A few weeks I appeared on the Skeptics and Seekers Podcast to debate young earth creationism. In preparation for the debate, I was asked to provide a written statement in response to a statement by co-host David Johnson. I have decided to repost my statement here.
I thank David for the invitation to discuss young earth creationism, especially since we have such a fundamental disagreement on this theology. David thinks that Ken Ham is on the side of the angels. I think, on the contrary, that Ham represents a naïve literalist reading of ancient cosmogonic creation narratives which perpetuates much harm. Like many Christian fundamentalists, Ham appears to adhere to the principle that biblical texts should be interpreted literally when possible under the assumption that this is a straightforward and commonsense approach to the texts.
But this is a completely erroneous assumption. To begin with, Ham exhibits great confidence in the so-called commonsense of the contemporary English reader. But this confidence is deeply misguided. To illustrate, consider this story. I recently read about an American psychologist who attended a conference in Britain. At the end of the evening, the female colleague he had been speaking with said, “I’ll knock you up in the morning.” He was initially taken aback by this bizarre and wholly improper sexual proposal appended to what had been a perfectly professional discussion. It took him a while to figure out that when his British colleague said “knock you up” she in fact meant “come knock on your door.” In short, she wasn’t proposing a sexual liaison. She was merely saying that they should continue the conversation in the morning.
If two contemporary English speakers can miss the meaning of each other by a wide margin, what are the chances that a contemporary English Bible reader like Ham might misunderstand a three-thousand year old text written in a foreign language (Hebrew), within the milieu of a very foreign ancient near eastern culture, and translated into contemporary English? At the very least, one must be very cautious about overreliance on what seems to be the sensible interpretation.
Ham places much emphasis on the fact that the word “day” in the text is being used to refer to a twenty-four hour day. That may be so, but that observation also misses the real point by a wide margin. Consider, William Carlos William’s poem “This is Just to Say” makes reference to cool plums in a fridge. And there’s no doubt that Williams really is referring to plums. But it hardly follows that the reference to plums does not also have a greater literary and symbolic significance within the poem.
And so it is with the reference to days in Genesis. These “days” clearly have a symbolic role as they provide structuring motifs for this etiological account of the origin of all things. For one thing, the text functions, rhetorically, to establish the universal, cosmic significance of the Sabbath as the Jews envisioned it by rooting a day of rest and reverence into the very order of creation. To think that the days of this cosmogonic narrative must refer to six literal 24 hour days in the past in order to accomplish this etiological account of creation and Sabbath is about as sensible as thinking that Carlos’ poem must refer only to some literal plums in a fridge.
While Genesis 1 is an etiology and a cosmogony, it also evinces the hallmarks of poetry: viz. highly structured and rhythmic language. For example, the first three days constitute a structuring of creation through origination and separation: light comes to be and is separated into day and night; water comes to be and is separated into water above and water below; and then land comes to be separate from land and it gives forth life. And so end the first three days with the structure of creation.
The final three days constitute a filling of that structure: lights are created to fill the day (sun) and night (stars; moon); then birds fill the sky (the fifth day) and animals fill the land (the sixth day). And finally, we see the appearance of the apogee of creation, human beings.
Thus far, I’ve noted that Genesis 1 is an etiology and a poetic account of cosmogony. At this point, we can also add another blow against flat-footed literalism: the entire sequence of the Genesis 1 account is out of step with the distinct account of creation in Genesis 2. For example, in Genesis 1 human beings come last whereas in Genesis 2 the male human being comes first and then the animals and then Eve.
So what’s going on between these two accounts? The minimal courtesy we should grant every writer or redactor (editor) is that they weren’t stupid. In short, the editor of these two ancient accounts was fully aware of their differences. And in fine rabbinic fashion, he leaves the reader to explore that tension. At the very least, this is one more reason to keep in mind that we are not merely reading the ancient equivalent of a newspaper account of origins.
In the seventeenth century, Galileo famously observed that Scripture tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. In other words, the message of Scripture is a message of God’s creation, fall, and redemption culminating in the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. The Scriptures were not given to us to teach us science.
And it is clear that where science is concerned, the understanding of the Hebrew represents an ancient science. For example, the “waters above” in Genesis 1 refers to the raqia, a hard dome that the Hebrews believe held a literal ocean above our heads. Today we know that there is no raqia. But the message of Genesis 1 isn’t that God made a raqia. Rather, the message is that God made creation, and that message is understandably conveyed to (and through) the ancient Hebrews in the scientific understanding of their day, one which included the raqia.
For all these reasons and more, it is deeply misguided to read Genesis 1 as a flat-footed literal account of origins. No doubt, Ken Ham means well, but his errant and naïve reading of the biblical text does a grave disservice to Christians as it inclines people to read a faulty young earth creationist theology back onto the text. And this, in turn, does nothing more than discredit Christians and the church before a skeptical world. For these reasons, I don’t believe that Ham is on the side of the angels. Indeed, I must conclude that if any angels take pleasure in Ham’s misbegotten textual reading, they are likely of the fallen sort.