Did God create the universe in six 24-hour periods? Did the Garden of Eden really exist? Are Adam and Eve historical figures? These are just several of the many questions that come up as we wrestle with the Bible’s depiction of origins.
Interpreting Scripture’s narrative requires that we understand the meanings of the text that were intended by its human and its divine authors.
Turning now to Genesis 1—the opening chapter of the first book of the Bible—we are confronted with an epic story of creation that extends over six days. In the beginning. How are we to read this six-day creation narrative, also known as the hexameron?
First, we turn to the human author’s meaning—the meaning intended by the author as he composed the epic story of creation. What did he want to say? As with any written text—think about the U.S. Constitution, or maybe a love letter—we would have to study the author and his context in order to grasp this literal meaning.
A historical analysis of the Bible tells us that when the author wrote Genesis 1, the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon, surrounded by a pagan culture with its own creation narratives. One of these creation myths was the Enuma Elish, which was recited by the Babylonian high priest before the statue of the god Marduk on the fourth day of the annual new year celebration.
Regarding the first chapter of Genesis, I often ask my undergraduate students to imagine the following hypothetical scenario from the Jews living in exile in Babylon: A Jewish teenager tells his mother that he has fallen in love with a Babylonian girl in the adjacent neighborhood. He has just returned from the new year celebration at the ziggurat with her family, and he is confused. He has just heard the Babylonian high priest proclaim the story of the Enuma Elish, and he asks his mother many questions about the story. Is it true that the sun is a god or that the moon is a goddess or that the dragon is another god? Is it true that human beings were created out of the blood of a slain deity? Is it true that there are many gods and not just one God?
In desperation, this uneducated Jewish mother consults her Jewish elders to ask them what to tell her son. What is our story of creation, she asks? What do we know about the origin of everything? What has our God told us about the origin of everything? In response, after much prayer and after much consultation, the community asks a Jewish priest-poet to write a creation story. It is a story that emerges from everything that he has heard and learned about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the one and only God who created everything. But it is also a story that counters the Mesopotamian creation myths that bombard the Jewish people in exile. The story that he composed—Christians believe he was guided by the Holy Spirit—is the creation narrative we now read in Genesis 1.
Not a scientific treatise
Though my scenario is hypothetical, it provides a context that the writing took place within a particular social and cultural world. Most fundamentally, the first chapter of Genesis is not a scientific treatise. It is a theological drama that reveals that only God is God. He is the creator God. Neither the sun nor the moon are gods, because they were created. All the animals, including the dragon, are not gods, because they also were made, on the sixth day of creation. And human beings too were created, not from the blood of a slain deity, but from the hands of a Creator who saw that everything is good.
The literal meaning of the first chapter, therefore, is that God created everything, and that he created everything good. Because of this, God and God alone is God besides whom there is no other god. This is what the Jewish author in Babylon wanted to write as a response to powerful culture-forming worldview of the pagan society surrounding the chosen people in exile.
Finally, what did God intend to tell us about himself in this chapter? There is no hint that God wanted to explain the how of creation. It appears from this and other creation stories throughout the Old Testament, that God wanted to focus on the profound revelation that he and he alone is God because he and he alone created everything, and that he and he alone created everything good. It is not the how but the why of creation.