by Doug Ward

   Christians agree that God created the universe, but they have differing opinions about how God did the creating.  Conservative Christians generally belong to one of two camps on this issue.  Most old-earth creationists   agree with modern scientific estimates of the age of the universe and tend to view the ``days'' of Genesis 1 as long periods of time.  Young-earth creationists , in contrast, believe that the universe was created during  a seven-day period that occurred thousands, rather than millions or billions,  of years ago. 1

There are problems with both views.  In maintaining that the universe is only several thousand years old, young-earth creationists deny a large body of scientific evidence that supports a much earlier date for the universe's creation.  On the other hand, old-earth creationists offer interpretations of Genesis 1 that are in harmony with modern science but not with the usual principles of biblical hermeneutics.  The creation account beginning in Gen.  1:2 does seem to be talking about literal 24-hour days rather than eons of time.

Some old-earth creationists believe that these problems can be resolved with the model that is known in evangelical circles as the ``gap theory''.   According to this model, which was popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible, there was an original creation ``in the beginning''; but later, presumably as a result of Satan's rebellion, the earth came to be in a state of chaos and confusion. A recreation of the earth then took place during a one-week period several thousand years ago.

The gap theory preserves the 24-hour days of creation in Genesis 1 and allows for an original creation of the universe in the indefinite past. Unfortunately, this scenario also has its problems. In particular, it asserts that the word usually translated ``was'' in Genesis 1:2 can be translated ``became'', signaling a gap in time between verses one and two. However, most Hebrew scholars tend to reject this assertion. Moreover, the idea that the earth entered a state of chaos because of Satan's rebellion is a speculation that is not explicitly taught in Scripture.

Is there some other interpretation of Genesis 1 that is both faithful to the text and in agreement with the current state of scientific knowledge?   In the fascinating recent book Genesis Unbound (Multnomah, 1996),  Dr. John Sailhamer, an expert on Semitic languages and the Pentateuch, discusses  this question and presents an exegesis of Genesis 1-2 that may rescue the  gap theory.   

Sailhamer, the Arthur B. Whiting Professor of Old Testament Languages and Literature at Western Seminary, argues that understanding the intended meaning of the text of Genesis 1 should be our first concern.  (After we understand what Genesis 1 is saying, we can then go on to consider the claims of science.)  The title of his book stems from his contention that modern readers are ``bound'' in their attempts to interpret the text by implicit assumptions that have been guiding translators and readers for centuries.  Two of these assumptions are the following:

1. The assumption that the Hebrew phrase  tohu wabohu  in Gen.  1:2 denotes a state of chaos and confusion.  The translation ``without form and void'' in the King James Version reflects this assumption, which goes back to the translators of the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Old Testament.  In ancient Greek cosmology, the universe arose from a primeval state of chaos, and this view of origins is incorporated into the Septuagint and many later translations by the way they render the phrase tohu wabohu .  However, according to Sailhamer, the Hebrew phrase is better translated as an ``uninhabited wilderness'', a place that would have to be prepared for human habitation.  For example, the wilderness in which the Israelites wandered for forty years was such a place.

2. The assumption that the creation account beginning in Gen. 1:2 involved the entire planet Earth. The Hebrew word eretz, translated``earth'' in Genesis 1:2 in the KJV, can refer to our entire planet in some contexts-for example, in Gen. 1:1, where it is part of the figure of speech ``the heavens and the earth'',which is meant to picture the whole universe. More often, however, the word refers to ``the land'', especially the Promised Land. Modern Israelis still call their country Eretz Israel(``the land of Israel'').

When we become aware of such assumptions, Sailhamer says, we can then come closer to comprehending the meaning of the text.

A third Hebrew word that plays a key role in Sailhamer's exegesis of Genesis 1 is  reshit, the word for ``beginning'' in Gen. 1:1.  In the Bible, this word refers to an indefinite period of time that precedes some series of events.  For example, in Job 8:7, it denotes the early part of Job's life,  before his great trials begin; and in Jer. 28:1, it refers to events in the  early part (in this case, the fourth year)of  Zedekiah's reign.  (In the ancient Near East, the first period of a king'sreign was generally not reckoned as part of the official length of his reign. This initial period was sometimes a few months long but could be as long as several years, and the Bible uses the word  reshit for it.)

Based on the analysis of these Hebrew words and others, Sailhamer proposes that Gen. 1:1 refers to the creation of the universe, which took place during an indefinite period of time that could possibly have lasted millions or billions of years. The account beginning in Gen. 1:2, on the other hand, describes the preparation of the Promised Land for human habitation and the creation of the first humans during a literal week just thousands of years ago.

In addition to reconciling the claims of science and Gen. 1, this model fits well in the context of the first two chapters of Genesis and the Pentateuch as a whole.  The standpoint of Gen. 2 is localized, focusing on the Garden of Eden, so it makes sense that after the universal statement of Gen. 1:1, the rest of Gen. 1 would have a local focus as well.  Also, one of the main themes of the Pentateuch is the promise given to the patriarchs, which included the promise of the land, so it is natural that this theme would be introduced right at the beginning of the Bible.

Sailhamer includes a paraphrase and a detailed exegesis of Gen. 1 in   Genesis Unbound to provide further details and support for his model.   By now, you probably have several questions about how certain verses fit into his scenario.  For the answers, I refer you to the book.  In this review,  I will mention one point that I found especially interesting:  When Exodus  20:11 states that ``in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth,''  the word for ``made'' has the sense of putting something in good order or  making it right, as in the English expression ``make a bed''.  When we make a bed, we are not each day creating it from scratch.  Similarly, with much of what God ``made'' during the six days of creation, he was putting the finishing touches on one part of the world that He had created from scratch ``in the beginning''.  For example, the word for ``trees'' in Gen. 1:11 refers only to fruit trees.  Other plants, like those mentioned in verses 29-30, were apparently already in existence.  Similarly, God was not bringing the sun, moon, and stars into existence on the fourth day; rather, He was establishing and proclaiming their purpose in marking off time for mankind, including time for worship.  Sailhamer paraphrases Gen. 1:14-19 as follows:


``As he had done on each of the preceding days, God spoke on the fourth day to issue a decree that the heavenly bodies were to serve a particular purpose for those who were to dwell on the land. They were to remind God's creatures of His power and grace, and they were to mark thearrival of the great feast days when His people were to worship Him in the land. Such special purposes for the heavenly bodies were in addition to their natural function as sources of light upon the land. So we see that God had a purpose in mind when long ago He created the sun and the moon, as well as the stars. They were to provide a time frame for those who dwell on the land. God also put them in the sky to provide bright light in the daytime and faint light in the night-this was good for human beings. So ended the fourth day.''


    Sailhamer also explains that his model is not one that he created from scratch.  In the last part of Genesis Unbound , he traces the history  of the translation and interpretation of Genesis 1.  In particular, he points  out that Rashi and other medieval Jewish commentators viewed the creation  week account as pertaining to the Holy Land rather than to the whole earth.   Some Reformation era Christian scholars promoted this point of view, but unfortunately, it has not become widely known.     

In summary, John Sailhamer makes three important points in Genesis Unbound that should be taken into account in discussions of Genesis 1-2.   First, since the state of our scientific knowledge is always changing, we should try to understand what the biblical text is saying on its own terms before we attempt to harmonize it with our current scientific understanding.   Second, we can gain valuable historical perspective for our exegesis of Gen. 1-2 by learning about the way these chapters have been interpreted in the past.  In particular, such a study reveals that the way we translate certain words in Genesis 1 relies on some assumptions of ancient science-like the idea of the earth originating in primeval chaos-that should no longer govern our interpretation of the text.  Third, there are more interpretive options available for a faithful reading of Genesis 1-2 than we have traditionally recognized.  These options include possibilities for a viable version of the gap theory.             

Although Genesis Unbound discusses technical points like the meanings of Hebrew words, it is written for a general audience. The book makes fascinating reading, and I enthusiastically recommend it. 2


  1   On the internet, information can be found, forexample, at  (for old-earth creationism) and (for young-earth  creationism).

2 Sailhamer provides further discussion of his interpretation of Gen. 1-2 in his book, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Zondervan, 1992).

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