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Old Testament

The Creation Stories

Exploring: History and Geography

Figurative rather than actual

Chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Genesis contain the biblical accounts of the creation of the world and of human beings. All creation stories aim to explain how things came to be and why life is as it is. Hence the ‘history’ and ‘geography’ of the creation stories are figurative rather than actual. The narratives in the Bible provide answers to human questions about God, about the origin and meaning of the world and about human life, they are not intended to be scientific, historic or geographical explanations of our origins.

St Augustine's insight

Contrary to what many think, this is not an recent insight. St Augustine in the fourth century realised that the creation stories of Genesis were not scientific treatises. He taught that the whole purpose of the scriptures was to explain God’s plan for the world and its salvation, not to supply theories of natural science. There is no necessary conflict between the Genesis stories and scientific explanations of our origins such as the various theories of evolution.

The Cosmos the 'setting' of Genesis 1

The first creation narrative in Chapter 1 is a majestic account of the creative work of God, at whose very word the whole universe is formed and ordered. The grandeur of the account transcends particulars of time (history) and space (geography). The whole cosmos is the imagined setting and the world within it is a ‘serene, beautiful world, in which all is ordered to humans and humans are ordered to God’ (The New Jerome Biblical Commentary pg 11). God pronounces creation and all it contains very good and gives human beings, created in the divine image, authority over the natural order.

The second account more 'earthbound'

The second creation narrative is more ‘earth-bound’ and goes into further detail about human beings, their relationships and roles. God is imagined in rather an anthropomorphic way, and having fashioned ‘adam’ from the earth places him in a luxuriant garden watered by four streams. Two of these – the Tigris and Euphrates – are the names of the great rivers of Mesopotamia, a name which means ‘between the rivers’, where Abraham, probably the first ‘historical’ character of the Bible, came from.

Mesopotamia is part of the fertile crescent popularly known as ‘the cradle of civilisation’. Read about ‘the cradle of civilisation’ in an article which enumerates many features of civilised life which first emerged in Mesopotamia.

Other proper names mentioned in the creation account in Genesis 2, such as Pishon, Havilah, Gihon, Cush, cannot be related to any known geographic place or feature.

How the cosmos was imagined by ancient Israel

The ‘geography’ and ‘history’ of Genesis 1 and 2 reflect ancient, rather than modern, understandings of the cosmos. The stories incidentally tell us a great deal about how the people of Israel imagined the physical construction of the cosmos, and their particular world view (Click on ‘OT Cosmology’ in side-bar). While this world view differs greatly from the scientific worldview we possess, this does not detract from the essential truth and meaning of the Genesis stories.

Other creation stories

For those who are interested, depictions and brief explanations of some other ideas about how the universe is organised can be found on a Library of Congress site entitled Beginnings, while a small collection of creation stories from around the world might be interesting as comparisons with the Genesis stories.

Consider

  • Make a model or sketch to illustrate how the ancient Israelites imagined the cosmos was constructed.
  • Find Mesopotamia on a map. Locate the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the city of Ur from whence the Bible says Abraham came.
  • Mesopotamia is sometimes described as the ‘cradle of civilisation’. Can you explain why?
  • Why might the authors of the second Creation account have mentioned the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in writing about human origins?
  • Does the fact that the biblical accounts of creation are not historical/geographical/scientific accounts detract from their truthfulness? Why, or why not?
  • Read a creation story from another worldview. List some similarities and differences between that story and the Genesis accounts.