Frequently in conversations about the Bible with young people do I find myself taking them back to the early chapters of Genesis. These chapters are important ones for setting up the narrative and introducing key themes as well as taking on the big questions on worldview: origin, identity, meaning, morality and destiny. Usually however before getting around to these important factors we come across a number of stumbling blocks: “Did God really do it in 7 days?, Did God really do it this way? Doesn’t it contradict Science? What about the Big Bang?”. Very quickly our conversations become scientific ones. Often however I hear myself and my fellow youth workers saying something like “science & faith complement each other, science shows us how God created the world and faith tells us why God created it, so lets look for the ‘why’ in these verses”.
John Walton in his book The Lost World of Adam and Eve (the inspiration for this post) suggests that “in our culture, we think ‘scientifically’. We are primarily concerned with causation, composition and systemisation. In the ancient world they are more likely to think of the world in terms of symbols and to express their understanding by means of imagery” (136). He continues with an illustration “We can see the difference if we compare two visual representation of the night sky- one taken by the Hubble telescope, the other presented by Vincent can Gogh’s The Starry Night. People would never consider doing astronomy from the van Gogh… the image contains nothing of composition or position of stars. At the same time, we would not say that it is a false depiction of the night sky. Visual artists depict the world imagistically, and we recognise that this depiction is independent of science but not independent of truth” (137).
This is helpful, in these early chapters we find truth, but not scientific truth – for the ancients science was just simply not their principle concern. If we want to take ‘the Bible seriously’ then it is important that we treat it as an ancient document and should therefore “begin by using only the assumptions that would be appropriate for the ancient world. We must understand how the ancients thought and what ideas underlay their communication” (15). Or, a saying I have heard accredited to Dr Michael Heiser – “we must learn to channel our inner ancient Israelite”.
And here, I think is where we find the problem. We tell young people that these passages are not doing science and YET… they sound scientific to us! On the surface they seem to be talking about how material things came into being. We read the texts wearing worldview glasses that are heavily tainted with a dose of scientific, rationalistic naturalism.
I want to suggest then that it is important for us as youth workers to go beyond simply saying that there is a difference between science and faith and instead to begin helping young people swap their worldview glasses for a pair belonging to an ancient Israelite. This is not an easy task but there is a wealth of resources out there to help us (see below). As we begin to see the passage through the eyes of an ancient Israelite, the passages begin to stop sounding materialistic and scientific to us and we begin hearing them as symbols pointing to the reality of God.
Let’s do this together quickly with Genesis one:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2 ESV).
“God created the heavens and the earth”, “the earth was without form and void” – both of these statements seem to be talking about material things which God has brought into being from nothing – sounds a little scientific. Let’s begin to break this verse down.
Firstly, “the earth was without form and void” – the Hebrew word used here is Tohu wa-bohu. This phrase is better understood as a “desert wasteland”, this is a chaotic environment, unordered and unsuitable for life. What has God done with the chaos?
“God created the heavens and the earth”. When we talk about heaven and earth the ancients were not thinking of a globe floating in space – they were simply referring to ‘everything up there and everything down here’. What about the words ‘created’ and ‘made’?
The Hebrew verb for ‘created’ is bārā which usually describes activity about bringing order, organisation, roles and functions.
The word for ‘made’ is āśā, and is best understood as God ‘carrying out work’.
So what are we left with simply from revisiting the language:
In the Beginning, God ordered everything we see up there and everything down here. The earth was a chaotic desert wasteland, and darkness was over the face of the deep (oceans being another place of chaos which the Hebrews understood as death!). And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Genesis is about God becoming personally present by His Spirit to carve out a space in the chaos where human life can exist and flourish.
The rest of Genesis One is centred around this theme of order, Light for example is created on day one – usually we assume this to be the sun, but a more careful reading shows that God doesn’t call the light ‘sun’ (a material object) but he calls it ‘day’. It is about God ordering time itself, he then goes on to do the same with weather and agriculture (three huge systems that need to be ordered for life to flourish).
I have only skimmed the surface! There is a wealth of materials out there (check out below) that I would encourage all Youth Ministers to engage with. Already there is a noticeable difference when discussing these passages with young people as it has helped stripped them from language we usually associate with science and instead load them with symbol and meaning – as they were originally meant to be understood. Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked “The limits of my language means the limits of my world”. By using language more appropriate to the biblical time we are opening up the world where God encountered his people, helping us understand how he encounters us today.
One final thought:
Walton concludes his book with an application for our work with young people (making him my new favourite theologian?) writing, “Finally, and perhaps most importantly (ALL THE YOUTH WORKERS SAY – AMEN!)… there is no need to lose our young people to this debate… when they come home from college having accepted some scientific understanding about human origins that we do not find persuasive, are we going to denounce them, disinherit them and cast them from the doors of our homes and churches? Or are we going to suggest to them that there may be a way to interpret Scripture faithfully that will allow them to hold on to both science and faith? Can we believe that such a path does not represent a compromise that dilutes the faith but rather one that opens new doors to understanding that the next generation may find essential even though we find ourselves paralysed on the threshold? (209-210). #micdrop
All of the page numbers in brackets above are referencing:
John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, IVP: 2015.
I would also recommend anything and everything coming out of the www.thebibleproject.com particularly their Podcasts I have found helpful on this issue and the “How to read the Bible” series.
Tim Mackie from the Bible Project has a helpful video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhTqbfbEaRA