Interpreting the Creation Narratives in the Bible
The six-day creation account in the first chapter of Genesis is brought to bear on the theological debate over evolution to the exclusion of other creation narratives in the Bible. This is not surprising because this account is related to us in the very first words of the Bible, and, at face value, the whole point of this narrative seems to be to spell out God’s creative activity in a detailed record of six days: on the first day God created light; on the second day, the heavens; on the third day, the land and plants; on the fourth day, the sun, the moon, and the stars; on the fifth day, birds and fish; and on the sixth day, land animals, and a man and a woman. For many, it is difficult to reconcile this picture of creation with the theory of evolution.
To interpret the Genesis 1 pericope correctly, we must read it in the context of the rest of the Bible, which contains other creation accounts that are often overlooked.
For example, there is a second creation narrative in Genesis, which appears in chapter 2. This account presents a different order of creation: Eve is made from Adam’s rib only after the animals have been created and are found to be unworthy partners for the man. In this reportage, God made the heavens and the earth, and then the first man, Adam. Whether this all occurred on the same day or on different days is not specified. God then planted a garden and placed the man in it. Next, God made the animals, which Adam named as each was brought to him. And finally, Eve was created.
Now, if the literal sense of these passages in Genesis 1 and 2 were to present the historical order of the production of creatures, then they would be in contradiction; and thus Scripture would not be inerrant. For in the first account, the man and woman were created after the animals while in the second account, only the man was created before the animals: the woman was made last of all.
However, if the literal sense is rather to affirm that God alone creates something where before there was nothing, that there is a divinely intended order among all corporeal creatures with man at the top, that God made Adam and Eve for each other—and other such theological themes—then there is no contradiction since the author never intended to provide an astronomical or a zoological record for an event at which he was not present. Let us recall from the previous essay in this series that the literal sense includes symbols and figures of speech when it is the author’s intention to use them.
Pope Benedict XVI offers a teaching on this question in a homily published in his insightful book In the Beginning: “The Scripture would not wish to inform us about how the different species of plant life gradually appeared or how the sun and the moon and the stars were established. Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used the think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves” (Homily 1, p. 5).
What about other creation accounts? We find important teachings on creation in the historical books (2 Maccabees), in the wisdom literature (i.e. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach), in the prophets (i.e. Isaiah), and in the New Testament (i.e. John, Romans, Colossians, and 2 Peter). These are not texts whose sole purpose is to describe the beginning of the world as we find in Genesis, but they constitute definitive revelation about the divine act of creation.
We will now closely examine a passage from Proverbs with the help of selections from John and Colossians, and then simply draw together some other relevant texts to display a sample of Scripture’s treatment of creation. By considering these sources that are often overlooked in the debate over evolution, we will benefit from a fuller perspective.
In Proverbs 3:19-20 we are treated to a more theological explanation of creation, namely that God created everything by his wisdom. The preceding verses (vv. 13-17) situate this passage in the context of the praise of wisdom: that is, the man who finds wisdom is “happy” for “she is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.” Were that not enough, “long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor” and “her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” The next verse (v. 18) makes an allusion to the creation account in Genesis 2, calling wisdom “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.”
Then in verses 19-20, we come to the profound theological assertion that “YHWH by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke forth, and the clouds drop down the dew.” This is clarified in John 1:1-3, which restates the classic creation account of Genesis 1 in terms of the uncreated Word of the Father, that is, the Father’s Wisdom or Knowledge, through whom all things were made: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” St. Paul advances the same teaching in the early part of his letter to the Colossians (1:16-17): “For in him [the most beloved Son, the image of the invisible Father] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Cf. also 2 Pet 3:5.) But what does this mean?
St. Thomas Aquinas borrows an image from Aristotle in order to explain this doctrine of acting through wisdom. The carpenter who makes a bench does so not only with wood and saw and hammer. He also must have the idea of the bench he wants to make. So, the bench is made through his knowledge of the bench, that is, through his wisdom. If he is not wise about benches—for instance, if has no idea what it should look like—then he cannot make it even if he has the best wood, saw, and hammer in the world. It is correct in the strictest and most theologically rigorous sense to say that the Father creates all things through his Word, the beloved Son, who proceeds in the divine intellect as begotten wisdom. The Father in knowing himself (the divine essence) produces a concept of himself, which is a perfect reflection of himself, namely the Word, who is his Son. And since the act of creation proceeds from God’s knowledge of what he wishes to create, all things were made through the Word.
So, while the central point of Proverbs 3:13-20, John 1:1-3, and Colossians 1:16-17 may not be to explain the production of creatures, these passages do articulate correctly and profoundly how all things came to be.
Two other passages are theologically important for their clear assertion that God created “out of nothing” (ex nihilo), that is, not from preexisting chaos or unformed matter but where before there was simply nothing. In 2 Maccabees 7:28, we are instructed to “look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed.” And Paul explains to the Romans (4:17) that “God . . . gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
Six other groups of passages merit mention simply because they speak of creation at some length and should thus not be passed over. First, a few chapters later in Proverbs (8:24-30), wisdom is again connected to the act of creation, i.e. wisdom preexisted creation and was involved in its production: “When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.”
Second, the Psalms too speak of God’s creation through his word: he establishes the world, overcomes chaos, and provides for all his creatures. For example, Ps 33:6-7, 9, teaches that YHWH created everything by his word and imposed boundaries on the sea: “By the word of YHWH the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth.” God’s mastery over the chaotic waters, which will demonstrate Christ’s divinity in the gospels, is confirmed in Ps 65: 6-8: “who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength, who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations. The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy. You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly.” And a short sample (vv. 16-19) from Psalm 104’s thirty-one-verse section about God’s creation of and providing for his creatures suffices to manifest character of this theological poem: “The trees of the Lord are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. There the birds make their nests; the stork has its home in the junipers. The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the hyrax. He made the moon to mark the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down.” (See also Ps 8:3, 6-8; Ps 19:1, 4; Ps 104:2-32; Ps 139:13-14; Ps 147:4-18; Ps 148:5-10.)
Third, Sirach 16:26-27 emphasizes the order in creation: “The works of the Lord have existed from the beginning by his creation, and when he made them, he determined their divisions. He arranged his works in an eternal order, and their dominion for all generations.” And Sirach 17:1 repeats the theme of the second creation account in Genesis, i.e. that “the Lord created man out of earth, and turned him back to it again.”
Fourth, Wisdom 1:14 highlights God’s power and the goodness of creation, themes already present in Genesis: “For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.” (See also Wis 11:17.) And Wisdom 2:23, already hinting at the resurrection, adds the character of incorruptibility to man’s being in image of God: “for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity.”
Fifth, in Job 9:8-9, God again stamps out chaos: “who alone stretched out the heavens, and trampled the waves of the sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south.” And throughout chapter 38, God’s transcendent creative power is affirmed in the hard questions posed to Job, who pretended to understand how things should have gone: “What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth? Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt?” (vv. 24-25).
Sixth and finally, Isaiah 45:18 emphasizes that it is God alone who has the power to create, and here too, he overcomes chaos: “For thus says YHWH, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): ‘I am YHWH, and there is no other.’” (See also Isaiah 42:5; 44:24; 45:7, 12; 48:13.)
Pope Benedict XVI comments on “the fact that the classic creation account [of Genesis 1] is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture,” noting that “in its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization, Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days.” “Thus,” he explains, “we can see how the Bible itself constantly readapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly.” “In this way,” he continues, “they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater” (In the Beginning, Homily 1, pp. 14-15).
In conclusion, it is important to note that there is not just one creation account in the Bible that describes a six-day process. There is a second narrative in Genesis, and there is a more theological explanation in the historical books, the wisdom literature, and the New Testament. Conflicting assertions between the first and second creation stories in Genesis with respect to the order of events manifest that the literal sense of those details cannot be a scientific reportage—if the Scriptures are the inerrant word of God.
— Rev. John Baptist Ku, O.P.