The Creation Narrative

I am not a believer in six day creationism. I have come to that conclusion as a consequence of reading the Bible. What I present here I’ve presented in the classroom, in Sunday School, and on our Quartz Hill School of Theology website. I do not read Genesis allegorically. The creationist interpretation is not the only “literal” interpretation of Genesis. In fact, I do not think it is valid at all, based on the structure and context of the creation story.

Genesis 1:1 through 2:25 takes the following basic pattern:

I. 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
    A. 1:2-2:4a How God created the heavens and the earth.
      1. 2:4b-2:25 How God created man and woman.

A discussion of this pattern follows:

1. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth” (1:1-2) is the opening or summary statement regarding the passage, similar to what one finds in the first paragraph of a newspaper story.

2. How God created the heavens and the Earth 1:3-2:4a; in the passage that follows, the author of Genesis now expands upon his statement of theme. In detail, he describes the way that God went about creating the heavens and the Earth.

Notice the tendency to arrange by theme rather than chronology continues with the six days. Their thematic arrangement has been pointed out before, for instance by Derek Kidner in his commentary on Genesis for the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries.

Notice that on days 1-3, empty places are prepared, while on days 4-6 the inhabitants to fill those empty places are made.

  1. light/darkness            4. sun/moon and stars
  2. water above/below     5. birds/fish
  3. dry land, vegetation    6. animals and people

3. How God created man and woman 2:4b-3:25

The narrative has finally moved from the simple opening that God created the universe, through how he did it (a general introduction describing the six days), until finally the author brings the reader to the details, hinted at in 1:26-30, of how the human race was created. In 1:26-30, the narrative explains that God created both man and woman, and that they are both in the image of God. In the passage of 2:4b-2:25, details regarding the creative process are revealed; rather than man and woman being created simultaneously, as a reading of 1:26-30 alone might intimate, the author explains that Adam was created first, that he studied the animals and “named” them, finally learning for his efforts that unlike all the rest of God’s creatures, he had no mate. This fact determined, God anesthetized Adam and performed surgery; through the use of some of Adam’s tissue, God produced a female clone to be his mate. Adam recognized her and named her and took her as his wife. The details and the perspective of 2:4b-2:25 are different and expand dramatically from the previous account given in 1:26- 30. Notice the following pattern:

A In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (1:1)—a summary statement

   B God creates the heavens and the earth (1:2-25)

     C God creates humans (1:26-30)

       D God rested (1:31-2:4a)

A’ God created the heavens and the earth (2:4b)—a summary statement

   B’ God creates the earth (2:5-6)

     C’ God creates man (2:7)

   B’ God creates the Garden/Rivers (2:8-14)

     C’ God establishes man, plans for woman (2:15-18)

   B’ God creates animals (2:19-20)

     C’ God creates woman (2:21-25)

The structure of the six days narrative follows the pattern of the creation of empty spaces (light and dark, water and atmosphere, land) which are then filled by specific objects. Notice, too, that the first two days (and the parallel fourth and fifth day) are split into two segments, while the third day and parallel sixth day are not so split, with plants rising from the soil on the third day and animals rising from the soil to inhabit the land and consume the vegetation on the sixth day.

The word “day” is defined in the context of the creation narrative in 1:5 where it is equated with the word “light”, rather than a twenty-four hour period.

The phrase, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the…day” occurs only in the first chapter of Genesis. Its exact meaning therefore is not absolutely clear. Certainly creationists are unwarranted in pressing the phrase as confirmation of their contention that these are twenty-four hour days. The phrase itself proves nothing.

There are other time periods in the Bible that are not literal in their meaning—for instance the seventy weeks of Daniel chapter nine, which refer to a time period of 483 years. As if this were not enough, according to the most popular evangelical teaching, the last week is separated from the preceding sixty-nine weeks by an indefinite time that at present has stretched to almost 2000 years, though there is nothing in the text of Daniel 9 to suggest this possibility (hardly resulting in the most obvious or “literal” interpretation of these seventy “weeks”). It seems unwarranted to demand a “literal” interpretation of day if it is possible to accept a less than “literal” interpretation of week.

The difficulty is in what is meant by the word “literal.” I do not believe that it means, when confronted by the phrase “he will sit on the right hand of the father” that we should expect to see the father’s hand under his butt. Instead, literal means an ordinary, non-subjective meaning; of course, if we are dealing with something allegorical it is as big a mistake to literalize it as it would be to allegorize what should be taken literally.

According to creationists, theistic evolutionists are forced into an allegorical interpretation of Genesis one. They argue that if evolution is accepted, then automatically the text of Genesis is no longer being interpreted literally. I believe this is an extreme overstatement of the situation.

Certainly it is doubtless true that many theistic evolutionists fail to take seriously the words of Genesis. However, I do not believe such a viewpoint is inevitable. Modern scientific theory can be compatible with Genesis, even a Genesis that is read literally.

In other words, Adam can be accepted as literally real even within an evolutionary framework. As Abraham was later to be chosen by God from a pagan, polytheistic society in order to become the progenitor of his chosen people, so God can be seen as selecting Adam from a pre-existing group of hominids and then giving him the choice of serving God or not. Perhaps Adam was a radical mutation from his forbearers, hence the story in Genesis 2 describing his difficulty in finding a suitable mate, necessitating divine intervention to fashion a mate for him, in this case a female clone (notice, that by being created from the rib of Adam, she was necessarily constructed from his genetic material).

Frankly, the text of Genesis itself makes the traditional creationist perspective less credible than creationists would have us believe. Not only are the days not placed in a chronological arrangement, but the search for a mate and the naming of the animals is also evidence that the sixth day at the very least, was almost certainly not a twenty-four hour period, since it would be difficult if not impossible, for a single man, however gifted, to identify and name all (or even a significant fraction) of the animal species on the planet in so limited an amount of time. Consider that there are at least one million species of animals (using the underestimate Whitcomb and Morris give in their book The Genesis Flood, p. 68). Allowing no time for sleep, Adam would have had to name eleven and a half animals every second (with 86,400 seconds in 24 hours). And this doesn’t leave him time to realize there is no mate fit for him, or for God to put him to sleep and form Eve.

Jesus said he would return “quickly” or “soon” (see Rev. 22:12, 20); yet if the world is really only 6000 years old, to have waited for nearly 2000 years hardly seems “soon”. However, if the world is actually 4.6 billion years old (and the universe 15-20 billion), then 2000 years is hardly any time at all (cf. the analogy made between a day and the history of the universe, where all of recorded human history takes up only the last few seconds).

The genealogies of Genesis are not likely to be complete and therefore do not function as a chronology. The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11:10-26 are both lists of ten names, and both end with the final individual having three significant sons. The artificial and selective nature of these genealogies thereby becomes apparent.

Matthew divides the genealogy of Jesus into three sections, each with fourteen names. His reason for doing this is that the Hebrew name David is written with three letters whose numerical value is fourteen. To get the structure he desires, Matthew left out several names, which can be demonstrated by comparing his genealogy with those given in the Old Testament (for instance Matthew 1:8 and 1 Chronicles 3:10-12). Therefore, it seems reasonable to suspect that the author of Genesis does a similar thing with his genealogies in order to get his ten plus three pattern.

1 Chronicles 16:14-17 (which parallels Psalm 105:7-10; also cf. Deuteronomy 7:9) states the following:

He is Yahweh our God;
his judgments are in all the earth. He remembers his covenant forever,
the word he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.
He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant:…

These passages seem to suggest that far more than the twenty generations listed in Genesis 5 and 11 existed between the time of Adam and the time of Abraham. Though it is possible to read “thousand generations” in parallel with “forever” in vs. 15, thereby making “thousand generations” figurative hyperbole, one could just as easily argue that “thousand generations” defines “forever,” moving from general to specific (as in the numerical Proverbs [Proverbs 30:15-16, 30:18-19, 30:24-28, 30:29-31]). However, even if “thousand generations” is hyperbolic it still suggests that far more than a mere twenty generations are in view.

Romans 5:12 is sometimes quoted to show that death could not have existed on Earth prior to Adam’s fall. However, it should be pointed out that the passage in Romans is speaking only about human death and that it would be difficult to press it to include the death of any other life forms. Moreover, before the fall it is clear (from Genesis 1:29-30) that at least plants had to die in order to serve as food for people and animals. (Some have argued that there is no death associated with eating a piece of fruit—as if fruit alone was being eaten—however, it should be pointed out that the cells in the fruit are quite alive before being consumed, and certainly are no longer alive following digestion. Life requires the death of other living things in order to survive; this is a basic biological principle. One can also point out that dead plants, among other things, are necessary to provide the nutrients to enrich the soil, to keep new plants going. It is really impossible to eliminate all death prior to the fall). This is impossible to reconcile if the passage in Romans is pressed to include any more than human beings.

Creationists also contend that to allow death, suffering and the struggle for survival before Adam’s sin is to make God into an ogre, since God repeatedly describes his creation as “very good” in Genesis 1.

However, in Psalm 136:17-20, where the death of the first born in Egypt and the deaths of Sihon and Og are described, the Psalmist comments that God’s “love endures forever.” Psalm 116:15 states that “Blessed in the sight of God is the death of his saints.” In both these passages we are discussing the deaths of human beings, not lower life forms!

Genesis 3:22-23 records that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden in order to prevent them from eating the fruit of the Tree of Life and thereby living forever.


Because death was absolutely necessary if human redemption was ever to occur. If human beings were not to wind up in the hopeless condition of the demons and Satan, they had to be able to die. Only by the Son of God taking upon himself the form of a human being and dying could the race be saved. If Jesus had not been able to die, then the human race would have remained in its sin and been forever irredeemable. (The reason Satan and the demons cannot repent and be saved is simply because Jesus cannot die for their sins; Satan and the demons are immortal: they cannot die.)

Death can also be seen as a good thing from the standpoint that it limits the damage that the wicked can do. Sooner or later, even a monster like Hitler has to die—thereby putting an end to his evil.

It can be demonstrated that death is necessary in order for life to exist at all (animals eat plants, while other organisms consume the dead plants and dead animals, returning nutrients to the soil, making it fertile for the growth of new plants). A question should also be asked: if animals didn’t die before Adam’s fall, then why do they die after it? Did they sin, too? Why should Adam’s sin have such an effect on them?

In addition to the structure of creation narrative in Genesis, one needs to also be aware of its historical and cultural context. Just as Paul’s letters were written to specific churches to deal with specific issues, likewise the book of Genesis did not spring out of a vacuum. It was given to specific people for a specific reason, to help them with the issues they were facing. In the Ancient Near East, the dominant creation narrative was that of Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation story. The author of Genesis is consciously and specifically attacking that narrative. Enuma Elish was written on 7 tablets. It had the gods, including the Deep (Tiamat), along with the stars, Sun and Moon as active deities. In Genesis, all those objects have been stripped of not just their godhood, but their personhood. In Genesis, they become created objects designed to serve humanity. As well, the Babylonian myth had humanity created to serve the gods. In Genesis, human beings are the crown of creation, made in the very image of God and given lordship over the entire creation.

Genesis answers the questions and issues of the Jewish people in an Ancient Near Eastern context. It tells them that God created the universe, that all human beings are one family, and that God is not a national deity, but the sole God over all the Earth and sky, belonging to all people everywhere. To force Genesis to speak to the question of how God made the universe or when God made the universe is to ignore its purpose and its context and to entirely misread it and misunderstand it.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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