Does Genesis 1 communicate cosmic history?

I am raising this topic as a result of discussions with @John_Harshman, having also read @Ronald_Cram’s question “Is Genesis 1 coincidentally accurate?” and having been encouraged to read John Walton by @deuteroKJ.

In John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, he proposes 18 propositions regarding how Genesis should be interpreted in the light of Ancient Near Eastern culture.

Proposition 1 states: Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. This proposes that Genesis 1 does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. It contains no revelation to improve the scientific understanding of the ancient Israelites.

In saying this, Walton is primarily referring to what he terms cosmic geography . Cosmic geography deals with such questions as: the shape of the earth, the nature of the sky, the location of the sun, moon, and stars. Walton criticizes concordism because it tries to connect the terminology used in Genesis 1 with modern scientific terms.

Concordists believe, asserts Walton, that the Bible must agree–be in concord with-- all the findings of contemporary science. Personally, I think Walton is overstating what concordists claim, but I agree that caution is necessary.

Given this warning, is it yet appropriate to talk about cosmic history in contrast to cosmic geography? If God was not trying to improve the Israelite concept of the natural world, was He instead trying to tell them something about its past history? After all, Genesis 1 starts with “In the beginning God…” and not “At the center God…”. The toledot in Genesis 2:4 reads “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.” ESV This toledot is taken to be a summary of the preceding text by some scholars. The word toledot is alternately translated as historical records . Furthermore, the content of Genesis 1 lays out a sequence of Days, typically observed as implying a sequence of events.

From this discussion, we should not rule out that God did mean to improve the Israelite’s understanding of the history of everything, namely cosmic history , even if God did not address cosmic geography as defined by Walton which is also understood as the snowglobe problem of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology.

Therefore, if we scope a concordist approach that primarily focuses on the scientific history of Earth, we are contending with a different set of concerns. This consideration allows for formulation of a new hypothesis: What was the meaning of e vening and morning in Ancient Near Eastern culture and the significance of the Days of the creation week?

In our modern culture, we are quick to think literally in terms of daylight hours followed by a sunset, nighttime, and sunrise. But that is exactly the kind of modern literalism that Walton warns against. In the ANE, the focus might have been drawn to God’s work of creation being punctuated by periods of darkness. No other ancient creation story features this metaphor. The darkness implied by morning and evening communicates chaos and what Walton might label as either non-order or disorder.

Not until the creation is complete and very good can the ANE culture think of the benefits of nighttime. The sun goes away, only to return. Darkness is no longer a time of chaos but a time of rest . But, at the start of the story, the darkness was one of the first aspects of non-order that God addressed.

The period bracketed by morning and evening in Genesis 1 is not directly labeled as darkness or night . Those terms are already used and contrasted: light vs darkness ; Day vs Night. The separation between the light and darkness is established on Day 1 – one degree of order achieved. But the rule over light and darkness by the greater and lesser lights is not achieved until Day 4 – a higher degree of order achieved.

This frees morning and evening to serve another narrative purpose: that of highlighting a period separating each day of creative work - a time of non-order or disorder . In the not-yet-fully-ordered cosmos, the periods separating each day may represent chaos events or times when some level of non-order is allowed or disorder is eliminated. Think of it this way: the Earth starts out in a state of chaos or non-order ; God introduces some order; then He switches gears to address disorder (which can also be thought of as contrary-order or anti-order ) which could entail allowing some level of non-order to return; God steps in again and introduces the next higher level of order; this process repeats.

In the ANE mind, this could prompt understanding the preparing of the heavens and the earth for humanity as occurring in phases. In modern cosmic history, what we would describe in terms of the geologic record, we see a similar pattern. The early earth is chaotic - scientists term this phase the Hadean for good reason - hellish conditions prevailed. By degrees the Earth evolves into a more habitable world. None-the-less, this progress is not smooth. There are periodic set backs and dramatic chaos events that occur. Some of these include the Late Heavy Bombardment, the Great Oxygenation Event, the Great Unconformity, and a series of major Extinction events.

Do any of these geologic events coincide with Genesis 1 chaos events ?

Revelation is replete with chaos events leading up the the new heavens and the new earth.

The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. Revelation 8:8

While this refers to a yet future event, and could possibly be metaphoric, it certainly brings to mind a past event - when a fiery comet crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago leaving behind the Chicxulub Crater and wiping out all the dinosaurs along with 75% of all species on Earth. This event marks the boundary between the Cretaceous (K) and Paleogene (Pg) periods as defined by geology.

What happened immediately following this event? The origin of all modern birds and the dramatic proliferation and diversification of teleost fish, which now comprise 96% of all extant fish species.

This sounds a lot like a biblical chaos event followed by God’s creative intervention.

And there was evening and there was morning, the forth day. 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.” Genesis 1:19-20

Immediately after the K-Pg Extinction event, the waters were in dire need of swarms of living creatures. Virtually nothing that could fly still lived, save perhaps some species of insects. As few as 7 species of birds survived according to some estimates. Yet from these few survivors, all modern birds were apparently formed.

God’s decree explains what happens next and attributes the restoration to His work.

Let’s have a look at how to apply this hypothesis by thinking about dinosaurs .

So what about the dinosaurs? God created them too. For a while (even just 24-48 hours ,YECs?) the dinosaurs stomped around digging holes in the ground, eating fruit, and outputting fertilized seeds. But God saw that just as it would be not good for the man to be alone in the Garden, it would also be not good for man to have to deal with dinosaurs. The description of the Leviathan in Job 41 makes it clear that God created some creatures for which man was no match and no ruler. Having a few of them around might be permissible but not like during the reign of the dinosaurs. Having served their purposes, God allowed the night to claim them.

So the question is, Is this approach to concordism valid? Can one think of God revealing something of cosmic history while not addressing cosmic geography ? What do you think?

It is not. Once again, you are force-fitting science and Genesis, doing violence to both in the process.

2 Likes

I believe Genesis 1 describes cosmic history and geography. You can read my posts about Biblical Cosmography and my view of Genesis 1. I can link if you want.

I also believe the scientific events you describe are instead the result of the flood and so order out of the chaos of the waters again fits.

I had come across a quote of Spurgeon last night on social media that described the Spirit bringing order out of chaos. I don’t know if it’s this exact one, but what a sermon!

So is the Holy Ghost the God of peace. He of old brought peace, when chaotic matter yeas in confusion, by the brooding of his wings: he caused order to appear where once there was nothing but darkness and chaos. So in dark chaotic souls he is the God of peace.

Hi John, thanks for jumping in. You are very assertive, but you are not providing any reasons or evidence to back up what you are saying. I’d be happy to consider your points, if you’d like to try to make one.

On another thread you asserted that Genesis 1 doesn’t relate to reality.

Is your primary objection based on the words “God created” because you don’t believe in God? Or would you like to be more specific?

Thank you, Valerie. I think this is something that many OECs and YECs can perhaps agree on. It’s nice to be able to find commonality.

I’ve read many of the attempts to explain all of geologic history in terms of one global flood event, but I find those attempts to be unsatisfying to me.

With the cosmic history approach I am proposing, there would be several “evening and morning” events that could better explain the geologic data without having to make as many “appearance of age” appeals.

The evidence for the coexistence of dinosaurs with any significant mammal presence seems especially problematic for the “flood wiped out the dinosaurs” view.

What would be your main objection to thinking of the dinosaurs as just having lived for a while during the third and fourth day?

Biblically, I believe that all death and natural evil have to follow Adam and Eve’s sin.

I actually don’t understand how OEC put the scientific and biblical data together - to me there are many more gaps and inconsistancies to be resolved in any OEC scenario biblically and scientifically. So that’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t attempt what you’re trying to do, though I respect the effort.

From my perspective, the scientific data either points to a GAE scenario - or a world-wide flood and YEC and we just don’t understand a good deal of the science of the flood and post-flood yet (even though mainstream science recognizes the extinctions and catastrophes of what I would say is the flood and post-flood), have yet to discover how light reaches the earth quickly (though we may soon), and misunderstand evolution. I’m ok with all of those unknowns. I guess they make life interesting. :slightly_smiling_face:

The 5th day doesn’t talk about “some birds” or “some fish” but “birds” and “fish”. You can’t have a boundary between days with some of the creations of that day one one side and some on the other. Further, you still don’t know what a “kind” is. If it’s families, it looks as if most modern teleost families originated in the Mesozoic. Most, probably all, modern bird families originated in the Cenozoic. The time of origin of bird families doesn’t seem particularly different from that of mammal families. The 6th day doesn’t talk about “mammals” but about “beasts and creeping things”. Some of those are mammals but would also seem to include all other land animals, and whales would be among the fish while bats would be among the birds.

As I said, nothing in your story matches either Genesis or science.

No. It’s based on the absence of any fit between Genesis 1 and reality. You distort what Genesis says and you distort what science says. I have mentioned some of the specifics above.

How would you get to that? They aren’t mentioned in Genesis at all, unless they’re “beasts”, and that would be the 6th day.

1 Like

What exactly is cosmic history? It sounds close to what we call the science of astronomy. One thing Walton would counter with is that other ANE texts also have the similar order of functions time, weather, and fecundity (cf. Days 1, 2, and 3). So are those other texts inspired too?

We might also need to press on the meaning of history itself. Now, I do think there’s value in distinguishing science from history in the question of concordism (some of my BioLogos article is relevant here). But we got to get a better handle on history. In this case, in what way should we (evangelicals) expect Genesis 1 to be history? (paging @jongarvey on his excellent work on why Gen 1 is a bad candidate for history or even narrative).

Yes, but they’re just wrong :slight_smile:

Of course. But you have to assume some type of historical concordism to suggest the story’s order is relevant.

did you mean to say this? For it conflates science and history (doesn’t it), and now we’re back to the same problem.

Seems clear it’s the time of rest and refreshment before the next day’s work.

Why? I don’t see this, and I don’t think would Walton either.

I’ll hold on addressing other issues. But you do have a creative mind, and I enjoy wrestling along with you!

I’m contending that the bird-like creatures on the “other side”, before the K-Pg, are not the birds being referred to in Genesis 1; they are not the modern birds relevant in ANE culture. Likewise, the “swarms of living creatures” created on Day 5 are distinct from previous kinds of creatures. If we assert that God was not divulging a lot of scientific knowledge in Genesis 1, then we would have to similarly assert that Genesis 1 is focused on creatures familiar to the ANE culture. Therefore, important creatures like bacteria, dinosaurs, and trilobites, as interesting as they might be to you and I, have no representation in the text of Genesis 1.

We already went over this. If we have to correlate to a taxonomic group, it would have to be species. However, the word is clearly used in a non-technical sense in the OT. There are “kinds” of winged birds in Genesis 1:22 but there are also “kinds” of kites and “kinds” of falcons in Leviticus 11:14. If we are talking about the Leviticus use of the word, we are close to referring to individual genus and species level designations. ANE culture did not think in evolutionary or taxonomic terms, so they would see each distinct creature as a separate creation. When we think of them as grouping bats with birds, then clearly, we can’t hold them to higher level scientific grouping constructs.

Therefore, bats and modern birds can belong to the “winged birds” of Genesis 1 and whatever creatures went extinct prior to the K-Pg would not be in that group, simply by virtue of being unknown, if for no other reason. It would be counterfactual to say that toothed seagulls would have been thought of a birds, for example.

Yes. You can slam me for leaning on Wikipedia for this (I’m being a bit lazy but I do seek out journal articles when I can), but here is what I see:

Bats, order Chiroptera, are mammals whose temporal range starts in the Eocene (55-33.9 mya). Therefore, prior to the E-O boundary.

Whales, both toothed and baleen, also have an origin in the Eocene, prior to the E-O boundary. The Infraorder Cetacea may date back 55 my.

The most important mammal groups such as Canines, Felines, Bovines, and primates leading to humans, etc. diversified after the E-O boundary which saw the extinction of many prior mammal species. If you look at the infraorders of Carnivora (canines, felines, etc) they get a much later start than the infraorders of whales. And bats were around long before lions.

It’s not easy to create hard and fast phylogenetic rules to group these species and their origins. And, if one is going to accommodate the ANE view of things, then a great deal more analysis would have to be done.

I certainly don’t think it is necessary to track down every last species, determine its “kind group” and determine an origin date. I think Genesis 1 is speaking in general terms.

If you look at species origination as waves of diversification, it looks like extant birds, teleost fish, and aquatic mammals had an earlier burst of diversification than extant placental mammals. I haven’t proven this, but what I think is that mammals are the main focus of the “animals” on Day 6 because those are the ones most important to ANE humans and among the more probable kinds that God would have brought to Adam to assess as potential helpers.

Even given modern scientific knowledge, I think it would be hard to do a better job of describing Earth’s history in as few words as Genesis 1 uses to a ANE audience, especially given the author’s penchant for repetition. It’s very compact prose.

This is an incoherent contention. What are the birds being referred to in Genesis 1? What are the modern birds relevant in ANE culture? What are “kinds”?

You would seem to be referring to species, but it isn’t clear. I have doubts that even you know what you mean. You seem to be searching for something that can neatly divide the Cretaceous from the Cenozoic. If so, you haven’t found it yet.

Yes, and since you can give no coherent definition of “kind”, you can’t say when they arose, and your scenario collapses into vacuity.

I have no idea where you get this idea or what you mean by it. Your claims are so vague that they can’t be addressed.

It may be compact, but it doesn’t describe earth’s history in any way. You have settled upon the K/T boundary as the separation between the 4th day and the 5th day, and the Eocene/Oligocene boundary as the separation between the 5th and 6th, and then you’re choosing whatever data you can to fit those assumptions. But an objective reading of Genesis would not suggest any such thing, and an objective reading of the history of life would not suggest any such thing either. This is a waste of effort.

1 Like

Thank you Valerie.

1 Like

In this case I don’t mean astronomy. I was trying to coin a term paralleling Walton’s cosmic geography which should not be confused with modern cosmology by any stretch, if you get his meaning.

By cosmic history I simply (if anything in these discussions can be simple) mean that the heavens and the earth as would eventually be experienced by humans, including ANE humans, has an actual true history of some sort in time. The planet Earth has not always existed. It was not always exactly as we see it today. There was when the Sun did not exist, nor the Moon, a time without plants, a time without birds, a time without animals, etc. Over a course of time, all those elements that we see mentioned in Genesis 1 became realities. Everything didn’t just pop into existence all at once. Whether revealed in Genesis 1 or not, there was some sequence to it which happened in time.

Well, if it the genre of Genesis 1 is any sort of polemic, epic, narrative weaving in poetic parallelism for didactic purposes, then I agree that it is hard to draw out the underlying historical backbone of the story. For example, I see a flashback in the account of the Fourth Day to Days 1 and 2. This kind of “epic regression” can make it seem like the text is saying that all these things happened at a certain time, when in reality, at a certain time what happened before finally becomes most relevant to the story. (I’m being unclear?)

Here’s my chart: Ages of Joy, Days of Creation: The Genesis Creation Epic

To be more explicit, I look at the “decrees” of Genesis 1 as sequential and the “evening and morning” as marking sequential phases, but the other content is more universal in scope, sometimes spilling across neat historical boundaries for literary convenience. I think there is a way to be okay with that, if we are not excessively pedantic about it.

Yes. Post-creation week. But clearly God wasn’t using it for a time of rest and refreshment, a little nap before the next day’s work, was He? In the ANE creation stories, night is not the best of times until after the creation is all put to order. Perhaps I need to try harder to prove this.

I’ll have to work on this a bit more. You are right I think that Walton doesn’t see this. He is an ANE scholar and it is very comfortable for him to analyze Genesis 1 in terms of ANE scholarship. I think when OEC scientists analyze Genesis 1 in terms of science, they are also comfortable. When theologians or biblical scholars analyze Genesis 1 in terms of theology or in reference only to other passages in the Bible, they can get quite comfortable with their analysis too. A cross-discipline approach is what I feel is needed.

Thank you. I appreciate you. I even appreciate @John_Harshman, but he wants me to give up all this nonsense to prove it. :slight_smile:

1 Like

I hope not to confuse things with this brief account of my views. The narrative of Genesis, with its parallels to Mesopotamian literature, begins with the Eden account. It has all the ingredients of a story: protagonist, villain, problem etc. It segues smoothly into the rest of story, whether you count that story as:

  1. The “protohistory” of Genesis 1-11, or
  2. Genesis the book, or
  3. The whole Torah, or
  4. The whole Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures), or
  5. The whole Bible.

With that understanding, the creation story of Gen 1 - which has none of the usual “conflict resolution” features of a story - acts as a prologue. I argue that its purpose is to give a humanly phenomenological account of Yahweh as Creator of all things, framed to show the creation as a temple for God’s worship and sacramental presence. That is the setting in which salvation history plays out.

That makes the science behind the universe, and even its pre-history, as irrelevant to the purpose of Genesis as it would be to a history of the American constitution.

2 Likes

Correct, which is why this is a great piece of evidence not to read the text too literalistically. It seems more natural to me to take clues like this in a theological and metaphorical direction, rather than read a phrase like “evening and morning” in a completely different way. But this is where the subjectivity of interpretation really comes into play; I realize we all weigh evidence differently to arrive at a large-scale picture of what’s going on. This article by Walton is really helpful in this regard.

1 Like

There’s no conflict to resolve; instead there’s a beginning and an ending: rest on the seventh day. It is a prologue. None of that negates it being a history or scientific.

I agree with this.

Basically, we interpret it differently because of the science, right? It’s OK to actually come out and say so. Only the Quran actually thinks God was taking a nap in Genesis 1.

Not at all. Forget the science; there’s actual interpretation of texts, consideration of genre, etc. The text has been debated for millenia, long before modern science. You’d be surprised how uninterested and uninformed many (evangelical, inerrantist) OT scholars are about science. They wrestle with the text…and find it complex.

1 Like

Correct. It’s the gross discordance with the data that negates it being a history or scientific.

I agree that the style changes when transitioning from Genesis 1:1-2:3 and picking up with Genesis 2:5 (do what you want with Genesis 2:4, I won’t argue that here).

But Genesis 1:1-2:3 still is technically a narrative which is simply a written account of connected events.

Is Genesis 1:1-2:3 not only a narrative, which it is, but also a story?

If so, the conflict type is potentially character vs environment. The character is God and the environment is formless, void, and dark. The main character acts/speaks to modify the environment until he finishes. The climax is the creation of man.

It’s clearly not a story in the sense of other ANE creation soap operas, but it is still a narrative and could be considered to embed a linear, historical progression of events.

I don’t disagree that Genesis 1 involves the humanly phenomenological perspective, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also an historical account.

v.6 records God saying “Let there be a raquia…”

I don’t actually take this to mean that God’s booming voice echoed through space saying “Let a metal dome cover the earth”. I think that’s an anthropomorphism like his “long arm”.

I do believe that God decreed through His Word that the thing that humans think of as a raquia was caused to come into being by God. And that He did so on the Second Day. He did so in linear time after decreeing that light shine on half the rotating planet, creating a Day side which is separated from the Night side, and before decreeing that the earth produce plants with seeds and trees with fruit.

This definition works for parables and many psalms. So how is it useful?

Or it might not be. It’s not about what could be but what is most plausible. Needs argumentation.

Fine, you believe this. But why?

By “interpret,” do you mean what people say in a YouTube video?