I’ve recently been listening to the book of Job on my commute to work, which may explain why my colleagues have often found me a little morose first thing in the morning!
Towards the end of the book, God speaks out of the heavens, to address the suffering of his servant Job and the questions he and his ‘comforters’ have raised. Beginning in chapter 38, He speaks about the mysteries of creation, asking Job if he can fathom how the world was made, and how it works. The answer, of course, is no!
Listening to these chapters the other day, I couldn’t help but compare them to the opening of Genesis. In particular I wondered, do those who understand Genesis 1 as describing a literal six-day creation read Job 38 in the same sort of way? And if not, why not?
According to Job 38:
- At creation, did God literally mark off the dimensions of the Earth’s foundations, using a measuring line? (v5)
- Does the Earth actually have feet and a cornerstone? (v6)
- Did the stars literally sing together when God made the earth? And if so, how, given that the stars weren’t made until the fourth day? (v7, cf. Gen 1.16)
- Are the seas shut up behind literal doors? Or, for that matter, an actual womb? (v8)
- Does the dawn really grab Earth by the edges and shake it each morning, like a parent trying to get their child out of bed? For that matter, does the Earth have edges?! (v12-13)
- Do dark and light have abodes, with pathways leading there? I suppose the sun might be the abode of the light, but what is the abode of darkness? (v19-21)
- Are snow and hail kept in literal storehouses? Or is this only talking about the snow that’s kept for ‘war and battle’ as opposed to the snow God uses on regular cold winter days? (v22-23)
- Does lightning all get dispersed from one centralised location, rather than from cumulonimbus clouds? (v24)
- Is there actually a channel down which the rain trickles, before it falls onto the earth? And what exactly is the channel carved into? (v25)
- Do ice and frost literally come out of a womb? (v29) Is it the same womb as the sea came from in verse 8, but with some kind of freezer setting?
We could go on… And we could also look at other psalms, proverbs, and lines from the prophets.
If you think I’m being unnecessarily snarky, that’s not my intention. But I do want you to feel agitated by the pedantic literalism with which I’ve read Job 38. I’ve absolutely butchered this beautiful chapter, by placing standards of interpretation on it that simply don’t belong there. Nobody that I’m aware of reads Job 38 literally, for the simple reason that we understand it to be poetry. We get how metaphors and similes work.
So my question is, if we’re willing to make allowances for poetic form in Job, why not Genesis?
Personally, I’m convinced that Genesis 1 does not claim to be a scientific explanation of how, or over how long, the world was created. I read Genesis 1 as poetry, with a clear framework of six days, broken into two sets of three corresponding sequences, and marked out by repeated refrains. I think that reading it as a scientific account dishonours and disfigures it, and actually has more potential to undermine the authority of Scripture than an old-earth interpretation does! I also believe that approaching it as a non-scientific, poetic account does not make it any less truthful, but gets to the heart of what it is trying to convey – not how the world was made but by whom and for what purpose.
There are some very good and some very bad reasons for rejecting a literal reading of Genesis 1. I lost my faith in Young Earth Creationism years ago at an Answers in Genesis conference. I had attended believing YEC to be the most obvious, straightforward reading of the text and was frankly surprised that anyone thought otherwise. I had been taught – sometimes implicitly and at other time explicitly – that if you believe in an old earth, or any form of theistic evolution, you are undermining the authority of Scripture, and can’t call yourself a Christian. “To deny the literal truth of page 1 is to deny the literal truth of the entire book.”
My question now is, why is denying the literal truth of page 532 any different to denying the literal truth of page 1?
Of course it hinges on what genre we believe we’re dealing with in each passage. But even if you don’t agree with me that Genesis is a poetic and non-scientific account, can we at least agree on this: believing one chapter of the Bible to be a poetic account, not intended to be taken as literal science, does not necessarily undermine the authority of the entire book. It doesn’t for Job 38; it doesn’t have to for Genesis 1.
The very point of God using poetic, non-literal imagery in Job 38 is to underline the fact that humans cannot comprehend the mechanics of creation. The only way God can begin to help us understand it is to speak in metaphor, simile, and illustrations drawn from our human experience. If we can thank God for using non-literal language in Job, why are we so suspicious about the idea that He might have done the same with Genesis?
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