The Many Layers of Genesis 1: Part I

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The Many Layers of Genesis 1: Part I
from The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One: A Multi-Layered Approach
by Gregg Davidson & Kenneth J. Turner

The opening chapter of the Bible tells an amazing story. It draws on the oldest of stories, likely repeated in various forms across generations by ancient orators before being recorded for the fledgling nation

of Israel. Though ancient in origin, its message has spread across the globe and permeated the consciousness of even the most technologically advanced cultures. It touches on the deepest of human questions about where we came from, how we are related to others from distant times and lands, the nature and character of the material world, and, most importantly, who is responsible for bringing the world into existence.

In modern times, however, the richness and beauty of this story is too often overwhelmed by acrimony, with verbal wars fought over the appropriate interpretation of the text. The conflict would be easier to understand if the battles were principally between those who believe in the inspiration of the Bible and those who do not, but it isn’t that simple. The discord runs deep within the ranks of those who hold to the authority and divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Even among those who self-identify as biblical inerrantists, views can radically differ, with fortified theological trenches dug to separate Christian from Christian. Churches have split and friendships have been lost over disagreements on how this singular text should be understood.[1]

It is our belief that much of this conflict derives from a failure to fully embrace what the church has long affirmed about the nature of the Bible as a whole. When reading beyond Genesis, many Christians have recognized the Bible is not a one-dimensional script, but often contains layers to its message— layers that will sometimes be apprehended only after the third or tenth or hundredth visit. Gregory the Great, an early pope and theologian, captured this sense well in his study of Job, describing the Bible as “a river in which a lamb could walk and an elephant could swim.”[2] He recognized some themes in Job that were obvious from a superficial reading, and some that could only be plumbed by careful study, approaching it from multiple perspectives.[3]

Few Christians would disagree with Gregory’s assessment of Job or of the Bible in general.[4] Yet when it comes to Genesis, the discussion suddenly changes. If listening in on a typical conversation over the proper understanding of the creation story, one may come away with the impression that there is one and only one way to understand it. Moreover, there is often an accompanying sense of urgency, that to get it wrong on Genesis 1 is to get it wrong on all of Scripture.[5] To truly believe the Bible means to betroth oneself to the one true meaning, forsaking all others. Borrowing from Tolkien, the faithful seek to find the One Interpretation to Rule Them All.[6]

But what if we approached Genesis 1 with the same search for richness— that it too may contain layers of truth, each complementing and expanding on the others? Is it possible that more than one angle or emphasis or theme could be simultaneously valid? We are not suggesting something mystical or some sort of free-for-all in which a passage can mean something different for every reader. On any biblical subject, there will never be a shortage of interpretations that are simply wrong, whether because of logical inconsistencies or human bias overprinted on a biblical text. So what exactly do we mean by layers of truth? As an illustration, consider this example from God’s creation. Suppose that we explore a mineshaft and come across a beautiful mineral formation. Upon examination, we find that it is composed chiefly of the elements calcium and fluorine, with pinkish crystals taking the shape of interconnected cubes. A scratch test demonstrates that it is harder than calcite and softer than apatite. All this contributes to identifying the mineral as fluorite. This characterization represents one layer of truth—one that excludes competing options such as misidentifying it as quartz, or errant claims that it is made of lead and silicon.

But something surprising happens when we consider this sample in a different light. Not metaphorically speaking, but literally—a different light. If held under shortwave ultraviolet light (invisible to the human eye), the pink crystal suddenly glows blue! The mineral is phosphorescent, absorbing ultra- violet light and emitting it back as a visible shade of blue. Our previous identification does not suddenly become false because of this new discovery. It is still true that it is made of calcium and fluorine. It is still shaped in cubes. And it is still genuinely pink under normal light. It is still fluorite. But under the new light, another layer of truth about this mineral becomes evident. It is an under- standing we would never have discovered without looking for it. The example could be extended even further, for varieties of fluorite exhibit even more colors under longwave ultraviolet light, and may even display yet another color when heated (thermoluminescence). Each represents a different layer of truth that expands our understanding and appreciation of this mineral.

[1] A personal friend even experienced a divorce driven by a shift in understanding of Gen. 1.

[2] Gregory the Great, Moral Reflections on the Book of Job, 1:53.

[3] It was common in medieval times to consider Scripture from four perspectives or senses: historical sense, allegorical sense, moral sense, and anagogical sense (pertaining to the afterlife or ultimate things). Wikipedia, s.v., “Allegory in the Middle Ages,” https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_in_the_Middle_Ages.

[4] The evangelical Lausanne Covenant affirms that the Holy Spirit “illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole Church ever more of the many-colored wisdom of God” (emphasis added). Section 2: “The Authority and Power of the Bible” (cf. Eph. 3:10).

[5] The seven days of creation extend a few verses into Gen. 2. As we will note later, we use “Genesis 1” as shorthand for Gen. 1:1–2:3.

[6] Interpretation is used in the common sense here as a single thread of understanding or meaning. More explanation follows later in the Introduction.

 


This post is adapted from from The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One: A Multi-Layered Approach
by Gregg Davidson & Kenneth J. Turner, released October 28th 2021. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

See and celebrate the multilayered grandeur conveyed by the first chapter of Genesis

The first chapter of the Bible’s first book lays the foundation for all that follows about who God is and what God is like. Our technology-age fascination with the science of origins, however, can blind us to issues of great importance that don’t address our culturally conditioned questions. Instead, Genesis One itself suggests the questions and answers that are most significant to human faith and flourishing.

Geologist Gregg Davidson and theologian Ken Turner shine a spotlight on Genesis One as theologically rich literature first and foremost, exploring the layers of meaning that showcase various aspects of God’s character:

  • Song
  • Analogy
  • Polemic
  • Covenant
  • Temple
  • Calendar
  • Land

Our very knowledge of God suffers when we fail to appreciate the Bible’s ability to convey multilayered truth simultaneously. The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One offers readers the chance to cultivate an openness to Scripture’s richness and a deeper faith in the Creator.

 


Authors:

Gregg Davidson (PhD, University of Arizona) is a professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. His other works include Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.
Kenneth J. Turner (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of Old Testament and biblical languages at Toccoa Falls College. His other works include The Death of Deaths in the Death of Israel.

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About Author

(PhD, University of Arizona) is a professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. His other works include Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.

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