Many popular Christian leaders in recent years have endorsed John Sailhamer’s interpretation of the creation account, known as ‘Historical Creationism’. It is a term he himself coined in his book “Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account.”1 With endorsements from the likes of John Piper2, Mark Driscoll3, Matt Chandler4 and others, a closer look is definitely warranted. Dr. Sailhamer is an Old Testament and Hebrew scholar. He is currently professor of Old Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (formerly senior professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). In his thesis, he claims to bridge the gap, so to speak, between biblical literalism and old earth science. His theory, ostensibly, is derived from the text alone, yet completely neutral on the age of the earth. And, while he notes his view does not take scientific ideas into consideration, he often touts its compatibility. Per the back cover of Genesis Unbound,
DO I REALLY HAVE TO CHOOSE BETWEEN RELIGION AND SCIENCE?
….Pointing to answers found in the first two chapters of Genesis, Sailhamer presents a credible, scripturally supported, and much-needed explanation that opens the door to reconciliation of biblical and scientific world views….
This is in contrast to young earth creationism, which he believes is an embarrassment to many Christians and a stumbling block to their taking Genesis “seriously.”(p. 17) I’ll discuss the relevancy of this later.
Another reason for this review is the fact that many discerning Christians might be tempted to feel intimated by the scholarly elements of this book, particularly arguments from the Hebrew. I’m hoping this article will dispel those insecurities. John MacArthur often speaks of the perspicuity of scripture (clarity, plainness, intelligibility) and I think it’s imperative that Christians always keep this in mind, even when heavyweight scholars weigh in. This is not to say an understanding of biblical Hebrew is not an important factor in gaining understanding of the Old Testament. It certainly is. But, those insights must be applied carefully and logically and when they are not, errors abound. Scholars are just as susceptible to bad logic and fallacious reasoning as anyone else. Their ideas need to be examined by diligent Berean-minded Christians.
With that said, keep in mind that many of Sailhamer’s insights from the Hebrew will be accepted in this article. There is no need to go deep into grammatical discussions that only Hebrew students would understand. The precise meanings of many of the words and phrases he cites have merit and should be considered. Thus, for the purposes of this article, many of his premises will be accepted, at the very least, for sake of argument. The real issue is not his premises, but his conclusions. Are they valid? Do they follow?
Also, note that his thesis of Historical Creationism rests on just a few basic foundational ideas which I will discuss in detail in part 1 of this article. There is no need to go deep into every detail, as it stands or falls on a few arguments. If these support his conclusion, his theory deserves consideration. If they don’t, the entire theory collapses, making further investigation unnecessary. With that said, in part 2, we’ll take a closer look at some of his secondary arguments for the sake of thoroughness.
Sailhamer’s Historical Creationism is the idea that Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” represents a block of unspecified time in which the entire universe was created. This includes the earth and all its lifeforms (except man) and everything else in the cosmos—sun, moon, stars, etc. These things were not created during the six days, but rather “in the beginning” prior to the six days. Sometime after this beginning creation period, perhaps billions of years later, the six days began but this is a completely different event from the actual creation of the world.
If you’re familiar with the Gap Theory popularized by Scofield and others, you may notice some similarities and, indeed, they are similar. The main difference is that the Gap Theory views the beginning as a point in time followed by an unspecified gap of time between the “beginning” and the “six days of recreation.” Historical Creationism, on the other hand, posits that the term “beginning” itself represents an unspecified period of time. (See comparison chart to the right. Click to enlarge.) Since there is no actual gap between the beginning period in verse 1 and the six day period which follows, Sailhamer believes his view should be in an entirely different category.
Sailhamer then suggests that, unlike the Gap Theory, the six days, detailed in Gen 1:2-31, are not referring to the recreation of the earth, but rather the preparation of the land of Eden, which he believes is the same region known, later, as Canaan and then Israel. In other words, he believes the six days describes the preparation of the promised land with its landmasses, lakes, rivers and atmosphere directly above. This land was specifically being formed for mankind. Once it was ready, man was created on the sixth day, perhaps billions of years after everything else.
This is the basic theory put in very simple terms. (See chart to the right. Click to enlarge.) And this theory, he posits, is both literal and compatible with modern scientific ideas about the past.
The theory above is based on a few basic premises which, ostensibly, support it. There is more to the theory, obviously, which I’ll discuss in part 2, but below are the foundational premises.
1) The meaning of “beginning”
The Hebrew word re’shiyth (beginning) can refer to periods of time, rather than just beginning points in time.
2) The meaning of the phrase “the heavens and the earth”
“The heavens and the earth” together as a phrase form a figure of speech called a merism, and refers to the entire world or universe and all that is in it.
3) The meaning of “heaven” and “earth,” individually
The Hebrew words shamayim (heavens) and ‘erets (earth) individually can refer to local lands and skies, rather than the entire heavens or entire earth.
Now, without commenting on the conclusions he draws from these, I should point out that I accept all of the premises above. It is my opinion that all of them have merit and deserve consideration. The real issue is, do they support his conclusions? Do they support the thesis of Historical Creationism?
Ironically, I’ve found they do not. In fact, I believe they undermine his thesis and support the traditional view I hold, that the universe was created in six days. Let’s take a closer look at each his arguments.
The meaning of “beginning”
The most foundational premise of Sailhamer’s thesis is his understanding of the term “beginning.” He himself has deemed it “crucial to the argument of the book.” (p. 42) He posits that re’shiyth (beginning) in the Hebrew is not actually conveying the idea of a point in time, but rather an initial period of unspecified time. He points to other uses of the word in the Old Testament, such as the beginning periods of empires (Gen. 10:8-10) and beginning periods of kings’ reigns (Jer. 26, 27-28). The Hebrew phrase used in these passages, “in the beginning of” is very similar to the opening phrase in Genesis. And he is correct that they speak of periods of time.
Such an understanding of the term “beginning” is essential to appreciating the meaning of the first verse of Genesis. When understood in this way, the text does not say that God created the universe in the first moment of time; rather it says that God created the universe during an indeterminate period of time before the actual reckoning of a sequence of time began. In Genesis 1, the period of which follows “the beginning” is a single seven-day week…. (p. 44)
Thus, the creation period mentioned in Gen. 1:1, precedes the six days and could have spanned billions of years, just as science claims. But is this really where the textual evidence leads us?
A Closer Look
Sailhamer’s premise, that re’shiyth (beginning) can speak of a period of time, is correct. We see examples of this usage in various places in the Old Testament. But while this simple premise holds, he’s overlooked a gaping inconsistency in his argument which undermines his conclusion.
In Genesis 1:1, he posits that re’shiyth (beginning) speaks of an undefined period of time, prior to the six days which are described afterward. Yet in his comparative text, the beginning DOES NOT describe an event prior to those described afterward. In his own examples, the verses that follow re’shiyth are descriptions of what happened during that beginning period.
In Jeremiah, we’re told about a period of time called “the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim” (Jer. 26:1). This is followed by a series of narratives which all occurred during or within that beginning period. The narrative continues, after verse 1, through the entire 26th chapter. Thus the entire 26th chapter is a description of what happened “in the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim.”
This is something Sailhamer never addresses, but is vitally important. He is positing that the six days of creation happened after “an undefined beginning,” yet, that doesn’t follow the pattern of his comparative texts. In both examples (Jehoiakim’s beginning-Jer. 26, and Zedekiah’s beginning-Jer. 27-28) neither event remains undefined. Both are followed by descriptions of those beginning periods.
Thus, if we’re going to use Sailhamer’s comparative texts to gain insight on how the word re’shiyth should be understood, we should conclude that the 30 verses which follow “In the beginning” in verse 1 are likely describing that beginning period. Thus, the beginning of creation is not only defined, it is defined in great detail.
This, alone, discredits Sailhamer’s thesis, in my view, but as you’ll see, his other foundational premises make matters worse.
The meaning of “the heavens and the earth”
Sailhamer contends the phrase “the heavens and the earth” (hashamayim waha’arets) is a figure of speech called a merism. A merism,
…combines two words to express a single idea. A merism expresses “totality” by combining two contrasts or two extremes… The expression “sky and land,” thus, stands for the “entirety of the universe.” (p. 62)
Now, I might argue there’s no need to call this a figure of speech, as that would be the most natural literal inference by virtually all who read it. But, perhaps technically, this could be categorized as a merism, so let’s accept it for the sake of argument.
Sailhamer concludes from this, that the phrase “heavens and earth” found in Gen. 1:1 is a merism and should be interpreted as the entire world and everything in it. Thus, the creation of the universe—the sun, moon, stars, earth and all its creatures—happened in verse 1 before the six day period began. This conveniently allows time for the celestial and geological ages to pass and for the dinosaurs to thrive and go extinct just as modern naturalistic models claim.
The Bible allows for the creation of dinosaurs and all other forms of early plant and animal life “in the beginning, ” since the Hebrew word for “beginning” in Genesis 1:1 could encompass eons during which God’s work of creation was carried out. (p. 37)
A Closer Look
Again, I agree with the basic premise that “heavens and earth” refers to the entire world or universe. The problem is, if this phrase in Gen. 1:1 means entire universe, it must mean entire universe everywhere else it occurs. And when we take a closer look, we find it not only immediately precedes the six-day narrative, but, immediately follows it in a concluding remark (Gen. 2:1). This forms, what I like to call a merism sandwich. Take a look at the text below.
Notice the six days of creation are sandwiched between these two statements. First, we have an opening statement, stating God created the heavens and earth during a beginning period of time. Then, we have a detailed description of this creative period, which took place over six days. Then, we have a closing statement that the heavens and earth are complete.
If this statement refers to the universe, as Sailhamer contends, then the six days can only be describing the creation of the universe.
The meaning of “heaven” and “earth,” individually
Finally, Sailhamer posits that the Hebrew words, shamayim (often translated heaven) and ‘erets (often translated earth) don’t always refer to the entire heaven and earth. I accept this premise as well.
In fact, I would say the term ‘erets never carries the precise meaning of planet-earth. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read, “And God called the dry land Earth…” (Gen. 1:10). Per God’s own definition, earth means land. ‘erets, in the Hebrew, can be used to describe all the landmasses of the world (i.e. all the landmasses of our planet), or to describe specific lands when context indicates, such as the land of Egypt. It is the dry land, in contrast to the sea (Gen. 1:9-10, Ex. 20:11). It is the collective lands everywhere—the entire earth, or a specific land—the land of Israel.
Similarly, the word for heaven, shamayim, can refer to local skies rather than the entire sky. Sometimes, the entire heavens are in view (Gen. 7:19), while other times, only a local sky is in view (Deut. 28:23-24). With all of this, so far, I agree.
Sailhamer concludes, that occurrences of “heaven” and “earth,” after verse 1, only have the limited meaning. In verse 1 they refer to the entire universe but, afterward, only to the land of Eden, which God was preparing for man, whom He had not yet created.
Earth, starting in verse 2, does not describe all the collective lands God created, but rather a specific land that God was re-landscaping, so to speak. During the six days, God was creating Eden—its landscapes, its local lakes and rivers and its local atmosphere or skies. The plants and animals, he argues, already existed, having been created “in the beginning.” They were NOT created during the six days, but, rather, moved into place at that time. The fish and birds were moved into Eden’s lakes and skies on day 5, and the beasts onto the lands on day 6. Man, on the other hand, was created from the dust on day 6.
Man, in Sailhamer’s view, was the one creative exception. Adam and Eve were not made “in the beginning.”
Human life did not originate until the sixth day of the week recorded in Genesis 1:2-2:4a. That means that human beings were not created “in the beginning” with the rest of God’s creation. Human beings were “latecomers” according to the biblical account. They came only after the indefinite period of time denoted by the term “beginning.” (p. 36)
He goes onto say,
Genesis insists that all human beings as we know them are descendants of Adam. That rules out the creation of human beings “in the beginning” in Genesis 1:1. It is an essential part of the logic of the genealogies in chapters 5 and 10 that no human beings were part of the universe created “in the beginning.” (p. 37)
So you have plants and animals created in the beginning, but man, much later, during the six days. And best of all, this view is compatible with modern scientific theories.
Such a viewpoint fits well with what modern science tells us of the earth human life. Human life is quite recent in geological history. Clear traces of human beings date back only about thirty thousand years from nowhere.
As far as the biblical record is concerned, nothing in Genesis 1 and 2 contradicts modern science. According to the Bible—just as in modern scientific theories—human beings arrived on the scene very recently in geological history, fully developed culturally and linguistically. (p. 37)
A Closer Look
Sailhamer is correct that the terms earth and heaven can refer to a smaller local regions in specific contexts. But, based on his own premise, those contexts don’t exist in the six-day creation account. The book-end “heaven and earth” phrases that surround the six days make it impossible to apply a localized context. He, himself, says Gen. 1:1 refers to the creation of the universe, and by implication, Gen. 2:1 must also. These two phrases sandwich the six-day narrative, supplying an undeniable context. If “context is everything” as Sailhamer insists (ch.7), there can be no alternative reading. The six days describe the creation of the universe.
“The Beginning” according to Christ
But Sailhamer has an even bigger problem. His views of the creation of man are in direct conflict with our Lord’s. Sailhamer insists Adam and Eve were not made from the beginning, but were “latecomers” created, perhaps, billions of years after the beginning. But Christ made explicit comments to the contrary. According to Matthew:
Matt. 19:4 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
According to Mark:
Mark 10:5 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. 6 But from the beginning of the creation, God “made them male and female.’ 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
The most effective critique of Historical Creationism comes from our Lord, himself. Sailhamer says, “…human beings were not created “in the beginning.”” Our Lord says, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ …”
John Sailhamer’s thesis of Historical Creationism does not stand up to scrutiny. Most of his premises have merit, but his conclusions don’t follow. It’s not an issue of Hebrew grammar, but of simple logic.
If beginning (re’shiyth) does, in fact, refer to a period of time, then that period of time must be the six days that are described immediately afterward. And if the heavens and the earth phrase is a merism, referring to the universe, then the six days must be describing the creation of the universe. And, if our Lord, having perfect logic, says man was made “in the beginning” who are we to theorize otherwise?
I can only speculate as to how someone as brilliant and devout as Sailhamer (I have no doubt he is both) could come up with a thesis so logically problematic. But perhaps his “embarrassed” comment, which I mentioned at the beginning of this article, may give us some insight. He mentioned this specifically as a motivation for his book, so I think it’s appropriate to comment.
It’s been my experience that untold thousands of Christians struggle to maintain a biblical faith in our modern, scientific age. They’re almost embarrassed by Genesis 1 and 2. These first chapters seem so archaic, so outdated, so ancient. How could anyone take them seriously? (p. 17)
Embarrassment is a crippling emotion and sufficient to cloud even the most brilliant minds. Reading his book, it was clear to me that, while he did not want his theory to be influenced by modern science, it was a huge factor. And it makes perfect sense considering he sees scientific compatibility as the key to thousands of Christians taking Genesis “seriously.”
I insist that not only can we take seriously these first two chapters of the Bible, but they fit in remarkably well with our current scientific models of the universe. (p. 17)
I have no doubt his motives are sincere, but emotions (embarrassment) trump logic (interpretation) every time. And I can’t help but believe that emotionalism is at the heart of most alternative interpretations of Genesis. Others have admitted this as well.6
Like Sailhamer, I too have a strong desire for the church to return to biblical authority and take seriously the book of Genesis. But I completely disagree they will only do this if we can somehow make it fit with modern naturalistic theories. The church has been doing this for centuries and are still failing to impress the skeptics. At best, they’re merely tempting Christians to accept naturalistic theories. At worst, they’re causing skeptics to shake their heads and think, “Even they don’t believe!”
The real key is to trust the straightforward reading of God’s word. When our leaders and pastors and seminary professors and scholars let the church know they believe its plain reading, the flock will follow and God will do amazing things. I agree with Ken Ham that reformation in the Church must precede revival in our country—particularly a renewed faith in the book of Genesis.
I also want to note that creation scientists have been working tirelessly to show our theologians that science does not disprove the text. There are countless resources out there—most of which are free.5 Yet our creation scientists—all too often—are battling theologians more often than skeptics.
While the previous section dealt with the primary foundational arguments for Historical Creationism, this next section will delve into some of the other details. The subjects are not in any specific order and can be read topically rather than sequentially.
Formless and Void
Sailhamer stresses is his disagreement with most English translations on their rendering of Gen. 1:2. “And the earth was without form and void…” He waxes on and on about a translation conspiracy going all the way back to the Jews who translated the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament). He believes these Jewish scribes inserted ideas of Greek cosmology into the text, which has systematically corrupted virtually all English translations.
Though the phrase may suggest many things to modern readers, the early English translators had precise intentions for the expression “formless and void.” They used it to harmonize the biblical creation account with the prevailing Greek cosmology of their day. They expressly meant to say that God did not originally create the world in the condition in which we now see it. Instead, He created the universe as a shapeless mass of material, only later forming the world we now know. (p. 67-68)
Sailhamer concludes that when verse 2 is understood properly, it shows that the earth was already here, having been made during “the beginning.” The land spoken of in verse 2 is merely the land of Eden which was created, but not yet suitable for humans and needed to be formed into something habitable. He believes this phrase would be better rendered as desolate, barren, or as a wasteland.
A closer look
While I found his arguments of a translations conspiracy to be nonsensical (and even harmful in many ways), I’ll grant it for the sake of argument. Let’s say Gen. 1:2 should be translated barren wasteland. Does it make a difference?
The problem is, both translations are perfectly compatible with the plain meaning of the text, that the entire heavens and earth were created in six days. Whether the earth—the collective lands in their entirety—was initially created as a barren, submerged wasteland or a formless chaotic watery mass has no bearing on the meaning of the six day narrative. I realize the former translation might be essential to his thesis, but his major premises preclude his conclusions anyway.
With that said, I would tend to trust the English translations as well as the Septuagint scribes that translated the text into greek. The particles were created first (waters) which were then formed into what they are today. Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, speaks about the land being made out of water.
2Pet. 3:5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.
This would seem to indicate that God created the land and sea from an original mass of primordial fluid. With that said, either translation would work. Essentially, it’s a non-issue.
Ex nihilo is a Latin phrase meaning “out of nothing.” It often appears in conjunction with the concept of creation, as in creatio ex nihilo, meaning “creation out of nothing”—chiefly in philosophical or theological contexts, but also occurs in other fields.7
Sailhamer makes the point that, if the first sentence of the Bible is a title, then there is nothing in Genesis 1:1 to base the doctrine of ex nihilo on.
If Genesis 1:1 merely summarizes the whole of Genesis 1, then God’s acts of creation actually begins in Genesis 1:2. Since the earth was already “formless and void” (vs. 2), that means the earth already existed when God began to act. But, if that is so, when did God create the earth? (p. 25)
But, if Sailhamer is right, I would have to ask how his own view helps matters? For according to his own interpretation, verse 1 is a summary statement covering potentially billions of years of creative acts, from the creation of all matter in the universe to the creation of various lifeforms both living and extinct. Why would this not, also, pose the same problem, considering it, too, does not specifically speak of all the details of the creation of the earth?
Furthermore, the comparative verses he cites containing “in the beginning,” are also summaries of time periods followed by details of events in those periods (i.e. Jer. 26, 27-28). The fact that these accounts don’t mention the details of the first moments of these kingships doesn’t in any way mean they did not exist.
There are likely a myriad of details left out of the creation account, but that doesn’t preclude them from existing. As Sailhamer himself points out, the use of term created (bara’) with God as the subject and the universe as the object is sufficient to conclude God brought the universe into existence—by definition from non-existence, i.e. from nothing. I think this too is a non-issue.
Were Adam and Eve driven to a land east of Eden?
Sailhamer often brings up parallels between the land of Eden and the land of Israel. He sees an analogy between God driving Adam out of Eden and God driving Israel out of their land as a result of their disobedience. He also sees parallels between God driving Israel eastward and God driving Adam eastward. In his mind, Eden and Israel are one in the same. It was God’s land from the beginning and has been handled consistently from the beginning.
As long as Adam and Eve were obedient to God’s will, they could enjoy God’s good provisions. But, when they disobeyed God and ate of the Tree of knowing Good and Evil, God cast them out of the garden “eastward,” in the direction of the city of Babylon (Genesis 11). So also God warned Israel that if they were disobedient, they too would be cast out of the land, “eastward” into the city of Babylon. (p. 75)
Like Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, Israel can expect to dwell in their “good land” only so long as they are obedient to God’s will. When they disobey, God will cast them out of “the land, ” and they will go “eastward” into Babylon—just as He cast Adam and his family “eastward” out of the garden (Genesis 3:23; 4:16) and into the city of Babylon (Genesis 11:1-9). (p. 80)
A closer look
Upon closer examination, the careful reader will notice God actually never drove Adam and Eve out of the land of Eden. Nor is there any discussion about them being driven eastward. Rather, they were driven out of the Garden which was in Eden.
Gen. 3:23 therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.
There is no hint of God driving them from a land or eastward. We do see that God putting angelic guards on its east side of the Garden. Presumably this was its only entrance. Perhaps landscaping prevented entrance at other points (mountains, rivers, foliage, etc.).
But there is nothing put in place to hinder entrance into the land of Eden and no indication Adam and Eve did not remain. In fact, depending on the location of the Garden, they could have dwelled in the land of Eden somewhere to the west of the Garden. Or they could have left the region to the north, south, west or east. We’re not told.
It’s also interesting that later (perhaps as long as a century later), Cain was driven out of the land he was dwelling in. Cain was driven from the presence of Yahweh for murdering Abel, and the text says he moved east of Eden.
Gen. 4:16 Then Cain went out from the presence of the LORD and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.
This seems to imply he was still in Eden, at the time, living his his parents and siblings and traveled eastward upon receiving his curse.
The Real Tragedy
But the real tragedy here is, Sailhamer seems to have missed the true significance of the Eden account. God’s warning to Adam was infinitely different than his warning to Israel (Deut. 30:15-18). Adam was not being warned about losing his land but, rather, dying in it.
Gen. 2:17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”…. 3:19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.”
Adam was not created to die, but God warned that he would if he disobeyed. And God stayed true to his warning.
Gen. 3:22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”
God cursed the land for Adam’s sake, that He might eventually redeem him and his descendants through a coming Savior—a male child would defeat their adversary.
Gen. 3:15 “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.”
This is the real message of the creation account. Trying to fit a promised land narrative into it is not only unwarranted, it’s confusing. Adam didn’t lose the promised-land of Eden, in fact, he may have dwelled there until he died. The real point is, the land became cursed along with all its hosts (Gen. 3:17). Adam was now a cursed man in a cursed land in desperate need of a Savior. It’s an intricate part of the gospel. God help the church if we veer from this.
Do Eden and Israel refer to the same land?
Virtually all theories about the location of Eden are rooted in a tacit denial of the global flood. In the Flood account, we read,
Gen. 6:13 And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
The destruction of the land (mentioned also in Gen. 9:11), should end all speculations of the location of Eden (for more see our article, Where was Eden located?). But, unfortunately, they continue. Sailhamer comments,
Can the border of the garden of Eden given in Genesis 2 be identified with any other specific area within the subsequent Genesis narratives? I believe the answer is yes; the author of these narratives had a specific place in mind when he spoke of the garden of Eden. That place is the promised land. (p. 77)
A closer look
The enticement is understandable. But the careful reader will notice that the lands and landmarks on either side of the flood bear little resemblance, apart from their names. Given the destruction a Flood of this nature would cause, the entire landmass would have been destroyed as the text indicates. All landscapes and water systems would have been obliterated and replace with new ones. The river system described in Genesis 2—one splitting into four—no longer exists.
But one might ask: Why then are the Tigris, Euphrates, and lands of Havilah, Cush and Ashur mentioned in the Bible after the Flood? The answer is quite simple. From our article: Where was Eden located?
Humans have been recycling names from the beginning of time. Ever heard of Paris, Texas? Mars, California? Hell, Michigan? We see recurring names of places all over the world. For example, here’s an exhaustive list of places in the United States named after places in England. Notice there are 113 just in the state of Massachusetts alone!
In addition, children are often named after places. Ever met an Austin or Sydney, or Brooklyn, or London? Conversely, it’s also common to name places after people—particularly those involved in their founding or discovery. According to one source, there are 23 places in the United States named after Christopher Columbus. And how many ancient cities bare the name Alexandria, after Alexander the Great? Names of people and places have been used and reused from the beginning of time. It should, therefore, be no surprise certain names reappeared after the Flood.
For a more in-depth treatment of this subject, see the full article linked above but, in short, the descendants of Noah named many of their children after these geographic locations that existed in the previous world. This is evident in the Table of Nations (Gen. 10) where we see names like Havilah (Gen. 10:7, 29), Ashur (Gen. 10:22) and Cush (Gen. 10:6) being given. This was a common practice then, just as today (Austin, Sydney, Brooklyn, London, etc.). These children bearing antediluvian names went out to settle postdiluvian lands which, in turn, came to bear their names. Other notable names of Noah’s grandchildren are Egypt, son of Ham (Gen. 10:6-sometimes transliterated Mizriam), Greece, son of Japheth (Gen. 10:2-transliterated Javan), and Cush or Ethiopia, the son of Ham (Gen. 10:6).
In regard to the Tigris and Euphrates, it only makes sense that the descendants of Noah would recycle the names of the most famous rivers in the antediluvian world. But the careful reader will notice these are different rivers. Answers in Genesis points out,
…a closer examination of Genesis 2 reveals that the topography in and around Eden was different than today. Four rivers had once come out of Eden; today, however, only two major rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, cut through Iraq. Also, one of the four rivers, Gihon, is described in Genesis 2:13 (KJV) to “compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia”; but the modern-day country of Ethiopia is over 1,000 miles from Iraq (and across water: the Red Sea).
In fact, the modern rivers are actually flowing the wrong way, converging instead of splitting and flowing away from one another.8
We rarely (if ever) see rivers splitting today into headwaters. This may have been a byproduct of the antediluvian subterranean water systems which only existed before the Flood (Gen. 2:6). Today, instead, we see smaller rivers converging into larger ones, as is the case with the modern Tigris and Euphrates.
Created vs. Made
If you’re familiar with the Gap Theory, you might have heard arguments about bara’ (created) vs. ‘asah (made). Sailhamer and other gappers make the claim that when the writers used ‘asah they were not referring to the creation of something, but rather its subsequent formation or preparation—”like the making of a bed.” (p. 116) Thus, when the Bible says God made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them (Ex. 20:11), it’s not talking about their actual creation from nothing (bara’), but a subsequent adjustment or formation (‘asah) from existing components.
A closer look
But the fact is, bara’ and ‘asah are interchangeable terms and, in context, can each speak of creation—even creation ex nihilo. It is true that bara’ is a verb used only with God as the subject, but ‘asah is also used with God as the subject and is often used in the same exact same sense as bara’. ‘asah is a more general term that can just mean to do, but it often carries the meaning to create.
To draw an analogy, in English, we might say, “God created A thru Z.” Then, in describing the details, we might say, “First He did A thru F, then He did G-L, etc.” There’s nothing in the verb did that negates the act of creating. It’s just a simpler, more generic term that needs more context. In the context of my example, it means to create.
The best example of the interchangeability of ‘asah and bara’ might be the creation of man, described in Gen. 1:26-27.
Gen. 1:26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
In this passage, both ‘asah (made) and bara’ (created) are used. Notice God first says let us “make” man. Then God is said to have “created” man. They clearly have the same identical meaning.
On the seventh day, we see it again. Referring back to God’s entire creation, both terms are used.
Gen. 2:3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
Lastly, we see the narrator sum up the entire six day creation using the term created (bara’).
Gen. 2:4 This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created…
Though ‘asah is used to describe many details of the six days, it us summed us as being created bara’ showing, again, the interchangeability of the terms.
Created but not finished?
While Sailhamer claims that the entire universe was created during a beginning period in Gen. 1:1, he also sees the obvious problem that Gen. 1:2 poses. Immediately after the six days, we see the statement.
Gen. 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished.
If heaven and earth together constitute a merism meaning the entire universe, we would have to conclude that the author is speaking of the entire universe here, and not just some post-creation event. But Sailhamer posits that the universe was created in Gen. 1:1 but not finished, for perhaps billions of years, until the six-day creation. He paraphrases,
1:1 Long ago God created the world. He created the sun, the moon, and the stars, as well as all the creatures which inhabit the earth. He created all of them out of nothing—not in a single instant of time, but over a vast period of time.
1:2 God’s world, however, was not complete. He had not yet created human beings and the land where He intended to put them was not yet suitable for them… (p. 107)
Later in chapter 2, after the six days, he paraphrases,
2:1 The world which God had made was now complete… (p. 110)
A closer look
In saying this, Sailhamer reveals belief in a partial creation in Genesis 1:1, and things truly begin to unravel at this point. For, technically, he does not believe God created the “entire world” in the beginning.
But, this undermines his premise that “the heavens and the earth” (the entire world) were created in the beginning, prior to the six days. If “the heavens and the earth” is a merism referring to the entire universe then the entire world was completed in the beginning prior to the six days. It would not be correct to say it was only completed after the six days. And, if the entire world was not completed in Gen. 1:1, then it would not be correct to say the entire world was created in the beginning. At best, he could say it was started in the beginning, which would be contrary to his thesis.
The obvious solution is to forgo the interpretive backflips and read the passage in a straightforward manner. The beginning of the creation, spoken of in Gen. 1:1, refers directly to the six days.
Does Historical Creationism deserve its own category?
Historical Creationism is best understood as a modified gap theory. There are differences between it and the traditional gap theory, but the similarities abound. Both posit a gap of time between the beginning point of creation and the six days. Sailhamer just this gap is expressed in the term “beginning,” but otherwise they are the same. Both take the days of Genesis literally, rather than figuratively, as six 24 hour days. Both hold that plants and animals were created millions of years before the six days. Both have man appearing on the scene, relatively late in cosmological history. And both believe the land was submerged prior to being reconstructed. Historical creationism holds that a specific region was reconstructed, while the traditional gap theory holds that the entire landmass was reconstructed.
And the traditional gap theory takes certain theological concerns into consideration, moving the fall of Satan back millions of years to account for the suffering seen in the fossil record before man existed. To my knowledge, Sailhamer never addresses the issue of suffering and death prior to Adam’s sin. If the fossil record really predates the sin of Adam, by millions of years, as naturalistic theories suggest, why do we find things like cancer, predation and cannibalism preserved in the rocks? Did this really happen before sin entered the world? Traditional gap theorists see the problem and speculation about sin entering the world prior to Adam. Sailhamer’s theory does not.
But all things considered, Sailhamer has presented a modified gap theory, borrowing many concepts from his gap-theorist brothers.
Is Sailhamer’s theory really historical?
Early in the book, Sailhamer claims his theory is very old, and was at one time dominant among ancient interpreters. Reading this, initially, I was sure he was going to bombard me, at some point, with ancient quotes, but it never happened. Looking over his citations, I did not see one source that espoused the whole theory in its entirety, as presented, and he only cites a couple of rabbis and one puritan era theologian to make his case. I’m not alone in my puzzlement. In Unbinding the Rules—an article by Andrew Kulikovsky, of Answers in Genesis, writes,
One of Sailhamer’s more absurd claims is that his interpretation is ‘both faithful to the biblical text and connected to a long line of scholarly interpretations that span the centuries’. He also claims that before the rise of modern science, such views ‘dominated the field’ (p. 156). Again, this is simply not true. Not only does Sailhamer fail to cite these earlier works which ‘dominated the field’, but a detailed and scholarly history of interpretation of the days of creation produced by J.P. Lewis shows conclusively that it is the biblical creationist interpretation which is ‘connected to a long line of scholarly interpretations that span the centuries’ and which has ‘dominated the field’. Indeed, it seems rather dishonest for Sailhamer to label his view as ‘historic’ when nothing could be further from the truth.9
Now, I’m completely open if such historical interpretations exist. I would be in no way bound to agree with them over the plain reading of Genesis, but would have to give them a careful look to determine how they came about. I would just think that if they really were out there in abundance, Sailhamer would have cited them, considering he named his theory after them.
Are all English translations corrupt?
Sailhamer believes English translations of the Bible are filled with false assumptions about what the text is really saying. He believes they mislead us about the purpose of the creation account, about the earth’s original state and about what God did during the six days.(p. 13)
How do I know that? I know it because those assumptions lie behind the English translations of Genesis 1 and 2 which we use today. Like it or not, Genesis in the English Bible is “bound” by those assumptions. A major part of my task in the book is to loose those bonds and release the chapters to speak for themselves. Hence the title.(p. 13)
As mentioned above, he cites a conspiracy, dating all the way back to the translators of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament). But he comes nowhere near proving this point.
The Real Tragedy
But the real tragedy is his underlying message. You can’t trust your Bible! …at least not as it is written. This, unfortunately, sums up the current state of unbelief in the church, today, regarding Genesis.
You have to wonder what the next generation thinks about us? Are they really going to embrace a book that we’re admitting can’t be trusted?
Unbinding the Rules
A Review of Genesis Unbound by John Sailhamer
by Andrew Kulikovsky
Answers in Genesis, December 1, 2000
1. Dr. John Sailhamer, “Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at The Creation Account” (Sisters: Multnomah Books, 1996; repr. Colorado Springs: Dawson Media, 2011).
2. John Piper, “What Should We Teach About Creation?” Desiring God, June 1, 2010 (http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-should-we-teach-about-creation)
3. Mark Driscoll, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2011), 96
4. Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2012), 96-97
5. Some of the best websites to research the genesis origins debate: Answers in Genesis (http://answersingenesis.org), Creation Ministries International (http://creation.com), Institute for Creation Research (http://www.icr.org)
6. William Lane Criag, christian theologian and apologists, has also referred biblical biblical creationism an embarrassment. You can read a thorough response to him here, by Jonathan Sarfati of CMI: http://creation.com/william-lane-craig-vs-creation
7. “Ex Nihilo,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex_nihilo)
8. Mark Looy, “Was the Garden of Eden Located in Iraq?,” (https://answersingenesis.org/genesis/garden-of-eden/was-the-garden-of-eden-located-in-iraq), October 21, 2003
9. Andrew Kulikovsky, “Unbinding the Rules: A Review of Genesis Unbound,” (https://answersingenesis.org/reviews/books/unbinding-the-rules), December 1, 2000