Before examining the creation story in Genesis 1-2, let us meditate for a moment on what the scriptures say about the word of God. We often use the title Word of God as an honorific name for the Holy Bible. The writers of scripture were divinely inspired, and “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2nd Timothy 3:16), so it makes sense to refer to the Bible as God’s word. In the Bible itself, however, the phrase word of God has a broader meaning. Several different Hebrew and Greek expressions are translated into English as “word of God,” “word of the Lord,” and other similar phrases.
In Deuteronomy 5:5, for example, Moses refers to the Ten Commandments as “the word of the LORD.” Psalm 33:6 tells us “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made.” Prophetic words and visions are also referred to as “the word of the LORD” (1st Samuel 3:1, 3:7). In all of these contexts, the same Hebrew words are used: dabar (“word” or “speech”) and Yehovah (“LORD,” or “The Existing One”). In Romans 10:8, the apostle Paul uses the Greek word rhema to translate the Hebrew word dabar when he quotes Deuteronomy 30:14, and elsewhere he uses rhema in the phrase “word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).
The Greek word logos, which has several meanings but is usually translated “word,” also appears repeatedly in the phrase “word of God.” The phrase word (logos) of God occurs many times throughout the New Testament, and refers in various contexts to God’s commands, the gospel message, or the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit. (See for instance Luke 11:28, Colossians 1:25, 1st Thessalonians 2:13, Hebrews 4:12, and 1st John 2:14). Most importantly, Jesus Christ is called the Logos (John 1:1, 1:14), and the name “Word of God” ultimately belongs to Him (Revelation 19:13).
So, the biblical meaning of God’s “word” includes anything that God speaks, in any of the ways that He speaks: the commandments He spoke to Moses, the Word by which He spoke the universe into existence, the words He spoke through the prophets, the words of Christ, and the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to our hearts. Most importantly, God has revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Word.
The word of God isn’t an ancient book written for a bygone era. It is “is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God compares His word to life-giving rain:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11, NIV)
Not all soil yields a crop when it rains, however. As Jesus taught us in his parable of the sower, some people are unwilling to let the word of God take root and grow in their lives. They “will keep on hearing, but will not understand,” and they “will keep on seeing, but will not perceive” (Matthew 13:14, NASB). It is possible to study the Bible diligently without really hearing, perceiving, or understanding the word of God. Consider Jesus’ warning to the religious leaders: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40, NIV)
How can we avoid repeating that same mistake ourselves? The most important step we can take is to obey what Jesus exhorts us to do: repent, or turn, from our sinful habits. When we rid ourselves of sin, the Holy Spirit purifies our hearts (our desires, values, and motives) and enables our minds to perceive and understand what He is saying to us. One particularly stubborn form of sin is self-righteous pride, which blinded the religious leaders and prevented them from recognizing the truth when He—the Truth—was literally staring them in the face! We are liable to make the same error if we arrogantly exalt our own understanding of Scripture above the Word of God himself.
Another lesson to heed from Jesus’ warning is that if we fail to understand the purpose of God’s communication, we may miss His message entirely. The same problem sometimes happens in ordinary human conversations. Here’s a simple example to illustrate this point. Suppose I wake my children in the morning and tell them “It’s time to get dressed for school! See, the sun is coming up.” Instead of promptly obeying, they decide to start an argument: “But Daddy, we learned in school that the sun doesn’t actually come up. It only looks that way because the earth is rotating. What you just said isn’t true!”
Of course I know that the sun isn’t literally rising. So, did I lie to my children when I told them the sun was coming up? It would have been a lie if I were giving them a lesson on astronomy, but that was not the message I intended to communicate. I wasn’t telling them about the operation of the solar system. I was telling them that this is the time of day when they should get ready for school! By ignoring the purpose of my communication, they completely missed the point of what I said, and they also failed to obey my instructions. (This was a fictional example, thankfully, but it could happen. My kids are clever, and they can also be a little cranky in the morning.) Likewise, when we ignore the purpose of God’s communication in any passage of scripture, we are likely to misinterpret the meaning of His word.
In order to understand God’s message to us in the creation story of Genesis 1-2, therefore, we must be careful to discern His purpose in telling us about His creative work. We must also be cautious not to let our own arrogance cloud our minds. We must be humble-minded, recognizing that our own understanding is limited.
Thankfully, we are not alone in our efforts to discern God’s message. We have the Holy Spirit living within us, and we also have a community of other believers—the church—at our side. Within this community of faithful Christ-followers are many who have dedicated their lives to studying the Bible. They have spent years learning to read the ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic languages in which the Bible was written; and they have studied the ancient cultures and historical contexts in which the writers of scripture lived, all for the sake of understanding the Holy Scriptures better. They have done all this hard work not just for their own spiritual benefit, but to benefit all of us. Christian historians, biblical scholars, and theologians are servants of Christ and indispensable members of His body, the church. Their scholarly training and expertise is of great value for us, and we should be grateful for the work they have done. It would be arrogant and spiritually dangerous to assume that we can understand all of scripture on our own, without the help of the Christian community and the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit.
I am not suggesting that there is no benefit to reading the Bible on our own. We most certainly should read the Bible humbly, prayerfully, and often. It is a tremendous blessing to have the Holy Bible in our own language. We should be grateful for that, and we should take full advantage of the work Bible translators have done, just as we should take advantage of the insights provided by other fields of biblical scholarship. It would be a grave error, however, to lean only on our own understanding of scripture.
Ignoring the insights of biblical scholarship would be especially foolish when trying to discern the meaning of a controversial passage, and the opening chapters of Genesis certainly belong in the category of controversial passages. On a casual reading, the story may seem straightforward: God created the world and its inhabitants in six days, then rested on the seventh. What’s so hard to understand about that? Careful reading, however, raises a number of puzzling questions. How were there days and nights, evenings and mornings, before the sun was made on the fourth day? Why do some of the events described in chapter 2 seem out of order compared to the sequence described in chapter 1? And why is God telling us these things anyway? What lessons are we supposed to learn from this passage of scripture?
We’ll consider some of those questions in what follows, but—spoiler alert—I don’t have all the answers! I might even be wrong about the few things I think I know. Before going on to the next page, therefore, I encourage you to read Genesis 1 and 2 carefully and humbly. Pray for wisdom and insight as we proceed.