Context - The Often Forgotten Consideration When Reading Genesis 1

This is article number 2 in our ongoing series on creation. You can find article 1 here.

My Story

I grew up in a conservative, Southern Baptist church. I was taught that God created everything in 6 literal days about 6,000 years ago. I never questioned this.

After being at college for a year, I was having dinner with a few life-long friends who were also raised in that same church culture. Well, one of them started explaining why he believed the earth, and indeed the whole universe, was old. And by old, I mean billions of years old.

I protested vigorously, albeit without much substance, besides that the Bible uses the world “day” and it says creation happened on 6 of them. (I now know there are better arguments for a young earth than this, though). I accused my friend of “reading modern science into the text”.

I left dinner that night very sad — one of my friends had become a heretic… or so I thought. This illustrates a couple things. 1. I hadn’t been exposed to other othordox ideas about creation (Old earth creation is not heresy) and 2. I also had a bad definition of heresy.

I’m not one to change beliefs lightly, and I share this with you so that you can understand where I’m coming from. Changing your mind doesn’t mean you are now right (as some today what to portray), but the reasons for a change of mind and the thought processes associated with them can be illuminating.

I started investigating old earth creation, and it made some sense, but I wasn’t convinced until I came to view Genesis 1 through the lens of the most important factor in Biblical interpretation: Context

The Context of Genesis 1

When we talk about women’s roles in the church, head coverings, or the importance of other issues, we almost always look at the context in which these things were written. We consider the time period, geography, author, audience, surrounding passages, and genre. And we should. For the Bible to be understood correctly, it must be read as truth communicated in a specific context. If we fail to understand the context, we will often fail to understand the passage in question.

For example, Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) Doesn’t mean you can fly, pay your bills without working, live to be 200, or win your baseball game. Paul was saying he could make due in all situations, specifically in hardship; he wasn’t writing a Christian school’s athletic department motto.

You’re probably asking: So, what is the context of Genesis 1, and why does it matter so much?

While Genesis describes the beginning of history, it wasn’t written (or communicated) for quite a while. Moses, who is the most likely author, wrote Genesis around 1,400 BCE, after Israel had come out from under about 400 years of Egyptian slavery.

God’s chosen people, Israel, didn’t even know who God was. Joshua 24:14 records that they worshiped the Egyptian Gods and that they even took those idols with them when they left Egypt for Canaan. It gets worse though — Exodus communicates that they didn’t even Know God’s name! (“God” is not God’s name. It’s a position or the type of being He is.)

Worshiping Egyptian gods would assuredly involve adopting Egyptian creation beliefs too. If you didn’t even know who the true God is, you can’t believe He created everything.

So, when we read Genesis 1, we need to keep this in mind. There is much more to examine, but I want to raise this question early on: _Knowing that God’s people didn’t know him or worship him, does it make sense for the Genesis 1 — the first thing communication to them — to be scientific?

His people know nothing about him, but many today want us to believe that God’s first words were a history of how he created. Now, I understand this impulse. I was once asked, “If you only had the Bible, would you believe the earth was young?” Yes, I would, if I didn’t know anything about natural revelation (via science) or what ancient Egyptians believed. However, to not consider those other points is inappropriate, since it involves a failure to examine all of the relevant context. It is worth noting that there will never be a conflict between the book of God’s works (nature) and the book of God’s words (the Bible).

When we read Paul’s letters, we are often getting one side of a conversation — like listening to someone talk on the phone. We have to guess what the other person or group is saying in order to best make sense of what Paul is saying. In other words, we need to use all of the context we can, in order to accuratly interpret his letters.

Understanding the first chapter of the first book of the Bible is no different. We need to understand what Ancient Egypt believed about creation, in order to come to understand that the first chapter is actually the very first rebuttal and refutation of incorrect beliefs.

It’s primary purpose? To teach correct theology, not science or even history.

In future weeks I'll support this, we’ll unpack some textual evidence for interpreting Genesis 1 in a non-literal way, and we’ll examine Egyptian beliefs and how extremely similar they are to Genesis 1 — I’ll give you a hint: Until you understand what God, through Moses, is doing in Genesis 1,* you’re going to think that the Bible plagiarized Egyptian beliefs*. They’re that similar.