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About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI


Part III: Between the Lines: An Analysis of Genesis 1:1-2

Chapter 3

The Continuity of Tradition

     IN SPITE OF the evidence to the contrary, some of the best authorities still maintain that this interpretation of the text is a modern one. They argue that it is extracted by an unjustified exegesis of the original Hebrew which has little linguistic support. It is presented as a solution to the problem of the apparent conflict between the current views of modern geology and an outmoded view of Scripture by those who are determined to have the days of Genesis mean periods of twenty-four hours! It is traced back to Chalmers (who was an able exponent of this view) and then dismissed -- sometimes as hardly worthy of serious consideration, nearly always with the implication that it is an emergency measure without real foundation.
     It is strange in this particular instance that any Christian scholar should make such an assertion, because this interpretation has been held by men of learning and integrity almost since commentaries on the Old Testament were first written. Not that all these arguments have been presented previously. They have not. But the general thesis most certainly has. When geologists in the middle of the last century first formulated the concept of vast ages for the formation of stratified rocks containing fossils, the challenge to Scripture was recognized at once, and the significance of a correct translation of Genesis 1:2 was quickly understood by a few evangelical scholars. That this view of Genesis had already been held by ancient authorities was pointed out for example, in the Revised Edition of Chamber's Encyclopedia, published in 1860. Under the heading "Genesis," we find the following statement:

     Two principal methods of reconciliation (between the Creation story of Genesis and the conclusions of modern Geology) are advanced, those of Dr. Buckland, and Hugh Miller respectively. The first of which adopts and amplifies the Chalmerian interpolation of geological ages prior to the first day . . . an opinion strangely enough to be found already in the Midrash.

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     It should be pointed out that the Midrash is the oldest pre-Christian exposition of the Old Testament. For fifteen hundred years after the Exile it had accumulated from the explanations of scriptural passages proposed by various Jewish scholars. It had become the basis of rabbinical teaching in the time of our Lord. Dr. Thomas Chalmers was born in 1780 and died in 1847. The Jewish commentators considerably antedated the learned doctor!
     William Buckland, to whom the Encyclopedia makes reference, contributed a paper in 1836 in the Bridgewater Treatises in which he stated his view in the following excerpt:

     The word "beginning" as applied by Moses expressed an undefined period of time, which was antecedent to the last great change that affected the surface of the earth, and to the creation of its present animal and vegetable inhabitants, during which period a long series of operations may have been going on: which, as they are wholly unconnected with the history of the human race, are passed over in silence by the sacred historian whose only concern was barely to state that the matter of the universe is not eternal and self-existent, but was originally created by the power of the Almighty. . . .  The first verse of Genesis seems explicitly to assert the creation of the Universe, the heaven, including the sidereal systems, and the earth more especially specifying our own planet as the subsequent scene of the operations of the six days about to be described. . . . .
     Millions of millions of years may have occupied the indefinite interval between the beginning in which God created the heaven and the earth, and the evening or commencement of the first day of the Mosaic narrative. . .  We have in verse 2 a distinct mention of the earth and waters as already existing and involved in darkness. Their condition also described as a state of confusion and emptiness (tohu wa bohu), words which are usually interpreted by the vague and indefinite Greek term chaos, and which may be geologically considered as designating the wreck and ruins of a former world.

     The other gentleman referred to in Chamber's article was one of those enviable scholars who was able to adorn the naked facts of geology in the most beautiful literary garments. Hugh Miller interpreted the days of Genesis as geological ages.
     But let us return to the Jewish commentators. In the "Book of Light," known to the Jews as the Sefer Hazzohar, or simply Zohar -- traditionally ascribed to Simeon ben Jochai, a disciple of the more famous Akiba -- there is a comment on Genesis 2:4-6 which, though admittedly rather difficult to follow, reads thus:

     "These are the generations of heaven and earth, etc." Now wherever there is written the word "these" () the former words are put aside. And these are the generations of the destruction, which is signified in verse 2

19. Buckland, William, "Geology and Mineralogy Considered With Reference to Natural Theology," Bridgewater Treatises, Pickering, London, 1836, vol.1.

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of Chapter 1. The earth was Tohu and Bohu. These indeed are the words of which it is said that the blessed God created the worlds, and destroyed them, and on that account the earth was "desolate and empty" (tohu and bohu).

     Like most of the Cabalistic literature of the Jews, of which the Sefer Hazzohar is a part, this extract is not easy to follow. But it means in effect that the interpretation which the writer placed upon Genesis 1:2 was very similar to that attributed by others more recently to Chalmers. In Simeon's view, the old world was destroyed, and on that account the earth was desolate and empty as described in the second verse.
     It is perfectly true that the passage is attributed to a disciple of Akiba, a famous Jewish scholar, a Palestinian rabbi living from about A.D. 50 to about A.D. 132. But this ascription is questioned by some modern authorities who claim that the Zohar is written in a form of Aramaic which demonstrates it to have been composed as late as the twelfth or thirteenth century A.D. Even so, it shows that the view was held centuries before the coming of modern geology.
     But we can trace the idea a little further back still. Among the early Jewish writings there are a number of Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament. The oldest of these so-called Targums is that of Onkelos, which is confined to the Pentateuch. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Onkelos was a proselyte who was the son of a man named Calonicas, and was the composer of the Targum which bears his name, which he in turn had received from Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, both of whom lived toward the end of the first and the beginning of the second century A.D. However, in the Jerusalem Talmud the very same thing is related by the same authorities (and almost in the same words) of the proselyte Aquila of Pontes, whose Greek version of the Bible was much used by the Greek-speaking Jews down to the time of Justinian; so it is sometimes argued that Onkelos is but another name for Aquila. Aquila Ponticus was a relative of the Emperor Hadrian, living in the second century A.D. Thus even if Onkelos is not an absolutely authentic figure, the works attributed to him must still be placed very early in the Christian era.
     In dealing with the first chapter of Genesis, Onkelos gave the following Aramaic paraphrase of verse 2:

                                    W'are'ah hawath tsadh'ya

     In this passage, the composite verb form (tsadh'ya) means "was destroyed," being the Aramaic form of the verb to be (hawath) with the feminine passive participle of the verb tzadhah, which means "to cut" or "to lay waste."

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     Moreover, it happens that part of the Greek version of Aquila is found in Origen's Hexapla. It is not surprising therefore to discover that Origen himself held the same view of this early portion of the text of Genesis. Thus in his great work De Principiis, the worthy scholar remarked in connection with Genesis 1:1,2 (20)

     It is certain that the present firmament is not spoken of, nor the dry land but that heaven and earth from which this present heaven and earth which we now see, afterwards borrowed their names.

     Origen therefore argued that the world which then was, which perished as a result of the judgment of God, differed from the heavens and the earth which are now, but was nevertheless the material out of which the reconstituted earth was subsequently built.
     We thus have a more or less continuous tradition from the Jewish "Fathers" of the first century, to the "Fathers" of the early Christian Church. And there can therefore no longer be any excuse for dismissing such an interpretation of the text on the grounds that it is a recent invention that would never have occurred but for modern geology.
     While many of the early Church Fathers can be shown to have leaned toward this view, it is not always too meaningful in some respects, since their methods of interpretation at times tended to be extreme, as those who have studied them well know. In fact, like Origen, they often used one passage to teach two entirely different ideas when directing their words to two different classes of people.
     However, it cannot be denied for one moment that from the works of the Jewish commentators to the present day there is an unbroken chain of commentators who recognized the unusual character of the original text and took a similar view of it. While Chalmers, like Darwin, may have crystallized an idea and received credit for much that he borrowed from those who went before him, he is certainly not the first advocate. That God should have begun His creation with a chaos was a pagan idea, not a Jewish nor a Christian one; many of these pagan ideas became deeply rooted in Christian thinking as a result of Augustine, who, while being a man of great piety and vision, still clung to many unscriptural ideas, not the least of which was evolution.
     Erich Sauer, in his book The Dawn of World Redemption, wrote:

     In both old and more recent times there have been God-enlightened men who expressed the conjecture that the work of the six days of Gen.1 was

20. Origen, ref. 15, vol. IV, Book 2, p.290.
21. Sauer, Erich, The Dawn of World Redemption, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1953, pp.35-36.

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properly a work of restoration, but not the original creation of the earth; and that originally man had the task, as a servant of the Lord and as ruler of the creation, in moral opposition to Satan, to recover for God the outwardly renewed earth, through the spreading abroad of his race and his lordship over the earth.
     Thus Prof. Bettex says that man should originally, "as the vice-regent of God, gradually have reconquered the whole earth." Also Prof. v. Heune, who likewise upholds the restitution theory, says, "that the great operation of bringing back the whole creation to God, starts with man. . . ."
     Traces of such an explanation of the record of creation are found in ancient Christian literature as early as the time of the church father Augustine (about 400 A.D.). In the seventh century it was maintained by the Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon. About A.D. 1000 King Edgar of England adopted it. In the seventeenth century it was specially emphasized by the mystic Jacob Boehme. In the year 1814 it was developed by the Scottish scholar Dr. Chalmers, and in 1833 further by the English professor of Mineralogy, William Buckland.
     There are also very many German upholders of this teaching, as for instance, the professor of geology Freiherr von Heune (Tubingen): and well known are the English scholar G. H. Pember, and also the Scofield Reference Bible. From the Catholic side there are Cardinal Wiseman and the philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel. . . .

     In their over-anxiety to sustain an argument, some advocates in recent years have gone beyond the text, and it has consequently suffered injury at the hands of its friends. Speakers will occasionally point out that both Noah and Adam were instructed to refill the earth (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). Since the statement has particular significance in the case of Noah who had lived to see the destruction of a previous world, it is argued that the use of the same command to Adam must imply that Adam stood in a similar relationship to a perished world. However, the Hebrew word male () translated in both instances replenish does not have this significance. It simply means "to fill." No argument can be sustained by reference to the form of the command, although it might possibly be that the translators of the King James Version used the word replenish in the case of Adam because they felt that it was applicable. If this were so, it could only be further evidence that even at this time there were commentators who perceived the real meaning of the first few verses of Genesis 1, although they did not reveal it in their translation of Genesis 1:2.
     At any rate the eminent oriental scholar and biblical critic, Johann August Dathe -- who became professor of oriental literature at Leipzig in 1763 and who is perhaps best known for his six-volume work on the books of the Old Testament, illustrated with philological and critical notes and edited with the help of the original Hebrew

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text as well as other Latin versions -- translated the second verse of the first chapter of Genesis, "And the earth was made (facta erat) a waste and a desolation." Since the Vulgate or accepted Latin version has simply, "But the earth was void and empty," he must have felt that this was not a sufficiently exact rendering of the original. We therefore have one more link in the chain of evidence supporting the contention that the view did not originate with Chalmers at all.
     Among the later Hebrew scholars of great prominence who supported this point of view was Alfred Edersheim, himself a Jew to whom the language of the Old Testament was as familiar as a mother tongue. In a work published about 1890, he made the following observations:

     Some have imagined that the six days of creation represent so many periods, rather than literal days, chiefly on the ground of the supposed high antiquity of our globe, and the various great epochs or periods, each terminating in a grand revolution, through which our earth seems to have passed, before coming to its present state, when it became a fit habitation for man. There is, however, no need to resort to any such theory. The first verse in the book of Genesis simply states the general fact, that "In the beginning" -- whenever that may have been -- "God created the heaven and the earth." Then, in the second verse, we find the earth described as it was at the close of the last great revolution, preceding the present state of things: "And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." An almost indefinite space of time, and many changes, may therefore have intervened between the creation of heaven and earth, as mentioned in verse 1 and the chaotic state of our earth, as described in verse 2. As for the exact date of the first creation, it may safely be affirmed that we have not yet the knowledge sufficient to arrive at any really trustworthy conclusion.

     Many famous commentaries have supported this interpretation. For example, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown have the following comment on verse 2 (23).

     This globe, at some undescribed period, having been convulsed and broken up, was a dark and watery waste for ages perhaps, till out of the chaotic state the present fabric of the world was made to rise.

     It is not without significance that people of other cultures, whose thinking does not seem to have been influenced by the teaching of missionaries have traditions of a catastrophe which overtook the first creation. Not unnaturally such stories tell of people in this former world, for it is always difficult to conceive of an earth totally devoid of any population. It requires a certain sophistication to conceive of a world uninhabited by man.

22. Edersheim, Alfred, The World Before the Flood, Religious Tract Society, London, n.d., p.18.
23. Commentary on the Whole Bible, edited by Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, 1871, reprinted 1961, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, p.17.

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     Thus the Arabians have a strange belief that there were once forty kings who ruled over a creation prior to Adam, and that they were called "Solimans" (after Solomon, who to them seemed to be the ideal of what a monarch ought to be). They say that their history was recounted by the "Bird of Ages," whom they called the Simorg and who had served them all. Their statues, monstrous preadamite forms, were supposed to exist in the mountains of Kaf. (24)
     In one of his books, Franz Cumont remarked that according to the Mithraic teachings,

     The demoniac confederates of the King of Hell once ascended to the assault of Heaven and attempted to dethrone the successor of Kronos. But, shattered like the Greek giants by the ruler of the gods, these rebel monsters were hurled backwards into the abyss from which they had risen. They made their escape however from that place and wandered about on the face of the earth, there to spread misery and to corrupt the hearts of men, who, in order to ward off the evils that menaced them, were obliged to appease them by offering expiatory sacrifices.

     There is a Far Eastern tradition in which some further details are provided. G. Rawlinson, in his second Bampton Lecture in 1859, gave an extract as follows: (26)

     The Chinese traditions are said to be less clear and decisive than the Babylonian. They speak of a "first heaven" and an age of innocence when "the whole creation enjoyed a state of happiness." Then everything was beautiful and everything was good: all things were perfect in their kind. Whereunto succeeded a second heaven introduced by a great convulsion, in which the pillars of heaven were broken, the earth shook to its foundations, the heavens sank lower towards the north, the sun, moon, and stars changed their motions, the earth fell apart and the waters enclosed within its bosom burst forth with violence and over-flowed. [his emphasis]

     The Egyptians believed that the earth had suffered more than one destruction and renewal, and certainly the Babylonian traditions held strongly to at least one serious destruction and reconstitution quite apart from their recollections of the great Flood of Noah's time. (27)
     Even as we today have found the advantage of animating stories for children, so the early Babylonians turned inanimate forces into

24. From D'Herbelot's "Soliman Ben David," in Stanley's History of the Jewish Church, Scribners, New York, 1911, vol. II, lect. 26, p.144.
25. Cumont, Franz, Mysteries of Mithra, Open Court, Chicago, 1905, p.112.
26. Lord Arundell in his Tradition: Mythology and the Law of Nations, Burns and Oates, London, 1872. p.328
27. Dawson; W J., The Origin of the World, Dawson, Montreal, 1877, p.148.

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spiritual beings; they set much of the early geological history of the earth, as they conceived it, in the form of a titanic struggle between giant forces in personal guise. The great catastrophe of Genesis 1:2 in time became one of the most popular themes of cuneiform literature.
     In a paper titled "Genesis and Pagan Cosmogonies," Edward McCrady gave an excellent and concise statement of the matter. He remarked:

     It is generally conceded that the Dragon, as a personification of the Evil Spirit, is more or less identified with the destructive and rebellious forces of Nature, especially as they bring chaos and suffering to mankind in floods, storms, etc. But it is only in connection with such stories as that of Bel and the Dragon that we begin to catch a glimpse of the origin of the original myth: and only again as we compare this Chaldeo-Assyrian legend with the first chapter of Genesis that we begin to realize that this Dragon is but a personification of the watery abyss or chaos mentioned in Genesis. Bel, or Bel-Merodach, is a personification of the sun which appearing on the fourth day "breaks through the watery abyss that envelops the earth, piercing and tearing asunder the Dragon of the abyss with his glittering sword" and eventually after a long struggle bringing order and law out of chaos. Then we begin to see the explanation of the whole. Similarly, we may see little significance in the Egyptian picture of Kneph sailing in a boat over the water, and breathing life into its tumultuous depths: or the Phoenician legend of Colpias and his wife Bau, or Bahu, effecting a like organization of the waste of primeval matter: until we remember that Kneph signifies wind, air, living breath, or spirit. And Colpias likewise means "wind," while Bahu is evidently the Phoenician form of the Hebrew "bohu," the waste of waters.
     With this discovery, however, it immediately dawns upon us that these legends must obviously refer to the statement of Genesis that "The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be Light, and there was Light."
     A further careful study of the succession of male and female divinities of the Chaldeo-Assyrian Theogony, Lachmu and Lachamu; An-Sar and KiSar, will also bring to light the fact that they are, respectively, personifications of the Light with his consort Darkness; of the Sky or Heavenly Waters, and the earth waters (divided by the "expanse"), and occur exactly in the order of their appearance in the narrative of Genesis while the divinities Anos (or Anu), Ilinos (or Enlil), and Aos (or Ea), which follow next, and which are universally identified with the heavens, the earth and the sea, are obviously personifications of these physical phenomena, which as Genesis records, were separated from one another as the next step in the creative process; while as the hero of the next succeeding generation appears, Bel-Merodach, easily identified as the sun now appearing for the first time together with the moon and the stars, we have the completion of the fourth day. And these events are still further reflected in the Chaldean myth of the birth of Sin (the moon) Adar (Saturn), Merodach (Jupiter), Nergal (Mars), Nebo (Mercury), and all the rest of them. The order of the appearance of the corresponding physical phenomena given in Genesis -- the Theogony (the "toledoth of the gods"), of

28. McCrady, Edward, in Transactions of the Victorian Institute, vol.72, 1940, p.46,47,59.

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the Chaldeans -- is simultaneously a cosmogony based on the cosmogony of Genesis.

Subsequently McCrady remarked:

     Indeed, the echoes of this primal revelation, transformed and corrupted as we have thus explained, are to be found in nearly all the mythologies, cosmogonies, and theogonies of paganism. For besides the Chaldean, Assyrian, Phoenician and other narratives, we find them in Greek and Latin literature also.

     In conclusion the author points out what must have occurred to all who study these things in this light: not only do we find in this the origin of the idea that the world began with a chaos, an idea which found its way almost inevitably into our translations because of the power of habits of thought, but also we find the root of much polytheism and idol worship -- for they have exactly done what Paul in his Epistle to the Romans reveals, changing the truth of God into a lie, worshipping and serving the created things more than the Creator, who is blessed forever (Romans 1:25).
     There is, therefore, from the very earliest times, a continuity of tradition that at some remote time in the past, great spiritual powers came under the judgment of God and brought about a disruption of the kosmos, the record of which is undoubtedly reflected in Genesis 1:1,2.
     This continuity of tradition from the earliest times to the beginning of the last century is a strong confirmation of the view advocated in this Paper. It is a strong confirmation because the individuals who supported it were in an excellent position to know what the original text could mean and at the same time they were quite uninfluenced by modern geological theory and were not, therefore, biased in this respect.
     Nevertheless, the strongest confirmation is surely to be found in Scripture itself. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," he was clearly referring to the regenerative experience of the new birth when a man, ruined by sin, becomes a new creation in Christ. But the force of his words is lost entirely unless the command "Let there be light" was also to begin a new creation of a world which had been marred by sin.
     The necessity and reality of the new birth is some indication of the necessity and reality of the re-creation which seems to be the subject of Genesis 1:3ff.

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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