Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate:
Being Honest to the Text, Its Author, and His Beliefs

Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate“DiMattei’s book is a refreshing call both for biblical literacy and for intellectual honesty in dealing with the Bible.”
—John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Yale Divinity School

“In an important contribution to the discussion between mainstream biblical studies and creation ‘science,’ DiMattei does a wonderful job of explicating the first two chapters of Genesis. He shows convincingly that although creationists claim to read this story literally, they are not reading it carefully at all.”
—Marc Brettler, Bernice & Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies, Duke University

“Steven DiMattei presents an important challenge to creationists by showing that they fundamentally misunderstand the very chapter of Genesis on which much of their anti-scientific views are based. Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate is an accessible and useful book for those who seek to understand why creationism is flawed on biblical grounds.”
—Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies, Iowa State University

SYNOPSIS
Modern readers often assume that Genesis 1 depicts the creation of the earth and sky as we know it. Yet in an appeal for textual honesty, Steven DiMattei shows that such beliefs are more representative of modern views about this ancient text than the actual claims and beliefs of its author. Through a culturally-contextualized and objective reading of the texts of Genesis 1 and 2, this study not only introduces readers to the textual data that convincingly demonstrate that Genesis’ two creation accounts were penned by different authors who held contradictory views and beliefs about the origin of the world and of man and woman, but also establishes on textual grounds that what the author of Genesis 1 portrayed God creating was the world as its author and culture perceived and experienced it—not the objective world, but a subjective world, subject to the culturally-conditioned views and beliefs of its author. In the end, this book illustrates that the Bible’s ancient texts do in fact represent the beliefs and worldviews of ancient peoples and cultures—not those of God, not those of later readers, and especially not those of modern day Creationists.

INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN DIMATTEI
Why did you write this book?

Our understanding of this corpus of ancient texts that we now call the Bible has greatly advanced over the last century, but unfortunately this knowledge has been slow reaching the general public. So part of my response is just the desire to share some of this new and exciting knowledge with a public readership. In the present case, we know with a fair amount of certainty who wrote Genesis 1, what other texts of the Bible this scribe or priestly guild also wrote, what were his core religious convictions, when and why he composed his text, and in relationship to what other literary works or earlier creation accounts. So the book was primarily written as a means to bring biblical scholarship to a larger public readership and specifically to have it bear upon a public debate topic whose parameters have been defined for the most part by non-specialists in the field—Christian Fundamentalists and Creationists on the one hand and scientists on the other. This book’s aim, then, was to inject the voices of the authors of Genesis 1 and 2 into this dialogue, their stories, and to textually demonstrate why the claims of Creationists, despite their rhetoric, are at odds with the messages and claims made by the authors of these texts.

You’ve expressed that this book is not a scientific counterargument against Creationism. So how would you categorize your project?
Well, I’m no scientist so I’m not writing about science; nor, it should be mentioned, am I imposing modern views or scientific truths onto this ancient text. Indeed, this is the wrong approach toward an understanding of our author’s ideas and beliefs. Rather, as a biblical scholar my interests lie with the biblical text and the questions surrounding its composition: who wrote it, when, to whom, why, and under what historical circumstances and literary influences. So the texts are the focus of my research. Our goal should not be to impose our culture’s scientific truths onto the text of Genesis 1, but rather to enter into its worldview and to acknowledge its author’s beliefs and the cultural influences that shaped them. It is this very task that Creationists fail to do. So I’d categorize my book as a textual demonstration that pits the beliefs and worldviews represented in the texts of Genesis 1 and 2 against the belief claims made about these texts by modern day Creationists. In this respect the debate is not between science and religion, but between what the texts claim on their terms and what Creationists claim about the texts. In the end, my book demonstrates that their Creationism is not biblical creationism!

If you had to sum up what Creationists are doing incorrectly in their reading of Genesis 1, what would that be?
That’s an easy one. They’re not reading the text, and specifically on the terms of its author and his cultural context. That is to say, they’re not allowing the author of this text to express his message and beliefs about the nature of the world and of man and woman—beliefs that were ultimately shaped by the views and beliefs of his culture and the priestly guild to which he belonged. Instead, what often happens is that his message and claims are replaced by those of the reader. So these readers never actually engage with the text of Genesis 1 on its own terms and as a product of its own cultural context. Let me provide a few specific examples. When Creationists read in English “God created the sky and the earth,” they assume that the word “earth” means the planet Earth and “sky” means the open blue space above us. So they imagine that the text is talking about the creation of the planet Earth as we know and perceive it. But the Hebrew word ’erets does not mean the planet Earth, not in the text of Genesis 1 nor its larger cultural context. Rather, for this author ’erets meant the material substance earth, the ground beneath one’s feet. So the text is talking about the creation of the material substance earth and furthermore its creation as dry, habitable, life-sustaining land from an initial condition of barrenness and desolation. And as I disclose in my book our author has a specific reason for why he presents the creation of earth in these terms. Neither is this envisioned by our author as a creation out of nothing—another belief brought to the text by later readers. Since this is a lengthy textual demonstration, I’ll let my book respond to this issue in the detail it deserves. Likewise, understanding shamayim, “skies,” as our concept of sky or the objective scientifically verifiable sky, is also another example of reading the text on our terms and not those of its author. For according to the text, its author, and his larger cultural context, what the God of Genesis 1 is portrayed creating and naming “the sky” is conceptualized as a solid domed transparent barrier, which, our author informs us God created for the sole purpose of separating the primeval waters and holding half of them above this domed barrier, now identified as the sky. In short, what the author of Genesis 1 portrays God creating is the world as its author and culture perceived and experienced it—not the objective world, but a subjective world, subject to the culturally-conditioned views and beliefs of its author. Acknowledging this, our author’s beliefs and experience of his world, is what I label as being honest to the text, and the views and beliefs of its author. And this is radically different from imposing our beliefs or our scientific truths onto this ancient text.

Why do you think it has been difficult for biblical scholars to convince the general public that Genesis 1 and 2 are two individual creation accounts that express competing beliefs and worldviews?
I think there are a number of factors involved here, not least of all the authoritative nature and sway that the title of this collection of ancient texts, “the Holy Bible,” exerts on the reader when it comes to determining the meaning and message of these texts, now conceived as a text in the singular. I address this issue in the conclusion to my book, but in short the theological assumptions, ideas, and beliefs associated with the label the Holy Bible, which the reader brings to the text prior to even reading it, exert more influence on modern readers than the actual and independent messages and competing beliefs that the authors of Genesis 1 and 2 held. The modern tendency to harmonize these two creation accounts together and effectively reduce these authors’ messages into one that now conforms to the beliefs of its modern readers exemplifies the power and authority of this centuries-later interpretive framework over and above that of the once independent voices of these texts. That is why this book has an urgent message. Creationists must decide whether they wish to be honest to the beliefs and messages expressed within these texts by simply acknowledging them, and by extension acknowledging that they in fact do not believe in these two thousand five hundred year old beliefs, or be honest to a centuries-later interpretive framework that dictates what these texts are and how they are to be read. Being honest to the texts, then, on their own terms is quite different from being honest to the interpretive and theological ideas and beliefs inherent in the title “the Holy Bible.” Another factor is that the textual data supporting this claim, from differences in stylistic aspects and vocabulary to competing worldviews and thematic and theological emphases, are scattered throughout the scholarly literature. So readers have not actually been exposed to the textual data that reveal the hand of two different scribes who each had different views and beliefs, and a different language for expressing those beliefs, about the origin of the world and of man and woman. So what I’ve attempted to do in chapters 1 and 2 of this study is to present readers with the textual data that convincingly demonstrate this. And when viewed together, all of this textual evidence makes a rather convincing case for dual authorship.

What one thing do you hope to see come out of this book?
If I had to sum this up in one brief manner, I would have to say that I hope this book helps combat the growing and systemic problem of biblical illiteracy sweeping across our nation. In a period of time when we, the scholarly community, actually know a good amount about this collection of ancient texts, the men who wrote them, and their literary and historical influences, it’s both alarming and lamentable to realize that biblical illiteracy, that is the lack of knowledge or growing ignorance about these ancient texts, is actually increasing in the public sphere. There are many reasons for this, which I touch upon in my conclusion, but a main reason is that these ancient texts are not being read on their terms and from within their own cultural contexts. They are in large part being read on the terms and context imposed by its later interpretive framework, “the Holy Bible.” My ending plea to Creationists therefore is: if the objective study of these ancient documents in their respective cultural contexts reveals certain truths about their compositional nature and the beliefs and opinions of their authors that are at odds with the beliefs and assumptions handed-down to us by long-standing interpretive traditions then we have a responsibility as mature readers of these ancient texts to acknowledge this and move the conversation forward, openly and honestly. So an open and honest public conversation about these texts, their authors and their beliefs, is something that I’d like to see come out of this project.

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Did Moses Lie to Us? A Textual Journey (Part III)

A Different Edom?

Everyone knows that when the Israelites asked for food and water from the Edomites, the Israelites’ brothers from the line of Esau, and permission to pass through their country that they were denied those things and forced to pass around Edom. So I was startled yet again to learn that apparently Moses had forgotten these things too! Here is what Moses says about the whole affair:

    And we turned and traveled into the wilderness by way of the Red Sea as Yahweh spoke to me, and we skirted Mount Seir for many days.
Then Yahweh said to me: “You have skirted this mountain long enough. Turn north, and command the people saying, ‘You are to pass through the territory of your brothers, the children of Esau, who live in Seir. And they will be afraid of you, so be very watchful. Do not agitate them, for I … Read more

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Did Moses Lie to Us? A Textual Journey (Part II)

Scouting the Land

Moses then proceeds to renarrate how the Israelites scouted out the promised land early on in the wilderness period and how on account of their rebellious nature and lack of faith in Yahweh they were denied entry and forced to wander the wilderness for 40 years. Ok, I thought. Everyone knows this story. Surely Moses can’t slip one in on us here.

     And I said to you: “You have come to the Amorite hill country that Yahweh our God is giving us. See, Yahweh our God has put the land in front of you. Go up and take possession, as Yahweh your fathers’ God spoke to you. Fear not and be not dismayed!”

     And you came to me, all of you, and said: “Let us send men ahead to scout out the land for us and to bring us back word. . .”

    And the thing was Read more

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Did Moses Lie to Us? A Textual Journey (Part 1)

My journey through the text of the Bible and an understanding of that text as it was revealed to me by and through that very text starts with the book of Deuteronomy. This one book might even best illustrate what the Bible is as a whole and how its texts—its once individual scrolls and codices—relate to one another. But enough already. Since this is a textual journey, a journey through a text, then our starting point should be with the text itself.

Deuteronomy 1-11 presents Moses renarrating events from the wilderness period as a sort of summation to what came before this book’s narrative setting, where the Israelites are now assembled on the plains of Moab some 40 years after the wilderness period began. It is here that Moses addresses the people:

    Yahweh our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn

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Genesis 1:1-2:3 on Its Own Terms and in Its Own Historical and Literary Context

Genesis 1:1-2:3’s depiction of the creation of the world was shaped by ancient Near Eastern cosmological perspectives and beliefs about the nature of the world and its origins. This fact the text itself bears witness to regardless of the opinions and beliefs of readers living millennia after this text was written. In other words, a thorough, honest, and objective analysis of the text of Genesis 1:1-2:3 on its own terms and as a product of its own cultural and literary world reveals rather convincingly that its creation narrative was shaped by cultural and subjective perspectives, biases, and beliefs about the nature of the world that were unique to the cultures and peoples of the ancient Near East.

It is not, in other words, a description of creation from the perspective of a supernatural deity residing outside of the cosmos, nor is it inspired by such a deity or point of … Read more

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Genesis 1:1-2 — not a Creation ex nihilo

Despite strong traditional and often authoritative interpretative claims that were formed centuries after this ancient text was written and devoid of knowledge about its historical and literary context, the opening of Genesis 1 does not depict a creatio ex nihilo, that is a creation out of nothing. The Hebrew text is clear on this point and recognized by all biblical scholars. Rather, what the text of Genesis 1:2 informs us is that when God began to create, earth—that is the material substance earth; the Hebrew ’eretz (earth) never means the planet Earth (see below)—already existed as a desolate, formless, inhabitable waste—a tohû wabohû in Hebrew—in the midst of a dark surging watery abyss (tehôm). This is the initial primordial state of creation that the creator deity inherits so to speak, and it is a prominent cultural feature in other ancient Near Eastern creation myths, from Egypt to … Read more

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Genesis 1:3-5 — Day is Light

Modern readers often express their perplexity at the fact that Genesis 1:3 presents the creation of light before the creation of the luminary that produces light, the sun, whose creation does not happen until day 4 (1:16). How can light be created or exist, it is often asked, before the sun was created?

The problem with this and similar questions is that they impose our knowledge about the cosmos, indeed an objective knowledge about the workings of our solar system, onto this ancient text whose culture did not possess this type of knowledge. We know that the sun is the source of light for our solar system. But the ancient cultures and peoples that produced this creation account did not possess this knowledge and apparently held different ideas about the nature of their world. This fact the text itself bears witness to.

In other words, Genesis’ portrait of the creation … Read more

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Genesis 1:6-8 — Life Inside a Water Bubble

When ancient man looked up at the sky, what he perceived was akin to what he observed when looking out over the seas—an expanse of crystal-clear blue water. This observation was confirmed of course by the very fact that it rained. For where else did rain come from if not from the waters above the sky?

Similarly, when ancient Mediterranean peoples looked toward the horizon, what they saw was that the waters above eventually came into contact with the waters of the seas, that both the blue waters above and the blue waters below touched each other at the horizons. Thus, it was observed that the waters above, that is the sky, had its starting point at the horizon where it came into contact with the waters below, and then arched far above like a dome and descended again to meet the waters below on the opposite horizon. According to … Read more

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Genesis 1:9-10 — The Creation of the Material Substance Earth, Not the Planet!

We are so habituated by what the English word “earth” means to us in our scientific post-modern world that we seldom stop to ask if that’s the same meaning intended in the Hebrew word eretz.

When we read Genesis 1:1, “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we picture the origin of the atmosphere, space, solar systems, and galaxies. We think of the creation of the planet in our solar system named “Earth,” whose shape is an oblate spheroid or a rotationally symmetric ellipsoid. This mental picture is natural, because the English term “Earth” is the name of the planet in this solar system on which humans reside. But in Genesis 1 “earth” does not mean the planet Earth. Genesis reports the origin of the “heavens and earth” as such terms meant in the author’s time and within his worldview, which did not include a twenty-first

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Genesis 1:14-19 — The Creation of the Luminaries to Keep Yahweh’s Festivals

“Let there be lights in the domed barrier of the skies to separate between the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for fixed times, and for days, and for years.”

The domed vault or raqî‘a that was made in verses 6-8 to separate and hold back the waters above is now populated with the luminaries: sun, moon, and the stars—with no awareness of the individual distances of each luminary from the earth nor their actual places in the solar system. Here they are presented as two-dimensional buttons on an arched vault behind which are the primordial waters above.

Unlike modern man, ancient man constructed their calendars and measured the progression of time according to the celestial luminaries: predominantly the sun and the moon. The author of Genesis’ first creation account depicts this idea by having the creator deity specify that these luminaries were created for … Read more

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