Genesis 1 is a marvelous passage – highly stylized literature if not technically poetry.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (v. 1-5)
Light is an amazing thing. It powers the earth and enables the abundant diversity of life we observe.
All Christians see Genesis 1 describing the power of God as Creator and the wonder of his creation. Many, myself included, see these as a literary and theological masterpiece rather than a scientific account. There are many reasons for this. The three most significant are (1) the structure of the passage with spaces prepared and objects placed into these places; (2) the presence of undeniable ancient Near Eastern cosmology in the text; and (3) the scientific evidence for an ancient earth.
As an example of the second point, consider the next three verses. A vault that separates water from water was a concept from the ancient Near Eastern and ancient Israelite understanding of the cosmos. They didn’t picture the earth as a spheroid in space, but as a sculpted surface with waters and land with mountains and valleys contained within a dome or vault.
And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. (v. 6-8)
The literary structure of the passage (first reason) is evident when we consider day four.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day. (v. 14-19)
Here we have light and dark created in day one, but the sun, moon, and stars are not created until day four. The sun, moon, and stars are not deities to be worshiped as often believed by the surrounding cultures with with sun gods Shamash in Babylonia and Ra in Egypt for example. But their view of the heavens did not include the s un as a hot gaseous ball emitting light, the moon as a rocky spheroid reflecting light, or the stars as distant balls of hot light-emitting gas. The sun, moon, and stars are placed in the vault of the sky as expected by the original audience. They are created objects formed by God for a purpose – to provide light by day and by night. (The image is of the Pleiades from the Hubble Telescope, see news release. )
He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. (Job 8-10)
He who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns midnight into dawn and darkens day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land – the Lord is his name. (Amos 5:8)
The third reason is found in the abundant evidence for an ancient earth. The shaping of the earth, from an ancient canyon buried under the current Nile River to the evidence for seas in what are now mountainous areas (the Himalayas, even) and whales buried in the desert (Wadi Al-Hitan for example). The Lost Grand Canyon of Egypt has been the subject of a fascinating series of posts by Joel Duff at Naturalis Historia. Who knew there was a canyon buried beneath the Nile, testimony to a time when the Mediterranean Sea experienced a cycle of substantial evaporation and reduction in size between 5.97 and 5.33 million years ago! (The Wikipedia article on the Messinian Salinity Crisis can provide more information and additional references.) The Nile river cut a canyon into bedrock, more than 6000 feet below the current sea level. When the Straight of Gibralter opened and reconnected the Atlantic to the Mediterranean the canyon became a lake, eventually filling with sediment forming the Nile river valley that has been known throughout human history. And the Nile isn’t the only river around the Mediterranean basin to sit on top of a deep canyon, now filled in with sediment. As Young Earth Creationist writers are quick to point out this remains a field of active study with some disagreement on the details of timing and the degree of desiccation in the Mediterranean. Erosion forming these canyons around the Mediterranean may have occurred without a near emptying of the basin. But there is no disagreement among geologist as to the timing of the event or the vast amount of time involved, both to produce the canyon and then to fill it in. Hundreds of thousands of years.
More to the immediate theme of this post. Light travels at a finite speed. The light we see from distant stars and galaxies left the source many years ago. Often millions of years ago. For the most distant galaxies, billions of years ago.
Billions of years. Physicists find that the universe is some 13.8 billion years old. And the earth – geologists, chemists, and physicists find from multiple lines of evidence – is very old as well, some 4.6 billion years old. This seems an immense amount of time. But is it so to God? It is clear that God uses time for his purposes. He uses time to form each new creature. In Psalm 139 David reflects on God’s creative power, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Most of us are well aware that it takes about nine months for a fertilized human egg to develop into an infant ready for life outside the womb. It takes another decade or two for the child to grow and learn and become an adult. That God uses time to achieve his purposes here doesn’t raise questions. We don’t generally wonder why we were not created fully grown, but need time and help from others to mature.
Let there be light. In a similar manner our investigation of God’s creation is bringing us to the knowledge that he used 9 billion years to produce the earth, beginning from a Big Bang and generations of stars producing the elements for life. Initially the earth was barren rock with a billion years or so (possibly less) required for the appearance of the first cellular life. The origin of life is a sticky problem. But once life appeared – however it happened – the way forward is clearer. Life requires energy to break and create chemical bonds, to move ions and molecules around. The available energy sources were geothermal or solar, with light from the sun by far the most effective. Photosynthetic bacteria were early on the scene – they used the light from the sun to effect a chemical change and trap energy for later use. Put in the most simple terms, energy is stored by separating charge across a membrane – positively charged protons on one side and anions (negatively charged electron rich compounds) on the other. Bringing the charges together in a controlled fashion then releases energy used to be used to perform a function.
Early photosynthesis did not produce oxygen, although by 3 billion years ago cyanobacteria capable of oxygenic photosynthesis were on the scene. The proliferation of cyanobacteria changed the shape of our world, producing the oxygen atmosphere that supports the diversity of life we see around us today. Beginning about 2.4 billion years ago the oxygen began to increase. Rising from a value near zero (less than one part per hundred thousand) to 1 to 2%.
These levels persisted until about 850 million years ago, a few hundred million years after more complex photosynthetic life developed and spread – photosynthetic eukaryotes, and land-based lichen (a composite of photosynthetic algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of a fungus) developed and added to the oxygen production. The lichen degraded (and degrade) rock and further shaped the earth preparing it for diverse plants and then animals. As with anything in biology – especially reaching so far back into the early stages – there is some difference of opinion. However, it is likely that the increase in oxygen facilitated the diversification of life leading to the Cambrian explosion and all that has followed. Oxygen in the air and in the water provides a ready energy source for use by non-photosynthetic organisms. Only when oxygen levels reached something from 10% to the current value of 20% was complex life really possible.
The earth matured over 4 billion years to produce reptiles and mammals. In many respects this is like an embryo growing in a womb. It wasn’t wasted time. I rather expect that 4.6 billion years (preceded by 9 billion years to form the earth) is not all that long from God’s perspective. Only from ours.
In the beginning, when the earth was formless and void, God said “let there be light” and it was good.
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