend and understand my faith better. See, my motivation was good, but I was building walls to protect YEC because I was told it was essential to my faith and no one from my world of faith had told me otherwise. I was incorrigible.
Not only was I stubborn, I was also held back in my education by my belief in YEC. While I took advanced chemistry and physics classes in my public school, I never touched biology again after 9th grade. Sure, it was more memorization than I wanted, but why bother when they're wrong about such a fundamental thing as God creating everything several thousand years ago?
When I was in college a Christian whom I respected explained to me that one could believe in the Theory of Evolution and trust the Bible. That freed me to change my belief (because ditching the Bible wasn't an option for me).
What does the Bible say about origins?
As a collection of writings, the Bible is the effort of its authors and editors to make sense of how God and humans interact all together. The question of origins suggests that all that started somewhere.
You've heard of the book of Genesis. First it describes how God made light and land and plants. Then it describes how God made humans. (I'm simplifying.) Then it describes for a second time how God made humans. Then it describes for a second time how God made land and plants. I'm simplifying in order to raise the point, which you may know already, that Genesis 1-3 has two creation stories. They split in the middle of the fourth verse of chapter 2 because chapters and verses were only added much later and were done so with other ideas in mind. Notice that the first story, which starts with Genesis 1, calls the creator "God" and has no account of the so- called "Fall" with the first sin, while the second story, which ends with Genesis 3, calls the creator "Lord God" (except in conversation).
If these two stories are about how God and humans interact all together, what are they saying? Well, if you care about literal events that brought about the existence of stuff in the universe, the scientific method does a fine job at giving you that information. The authors and editors of Genesis 1-3 definitely did not care about explaining that with their words in these chapters, though. They cared about how the people of God ought to worship their God and how they were to live with one another in practical and political ways.
Do you see in those stories the instructions or descriptions for the worship of God? It's not as clear to people like us who are not the audience of these words. However you might get an inkling of this when you notice that humans here are in close proximity with the divine which sounds quite similar to worship.
Creation in Genesis in context
I'm gonna tell you four stories of origins in far too few words but they all give context for Genesis 1-3.
1. The god Baal defeats Yamm (which means sea) and Yamm's monsters, including Leviathan, in battle and a temple for worshiping Baal is constructed in northern Syria. This is called the Baal Cycle and our earliest copy is from before 1300 B.C.
2. The god Marduk leads conquests and defeats Tiamat (who personifies chaotic waters) to create the world and a temple for worshiping Marduk is constructed in the city of Babylon. This is called the Enuma Elish and our earliest copy is from before 700 B.C.
3. The god Elohim divides the sea and defeats its dragons (like Leviathan) and this god dwelled in Mount Zion. This is called Psalm 74:12-17 (and verse 2) and is in the Bible.
4. The god Yahweh rules the raging seas and its allies including beasts like Rahab (it's a parallel term for Leviathan, not a reference to the woman Rahab) and this god made a covenant with King David. This is called Psalm 89:8-11 (and verse 3) and is in the Bible.
My apologies for referring to the God in the Bible as god in those latter two, but I was establishing the parallel. You can read the longer version of the latter two stories in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel in the Bible.
In academic speak, the parallels among these stories show that Psalms 74 and 89 are legitimizing the monarchy's rule and its proper interaction with the temple of God in the place where both that monarch and God have their dwelling among the people. A simpler way to think about this, though, is that it's a trope. This is just how we show that a king and a temple in these cultures are legitimate.
Genesis 1 in this context looks strikingly similar and weirdly different. We have God who has control over water, but it's passive rather than violent water, and God is actually making the monsters of the sea. This text is very aware of that royal creation trope, but its differences tell us more. In this case, the other beings (living things, the sea, etc.) are not gods which leaves only one God, transcendent above them. It also shows that this God is an expert at ritual, quite akin to a priest carrying out their work. It reminds me of a cook with a recipe.
Is there a reference to a place of worship like in those four other stories? In fact, the whole story is referencing the actual temple that was in Jerusalem. References to water, animals, and God's dwelling place would bring the temple to mind for the original audience. But what is worship in the temple? Well, in the second creation story in Genesis, God sets people as caretakers of the garden which simultaneously represents both creation and Jerusalem's temple. I've taken a lot of this from my notes from a lecture in my Pentateuch class in seminary, but if you'd like a place to start learning more, check out Samuel Balentine's book The Torah's Vision of Worship. It's academic, but it doesn't feel too secular.
Exactly what it looks like for people to be caretakers is more or less given in the Law and its interpretation. This is all strikingly practical! Worship God as you live out life in your culture and society guided by God making God known to us. Simple? Nah, but that's awesome! And it's way better than the nonsense that is YEC.
One of my New Testament professors in seminary used to say "the Bible can mean many things, but it cannot mean any thing." Despite what many older translations say, the first words of Genesis are along the lines of "In the beginning when God was creating the heavens and the earth..." That temporal qualifier "when" gives us a big hint that the Bible creation accounts care less about exposition of the development of existence and more about who God is and who people are in the context of the world around us, both natural and societal.
So, yes, you share an ancestry with baboons, banana slugs, and bacteria, but the Bible cares about what worshiping God and living among humans is like. Scientists who care about how life came to be can use the scientific method (and it's awesome!) and God worshipers can use God's revelation of God's self to discover how to worship God.
Come back for my next post as we take a look at another big idea about the Bible in too few words.