This next series of theological musings is going to use a loaded question sent to me on Facebook as a springboard. A college friend and a former discipleship partner of mine asked:
“Do you think there is a time gap between Genesis 1: and Genesis 1:3? I’ve been reading on that a little, and right now, I could go either way.”
This is a straightforward question. It’s so straightforward I’ve decided to dedicate five posts to it and not answer it.
Why? Because it’s loaded! This question has underlying issues—lots of them. It’s the underlying issues that are interesting, because in fact you can’t answer the question properly unless you deal with them. As a theologian I am qualified to deal with the underlying issues but I am not qualified to actually answer the question. After this series is done I hope you understand why. In this first post I want to lay out this question and then raise the underlying issues. First, though, let me give you the frame question for this series. Here it is:
Would Genesis 1:1-2:3 be best classified as a cosmology or a cosmogony?
This is going to be the overarching question for all posts in this series because once we’ve answered it we’ve overcome some of the biases we have when we approach the creation account of Gen 1:1-2:3. Perhaps more than any other chapter in all of Scripture, our interpretation of this one is encumbered by modern concerns and presuppositions that skew our interpretation and actually keep us from what, I think, was Moses’ primary theological purpose in writing this text. Why do I think that? Well, it has to do with the underlying issues. So let me first unpack the question and then raise the underlying issues.
The Elephant in the Room
No doubt you are familiar with the theory of evolution and the fact that there is an ongoing and heated debate about this topic and that at least some of the discussion revolves around the biblical account of creation as given in Gen 1:1-2:3. American evangelicals tend to believe that the Bible is inerrant, usually meaning it does not contain any error in anything that it asserts whether in the realm of faith, practice, history, science, or a-n-y-thing.
That belief creates an obvious discord between evolution and the creationism that we generally attribute to Gen 1:1-2:3. Obviously, if people evolved from apes, they weren’t created from the dust of the earth as the Genesis creation story claims. And if the Bible teaches that the earth was created only 6,000 or 10,000 years ago, then that doesn’t leave enough time for a Dromaeosaurid to evolve into a Dodo, let alone primordial soup into primates.
Yet there are some evangelicals who, though they also believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, are also persuaded by the evidence in favor of evolution or at least in favor of an old earth. Those evangelicals face the problem of reconciling an old earth with the more widely accepted (among conservative evangelicals) interpretation that understands Scripture to teach that the earth is young and that God did not create humans after the earth and other animals had existed for a long time, but in a literal six day period. One of the ways that this group of evangelicals is able to hold to inerrancy while still holding to the old earth view is by suggesting that between Gen 1:1 and 1:2 there is a long period of time. This theory is sometimes called the “Gap Theory,” because of the large time gap that occurs between Gen 1:1 and 1:2 (or 1:3).
1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
>>13.8 billion years
1:2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
Also, those who hold this view frequently argue that the fall of Satan occurred during this time. In fact, according to this view the fall of Satan resulted in the state of affairs we read about in Gen 1:2. God had created the earth full of fauna and flora much earlier, but due to the fall of Satan his original creation was ruined and became “formless and void.” So this theory is sometimes referred to as the “Ruin-Reconstruction Theory” because in chapter 1 God is reconstructing his creation after it was devastated by the fall of Satan. If you search for either theory on the Internet you will find no end to web sites discussing this topic.
Maybe you think those are the underlying issues. Not quite. But you probably do understand the question, if you didn’t already. The question really is whether or not Gen 1 teaches that the earth is old or that the earth is young. Is there a gap between Gen 1:1 and 1:2 or not? In fact, I think the question should be framed in this way:
Does Genesis 1 teach that there was a long period of time after God originally created the earth and before he actually performed the creation acts of Gen 1:1-2:3?
That’s what I’m interested in. Does it teach it? Not: Does it infer it? Does it imply it? But: Does it teach it? And to be fair, we should pose the question the other way around.
Does Genesis 1 teach that there is not a long period of time but only a very short period of time after the original creation of the earth, before he actually performed the acts of Gen 1:3-2:3?
Framing the question this way puts a pretty big onus on the interpreter—an onus he should by all means bear.
The Room’s Foundations
As I said, you might think that the issue underlying this question has to do with evolution. In a sense, yes, and I’ve already brought that to light—that was the elephant in the room. But I should just point out that Moses did not write this passage in order to solve the evolution debate. It might, in the end, inform our position on evolution, but it might not.
I would just like to invite you to think about that for a moment. Genesis 1 might not help us solve or even take a position on the question of evolution. It might have absolutely nothing to do with evolution. I’m not saying that is the case, but I am suggesting it as a healthy starting point for reading Genesis 1.
This is the underlying issue of underlying issues. It is not evolution per se; it is the fact that when we read this chapter of Scripture we bring with it our modern scientific worldview that wants answers to questions like: When did God create the world? What was before and after? How did he do it? What did he create? Can evolution fit in here? And so on. Instead of bringing our questions to this passage we need to be open to the possibility that these questions may be fundamentally different than the questions Moses was seeking to answer.
So that now raises the question (and the real underlying issues) as to how we can know what questions Moses wanted to answer. We have to look in the text and read the text and allow the text to speak in its own language, according to its own conventions, and in its own setting. Those are the three underlying issues that the next four posts will be devoted to. They’re going to get mixed together a little bit. They can’t really be distilled out one from another. But in the next post I will deal with Gen 1:1-2:3 as a narrative text and especially we will look at how Hebrew grammar works in narrative texts. In the third post (counting this one as first) I will then look at the conventions of Hebrew poetry and show that Gen 1:1-2:3 is by all means a poetic text and needs to be read in that way. Then in the fourth post we will look at other Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts in order to see what kinds of answers people were expecting from their creation stories. Finally, in the last post I want to bring those three things together (posts 2-4 in this series). We’ll come back to our frame question and look at what God (and Moses) is trying to teach us through this worldview shaping chapter. My hope is that by the time we get to the end of this series you will be so enamored by the beauty of what Moses has done in shaping this text and the beauty of what God has done in shaping our cosmos; that the other questions will take on their proper perspective. In the end, it is that proper perspective that will put us in a position of taking a stance of wisdom toward the whole gap-no gap debate.