How Can We Tell That Genesis 1 Doesn’t Offer Scientific Information?

How Can We Tell That Genesis 1 Doesn’t Offer Scientific Information? January 26, 2013

Someone asked a question along these lines on Facebook recently, asking what one piece of evidence in particular persuades people to adopt the view that they do.

There are multiple things that I find particularly indicative. The reference to a dome in Genesis 1 is itself significant. But the point becomes even clearer if one knows other creation stories from the Ancient Near East.

In the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic, Marduk slays Tiamat (their version of the more familiar Hydra, a seven-headed dragon representing the sea). He uses half to make the sea and half to make the sky, fixing an arch to hold up the latter. In other words, waters above and below, the former held up by a dome or arch or whatever one wishes to call it. Just like in Genesis.

The author of Genesis clearly did not have a different view of the natural world than the Babylonians who wrote about creation before he did. He had a different theological view, envisaging one sovereign and powerful Creator. The way the author expressed himself would have been understood to reflect a view of the sky and of the wider cosmos that he shared with others in his time. To insist that the author of Genesis used language that directly parallels what others in the Ancient Near East wrote, but meant something that only much later readers would understand, is to treat Genesis 1 with the utmost disrespect, not to mention dishonestly.

If we were talking about the account in Genesis 2-3, then I'd point instead to the presence of a talking snake. Unless one starts by imposing on the text particular presuppositions not required in the text itself, one will recognize quickly that the presence of a talking animal is an important clue provided by the author, indicating that the story is not a literally factual one. We know how we are supposed to understand stories with talking animals, and it is only indoctrination persuading someone to set aside everything we know as readers that can result in such a text being read in the radically inappropriate and forced manner that many fundamentalists read it. Insisting that the story has to be historical-factual rather than symbolic, when it is not introduced with such a disclaimer about its genre, and the clues within the text would naturally lead a reader to conclude otherwise, is once again to treat Genesis with disrespect and dishonesty.

The evidence seems pretty clear. So why do so many people insist that things are otherwise?


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • It’s like Paul and the unknown god. We use the theological framework of the day to explain YHWH.

  • Dan Ortiz

    Brilliantly said John Mark…. never made that connection before.

    Great post James thanks for developing your answer further.
    To answer your rhetorical question…. socialization…

  • Susanburns

    The Tihamah is a lowland plain occupying a narrow strip of land along the eastern shore of the Red Sea. It runs parallel to the Mid Oceanic Ridge which is an immense submarine trough or split in the earth that encircles the planet. It is deeper than the Grand Canyon. Tihamah is cognate to Egyptian Tehem (water) and Hebrew Tehom (deep). Scholars claim that Tiamat is also related to this word and is older than Tehom but there is no split in the earth in Babylon. The Tihamah trough is the only place on earth that a fracture zone can be viewed above water. Since it is part of the Mid Oceanic Ridge sea creatures that only travel the depths of the world’s oceans can be seen here. A person can stand on the reef and watch enormous mega-mouth sharks filter feeds. They look like they could swallow a person whole. I think chaoskamph originated in Western Arabia or the Horn.

  • summers-lad

    Very good post. To 21st century people there are plenty of clues in the text that the early chapters of Genesis aren’t meant to be read literally, but I like your approach of focussing on how they would have been read at the time they were written. That’s worth pursuing futher. There are of course quite a few clues that don’t depend on modern science, not least the different sequences in Gen 1 and 2, and the unending 7th day at the end of the first creation account.

  • arcseconds

    By saying “we know how to understand stories about talking animals” aren’t you doing more or less the same thing that the biblical literalist is doing?  The biblical literalist is going “aha! I know how to understand this! It’s a text-book telling me the way the world is”, and you’re going “look people, there’s a talking animal.  Clearly it’s a Disney movie. ”

    I can kind of see how one could argue that it should be understood as a fairy tale or a fable, and of course both are old forms, so it’s at least not obviously anachronistic, but surely the argument has to be made.   We can’t just uncritically take our reaction to talking animal stories to Genesis.

    • I agree that we should not make an uncritical judgment based on our experience of modern literature or movies. But it seems that ancient peoples had stories with talking animals, and that they identified the genre much as most modern readers would, with the exception of fundamentalists.

      • arcseconds

        I certainly think it’s highly unclear that Genesis was intended to be or understood to be a literal, textbook-style history recording the facts of how the world was created.

        There’s all sorts of problems with that view, not the least of which is that Genesis doesn’t have an author in the same sense as, say, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has an author. 

        And I agree that reading the Adam and Even story as something like a fable has considerable plausibility to it, especially as it’s about Man and Living.  The talking snake certainly fits in nicely with that reading.

        But I’m not sure about this claim that talking animals always marks a story as being ‘not factually true’.    I can’t think of any good examples of talking animals that might have been considered ‘true’ in the mediterranean or near-east, but there’s plenty of animals or animal-like entities in the mythology of other cultures that can talk.  Australian Aboriginal myths are full of them, but Raven and Coyote from native american myths might be more familiar to North Americans.

        (Even Greek mythology has Zeus turning into bulls and swans and things, so this blurring of the animal and the human does appear in the mediterranean )

        Of course, there is a question as to how ‘factual’ the people in those cultures take their myths to be.  I think it’s an extremely difficult question: our ‘taking something to be a fact’ is situated in a discourse that’s dominated by modern science, and a strong tendency towards totalizing metaphysics that the Church has had no small part in creating and upholding but is now being sustained by scientific culture.   Cultures without those things aren’t going to approach ‘facts’ in the same way.

        However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about cultures who just accept what we would call ‘magic’ as part of the makeup of the world.   Plotinus is recorded as turning into a snake on one occasion, in a pretty matter-of-fact kind of a way, and he’s a late figure from a highly literate society that has at least something of a naturalistic view of the universe.

        If people can accept Plotinus turning into a snake in the 3rd century and other things like demons possessing pigs, is it really sure that they won’t take stories of talking animals seriously?

        • That is a fair point. To be honest, I would be happy if young-earth creationists recognized that this is a question worth asking, and investigated the question. Most of the time, the question of genre is a matter of assumption rather than discussion.

          • arcseconds

             Personally, I find self-styled critics of the irrationality of religion more irritating, who also make the same assumption.

            At some level, at least, the YEC people more-or-less admit that they’re not actually after open-minded, rational enquiry.   Somtimes they’re even proud of  the fact!

            Although it could be that my irritation stems largely from the fact that I seldom have to deal with YECers…

  • steven

    Genesis 1 states that God created the Heavens and the Earth.

    For thousands of years, Christians have claimed that this is not literally true.

    Only in the past 100 years or so, has there arisen Christians who claim God literally did create the Earth.

  • Bob Demyanovich

    The bible is a parable of humanity.  It is a compilation of parables and metaphors.  The scientific method of close introspection
    is alien to the concept of spirit.  Skepticism
    of the spiritual follows from our experience, that which is common to us and is
    the physical condition of our existence. 
    The spiritual world is alien to our present state.  It will not arrive by sight, smell, sound, taste
    or touch.  Spiritual concepts and
    perception transcend physical preoccupation. 


    For example, revelation of the effects of sin is first
    introduced by the spiritual perception of Adam, male and female in the first 2
    verses of Genesis chapter 5.  God, Who addresses
    people according to what they are, refers to the male and female as Adam.  This glimpse of the spiritual conception of
    the physical repeats the generalized view of that which we humans within
    creation see with more detail.  The second
    post sin question asked of Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” is insightful
    of Adam and Eve’s pre sin focus, evidence of a more spiritual focus of a
    different mind.  Creation of the Earth is
    completed in the first chapter, but then more detail follows in the second for our benefit who, without spirit cannot
    know as spirit does.  Adam and Eve were
    unnamed for a while but became more who after the forbidden indulgence.  Human being is self-confined in the narrowed
    focus of detail.  The physical coalesces
    around thought.  This is an instance of
    how human is in the image of God, thought generates physical and spiritual occurrence.  Our short lifetime narrows our focus to a
    personal journey.  Short lives are more
    concerned with details than with whole or eternal considerations. 


    Deathless presence is unbounded, unrestrained, apart from
    time or aging.  Comportment, events and
    summation names are accounted by the deathless who have no concern for
    time.  God, spirit, the deathless,
    recognize events, decisions and spirit beings in an alien and superhuman manner
    to our limited perception.  Could the
    uncomfortable arrangement of the first chapters of Genesis reveal a transition
    from spiritual to physical perception?   
    How do those outside of time perceive and express events?  Days are left behind by those who leave this
    planet or only recognized for human affairs by the deathless.


  • Susan Burns

    It is also interesting that the obsidian microliths found on the Tihamah were associated with sharms. Sharms would make a convenient haul-out for canoes or even larger vessels. Instead of shallow reef and sharp drop-off, sharms have graduated elevation because they correspond to entrance to wadis. The question is; what was the purpose of the abundance of these microliths? Perhaps it was Africans (microliths were from Ethiopia) harvesting mega-mouths. These large, docile fish would have been a boon of fish meat and oil and could have fed many people. Perhaps it was the original feast of the  leviathan.

  • Dr. McGrath

    On the subject of talking animals, would you then say that in Numbers 22:21-34, the author is providing Balaam’s talking donkey to indicate that the story is not a literally factual one?

    This genre seems different from the genre of Genesis 3.

    • I think the story may be in the Bible mainly so that English speakers would be able to make humorous references to “talking out of his ass.” 🙂

      But seriously (hopefully you could tell the above was not serious!), the story in Numbers seems to take a famous non-Israelite and depict him as blessing the Israelites. Whether the author thought the story was literally factual, and how his contemporaries understood it, is hard to say. But it does seem to be a different genre, and hence it is not surprising that it refers to Yahweh opening the animal’s mouth, i.e. a miraculous event, unlike in Genesis in which the crafty serpent simply talks.

  • Arcseconds,

    You might be very interested in this link:

    Tim and Jeff give a very good explanation as to why Genesis 1 (possibly through chapter 11) should be ready in a particular manner, based on history and audience relevance: