Theology & Ethics of Genesis 1
If I were to receive a Valentine Card from my wife reading, “When you held my hand for the first time, you held my heart for a lifetime,” and if I were to fly into a panic and race her to a cardiologist insisting that the hospital rush her into emergency surgery to remove her heart from my grasp and to return it to her body, I would have missed by far the intent of her card. She was not trying to pass along to me medical information but romantic sentiment. I would have lost the true significance of what she was trying to share with me.
Likewise, if I seek to read the Bible as a scientific textbook, I will miss its true intent. The purpose of the Bible is not to explain to us the theory of relativity or the laws of thermodynamics or the Pythagorean Theorem. It’s not that the Bible disputes these scientific laws, nor is it that God is ignorant of them. (Actually, God designed this universe to run in an orderly fashion, and God equipped us with good brains to figure out His laws of nature.) But the Bible has a different focus. It was written not to answer our scientific questions but to answer the deeper questions of our souls. Thus William Bragg, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915, declared, “Christianity and science are opposed…but only in the same sense as that which my thumb and forefinger and opposed—and between them, I can grasp everything.” Science helps us discover the laws of nature and what we might do with them; the Bible teaches us the meaning and significance and ethics beneath them so that together we might “grasp everything.”
So when I read Genesis 1, I do not search for a scientific explanation of how the earth came into existence, nor do I waste time debating how old the world is. Instead, I look for what God wants to reveal to me about the nature of the world and about my place in creation.
In English, Genesis 1 begins with the words, “In the beginning.” This is not intended to be a chronological statement (for time had not yet been brought into existence) but a value statement. The root of the Hebrew word used here, bereshith, is “head,” carrying the implication of “first importance.” Genesis 1 sets out to make known to us what is of chief importance.”
The first item Genesis 1 describes God bringing into existence is light. With the creation of light begins the matter of chronology. As one writer puts it, “The separation of light and darkness creates periodicity. Periodicity produces rotation, and it is the rotation of periodicity that produces the element of time…. Once God set into motion the element of time by separating light from darkness, He could now establish the pacing of time.”
The point being made here is that time is the creation of God. When Genesis 1:5 goes on to speak of God naming the light day (the Hebrew word yom is normally used to express time) and the darkness night, God is announcing His sovereignty over time. We do well to take to heart that time is in God’s hands. No wonder Psalm 90:12 calls us to pray, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Genesis 1:6-10 speaks of God bringing into existence the sky, the seas, and land. Put them together, and you find the affirmation that matter in all of its forms (gas, liquid, and solid) is the invention of God and under His sovereignty. In the verses that follow, the sky is filled with “lights” and with “birds,” and the seas are filled with “the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems,” and the land is filled with “vegetation” and with “living creature” and with us. Repeatedly the declaration is made that what God brought into being is good, making it clear to us that every created thing has purpose, that everything is under the sovereignty of God, and that all of creation is to be enjoyed, appreciated, and cared for responsibly. Of all the people in the world, Christians especially should hold creation in highest regard and treat it respectfully and ethically, for nothing that God has lovingly and skillfully made should ever be mishandled, misused, or treated callously or improperly.
May God protect us from missing the theological and ethical teaching of Genesis 1 while arguing over scientific questions.