Published: 21 December 2020

Does Genesis Reveal The Age Of The Earth?

Christians are divided into two camps when it comes to the Genesis creation account. Both believe God created the world but differ about its age. One group affirms the Earth is billions of years old and the other group concludes Earth is relatively young being only 6,000 – 10,000 years old. Does Genesis address such issues?

The assumption underlying both of these interpretations is that Genesis 1 is an account of the material origins of the Universe. Is Genesis a revelation of creation from a scientific perspective, or is it an account of creation written to accommodate an ancient cosmology describing how God brought order out of chaos?

Genesis accommodates ancient cosmology

Cosmology concerns the origin and development of the Universe and needless to say, our modern understanding of cosmology is vastly different from that of the ancients. The image at the top of this page is how the ancient Israelites (and the surrounding nations) thought the world was structured. As you can see, the earth was suspended in a vast body of water which extended upward above the sky. Only the solid dome of the sky kept the waters above from falling down to Earth. When Moses wrote in Gen 7:11 that the “windows of the heavens were opened” this was not just poetic language. They believed the heavenly portals opened to allow the water above the dome to fall as rain.

John H. Walton proposes that Genesis was written to accommodate the cosmology held by the book’s original readers.

“Our first proposition is that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions.”[1]Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 16). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

According to Walton, God did not make an effort to correct their views of the material world because that was not germane to what He wanted to reveal. He could communicate His revelation just fine using the cosmology of the ancient Israelites.

“If God were intent on making his revelation correspond to science, we have to ask which science. We are well aware that science is dynamic rather than static. By its very nature science is in a constant state of flux.

We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood.”[2]Ibid., 17.

We are amused by these ancient notions of how the world was structured, but 2,000 years from now our descendants may be equally amused by 21st century science.

ANE Cosmology is function oriented

Over the past 100 years or so, numerous archaeological discoveries have been made which shed light on the beliefs of people in the ANE (ancient Near East). According to recent scholarship, the ancient Israelites weren’t very concerned about material origins. They cared a lot more about how things functioned. In their way of thinking, something didn’t necessarily exist because it had material properties. It existed when it had a function, role or purpose.

When does something begin to exist? A modern person would say that something exists when it has material substance. For example, a house comes into existence when the lumber, plumbing, electrical, doors, windows, roof, etc. are all assembled and in place. To us, this is so obvious there is no need to ask the question. Everyone knows that existence is about material properties and we are so certain of this that we can’t think of another way of expressing reality.

For the ancient Israelites and other ANE cultures, creation was considered an activity that assigned order and purpose.

However, an ancient Israelite might say the house doesn’t exist until it has purpose and function. They would certainly acknowledge the structure and building materials, but to them what gave the house meaning (and therefore existence) was that it served a purpose. It became a house, or home if you will, only when it served its intended function. It existed as a home when it functioned as shelter, as a place to cook and eat meals, and where family lived together. To them, there was more to a home than just the materials that made it up.

Likewise, they knew the world was made of “stuff” but they weren’t interested in the material that made it up. They wanted to know the story of how it all worked together to produce order and function. They wanted to know what functions God infused into the world that made it a place suitable for human habitation.

In the beginning, God created

The meaning of “create” is determined by how a culture views existence. If existence is defined in material terms, as it is in our culture, then creation is a physical or material act. For the ancient Israelites and other ANE cultures, creation was considered an activity that assigned order and purpose. To create was to assign a role, function, and functionaries in an ordered system. It had little or nothing to do with creating or manufacturing a physical object that didn’t previously exist.

So, what exactly did God create in Genesis 1? Does the creation account reveal that God created matter, or functions? Most of us, myself included, have never considered that God’s creative acts were anything other than material in nature. When we read Genesis 1, we can see nothing but material acts of creation. Nevertheless, remember who the intended audience of this revelation was: ancient Israelites. God was communicating to them in terms they could understand. He was not communicating to Americans using 21st century scientific concepts. This does not mean God didn’t create the material world, quite clearly He did as Walton points out:

“Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins—it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story.”[3]Ibid., 96.

This also does not mean that the Bible wasn’t written for a modern reader’s benefit – clearly it was. As Walton likes to point out, “the Bible wasn’t written to us, but it was written for us.”

Reading Genesis Like An Ancient Israelite

How can one possibly read Genesis 1 and not see an account of material origins? Reading Genesis 1 as a revelation of functional origins is difficult for us modern Westerners to get our brains wrapped around. We have to remember that in order to get the message God intended from the Bible we must do our best to understand it as the original readers would have. This means tackling some difficult to understand concepts; difficult because we don’t think like ancient Israelites. We’ll take a closer look at how an ancient Israelite might have viewed Genesis 1 in the next blog post in this series on Genesis.

If Walton is correct, then it is a mistake to interpret the creation account in modern scientific terms. If Genesis 1 is an account of the functional origins of our world, then the Bible has nothing at all to say about the age of the world. If it is true that Genesis isn’t concerned with material origins, how ironic it is that the two different Christian schools of thought have spent so much time and energy debating a question that the Bible may not even answer.

References

References
1 Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 16). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
2 Ibid., 17.
3 Ibid., 96.