by ProfDave, ©2020
(Nov. 14, 2020) — Cosmology is the philosophy of origins. The question of origins – where did we come from – is foundational to any mature worldview. Contemporary scientific theory tells us that time and space came from the Big Bang. But the origin, the what and the why of the ‘Bang’ is still beyond science. Arguably the traditional worldview of Western civilization rests squarely in the first three chapters of Genesis. It all begins here. What does it really say?
The Torah, or Pentateuch (five books), is attributed to Moses (c. 1400 BC). 19th century skeptics questioned this but have themselves been debunked. His authorship need not be taken in an absolutely literal sense, however. It is reasonable to assume that it was mostly written under his supervision, at least, but incorporates earlier materials and later editorial interpolations. We are told that he himself wrote, and he certainly had the education to do so [Haines].
Genesis, the first book (or scroll), is distinct in that it covers events taking place before Moses’ time. It is suggested that Moses did not just make it up. Scholars have detected signs that it consists of eleven teledoth (“generations of . . .”), suggesting documents inscribed on clay tablets that may have been brought from Mesopotamia by the Hebrews centuries before. Family genealogies may be the oldest genre of writing, and we know that writing goes back 2000 years before Moses! Family stories are interpolated in these lists of names as appropriate. Nevertheless, there is more unity to the book than diversity. Later additions to the Torah include Moses’ death, explanations of archaic place names and customs, and several “to this day” remarks. We know there have been no changes since the first or second century BC [Dead Sea Scrolls] and probably since the 5th, contrary to Muslim allegations [Haines & historical sources]. Interestingly, Job, thought to be written earlier in Iraq, reflects the same cosmological ideas.
The first teledoth, however, the Generation of the World (1:1-2:3), could not be a family record. It represents profound wisdom, quite distinct from the best of Egypt or Mesopotamia, written not as myth or legend but as sober history. This is no “primitive folklore.” Some call it “the creation hymn,” but its poetic form does not suggest poetic license, but a mnemonic device. To attribute this segment to direct revelation from God is more reasonable than any other hypothesis. It is foundational to the Bible in accomplishing two things: introducing God and confronting the question or origins [Haines].
First, in the very first verse of the Bible, we are introduced to God – not some primitive amorphous “force” or amoral anthropomorphic monster, but the God of the Bible. Somehow, the developmental revelation hypothesis does not work here. Elohim is a noun form of a plural verb – the same root as Allah in Arabic [Clark]. He is one (no polytheism), He is God (no atheism), He is knowable (no agnosticism). He is alone before He creates all things – before/outside space and time by implication, though no other ancient people could imagine such a thing. God alone is before “the beginning.” There is no dualism of God and matter or anything else. He is not the cosmos; He makes the cosmos. Matter is not eternal, God is before all matter. He is unity, before all, self-existent. He is energy, intelligence and purpose [Haines].
The God of the Bible is both transcendent and personal. In later passages He is pictured in anthropomorphic analogies as a king, a shepherd, a father, and a husband. References are made to his hand, his eye, his face, and his right arm. He gets angry, changes his mind, etc, but not here in Genesis 1! He IS. He creates: He SAYS and IT IS (bara – is an emphatic and exclusively divine verb, connoting newness and originality) effortlessly by His word (Word?) and will [Haines]. Nothing anthropomorphic or primitive here. And He “sees” that it is good – the feedback loop.
Christians find the Trinity implied here in the ambiguity of singular and plural of his title, Elohim, in the divine consultation, the “let us,” in the creating Word and the brooding Spirit. Who is God consulting with? Himself or the angels? Is it merely a “royal us,” as Muslims and Jews hold? In the New Testament, the Apostle John, also Paul and the writer to the Hebrews, seizes upon this speaking, this Word of God, to claim that everything was made through the eternal pre-incarnate Christ. Let there be no confusion: God is One, but the Word is God and the Spirit is God – tri-unity – God-speaking, God-breath, God-word: bara. God is relational in His very being.
And it was good. The world-view and philosophical implications for Western civilization are enormous. Other religions and civilizations either picture their gods moving against a background of preexistent nature, as nature itself, or reject nature altogether as evil or illusory. The West founds nature upon a super-natural God and feels invited to understand both by reason. And that’s just the first verse! Did Moses understand all this? Probably not, and we may be reading a lot into these few words that is debatable. But it is significant that in Genesis 1, unlike other holy writings, the door is open not only to Christianity, but to the most profound cosmology, metaphysics, and science.
Secondly, the first chapter of Genesis introduces us to mankind and its place in the cosmos. Cosmology is the philosophy and science of beginnings. To try to write the story in philosophy alone or in science alone (Sagan, Hocking, et al) makes bad philosophy and bad science. Where we came from is one of the most fundamental questions of life. Here is the Judeo-Christian contribution.
Most fundamentally, there is a beginning to the temporal and material universe as we know it. The cosmos was brought into being from outside nature, by an extra-natural, personal, rational Entity of intelligence, design, and purpose. This metaphysical paradigm gives order, rationality, and design to the material world – making science possible and worthwhile. More importantly, it gives significance, meaning, and purpose to human life – if only to seek independence from that Entity!
Our world of space and time comes from outside space and time. Nature comes from beyond nature. It is neither eternal nor imaginary. It does not invent itself, neither do we invent it. Existence comes from the self-existent Other; nature from Super-nature; design from the Über-designer; intelligence from The Intelligence; person-hood from The Person: God. He chose to speak and by His Word the heavens and the earth and everything in them IS. This is not one alternative option among many alternatives, but the Option against which all other alternatives are set. This is the a priori set of assumptions, beyond the reach of observation or experiment, on which Western science was founded – all else is speculation [Hocking’s Brief History of Time is a good attempt]. Take it or leave it. All this in the first verse!
A close second is the “image of God” principle, giving each human being an extra-natural, spiritual dimension, moral autonomy and value. There is no definition of what this means, but it is clearly not a physical image, but a spiritual one – the non-natural part of mankind. It is implied that we are not merely natural animals operating by instinct, but sentient beings capable of making moral choices, taking responsibility, and relating to God. This is examined in detail in the next chapter. Whatever is different about homo sapiens, clearly the Creator is depicted as taking special care and delight in this one species. The imagio deo stamps an intrinsic value upon human beings and potentially gives a transcendent meaning and purpose to our existence.
The first verse is an abstract of the fuller account given in Genesis 1:2 to 2:3. The second teledoth, beginning 2:4, further expands the account of mankind. Two more major principles are addressed in this chapter: time and sex. God sets the clock, at least for humanity: evening and morning, day and night, the seven day cycle of work and rest, and the signs for the seasons in the heavens. Interestingly, light comes before the sun and apparently days before the earth’s rotation. Once again, the Other is prior to nature.
Of course, most earthly life-forms, plant and animal, come in male and female, but it is especially written of mankind that the image of God was imparted to both man and woman. Women’s equality is explicitly declared in the first chapter of Genesis! Linguistically, at least in traditional English, the Bible speaks of humanity using a masculine noun, but at the beginning, it is made clear that – unless specified otherwise – what is spoken of man is intended for women, too. Don’t blame God – or Moses – for the English language.
And, don’t forget, there is meaning and purpose for life and beyond – if you choose to accept it. Or you may make up your own.
The fun is in reconciling (or not) the Genesis creation story with contemporary scientific myths of origins (cosmological theories). Warning: as an historian it is mine to remember that we have had a dozen scientific systems rise and fall since Moses’ day – and we may be due for a new one. Further, there have been multiple schemes of Biblical interpretation applied. To some, Genesis is the greatest of all myths of origin – profoundly true in a spiritual and existential sense, but poetry, not history. To others, every word is a barricade against science – or a caricature of science. Intelligent design advocates are somewhere between. Most of my resources are pre-Darwin and some are pre-Newton, which actually gives perspective. But what did Moses – or God – actually mean? If these words came directly from God, what would be His perspective? What would He share with Moses and future generations, given the limited scientific understanding of each? The purpose of Genesis certainly was not to introduce modern scientific concepts, like DNA or quantum physics, to ancient man or anyone in between. So what does it really say?
The major question is the one of time. What do the seven days literally mean and how long ago were they? Yom can mean an indefinite period of time, but evening and morning sound pretty definite to me and most conservative scholars [Calvin, Wesley, Clark] even before Darwin. But what is a day when the earth is not yet rotating? My thought is God set the clock – from his eternal perspective it is all simultaneous anyway – and spun the earth, moon and stars to agree with it. Are these seven days even connected to earth time – or a free-standing parenthesis in eternity? How would God tell the story if they were not? My hypothesis (a lay heresy no doubt) is that this could be a conceptual, or design, phase or else something taking place outside ordinary time. I am not saying it is or it isn’t, just wondering if that would work. The raw materials – matter and energy – are in verse 1, the invention of everything else in six 24-hour days, and the unfolding of those plans (hyper-gestation? mass production?) in however long it took. That would explain how plants were created “from the earth” before the sun was revealed (conceding nothing to Darwinian evolution, which, I think, is on its way out).
Again, bara connotes emphatic Divine action/disclosure and every creature is to reproduce “after it’s kind.” So much for the evolution of all species from one primordial soup. But it doesn’t really say each and every creature was created immediately by separate action. Suggestions to the contrary can be read into the Spirit of God “brooding,” over the waters and the waters, in turn, being commanded to “bring forth” fish and fowl and the earth to “bring forth” vegetation, beasts and man. No question that the stuff of the cosmos was made ex nihilo, but bara can mean causing that stuff to “bring forth” (whatever that means). Look at the way God makes saints!
The more difficult question is when this creation week ended with man’s feet on the ground: thousands or millions of years ago? No date is given in Genesis, of course, and no data at all in the first chapter. You can add up the genealogies for yourself. It comes out about 6000 years ago (about the beginning of recorded history by our time) – give or take a few centuries for translation errors and skipped generations. 10,000 maybe? But the reigning evolutionary orthodoxy demands a couple more zeros at least. Assuming reality and revelation come from the same source, is the science wrong or the Biblical interpretation erroneous or both?
Clearly, all questions of prehistory and natural history are not resolved in the first chapter of Genesis, current scientific knowledge or cosmological speculation. It is quite remarkable that this ancient writing is so comprehensive in its scope and yet so open to modern scientific knowledge. The jury is still out. Science is not really settled. Efforts to find a secular alternative to the Judeo-Christian Creator have not been very successful to date. Are we trying to evade the obvious? Perhaps we should not be quite so eager to discard the ancient paradigm?
Sources: The Amplified Version of the Bible (a commentary in itself), my father William A Heughins’ notes (1906-88 – drawn from various commentaries and sources available to him), Adam Clark’s commentary, John Calvin, John Wesley and Lee Haines in Wesleyan Bible Commentary.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.