An Exposition of Genesis 1:1-3, Part 1: Replacing the Cultural Myth

“Know yourself,” advised the ancient Greek philosophers. Sophocles wrote the famous myth of Oedipus to illustrate the point. Oedipus didn’t know himself; he didn’t know where he came from, so he ended up killing his father and marrying his mother. To know yourself, you need to know where you came from. That’s why many people are fascinated with investigating their genealogy. Your myth (story) of origin shapes who you are.

The purpose of this two-part series is to show with proper, but nontechnical, exegesis what Genesis says about where we came from, without being guided in interpretation by science. The story of humanity, which begins in Genesis 1, is in harmony with science and dignifies human beings as creatures made in God’s image. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:1–3). First, we’ll explore the dominant myth of our culture.

A Dangerous Myth
Every culture likely has a creation story to explain where they came from and who they are. We normally think of myths as belonging to ancient, primitive cultures. But we have myths today also. When I lived in Ethiopia, the BBC World Service had a radio program (beamed into Africa) that asked its listeners to send in accounts of their native creation “myths.” So, I thought I’d send them one of the dominant myths of my native culture. Here’s what I wrote:

Once, an incredibly long time ago, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, but a speck of superdense matter. (Where the superdense matter came from is never explained in the myth.) Then, for some unexplained reason, it exploded. The material from this explosion spread out in all directions. Some of it, though, happened, by the work of Almighty Chance, to come together and form various bodies. Some of these bodies, again by the work of Almighty Chance, had the right composition to ignite into stars. Billions of these stars were created thus by Chance. Chance also fashioned planets, quite haphazardly, of course. Around one of Chance’s medium-sized stars was formed a medium-sized planet that just happened to have the right ingredients to cook up some water. Chance took a while stewing but finally out of the concoction sprung a set of randomly arranged chemicals that just happened to be able to replicate themselves. These chemicals, still stewing as if in a crockpot, were transformed, by the wonders of Chance, into cellular life which, in turn, through miracles no human mind could fathom, developed over eons into scientists to whom Chance randomly selected to be the bearers of this new myth.

This myth shapes our culture in profound and disastrous ways. The major problem with the myth is not how but who. Not how the universe came about—big bang, physics, whatever—but who caused it. My submission to the BBC was meant to mock the myth of Chance, not the mechanisms of nature. Christians too often want to argue about how it happened, but the real poison of the new secular myth is that it tells us our “creator” is chance only, and that we’re the ones—after billions of rolls of the dice—who finally got lucky. Accordingly, if enough monkeys dance on typewriters one of them will eventually write Hamlet.

People who buy into the myth of chance think we’re nothing more than animals that randomly developed complex brains rather than claws. They think that if it suits them, we can thin out the human herd by eliminating other “products” of chance who belong to a race they don’t like or that interfere with any lifestyle they want to enjoy. This myth produced the Holocaust, the “liquidation” of millions of people by the communists, and abortion clinics.

Genesis: A Better Story
Genesis 1 stands in opposition, not only to the ancient myths of constellations and planets being gods, but also to our secular, “sophisticated” myth of chance. Here we find about our origin. Rather than reducing human beings to the status of “naked ape,” Genesis 1 uplifts humanity. It tells us we’re much more than the lucky product of time and chance. But it simultaneously puts us in our place under God.

Genesis 1 begins by declaring that the universe had a beginning. Historically, many scientists didn’t believe that but now they do, especially in regard to the laws of thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics shows that natural processes lead to homogeneity in a “closed system.” (Since the universe, by definition, is all matter/energy, then it is a closed system.) At present, matter and dark matter is concentrated in stars, galaxies, etc, and so the universe is not yet in thermodynamic equilibrium (the same temperature everywhere). It is moving toward that state. Further, there is no law for a decrease of entropy. Hence, there is no natural explanation for how the process from the universe’s original singularity state to the final state of thermodynamic equilibrium can be averted or reversed.

Hence, the universe is in the midst of a process from a beginning, in which there was little if no entropy, to an end, a final state of spatial homogeneity of matter/energy (which are forms of the same thing). It’s heading toward eventual “heat death.”

Thus, the second law tells us that matter and energy are not eternal; they were created. The first law says that the universe has no capacity to create matter and energy. Hence, the first cause cannot be part of the universe since it has no ability to create matter and energy. So, the universe is not eternal and cannot create itself. Therefore, there must be a Creator beyond the universe, by definition supernatural, by definition God. In this way, science confirms Genesis 1:1.

The Need for Careful Interpretation
For Christians, getting Genesis 1 right is vital. That’s why Hugh Ross wrote Navigating Genesis and why Reasons to Believe practices biblical scholarship alongside its science. Regrettably, not all Christians handle Genesis 1 rightly and some of those who mishandle it are the most vitriolic in their scorn for others. They typically are focused on the how of creation, not the who. They will scorn not just the god of Chance, as I did, but the theories about how the mechanisms of nature shaped the universe we know.

They do so because they make a simple, common mistake in interpreting Genesis 1. They assume that creation occurs on day one and that “in the beginning” and day one are the same; that Genesis 1:1 begins the seven days. But this interpretative mistake misses several clues in the first three verses of Genesis that would have been obvious to the original Hebrew-fluent readers. Some of those clues are hidden to us in the Hebrew language but some are obvious even in translation, namely the “and God said” refrain that signals when each day begins.

To show us who we are, Genesis 1 begins with stage setting, like arranging a stage before the play begins. It does this with particular vocabulary, notably “beginning,” a period of time prior to the main events. Genesis then gives us the verb “create,” bā·rā’ (בָּרָא) in 1:1 (importantly not “make” [‘ā·śāh, עָשָׂה] as in Exodus 20:11 referring to the days). Further stage setting occurs in the grammar and numerology (the seven Hebrew words in Genesis 1:1 and the fourteen words in 1:2) marking off Genesis 1:1–2 from the following narrative of the days. Then we see Genesis 1:3 beginning with the waw consecutive. Finally, the stage is set with the refrain “and God says” that marks the beginning of each day.

We’ll unpack these details in part 2. For now, it’s important to see that there’s a scientifically viable account of our origins that contrasts with the prevailing pessimistic cultural myth. This account of humanity’s origin—our true story—helps us to know ourselves as valuable creatures made in God’s image.