The book of Genesis is in every way the foundational book of the entire Bible. It is the supreme book of beginnings, chronicling the origin of the universe and the human race, the entry of sin into the world, and the launching of the history of redemption.
Many Christians do not know that all the great doctrines of the faith are introduced in this book, and portrayed in its pages.
This is in character a book of history, describing literal events. That is clearly how it presents its material, and how it expects to be understood. That is also how the rest of the Bible treats it. There is no human literature to equal the book of Genesis in depth and richness, explaining as it uniquely does the sinful human condition and situation.
Written by Moses, much of Genesis may have been drawn from pre-existing histories, compiled by inspired patriarchs of each generation, but if this is so, Moses would also have received a perfect revelation of all that took place. He did not have to sift and validate records like an uninspired historian. If they existed, he would have been moved by the Spirit to bring them together, and if necessary to correct them, by special inspiration.
In surveying the message of the opening chapters of Genesis, we will not give attention to the theory of evolution, or seek to demonstrate the scientific integrity of the biblical record. There are many books that do this very well, leaving us free to focus on the spiritual purpose and message. We certainly affirm that the Genesis record is literal, and not fictional, or analogical poetry.
The opening words are almost breathtaking for their dogmatic assertion of God. He is simply declared as the God who exists and rules over all. No attempt is made to justify belief in him. There could be no grander beginning, disregarding the insolence of mortal specks of dust who might demand a justification of God. The words, ‘In the beginning, God created…’ point in adoration and submission to the one true God, who pre-exists all material things, and is the Creator of all.
There was a beginning, we are told, when God brought everything into being out of nothing, and then created an ordered earth in stages. The point and message of these stages interests us considerably.
The first stage shows the earth without form and void. It appears to have been liquid mass, presumably containing suspended in it all the materials needed for the composition of the dry land, together with its biological decorations, and its creatures. At the very beginning it had no shape or form. Not that this indicated a disorganised mess, for ‘without form’ only refers to the absence of detailed features.
But why did God not bring the finished creation into being immediately, at a word, instantly forming dry land and seas, vegetation, hills and valleys? Why were there distinguishable stages of creation over six days?
In a way, a six-day creation is as good as an instantaneous creation, because only God could work so quickly. The unique and mighty power of God is just as fully demonstrated over six days, as in one. A creation period of six months may begin to suggest a limitation in God’s power, but a mere six days does not. But there is a reason to be sought for the elongated period.
One day there was a formless, inert, empty mass, lacking energy or movement. There was no character to it, and yet it would not be correct to say it was chaos in the modern sense of the word.1* Though formless and inert, it was a latent treasure store, an untapped source of wonders, a masterpiece in waiting.
It is the theory of evolution that starts the world as a disorganised, confused mass and puts disorder, confusion and meaninglessness at the forefront of its process. But God began creation with a first stage like an artist’s canvas, prepared as the foundation of a most marvellous work. It is evolution that must conjure order out of chaos by a cataclysmic accident.
We come back to the question – Why did God start with the formless stage? Part of the answer is that in Genesis 1 we see God presenting himself as the incomparable divine craftsman, building something wonderful. He calls us to see and follow his work, and to marvel at each stage. If all had been done suddenly, it would certainly have been marvellous, but we would not be able to appreciate the details.
However, the supreme reason for a phased creation is that God is exhibiting the significance of man, showing that he was working to a grand conclusion. The steadily building picture shows God fashioning everything especially for mankind, who would be the pinnacle of creation; the end-point, the highest peak. The great tapestry of creation unfolds in stages to show how much God has done for mankind.
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THE BEGINNING of energy and form came as a distinctive act of God. We read that ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ Then the Spirit of God exerted divine power, imparting energy to that inert, watery deep. The power of electromagnetic energy streamed in, and particles began to operate and function.
At the same time, or immediately afterwards, God pronounced: ‘Let there be light,’ and although there would be no sun until the fourth day, light flooded in directly from God, extinguishing the darkness. The sun would be formed later to show that God creates all energy himself, and the sun is merely an agent and a servant. To us the sun may seem mighty and supreme as a source of energy, but the creation order shows its true place. God was the founder of light, and in due course devolved that action to the sun.
‘God saw the light,’ we read, ‘that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.’ Light without the sun is right at the forefront of the creation of an environment for mankind, and this stirs us to reflect. The gift of light gives such a remarkable range of benefits. It is an extraordinary provision for man, being involved in countless biological systems, and especially given for man’s pleasure and delight; for discovery and education. Obviously, light exhibits and glorifies the features of God’s creation, in all their colour, movement and detail. And it constantly lifts the moods to which we are subject in our fallen phase of world history.
Light also speaks of divine influence, providing a metaphor for truth, spiritual understanding and salvation. If God ‘saw the light, that it was good,’ so should we, meditating thankfully on the great goodness of God in giving us the gift of vision, and filling the world with beauty.
We also read that God divided the light from the darkness. Even before the Fall, in a good and perfect world where there was no sin, there would be darkness, and there was a purpose in this. Even if man had lived on without a Fall, he may well have taken light for granted. By means of darkness we appreciate light, and here is a lesson in how God provides many fluctuating providences, so that we never take blessings for granted, and forget the One who gives them. From the beginning we are taught that God’s blessings are not necessarily constantly enjoyable, and we must learn to appreciate them by their temporary absence and withdrawal. So darkness is ordained, and so is rest, under its cloak of stillness.
Darkness, and the need for rest, would have taught Adam and Eve that even in the time of their perfectness, they were weak and dependent beings. God ordained the need for rest and revitalisation.
In our spiritual walk we may encounter a period of lost assurance not due to sin. It may be that God has drawn the clouds across the heavens so that we will seek him afresh, and appreciate the value of assurance of salvation. This principle was written into the earth even before the Fall, in the alternation of light and darkness.
On a technical point, we may be quite certain that in Genesis 1 the narrative refers to 24-hour days because it is so carefully, elaborately and repeatedly spelled out. The period of light is called day and the period of darkness, night. The evening and morning is said to constitute the first day. The formula is then repeated for every subsequent day. Short of accusing the Holy Spirit of misleading thousands of generations of readers, it is not possible to transcribe the narrative into poetic metaphor.
For the second day, we read, ‘And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ A firmament means an expanse, referring it seems to the atmosphere. The earth is ‘the waters’ for the land has not yet been formed, above which is a layer of atmosphere, and above that is more water – an immense covering of moisture, far denser than the clouds we see today. This, presumably, was emptied upon earth at the time of the Flood. Though containing millions of gallons of water, it was a transparent layer of vapour, through which could be seen (once they were created) sun, moon and stars – the upper atmosphere. God called the firmament around the earth heaven, or skies.
On the third day God commanded the waters of earth to be gathered together, and the land to appear, calling the land earth, and the waters, seas. So the land masses, perhaps the continents and islands, appeared. The narrative shows the environment being progressively modelled. Light is given, and darkness, then the atmosphere with its moisture canopy, and then land, possibly with great variation. God is seen forming all these step by step, making an exceptionally beautiful realm for the inhabitation of man.
Then greater beauty begins to appear: vegetation, grasses, herbs, trees, according to their kind, providing lavish decoration and fruit, ‘and God saw that it was good.’ All such things were produced in their mature state, fully grown, manifesting an apparent age. Perhaps if you had cut down a tree on the third day of creation you would have found it complete with rings, as though it had existed a long time.
On the fourth day the sun, the moon and the stars appeared, late in the creation order to demonstrate that they were created objects under the command of God, and not themselves gods to be venerated and worshipped. By the time of Moses the worship of heavenly bodies was everywhere embraced, but the inspired Genesis account refutes and rebukes it.
After the creation of heavenly lights came the fish and the birds (the fifth day), and suddenly the earth was filled with sentient life and moving beauty. The world was filled with wonder as the creation moved to a grand conclusion. Finally came the mounting climax of the sixth day when the animal kingdom was made complete, small and large land animals, all at first docile, amenable and extraordinarily beautiful, so that the earth was finished, furnished, and filled with interest and glory. Then, and not until then, God said, ‘Let us make man.’
The narrative here pauses and God appears to speak with himself. It is a pause to produce solemnity and attention, because the great purpose of creation is to be revealed, the chief objective. First, a glimpse is given of the incomprehensible, eternal council of the eternal persons of the glorious Trinity. The pause is a narrative affectation, in which even God appears to reflect on the momentous event of the birth of mankind.
‘And God said, Let us make man,’ the pinnacle of his plan, and let us make him ‘in our image, after our likeness’. Man will not be made divine, sharing his Maker’s divinity, but unlike the animals he will resemble God in priceless and significant ways. He will be given dominion over all other creatures, because he shares in small measure some of the very powers of God.
He will have the capacity to relate to God, uniquely (among creatures) possessing a soul. He will have the faculty of spiritual communication. He will also have the power of reason, like God, yet we barely dare to say so because man’s reason is immeasurably minute by comparison with God’s. Nevertheless he will have the gift of reason and rationality.
He will possess a will, a power to determine what to do, making him able to choose between options. He will have emotions far more elaborate than those of any animal. He will have moral consciousness, which will be housed in a conscience (which will be strongly activated from the time of the Fall). He will also have gifts of creativity and design, and language.
The dominion given to man over all other creatures would demonstrate his superiority and seniority over them. Man would so obviously be the special object of God’s love, and the purpose of creation. Not that man would have sovereign dominion, for that is God’s alone, but he would be manager of many things under God.
Of man, the record says that he was made ‘male and female’, introducing the institution of marriage.
We learn that our first parents were vegetarians, God saying, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree…to you it shall be for meat.’ The animals also consumed no flesh. Matters changed after the Fall, with the coming of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’, and man also being permitted meat (if not from that time, certainly after the Flood).
The Genesis record informs us that ‘God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.’ All was perfect. Nothing jarred refined sensitivity; nothing cruel was seen; no death was present, and no cry of pain. Probably animals lacked fierce teeth and savage claws before the Fall, and no predators stalked the earth, tearing apart weaker creatures.
The second chapter of Genesis continues the initial record of creation for three verses, which describe the conclusion of God’s work and the setting apart of the seventh day as a special day. ‘Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it.’
Had man not fallen, we presume that Adam and Eve and their offspring would always have commemorated the sabbath, making it a special day of remembering God’s creative work, and worshipping him.
People sometimes ask about the angels, but nothing is said, because they are not part of the material realm, and not relevant to the Genesis account until the Fall when Satan appears in the body of the serpent.
Critics of the Genesis record have long claimed that the second chapter presents information from an entirely different source, introducing major contradictions, but the claimed discrepancies turn out to be without foundation and even absurd. The second chapter introduces additional facts, but no contradictions.
Other doubters of the Genesis record, including mistaken Christians, are shaken by the claims of evolutionary theory, and give way to it. They take the view that the Bible is not a book of science, and must yield to the evolutionary explanation of origins. They say Genesis is a kind of allegory for the unsophisticated people of a pre-scientific age, and should not be taken as serious history. But throughout the Bible the Genesis account is attested as literal truth (including by Christ our infallible, divine Lord), and we must therefore believe it to be true.
Some Christians take a midway position, insisting that the creation account is not literally true when it speaks of a six-day creation (they prefer evolution over millions of years), but that it becomes literally true from the appearance of Adam and Eve. There are insurmountable problems with this idea, not least that it is not what the Bible says, and also, because it envisages a cruel earth with constant death operating the process of natural selection for millions of years before the Fall. However, it was by man’s sin that the Fall took place, and death came as the result. Before the Fall there was no death, and without death there can be no evolution, so we cannot accept the ‘halfway’ position that some Christian teachers have adopted.
One reason why Christians sometimes shrink from the six-day creation of Genesis is that they feel it is a hindrance to evangelism. Is it a stumbling block to witness? After so many years of evolutionary teaching it undoubtedly is. This was no doubt the aim of Satan in bringing about the theory of evolution. The intention was to shatter belief in the Bible, and to make it seem ridiculous.
However, even before evolutionary theory came on the scene the biblical account of a six-day creation drew scorn. John Calvin, writing in the sixteenth century, tells us that people called it absurd. It has long been a stumbling block to talk about creation, but it is just as much a stumbling block to talk about sin, or to mention hell, or to tell people about condemnation, or to speak of God coming in the person of Jesus Christ.
For millions of people all these things seem to be foolish, but we do not abandon the message on that account. We know that salvation is a spiritual work, and the Holy Spirit is at work applying it to souls. No matter how doubtful people may be about creation, or the Fall or the Gospel, when the Spirit works they grasp the reality and magnificence of these things, and are humbled before God.
We are aware that humanly speaking a six-day creation is a hindrance to belief, but because God is at work, to move, convince, and convict, we make no attempt to avoid it. The apostle Paul gives us confidence to trust the work of the Holy Spirit in the words of 2 Corinthians 4.6: ‘For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’
To Christians cowed by evolution, who choose to believe that God took millions of years to create the world and higher life forms, we say, What would God achieve by using such a process? Why would he do that when he possesses all the necessary power to fulfil his purposes at a word?
The writer has watched the building of the new American Embassy tower in London, and its surrounding apartment developments. They are high, and densely packed. Numerous high cranes have been erected, and there have been hordes of workmen, yet the development has risen laboriously slowly.
One of the grandest aspects of the Genesis account is that we see the entire creation, resplendent with extraordinary beauty and life, and finally culminating in man, achieved within six days; and all from nothing. We are not called to believe in a God who takes millions of years to do something, which might suggest to our mind weakness or inability, but in a God who extends the creation process across a mere week, and that only to show his thoughtfulness toward mankind.
Yet creation was no longer than six days, to show that nothing is beyond God’s power, including the salvation – in moments – of the most stubborn, arrogant and wilful sinners. Creation in six days engraves on our minds a worthy concept of the creative power of God, who can answer our prayers, and minister to us in the hardest conceivable situations and predicaments. Creation is God’s witness to the fact that nothing is too hard for him.1* When our forebears used the word ‘chaos’ they simply meant that it was a formless mass, but in modern times the word chaos has assumed another meaning, signifying a disordered and confused mess.