Understanding Genesis: A Biblical Scholar’s view
Thinking more about Genesis
Revd Dr Ernest Lucas is Vice-Principal and Tutor in Biblical Studies at Bristol Baptist College and Honorary Research Fellow in Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol University. Here he helps us to drill down and find out just exactly what has been written in Genesis 1, and why.
What kind of language?
When talking about Genesis 1, I am sometimes asked whether, in the original language, it is written in poetry or prose. The answer is that while it is not written in classical Hebrew poetry, neither is it ordinary Hebrew prose. It is what some scholars call ‘elevated prose’, that is, prose which is carefully structured and has some of qualities of poetry. This is the kind of prose that, in many cultures, is used during religious worship (liturgy).
What was the Original Audience?
The creation story was intended to be read by or, more likely, read to, ancient Hebrews who were worshippers of the Yahweh, the God of Israel. As mentioned earlier, the language used has a liturgical character, which means that Genesis 1:1-2:4a may have been written to be used in an act of worship.
What kind of literature?
At least as early as the Second Century there were some Christian thinkers who argued that the opening chapters of Genesis were never intended to be taken as a chronological account of how God created the world. This was long before the rise of modern science, so they were not trying to make the Bible agree with science. They saw things in the text of these chapters themselves which led them to understand them in a non-literalistic way.
The Genesis story conveys the idea of a planned and ordered creation. In a symbolic story God is depicted as a worker who does a week’s work. At the end of each day God stands back and surveys what has been achieved. At the end of the week he decides that he has done a very good week’s work!
What is its Purpose?
Augustine, Calvin and Galileo are united in seeing the main purpose of the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a as theological. The real importance of the story is not as a chronological account of creation but as a teaching aid to lead us to a proper understanding of God’s purpose in creating the world and its creatures. As Calvin puts it:
‘Six days were employed in the formation of the world; not that God, to whom one moment is as a thousand years, had need of this succession of time, but that he might engage us in the consideration of his work.’
Its main purpose was to set out the Hebrew understanding of creation against some of the ideas that existed in the religions of the peoples among whom the Hebrews lived. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the story’s monotheism at a time when the worship of many gods (polytheism) was commonplace. The Hebrew bible story is different; there is only one God in the story, the Creator of all else that exists.
Download Ernest Lucas’ article ‘Science and the Bible’.
There are six questions to try at the end.