Genesis and Science
Purpose of the Text
Frame of Reference
A common objection to biblical creation I’ve encountered from skeptics is the claim that the sequence of events as described in Genesis does not match the sequence of events extrapolated from the scientific data. This article seeks to examine and explicate the account of creation given in the Christian scripture and ascertain what it does and does not say about the events which occurred and the order in which they occurred. In the conclusion I will attempt to answer the question of whether conflicts exist and, if so, how problematic they are.
The interpretive perspective is that of an old-creation model and may not exactly match the interpretation offered by other Christians, particularly those who hold to a young-creation interpretation. That said, the interpretation is not materially dependent on any particular age of the earth – the primary focus is the specific events and any sequence of them required by the text. Some of the material presented is already covered in other articles but is included when that seems appropriate.
Purpose of the Text
It is first necessary to make clear that the purpose of the scriptural account of creation is not to provide a scientific exposition God’s creative endeavor. Rather, it’s to establish that God, and God alone, is the author and sovereign of all creation, and man is uniquely created in God’s image to be his regent on earth. Genesis chapters 1 through 3 document creation from the perspective of mankind, the preparation of his habitat, the complete provision for mankind’s every need and desire, and their subsequent fall from their appointed place as a result of choosing moral self-determinism independent of God’s rule instead of eternal life in submission to God.
Therefore, the account of creation is not a science textbook and should not be treated as one. We should not expect scientific or technical terms and descriptions, but rather commonplace and phenomenological ones. That is the language of scripture is not one of technical specifics, but of mankind’s everyday experience. What is striking in that, however, is just how often the scripture uses terms which are surprisingly accurate to the technical reality even while using the everyday language of an ancient people. We should not consider this as shoehorning science into scripture but as recognizing how God made his revelation relevant to peoples and cultures of all times from ancient to modern.
But it should be possible to harmonize the account with the knowledge of creation which we acquire through observation and logical extrapolation. At some points we may need to concede that our knowledge is yet limited and less than certain (and it may always be). It is my hope to demonstrate that the purported glaring and insurmountable inconsistencies between our scientific knowledge of earth history and the biblical account of creation do not, in fact, exist.
Note particularly that while the succession of days clearly implies a sequence of events, within the creation “days” there is no specific sequence implied in the order in which things are listed unless there is a “Then…” construct.
Although I have discussed these in other articles, it is crucial to understand that there are multiple verbs used to describe the creative acts of God in Genesis 1-2:
|bara||Created : Used exclusively in scripture to describe acts performed by God, this word describes things coming into existence for the first time, not formed from any pre-existing materials. Used for the creation of the “heavens and the earth” in 1:1, the sea creatures, swarming creatures and flying creatures in 1:21, mankind in 1:27 and for the whole creative process in 2:4.|
|asah||Made : A generic verb meaning “to do” or “to make”. Used for actions by both God and humans. Implies a reforming of existing materials into a new form, with the connotations of mixing and combining. Used for the making of the celestial bodies in 1:16, the “beasts of the field” in 1:25 and mankind in 1:26.|
|hayah||Let there be : Connotes allowing a process to run its course. It can involve the supernatural direction of natural processes. Used of light in 1:3, the “expanse” in 1:6 and the celestial bodies in 1:14-15. I find it fascinating that in each case what is being described are possibly changes to Earth’s atmospheric makeup.|
|yasar||Formed : Used twice in Genesis 2. It has the sense of molding a substance into the desired shape. The concept is very much that of a potter working clay (a particularly apt comparison given the context). Used of mankind in 2:7-8 and of the beasts of the field and birds in 2:19.|
The subtleties of these Hebrew words have significant implications for understanding what the text actually claims. Since the English translation is completely consistent with respect to the Hebrew words, subsequent references will be to the English not the Hebrew so as not to necessitate backtracking by those unfamiliar with the Hebrew terms. But it’s important to note that the English words/phrases may convey different connotations than does the Hebrew text. Most readers approach the text never noticing that different words are used for different actions.
Pay particular attention to the use of present-tense verbs, like “made” which can have a pluperfect past tense. That is, they can equally be rendered “had made” or “had already made” and require only that the action has been accomplished by that point in the narrative. This is because Hebrew does not have verb tenses like English, past/present/future; it has verb “aspects” which indicate whether an action is complete (past/present-done) or incomplete (present-ongoing/future).
English verb tenses indicate narrative past/present/future actions:
- Past: He had created.
- Present: He created.
- Future: He will create.
Hebrew verb aspects indicate narrative completed/incomplete actions:
- Perfect : He had created or He created.
- Imperfect : He is creating or He will create.
Therefore the translator must interpret context for tense and may be incorrect and influenced by preconceptions:
- created can equally mean had created.
- formed can equally mean had formed.
- made can equally mean had made.
Narrative Frame of Reference
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 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.
Genesis 1:1-2 (ESV)
The linguistic style of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are that of a poetic narrative; in order to properly interpret them it’s important to first establish the frame-of-reference provided for the narrative.
Genesis 1:1 describes, in sweeping form, the creation of all space, time, energy and matter from nothing. In biblical language the “heavens and the earth” describes the totality of this creation. In the beginning God had (perfect aspect) created the heavens and the Earth – at this point the Heavens (sun, moon and stars) and the Earth now exist before verse 2, which marks a shift in focus to the development of the already existing Earth in space.
Genesis 1:2 marks a transition to the development of planet Earth becoming the focus of the narrative. Biblical scholars are in almost unanimous agreement that between verse 1 and verse 2 there is a clear break in the narrative and, furthermore, that the break allows an indeterminate and undisclosed amount of time to have elapsed. In one short sentence, the Bible describes the creation of the entire universe and then shifts gear to bring us to the important part of the story, the preparation of Earth for life, and the population thereof.
Further, verse 2 establishes that the planet was in a primitive, primordial state, covered in water and swaddled in darkness – “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep”. Job chapter 38:4 ff, indisputably talking about creation, states, “4 ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … 9 when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band’” – this well describes the type of atmosphere we see on primitive planets, such as that of Venus; so dense that no light can reach the planet’s surface. Psalm 104:6 describes the initial Earth as a water world, covered “with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.” The Hebrew phrase translated “formless and void” describes the Earth as a useless space, a place of desolation, wastedness, and chaos. The planet was fully formed, but it was shrouded in darkness, covered in water, empty of life and unfit for life.
Lastly, verse 2 establishes a frame of reference for the following narrative as being at or near the surface of the planet – “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Understanding this point is critical in properly understanding what follows; that being the progressive development of planet Earth as a habitat for life, and ultimately for human beings, in which development God was explicitly involved, every step of the way.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Genesis 1:3-5 (ESV)
A process is initiated by God, and the end result is that some significant amount of light is now reaching the surface of the planet. This process may be understood to have caused a thinning of the atmosphere from opaque (a “swaddling” “darkness”) to translucent.
This light was apparently that of the Sun with the result being a day/night cycle as a result of the Earth’s rotation. At this point the heavenly bodies, the sun, the moon and the stars are not visible in the sky.
6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
Genesis 1:6-8 (ESV)
Another process, following the atmospheric thinning, and perhaps even overlapping part of that process, the water on the face of the planet is separated from the atmospheric vapor which now recedes into the upper atmosphere. This would result in conditions which allow a water cycle to operate between the water on the planet and the water in the atmosphere.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
Genesis 1:9-13 (ESV)
In a third process, the waters on the face of the planet, which heretofore entirely covered the surface (recall Psalm 104:6), recede (relatively speaking) and dry land “appears”. This is descriptive of tectonic activity causing the planetary crust to shift, rising in some places, perhaps falling in others, with the net effect of large masses of dry land arising as a result. The description is very much reminiscent of the prehistoric succession of large super-continents, Vaalbara, Ur, Kenorland, Columbia, Rodinia, Pannotia, Pangea, etc.
The word used for gathering the waters is especially interesting in the sense of waiting that it implies – the Hebrew word is qavah, which literally means “wait” or “wait for”. Brown-Driver-Briggs suggest it’s root is in the idea of twisting and stretching, therefore connoting the “tension of enduring, waiting”. This is highly suggestive of a prolonged process.
The most difficult thing about the English text here is the apparent description of advanced, complex vegetation. Once again the Hebrew words used offer a much broader understanding:
|deshe||Grass, herb, vegetation : Vegetation with connotations of “tender”, a sprout. Fresh grass, grass, green, herb, new grass, new growth, tender grass, vegetation.|
|eseb||Grass, herb : Green vegetation.|
|zera||Seed, offspring : Any plant that reproduces by seeding in the broadest sense of the word.|
|ets||Tree, trees, wood : Any kind of stiff, fibrous plant.|
|peri||Foliage, fruit, produce : Any kind of plant useful for food for any creature.|
(Note that some of these words have even broader meanings, though for brevity only those pertaining to vegetation in some way are discussed.)
It’s also worth noting the sense of process implied in the description of the development of plants, “Let the earth sprout … The earth brought forth …” This is not the sense that “God said and poof!”, but rather that these things developed over time in the normal, natural way.
Most significantly, a research paper published in the journal “Nature” in 2009 describes the discovery of isotope evidence for plants some 600 MY before the Cambrian, and then another in 2011 describes the discovery of tiny fossilized fragments of land plants dating to about the same timeframe.
- Knauth & Kennedy, Nature 460 (2009): 728-32
- Strother et al., Nature 473 (2011): 505-509
The evidence is now strong that Genesis predicted the early timing of land plants millenia before science discovered evidence to support it. Moreover, speakers such as Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe were making the prediction that we would find such evidence, based on the biblical text, well before the scientific evidencde confirmed the timeframe.
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights – the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night – and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
Genesis 1:14-19 (ESV)
Again, “Let there be” signals a process; this time the atmosphere thins from translucent to transparent and the celestial objects become visible to the naked eye for the first time.
It’s worth reiterating that the phrase “God made” speaks of an action that was previously completed at some point prior to “now” in the narrative. It might be better understood by a modern English reader as “God had already made”. That is, we are being told only that God had made the celestial bodies at some point before this, not (necessarily) that they were made at this point, on day 4.
Also important is the reason given for these lights becoming visible, “for seasons, and for days and years”. That is, they are seasonal markers. Since what follows next is the creation of higher life forms, the appearance of the celestial objects is well timed for the animals that depend on them for their biological cycles. The celestial objects are not God’s to be served by mankind, but creations of God designed to serve mankind.
It seems fair to me from the way these events are described to conclude that the sun, moon and stars were already in existence and were now revealed for the first time with respect to would-be creatures dwelling on the surface of earth. In this case we can reasonably infer the pluperfect meaning of “God had already made”, since the creation of the lights was already spoken of as completed: “Let there be lights… and it was so.”
[An alternative harmonization for this day is the time immediately following the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. Scientists theorize that this massive impact from an asteroid would have had catastrophic effects on the global environment, including an extended “impact winter” which would have made it impossible for plants and plankton to carry out photosynthesis. Following this event, the sky’s would have been darkened for an extended period of time. If using this harmonization theory, this and the following days are pushed forward to 65 MYA and Days 5 and 6 describe the repopulation of earth with mammals as the dominant life-form.]
20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
Genesis 1:20-23 (ESV)
Next comes the creation of what seems to be aquatic life and aerial life.
There is an interesting choice of words here translated “swarms of living creatures”. The Hebrew words employed are:
|sherets||Swarming things, teeming|
|nephesh||A soul, living being, that which breathes|
|chay||Alive, living, moving, active|
While the noun sherets could easily apply to everything from plankton to large fish (which do in fact behave in a collective manner), the word nephesh is usually applied to those creatures which manifest some degree of emotion and relational attachment; in scripture this is particularly applied to those animals which are capable of forming bonds with humans. It therefore strikes me as unexpected that sherets and nephesh should refer to the same kind of creatures; it could be a reference to the great diversity of all aquatic fauna which is in motion.
This idea is reinforced by vs 21, “every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm”. Taken together with chay, in context these verses seem to convey the entire breadth of aquatic life which moves about from tiny creatures, to schooling fish all the way through to the large mammalian creatures – rich, diverse, teeming, abundant life.
But far more fascinating is the phrase used to describe the “great sea creatures”, where I think the English rendering lets us down.
|gadol||Great. Large (in magnitude and extent).|
|tannin||Monster. Dragon or dinosaur. Sea or river monster. Serpent, venomous snake.|
The term gadol tannin denotes very large bodied marine and land animals, fearsome and dangerous “monsters”, that predated the birds and flying creatures. This is a remarkable word choice instead of, for example, behemah which describes more familiar large bodied animals “beasts”. On reflection it seems a stunningly accurate depiction of life during the era of the dinosaurs, many of which had bodies so large that they needed shallow waters to wade in to assist with carrying their enormous weight.
Then described are flying creatures: Birds (owph) which fly (uwph) above the earth across the expanse of the heavens […] and every winged (kanaph) bird (owph) according to its kind.
|owph||Flying creatures, fowl, insects, birds.|
|uwph||Verb form of owph. To fly, fly about, fly away, hover, fly about to and fro, to cover esp. with feathers or wings.|
The word translated birds is owph has as the most common usage being for birds; in this context “bird” might be too specific and the ESV gives “flying things” as an alternative, which would then convey a much broader idea, “let flying things fly above the earth … every winged flying thing …”. The word could thus easily refer to flying creatures both small and large.
Revealing is the Septuagint translation, which gives us insight into the thinking of the Jews of circa 3rd century BC by way of the more precise Greek language. This provides us with an understanding from native speakers of Hebrew which far pre-dates any influence of modern science and demonstrates the flexibility and breadth of meaning allowed by the Hebrew.
20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth reptiles having life, and winged creatures flying above the earth in the firmament of heaven, and it was so. 21 And God made great whales, and every living reptile, which the waters brought forth according to their kinds, and every creature that flies with wings according to its kind, and God saw that they were good. 22 And God blessed them saying, Increase and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the creatures that fly be multiplied on the earth. 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
Genesis 1:20-23 (Septuagint)
Notice the specific reference to reptiles, which could easily be an oblique reference to dinosaurs, which natural science attests began in the oceans, and many of which remained semi-aquatic. So on day 5 we have a perfect fit for the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, from the Cambrian to the K-Pg extinction event; first oceanic life and the gadol tannin “large monsters”, then the birds of the air and flying things. Day 6, then, describes animals of the Cenozoic.
The biblical concept of “kind” is uncertain and vague and certainly doesn’t coincide nicely with any taxonomic term used in biology. The statement that creatures are created according to their “kind” suggests the capability for diversity within the creation, but with natural limits. This turns out to be significant because when the creatures of God reproduce, the result is another creature with essentially the same nature as it’s parents. This suggests a potential for God’s creatures to “evolve”, that is to diversify and change over time, but with divinely established limits to that potential.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds – livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 … 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Genesis 1:24-31 (ESV) – vss 28-30 elided as irrelevant for this article
The higher animals and mankind are created last. Here again, as in vs 20, there is the critical specificity of nephesh chay, translated “living creatures”, literally living souls – that is the mammals with which mankind is familiar.
The particular emphasis is on the nephesh animals which can form bonds with mankind, which can be tamed and set to a purpose and which can be made to serve the needs of mankind, for food, work and companionship. Note that this does not preclude earlier creation of reptiles, dinosaurs and various other land creatures some time earlier. It seems that God wanted to communicate to us, “every creature on which you depend for your existence is provided by my direct benevolence. There is nothing you have which was not given by me.”
Once again we are told that the creatures are made “according to their kinds”, implying a limit to diversification, but the ability to diversify, nonetheless.
The conclusion of God’s creative acts, the pinnacle of God’s creation, is mankind. Created last and bearing the very image of God, to rule over creation – that is to be God’s regent here on Earth.
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
Genesis 2:1-4 (ESV)
The chapter division between Genesis 1 and 2 causes an artificial break in the English Bible which does not exist in the Hebrew. Thus the first verses of chapter 2 conclude the creation account in describing how God rests from his work of actively creating.
The work from which he rests is specifically that of creation. It’s pertinent that the seventh day has no boundary, which implies (but does not demand) that the seventh day has not ended. This is further reinforced by the words of Jesus in the gospel of John:
16 … this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
John 5:16-18 (ESV)
Since Jesus was justifying his working on the Sabbath because his father continues to work until “now”, the argument can only make sense if he meant that the Father continues to work on his Sabbath – the only Sabbath for the Father revealed in scripture is that of the seventh day of creation; his Sabbath rest from creating.
As well, Hebrews chapter four should arguably be understood to indicate that the seventh day of rest continues on. Since we will not enter into the rest spoken of in Hebrews until the passing of this world’s realm, I think the best way to understand the creation Sabbath is extending from the completion of creation until the ending of this universe. This could be understood to mean that we should expect to see no evidence of genuinely novel creatures after the appearance of mankind (specifically, homo sapiens sapiens), though this is not absolutely required.
The meta-creation-account concludes in Genesis 2:3.
So then, in summary we have the following creative acts documented in Genesis 1 in the following order.
Table of Events
|Biblical Events||Eon/Era||MYA||Salient Natural Events|
|V1, V2||Entire universe.||Hadeon||
||Big Bang; stellar development; solar system; Earth.|
Forming for Life
|Day 1||Light becomes visible at the surface.||Archean||
||Moon formation. Late heavy bombardment (LHB). Clouds blanket the planet. Unicellular life. Photosynthesis starts.|
|Day 2||Waters separated.||Archean||
||Hydrologic cycle stabilizes.|
|Day 3||Dry land appears.||Archean||
||Continents form, reform and migrate. Multicellular, photosynthetic life. Great Oxygenation Event. Multiple snowball earths.|
|Land plants for food.||Proterozoic||
||Plants evolved from green algae. [No fossil record until the Devonian era.]|
Filling with Life
|Day 4||Sun, Moon, Stars Established.||Proterozoic||
||Atmosphere consistently transparent with stable oxygen levels.|
|Day 5||Sea animals.||Paleozoic||
||Dinosaurs through to K-Pg extinction event. Birds appear near the very end.|
|Day 6||Land animals.||Cenozoic||
||Paleogene radiation of mammals.|
||Modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens).|
All dates are approximate.
This reveals a remarkably close alignment with natural science, indeed, the only discrepancy is the current lack of fossil evidence for advanced plant life predating the Cambrian explosion.
The physical changes to the planet, as described in Genesis, comport remarkably well with theories of early Earth-history, including an initially opaque atmosphere which became translucent and then transparent and initial water-world conditions and subsequent formation of stable land masses.
This sequence of events for life’s creation comports remarkably well with current science for the development of our planet. However, I must acknowledge that Day 3 seems, at first, to describe complex, advanced flora earlier than the scientific evidence for such vegetation. But the length of day three can cover the whole span of time from the early Archean to late Proterozoic (pre-Cambrian). That is the whole period of oxygenation before the appearance of large-bodied animals. It is also possible that our dates for vegetation may be late because early plants did not fossilize.
At first glance Day 5 and Day 6 have the creation of birds before land animals. This seems problematic until the Hebrew phrase gadol tannin is considered closely. It’s most likely, and fully consistent with the text, that the animals described on Day 6 are the post-dinosaur creatures of the Cenozoic era with which humans would be familiar and with which we would interact and the use of nephesh does lend support to this idea, particularly with respect to mammals, but it is difficult to make this claim with complete confidence.
The other possible omissions I can see are any explicit mention of microbial life, insect life, and aquatic flora. This is not surprising to me because the point of the narrative is not to give an exhaustive catalog but, rather, to make clear that God did it all and that the things of this world are not gods. That is, it’s a theological account, not a scientific one.
In my evaluation, the sequence aligns remarkably well. It must be remembered that the Hebrew terms for flora and fauna are inherently imprecise which admits considerable flexibility. The days are of varying length in real-time – for the day-age view this poses no problem, however for the analogical-day view (that the days are God’s days rather than ours) uneven days is a little unexpected, and for the “days of initiation” view (where the days are when God began a new era) there is no problem whatsoever with this.
Of particular interest, and which came as something of a surprise for me, is the deep sense of processes embedded in the narrative, particularly with respect to the physical development of the planet. There is real scope for the creation of relatively primitive master “kinds” which diverge and speciate in the biblical account of creation. Fully four out of the six days strongly imply God using natural processes to achieve his desire.
Clearly Christians can be dogmatic only that God created everything, not how he did so.
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