Q&A: Elapsed Time between Verses

Elapsed Time between Verses

Question

I have heard it said that there could be millions of years between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. I have been told that the verse really says that the earth "became" without form and void. Could it be that dinosaurs etc. were on the earth at that time and were destroyed? To me it would mean that God, the only creator, would have to have had a creation before what I have always believed to be the only creation, that of man, animals, etc., mentioned in Genesis 1. Can you shed any light on this subject?

Answer

There are many different theories of interpretation of Genesis 1. Those that speak of millions of years between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 try to take very seriously the evidence from general revelation (creation) that the world is very old, while at the same time preserving the integrity of Scripture. Nevertheless, there are significant problems with this approach to the first two verses of Genesis.

First, neither the context of Genesis 1 nor any other part of Scripture even hints that this was the case -- it is entirely speculative. This is not to say that there is not evidence that the world is quite a bit older than 6,000 years. Rather, it is merely to observe that even if the world is very, very old, there is no indication in Genesis 1 that this is true. It misrepresents Moses' intended meaning to read into his creation story the hypothesis that he purposely worded Genesis 1:1-2 to accomodate the fact that there were two creations -- something which he never explicitly mentioned or implied, on which he based no teaching, and from which he drew no implications.

Second, there are literary problems with this argument, not the least of which is that it makes Genesis 1:1 rather irrelevant to the story Moses was telling. It must argue that, contrary to all literary appearances, Genesis 1:1 is neither a summary, nor an introduction, nor a title of the creation account that follows. We know from comparisons with other Ancient Near-Eastern literature and creation accounts that Genesis 1 was designed to show Israel God's original plan for the world. Moses was demonstrating that God's creation established a moral order for the way the world should be. By leading the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land, he was returning them to Eden, restoring them to a world like the one before the fall, to a more blessed state. Genesis 1:1 is best seen in this context as the introduction of God's perfect ordering of the world.

Third, this argument assumes that the first creation was destroyed, but was sufficiently preserved that we can now find evidence of its prior existence. This would seem to necessitate that God did not create our current creation from nothing, but rather reordered the matter of the first creation which he had destroyed (thus we find dinosaur fossils, etc.). The immediately evident difficulty with this theory is that Hebrews 11:3 teaches that "the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible." This seems to indicate that God created from nothing, not from the existing materials of a prior creation.

As far as the grammar of Genesis 1:2 is concerned, it is erroneous to argue that it "really says" that the earth "became" formless and void (as if every scholar/translator in recent history had misread this most basic Hebrew word). "became" is within the range of meaning of the Hebrew word hayah, but hayah is also the simple verb of being.

As far as the existence of dinosaurs is concerned, there are a number of arguments. It used to be that people argued that Satan created the fossils and put the bones in the ground in order to cause us doubt God's word. More recently, it has been argued that God himself created the fossils and the bones, though never having actually created dinosaurs. Both of these arguments are generally considered to be "young earth" arguments, taking the world to be only some thousands of years old.

A third approach, which seems more reasonable to me, is to accept the evidence of general revelation that these animals certainly did exist. There are several ways to understand their existence in relation to our own.

First, some people adopt a "day age" interpretation of Genesis 1. They argue that some or all of the days in Genesis 1 were long epochs or eras rather than the normal 24-hour (approximately) days we now know. This approach attempts to read Genesis 1 literally, but draws upon an extended range of meaning for the Hebrew word yom, translated "day." If this approach is correct, then there was plenty of time for the dinosaurs to have their day in the sun prior to the creatio of man. The problem with this interpretation is that Moses specifically identified each creative "day" as consisting of an evening and a morning, which his original audience certainly would have understood to refer to normal days as they knew them. A similar approach argues for a punctuated creative calendar, so that huge periods of time existed between the literal days on which God created. The problem with this approach is that the rest of the Bible appeals to God's six-day creative work as the basis for the Sabbath commandment (six days of labor plus one day of Sabbath; e.g. Exod. 20:10-11), indicating six consecutive days of creation.

Second, some argue that Genesis 1 is not a literally factual account of creation. There are two common forms of this argument. On the one hand, some interpret the "days" of creation as a literary device for structuring the story, a metaphor for helping people organize and categorize the creation story in their minds. On the other hand, some argue that Genesis 1 is an ancient hymn about the creation of the world, and that, like most poetry, its language is highly metaphoric and symbolic. If indeed the Israelites recognized this chapter as one of their traditional hymns, or even as a prosaic rendering of a stylized story or hymn (the grammar is more prosaic than poetic), then they would not have read the story literally, even without Moses mentioning that it was not a factually accurate account. If Genesis 1 is not a factual account, then the dinosaurs might well have existed long before man.

Third, some argue that Genesis 1 is a literally factual account of the creation of the world, and that the dinosaurs were created along with the other animals. There are two forms of this argument. On the one hand, some argue for a young earth, and suggest that the dinosaurs died out shortly after their creation. This argument suggests that science is greatly mistaken in its dating of the world and dinosaur fossils. On the other hand, some accept tha the world is very, very old, and insist that man is much older than science thinks, having existed since the creation of the world despite his apparent absence from the fossil record of ages long past. In this scenario, the six days of creation happened perhaps millions or billions of years ago.

Part of the problem we encounter in this discussion is determining the age of the earth. Science places the earth's age in the billions of years, while the Bible, by the shortest accounts, places it at 6,000 years or so. Most scholars believe that the genealogies in the Bible mention only key figures. It may be, in fact, that they leave out huge numbers of generations. Accepting this premise, the world might indeed be as old as science thinks it is. Then again, science has been wrong in the past, so there is no guarantee that it is correct about the age of the earth. Still, the weight of general revelation argues for an old earth, whereas the Scripture is not very clear on the issue.

Perhaps we are finally left with a mystery. In my estimation, dinosaurs did exist, and the Bible is true. I think the most likely scenarios are: 1) Genesis 1 is an ancient hymn, or prosaic rendering of an ancient hymn or stylized story; and 2) Genesis 1 is literally factual and the dinosaurs coexisted with man long ago. Nevertheless, these issues are far from settled, and are far more complex than we often think.

Whatever position we take on this issue, we need to recognize a couple things. First, one does not have to subscribe to a young earth theory in order to believe that Genesis 1 is true and inerrant. The question becomes one of genre, not of truth. Rejecting the historicity of Genesis 1 on the basis that it is poetic and not historic in genre is not the same thing as rejecting the Bible's truth claims, and is not the same thing as debunking biblical history as myth. Second, as fascinating as these matters may be, Moses was not interested in these questions or he would have answered them. We should focus on the main point of Genesis 1 -- that God's creation was intended to be perfect and restful, and that by submitting to God's will we can regain the paradise that Adam lost. As the New Testament teaches, we finally realize this paradise in Christ.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.