Who was the audience for the Genesis creation stories? The audience was Hebrew speaking Israelites living in the Middle East at least 2,500 years ago (depending on what you believe about authorship.) They did not have the concept of planets, solar systems and galaxies like we do. The “earth” equated to “the place where people live.” At the edges of the earth was water. There was also water above the earth and the atmosphere was the domed area between the land and the waters above. The heavenly objects moved across the waters in the sky.
If the creation of the world was to be written for the Israelites, it would have to be done in Hebrew. Hebrew is a limited and imprecise language. Compared to English, or even ancient Greek, the vocabulary was very small. Metaphors and context are often much more significant for interpretation.
The first and most obvious issue that has to be addressed as we begin the first creation story is timing. Scientists estimate the universe to be about 14.9 billion years old. The traditional interpretation of the story is that it took six literal days. Does the text actually say this?
Early Christian scholars like Justin Martyr, Irenaus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine, among others, did not think so. They tended to see “day” as metaphor for a period of time. Some assumed that each day represented a thousand years. There were early Christians who did affirm literal days but these affirmations were often to combat the Greek notion of the infinite existence of matter. Based on “air time” given to the issue, it apparently wasn’t a significant issue. Some also argue that Hebrews chapter 4 makes the case that we are still living in the seventh day of creation, clearly indicating that this was not a literal day.
The Hebrew youm is the word translated “day” here. It often meant a twenty-four hour day but it also had about eighteen other connotations. It could stand for the time between sunrise and sunset as well as an entire epoch in time. The fact is, there is no other Hebrew word that carries the idea of “long period of time.”
Hugh Ross also notes the peculiar wording of “and there was evening and there was morning, the first day,” rather than writing “and there was evening and morning of the first day. He suggests that “evening” and “morning” was a euphemistic way to say there was a fixed period with a beginning and end. With this understanding I turn to the text.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
“The heavens and the earth” is a euphemism for “everything.” The Hebrew word translated “created” is bara. It is used only three times in this account. The Greek translators translated this ex nihlo meaning “out of nothing.” While the Greek translation may not be absolutely precise, bara certainly gives the connotation of creating something utterly unique that only God could create. Basically, God brought into existence all that is.
Before I move on to verse two, which specifically addresses Earth, I want to ask you a question? When you and I read the following verses our minds eye often positions us out in space looking down at a globe as the described events are taking place. What would be the vantage point of the Israelite observer based on the understanding of the world I described above? The only vantage point they could imagine would be as one standing on the face of the earth observing what was happening around them. The crucial importance of this will become clear shortly.