This is an article in a series written to create an unambiguous, complete understanding of Genesis 1:1-1:19, and continues from Part 5: Knowing the Origins of the World.
Why would someone spend so much time and effort on a tiny portion of the holy books, a mere 19 verses? The frank answer is that I started this article series with the intent to show absolutely irreconcilable differences between the world of science and the world of Abrahamic religions. But as I delved into the translations and scholarly work that others had done on Genesis, I grew more and more uncertain as to whether I would succeed in this. On many occasions, discoveries made me unsure that the way I had read Genesis was universally unambiguous or would be the scholarly accepted way to read it. I decided to learn enough to feel sure I had read it without error.
I saw that certainly, parts of Genesis provides an accurate account of the world we live in, and decided, instead of a single attack, to alternately attack and reconcile the text and to leave the account as accurate and strong as possible.
(It seems to me that I have always been this way; unable to see one side without seeing the other. I am a confirmed Christian by family tradition and have been an avid and open “seeker” since 15 years of age, and though I’ve found many good and wise philosophical thoughts in old-age and new-age belief systems, none of them have yet shown me a way of life in some way wiser than the way of reason and educated compassion. Today, I consider myself a non-believer and identify myself most closely with humanism.)
In the previous part, we confirmed that my Comprehensive Translation indeed stood up to scrutiny, both etymologically and epistemologically, and that it matches extremely well the overwhelmingly common understanding in Abrahamic religions of what was created in the first four days of Genesis.
I will now continue this, going from understanding what the account states about the origins of the world to determining whether those statements are accurate about the world, and attack all the parts of the account that can be said to be contradictory to modern science, in the most petty and vicious manner possible, as an aggressive Atheist would.
I will just as viciously reconcile these attacks. If I’m successful in this, I will have shown that there is no conflict between religion and science concerning this part of creation. If it turns out it cannot be successfully reconciled, a believer would have to show that the sciences that refute those parts pervert reality; certainly, simply declaring that the divinely inspired scribes “just got a few things wrong” or the believer picking and choosing what parts of the word of God are the truth would make him a hypocrite and would weaken the word of God.
In other words, where there is a conflict between reality and the world of religion, religious accounts can be reconciled to fit reality, but reality cannot be reconciled to fit the world of religion (or all the different religious accounts of creations could be “made” valid; you could not claim Genesis was “especially” valid).
To someone who dismisses reality and sees as true only the parts of reality that happen to fit with his religion, simply nothing can be said until this person agrees with the following:
Reality is here, where you and I are, and what we together can show is true about it, is true.
What follows is a hopefully to a high degree representative dialog between miscellaneous attackers on my Comprehensive Translation of Genesis 1:1-1:19. These are the arguments I can foresee will be brought against it and my attempts to defend this part of the holy texts as true, in the light of our knowledge of the world.
General dismissive and non-argumentative attacks on Genesis:
It’s all a hoax; there’s nothing official or holy about Genesis; it’s just a random collection of poetry and fiction over the centuries, put together on a whim, as random people calling themselves inspired writers saw fit.
That may be your personal suspicion, but my translation is a best effort of interpreting it as non-fiction and non-poetry. Please attack my translation. Since you can’t prove a negative, all you can do is try to convince people. This means that this attack is on equal terms with religious views and will lead to a war of opinion and debate that will likely be a losing battle, if history teaches us anything.
We must tell everyone that the Bible is a bedtime story for children.
Hm. I think this is only usually assumed by people who haven’t read the Bible, let alone to their children, which, by the way, I don’t recommend doing. Apart from it not being very exciting for children most of the time, it also contains horrible stories of abuse and suffering. Your children might be more excited by adventures of Greek myth or the world of Tolkien. You can probably tell that I think this can be dismissed as an insincere and uninformed attack.
Their creation story reeks of bronze age desert tribesmen trying to explain the world by making things up, that’s why there are so many mismatches between their story and the world. They didn’t know better then.
While I must grant the argument that some phrases indicate the knowledge of the natural world at the time (see follow-up on this below), I will claim that even inspired writers would not, and in fact could not express any widened grasp of the world in terms other than those their fellows would understand.
The celestial mechanics described herein is the same-old, laughable pre-Copernican Astrology that persisted through millennia in absence of Astronomical evidence, yet would make the ancient Incas point to their temples.
I agree there is much to be learned from the history of Astronomical theories, not least of which is the eventually losing battle faiths have fought against Science and the despicable way the Catholic Church treated scientists of the Middle Ages. However, this article deals only with Genesis 1:1-1:19, and while translations containing “fix-stars” and “firmament” are certainly an embarrassment to scientist believers, you won’t find them in my translation.
Genesis doesn’t explain the origin of the Universe or God, so it’s useless.
Neither does Science at the present moment. Does this mean Science is useless? I recommend to not use this argument in a Science versus Religion attack.
As you see, these attacks bring nothing specific to address, which is why they are not useful in debate. I have listed them here because they are attacks, in order to show that these attacks are simply monologing without expecting rational response. Some of them can be dismissed, however, and some poignantly show that in every debate there is a symmetrical line of pointless bickering that must be left behind in order to create understanding.
The word of God must be read symbolically. You must read all of the holy scriptures, and all of the great thoughts of the Prophets, before you can even read what the creation account in Genesis says.
I have a problem with this, as should any believer, since any collection of texts could be made to describe anything by reading them symbolically and seeing selected passages as proofs of passages written a millennium later by readers of the original passages. Critics may in fact rightly argue that holy scripture has been selected by the degree in which they agree with previous texts and that this collection has formed the Holy Books of the major religions. Even believers will want to know why certain texts, also considered holy at their time, were deemed unfit and on what grounds. It also exposes each religion to renewed attack on their lack of consensus on who the righteous prophets are; if it cannot be known by the word of God which prophets are true, how can it be known which holy texts are true? I recommend believers abandon this defense and strengthen it instead with translations that are close in meaning to original texts.
You should read Genesis this way, not that way.
If you use this argument, you are saying that there is no Genesis but what each religion reads into it; saying, in effect, that there is no such thing as the word of God. Therefore, this is to the detriment of those who believe what you believe.
Sub-attack: Genesis should be read in blocks.
I have researched and am dismissing the reading of the 6 days of creation in two 3-day blocks as proposed by some, on these grounds:
1. Blocks inevitably compare the Genesis account to the poetry of the age, which is surely unthinkable for a believer. If so, the account either sacrifices reason for rhyme as poetry does and is therefore not accurate (as addressed previously), or the knowledge therein passed to Man about his origins is ‘important, but not important enough to require complete accuracy’.
2. The idea of division into these separation-creation blocks falls grotesquely on the creation of light in 1:3 and the lack of acts of separation on the third day.
It’s important to understand that dismissing or embracing this unsuccessful interpretation of course in no way affects the order of creation during the first four days; there could be no sky if there was no water to split, the earth could produce no vegetation until God made land appear, and so on.
If a day of Genesis is much longer than a normal day, God would have shriveled the plants for eons and then left them in blackness for eons.
Plants thrive in the presence of sunlight; most of them cope with absence of sunlight for brief periods. The only thing to say against plants not surviving for eons in the sunlight (if there was a constant supply of well-spring water as Genesis 2:1 says), is that there wouldn’t be enough local nutrients for each plant to survive that long. This water could certainly have brought such nutrients.
There is no mention of an eon-long night in which God performs acts of creation. After each set of acts of creation, “there was evening and there was morning”. Therefore, the assumption that it’s eon-long is solely the attacker’s.
These things couldn’t have been created in 4 days. We can see the evidence in the rocks, we can measure how slowly the Earth’s crust transforms, and we have carbon dated trees that are very nearly 10,000 years old.
Correct. It’s untenable to counter the weight of evidence of these three disciplines (archaeology, geology, biology), with a claim similar to the perhaps familiar, age-old “these things you measure were created already very old”. Certainly, believers support biologists’ dating original holy texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, I’m sure. Together, this means that any believer claiming that Genesis days were similar to 24-hour days faces an impossibly steep mountain to climb.
Interpreting the days of Genesis as not being actual 24-hour days can’t be accused of being vague, like the word rule is. Elsewhere in Genesis, there is great support for reading “in the day of” as “in the generations of”.
In summary, the reconciled translation already interprets days as eons, and so this attack doesn’t need further reconciliation but can be dismissed completely on these grounds.
Interpreting days literally as days is what Young-Earth proponents (and others) do. They have no arguments to help them climb this impossibly steep mountain of contrary evidence, and they must keep such a belief against most believers and against reality.
Land isn’t formed by “gathering water together”, but by magma escaping between tectonic plates.
Certainly, recent and historical evidence shows this is how new land emerges. Does the Genesis description of events demonstrate the ignorance of 6th Century BC man?
To any thinker, I should think this description stands out as notably naive; the water gathering somewhere wouldn’t lower the sea level. If the Earth is already covering all the land with water, where in the water would the water be gathered? It’s the land that must rise. You need to know nothing about magma or tectonic plates to understand that.
Speculating a little, land could appear if water evaporated or was somehow led inside the Earth and then never leaked out into the seas, but Genesis doesn’t say that. It says God gathered the waters unto one place.
I see one possibility: that someone would infer an intermediate explanation, such as that “God gathered the water unto one place by raising the land“. But this is what happens automatically when land rises, and we’re being told God gathered the waters directly and the raising of land is not mentioned. This, to me, is a theory constructed after the fact and requires support from outside Genesis, but that’s not its worst problem: it would never have been constructed unless and until secular science discovered what really makes water gather. Intermediate explanations such as this opens up a sub-attack: “But land-raising is an ongoing process. If you attribute land-raising to the creation of earth in Genesis, it no longer describes an act of creation that took place eons ago.” And this leaves for you to explain what the scribes would have meant by including it, if your intermediate explanation should be true.
No translational reconciliation to suggest removal of water (such as withdraw instead of gather) helps matters, because the place where the water was gathered were the seas, not some as yet undiscovered pocket in the Earth’s crust or similar. The entire act of creation is the explanation why there are seas – because that’s where the water gathered.
For these reasons, I cannot reconcile this attack, neither in the domain of translation nor understanding of the text.
There are no geological theories supporting that the Earth was at any point in time completely covered with water. There are theories suggesting it had a cover of ice in its early history, but that’s not what Genesis says.
While geology is a hard science with many stable theories of how the Earth developed, I would say that this kind of “There never was an X” is similar to “Y does not exist” in that it requires proving a negative. If, however, a theory was developed that shows that “There never could have been an X” or “Y cannot exist” and demonstrates the impossibilities involved – in this case, to prove that the cover of ice could not have melted until after land had risen above the ice – it would be “science as usual”. But until then, such “never happened!” arguments for geology (and indeed other sciences!) are untenable and can be dismissed without requiring reconciliation.
Genesis does not tell of the creation of the planets, the stars, or the Universe.
Correct. By making use of the wealth of information supplied by neutral scholars, atheist critics, defenders of the faith, and modern, alternative interpreters of the original holy texts examined here, I have shown that this is true. Should defenders of the faith worry about this, however? The answer is: only if they wish the holy texts to compete with the explanatory power of the amassed scientific texts on cosmology and astronomy. I would say that such a wish is hopeless. It’s simply impossible for one book to be so succinct as to explain all the knowledge we have gathered in thousands of scientific books – not because the holy books aren’t great enough, but because there are so few, and you can describe only so much of the Universe in one book.
That is to say, if you do say that the holy texts explain how everything came to be, this is not only counterproductive, but also a completely unnecessary claim to make in order to keep your faith or to feel that there is no conflict between science and religion. If you claim this for your religion, it will do more harm than good in persuading others.
Where did the light that made God see that what he created was good, and the light that made the plant sprout, come from — before the Sun was put in the sky?
God lit the earth each day for the first three days, and put out the light each day, as the text clearly states. Then, he created the Sun and put it in the sky. Now, the only natural light we know comes from stars and other hot substances, which is a conflict. But it’s not helpful to speculate that God is demoted to someone who merely guides such to shine on the earth. Instead, if we believe he could create the expanse, so he could create light itself or a temporary light source. The simple answer is that we are not told in Genesis what kind of light shone on the Earth during the first 3 days. It is unmentioned and cannot be inferred. Regardless, he saw by this light.
How did the plants get water on the third and fourth day? It says later in Genesis that it never rained until after the creation of Adam, and all the other water was seawater.
This is a question that goes beyond the creation account, and so we can look beyond the account to find the simple answer. In Genesis 2:1, we are conclusively told that the earth was watered from a well-spring until it rained for the first time.
The Moon doesn’t rule the night, it sometimes isn’t even in the sky at night! In some parts of the world, it’s below the horizon for months at a time!
As previously demonstrated, this comes down to the choice of the word rule. I’ve shown that its vagueness is a problem, and that choosing any like word that is more specific leads to a conflict with Science, and indeed common sense. I will concede this attack. I’ve made a best effort, if you wish to reconcile this you must make a better effort still to find a replacement word.
The Sun and the Moon aren’t in the sky under the rainwater and above the earth! They’re in space, far from the earth and its sky.
It has already been established where the expanse of the sky is according to Genesis. I will have to concede this point also. This part of the account is so reminiscent of millennia of common belief in astrological concepts such as the firmament and fix-stars, that it confuses and depresses me. I am unable to find any explanation for why this is the case and for this grave mismatch between the world of Genesis and the world of Man, and, more seriously, I heavily doubt any conceivable reconciliation on this point can be made.
The planets weren’t formed before the Sun! What would the Earth orbit around in the absence of the Sun? The elements that constitute the Earth and everything on it are created in stars.
Certainly, orbiting stars is what planets do. But recently, several planets have been found that orbit no star. This means that the “orbit” part of the attack can be summarily dismissed.
The account states that God created the Sun on the fourth day, after the Earth already had plant life growing on it. Furthermore, the Sun was created to meter out years, which means that the Earth was “started in its orbit” on the fourth day. We know that stars are the sources of every element heavier than hydrogen and helium. Now, however unlikely in the light of what we know of solar system formation today, this still leaves the possibility that the material for Earth came from stars other than the Sun. Without an account in holy text for the source of the material for the Earth, this is the only possibility left and therefore what believers must claim (if they hold Genesis as a true account).
So, there is a reconciliation for this attack, and even cosmologists will have no conflict with belief on this point, so long as they claim that the Earth was not formed as part of the physical process that formed our solar system, including the other planets.
The Sun is recognized as something separate from the stars, revealing the old belief that stars were something else than suns.
We have found a reconciliating synonym for firmament and vault, which removes at least the “just ancient astrology” connotations in the wording of the text. But what about the understanding of the text? Certainly it can be said that “God created the Sun to shine on the earth” suggests Tellus-chauvinism and that at the time, people didn’t know that the Earth was a planet, that there were other planets (that the Sun shone on), and that the reason the Moon is visible at all is not because it shines but because the Sun shines on it. The reconciliation is easy: Genesis is the account of the creation of the sky and the earth, in other words, the Earth (i.e. not of the creation of the Universe or even our solar system). He told it to us who live here, so why should he tell us about the rest of the Universe? We might want an account that explains more about the Universe to put our minds to rest now that we have discovered so much about it, but if God speaks to scholars today, such a modern account has not yet surfaced.
I’ve not been able to find any meaningful philosophical attacks! Why? Well, the text really is very short and is already rid of ambiguities when I try to make the attacks. This rules out the expression and perception of language aspect of philosophy. Also, we to some extent enter the metaphysics of creation a bit too late for philosophy to have much to call into question there. The knowledge expressed in the text is compared not to the nature of reality but reality as Science shows it to be, leaving only generic attacks on Philosophy of Science, which would not be topical.
So, in some ways, Philosophy is not the tool to use for this type of analysis, and in some ways, it has been made toothless by previous (to some extent philosophical) work to get the text in the shape it is before the attacks begin.
I will end this part now, perhaps leaving you “dangling”, as it were. But I prefer to think of this as leaving you room to reflect on what has been said.
In the next part, I will list the conclusions that can be drawn from this analysis, and clearly state where I stand on “religion vs. science”, and whether the analysis has strengthened or weakened my views on these exciting topics of creation. I would like to ask you – whether you’re a theist or an atheist – have yours changed?
I will also examine the implications of those parts of the Genesis account that were not possible to reconcile with reality, as well as the parts that were, and share the goal I hope to reach in sharing such an extremely detailed analysis of 19 verses out of over 23,000.