The Atheist Takes On Creation: Genesis 1-2

“To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born…” Thus spake David Copperfield, the hero of Charles Dickens’ book of the same name. He goes on to report the day and hour of his birth, noting that this was passed on to him: “as I have been informed and believe”. He was present at his birth, but suffered that peculiar fate of all infants: he could not remember it. He had to have someone else tell him how things proceeded.

Even acknowledging that Copperfield had to rely on the words of others regarding his origins, we know that he could ascertain certain details without having anyone else tell him anything. By observing reproduction among humans and among animals, he could learn the basics of how life begets life and could conclude that his parents had to be human, despite some small variations between him and them, them and each other. By learning the ages of other humans – either by observing development of new life and extrapolating forward, observing those who seem to be older, and finding where he fits among them – he could gain a relative idea of his own age. Living as he was in 19th century England, if he were to lose his memory, he could still rely on his general physical condition and level of education to determine his social class.

David Copperfield, for all that he was not able to remember the beginning of his life, is nonetheless able to identify many things about his life, from beginning to present, and even possesses some limited ability to extrapolate forward and make broad predictions about his future.

Lesson: inability to observe or remember does not make us entirely reliant upon the testimony of others. Testimony may be flawed, where evidence may offer a more objective picture.

And so we get to our text, Genesis 1-2, where the universe supposedly has its own opening moment:

Genesis 1:1–3

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Without argument, this is deeply poetical language, though it has fueled many unusual ideas within Christianity. The image of waters and the deep portray the formless Earth as a ball of water. Throughout the Bible, water serves as an image of chaos, which is one reason why Revelation 21:1 says “and the sea was no more” – an end of chaos. The poetic imagery continues from there, throughout chapter 1 as the author moves through the six “days” of creation:

  1. The creation of light, and separation of light (day) from darkness (night).
  2. An expanse in the waters – the heavens and the earth, with waters above and water below, poetic imagery that chaos yet reigned.
  3. The waters under the heavens – Earth – gathered and separated “into one place” called seas, and dry land formed. Doing double duty on the third day, we then have vegetation – plants, trees, seed bearing vegetation, according to their kinds.
  4. The creation of “lights in the expanse of the heavens” – used for signs, seasons, days, years. Also the creation of the sun and moon – ruler of the day, and ruler of the night.
  5. Birds and fish, with the order to multiply and fill the Earth.
  6. Beasts of the field and creeping things, followed by Adam and Eve, created “after our likeness” with dominion over the Earth and the order to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…”

The account continues with an extended note that God gave man authority over all the earth, along with permission to eat every plant for food.

On the seventh day, God rested.

Before we get into chapter 2, we immediately notice a host of problems, particularly given the way many conservative Christians appeal to these verses today. The verses challenge each other and our understanding of the world today.

Try Science

The biggest elephant in the room is the age and origin of life on earth. Multiple fields of study have clearly demonstrated that life emerged over hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary development. The only people really challenging the science are those with prior commitments to religious texts, and even some with religious commitments are willing to accept the science. Life evolved. It evolved together – not in clumps of plants now, then fish and birds, then everything else.

Those who wish to take these verses literally still resort to selective interpretation. The “waters above and below” are clearly metaphor, they say, while the six days are literal or, at the very least, represent the progression of God’s creative words. But as soon as someone acknowledges that parts are figurative, the whole package becomes suspect. Did God hover above the waters? Was the entire universe made up of water until being turned into stars?

In terms of geology, we have God shaping everything as it should be. The Bible almost seems to acknowledge Pangea when it tells us that the waters were gathered “into one place”. This would be the claim of a people who did not realize that throughout most of the history of earth, the earth has been covered by many, separated land masses, not one mass of land and one mass of water.

We could list many more scientific objections – creating “lights in the heavens” when their light would take anywhere from years to millions to billions of years to reach us. We know solar systems follow suns, yet the sun comes on day four, strangely after the separation of day and light. The moon, formed from a Mars-size impact with Earth, was formed at the same time as the sun. On and on.

In Genesis 1:22, God commands birds and fish: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” The command is repeated to humans in 1:28, “And God said to them, ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”

Preachers often speak of God’s command that humans multiply and have dominion over the earth, but how often have we heard the reminder that God first told birds and fish to multiply? While verse 28 does establish a hierarchy with humans over birds and fish, nonetheless there is a divine command for birds and fish to thrive. One might expect that humans, given dominion, have the responsibility to help those animals fulfill their God-given command, yet such a message is all too rare in America’s pulpits, aside from the generic, “God wants us to take care of what he made. Now pass the shotgun, let’s go hunting.”

In Genesis 2:3, the seventh day obtains special holiness because God rested on that day. Christians have offered a number of explanations of what is meant by God rested: “he sat back, satisfied, and enjoyed what he made”; “it speaks of an end to his creative work, a rest to his creative activity”. Frequently, Christians sidestep the issue of God needing rest and focus on the fact that the Sabbath becomes a time for humans to rest, calling it God’s gift to humans so that we might have a day off. Granted, they overlook that the Sabbath is Saturday rather than Sunday, but let’s not get into that meddlesome point just yet.

Nature observed

Self-proclaimed apologist Ken Ham likes to argue that people cannot know what happened at creation since we were not there. Ergo, he concludes, we must rely on an external source, namely the Bible. Hopefully the major problems with this argument are self-evident: we have no reason to think the Bible’s account is true; we have no reason to trust the Bible over any other creation myth; Moses was also not present at creation and, at best, could only rely on what someone told him.

The bigger problem with Ham’s view is his failure to understand the scientific method. Just like David Copperfield above, even if we are unable to go back and watch how things unfolded, we nonetheless have abundant evidence to help us understand what took place. So far, the evidence overwhelmingly supports a naturalistic process which unfolded over billions of years, with life emerging on earth some 500 million years ago (though perhaps far earlier, only to be wiped out in early tumult). We have no reason to trust the Bible, but we can trust the tried-and-true methods of science which slowly increase knowledge and root out error and have told us again and again that the Genesis myth does not match up with how our world actually came to be.

How many gods?

The Hebrew word for God is Elohim, from the root el meaning God and the masculine plural im. Linguists call this the plural of majesty, such as the queen of England might say, “We are not amused,” with reference to herself. This is a bit trickier in Genesis given the inconsistent usage. While Elohim (or similar forms) is common throughout the Old Testament, it is less common to hear God say, “let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. Similar language turns up at the Tower of Babel when God says, “let us go down and confuse their language” (Genesis 11:7). Typically, however, God’s self-references are strictly singular: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham…” (Genesis 28:13).

The use of plurals, particularly early in Genesis, may be pointers to the evolution of religion, the shift from polytheism to monotheism. Polytheistic hints can be found at various places throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the first five books. This points to Judaism as just another socially developed religion rather than a system of beliefs handed down by God.

Creation: Take Two

Problems continue when we move on into chapter two. Having already given us the beginning-to-end account of creation, the author backs up a bit and gives us Take Two. The order of creation becomes somewhat convoluted in chapter 2:

  1. There is no rain on the earth, only mist.
  2. God creates man – not humans, man. Adam and Eve had been created on Day 6 in chapter 1.
  3. God plants a garden, even though vegetation had been created on Day 2. Adam is placed in the garden. The garden also contains both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
  4. A river suddenly appears to water this garden, splitting into four rivers. It is easy to identify this as Mesopotamia, the Land Between the Rivers (Tigris and Euphrates), based on the description and names of the rivers. But here again, the waters of the earth had been separated on Day 3. In particular, the seas were formed, with no mention of rivers. Fish were commanded to fill the seas.
  5. Adam is placed in the garden to work the garden, so far no Eve. He is commanded not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, this despite the fact that in Genesis 1:29-30 we have strong emphasis on the fact that humans were given permission to eat from every plant.
  6. God realizes Adam is alone and decides to make a companion, so he creates all the beasts of the earth, despite the fact that these had previously been created prior to Adam on Day 6 in Genesis 1:24-25.
  7. No helper is found for Adam among the beasts, so God puts him into a deep sleep and forms woman from his rib. In Genesis 1:27, man and woman are created together with stress on the fact that humans were created in God’s image, and humans were created male and female. They are then jointly given dominion. In Genesis 2, woman is created several steps after man, well after man has received dominion over the garden (as opposed to the earth).
  8. In Genesis 1:27, they are created male and female. In Genesis 2:23 they are woman and man. The difference is significant. The words in Genesis 1:27 have no etymological relation to each other; they are simply what they are, one meaning male, the other meaning female. In Genesis 2:23, the words themselves establish subordination: woman from man, thus woman under man. This subordination takes major focus among conservative pastors who believe in a family patriarchy, with the man as head and the woman as helper. That theme is completely missing in Genesis 1, but hammered hard in Genesis 2. The subordination of women continues in Genesis 3 when Eve takes the blame for the fall (blame repeated by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:14-15), but we will see that next time.

Some will argue that Genesis 2 is merely Genesis 1 told from a different perspective. A similar argument is used to account for the discrepancies among the four gospels. I have heard the preacher man say, “It is like a precious jewel, cut with many facets. Each facet has its own angles and shine, but it is the same jewel. Just so, those texts tell the same story, from different angles.” Such subjectivism is only permitted when it allows the preacher to evade contradictions and inconsistencies. In this case, the two accounts are presented side-by-side without any attempt to connect them or mesh them. They are given their own standing and it is up to the reader to figure out how to make them work, if that is even possible.

Timelines

One final note. These two chapters contain a number of gaps. Some have argued that verse one is separate from verse two, and that Satan fell from Heaven somewhere between the two verses.

Others have claimed gaps between the days of creation, arguing that the world might indeed be very old with millions of years separating the days. The argument is puzzling since it doesn’t really gain anything for the Christian, they still have to account for dramatic changes in the geological and fossil record, changes that cannot be accounted for given the order of creation in Genesis.

Another gap has been claimed between Genesis 1 and 2. This harkens back to old Jewish myths regarding the character Lilith. It is said that Genesis 1 and 2 refer to two different creations account. Genesis 1 is the way things were meant to be. Adam and his wife Lilith were equals, but Lilith sinned, leading to the destruction of the world. God re-created the world and, in chapter 2, we find Adam alone on Earth. God creates a new companion, Eve, but instead of making them equals, Eve is subservient to Adam because of Lilith’s sins. It is a creative – though completely unsubstantiated – way to account for the differences between Genesis 1 and 2.

That’s it for today, but don’t get too comfortable. Next week, we look at humanity’s fall into sin and all of the misery we have supposedly brought upon ourselves.

  • Bartley p

    Good read, here is my take. I believe that God created the world the way he said he did. However he did not give us a lot of detail. How much time passed between verse one and two? I don’t know. was a day 24 hours or 1 million years. I don’t know. I do know that his thoughts are not my thoughts and his ways are not my ways, and a thousand years are as one day to him. He operates outside of time. Maybe he made a mature Earth that seems old when we look at it. He did not give all the fine details of his creation, and I am ok with that. I don’t see the gap you are talking about in chapter 1 and 2. I see chapter two as in fact giving us a little more detail of the creation account, but still not all the details. Especially in regards to the creation of man.

    • A few other details you gloss over. Chapters 1 and 2 present things in a totally different order. It’s not more detail, it’s a different account altogether. And even if there are big gaps between the days, you still have an account radically different – and in fact, even more improbable – than what we know through science.

      • Bartley p

        You assume that there is chronological intent when reading chapter 2. Chapter is not chronological. where chapter 1 is a broad sweep, chapter 2 is a close up look at certain aspects of creation. When chapter two says no shrub of the field had had yet appeared on the land, I always thought that it was talking about cultivation not that there were no shrubs at all. Chapter two also does not suggest that the animals came after Adam. It says God created the animals and brought them to Adam. This does not mean that God created Adam first.

  • Stephen Bradshaw

    Why hasn’t anyone else heard of the polemic interpretation of Genesis? It makes perfect sense! Genesis wasn’t meant to be a literal historical account or even poetic story; it was meant as a polemic against other ancient creation accounts… See Part 4 of this series that I am writing which explains the polemic interpretation in detail: http://practical-christianity.com/creationevolution-part-2-is-there-a-right-answer/

    • There is the fact that Genesis itself gives the readers no cues that it is meant to be polemical, then whenever later writers reference it – including in the New Testament – the claims of Genesis are taken at face value.

      • Stephen Bradshaw

        Good points. I would be interested to study more on whether the polemical nature of the creation account was entirely lost to the new testament authors. Certainly it seems to have been the case for most of Christian church history until fairly recently. The earliest readers would have understood it polemically, I think.

        In any case, I think you are right that Genesis doesn’t itself give clues to its polemical nature but I think the point of the polemic was twofold: (1) to argue against other ancient creation accounts using those early creation accounts as a base for the story – this seems to have been lost to later readers; and (2) to describe (theologically) the nature of God – this I think has remained intact throughout history.

        Thus, even if later readers didn’t grasp that the creation account was a polemic designed against other ancient creation accounts, I still think they could glean an understanding of God’s nature from it.

        -Stephen

        • But the later readers I had in mind were also writers – the writers of the New Testament read the Old in a literal way. Jesus himself is quoted as showing a somewhat literal interpretation of the OT. At this point, then, inspiration becomes suspect: if the Genesis creation account is meant to be more metaphorical but the writings of the NT take it literal, inspiration goes out the window and there’s no reason to trust any of it. Conservative scholars realize this and insist that the whole thing has to be taken literally and any attendant problems are explained away in a variety of ways.

          • Stephen Bradshaw

            I see your point that if the writers of the NT believed the creation account to be literal (e.g., genealogy from Jesus back to Adam shown in Luke), how can we then disregard a literal interpretation of the creation account.

            I think another plausible interpretation is that, yes, the creation account was meant as a polemic; however, that isn’t to say that there wasn’t some literal truth to the account. For example, God choosing the first group of homo sapiens and instilling a soul in them (i.e., Adam and Eve). Though, you would have to believe in such a thing as a soul. I believe this is the Catholic position.

            It also depends, though, on your view of the Bible. Inerrantists believe there cannot be any flaw in the Bible and that the Bible authors got everything right.

            If you don’t adhere to the innerantist belief but still believe that God could have used Jesus’s story as it has been passed down to us to learn about God and connect with him, it is not as big of a deal that the NT writers could have used the interpretation of the day. Even if that were the case, I don’t think that changes the ultimate message of Jesus and I don’t think you have to throw the entire Bible out either.

            I appreciate the thoughtful comments.
            Stephen

          • But at that point, what basis is there for believing any of it? It becomes a matter of very subjectively picking and choosing the parts you like, a la the Jesus Seminar of the 80’s and 90’s. If we acknowledge that the Bible contains mistakes, and if we cannot independently establish the truth of other parts (ie, we cannot prove Jesus did what the Bible says he did; nor can we demonstrate that his teachings about God were true) then why believe any of it?

            Conservative evangelicals appeal to inerrancy, but even with that they don’t avoid the problem – setting aside the Bible’s internal inconsistencies and disagreements with science, there is still the basic fact that there is no evidence for the Bible’s claims. Apologists try – attempts to appeal to science, archeology, philosophy, etc, but the arguments rarely have much in the way of merit. So whether taking the whole Bible or only parts, at the end of the day it means accepting something as true when there is no particular reason for believing it to be true.

  • Wiedre

    So, you’re telling me that whether or not the earth is 10 000 years old, or 500 million years, that it places no strain on the existence of God? Even when hammering that the Genesis account is more poetic rather than literal cannot in itself denounce the text’s factual qualities, nor its reliability. Poetic devices can be smeared with facts !Lets look at what the Genesis account actually claims: God created, right? Check; there was a beginning, right? Check (# theBigBang); God gave life, right? Check; God is inherently different from creation, right? Check; God establishes the standard for morality, right? Check. The whole idea behind the Creation Account is not to provide a manual on the mechanics of the creation procedure – its not concerned with How things work as much as it is in pointing to Who created it. With that in mind, lets look at the following points.
    1) At some point in time life had to have had a beginning on earth. The first man and woman had to have been created in order to have given rise to the populace that would eventually inhabit the whole earth. Even when accused of being too poetic the Genesis account still rings true. Come to think of it, for a person who accuses the Genesis-account of complete ambiguity, you display a unusual amount of assurity for someone who has never seen the Beginning of the Universe himself.
    2) You hammer on evolution? Scientists have disproven the Evolution Theory! Why not check out Lee Stroble’s Case for Christianity? Darwin himself doubted his theory! In the end, even with the right material and an eternity to accomplish the impossible, our mindless Universe would never, not even in a slight chance, be able to create life out of nothing. A mind is the key that unlocks every design and can be traced to even the lowliest of lifeforms, namely the sell.
    3) The real Atheists that remain true to the Atheistic worldview (e.g. Thomas Nagel, Friedrich Nietzsche – not bloody Richard Dawkins!), will easily tell you that the concept of morality outside of God is irrational. That makes for the moral argument.
    4) Finally looking at the Cosmological and Teleological Argument for God’s existence, Scientists have again and again uttered the mantra that “a God must exist”, for thorough inquisition regarding the nature of the Universe inevitably proves that the Universe had a Beginning, followed by its highly informative and complex designs that ultimately point towards a Designer. Logically, only a mind can put together information, so how can a mindless universe compose something as immensely complex as our Universe? By no means!
    Dude, I haven’t even started with the reliability of the New Testament with regards to the numerous manuscripts that can accurately recreate the Bible, its Historicity, truthfulness and inerrancy. Quoting Hebrew means Zilch when you cant answer the above statements made. Good luck with your next topic if not compiled yet. Atheists like to attack God for being “unjust” and “morally flawed” when their accusations have no basis in the first place. In a world of subjectivity, the very definition of good becomes ambiguous.

    I hope you check this out. Don’t take my word as final say! Do the research.

    • The long array of fallacious arguments and misinformation present in your comment betrays you as someone who grabs anything that sounds good without finding out whether or not your points have any validity. No point in addressing any of this.