Genesis 1 — the Folly of Literalism
It is well known that Christian Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the actual word of God (whatever that means), and further that it should be interpreted literally. It is hard for most people, including many Christians, to take such ideas seriously. Even worse, this offers atheists the opportunity to dismiss religion out of hand, since believers like these appear so ridiculous, making them an easy target. The Bible remains an incredibly important document, worthy of serious study, but this should be done from a different perspective than that of the Fundamentalists; only then can we assess its true worth. With that in mind, I am going to write a series of articles which will attempt (and probably fail) to get to the bottom of Genesis 1, thus the process of creation.
A few preliminary remarks are necessary:
- we have no idea for certain who wrote the text.
- scholars have noted that the Old Testament has been subjected to various edits. We therefore have no idea to what extent the text of Genesis 1 is the original, or whether it was edited before it became the one we now use.
- we have various translations. If there are different versions, this would suggest how difficult it was to translate the original. Things get lost in translation, therefore some speculations about the original author’s intentions may be necessary.
- given that the text purports to describe the creation of the universe (with special reference to the Earth), it is incredibly short and simple. It is hard to believe that such a process could be summarised in so few words. It surely cannot do the subject justice, and may need some amplification.
I’ll begin with the problem of literalism. The text is full of the words earth, waters, light, day, night, sky, with which we are very familiar. It would therefore be easy to think that these words refer to what we normally understand by them, and on some occasions it would seem that they do. However, it will be obvious to anyone with an understanding of the language of symbolism that these words do not always have their usual meaning. To take one simple example, Genesis 1.7 says: “So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome”, and then at 1.9: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear’ ”.
Certain Christians have taken this literally and (I swear I am not making it up) have arrived at the following conclusion: “It has become almost a recent-creationist dogma that ‘the waters which were above the firmament’ of Genesis 1.7 formed a vast canopy of water vapour above the earth’s atmosphere. This, they say, was all precipitated in the days of Noah, thus causing the Flood… The idea was popularized by Whitcombe and Morris in their classic, The Genesis Flood. They have so much to say about it that there are about twenty page-references to it in their index”. I am quoting Alan Hayward (1), who then says that these authors “do not offer a single calculation in support of their idea”. He goes on to demolish the idea from a scientific perspective, even though the idea is so ridiculous that this should not be considered necessary.
What should we really understand by ‘the waters’? It seems obvious, to me at least, that Genesis 1 is describing the creation of a hierarchical (multi-level) universe. The word ‘heavens’ is therefore a symbol for the higher, divine spiritual realms, the ‘waters’ the lower non-material levels, thus the psyche (other relevant words might be astral, or etheric), and the ‘earth’ the material universe. At the very least, this scenario would fit more closely with what other spiritual traditions have to say.
More thoughts on Genesis 1 will follow.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
(1) Creation and Evolution: The Facts and the Fallacies, Triangle, 1985, revised 1994, p151