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The Cosmology of Genesis 1

In recent posts I've looked at the use of the word "day" in the Genesis 1 creation story, and at how that story should be understood within the larger context of Genesis. This context is important if we are to dig below the surface and find the deeper meaning of the Bible's first creation story.

But before we dig deeper, let's take a little time to explore the surface. Young-earth creationists are quick to stress the importance of believing in a six-day creation. They make claims like, "If Genesis is not true, then the whole Bible is suspect." But do they really believe that? If we were to genuinely read Genesis 1 as history, we would have to adopt a vastly different model of the universe.

Let's start at the beginning.

The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.—Genesis 1:2

Traditional Jewish and Christian teaching tells us that God created the universe and everything in it from nothing. There were no preexistent raw materials; God created simply by divine fiat. He said the word, and it was. You can see this idea in Psalm 33:6-9 and Jeremiah 10:12. It's reference in Isaiah 45:7-9 and elsewhere. The notion that God can create something just speaking it pervades both Jewish and Christian scripture, even the bulk Genesis 1.

But verse 2 contains a different idea. The "formless void" and the "face of the waters" would be more at home in Babylonian mythology, where creation begins when the supreme god Marduk defeats Tiamat, goddess of ocean and chaos. The Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish tells how, after his victory, Marduk sliced up Tiamat's corpse to make the earth and the sky. Genesis adopts this imagery, minus the cosmic battle, as a starting point for its own creation story.

And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters."—Genesis 1:6

This dome, known in some translations as the "firmament", separates the waters below—the primordial chaos—from the "waters above", which would be unleashed later in the Noah story. The nature of the firmament is described elsewhere in the Bible. Though it is stretched out like a curtain or tent, it is firm and hard as a molten mirror. It is solid enough that God can walk on it and and build chambers up there.

And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so.—Genesis 1:9

Genesis doesn't describe how God accomplished this task, but Proverbs informs us he "drew a circle on the face of the deep". This disc-shaped land floats on the waters, held up by pillars to stabilize it—although when God is angry, he can shake even the pillars.

And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.—Genesis 1:14-16

Notice that the sun and moon are both described as lights, and they have been placed in the dome. In the cosmology of Genesis, the moon is just a dimmer version of the sun. The earth is the center about which the lights of the dome rotate. Though God can hold the sun in place if he wants to, it is the earth that God put firmly in place from the beginning.

Image courtesy Mark Edward  CC BY-NC

If we are to read Genesis as history, this is the picture of the universe it describes. If creationists want the six days taught in science class, they ought to advocate the firmament, the pillars, and the flat earth as well. They don't go that far, of course. In fact, they go to great lengths to deny the Bible says such things. The same people that insist we treat the phrase "six days" as definitive, are fine with applying ambiguity to nearly every other term found in the first half of Genesis 1. It's no mystery why: Taken as a whole, the cosmology of Genesis is not a viable solution today.

We can't take the Bible's first creation story as a historical account. But if we can get past the surface of the text, there is plenty of meaning to find in this story.

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