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Did God simply shape the world like a pagan god?

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Rafi A., from Germany wrote to us asking whether Genesis is Ancient Near East mythology.

Hello,I had some confusing information in my religion class. The teacher claimed that the waters mentioned in Genesis 1:2 are common in many myths from the near east. And that the chapter is showing how the waters were there before the beginning. Then she raised the question of why the earth was void and “broken” and she then said this is because God started with some stuff and he only made it better, like in the other myths. And yes I hate my “religion” class. How could I answer?Greetings,Rafi

CMI (US)’s Bruce Lawrence replies:

Thanks for writing in.

First, I want to emphasize that it’s not your job to beat your teacher in a debate, or change her mind. Your priority should be to learn what your teacher says, and learn which parts are facts, and which parts are philosophical interpretations (i.e. outside ideas being imposed upon the facts). Genesis 1:1 tells us, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. God did not begin crafting the universe using something that was already there. The word for beginning in the original Hebrew is rē’shît, meaning beginning, prefixed by bǝ, meaning “in”. This phrase in context refers to an absolute beginning, not a relative beginning. This is the traditional interpretation of the verse in Hebrew as reflected in the ancient translations, including the Greek Old Testament (i.e, the Septuagint), the Latin Vulgate, and the Aramaic Targums1. The Greek Old Testament translates it as “en archē (ἐν ἀρχῇ)”, which again clearly means, “In the beginning”—an absolute beginning.

Genesis 1:1 can be understood as an anadiplosis to Genesis 1:2. As Dr Jonathan Sarfati explains in The Genesis Account by quoting E. W. Bullinger:

“This anadiplosis: … is used to call our attention to, and emphasize, the fact that, while the first statement refers to two things, ‘the heavens and the earth’; the following statement proceeds to speak of only one of them, leaving the other entirely out of consideration.”

Dr Sarfati then quotes Leupold’s summary of the problems [emphasis added]:

“Now is this first verse a heading or a title? By no means; for how could the second verse attach itself to a heading by an ‘and’? Or is this first verse a summary statement akin to a title, after the Hebrew manner of narrative which likes to present a summary account like a newspaper heading, giving the gist of the entire event? Again, no. For if creation began with light and then with the organizing of existing material, the question would crowd persistently to the forefront: but how did this original material come into being? For v. 1 could not be a record of its origin, because it would be counted as a summary account of the things unfolded throughout the rest of the chapter. Verse one is the record of the first part of the work brought into being on the first day: first the heavens and the earth in a basic form as to their material, then light. These two things constitute what God created on the first day. The Hebrew style of narrative just referred to may or may not be employed on occasion, depending on the author’s choice. Here it does not happen to be used.2

In other words, Genesis 1:1 tells us that the very first thing that God created on Day 1 was the heavens and the earth. Verse two then describes the state of the earth at this point in time: it was still unformed and unfilled. There is nothing in the text that suggests that there was an eternal watery Earth before creation week.

If there is any doubt, consider these Bible passages. Psalm 90:2, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God,” Hebrews 11:3 tells us that: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” Other similar passages include Psalms 33:6–9, and Exodus 20. In Exodus 20:11, we are told, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” All these passages allude back to Genesis 1:1 and tell us that the Earth was not eternal, but was created on the first day of creation.

God is a God of order. He is eternal, pre-existed all creation, and is distinct from his creation. It is the opposite of the Ancient Near East (ANE) myths which depict the universe as starting with an eternal, unorderly, chaos. Many of the ANE myths teach that out of this chaos, the universe spontaneously brought forth the gods. These gods would then craft the world by merely shaping the existing materials, or becoming part of the universe themselves. The idea that the Bible is just an ANE myth is a liberal interpretation imposed upon the text and is not rooted in the actual wording of the Bible.

This sets Genesis completely apart from all the pagan pantheistic ANE myths. Liberal theologians ignore the fact that the Bible teaches creation ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing) because it frustrates their attempts to lump biblical creation together with these pagan myths.

The claim that the Earth was broken, usually stems from a misunderstanding of the Hebrew phrase, tohu wa-bohu. This phrase just means “unformed and unfilled”. Creation took place over six days, so naturally, the earth was not completely filled the minute God created it. This does not entail the restoration of something broken, or that God never created the Earth ex nihilo. Thus, saying that the created order was unformed and unfilled (or formless and void in some English translations) on Day one does not mean that there was any kind of prior destruction. It just means that the earth was empty and without proper form because God was not yet finished with the creative works that He started on the first day.

Josh Wilson, adjunct professor of Bible at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis (whose doctoral thesis was on the topic of relative beginning vs absolute beginning) argued,

“The traditional understanding of Genesis 1:1 is grammatically easy, and the most basic principle for understanding any language is to follow the ease of the grammar. The ancient translators were just as familiar with the grammatical issues as we are today, and they followed the ease of the grammar by rendering the passage in its most normal, traditional sense.”3

We have articles on creation.com about the Ancient Near East creation myths and why they are different from the Biblical account. I recommend reading: Pagan creation myths; and Is Genesis 1 Just Reworked Babylonian Myth? So while the Genesis account is radically different from the pagan ANE myths, there are indeed a few similarities between the creation account in the Bible and the creation myths of other ANE cultures. But this does not mean that Genesis copied these myths. Rather, the similarities are best understood as supporting evidence that the Bible’s account is the original, and the others are derivatives that distort the true biblical account over time. This becomes evident when the details of the myths are compared side by side. The Bible’s description of creation week, the garden of Eden, the global Flood, and the tower of Babel were actual historical events, and this is reaffirmed by Jesus and the New Testament authors. See: From Creation to Salvation.

I think you will find this article about the fall of man, and other religions to be interesting: The Serpent. For instance, thanks to advancements in scientific progress (modern science was a product of Christian theology and a belief in literal six day creation), we know that the universe did have a beginning. The 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics suggest that the amount of matter and energy in the universe is fixed. Energy is being slowly changed into a form that can no longer be used for “work”, a concept sometimes called, “heat death”. This is a condition in which all the energy in the universe is evenly distributed and at a temperature of a fraction of a degree above Absolute Zero. In other words, the universe is winding down. If the universe had always existed in the infinite past, then the amount of usable energy would have been used up long ago. Any worldview that proposes an eternal universe, or a causeless universe is antithetical to science and reason. The Bible does teach the universe had an actual beginning. I recommend supplementing your course with the articles we have mentioned here. I recommend “Christianity for Skeptics”, and “The Genesis Account”.

Christianity for Skeptics analyzes the major world religions and the second is an in-depth commentary on Genesis 1 through 11 and discusses the issues you have raised in much more depth. The information in it would readily refute her claims about a ruined creation and a relative beginning.

Best wishes,
Bruce

Published: 11 June 2022

References and notes

  1. Or Targumim. Return to text.
  2. Sarfati, Jonathan, The Genesis Account: A theological, historical, and scientific commentary on Genesis 1–11 (Kindle Locations 2966–2974), Creation Book Publishers, Kindle Edition; Hardback 4th Edn, pp. 103–104, 2021. Return to text.
  3. Wilson, J.D., Have We Misunderstood Genesis 1:1? answersingenesis.org, 11 September 2013. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $13.00
Soft Cover
The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
US $30.00
Hard Cover