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Part III: Between the Lines: An Analysis
of Genesis 1:1-2
The Continuity of Tradition
IN SPITE OF
the evidence to the contrary, some of the best authorities still
maintain that this interpretation of the text is a modern one.
They argue that it is extracted by an unjustified exegesis of
the original Hebrew which has little linguistic support. It is
presented as a solution to the problem of the apparent conflict
between the current views of modern geology and an outmoded view
of Scripture by those who are determined to have the days of
Genesis mean periods of twenty-four hours! It is traced back
to Chalmers (who was an able exponent of this view) and then
dismissed -- sometimes as hardly worthy of serious consideration,
nearly always with the implication that it is an emergency measure
without real foundation.
It is strange in this particular
instance that any Christian scholar should make such an assertion,
because this interpretation has been held by men of learning
and integrity almost since commentaries on the Old Testament
were first written. Not that all these arguments have been presented
previously. They have not. But the general thesis most certainly
has. When geologists in the middle of the last century first
formulated the concept of vast ages for the formation of stratified
rocks containing fossils, the challenge to Scripture was recognized
at once, and the significance of a correct translation of Genesis
1:2 was quickly understood by a few evangelical scholars. That
this view of Genesis had already been held by ancient authorities
was pointed out for example, in the Revised Edition of Chamber's
Encyclopedia, published in 1860. Under the heading "Genesis,"
we find the following statement:
1 of 9
Two principal methods of reconciliation
(between the Creation story of Genesis and the conclusions of
modern Geology) are advanced, those of Dr. Buckland, and Hugh
Miller respectively. The first of which adopts and amplifies
the Chalmerian interpolation of geological ages prior to the
first day . . . an opinion strangely enough to be found already
in the Midrash.
should be pointed out that the Midrash is the oldest pre-Christian
exposition of the Old Testament. For fifteen hundred years after
the Exile it had accumulated from the explanations of scriptural
passages proposed by various Jewish scholars. It had become the
basis of rabbinical teaching in the time of our Lord. Dr. Thomas
Chalmers was born in 1780 and died in 1847. The Jewish commentators
considerably antedated the learned doctor!
William Buckland, to whom the Encyclopedia
makes reference, contributed a paper in 1836 in the Bridgewater
Treatises in which he stated his view in the following excerpt:
The word "beginning"
as applied by Moses expressed an undefined period of time, which
was antecedent to the last great change that affected the surface
of the earth, and to the creation of its present animal and vegetable
inhabitants, during which period a long series of operations
may have been going on: which, as they are wholly unconnected
with the history of the human race, are passed over in silence
by the sacred historian whose only concern was barely to state
that the matter of the universe is not eternal and self-existent,
but was originally created by the power of the Almighty. . .
. The first verse of Genesis seems explicitly to assert
the creation of the Universe, the heaven, including the sidereal
systems, and the earth more especially specifying our own planet
as the subsequent scene of the operations of the six days about
to be described. . . . .
Millions of millions of years may
have occupied the indefinite interval between the beginning in
which God created the heaven and the earth, and the evening or
commencement of the first day of the Mosaic narrative. . . We
have in verse 2 a distinct mention of the earth and waters as
already existing and involved in darkness. Their condition also
described as a state of confusion and emptiness (tohu wa bohu),
words which are usually interpreted by the vague and indefinite
Greek term chaos, and which may be geologically considered as
designating the wreck and ruins of a former world.
The other gentleman
referred to in Chamber's article was one of those enviable scholars
who was able to adorn the naked facts of geology in the most
beautiful literary garments. Hugh Miller interpreted the days
of Genesis as geological ages.
But let us return to the Jewish
commentators. In the "Book of Light," known to the
Jews as the Sefer Hazzohar, or simply Zohar -- traditionally
ascribed to Simeon ben Jochai, a disciple of the more famous
Akiba -- there is a comment on Genesis 2:4-6 which, though admittedly
rather difficult to follow, reads thus:
"These are the generations of heaven
and earth, etc." Now wherever there is written the word "these"
() the former
words are put aside. And these are the generations of the destruction,
which is signified in verse 2
19. Buckland, William, "Geology and Mineralogy
Considered With Reference to Natural Theology," Bridgewater
Treatises, Pickering, London, 1836, vol.1.
of Chapter 1. The earth was Tohu and
Bohu. These indeed are the words of which it is said that the
blessed God created the worlds, and destroyed them, and
on that account the earth was "desolate and empty"
(tohu and bohu).
Like most of
the Cabalistic literature of the Jews, of which the Sefer Hazzohar
is a part, this extract is not easy to follow. But it means in
effect that the interpretation which the writer placed upon Genesis
1:2 was very similar to that attributed by others more recently
to Chalmers. In Simeon's view, the old world was destroyed, and
on that account the earth was desolate and empty as described
in the second verse.
It is perfectly true that the passage
is attributed to a disciple of Akiba, a famous Jewish scholar,
a Palestinian rabbi living from about A.D. 50 to about A.D. 132.
But this ascription is questioned by some modern authorities
who claim that the Zohar is written in a form of Aramaic which
demonstrates it to have been composed as late as the twelfth
or thirteenth century A.D. Even so, it shows that the view was
held centuries before the coming of modern geology.
But we can trace the idea a little
further back still. Among the early Jewish writings there are
a number of Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament. The oldest
of these so-called Targums is that of Onkelos, which is confined
to the Pentateuch. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Onkelos
was a proselyte who was the son of a man named Calonicas, and
was the composer of the Targum which bears his name, which he
in turn had received from Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, both
of whom lived toward the end of the first and the beginning of
the second century A.D. However, in the Jerusalem Talmud the
very same thing is related by the same authorities (and almost
in the same words) of the proselyte Aquila of Pontes, whose Greek
version of the Bible was much used by the Greek-speaking Jews
down to the time of Justinian; so it is sometimes argued that
Onkelos is but another name for Aquila. Aquila Ponticus was a
relative of the Emperor Hadrian, living in the second century
A.D. Thus even if Onkelos is not an absolutely authentic figure,
the works attributed to him must still be placed very early in
the Christian era.
In dealing with the first chapter
of Genesis, Onkelos gave the following Aramaic paraphrase of
W'are'ah hawath tsadh'ya
In this passage,
the composite verb form (tsadh'ya) means "was destroyed,"
being the Aramaic form of the verb to be (hawath) with
the feminine passive participle of the verb tzadhah, which
means "to cut" or "to lay waste."
it happens that part of the Greek version of Aquila is found
in Origen's Hexapla. It is not surprising therefore to
discover that Origen himself held the same view of this early
portion of the text of Genesis. Thus in his great work De
Principiis, the worthy scholar remarked in connection with
Genesis 1:1,2 (20)
It is certain that the present
firmament is not spoken of, nor the dry land but that heaven
and earth from which this present heaven and earth which we now
see, afterwards borrowed their names.
argued that the world which then was, which perished as a result
of the judgment of God, differed from the heavens and the earth
which are now, but was nevertheless the material out of which
the reconstituted earth was subsequently built.
We thus have a more or less continuous
tradition from the Jewish "Fathers" of the first century,
to the "Fathers" of the early Christian Church. And
there can therefore no longer be any excuse for dismissing such
an interpretation of the text on the grounds that it is a recent
invention that would never have occurred but for modern geology.
While many of the early Church
Fathers can be shown to have leaned toward this view, it is not
always too meaningful in some respects, since their methods of
interpretation at times tended to be extreme, as those who have
studied them well know. In fact, like Origen, they often used
one passage to teach two entirely different ideas when directing
their words to two different classes of people.
However, it cannot be denied for
one moment that from the works of the Jewish commentators to
the present day there is an unbroken chain of commentators who
recognized the unusual character of the original text and took
a similar view of it. While Chalmers, like Darwin, may have crystallized
an idea and received credit for much that he borrowed from those
who went before him, he is certainly not the first advocate.
That God should have begun His creation with a chaos was a pagan
idea, not a Jewish nor a Christian one; many of these pagan ideas
became deeply rooted in Christian thinking as a result of Augustine,
who, while being a man of great piety and vision, still clung
to many unscriptural ideas, not the least of which was evolution.
Erich Sauer, in his book The
Dawn of World Redemption, wrote: (21)
In both old and more recent
times there have been God-enlightened men who expressed the conjecture
that the work of the six days of Gen.1 was
20. Origen, ref. 15, vol. IV, Book 2, p.290.
21. Sauer, Erich, The Dawn of World Redemption, Eerdmans,
Grand Rapids, 1953, pp.35-36.
properly a work of restoration, but not
the original creation of the earth; and that originally man had
the task, as a servant of the Lord and as ruler of the creation,
in moral opposition to Satan, to recover for God the outwardly
renewed earth, through the spreading abroad of his race and his
lordship over the earth.
Thus Prof. Bettex says that man
should originally, "as the vice-regent of God, gradually
have reconquered the whole earth." Also Prof. v. Heune,
who likewise upholds the restitution theory, says, "that
the great operation of bringing back the whole creation to God,
starts with man. . . ."
Traces of such an explanation of
the record of creation are found in ancient Christian literature
as early as the time of the church father Augustine (about 400
A.D.). In the seventh century it was maintained by the Anglo-Saxon
poet Caedmon. About A.D. 1000 King Edgar of England adopted it.
In the seventeenth century it was specially emphasized by the
mystic Jacob Boehme. In the year 1814 it was developed by the
Scottish scholar Dr. Chalmers, and in 1833 further by the English
professor of Mineralogy, William Buckland.
There are also very many German
upholders of this teaching, as for instance, the professor of
geology Freiherr von Heune (Tubingen): and well known are the
English scholar G. H. Pember, and also the Scofield Reference
Bible. From the Catholic side there are Cardinal Wiseman and
the philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel. . . .
In their over-anxiety to
sustain an argument, some advocates in recent years have gone beyond the
text, and it has consequently suffered injury at the hands of its friends.
Speakers will occasionally point out that both Noah and Adam were instructed
to refill the earth (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). Since the statement has particular
significance in the case of Noah who had lived to see the destruction
of a previous world, it is argued that the use of the same command to
Adam must imply that Adam stood in a similar relationship to a perished
world. However, the Hebrew word male ()
translated in both instances replenish does not have this significance.
It simply means "to fill." No argument can be sustained by reference
to the form of the command, although it might possibly be that the translators
of the King James Version used the word replenish in the case of
Adam because they felt that it was applicable. If this were so, it could
only be further evidence that even at this time there were commentators
who perceived the real meaning of the first few verses of Genesis 1, although
they did not reveal it in their translation of Genesis 1:2.
At any rate the eminent oriental
scholar and biblical critic, Johann August Dathe -- who became
professor of oriental literature at Leipzig in 1763 and who is
perhaps best known for his six-volume work on the books of the
Old Testament, illustrated with philological and critical notes
and edited with the help of the original Hebrew
text as well as other
Latin versions -- translated the second verse of the first chapter
of Genesis, "And the earth was made (facta erat) a
waste and a desolation." Since the Vulgate or accepted Latin
version has simply, "But the earth was void and empty,"
he must have felt that this was not a sufficiently exact rendering
of the original. We therefore have one more link in the chain
of evidence supporting the contention that the view did not originate
with Chalmers at all.
Among the later Hebrew scholars
of great prominence who supported this point of view was Alfred
Edersheim, himself a Jew to whom the language of the Old Testament
was as familiar as a mother tongue. In a work published about
1890, he made the following observations: (22)
Some have imagined that the
six days of creation represent so many periods, rather than literal
days, chiefly on the ground of the supposed high antiquity of
our globe, and the various great epochs or periods, each terminating
in a grand revolution, through which our earth seems to have
passed, before coming to its present state, when it became a
fit habitation for man. There is, however, no need to resort
to any such theory. The first verse in the book of Genesis simply
states the general fact, that "In the beginning" --
whenever that may have been -- "God created the heaven and
the earth." Then, in the second verse, we find the earth
described as it was at the close of the last great revolution,
preceding the present state of things: "And the earth was
without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the
deep." An almost indefinite space of time, and many changes,
may therefore have intervened between the creation of heaven
and earth, as mentioned in verse 1 and the chaotic state of our
earth, as described in verse 2. As for the exact date of the
first creation, it may safely be affirmed that we have not yet
the knowledge sufficient to arrive at any really trustworthy
commentaries have supported this interpretation. For example,
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown have the following comment on verse
This globe, at some undescribed
period, having been convulsed and broken up, was a dark and watery
waste for ages perhaps, till out of the chaotic state the present
fabric of the world was made to rise.
It is not without
significance that people of other cultures, whose thinking does
not seem to have been influenced by the teaching of missionaries
have traditions of a catastrophe which overtook the first creation.
Not unnaturally such stories tell of people in this former world,
for it is always difficult to conceive of an earth totally devoid
of any population. It requires a certain sophistication to conceive
of a world uninhabited by man.
22. Edersheim, Alfred, The World Before
the Flood, Religious Tract Society, London, n.d., p.18.
23. Commentary on the Whole Bible, edited by Jamieson,
Fausset, Brown, 1871, reprinted 1961, Zondervan, Grand Rapids,
the Arabians have a strange belief that there were once forty
kings who ruled over a creation prior to Adam, and that they
were called "Solimans" (after Solomon, who to them
seemed to be the ideal of what a monarch ought to be). They say
that their history was recounted by the "Bird of Ages,"
whom they called the Simorg and who had served them all. Their
statues, monstrous preadamite forms, were supposed to exist in
the mountains of Kaf. (24)
In one of his books, Franz Cumont
remarked that according to the Mithraic teachings, (25)
The demoniac confederates of
the King of Hell once ascended to the assault of Heaven and attempted
to dethrone the successor of Kronos. But, shattered like the
Greek giants by the ruler of the gods, these rebel monsters were
hurled backwards into the abyss from which they had risen. They
made their escape however from that place and wandered about
on the face of the earth, there to spread misery and to corrupt
the hearts of men, who, in order to ward off the evils that menaced
them, were obliged to appease them by offering expiatory sacrifices.
There is a Far
Eastern tradition in which some further details are provided.
G. Rawlinson, in his second Bampton Lecture in 1859, gave an
extract as follows: (26)
The Chinese traditions are said
to be less clear and decisive than the Babylonian. They speak
of a "first heaven" and an age of innocence when "the
whole creation enjoyed a state of happiness." Then everything
was beautiful and everything was good: all things were perfect
in their kind. Whereunto succeeded a second heaven introduced
by a great convulsion, in which the pillars of heaven were
broken, the earth shook to its foundations, the heavens sank
lower towards the north, the sun, moon, and stars changed their
motions, the earth fell apart and the waters enclosed within
its bosom burst forth with violence and over-flowed. [his emphasis]
believed that the earth had suffered more than one destruction
and renewal, and certainly the Babylonian traditions held strongly
to at least one serious destruction and reconstitution quite
apart from their recollections of the great Flood of Noah's time.
Even as we today have found the
advantage of animating stories for children, so the early Babylonians
turned inanimate forces into
24. From D'Herbelot's "Soliman Ben David,"
in Stanley's History of the Jewish Church, Scribners,
New York, 1911, vol. II, lect. 26, p.144.
25. Cumont, Franz, Mysteries of Mithra, Open Court, Chicago,
26. Lord Arundell in his Tradition: Mythology and the Law
of Nations, Burns and Oates, London, 1872. p.328
27. Dawson; W J., The Origin of the World, Dawson, Montreal,
spiritual beings; they
set much of the early geological history of the earth, as they
conceived it, in the form of a titanic struggle between giant
forces in personal guise. The great catastrophe of Genesis 1:2
in time became one of the most popular themes of cuneiform literature.
In a paper titled "Genesis
and Pagan Cosmogonies," Edward McCrady gave an excellent
and concise statement of the matter. He remarked: (28)
It is generally conceded that
the Dragon, as a personification of the Evil Spirit, is more
or less identified with the destructive and rebellious forces
of Nature, especially as they bring chaos and suffering to mankind
in floods, storms, etc. But it is only in connection with such
stories as that of Bel and the Dragon that we begin to catch
a glimpse of the origin of the original myth: and only
again as we compare this Chaldeo-Assyrian legend with the first
chapter of Genesis that we begin to realize that this Dragon
is but a personification of the watery abyss or chaos mentioned
in Genesis. Bel, or Bel-Merodach, is a personification of the
sun which appearing on the fourth day "breaks through the
watery abyss that envelops the earth, piercing and tearing asunder
the Dragon of the abyss with his glittering sword" and eventually
after a long struggle bringing order and law out of chaos. Then
we begin to see the explanation of the whole. Similarly, we may
see little significance in the Egyptian picture of Kneph sailing
in a boat over the water, and breathing life into its tumultuous
depths: or the Phoenician legend of Colpias and his wife Bau,
or Bahu, effecting a like organization of the waste of primeval
matter: until we remember that Kneph signifies wind, air, living
breath, or spirit. And Colpias likewise means "wind,"
while Bahu is evidently the Phoenician form of the Hebrew "bohu,"
the waste of waters.
With this discovery, however, it
immediately dawns upon us that these legends must obviously refer
to the statement of Genesis that "The Spirit of God moved
upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be Light,
and there was Light."
A further careful study of the
succession of male and female divinities of the Chaldeo-Assyrian
Theogony, Lachmu and Lachamu; An-Sar and KiSar, will also bring
to light the fact that they are, respectively, personifications
of the Light with his consort Darkness; of the Sky or Heavenly
Waters, and the earth waters (divided by the "expanse"),
and occur exactly in the order of their appearance in the narrative
of Genesis while the divinities Anos (or Anu), Ilinos (or Enlil),
and Aos (or Ea), which follow next, and which are universally
identified with the heavens, the earth and the sea, are obviously
personifications of these physical phenomena, which as Genesis
records, were separated from one another as the next step in
the creative process; while as the hero of the next succeeding
generation appears, Bel-Merodach, easily identified as the sun
now appearing for the first time together with the moon and the
stars, we have the completion of the fourth day. And these events
are still further reflected in the Chaldean myth of the birth
of Sin (the moon) Adar (Saturn), Merodach (Jupiter), Nergal (Mars),
Nebo (Mercury), and all the rest of them. The order of the appearance
of the corresponding physical phenomena given in Genesis -- the
Theogony (the "toledoth of the gods"), of
28. McCrady, Edward, in Transactions of
the Victorian Institute, vol.72, 1940, p.46,47,59.
the Chaldeans -- is simultaneously a
cosmogony based on the cosmogony of Genesis.
Subsequently McCrady remarked:
Indeed, the echoes of this primal
revelation, transformed and corrupted as we have thus explained,
are to be found in nearly all the mythologies, cosmogonies, and
theogonies of paganism. For besides the Chaldean, Assyrian, Phoenician
and other narratives, we find them in Greek and Latin literature
the author points out what must have occurred to all who study
these things in this light: not only do we find in this the origin
of the idea that the world began with a chaos, an idea which
found its way almost inevitably into our translations because
of the power of habits of thought, but also we find the root
of much polytheism and idol worship -- for they have exactly
done what Paul in his Epistle to the Romans reveals, changing
the truth of God into a lie, worshipping and serving the created
things more than the Creator, who is blessed forever (Romans
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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There is, therefore, from the very
earliest times, a continuity of tradition that at some remote
time in the past, great spiritual powers came under the judgment
of God and brought about a disruption of the kosmos, the
record of which is undoubtedly reflected in Genesis 1:1,2.
This continuity of tradition from
the earliest times to the beginning of the last century is a
strong confirmation of the view advocated in this Paper. It is
a strong confirmation because the individuals who supported it
were in an excellent position to know what the original text
could mean and at the same time they were quite uninfluenced
by modern geological theory and were not, therefore, biased in
Nevertheless, the strongest confirmation
is surely to be found in Scripture itself. When Paul wrote to
the Corinthians, "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,"
he was clearly referring to the regenerative experience of the
new birth when a man, ruined by sin, becomes a new creation in
Christ. But the force of his words is lost entirely unless the
command "Let there be light" was also to begin a new
creation of a world which had been marred by sin.
The necessity and reality of the
new birth is some indication of the necessity and reality of
the re-creation which seems to be the subject of Genesis 1:3ff.