How to Interpret Genesis

How to Interpret Genesis

The scientific study of nature has led to some faulty conclusions about the origins of the Earth

Randall W. Younker

Some of the most controversial chapters in the Bible are the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Many scientists have argued that everything in the universe, including planet Earth and the life on it, came about by purely natural means—that God had nothing to do with its origins. Most scientists today believe this. In direct contrast, the first 11 chapters of Genesis assert that God, by the mere power of His spoken word, created everything—the Sun, Moon, stars, this planet, and all life on it.

The key challenge to the Genesis claim comes as a result of the scientific study of nature—what believers refer to as “God’s Second Book.” As modern scientists have studied the Earth—particularly through the disciplines of geology and paleontology—they have observed phenomena in the layers of the Earth’s crust that they interpret as requiring millions of years to form. In addition, scientists have noticed a sequence of fossils in the geologic column that they suggest shows change or evolution from simple life forms to more complex, modern ones.

Finally, as scientists have studied certain radioactive elements in the geologic strata, they have seen that the lowest rocks seem to be very old—some hundreds of millions of years old—and that the upper layers gradually show less age. (It should be remembered that most scientists work within a worldview that rejects the idea of God a priori—before reaching any conclusion whatsoever—so all phenomena encountered are interpreted within a purely naturalistic philosophy.)

Upon putting these observations together—the large number of thick strata, fossil sequences, and radiometric dating—scientists have concluded that the Earth and life on it took millions of years to form. This broadly accepted conclusion contradicts the common understanding of the biblical account of origins: God created life on Earth by the power of His spoken word in six literal days only a few thousand years ago.


Influence of Modern Science on Biblical Scholars

Since the 1800s, many biblical scholars have been strongly influenced by the findings of science in the areas of geology and paleontology as well as by the naturalistic philosophy for understanding the world in a way that removes God from the picture. These scholars have concluded that the Bible should likewise be viewed through a naturalistic lens. Thus, disregarding Scripture’s own description of the revelation/inspiration process, they do not study it as a book of divine origin, but rather consider it as of purely human origin. Consequently, the Bible is viewed or understood as fallible—containing errors—since humans are clearly capable of making mistakes. For these scholars, the fact that the Bible was composed in antiquity—before the advent of modern science—makes it even more likely that its description of origins is erroneous. In view of this critical understanding of the Bible, biblical historical critics proposed an alternate process by which the Bible came into existence. This alternate process denied the Bible’s self-claim of supernatural origin, replacing it with the view that the text was the outcome of a purely natural, human process.

In the case of Genesis, scholars suggested that the book was not written by Moses under inspiration sometime before 1450 B.C. Rather, they say that Genesis was written and edited by a number of unnamed authors (often referred to as “J,” “E,” and “P”) and “redactors” over a period of several centuries—between 1100 and 450 B.C. Scholars who promote this view—often referred to as “historical critics”—have offered several lines of evidence for their reconstructions of Genesis. They point to phenomena in the Genesis text such as apparent doublets, contradictions, and anachronisms in an attempt to show the complex, diachronic manner in which Genesis was composed. The identification of these purported phenomena in the text have led them to suggest, for example, that Genesis 1 and 2 present contradictory creation accounts written at different times and for different purposes.

Their rejection of the supernatural manifested in the world has also led these critics to reject any miraculous claims in the Bible, such as the idea that God could create the Earth and its life forms merely by speaking, and that this occurred over the course of only six days. The critics prefer to accept the conclusions reached by the bulk of contemporary science—that the Earth and its life forms came into existence through purely natural processes over millions of years. Also rejected is the idea that the entire surface of the Earth as we know it was destroyed by a divinely initiated flood. For them, no global flood occurred, or if there was any flood at all, it was only local in nature.

The biblical critics also argue that the creation account in Genesis is full of naive ideas that prove the account cannot be historically true or scientifically plausible. For example, they claim that the Hebrews possessed a naive cosmology—an unscientific understanding of the structure of the universe. Pulling together different biblical texts, and making some assumptions about what neighboring ancient Near Eastern peoples thought, the biblical critics constructed what they thought the Hebrews would have actually believed about the nature of the universe. In this reconstructed Hebrew cosmos, the heavens were seen to be like a hollow, upside-down metal bowl resting over a flat Earth, with the Sun, Moon, and stars fixed to the underside of the dome where they could be seen by humans at night. The dome was also thought to have gates allowing for the occasional flow of water (rain) from the waters above the heavens. The critics also assume the ancient Hebrews believed in large subterranean seas and a literal hell.


Responding to Critical Arguments

Each of the arguments put forth by the historical critics for the non-inspired, alternate origin of Genesis has been thoroughly critiqued by biblical scholars who reject the historical-critical method. For example, careful analysis of the original word for “day” in the creation account shows it does not mean an indefinite period of time, but rather, a literal day of about 24 hours such as we know it today.1 Thus, the Bible does indeed state that God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh. Similarly, an analysis of the Hebrew word for “flood” shows it to be a unique word for a global water catastrophe leading to the literal destruction of the entire world—a “de-creation” of the work God had executed during creation week.2 As for the idea that the Hebrews had a naive view of the cosmos, recent studies of the Hebrew word for “firmament” show it does not mean an upside-down metal bowl.3 Indeed, a review of the history of critical biblical scholarship shows that 19th-century scholars were the inventors of the belief that the ancient peoples (Hebrews and others) conceived of a flat Earth with a metallic half-domed sky.

Other challenges concerning the unity and antiquity of the Creation/Flood account have also been addressed. For example, the presence of doublets (e.g., two different names for God [Elohim andYahweh] and the telling of the Creation story twice in Genesis 1 and 2) has been shown to be a common narrative technique in ancient Near Eastern literature, and thus does not necessarily reflect the existence of more than one author.4

Apparent contradictions—such as whether plants were created on Day 4 of creation week (Genesis 1) or were not added until after the creation week was finished (Genesis 2)—have been convincingly explained. In the example mentioned, the Hebrew words for plants in chapter 1 are different from those used in chapter 2. The plants created on Day 4 in chapter 1 are those of fruit trees suitable for food. In contrast, the plants found in chapter 2 include thorns and thistles or certain grass-like plants requiring considerable work to bring to harvest. The context of chapter 2 clearly shows that this second group of plants came about as the result of sin.

Finally, the appearance of the so-called anachronisms in Genesis—for example, the appearance of tents and camels in the second millennium B.C.—has been shown, in many cases, not to be anachronisms at all. Renowned Egyptologist and scholar Dr. Kenneth Kitchen has shown that tents were common in the ancient Near East in the second millennium—just as the Bible describes. Similarly, the presence of camels prior to the time of David has also been well-documented in recent times. I had the privilege of contributing to this conclusion upon discovering an ancient petroglyph (rock carving) of a man leading a camel by a rope in a Bronze Age context (pre-1400 B.C.) north of the traditional location of Mt. Sinai.


Significant Literary Features of Genesis

A number of literary features in Genesis, such as the structure of Genesis 1–11, are more typical of the second millennium before the Christian era than the first—suggesting that much of Genesis reflects earlier times. For example, several second-millennium “primeval histories” exist—origin stories such as the Akkadian Atrahasis Epic and the SumerianEridu Genesis with which Genesis 1–11 has much in common. All three of these primeval history stories contain three sections—a creation story, the rise of a problem, and a judgment by flood.

Though ancient Mesopotamian cultures produced later flood stories (like the Epic of Gilgamesh) and creation stories (like the Enuma Elish), these later versions were no longer “complete” primeval histories containing all three elements—creation, problem, flood.5 The fact that all three exist in Genesis would indicate that Genesis was composed at the same time as its Mesopotamian counterparts—in the second millennium. This fits with the biblical view that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis sometime before 1400 B.C.

Of course, the Genesis version is significantly different from its Mesopotamian counterparts. In fact, several scholars have noted that the author of Genesis was deliberately challenging the Mesopotamian version by being “polemical.”6 That is, the author of Genesis was disagreeing with the Mesopotamian version of creation and was claiming to provide a corrective version of how things came into being.

It is worth noting that a number of literary features in Genesis 1–11 suggest that the author intended to provide a historical narrative of Earth’s early history—not simply a theological statement, or a non-literal, literary depiction of Creation such as a poem, parable, saga, myth, etc. For example, a unity of the narrative of Genesis 1–11 continues into the rest of Genesis and, indeed, runs into the Book of Exodus. Together, these books tell a continuous story from Creation, through Abraham, Joseph, the descent to Egypt, and the Exodus. In fact, the creation story of Genesis 1–11 has been identified by many scholars as a prologue to the rest of the Pentateuch. Second, a certain Hebrew verbal form exists—the “wawconsecutive”— that is typically used for historical narratives (such as is found in books like the Chronicles and Kings). The waw consecutive is found in the creation account as well, suggesting historical intent and purpose for the narrative. A third literary feature clearly points to the historical impulse of these chapters: The appearance of “toledothformulae,” usually translated as “these are the generations of. . . .” Fourth is genre similarity. Finally, many elements in ancient Near East parallels of primeval histories can be shown to be historical.7

Taken together, this evidence suggests that it remains eminently reasonable to conclude that: (1) Genesis is in fact an early literary work—the product of the second millennium before the Christian era; (2) the text was composed as a unified account, although there may have been some minor editorial work at a later time; and, (3) the text was intended to be understood by its authors as an authentic account of Earth’s origins in which the world was created in six days and later destroyed by a global flood.


Randall Younker, Th.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology and Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.



1. Gerhard F. Hasel, “The ‘Days’ of Creation in Genesis 1: Literal ‘Days’ or Figurative ‘Periods/Epochs’ of Time?” Origins 21 (1994):5-38.


2. Kenneth A. Mathews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1996), pp. 365, 366


3. Robert C. Newman, The Biblical Firmament: Vault or Vapor? (Hatfield, Pa.: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 2000), p. 150.


4. Isaac M. Kikawada, “The Double Creation of Mankind in Enki and Ninmah, Atrahasis I 1-351, and Genesis 1-2,” Iraq, vol. 45 (1983), pp. 43-45; Duane Garrett, Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991), pp. 21-25.


5. Kenneth A. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World: The Bible & Archaeology Today (Carol Stream, Ill.: IVP, 1977), pp. 422-427.


6. G. F. Hasel, “The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” Evangelical Quarterly 46 (1974):81-102.


7. Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), pp. 49, 50.