How the ancient Babylonians have helped me to understand the Bible
Why I was a creationist, and why I’m not now
The first chapter of Genesis has been a source of contention ever since most of us stopped believing the earth was flat. I read something the other day, on someone else’s facebook feed, from Ken Ham, of the organisation ‘Answers in Genesis’, which got me pondering the whole creation story thing again for the first time in a while.
If you’ve not come across Answers in Genesis — and there’s no reason you should — it’s a slightly mad creationist organisation, dedicated to explaining why young earth creationism makes scientific sense. I say slightly mad. A few years ago, they spent $100 building a model of Noah’s Ark, based on measurements taken from the book of Genesis. You can visit their creation museum and biblically proportioned Noah’s Ark, theme park and zoo, if you happen to be in Kentucky.
Unusually, I found myself agreeing with Mr Ham. What he said was that you can’t reconcile big bang cosmology with the first chapter of Genesis. This statement was accompanied by some helpful infographics, explaining that things did happen in exactly the way that Genesis describes. I come to a very different conclusion to Ken Ham, who takes the Bible as clear evidence that the universe was created about 6,000 years ago and that modern cosmology is on completely the wrong track but it was like seeing my philosophical journey as regards the whole creation thing, encapsulated in one powerpoint slide.
My formative years as a Christian were spent as part of an evangelical church that held to a very literal interpretation of the Bible and a firm belief in the literal truth of the creation story. We even had a visit from Ken Ham once, in his pre-ark building days. He was an excellent and entertaining speaker. It was thirty years ago and I still remember some of things he said and a couple of the jokes he made. It was as part of this congregation that I had first had a personal and life changing encounter with God, so I was predisposed to assume that they were right.
And I did, for a number of years. When I look back, I’m a bit stunned that I believed in a literal, seven day creation for quite as long as I did. But actually, it wasn’t quite as big a stretch of credulity as you might imagine. My creationist friends were, and are, intelligent people. They included scientists. doctors and a geologist. Many of my university friends, like me, were Christian creationists. Many of us were doing science degrees. We hadn’t taken leave of our senses. We were thoughtful and logical. We might have inherited these ideas from our respective faith communities, but we’d also thought about them for ourselves.
In and of itself, seven day creation is not a completely stupid idea. Remember, if your faith tells you both that there is a creator God the Bible is God’s revealed truth, then those two facts become your starting point, the lens through which you see everything else. Once you believe in an all powerful creator God, creating stuff and doing miracles becomes entirely consistent in your world view.
If you start with the premise that there is a God, who is all powerful, who made everything, what difference does it make to God how quickly he creates the universe? As a Chemistry teacher I respected once said to me, “the question for me is not ‘how could God make the universe so quickly?’ it’s, ‘why did he take so long?’ Why seven days, when He could have done it in one?”
By contrast, if you believe there is no God, then you have a vested interest in an old cosmos. For the universe to develop and to get to life on earth, you need billions of years. You might say that a creationist is coming to the evidence with a pre-existing bias, but so is an atheist who wants to explain the origins of life, the universe and everything without a creator.
For me, the clincher was that the Christian story is one of fall and redemption. We started with a perfect world, that then fell and Jesus came to bring redemption. I was convinced about Jesus. Not only theologically, but from my own experience, and for a fall and redemption story to work, you need somewhere to fall from. That works much better with a ‘created perfect’ world than with an evolving one.
I was a thoughtfully convinced creationist, though not a very noisy one. And there were enough bits of evidence to support my view. My creationist geologist friend had some interesting bits of literature, including an amusing pamphlet which illustrated all the missing evidence fossil evidence for evolution. What about the geological features, like mountains and valleys that would have taken millions of years to form? Well, the flood could have taken care of all that. You can create a valley with a little bit of water over a long period of time, or a lot of water over a short period of time. And beloved of creationists are pictures of rock layers, looking very much like the layers that geologists would say take millions of years to develop, that formed in just a few hours when Mount St Helens erupted in 1980.
I was still a creationist in my mid twenties, but slowly my perspective started to shift. I had always been aware that apologists for creation were sometimes a bit selective about the evidence they presented. The first time I noticed this was in my teens, when a scientist from my church, told me that the fossil record wasn’t always consistent. He cited as evidence the fact that layers of rocks have been found in the Alps, where the fossil layers are upside down and fossils that would usually be found at the bottom are found at the top and vice versa. I was disconcerted. Even my ‘O’ level geography told me that layers of rock were likely to get folded and turned upside down during the formation of a mountain range. Reversing the order of rock layers in a geological feature that, by its very nature, explained why that could have happened, was very different to finding evidence that fossils were generally mixed up, as they might have been had they been buried all at once during a global flood. Surely, as a scientist, he could see that this was weak evidence?
As time went on, I found it harder and harder to reconcile the biblical account with the discoveries and understanding of science. You can find things that support a creationist perspective, but you have to ignore and explain away growing mountains of evidence. So then you end up with a bit of a dilemma. Do you dismiss the science? Or do you concede that the ‘inspired word of God’ might have got it wrong? That’s not the kind of dilemma that any intelligent person of faith wants to be left with.
Gradually, as it became clear to me that the weight of scientific understanding is very much on the side of an old universe and the evolution of life, I quietly stopped being a creationist. But how to square that with a divinely inspired Bible? I didn’t have an answer to that. What I did know was that if we worship a creator God, then the Bible is not the only source of truth. We are also surrounded by the things that God made and the study of the universe is also a source of truth that needs to be treated with respect and intellectual honesty.
But how then to view the biblical text? Can you affirm it to be true while not denying what we know about life and the universe?
I wasn’t the only person asking this last question. I’m still not. Inevitably, a lot of people, over the years, have tried to find a middle ground that both acknowledges the scientific consensus about the origin of the earth and everything in it and finds a way for the first couple of chapters of Genesis to be ‘true’. Perhaps there was a very big gap — big meaning a few billion years — between the first couple of sentences in Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” and the days of creation when God starts making stuff? Or maybe each of the seven ‘days’ in the creation account weren’t literal days, but referred to long periods of time?
The trouble is, none of these attempts to square the circle really work. Take, for instance, the oft suggested idea that the days in the Genesis account aren’t literal twenty four hour periods. Well, maybe, except that the text is quite definite. It says that ‘there was evening and there was morning,’ at the end of each description of a day. That seems pretty specific. I also heard the suggestion that the days referred not the actual creation process, but to the time that God spent explaining creation to Moses, or whoever the author was, who was then writing it down. But why would God spend a whole twenty four hours explaining creation to the scribe, for him to end up summarising a whole week of lectures into one short chapter of text?
But the biggest problem with any of these attempts to make the Genesis account of creation in seven days fit with our understanding of how the universe and our planet came about, is that the two just don’t mesh. In this, at least, Ken Ham is absolutely right. The creation story contains all sorts of oddities.
Let me show you what I mean. The story starts with the earth formless and empty. We learn that “Darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” — which has to be one of my favourite sentences in the whole Bible. God spends the first day creating light and night and day. Which is interesting, because we don’t have a sun yet. Day two, the sky is created by making a vault ‘in the waters’ — there is a lot of water in this story — to separate the water above from the water below. Not quite sure what the ‘water above’ is meant to represent. Can’t be clouds, really, because they’re ‘in’ the sky, rather than above it. Next, the ‘water below’ is moved to one side, so that land appears and there is separation between land and sea and the land produces all kinds of plants. Though photosynthesis is going to be tricky, because we don’t have the sun yet.
It’s only when we get to day four, that God gets round to creating the sun and the moon. In day five, we get to creatures of the sea and the sky (I suspect there are a few biologists who would raise an eyebrow at birds evolving before land dwelling animals) and finally, in day six, we get land animals and finally mankind, male and female, created in God’s image. On day seven, with everything completed, God takes a rest.
None of this sounds remotely like the universe in which we live. The order in which things happen in the Genesis account just doesn’t tally at all with what we know about the universe. And the sky is not sandwiched between two regions of water. If you’re trying to find ways to make this story match what we know about how the cosmos and life on earth came to be, the fact that it only took six days is, quite frankly, the least of your worries. However you try to explain it, the Genesis account of how God made the world just does not, will not, line up with what we know about the world and the universe. However you try to make it fit.
And then I saw a picture of cosmos the way the babylonians understood it. Suddenly a rather obvious penny dropped. Quit a lot of people, me included, have been trying to make the creation account in Genesis fit with the wrong universe.
For the ancient babylonians, and the other near eastern ancient cultures, including the Israelites, the earth was not a globe, orbiting a star, in an average sized galaxy in an immense and ancient universe. It was a flat disc, held up by pillars, completely surrounded, above and below, by sea.
Over the earth, was a vast dome that contained the sky and held back the waters over the sky. The sun, moon and stars were all within the dome of the sky.
You can see how this makes observational sense. The sky does look like a dome. You can see the water above, because it’s blue way up there.
If you read the creation account in Genesis through the eyes of an ancient, it fits perfectly. Suddenly all the struggles about how to make it fit together disappear. It was never meant to describe our twenty first century cosmos. Once that penny had dropped, it suddenly struck me that it’s a bit daft to think that scripture written thousands of years ago, for people living in a completely different culture, with a totally different view of the universe, would serve as a science text book for today. It was never meant to do that.
One of the amazing things about the Bible is its ability to be both ancient and relevant. But the fact that it so often manages to speak into the present moment makes it easy to forget how very very old it is. Compared with the age of the Bible, our current cosmology is very new. The creation account in Genesis worked perfectly for many centuries. And it’s still inspiring and evocative now. Just so long as you don’t demand that it’s literally true.
Once you put the creation account back into its own time, its brilliance really shines through. The babylonians also had a creation story but in theirs was gruesome and violent. The earth was made when the god Marduk slew the god Tiamut, cut her dead boy in two and used half of it to create the sky and the other half to create the earth. Compare that with creation story in Genesis, where God makes everything and declares it to be good, depicting a universe of calm and order and goodness, not unpredictable violence and destruction. In its context, Genesis is revolutionary and beautiful. It even includes a rather lovely social point. In Babylonian theology, if you were a king or an important person, you might be considered to be godlike. Ordinary people definitely were not. But in Genesis everyone, male and female, from the highest to the lowest, is created in the image of God.
For me, seeing the Genesis story in its context, brings it alive all over again. For years, it’s been something I’ve largely just skipped over, not quite knowing what to do with it. Now, it’s fresh and new and teaching me things all over again.
So can you see the Bible as being divinely inspired without believing silly things about the universe and how it got here? Yes. I think you can. But you do need to be willing to let go of some modern obsessions about literal truth and allow the Bible to be a book of its time. And then it’s brilliant and inspiring and revolutionary. And. Astonishingly. Still relevant.
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