A New Perspective on the Genesis

Every now and again, I come across an historical text that I find quite interesting. The following is an excerpt from The Ages Before Moses. The author wrote this somewhere between 1838 and 1879. The work itself was published in 1879 as a series of lectures, but the writings contained in it span many decades for this author. What stood out for me in this lecture was his perception of the seven days of creation and what he brings out regarding the harmonies of the Bible and Science. It is a most interesting perception for us to think upon and consider as we continue to weigh out evidences presented to us. Throughout this excerpt, many different things will strike a chord in the mind of the reader – an idea, a thought, a concept – all worth some serious contemplation on our part. Much of what this author has to say, one will notice, stands at odds with what many fundamentalist Christians teach in today’s churches. I put this here today, to allow readers to gain a new perspective and consider what this author has to say. There are many “truths” that this author brings to light in his many different works, some of which, I quote in my book, Religion’s Cell. Sometimes, it’s just refreshing to see some truths put in such a way that it brings the Bible and Science together in harmony. This author does just this. Because of the length of this lecture, I will put it out in two parts; both of which, will be worth reading just for the new concepts and ideas covered on this topic of Genesis and all that it involves. This first section will cover the Genesis in its form, scope and substance. Part two, to come, will cover the harmonies of Bible and Science, Man and, a lesson in Grace.


The Genesis

John Monro Gibson, D.D., The Ages Before Moses, 1879

–deeds and lives that lie Foreshortened in the tract of time.”

genesisOf this kind of foreshortening the book of Genesis is a remarkable example. The lives of the men that lived before Abraham, long as they were, pass so rapidly before the eye that it is difficult to realize that in the course of a few short chapters, many long centuries have been traversed. And the deeds of the Great Creator before the time of Adam, are recorded in such rapid succession, and with such sublimity of condensation, that it is only after the imagination has been thoroughly accustomed to the deep perspective, that we are able even to feebly realize that in the course of a few short verses whole ages of time have been compassed.

These earliest ages of the world’s history will come before us in proceeding to consider the Genesis proper, as we may call that portion of the larger Genesis contained in the first chapter and the first three verses of the second chapter, which ought by all means to have been included in the former.

In looking at this Genesis record we shall consider first the form of it, then the scope of it, and finally its substance.


It’s Form

 Here it is very important to notice that it is not historical in form. The book of Genesis as a whole is historical, and from this we are apt to suppose that every part of it is so. Now it is quite manifest that this portion of it is not historical. The histories of the Bible, as far as their human authorship is concerned, were produced just like other histories. They are the reports of eye-witness, or of those who obtained their information from eye-witnesses, or from persons competent to testify to the facts. The book of Genesis as a whole is historical, and from this we can suppose that every part of it is as well. But, who were the eye-witnesses to the first chapter of Genesis?  Obviously, there were none. Therefore it must have been an apocalypse. God must have revealed it to some of the prophets, in early times. (See Luke 1:70). We are not told how He revealed it, but it looks as if it may well have been in the usual way, namely, by visions. (See Num. 12:6). It would seem as though a series of pictures of creation had passed before the mind of the ancient seer. And, as in other parts of Scripture where God made known His will by visions, so here there are voices falling on the ear, as well as scenes presented to the eye. “God said: Let there be Light.” “God called the Light, Day,” etc.

And here it is most interesting to compare the apocalypse at the beginning with that at the end of the Bible. How natural it was, how necessary, that we should have an apocalypse at the beginning to tell us of that part of the earth’s history which transpired before man existed. And how necessary, too, that we should have an apocalypse to tell us what it was important for us to know about the undiscovered future.

The unknown past—the unknown future—both of these needed an apocalypse, and so we have it. And how numerous and striking the correspondencies between the two. For example, we have the seven days of creation at the beginning; and at the end we have the seven churches and the seven seals and the seven vials and the seven trumpets and the seven voices. Then again, when you compare the first few chapters of Genesis with the closing chapters of the Bible, you see the same great ideas reappearing. In the first apocalypse we have the heavens and the earth. In Genesis we have the Paridise of Eden; in Revelation the paradise of God. In Genesis we are told of the rivers of Eden, and the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Life “in the midst of the garden;” in Revelation we are told of the River of the water of Life, and the Tree of Life upon its banks, and “in the midst of the Paradise of God.” At the beginning of the Bible we have the institution of marriage; and at the end we have “the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Many other comparisons might be made between the two, showing the connection between the first and the last book of that wonderful Bible which opens with an apocalypse of the dateless past, and closes with an apocalypse of the dateless future. So much for the form of this book.


The Scope

Next let’s look at the scope of it:

First of all, it is dateless. There is no date at the beginning of it. It simply says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” There is no date at the end of it. This is not often noticed. We are told, “The evening and the morning were the first day,” the second day, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth day, but we are not told that the evening and the morning were the seventh day. There is no date, then, at the end, any more than at the beginning of it. We shall see the importance of this a little later.

Next, it is measureless. There is nothing in it to measure the scope of it. It has been said that it is measured by the narrow boundary of six or seven days. There seems abundant reason to conclude that there was no such intention of limiting the scope of this chapter. In the first place, notice that three days are spoken of before any measures of time are given. So the first day and the second day and the third day were without measure. Again, in Gen. 2:4, the same word “day” is used to cover the entire time of the creation work. Then there is evidence to show that the Jews, and in particular the sacred writers, did not understand the day of creation in the limited sense of either twenty-four or twelve hours. Take the ninetieth Psalm for example. Observe that this Psalm starts from the idea of creation; and it is worth while to notice that the title of the Psalm ascribes it to Moses, so that we may have here the views of the author of the Pentateuch himself. Well, what does he say? “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever Thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from age to age Thou are God.” These words translated “everlasting” in our version refer to enormous periods. And observe there is no reference to the future, as many suppose. It is all to the past, to the past of creation, as its majestic history sweeps on “from Olam to Olam,” from age to age. And again in the fourth verse: “A thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.” Or take the parallel passage in the New Testament, 2 Peter 3:8: “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” And observe that here, too, the mind of the writer has been carried back to the book of Genesis, for only a few sentences before he has been speaking of “the beginning of the creation” (v.4).

As a good exercise on this subject, let me recommend you take some of the numerous references to creation in the Scriptures and see if you can find a single one that conveys the idea that the work of creation transpired in a short space of time. If the sacred writers had really entertained the idea that so great a work was done in so short a time, would not some notice have been taken of so wonderful an act?  Whereas, if any reference to time is made at all, it is the thought of ages rather than of days that is impressed on the mind. In this connection it may be well to refer to the ideas about creation which are found outside of the Jewish people; and here the remarkable fact meets us that, while the heathen traditions of the creation have so much resemblance to the Mosaic Revelation, as to indicated identity of origin, the idea of long periods is quite familiar. Take the following sentence from the Brahminical records as a specimen: “One thousand divine ages are a day of Brahma, the creator.” These are very ancient authorities you will see, for the extension of time expressed in the word day; and by no means liable to the suspicion of their being driven to it in order to escape geological difficulties! And in the same way sufficient evidence has been adduced to show that Josephus and many of the old Jewish rabbis, and some of the early Christian fathers too—Irenaeus in the second century, Origen in the third, and Augustine in the fourth—did not regard the Bible as committed to literal days in the creation narrative.

Further, what if the days instead of representing the periods of creation represented the time of the vision? May it not have been a seven-day vision, and this only a brief account of it? And if it took so long a time for the vision to pass before the seer’s mind, what a conception of age-long periods would it give him. If a scene passing before your mind should occupy only fifteen minutes in passing, it would appear a long time. If it took an hour, it would seem very long; and if it took an evening and a morning, it would seem almost interminable. I do not urge this very strongly, but it seems to me not by any means unreasonable.

Note: While we hold very strongly to the interpretation of the days above given, we have nothing but respect for the views of those who interpret the days literally and bring in the periods of geology between the first and second verses. It is of course impossible for both to be right; and yet either may be a tenable hypothesis. And it is very important to remember that while different hypothesis necessarily discredit each other, they by no means discredit the sacred text. No one pretends that there was any intention of teaching geology. All that is wanted is room for the discoveries of science: and the greater the number of so-called “reconciliation” hypothesis, provided only they be tenable, the more evidence have we of the wisdom displayed in presenting the truth so as to be final spiritually, and yet so singularly OPEN for future physical investigation.

Let us now revert to the fact already notice, that the seventh day is left open. It is not said of the seventh day as of the others, “the evening and the morning were the seventh day.” Why not? Because all the rest of the Bible is included in the seventh day. This is evidently the thought in the Saviour’s mind, when in defending Himself for healing a man on the Sabbath, He says: “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work’ (John v. 17). It is as if He said: “My Father’s Sabbath has been in process all these years since He rested from His creation work as Sustainer and Redeemer: and so may I; My Father worketh hitherto and I work.” And the very same idea is full wrought out in the intricate, but interesting passage in the fourth chapter of Hebrews.

We are living, then, in the seventh day. In what part of it? Remember the order. It is “the evening and the morning.” The Hebrew order—through darkness to light—is the divine order, which ends in the darkness of midnight. Is it the evening still? Or did the morning break when the Sun of Righteousness appeared upon the horizon eighteen centuries ago? If so, we are only in the early dawn as yet. There is a great deal of darkness about us. But the Day of the Lord is coming, a day which shall know no ending, for “there shall be no night there.” The path of the exalted Saviour through the ages, however obscure it now may be to sight, will be shown at last to have been like that of the true disciple in his day and generation, “as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the Perfect Day.” So much for the magnificent scope of the Bible “Genesis. We come now to the substance of the revelation. Here we have three great subjects: God, Nature, and Man.


The Substance

First, what do we learn from God? His existence is simply postulated: “In the beginning God”—How much grander, stronger, and better than any argumentation would have been. The existence of God really needs no argument. It comes to us in the shape of an intuition. It is inborn in us, and those who are atheists, are atheists in spite of themselves, I was going to say. They have struggled away from their natural convictions. Atheism is not natural. And downright atheism is a very rare thing indeed. We have also the unity of God as against the polytheism of the heathen world; and the spirituality and personality of God as against all pantheistic notions of Deity. Then, finally, His supremacy as “God over all.” If we could realize the extent of the evil arising out of the superstitions of the ancient world, we should see how important it was to set forth the conception of God’s supremacy over all in the beginning. Take the superstitious notions about the weather as an illustration. What a comfort to all to whom this Revelation came, to be assured, long before there was or could be any science of meteorology, that all these changes, that seemed so capricious, were under the control of One intelligent and beneficent Power. Or, again, think of the tendency to worship the heavenly bodies. What a complete antidote to this tendency was the announcement of the fact that all these came into existence by the fiat of the Almighty, and were consequently under His absolute control. The supremacy of God is a very important part of the apocalypse of Genesis.

Have we anything about the Trinity? Attention is often called to the plural form of the name of God, used with a singular verb, the idea being that the plural form gives the conception of trinity and the singular verb that of unity. I do not think we should lay much stress upon this, however, because the plural in the Hebrew language is often used as signifying the excellence, the greatness, the majesty of the subject in reference to which it is used. So the plural may be used here to signify the greatness of God. But the apostle John has called our attention to the presence in this narrative of Him whom we call the Second Person of the Trinity. “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). God SAID: “Let there be Light.” And we can see for ourselves “the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters.” We have then God, the Word, and the Spirit, all brought before us in the work of creation. As we review the truth about God contained in this apocalypse, we should feel constrained to bow the knee in lowly adoration. What a well-spring of worship is there in these opening sentences of the Bible, and how the solemnizing and elevating effect of them appears in all the subsequent literature of the Hebrews. Hence comes that lofty appreciation of nature which is found nowhere else in the ancient world, and is so conspicuous and so inspiring throughout the pages of the Bible. Read the one hundred and fourth Psalm for example, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, and the closing chapters of the book of Job, and you will hear the majestic echoes of that voice of majesty that speaks so grandly in the Genesis. “Hallelujah!” “Hallelujah!” is the never-dying refrain of the Creation Epic: “Praise ye the Lord.”

Next, what do we learn about Nature? Here, unhappily, the attention of Bible students has been almost exclusively directed to certain difficulties. These difficulties all arise, as it seems to me, from three sources, and the Bible is not to blame for any of them. First source: treating the passage as if it were history, whereas it is apocalypse. Second source: taking it as intended to teach science, especially astronomical and geological science. Third source of difficulty: the mistakes of translators. For example, the unfortunate word firmament continually comes to the front as one of the “mistakes of Moses.” Strange that a Latin word should be a mistake of Moses! Did Moses know Latin? Did he ever write the letters f,I,r,m, etc.? Not only is the word “firmament” not in the Hebrew Bible, but it does not represent the Hebrew word at all. The word firmament means something strong, solid. The Hebrew word, for which it is an unfortunate translation, signifies something that is very thin, extended, spread out; just the best word that could be chosen to signify the atmosphere.

Note: The mistake is really a mistake of science. It was the false astronomy of Alexandria that led the Septuagint translators to translate raqia, expanse, into arepewya, firmament. Then there is the word “whales,” that Professor Huxley made so merry over a year ago. But the Hebrew does not say whales. The Hebrew word refers to great sea monsters, and is just the very best word the Hebrew language affords to describe such animals as the plesiosaurus and ichthyosaurus and other creatures that abounded in the time probably referred to there.

Let us only guard against these three sources of error, and we shall not find many difficulties. If we would only avoid the mistakes of Moses’ critics, we would not show our ignorance by talking about the mistakes of Moses.

—to be continued in Part 2

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