The foundation for understanding the purpose of the Bible is a correct understanding of the meaning and purpose of Genesis 1-2. The first word of Genesis 1, “בראשית”, denotes the beginning of time and is essential to the doctrine of “ex nihilo.” In addition to showing God’s transcendence, the very idea of “beginning” with this particular word brings with it the connotation of an ending. The texts referring to the events of the beginning and the end of the work of God give limited details concerning timing. Therefore, it seems evident that dating is not the primary focus of the author. What is evident, however, is a rising emphasis on each section as the creation process proceeds. Few details are given at the beginning of creation and more are given on each subsequent day. At the end, the reader reaches the apex of creation: the blessing of man. This account spills over into the next chapter and becomes the catalyst to God’s redemptive history. In order to properly interpret these two chapters, the reader must pay attention to the linguistic clues given by the author. By investigating these clues of word choice, intertextual links to other passages and the immediate context, one will understand that the purpose of the Genesis 1-2 account is not necessarily to date God’s creation–though there are some temporal ideas–but to show the purpose of God’s creating.
The age of the earth is not the primary concern of this text. Sailhammer has suggested in The Pentateuch as Narrative, that there are three purposes for the first verse in Genesis: to identify the creator, to explain the origin of the world, and to tie the work of God in the past to the work of God in the future. The explanation of the origin of the world appears to take place in three stages. Lioy cites J. Templeton’s “Encountering the infinite” stating that the three stages of creation in Genesis 1-2 are as follows: I. The Primordial Earth (1:1-2), II. The Ordering of Creation (1:3-31), III. The Perfect Result (2:1-3).
Some scholars have argued that the temporal words are used only as symbols. Hodge concludes that the similarities between the text of creation and that of the description of the temple necessitate a symbolic view of creation and that they “represent a sacred event, not the time period of that event.” Hodge may be correct that the purpose of Genesis 1 is not to date the earth, but one cannot deny that the author uses temporal language to describe the acts of God. And while it may be helpful for there to be less emphasis given to the temporal ideas which are not presently clear in the text, denying any temporal meaning is also not helpful. Indeed, when God gives the ten commandments to Moses he compares what the Israelites do on the seventh day to what God did on the seventh day. Therefore, removing time altogether would remove meaning from the command about the Sabbath.
So, while time is not the primary focus, there are some temporal themes present which need to be addressed. The first theme encountered is one argued from grammar. Many scholars have argued that there is a gap between verses 1:1 and 1:2, or 1:2 and 1:3. This gap between God’s original creating of the heavens and the earth in 1:1, they argue, allows for an indefinite period of time to pass. A gap here allows for many unanswered questions about the creation account to be shoved into this time. A few of these include the angel rebellion, dinosaurs, and old earth. While this may be a possibility and smooths out some supposed inconsistencies between faith and science, it also detracts from the authors purpose of this text, which is to show God’s creative power and establish his rule over his creation.
What is likely the most debated temporal idea comes in verse five. The author writes describing the work of God, when he separated the light from the darkness, that “There was evening and morning, one day (translation mine).” Most English translations render this “the first day.” However, it seems as though the author used this phrase intentionally (he could have said “first day” if he wanted) in order define how he would be using the word “יום” in the following verses.
It has been argued in the past that even though the author uses the word “day” in these verses, he may not mean a literal day. It is written in various texts (cf Ps 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8) that a day for God could be a thousand years as we reckon it. The author of Jubiliee gives an example from Genesis 2:17, stating that God told Adam and Eve that they will die that day, yet it is recorded that Adam died at the age of 930. It would be odd, however, to use “day” as a thousand years–or any longer period of time–in conjunction with evening and morning descriptors.
Some have also argued that the days could not be literal because the celestial bodies, which is used to measure time were not fashioned until verse 14. However, it should not be difficult to believe that the God who created heaven and earth and everything in them (including time) could relate to mankind his creation process with respect to time. Perhaps he could do so even though the objects which humans use to understand time had not been fashioned or set in place as they are known today. In order to understand this better, it may be helpful to remember that Moses was not standing next to God at creation narrating what God was doing. Rather, many years after God had created all things, Moses wrote as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit, using language with which his readers would be familiar.
Another problem that many scholars have found with the timing of the creation account occurs in relationship between chapters one and two. Some have argued that there are, in fact, two contradicting creation accounts which take place in these chapters. Their argument states that on the one hand God creates everything in six days and rests on the seventh in chapter one. On the other hand, in chapter two, the author uses the phrase “ביום,” denoting a day, singular. Many translations render this as “in the day,” leading to an interpretation that Genesis two gives the picture that everything was created in one day.
There are a few problems with that argument. First, that word-phrase is used 138 times in 130 different verses in the Pentateuch. Depending on the context, this phrase can be used as the general temporal marker “when” or be rendered more literally “in the day.” When ordinal numbers, definite articles, or demonstrative adjectives are present, this phrase is most frequently used to mean “in that day,” or similar phrases. However, when these modifiers are missing, the phrase is used equally “when” or “in that day.” In addition, the other time the phrase “ביום” is used in connection with ״,תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת״ in Genesis 5, the translation “when” is used. In fact, the only two times in the first five chapters of Genesis that this construction is translated as “in the day” instead of “when” are Genesis 2:4 and 2:17. Both of these verses give interpreters trouble because “in the day” does not seem to fit naturally in either context and thus should be translated as “when.”
In conclusion, the author of the text of Genesis 1-2 has written this text in a way that the reader might understand that everything was created by God and that it was formed and given purpose in seven literal days. It is not clear whether this happened immediately after God created everything from nothing or if there was a gap between the creation and forming. The vagueness concerning the dating of the earth should point the reader to find the meaning of creation in the text; the one who created the heavens and the earth has given it a purpose which culminates when he makes man in his image.