As a little boy I was fascinated by dinosaurs. I especially liked the T-Rex, muscle bound in haunches and tale and outfitted with a jagged maw. The sharp teeth of these predators cut into my imagination, so much so that I had to ask my mom if they were mentioned in the Bible. With so many fossils, it was impossible to deny the reality of these creatures, but because their bones threatened the faith of my mother, she answered, “the devil put those bones in the ground to keep you from believing.” I wasn’t satisfied with this answer and put the question in my back pocket for a later time. As for mom, she was doing the best she could with what she had.
I still like dinosaurs! While they may threaten characters in the Jurassic Park series, they need not threaten our faith. So, instead of attributing their bones to the devil, I see the creation of T-Rex and raptors in the first statement of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1). The phrase “the heavens and the earth” is a figure of speech called a merism (i.e. two contrasting words that when put together refer to the whole). You could translate it this way, “In the beginning God created everything that began to exist.” Like everything else, dinosaurs were made by God, and like so much of creation after sin entered the world, they succumbed to death.
This childhood story illustrates the unnecessary friction that can come from a clumsy reading (or misreading) of the two books God has given to us: the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. The Book of Nature states that some things about God can be known through His creation. In the New Testament, Paul argues that the revelation God provides through creation is sufficient to hold people responsible for believing that God exists and should be worshipped (Romans 1:18-20). The Book of Scripture is God’s self-revelation to us about who He is and how we can be rescued from death through Jesus Christ. When all the facts are known and when properly interpreted, Scripture is always true and never false. This includes what it says about creation, human origins and history in general.
In the last episode I argued that Genesis should be read as theological history (i.e. real people and real events from a God-centered point of view). Most Evangelicals read it this way, but too many of us make the mistake of reading the book of Genesis (Scripture) like its a science text book (the book of nature). Instead of following the rules of good Bible study, which insists on discovering, as best we can, the original intent of the author and what it meant to his original audience, we race to our context with its questions about Darwinian evolution and dinosaur bones.
When God inspired Moses to write, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, Moses was not entering into a debate with Richard Dawkins. He was writing to Israelites who were likely preparing to enter into the Promised Land. When we remember that Genesis is book one of a five part series (the Pentateuch), we see that the big idea of the passage is that the God of the covenant (Yahweh) is the One who made everything and prepared a good land so that His people might flourish. That’s the message of chapter one. If we are overly quick to read our questions and concerns into the text, we risk missing its original meaning.
So, how should we read Genesis 1-3? We should read it with the grain of the Pentateuch. When we do that, all kinds of interesting truths leap from its pages:
- “Now the earth was formless and empty…” (1:2). What earth is he talking about? We rush to read “planet earth” into the text, but what if the text is pointing us to a specific land? In some contexts the word for earth/land (eretz) can refer to earth in a global since (Gen. 18:25), but in Genesis one it refers to habitable space (i.e dry ground) in contrast to water world. However, in the Pentateuch eretz normally refers to the Promised Land and a good case can be made that the boundaries of Eden correspond to the boundary markers for the Promised Land. What would happen if we read the creation of the planet into verse one, but interpreted the days of creation in verses 1:2-31 as more or less interested in telling a people about ready to enter into the Promised Land how God prepared it for His original covenant people Adam and Eve?
- “Now the earth was formless and empty…” (1:2). The phrase “formless and empty” seeks to capture the Hebrew “tohu wabohu” (lit. uninhabitable waste). Deuteronomy 32:10 translates it as “howling waste” and later prophets will use it to describe the Promised Land ruined by the disobedience of God’s people. Read within the context of the Pentateuch, tohu wabohu conveys not a cosmic void, but a waste land where man cannot live. Tohu is not tob (i.e. good). Read within the context of the Pentateuch, tohu wabohu warns readers what can happen to the good land if they break the covenant.
- “…darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1:2). In the Pentateuch, water is often an obstacle to inhabiting the land. God must do something about the waters so that people can inhabit the land (Gen. 6-9; Exod. 14-15).
- “The LORD took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden work it and take care of it” (2:15). The words work and take care of roughly translate the Hebrew words abad and shamar. When we read this within the context of the Pentateuch we see that something more than yard work is happening here (see Exod. 3:12; Deut. 30:15-18). To abad is to worship and to shamar is to keep His commands. The call to worship and obey God winks at us through a double-meaning.
Reading Genesis within the the context of the Pentateuch is critical if you want to spiral closer to its original meaning. As Gordan Fee reminds us, “The text cannot mean what it never meant.” Only after we have discovered what the text meant to the first readers can we talk about its significance to the questions of our day: How old is the universe? Did man evolve? Etc. This is just good Bible study.