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Return to January/February 2016 articles.

The article title is Taking Genesis Literally with a picture of the O'Neill Butte in the Grand Canyon.

The cover our January/February 2016 journal with a picture from the Grand Canyon.A major weakness of many Christians who want to take the Bible literally is that they have an incorrect idea of what taking the Bible literally means. To take the Bible literally one must look at who wrote it, to whom, when, why they wrote it, and how the people would have understood it at the time it was written. That usually means looking carefully at the words the author chose in the language in which the passage was written.

Many Christians ignore the real meaning of the words in Genesis because the version they are reading did not translate literally. We have discussed many examples of that in past issues of this journal. Genesis 6:1 – 4, for example, has been misinterpreted by many people because they have not taken the words literally. This particular passage was translated in the King James Version from the Vulgate, the Latin version of Genesis. In the Vulgate the Hebrew word nephilim was translated gigantus in Latin. When the King James translators came to this word they did not know what to do with it, and they simply brought it across as “giant.” The people of Moses' day and even today would translate nephilim as “fallen ones.” Concordances and dictionaries will render it in this way, but some still want nephilim to refer to giants, aliens, spirit creatures, angels, or demons. This is the flood chapter of Genesis, and people of Moses' day would have understood it to refer to people who rejected God, resorted to violence, and precipitated the flood.

Not taking the Bible literally has produced similar difficulties when one attempts to understand the creation account in Genesis 1 – 3. It is important to understand that the Genesis account was not written for scientifically oriented academics living in the twenty-first century. It was written for all people no matter where they lived, when they lived, what their nationality was, or how much education they might have. The language of Genesis uses an economy of words because Hebrew, unlike Greek, is not very specific in what it says.

A good example of this is the word “heaven” in Genesis 1:1. The Hebrew word shamayim is used in this verse. The problem is that this word can refer to three different things. It can refer to the atmosphere, it can refer to outer space, or it can refer to the place we can go to when we die. Which of these meanings should we accept as being what Genesis 1:1 is talking about? It is always helpful to look at the context of a passage, and see what other words are used in conjunction with the word in question. In this case the word “earth” is used coming from the Hebrew word erets. Once again, this word can have more than one meaning. It can refer to soil, or to rocks, or to the planet on which we live.

The Colorado River near the beginning of the Grand Canyon.How did the people who spoke the language in the time of Moses understand these words? We can go to extra-biblical sources, but a further clue comes from the word for God chosen in Genesis 1:1. The Hebrews had different words for God depending on God's role in their lives. If God's promises were being described, the word Yahweh was used. If God's ruling nature was involved, the word Adonai was used. When God's power and creative ability was involved, the name used was Elohim, and that name is used exclusively in Genesis 1. In Genesis 2, when the purpose of the passage is to highlight the promise to man of being one with his wife, Yahweh is used. One final word in Genesis 1:1 is the word translated “create” which comes from the Hebrew word bara, a word that is only used by the Hebrew-speaking people in reference to God's creative action. It is never used in relation to something humans can do. When you put all of this together, the meaning seems to be obvious — God created everything! My mentally challenged son with a very low I.Q. could have told us this a long time ago, as could the ancient shepherd in the hills of Judea. The meaning is clear in all cultures, all ages, all languages, and all educational understandings. Where problems arise is when modern readers of Genesis restrict the meaning of this first verse. Genesis 1:1 is not written as a summary of the Genesis account. It is written as a historical event. The next several verses also describe events — not summaries of what was taking place. The first four verses of Genesis 1 are undated and untimed. The “creation week” is not the beginning of creation. If we take Genesis 1 literally, the creation takes place in verse 1. There God “created” (bara) the heavens and the earth. The Hebrew bara is not used again in Genesis until verse 20 in reference to animal life, and then again in verse 27 in reference to human's spiritual makeup.

One of the fundamental messages of the Bible is that the creation shows us much about God, and that there is a prehistory to the creation. Proverbs 8:22 – 31 tells us through the eyes of wisdom that wisdom was expressed “from the beginning, before the world began” (verse 23). Psalm 19:1 tells us God's glory can be seen in space. So do Colossians 1:15 – 17 and Romans 1:19 – 20. The Bible has many passages that deal with things that were brought into being before time began.

The Grand CanyonCreating a world that can support life of all kinds, and meet the needs of humans is incredibly difficult. When scientists tried to create a habitat, known as Biosphere 2, that could support humans for a period of years with no outside help or introduction of resources, it failed. As our knowledge of astronomy, cosmology, and geology improve, we find more and more parameters that have to be carefully met in order for a stable earth to exist.

God is an incredible engineer. He is not a magician or illusionist. He planted a garden (Genesis 2:8). He did not pull a garden out of a magic pouch. He formed man's body of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). He did not transport man's body as they did in “Star Trek.” The Hebrew word used in this verse (yatshir) is normally used in reference to something a sculptor would do. Psalm 139:13 – 15 uses the vocabulary of a weaver in describing the formation of our bodies.

The Magellanic CloudAt the end of what is described in Genesis 1:1 there was a universe and an earth. Space was there with everything that makes up space — stars, exo-planets, galaxies, nebulae, planets, asteroids, comets, Oort clouds, meteoroids, black holes, etc. As you looked around you would have seen an earth prepared for human existence. It already contained all kinds of rocks and minerals necessary to plant a garden, coal seams, petroleum reserves, uranium, etc. During the creation week God prepared the earth and populated it with the plants and animals humans would need.

An flying around the rim of the Grand Canyon.When Genesis 1 is taken this literally, all of the claimed conflicts with science and history disappear. The geologic history that we see in the rock record which enables us to locate oil, gas, coal, and radioactive sources are a part of God's preparation of the earth (erets) in Genesis 1:1. Wisdom was present to do this (Proverbs 8:22 – 31) as God prepared a wonderful place for his created beings. The primary message is that God created man and woman specially in his image giving us the capacity to know good and evil, to create, and to love in a way that was not biologically dependent.

 A person viewing the Milky Way.Why is this literal understanding of the Genesis account so hard to accept? The primary cause is that humans want to make it more mystical and political than it is. We tend to turn Genesis 1 into a video game, with magical events leading to dispensations that end up with Jesus ruling the world in a political way for a limited period of time. As young people try to make sense of all of this, they are turned away by the mystical tone of what is presented to them. They see the physical evidence of science and the facts do not fit with what they are told the Bible says. Taking Genesis literally is vitally important, but that does not mean forcing the creation account into human denominational creeds and traditions.

— John N. Clayton

Picture credits:
Cover photo: © Andrushko Galyna. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© Anton Foltin. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© tobkatrina. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© R. Wallace. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
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