The Problem of the Fourth Day

September 18, 2015

The fourth day of creation in Genesis 1 raises a question. How do you have day and night before you have the sun and moon? Howard J. Van Till in his book, The Fourth Day, would basically say that you can’t. As an astronomer, he begins with natural processes and concludes that Genesis 1 is not to be taken literally. Instead, Van Till thinks the chapter is a literary picture of God as a craftsman going about his work week. He believes that God is the creator, but he can’t take Genesis 1 literally.

Others suggest that the sun and moon were created on Day 1. That what is happening on Day 4 is the appearance of the sun and moon from the vantage point of the earth’s surface and their appointment to the task of marking seasons, days, and years. The NLT captures this interpretation: “Then God said, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate the day from the night. Let them be signs to mark the seasons, days, and years” (Genesis 1:14, NLT). Questions arise as to how natural this translation is, and whether the approach violates the overall symmetry of the account.

I have to admit I was troubled by this question as a young man. But I wonder whether we are buying into a presupposition of natural processes that is not fair to the narrative. God is the one who begins the natural processes, but he does so by supernatural act. What do I mean by this?

Umberto Cassuto, a Jewish commentator, approaches the question like this:

… so throughout those first three days God caused light to shine upon the earth from some other source without recourse to the sun; but when He created the luminaries He handed over to them the task of separation, that is, He commanded that the one should serve by day and the others should serve at night, and thus they would all become signs for distinguishing the two periods of time.1

Others have made this same suggestion. There is nothing unreasonable about this interpretation (except to materialists and the media) once you begin with an omnipotent God. The question then becomes somewhat like complaining that Jesus didn’t use vineyards in turning water into wine. But that is the point. He didn’t use natural processes; he performed a miracle. God created the natural processes and an orderly creation, so that science is possible. But he started with a supernatural act.

Is our too small of view of the omnipotence of God the problem of the fourth day?

1Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: from Adam to Noah, p. 38.

Yes, There’s Poetry

September 12, 2015

I was reading the Bible with someone recently, when the reader said: “This looks like poetry.” We happened to be looking at a verse in Lamentations, so I replied, “Yes, Lamentations is a series of five poems that correspond to the five chapters of the book.” I could have said more. The poems are laments over the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The first four poems are acrostic poems. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 has each line begin with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which has twenty-two letters leading to twenty-two lines (or verses). Chapter 3 has each letter of the alphabet three times for a total of 66 lines.

Knowing when you are looking at poetry is helpful. It wasn’t until the publication of the RSV in 1952, that readers were alerted to all the poetry found in the Bible. Previous versions may have printed the psalms in poetic format, but the poetry of the Bible extends beyond the psalms. At least one-third of the Old Testament is in poetry.

Although meter and rhythm are a part of biblical poetry, they are a part that is difficult to reproduce in translation. The main characteristic, however, is parallelism which can be reproduced easily in translation. In 1750 Robert Lowth argued for three basic types of parallelism. The three types are synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic.

Synonymous parallelism means the second line repeats the meaning of the first line often matching it grammatically as well. More recent scholars have tweaked the idea of synonymous parallelism. They suggest that even in the repeating of an idea, there may be clarification of the idea in the second line. Antithetical parallelism means the two lines are saying the opposite, that is, the second line is providing a contrast. Synthetic parallelism occurs when the second line is adding ideas to the first.

Recognizing when you are reading poetry in the Bible is helpful. You will expect more imagery and figurative language in poetry. Knowing something of the structure of Hebrew poetry will also aid your understanding and appreciation of the Bible’s poetry.

When it comes to Bible reading, yes, there’s poetry.

The Library

September 4, 2015

The word Bible comes to us from the Greek word, biblos, which simply means book. Yet the Christian Bible is in reality a library of books. The ability to carry around this library in a bound format came with the advent of the codex. We would simply call the codex a book format, but this was the format that replaced the scroll and was introduced in the first century A.D. It’s compact size and capability to access pages randomly gave many advantages.

Sometimes I think it would be helpful to see the individual books of the Bible as separate books. They would seem far less intimidating. Most of the books of the Bible, if printed separately, would seem to be only pamphlet sized. Many books of the Bible could be read in an evening.

Since the Bible is a library of related books, we need to become familiar with the library to understand individual books in detail. The Bible covers a lengthy period of history. For example, the period from Abraham to Jesus is about 2000 years. It helps to get a handle on the major events and people of this narrative.

A convenient place to start is with Jesus and the gospels (Matthew through John). Adding the Book of Acts would then give you the narratives of the New Testament. The narrative portions of the Old Testament are found in Genesis through Esther. Many people get bogged down in the legal texts (think Leviticus) and genealogies. Genealogies have a function, and understanding that function is more important for the reader than the individual names. Although I believe every word is inspired, good readers sometimes skim as they attempt to see the big picture of what is going on. Careful reading needs to take place for these difficult texts, but I don’t want these texts to cause you to fail as a reader. After you have the flow of history then it is easier to begin on the remaining books.

We understand the Bible in the same way we understand any other book. We don’t understand a regular book by reading a passage here or there. We understand it by reading it all the way through and understanding it in context. The same is true for the books of the Bible.

When I run across a word in a book that I don’t understand, I look it up in a dictionary. The same is true for the Bible, and we even have specialized Bible dictionaries that are very helpful. When I don’t know where a place is, I will look it up on a map. That often makes what I’m reading more meaningful. When I’m puzzled by a cultural or historical reference, I try to find out more. This is actually reading 101 and doesn’t take a lot of reference books to accomplish. A lot can be done with a Bible dictionary and an atlas.

The Bible is meant to be understood by ordinary people. The reading skills needed are the skills that you have already used in reading other books. You just need to begin your exploration of this most important library.