A Great Mystery: Taking Genesis Seriously
I have some great qualms about the recent debate between “Science Guy” Bill Nye and Ken Ham regarding Young Earth Creationism versus Old Earth Evolution/Science. Unlike most of my secular colleagues, however, I don’t feel that the mistake Bill Nye made was in giving further publicity and exposure to Ken Ham and his Answers In Genesis website and movement. Nye did make a strategic mistake, but that wasn’t it.
Indeed, I am providing the link to Ken Ham’s website because — even though I consider his movement to be more a dangerous cult than a religion — I find the site to be a very interesting and infuriating but challenging collection of ideas. I would even go so far as to suggest that a very good way to teach the scientific approach regarding evolution and theories about the age of the universe would be to point students to articles on this website, and ask students to write papers about whether they understand the arguments made, and if they see any flaws or fallacies in them, or if they can provide evidence which refutes claims made, in some cases even pointing out when they got something right. In particular, in one of the “Answers in Genesis” articles they point to this article in Smithsonian Magazine where scientists have found pliable non-fossilized flesh inside dinosaur bones, which — it is argued — challenges the scientific dogma that all dinosaur fossils should be completely mineralized after 60 million years. Guess what? real unfossilized dinosaur!
In my opinion, the mistake that Bill Nye made was that deep down he does not take the bible seriously, and does not respect the ideas presented by Ken Ham and his associates as absolutely sincere. I cannot prove this, but while Bill Nye did express sympathies for the religious yearning to understand where we came from, and why, it also seemed like he was too dismissive of his opponents viewpoint as self-evidently false.
The reason I feel the debate was flawed was that in a real debate, there is some degree of acknowledgement by each side that the other side may have a point, but that they were going to argue their side for all its worth. And what I didn’t see on either side was an honest respect for the other’s stories, traditions and world view.
To Bill Nye, I would like to say: there have been very smart and intelligent people who take the bible seriously, if not literally. No less a person than Sir Isaac Newton, the father of classical physics and co-inventor of Calculus, investigated the timelines of the bibilical stories, and came up with an age of 6000 years from Day One, closely matching those of Bishop Ussher and others. You really needed to read the bible a lot more than you did, and talk about it with some respect, rather than spend so much debate time with million-year old Antarctic ice cores. — as interesting as that is. People are simply not going to listen to you if they feel you don’t respect them.
To Ken Ham, I would like to say: it is a remarkable bit of work you have been doing, and I take it as a sincere effort to take the word of God (as contrasted by you with the word of man) as the literal truth, and to make sense of the world around you based on the only compass and guide you permit yourself. However, I believe that if anything you are not taking Genesis serious enough, and are glossing over some words that are clear, unambiguous, and right there in front of your face. If you wish to honor your God, and take as a premise that the bible as handed to you has been transcribed and translated without error, then you must go back and read Genesis from page one, verse one, and look at every word.
Every. Single. Word.
Answers In Genesis
Let us begin, shall we? I am using the standard King James version for the moment. In good rabbinical tradition, I will also be adding running commentary and alternative translations when needed.
Genesis, Chapter 1.
Comment: Okay so far. This sets the origin, the Zero point of the earth and the universe that surrounds it.
2: And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Comment: Pretty clear, we are still at the Zero point, there is the universe, and the formless earth, which includes water, but it is DARK. There is also now the first mention of movement, which means that the clock of time itself may have begun.
3: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
Comment: This event is a big deal, as we now know how light ties into the deep structure of the universe. Whether Time had started or not before this, it is definitely running now, as without it light cannot travel. It is not clear here whether photons were created at this point, or, simply that the Sun and the stars were created, from which previously-created photons now came to the earth and lit it up. One way or another, we can assume that the Sun now exists, and is illuminating the Earth.
4: And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
Comment: From what we now understand about astronomy, the division of the light from the dark is the shadow cast by the earth, the shadow now moving because the earth is rotating. So, God has started the earth rotating. It can be safely said that much has happened so far. Note also that it is only at this point that a specific speed has been set for the earth to rotate.
5: And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Comment: Okay, now we are naming things. Naming things is a big deal in the bible, and it is important to get the names right. A “Day” is when it is light, and “Night” is when it is dark. And Day and Night only have meaning at the moment when there is light, and the light is divided from darkness.
The most important thing we have to look at is this second sentence, as it defines what is the First Day. But “evening” and “morning” are not defined clearly here. In the evening it is dark, but does the darkness in Verse One before there was light count as part of the first evening? The King James version is not clear. In the Christian Standard Bible the verse reads:
5: God called the light “day,” and He called the darkness “night.” Evening came, and then morning: the first day.
In the Hebrew Torah, the same verse of Genesis (Bereishit) reads:
5: And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, one day.
This is worded slightly different again. The words “it was” are inserted between “and” and “evening”.
The key thing here is the special way the word “and” is used. In the first four verses, there seems to be an implicit “then” in there, as if to say “and then”. In the Christian Standard bible the “then” is explicit. It does not seem to be simultaneous “and”, as in “I like peaches and cream”. First the heavens and earth were created, and *then* the spirit of God moved across the waters, which took some time. God said let there be light, and *then* there was light. And *then* God saw the light, etc.
In the Judaic tradition the rabbinical commentaries by Rashi suggest that the language in which Genesis was written when handed down to Moses did not imply a specific order or sequence of events. But if we are to take the literal view of fundamentalists that the words are both exact and logically consistent, then we have to conclude that the “and” implies an ordering, that day one comes and (then) day two and so on.
One thing that is unambiguous regardless is that a complete day begins and ends with morning; in other words, that the boundary between days is defined by sunrise (the first light), not sunset (the first dark).
The Great Mystery
Let us summarize what we know so far. From the text, the sequence of events goes like this:
- Heaven and Earth Created
- Spirit of God moves across the waters
- Light Created
- The Earth begins to Rotate (separating light and dark)
- Day and Night named
- Evening Came
- (then) Morning Came
So, if a full day begins with sunrise (first light), then it would appear that Day One starts with first light at verse 3, then the earth begins to rotate, evening comes and then morning. End of Day One.
That being the case, what about the time spent in verse one and two? That appears to be a Day Zero that is unaccounted for. Already we see motion as God moves across the waters in verse two, so the clock of time has already begun to tick. How much time passed in Verse One through Verse Three, that was not included in Day One? Was it another Day? A week? Four Billion Years? No answer is given in the bible to help.
This may seem like a small quibble, but if we start with the premise that we place absolute faith in the exact, literal word of God, as written (and translated), then we have to also believe that the story of Genesis is exact and precise in its accounting of days and time, as written. And so, if the age of the earth is at question, and faith depends upon the infallibility of the word in the book, we need to answer the question, what and how long is Day One?
Elsewhere in the commentaries of the Torah, it is pointed out that unlike the other six days which are called “Second day”, “Third day” and so on, the first day in the original Hebrew is called “One day”, not “First day”. The commentaries also point out that this was because Heaven (not the heavens) in which angels reside wasn’t created until the second day, so “One Day” was the day in which God was by Himself (or themselves if you go with the trinity).
So the first day is special. Let us be charitable then and make the special exception that “One Day” is unlike all other days, consists of an evening (undivided darkness), a day (light), a division between the two (earth spinning at 24 hours / rotation), followed by an extra bonus evening, then morning. One Day.
In that case, which I suspect is the One Day Ken Ham would propose, is indeed very special and unlike any other day. In particular, since the earth does not begin spinning until verse three, there is a span of time of darkness followed by undivided light, whose duration is not measured by the spinning of the earth. The earth during this time is void, formless and also motionless. So, once again, how much time by human measure do these first three verses take up?
We have no word of God on this, only words of Man. And the wisest of men would say on issues for which the Bible has given no exact and explicit answer, that this is “a great mystery”.
And so, the best that the “Answers in Genesis” can tell us about the current age of the earth is that it is:
“6000 years, plus a Great Mystery”.
— an answer to which I believe even Bill Nye would agree.