Afterword: What Genesis Really Says

God, Sky & Land
Afterword: What Genesis Really Says
About Literal or Figurative Language
“Genesis 1 as the Ancient Hebrews Heard It” is the subtitle of the book God, Sky and Land. So,
did Moshe hear Genesis 1 as a literal or as a figurative description of how physical reality came
to be? It is the thesis of this book that he heard Genesis 1 as a straightforward account of the
creation of his (Moshe’s) world.
Although we appear to have disposed of this query as if it were trivial, it is not nearly so easily
dismissed. Many Christians in the past 400 years and several prominent theologians in the more
distant past have read Genesis 1 as figurative or metaphorical. However, if Ian Michael opts for
that approach now, he immediately faces a profoundly disturbing question: if the Bible’s opening
chapter is figurative when it looks as though it was intended to be taken literally, where does this
stop? Is there any Biblical passage that is to be taken at “face value?” Is all of it figurative?
To posit that Moshe understood it literally is, however, a quite different matter from Ian Michael
expecting to read it literally and have it make sense in his 21st century world. Genesis 1 is not
describing the coming-to-be of Ian Michael’s Planet Earth which Moshe did not know existed. It
is not describing the origin of the solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy or the vast universe
beyond. Moshe did not know anything of them either. It is describing, in language intended to be
taken literally, the coming-to-be of the world Moshe lived in and knew about. That world was
protected by a skyvault (raqia) and was poised precariously between the waters above and the
waters beneath. That world differed radically from ours: the sun went around that world, for it
was unmoving, fixed at the center of all creation. God had decreed it so. So, yes, Moshe heard
and understood Genesis 1 literally.
About evolution: the history of life on earth
Genesis 1 is not about evolution. In the ten chapters making up this book “evolution” has not yet
been mentioned. But perhaps it should be considered briefly here. There are three principal ways
in which “evolution” occurs in conversations about “creation and evolution”.
• Evolution-1 is the idea of long periods of time and major changes in the known forms of
life on Earth. This idea involves “descent with modification,” but does not specify the means
by which the modification occurs.
• Evolution-2 includes Evolution-1 and adds the ideas of random genetic mutation and
natural selection as major means of changes in life forms.
• Evolution-3 includes both Evolution-1 and Evolution-2 and adds the idea that the process
of evolution provides a completely adequate explanation for the existence of all known
reality and the occurrence of all known phenomena. It follows that there is no reality
corresponding to the word “God.”
Evolution-1 and Evolution-2 are scientific ideas, and since Moshe and his contemporaries did not
have a conceptual category—an explanacept—corresponding to nature, natural regularity, or
scientific law, Evolution-1 and Evolution-2 are irrelevant to Genesis 1. We need to consider
them no further. Evolution-3, however, is an entirely different matter; it is a philosophical idea
that is utterly incompatible with Genesis 1. The explanation given to Moshe is that all physical
reality results from the freely chosen activity of a loving Creator—an explicit denial and
dismissal of Evolution-3.
There is, however, more to be said on the matter. Labels are important. Few labels carry more
baggage than “evolution,” in spite of the fact that the word is in common usage. When it refers to
Evolution-1 and Evolution-2, most scientists and scientifically-informed laypersons find it both
useful and generally unobjectionable. Unfortunately, however, the word “evolution” commonly
also includes Evolution-3, which generates major problems.
At this point the adjective “theistic” is often interjected to create the expression “theistic evolution,” intended to incorporate Evolution-1 and Evolution 2 while excluding Evolution-3. Unfortunately, however, for many people Evolution-3 is so thoroughly entwined with the word “evolution” that adding the word “theistic” often does nothing but constitute an apparent oxymoron.
“God or evolution” is regarded as a necessary choice. We need a new term, one that carries none
of the atheistic baggage of “evolution.” “Continuing creation” has been tried, but has not been
widely adopted. “Teleological Descent with Modification” is accurate but probably too technical
and unwieldy. Would “Teleological Development” work?
About God
If Genesis 1 is not “correct” about science—as we presently understand science—is it “correct”
about God—as we presently understand God? Can a communication from Moshe’s time which
fails our modern criterion of “scientifically correct” say anything relevant to us about Moshe’s
God and ours? Here the answer is an unequivocal and enthusiastic “Yes!”
In Moshe’s world, who God was and what God did ordinarily (Moshe’s closest category to what
we now call nature) were not separated. They were combined in the explanacept God because
the only other explanatory category was human, and that was clearly inadequate in response to
ultimate questions about the existence and meaning of everything, including humanity. The
language in which an adequate understanding of the transcendent God is communicated is necessarily figurative, relying on metaphor and simile. Because what we think of as Nature (what God
did “ordinarily”) was combined with what we think of as God, figurative language was
necessarily used in Genesis 1 to express an understanding of both. There was no alternative.
This use of language, however, is not possible for us. We investigate the physical world by
means of scientific experiment and describe it empirically, using the relatively recent
explanacept of nature. The language in which scientific information is communicated is factual,
sometimes mathematical, but inevitably empirical. Our knowledge of God, however, is still
communicated as it was in Moshe’s time—in metaphor, simile, and symbol, using human
analogies. How else could the Ultimate, Transcendent, and Ineffable be described?
The understanding of God thus communicated to Moshe remains relevant—indeed essential—to
our understanding of God today. Scientifically, however, the One who created the sun, moon,
and stars to light up the land has now become—for Ian Michael—the One who created ten sextillion suns and moons without number to light up a universe.
Does this mean that Ian Michael’s God is ten sextillion times greater than Moshe’s? The question is, of course, absurd, because all descriptions of God are, inevitably communicated by
means of metaphor, simile, and symbol. The question would be reasonable only if it were
science that was under discussion; but Genesis is about God, not science. The terms in which we
now refer to God are the same as those in which Genesis 1 refers to God; they have not changed.
But the terms in which we now refer to nature have changed radically. Failure to make this
distinction is, we believe, responsible for the disconnect between science and religion that has
plagued us for 400 years.