From the time evolution began to be considered by scientists the concept was fascinating. And it made some sense, especially after theories (like Darwin’s) helped explain how evolution might work. In fact, it made so much sense that it now seems odd that there was such opposition to the idea.
But even today, when we have so much more evidence supporting evolution, and when essentially all scientists agree that evolution is a fact, there is strong opposition to evolution in some circles—big circles! 34% of Americans still believe evolution is a lie and that we and various animal groups were all created separately.
A baffled visitor to Earth might ponder: ‘What accounts for all this disbelief in the solid science of evolution?’ We might well understand his bewilderment, but we also know the answer to his question: there is an alternative theory to our origins and it is rooted in fervent religious conviction—misguided though it may be.
The Tenacious Resistance of Young Earth Creationism
Beginning in the 1970s, Young Earth Creationism (YEC) took over the creationist movement, though it continues to morph as evidence against it becomes tougher to ignore. The two Genesis creation stories (chapter 1 and chapters 2-3) are the foundation of YEC, and the Genesis flood story provides them with a perceived mechanism to explain away evidence for evolution—’the flood did it all’.
A peculiar aspect of YEC is insistence that the earth, man, and animals were all created no more than 10,000 years ago (thus ‘young earth’)—usually in six 24-hour days—based on information from the first chapters of Genesis. This is typical of the detailed inferences YEC makes from Genesis, but what accounts for the absolute certainty of their views of origins that other believers reject?
I think the answer is somewhat simple—YEC misunderstands the genre of the early Genesis stories. Young Earth Creationists assume, without sufficient cause, that the early Genesis stories describe historical events when, in fact, the stories represent other genres altogether. This historical view is driven by another deep conviction that the Bible is inerrant—that it cannot make mistakes or report information that is untrue.
Now I am not an inerrantist (any longer; I used to be both an inerrantist and a Young Earth Creationist), but even inerrancy does not require the Genesis stories to be historical. The Bible is a mix of many genres: history, poetry, stories, philosophy, proverbs and so forth. Not everything in the Bible is intended to be understood as history—and I think this specifically applies to the creation stories in Genesis. They are written for other purposes.
If Genesis 1 is not Historical Then What Is It About?
Genesis 1 is a beautiful, poetic story of God creating the earth, and it reflects the common understandings of those days: an earth of land and water covered overhead by a vault containing within it a shining Sun and Moon, all the stars, and a huge reservoir of water from which we get rain. Sounds lovely—and reasonable for people unable to discover how those elements really work.
There are a couple ideas among scholars about why Chapter 1 was written. Some think it describes God building his temple, but others think it portrays God as powerful, organized, and controlled—as opposed to the chaos, violence, and mythology of the far older Mesopotamian creation story from the same area.
We are fortunate to now to have good texts of the more ancient creation story: click here for a summary. The full text is available in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1969, beginning with pages 60 and 150. You can also Google Marduk Tiamat for additional information and analysis if you like.
Note from the summary that:
In the beginning, neither heaven nor earth had names. Apsu, the god of fresh waters, and Tiamat, the goddess of the salt oceans, and Mummu, the god of the mist that rises from both of them, were still mingled as one. There were no mountains, there was no pasture land, and not even a reed-marsh.
There was a war among the gods, and Marduk killed Tiamat, after which he created the heavens and earth from her body:
He took his club and split Tiamat’s water-laden body in half like a clam shell. Half he put in the sky and made the heavens, and he posted guards there to make sure that Tiamat’s salt waters could not escape. Across the heavens he made stations in the stars for the gods, and he made the moon and set it forth on its schedule across the heavens.
From the other half of Tiamat’s body he made the land, which he placed over Apsu’s fresh waters, which now arise in wells and springs. From her eyes he made flow the Tigris and Euphrates. Across this land he made the grains and herbs, the pastures and fields, the rains and the seeds, the cows and ewes, and the forests and the orchards.
Afterward Marduk created mankind as a labor force.
The parallels between this creation story and that of Genesis 1 are striking. It seems that the writer of Genesis 1 drew from this earlier tradition but changed it to portray Israelite beliefs. The Genesis story involves one God—not many; the story is orderly rather than crude and chaotic; and the creation of humanity (in the image of God) is much different than the creation of a labor force in the older story.
So rather than being an historical account I think Genesis 1 is a statement about Israel’s God and an Israelite take on the much earlier, polytheistic, Mesopotamian creation myth.
But What About the Story of Eden? And the Flood? Aren’t They Historical?
The stories of Genesis 1, Genesis 2-3, and the Flood are all connected; so the question of their historicity is also tied together. We will talk about that next time.
Articles in this series: Evolution and Fundamentalism
- Evolution and Inerrancy: Confusing Other Genres with History in Genesis (part 1)
- Evolution, Eden, and the Flood: Confusing Other Genres with History in Genesis (part 2)
- Evolution and Original Sin: How Calvin’s TULIP Falls Apart
- Evolution and Imago Dei: What, Whence, and When the Image of God?