The Bible writer of Genesis 1 to 11 intended to describe a literal—and recent—history of beginnings
Richard M. Davidson
Does Genesis 1 to 11 really teach a recent, literal, seven-day creation week and a global flood? We can’t just decide this according to our preference; we must depend on careful study of the original Hebrew. The following summary of the biblical evidence leads us to reply with a firm “Yes!” to the three main parts of this question.
Does the Genesis Account of Origins Describe a Literal, Seven-day Week?
Several lines of evidence within the text of Genesis itself indicate the Creation account was intended to be taken as literal. First, many scholars have shown that the literary genre Genesis 1 to 11 fits best is “historical narrative prose,” which means it was intended to be a literal, historical account of creation. The narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 lack any clues that they are to be taken as some kind of non-literal, symbolic/metaphorical, or “meta-historical” literature.
Second, the literary structure of Genesis as a whole indicates that the creation narratives were intended to be taken as literal. It is widely recognized that the author of Genesis used the Hebrew word translated as “generations” or “history” in each of the major sections of the book (for a total of 13 times), thus revealing the book’s structure. Elsewhere in Scripture, the word is used in the setting of genealogies concerned with providing an accurate account of time and history. The use of the same word in Genesis 2:4 shows that the author intends his account of creation to be as literal as are the rest of the Genesis narratives.
Third, the author uses the phrase “evening and morning” at the conclusion of each of the seven days of creation to define clearly the nature of the days of creation—they’re literal, approximately 24-hour-long days. Outside of Genesis 1, references to “evening” and “morning” together invariably—without exception in the Old Testament, where this occurs 57 times—indicate a literal day. Even Daniel 8:14 refers to 2,300 “evening-mornings” as literal days that in Bible prophecy are to be interpreted as 2,300 years, in accordance with the “[literal] day = [literal] year” principle of prophetic interpretation that arises from within Scripture.
Fourth, in Genesis 1, the Hebrew word translated as “day” is used at the conclusion of each of the six days of creation, and in each case it is used in connection with a numeric adjective (“one [first] day,” “second day,” “third day,” etc.). This combination occurs 359 times in the rest of Scripture, and it always refers to literal days.
Fifth, the Sabbath commandment (Ex. 20:8-11) explicitly indicates that humankind’s six-day work week is the same kind of week as God’s six-day work week at Creation. Each week ends with a Sabbath, just as the creation week did. The divine Lawgiver unequivocally interprets the first week as a literal week that consists of seven consecutive, contiguous, literal days.
Sixth, Jesus and all New Testament writers refer to Genesis 1 to 11 with the underlying assumption that it is literal, reliable history. Every chapter of this section of Genesis is referred to somewhere in the New Testament—Jesus Himself referring to Genesis chapters 1 through 7 as containing literal history.
Regarding the relationship between the first two verses of Genesis 1 and the rest of the chapter, there are three major interpretations. One interpretation, called the “no gap” view, sees verses 1 and 2 as part of the first day of the seven-day creation week. This interpretation has two variations. The first variation, which may be called the “young earth, young life” view, takes the term “heavens and earth” to apply only to this Earth and its immediate surrounding heavenly spheres (the atmospheric heavens and perhaps the Solar System). Thus Genesis is saying that this Earth and its surrounding heavenly spheres were created recently, and according to this position, Genesis 1 says nothing about the creation of the entire universe.
The other variation of the “no gap” position may be called the “young universe, young life” view. According to this view, the term “heavens and earth” is a merism—a figure of speech using parts of the whole to refer to the whole—for the entire universe. Those who hold this position believe Moses was saying that the entire universe was created in the six-day week described in Genesis 1. This latter position, held by some evangelicals is not regarded by most Seventh-day Adventists to be in harmony with the big picture of the Great Controversy, according to which unfallen intelligences (angels and inhabitants of other worlds) were in existence before the six-day creation week described in Genesis 1 (see Job 38:4-7; Revelation 12:7-9).
The second major interpretation, commonly called the “active gap” (or “ruin-restoration”) view, regards Genesis 1:1 as describing God’s original creation. Verse 2 depicts Satan’s ruining of God’s creation, and vv. 3 and onward depict God’s restoration of His original creation. Verse 2 is translated by these interpreters as: “The earth became without form and void. . . .” However, such translation is opposed to the Hebrew syntax of this verse, which contains three noun clauses indicating a state of being(“was”), not a process (“became”), and thus this interpretation is not viable in light of Hebrew grammar.
The third major interpretation, commonly called the “passive gap” view, regards Genesis 1:1, 2 as a chronological unity separated by a gap in time from the first day of creation, which is described in verse 3. This interpretation also has two variations. According to the first variation, the expression “heavens and earth” in verse 1 is taken as a figure of speech (merism) referring to the entire universe, which was created “in the beginning”—before creation week. Verse 2 describes the “raw materials” of the Earth in their unformed and unfilled state, as they were created before—perhaps long before—the seven days of creation week. Verses 3 and onward, then, depict the actual creation week.
According to the second variation of the “passive gap” interpretation, the expression “heavens and earth” refers only to this planet and its immediate surrounding heavenly spheres, which were created in their unformed and unfilled state at some point in time before the Genesis 1 creation week. According to this variation, Genesis 1 speaks only of the creation of this world; it says nothing about the creation of the rest of the universe.
The Hebrew text seems to allow for either the “no gap” or the “passive gap” interpretations and their variations (except for the “young universe, young life” variation of the “no gap” interpretation). This possible openness in the Hebrew text as to whether or not there is a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 2 and verses 3 onward has implications for interpreting the pre-fossil layers of the geological column. If one accepts the “no gap” option, there is a possibility of relatively young pre-fossil rocks, created as part of the seven-day creation week (perhaps with the appearance of old age). If one accepts the “passive gap” option, there is the alternate possibility of the pre-fossil “raw materials” being created at a time of absolute beginning of this earth and its surrounding heavenly spheres at an unspecified time in the past, perhaps thousands, millions, or even billions of years ago. This initial unformed and unfilled state is described in verse 2. Verses 3 onward, then, describe the process of forming and filling during the seven-day creation week.
Genesis 1 leaves room for either (a) young, pre-fossil rock that was created during the seven days of Creation (with appearance of old age), or (b) much older, pre-fossil Earth rocks, with a long interval between the creation of these inanimate “raw materials” described in Genesis 1:1, 2 and the seven days of creation week described in verse 3 onward. In either case, the biblical text calls for a short chronology of one literal week for the creation of life on Earth. According to Genesis 1, there is no room for any gap of time involving the creation of life on this earth: All of Earth’s life forms were created during the third through the sixth literal, contiguous, 24-hour days of creation week.
Was the Creation Week Recent or Remote in Time?
Evidence strongly implies that the creation week described in Genesis 1:3 to 2:4 was recent—sometime in the past several thousand years; not hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago. The evidence is found primarily in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. These genealogies are unique; there is nothing like them among the other genealogies of the Bible or in other ancient Near Eastern literature.
Unlike the other genealogies, which may—and, in fact, often do—contain gaps, the “chronogenealogies” of Genesis 5 and 11 have indicators that they are to be taken as complete genealogies—genealogies without gaps. These unique interlocking features indicate a specific focus on chronological time and reveal an intention to make clear that there are no gaps between the individual patriarchs mentioned.
These genealogies say a patriarch lived x years and begat a son; and that after he begat this son, he lived y more years and begat more sons and daughters; and all the years of this patriarch were z years. These tightly interlocking features make it virtually impossible to argue that there are significant generational gaps. Rather, they purport to present the complete time sequence from father to direct biological son throughout the genealogical sequence from Adam to Abraham. So it’s clear that the author of the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 was aiming at completeness, accuracy, and precision regarding the length of time covered. This conclusion is also supported by the special form of the Hebrew verb for “begat” in Genesis 5 and 11 that always elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible refers to direct physical descendants and thus does not allow for gaps between the patriarchs listed in these genealogies.
There are several different textual versions of the chronological data in these two chapters: MT (the Masoretic [Hebrew] Text), LXX (the Septuagint [Greek translation] of the Old Testament), and the Samaritan Pentateuch (which is the five books of Moses). The scholarly consensus is that the MT has preserved the original figures in their purest form, while the LXX and Samaritan versions have intentionally schematized the figures for theological reasons. Even so, it’s important to recognize that though these texts differ regarding the time their genealogies cover, that difference is a matter of only about one thousand years.
Regarding the chronology from Abraham to the present, Bible-believing scholars disagree about whether the Israelite sojourn in Egypt lasted 215 years or 430 years, and thus whether to put Abraham late in the third millennium B.C. or early in the second millennium B.C. Other than this minor difference, Scripture’s basic chronology from Abraham to the present is clear, and it totals about four thousand years (plus or minus two hundred years).1
Thus, the Bible presents a relatively recent creation of life on this Earth—one that took place a few thousand years ago, not hundreds of thousands or millions or billions of years ago. While minor ambiguities don’t allow estimate of the exact date of that six-day creation week, based upon the biblical evidence, we conclude that Scripture is perfectly clear: That week occurred recently.
Does Genesis 6 to 9 Describe a Local Flood or a Global Flood?
Although many biblical scholars argue that Genesis 6 to 9 describes only a local flood, numerous lines of biblical evidence lead to the conclusion that only a global flood does full justice to the biblical data. The major themes in Genesis 1 through 11—Creation, the Fall, the plan of redemption, and the spread of sin—are universal in scope, so they call for a matching universal judgment, which the Flood provides.
Then, after the Flood, God makes a promise—a covenant. He promises there will never again be a flood like the one Noah experienced (Gen. 9:15; Isa. 54:9). God said the rainbow would be a sign to remind us of His promise (Gen. 9:9-18). If Noah’s flood were only local, then every flood that has occurred since then would break the covenant promise God made.
The ark was an enormous boat (Gen. 6:14, 15), and the reason given for its size is that it was to enable Noah, his family, and representatives of all the air-breathing terrestrial animals to survive the Flood (6:16-21; 7:2, 3). If that flood were to be a limited one, covering only a part of the Earth’s surface, Noah and his family and the animals could have escaped it by simply climbing a mountain or moving to another region. The ark makes sense only as preparation for a global deluge. The Bible also says the Flood waters rose at least 15 cubits above “all the high mountains” (7:19)2 of pre-Flood Earth. Again, this is inconsistent with a local flood: If the water covered the highest mountains, everything else, which all was lower, would also be covered.
In addition, those who escaped the Flood were in the ark for more than a year (Gen. 7:11–8:14). That makes sense only if the Flood was global. The word translated as “flood” or “deluge,” which occurs 12 times in Genesis and once in Psalms (29:10), is reserved exclusively for reference to the Genesis flood, thus setting that flood apart from all local floods and giving it a global context.
There are numerous other lines of biblical evidence, including more than 30 forceful and explicitly universal expressions that are employed in the Flood narrative, that make it difficult to imagine what else the biblical writer could have done to indicate the global extent of the Genesis flood.
These conclusions regarding the biblical view of origins coincide with the findings of the vast majority of mainstream Old Testament scholars. James Barr, the late professor of Hebrew at Oxford University, summarized as follows: “So far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience, (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story, (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and [to have] extinguish[ed] all human and animal life except for those in the ark.”3
Based upon the testimony of the Genesis account and later biblical allusions to this account, we join the host of scholars, ancient and modern, both critical and evangelical, who affirm that the Bible writer of Genesis 1 to 11 intended to describe a literal history of beginnings, with a literal, recent creation week consisting of seven historical, contiguous, creative, natural (approximately 24-hour) days, and a global, worldwide flood. We choose to believe that what the Bible writer recorded is an accurate history of origins.
The Bible was prepared for our instruction, but there was a deeper purpose. If Jesus was to accomplish His mission of redeeming lost humanity, He could not have any advantage over us. Consequently, while He was on earth, He didn’t have the divine knowledge He had in heaven, and the Holy Spirit couldn’t communicate with Him in any way that we don’t have access to. How could He as an innocent child and adult escape Satan’s vicious deceptions?
As we would expect, He planned ahead. He gave Himself a very great advantage, and we have access to the same advantage if we will accept it. He inspired His servants to write the book that He knew He would read in His earthly life—the Old Testament. This book had to be factual and accurate. It revealed to Jesus who He was, who Satan is, and the history of the conflict between Himself and Satan. From the Old Testament, Jesus learned about the literal creation week and the Sabbath and what this tells us about our relationship to our Creator.
Richard Davidson, Ph.D., is the J. N. Andrews Professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. See The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (1953 ed.), “The Chronology of Early Bible History,” volume 1, pages 174 to196.
2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.
3. James Barr, from a letter to David C. C. Watson, Esq. (1984).