Thursday, October 29, 2015

[BTT001] Genesis 1:1

Previous: [BTT000] Prologue

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." On first glance, this verse seems of the utmost simplicity. There is a being called "God," and this being creates the heavens and the earth, in the beginning. Got it.

Then we start to ask questions. Who is this "God" who has the ability to create the heavens and the earth? When was the beginning? Was this beginning the beginning of time, or simply the beginning of the heavens and the earth? By "the heavens," do we mean the sky above the planet Earth, or a separate plane of existence? By "earth" do we mean "Earth, the planet" or the entire physical universe?

Many of these questions are answered as we dive further into the Bible. Some of these things we learn with certainty - for example, we learn about the attributes and character of God through His interactions with human beings. He is the great "I AM," the uncreated creator of all that is. He is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And above all, He is a God who cares for His creation, to the point of sending His Son to die on the cross to redeem it.

There are other things that we are not told explicitly, but can infer with a high certainty. For example, we learn that God had not yet made the stars or other planets, so it is likely that "earth" refers to the raw matter of the entire physical universe. This matter is later organized into specific planets, stars, and creatures. The Trinity is also an example of a thing inferred with high certainty - we read about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the Bible never uses the term "Trinity."

There are other things which are inferred with less certainty. Does "heavens" refer to the earth's atmosphere or to the eternal heavens? Given that the earth was still "without form and void" and that there is apparently no atmosphere at this point (Gen. 1:6-8), it seems likely that here "heavens" refers to the eternal heavens.

This, however, is somewhat uncertain - when God creates the atmosphere a few verses later, it is also referred to as "Heaven" (the Hebrew word used in both verses is שָׁמַיִם /shamayim despite the capitalization/pluralization differences in English). So perhaps Genesis 1:1 is only giving us a preview of what is about to happen. It is difficult to say with certainty.

There are other things which seem straightforward at first, but later become more complicated. "In the beginning" mostly likely refers to the beginning of Time itself, not just the beginning of "the heavens and the earth." Using that as our starting point of Time and the subsequent genealogies as our subsequent chronology, it seems logical that our universe has only existed for roughly six thousand years.

But when we look at the world around us, from the timescales necessary for the mountains to rise and the layers of the Earth's crust to form, from the speed of light from distant stars to the background radiation of the Big Bang, a very different picture emerges. At the very least, we must say that God created the universe with the appearance of age. Even if we do not doubt the Word of God, the picture becomes more complicated.

[For more on this, check out I Could Never Get the Hang of Last Thursdays: Thoughts on Omphalos]

Or take the example of Joshua 10:

"Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon;
            And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”
            So the sun stood still,
            And the moon stopped,
            Till the people had revenge
            Upon their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day." - Joshua 10:12-13

Once again, the most literal reading of the text is that the sun literally stopped. This implies that the motion of the sun across the sky is a literal motion, i.e., that it is the sun that revolves around the Earth. Of course, we now know that this passage must be describing an appearance - the sun's motion in the sky stopped, but the sun did not literally stop moving because it is the Earth that revolves around the sun.

This is not to say that we can learn nothing from Scripture, but rather that certain passages can be interpreted in multiple ways. We can say that the sun stopped in the sky without error, because that is without doubt what Joshua saw, just as every day we see the sun move across the sky. If we take "the sun stood still" as a literal description of how the scene appeared to Joshua, everything is fine. If we then infer that the sun rotates around the Earth, we are in error.

In other words, there is a difference between saying that the Scripture is the Word of God, completely without error or contradiction, and saying that our interpretation of the Scripture is the Word of God, completely without error or contradiction.
Does "the heavens" in Genesis 1:1 refer to the sky and space, or the eternal Heavens? It is difficult to say. We can say in faith that Moses was moved by the omniscient Spirit of God to write those words. We can say with certainty that the Spirit of God knows best what happened, since it was there, doing the creating. All of these interpretations are feasible, none of them are contrary to the plain reading or spirit of the passage, and all can be held without doing violence to the text.

However, for the very reason that none of these readings are contrary to the honest reading of the text, it is wrong to claim that you know with absolute certainty exactly what Moses meant. We can gather evidence from Scripture, we can gather evidence from Nature, we can gather evidence from Logic, but in lieu of overwhelming evidence (of the 'oh, the Earth revolves around the Sun' variety) all reasonable interpretations remain valid.

The heresies of Gnosticism or Manicheism are easily enough refuted by the words of Scripture. One can only claim that Jesus did not have a physical body or that salvation comes by knowledge rather than faith by doing violence to the text - something which the heretics know all too well. Every new heresy invariably ends up writing new "holy books" to replace the Bible. Some claim to only supplement it with new inspirations or to restore the "true interpretation," but the new inevitably crowds out the old.

But for the faithful, the danger is not in adding to the Word of God or twisting it beyond recognition, but in insisting that one of the many possible interpretations is the only possible truth. It is in replacing the Scriptures, with all of their nuances of Divine meaning, with a single human reading.

Next: [BTT002] Biblical Theologies and the Bible

1 comment:

  1. When I was first taught the Bible, they taught me it probably meant two or all three heavens. It is an 'all of the above' idea.

    I like your attitude of dealing with Scripture and dividing the interpretation from the statements. I look forward to discussion and more studying.