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Spring 2000    Vol. 29 No. 1    pp. 16–26 

Comparing Biblical and Scientific Maps of Origins

Conrad Hyers

In the last five hundred years controversies between science and religion have centered in two main areas: space and time. Controversies over the spatial character of the universe came first with challenges to the earth-centered, flat-earthed, domed-stadium picture of the cosmos. This cosmology had become so universally accepted and so tightly interwoven with the Church’s faith and doctrine that it seemed that the new scientific views were a profound threat to the grand medieval synthesis. Gradually, however, the new views of space were accommodated to the point that it would be rare indeed today to find defenders of geocentricity and a flat earth within scientific or religious communities.

Careful consideration of Genesis 1 in its historical and theological context indicates that it uses a very different kind of narrative form and linguistic usage than those used in modern natural histories. Much of the controversy over creation and evolution is, therefore, inappropriate and misleading.

As issues of spatial relations were being resolved, issues of time spans and development over the new time horizons began to arise as a result of early discoveries and theories in geology, paleontology, and biology. Time scales that had been worked out on the basis of biblical lists and ages (e.g., Archbishop Ussher, giving the creation as 4004 B.C.) were hardly adequate to accommodate the accumulating evidence that suggested ever larger time spans for everything from rock strata to fossil {17} remains to life forms, and from the solar system to galaxies of stars.

The central thesis of this study is that the same general approach taken in resolving alleged conflicts between science and religion over space may also be used relative to time. As an example of an early effort to resolve apparent conflicts over space I will take John Calvin, writing in the sixteenth century. Calvin argued that alleged conflicts arose because of linguistic and literary confusions. Biblical references to nature were not scientific statements, which then might be said to be in conflict with scientific data, observations, and theories. The Bible uses the common, everyday, universal language of appearances.

PHENOMENAL LANGUAGE

In this phenomenal use of language, it appears that the sun rises and sets, and, like the moon, orbits the earth. It appears that the earth is flat and is the center of the universe. It appears that the stars and planets orbit about us, and that the directions of north, south, east, and west, as well as zenith and nadir, have a fixed rather than relative meaning. It appears that the sky is domed above us and an underworld is lying beneath us. It appears that everything in the natural order is centered in and focused upon us. Calvin pointed out, for example, that the biblical statement that the sun and moon are the two great lights of the heavens (if construed as a scientific statement) is in error since “the star of Saturn, which, on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon” (Calvin, 85). But, Calvin argued (rather tartly): “Nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” (79). Or again, “Moses does not speak with philosophical acuteness on occult mysteries, but relates those things which are everywhere observed, even by the uncultivated, and which are in common use” (84).

Calvin’s observations were applied to the growing controversies over space. Controversies over time did not begin in earnest until two centuries later. Nevertheless the same approach is applicable. In fact, those who accept modern views of space and not modern views of time are inconsistent, both scientifically and religiously. Space and time are coordinates, and ironically the same kinds of arguments have been used against modern views of time as were used formerly to dismiss modern views of space. Both lines of argument assume that biblical statements about nature are of the same order as modern scientific statements, as if both were operating on the same tracks and with the same destinations.

Or, to use an analogy from cartography rather than railroading, a certain territory (in this case the universe in space and time) may be mapped {18} in a variety of quite different ways. One might map the United States for state boundaries, location of rivers and lakes, topography, climate, roadways, or rail lines. All these mappings can be true simultaneously, because they serve different purposes. No one map can contain the sum total of truth and no one way of mapping is necessarily in conflict with any other, unless they are confused. One could, for example, draw up a map of all churches in a given area, and the same for all saloons, but it would be best not to interchange them. One might even color in all states with different colors for the purpose of easy distinction, without taking the coloration literally and expecting the grass to change color when crossing state lines.

Now, the biblical accounts of creation in Genesis are different ways of mapping origins than those to which we who have been schooled in science are accustomed. In fact, even the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 (the six-day account and the Adam-and-Eve account) have significant differences, reflecting the significant differences between the two cultural traditions in ancient Israel, the agricultural-urban, and the shepherd-nomadic. Genesis 1 is a mapping of creation using the imagery, terminology, and perspectives of agricultural-urban Israel and Genesis 2 of pastoral-nomadic Israel.

Leaving these issues aside, and focusing on Genesis 1, the first question to ask is: What were the issues and concerns of those writing, hearing, and reading this account of origins? Certainly modern theories of evolution and their vast scales of time and space were not a point of contention in ancient Israel. So what were the concerns of ancient cosmologies and cosmogonies, as they depicted spatial and temporal relationships of the cosmos—and those of ancient Israel in particular? To fail to raise these kinds of questions from the start is to open up the Genesis materials to the assumption that they share our interests, forms of discourse, and modes of expression.

NUMBERS AND NUMEROLOGY

Part of the overall structure of the first account of creation in Genesis is the use of an analogy with a seven-day week, common among Semitic peoples, and with a seventh day of rest, of specific interest to Hebrew life. Instead of being something we might recognize as a scientific model of origins, this is obviously a calendrical model which uses the six days of work and a seventh day of rest as an analogy for interpreting divine work in creation.

The use of the analogy of a divine rest on a cosmic sabbath also introduces the number seven to the equation. The significance of the number {19} seven is easily missed in that almost the entirety of our modern use of numbers is numerical, whereas in the ancient world, especially in religious texts, numbers were often understood numerologically. Their symbolic value was what was of importance, not their position in a numerical sequence. This was a sacred use of numbers as distinct from a secular use of numbers in counting. Numbers were understood as having or giving access to profound symbolic meaning and power. One of the few vestiges of this way of thinking is in our modern aversion to the number thirteen. Even at the Mayo Clinic, where we expect to encounter the cutting edge of modern medical science, there is a building without a thirteenth floor; here the numerical value of the number thirteen is sacrificed to its numerological meaning, in this case negative and to be avoided. In the one use of numbers it is important that the numbers add up to the correct number numerically, in which case, we would insist that there has been an error in numbering. In the other case it is of paramount importance that the numbers add up to the correct number symbolically.

The fact that the first account of creation depicts the origins of all things as completed by the end of the sixth day is transparently a numerological use of numbers, controlled both by the analogy with the work week and sabbath and by the symbolism of the number seven. Seven has the meaning of completeness, wholeness, and totality. This derives from a combination of two other numbers with the same meaning in more limited form: three and four. The number three corresponds to the three main zones of the cosmos pictured vertically (heavens above, earth below, and the underworld floating on a cosmic ocean beneath). The number four corresponds to the four zones of the cosmos pictured horizontally (the four directions, four corners of the earth, and four quarters). More fully suggestive of completeness, wholeness, and totality would then be to put the vertical three and the horizontal four together—hence, the number seven as the more powerful and complete number for completeness. Similarly, the number twelve is given the same meaning through multiplying three times four. It is no coincidence that the most commonly used numbers in the Bible are three, four, seven, and twelve.

The intent of the use of a seven-day week in discussing origins is not to provide numerical, chronological, and historical information—in which case these materials might be said to be in conflict with modern scientific accounts—but to make the religious affirmation that the totality of the universe has its origin in God, who is the one supreme power behind and within the universe, and whose works are (as the text concludes) “very good.” The number that corresponds to this affirmation of totality and “very goodness” is the number seven. If the account had {20} concluded on some other day, say day five or eleven or thirteen, it would have been very jarring, and there would be a contradiction between what is being said in words and what is being said in numbers.

TWELVE AND THREE: FROM CHAOS TO COSMOS

The number twelve is also worked into the structure in that on each of the six days of creating there are two main divisions: light/dark, waters above and below, seas and dry land, sun and moon/stars, birds and fish, land animals and humans. This six days times two groupings each day realizes twelve regions of the cosmic totality. Twelve creative acts are completed by the end of the sixth day, and God rests on the seventh day.

The number three is also very prominent in the account, and its special use gives further clues as to the ways in which the biblical cosmogony is mapped out. In some respects Genesis structures its cosmogony in a way that was common to ancient cosmogonies, and that is by a pattern of movement from chaos to cosmos. Order and the threat of disorder were central concerns for sedentary peoples, as they sought to avoid chaos, maintain order, and place themselves in harmony with the forces of cosmos. Thus, after an introductory affirmation (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”), the account commences by identifying the forces of chaos that must be controlled: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2 RSV, passim).

Three forces of chaos are thus presented: formless earth, darkness, and the primeval sea. These are three common threats to an orderly environment, and the first three days of creation solve these threats by the creation of counter forces. On the first day light is created; on the second day a firmament is placed in the sky to separate the waters into those above and below; and on the third day the waters below are separated into their proper bounds so that dry land might appear. The three forces of chaos are not destroyed but given their boundaries and turned to positive functions in a new orderly cosmos.

In the second set of three days, creations are made and brought in to populate the established regions of the first three days. On the fourth day the sun, moon, and stars are created to dwell in the spaces of light and darkness. On the fifth day the birds and fish are created to inhabit the sky above and waters below, made possible by the firmament of day two. And on the sixth day land animals and humans are created to dwell on the dry land which came into being on the third day, along with vegetation for food. {21}

We are thus presented with three sets of three: three forces of chaos are brought under control and placed in an orderly cosmos by the creations of the first three days, making possible the introduction of the inhabitants of the second three days. Now, this is not the way in which modern scientific accounts of origins get organized. But that does not mean that one mapping of the cosmos is right and another wrong, unless it can be demonstrated that both approaches to origins are mapping for the same things.

To follow the lead of Calvin again, when Genesis discusses the “separating” of the waters by the “firmament” into the waters above (rain, snow, hail) and the waters below (lakes, rivers, oceans) or speaks of a “gathering” of the waters below to allow dry land to appear, astronomical or geological terms are not being used, but rather popular expressions that draw upon common observations of and speech about nature. Similarly, the phrase “each according to its own kind,” which refers to the observable hereditary distinctions among plants and animals, is not the language of geneticists discussing the “fixity of species,” but reflects everyday, phenomenal observations of an orderly cosmos.

INTERPRETATION BY ANALOGY

We find further clues as to the character of the biblical cosmogony by observing the various kinds of analogy being used to interpret origins. In addition to the overall structure derived from the analogy of a divine work week and sabbath rest, we find three main analogies being employed: creator, ruler, and architect. The first is the most obvious. The account begins and ends with the image of God as creator of the heavens and the earth. God is specifically referred to as making the various creations of days four through six: sun, moon and stars; birds and fish; land animals and humans.

The second analogy—God the ruler—is apparent in two ways. Throughout the account God is pictured as a divine emperor issuing decrees: “And God said, ‘Let there be light/Let there be a firmament/Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together/Let the earth put forth vegetation/Let there be lights in the firmament/Let the waters bring forth/Let the earth bring forth/Let us make man.’ ” All things come into being by the authority and power and command of the divine Word, and they are controlled and guided by divine laws giving order and rationality to the cosmos.

The theme of ruling is also prominent in that the sun and moon are said to be created to “rule” the day and night, while humans are given the royal attributes of having “dominion” over all living things and of {22} “subduing” the earth. Such analogies are obviously drawn from the common sociopolitical order of the day. Emperors ruled over, and in part by means of, lesser kings or governors which had been conquered or appointed. Using this analogy, God is the supreme ruler and force in the universe as “king of kings and lord of lords,” with the sun and moon as subordinate rulers of the regions of light and darkness, and human beings given dominion over the animals and the task of subduing the earth.

The third analogy being used is that of divine architect. The universe has a fundamental structure, organization, and design. It is not merely “accidental collocations of atoms” as Bertrand Russell put it. Nor is it fundamentally irrational and chaotic. Even the wild and negative forces are turned to useful purposes, as darkness, water, and formless earth are shaped, separated, and limited.

The use of an architectural analogy sheds further light on some of the—to modern readers—peculiarities in the ordering of events. We might feel comfortable with the first day of creation, commencing with, “Let there be light,” since that may seem to resemble our “big-bang” theories of origin. Yet before there is light (v. 3), already present is a formless earth engulfed in darkness and a watery abyss (v. 2).

If one were going to treat these materials as in any way comparable to modern scientific theories of origin, one would not have a big-bang theory but a “big-splash” theory! There is also the problem that, while light comes into existence on the first day, the sun, moon, and stars are not created until the fourth day; indeed the stars are mentioned after the creation of the sun and moon. And, finally, vegetation appears on the third day, before the creation of sun or stars.

THE VALUE OF THE ARCHITECT ANALOGY

A great deal of effort has been expended by creationists to explain these peculiarities. Yet if one recognizes that a central analogy in depicting origins in Genesis 1 is that of a divine architect, they are perfectly consistent and rational. God “stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth” (Isa. 51:13; cf. Ps. 102:25; Prov. 8:29). The six days of creation are arranged in the way an architect might think and proceed; they are thus consistent with the analogy being employed. The first thing an architect does before creating a building is to consider the potential threats to the building, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods. A good architect will accommodate these threats in the design before and during construction.

Here God, as the architect of the universe, is being depicted as, first of all, identifying the three main forces of chaos that would threaten a {23} habitable cosmos: darkness, water, and formless earth. These threats are then resolved by the activities of the first three days, which are laid out in parallel with the three chaotic forces: the creation of light and separation from darkness of day one; the creation of a firmament and its separation of the waters into those above and below on day two; and the separation of the earth from the waters below on day three so that the earth may take shape and be dry.

Now that the cosmos is constructed and secured, the inhabitants can then be brought into the three regions of the universe. The sun, moon, and stars of day four are placed in the regions of light and darkness established on day one. The birds and fish of day five can occupy the air and water, made possible by the separation of the firmament on day two. And the land animals and humans created on day six can be introduced to the secure and dry land of day three. Vegetation has also been provided for food on day three.

While this is not the way in which the natural sciences might reconstruct the origins of the universe or life forms or humanity, it is a perfectly rational way of organizing the subject of origins, and completely consistent with the analogy of a divine architect. Though it is not geological logic or biological logic or chronological logic, it is quite logical in its own terms as analogical logic, using the analogies of divine architect, ruler, and creator, along with numerological logic employing numbers three, seven, and twelve.

THEOLOGICAL LOGIC

The point that Genesis represents a theological use of logic should properly have been discussed first, since this is primarily a religious text. Yet we are so used to thinking in terms of science and history that it takes special effort to seek out the issues, concerns, and thought-forms that would have been the preoccupations of the day in the ancient world. Every group of people in this historical context had generated or borrowed or modified a cosmogony. Even the cosmogony of Genesis has affinities with surrounding cosmogonies. The decisive difference, and the theological bone of contention, was that the Israelite cosmogony is monotheistic whereas everyone else’s cosmogony was polytheistic. Regardless of the extent to which the Israelite cosmogony has connections with those of surrounding peoples, the point is that these other forms are being emptied of their polytheistic content and filled with monotheistic meaning.

Much of the cosmogonic material of other ancient peoples was literally cosmogonic: a birthing of the cosmos. For in polytheism the origins of {24} the main elements of the universe were commonly understood in terms of the births of gods and goddesses and their subsequent power struggles, jealousies, and conflicts. All the regions of what we today call nature were understood as supernatural. The forces of chaos (darkness, earth, water) were gods and goddesses. There were gods and goddesses of light, sky, and vegetation; sun, moon, and stars were divine; and pharaohs and kings were often counted as sons of gods.

The paramount reason for the Genesis account being structured as it is—and it is a theological reason—is that it rejects the polytheistic reading of the cosmos and restructures the cosmogonic form and content to read monotheistically. “In the beginning God”—the one God, the only God, the God who is not to be identified with any part of the furniture of the universe, is the beginning and end of all things. The gods and goddesses, however, are not divinities at all but creatures, creations of this God. They are simply aspects of the natural order and are not to be worshiped, feared, or supplicated. To worship them, no matter how great the forces they represent, is idolatry.

Identifying these theological concerns helps to explain further (to moderns) the peculiarities of the account. On day four, it is not merely that the stars are mentioned last, after the sun and moon, three days after the coming of light, and a day after the appearance of vegetation. But the stars are hardly mentioned at all: “He made the stars also.” Indeed the Hebrew word lumps stars and planets together. Why such short shrift, especially when we consider what a large part of the universe we are talking about?

The treatment of the subject is, however, quite logical theologically. In the world of ancient civilizations one of the burgeoning religious occupations was astrology. Both Egypt and Mesopotamia were leaders in astrology. And astrology was a true mixing of science and religion, the numerical and the numerological. The stars were not only seen as divinities, but human fates and fortunes were read as being intimately tied to the heavenly bodies.

In biblical monotheism, however, the planets and stars were awarded no special powers, beyond those powers that were theirs as part of the natural order. They were not to be feared, solicited, or consulted. To underline that concern, the stars and planets are mentioned at the last possible moment (before the birds and fish), in the most minimal manner, and appearing as an afterthought, as if to say, “This is all the religious importance to be granted the planets and stars.” This, then, is not being offered as a scientific statement to be debated by astronomers, but is an antiastrological statement.

Another peculiarity of the Genesis account is the summation found in {25} chapter 2 verse 4a. After such careful structuring of the account in terms of six days, concluding each day with “and the evening and the morning were the ____ day” (even on the first three days in which there was light and darkness, but no sun, moon, planets, or stars), the account concludes with the term “generations” instead of “days”: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (2:4a). Why the sudden leap from “days” to “generations” if this is to be interpreted as some sort of scientific statement of chronological events?

The answer may again lie in the theological context of competing cosmogonies. The polytheistic cosmogonies were commonly structured around genealogies of the gods and goddesses. If one were to ask most ancient peoples how the various forces of “nature” were related to one another, one would be given a divine family tree. The Mesopotamian cosmogony in the Enuma Elish begins with Abzu god of the sweet waters (lakes and rivers) mating with the goddess of the salt waters (Tiamat) and begetting the sky god—and so on with further matings bringing into being the main features of the cosmos.

Hesiod’s Theogony (“birth of the gods”) of the eighth century B.C. attempts to sort out the myriad divinities of ancient Greece into the interactions within and between various divine family trees. Such cosmogonies were theogonies, and would conclude, in effect, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were procreated.” The use of the word “generations” in conclusion of the Genesis creation account offers a kind of pun on the whole interpretation of nature in terms of genealogies of the gods: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”

CONCLUSIONS

When we examine the Genesis account of origins in its own terms and its own historical context, it becomes more apparent that we have something that is considerably different from that of the natural sciences. It has a theological agenda, aimed at affirming a monotheistic reading of the cosmos and rejecting the prevailing polytheistic reading. None of its phrasing or organization or use of numbers corresponds to the methods and materials of the natural sciences. This does not imply that Genesis is to be seen as unscientific or antiscientific or even prescientific, as if superseded by better methods of understanding the world. The materials of Genesis 1 are nonscientific; they offer a different kind of map of the universe and our place within it.

In literary terms, Genesis 1 is not employing a narrative similar to the narratives of a modern natural history. The fact that Genesis uses a {26} narrative of days of creation is easily misread by interpreters twenty-five hundred to three thousand years later as somehow comparable to an historical narrative. There are many kinds of narrative that use the same general form and all “tell a story”: history, biography, chronology, parable, allegory, novel, short story, fable, fairy tale, legend, epic, saga, myth, and—as we have discussed—cosmogony. Even instructional manuals and jokes use the narrative form.

Thus, the identification of Genesis 1 as a narrative tells nothing in itself about the specific type of narrative form being used. Careful consideration of the text itself in its historical and theological context indicates that it uses a very different kind of narrative form and linguistic usage than those used in modern natural histories. To try to compare them is to do both types of narrative a great disservice.

OTHER WORKS CONSULTED

  • Bailey, Lloyd R. Genesis, Creation, and Creationism. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1993.
  • Calvin, John. Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis. Trans. John King. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948.
  • Russell, Bertrand. “A Free Man’s Worship.” In Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Other Subjects. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957. The quotation is taken from p. 107.
Conrad Hyers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, received his Ph.D. in Theology and Philosophy of Religion from Princeton Theological Seminary. He recently retired from his position as Professor of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota.
This paper was originally presented to the annual meeting of the Paleontological and Geological Societies of America on October 24, 1999. It summarizes the main line of argument in Prof. Hyers’ book, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1985).

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