Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor

Cosmogony and/or Science in Genesis I
Robert C. Newman
Biblical Theological Seminary
Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute
Hatfield, Pennsylvania

From: JASA 37 (June 1985): 127-128

I read with concern Conrad Hyers' article, "The Narrative Form of Genesis 1: Cosmogonic, Yes; Scientific, No," in the December, 1984 issue. It seems to me that Hyers makes much the same mistake interpreting Genesis I as young-earth creationists do when they confront the book of nature: both distort the material before them to fit a preconceived scheme obtained elsewhere.

In Hyers' case, this scheme is obtained from ancient pagan cosmogonies. Statements in Genesis I which appear to be chronological, scientific or historical are reinterpreted as "cosmogonic" instead. Thus the Genesis account is seen as concerned only to rebut polytheism, which it does by adapting the genre of pagan cosmogony-with its chaos/order motif-in such a way as to replace the mutiple gods and their specialized functions by the one Creator who makes and maintains all the realms of nature.

The major problem I have with Hyers'approach is not so much his claim that the Genesis account is rebutting pagan cosmogonies (which may have real merit)1 as with his rejection of the possibility that the account might also be doing anything else, such as providing scientific, historical or chronological information. It is as though a literary critic, finding that a poem has a rhyme scheme, rejects the possibility that it may also have alliteration, use figures of speech, or even narrate a historical event. This is surely a good example of what Donald MacKay calls "nothing-buttery."2

Hyers' dismissal of chronology in Genesis I is unwarranted. He finds a clear parallel between the seven-day week and the creation account, yet assumes the former is older and the latter was designed to fit it. Is it not more likely that the Biblical author intended the reader to understand just the opposite?

The fact that there is a parallelism between days 1-3 and days 4-6 in the Genesis account does not warrant the denial of chronology either. It only indicates that something else is going on. Whether this something else is in place of, or in addition to, chronology remains to be seen. Hyers' gives no example of non-chronological "chronologies" in pagan cosmogonies.3 Perhaps the Biblical chronology is a part of the author's rebuttal to paganism. Since the Judeo-Christian religion is preeminently a historical one in contrast to ancient polytheisms, why not read its apparently historical features as a correction to the timeless mythological tone of pagan cosmogomes?

I find fault with Hyers' discussion of numerology along similar lines. Most Bible scholars will agree that the number 7 has connotations of completeness, and that 12 also may have symbolic overtones. The question is-having admitted this-can we then dismiss all (or any) of the occurrences of 7 or 12 in Scripture as non-literal? When, for example, the writer of Proverbs speaks of seven things the Lord hates, he actually lists seven. Apart from the use of round numbers, and the function of 1,000 and 10,000 as generalized large numbers, I know of no reasonably certain examples of non-literal numbers in the Bible.

Regarding the harmonization of Genesis I with science, Hyers' discussion is very superficial. He is only knocking down a straw man by arguing that since there is "no scientific evidence" that the universe was originally filled with water, "the only viable alternative" is to interpret Genesis I cosmogonically. It is an old logical fallacy to eliminate one alternative and then choose the other, without showing that the two exhaust the (viable) possibilities. It is certainly possible to interpret Genesis I scientifically in a way consistent with both the Biblical text and what we know from cosmology, planetoiogy, geology, etc., as I have attempted to show elsewhere.4 Whether such a suggestion is "viable" I leave to the reader to decide. However, this approach produces a better correlation between the details of Genesis I and scientific theory than Heidel is able to obtain between Genesis I and the Babylonian cosmogony Enuma Elish.5

Is it antecedently likely that the Genesis account contains scientifically useful information? We ought to avoid two pitfalls in answering this question. On the one hand, the Bible claims God as its coauthor. We should not therefore limit its statements to only what an ancient human could have known. On the other band, the account does not tell us whether its purpose is scientific, polemic, both or neither. Thus we should investigate the evidence in favor of various alternatives, not eliminate alternatives arbitrarily.


1See, e.g., the discussion in Nahum M. Sarna, "Understanding Creation in Genesis" in Is God a Creationist?, ed. Roland M. Frye (New York; Scribners, 1983),155-175.

2See Donald MacKay, The Clockwork Image (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974), chap. 4.

3Nor do I know of any from my more limited reading in pagan cosmogonies. See, e.g., Charles Doria and Harris Lenowitz, eds., Origins: Creation Texts from the Ancient Mediterranean (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1976).

4Robert C. Newman and Herman J. Eckelmann, Jr., Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981).

5Ibid., 87; Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1963), 129.