The Creation Story
Lecture to the Teacher
I BEGIN with a quotation from a well-known English scientist (Sir William Henry Preece, K.C.B., F.R.S., etc.):
"In all the Literature of all the languages there is no
poem so magnificent as the first chapter of the Book of
Genesis. It dashes off
with a master's hand in a few bold words the history of
a million years. The first fact chronicled is: 'In the
beginning God created the
Heavens and the earth,' and the next: 'God said, "Let
us make man in our image after our
"It was the fashion in the days of my youth to regard Science and Religion as antagonistic. It is so no longer. I have known more religious men in the ranks of Science than in the Army of the Church. My two great Masters in Electricity were Faraday and Kelvin. They were eminently true religious men. The Facts of Science, when properly interpreted, invariably support the truths of Religion."
Where did this wonderful Creation Story originate? We do not know. How old is it? We do not know. We know only that in its substance it is ages older than the Book of Genesis where it finds its present place.
A most interesting fact brought out by thoughtful Bible study is that the Bible was not formed all at once but grew gradually. Long before our present Old Testament books God was helping men by earlier fragmentary teaching, oral teaching, folklore told in tribal gatherings and around the ancient camp fires; written teaching perhaps reaching back before Abraham, when writing was quite common in the early world. We can tell very little about it but we have clear traces of its existence. Just as we know of the existence of long lost primeval life-forms through fossils embedded in the rocks, so we know of the existence of this long lost ancient literature through its traces embedded in the Bible.
The Old Testament writers, you will remember, keep repeatedly telling us of the old lost documents existing long before themselves. They tell us that they are quoting from, e.g., the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers xxi. 4), the Book of Jasher (2 Samuel i. 18), Books of Gad and Nathan (1 Chronicles xxix. 29, and 2 Chronicles xii. 15); the Books of Shemaiah and Iddo (2 Chronicles vii. 15); the Book of Jehu (2 Chronicles xx. 34); etc., etc.
I want, in passing, to emphasize for you the fact stated by the inspired writers themselves that they wrote their histories of past ages much in the way that Mr. Green or Professor Gardiner or any other historian wrote his history. This is most important to remember in the scare about Higher Criticism which some of you know about. You would never think of doubting these historians' account of William the Conqueror merely because they wrote their histories 900 years after his death. Of course you would believe that they studied the books of earlier historians and old letters and parchments and inscriptions and monuments. And if all the libraries and museums which contained these should be burned down to-morrow you would surely think it unreasonable if people should say that we have no good grounds for believing that William the Conqueror ever lived.
Yet something of this kind is what makes people uneasy in the statements of what is called "Higher Criticism." Scholars express the opinion that the Pentateuch in its present completed form was written centuries later than Moses' day. Then somebody suggests that if that be so it cannot be trustworthy history, in fact that the writer must have been romancing a good deal. It is a steadying thought to keep in mind that the writers keep telling us that their histories were so much made up out of pre-existing documents. On reading Green's "History of the English People" you know that 300 years before him there were several less complete printed histories—and 300 years earlier still there were still less complete manuscript chronicles, and 300 years farther back there were separate uncollected annals, and state papers and letters and documents of various kinds. Thus gradually by successive editing English history grew. And thus also gradually Bible history grew, under the care of that inspired Church whose history it was.
No one can tell from what age of the world our Hebrew Creation Stories came into the Bible. We have two of them thus lifted in side by side in Genesis. One of them in the first chapter, the other in the second. They differ in the titles "God" and "Lord God" given to the Creator; they differ, too, in details, but they agree in the grand claim that in the beginning GOD (not a great crocodile, nor an elephant, nor a set of fighting deities), but GOD created the heavens and the earth.
What strange fancies this Creation Story sets stirring! How far back does it go? Did you ever wonder what the ancient world did for want of a Bible before the Bible was written? How did men during all these centuries learn anything about God? Had they this Creation Story in substance handed down perhaps by word of mouth in the folklore of the early Hebrew race? Was it the first inspired Bible of the primitive world? Did Moses's mother teach it to her boy as she nursed him in the palace? Was it part of the religious knowledge which made Joseph such a hero? Did Abram receive it in Ur of the Chaldees? Had God already guided inspired men to teach the infant world The Creation, The Fall, The Story of the Flood, as a sort of "Bible before the Bible" for those ancient days?
We cannot answer these questions. We find the story standing in the Book of Genesis. And we know that it came from far earlier sources. That is all we know.
Now, we are to consider this old Creation Story.
I don't think any thoughtful reader can study it without being impressed with two things: its simplicity and its grandeur.
Its simplicity lies on the very surface. It evidently belongs in its simple form to simple people in the simple child ages of the old world. There are no scientific statements. There are no learned descriptions. Just the simple story for simple people in the simple child ages.
Its simplicity, I say, lies on the surface. But fully to realize its grandeur and sublimity you must compare this Hebrew Creation Story with some of the Creation Stories of other races.
Some fifty years ago a sensation was created in the religious world by the discovery of a similar Creation Story and Deluge Story in Abraham's old home in Chaldea. It is written on clay tablets, and in its origin goes back probably to Abraham's day. It was studied with deep interest both because it came from Abraham's country and because it resembled our Genesis account.
Both the Chaldean account and the Bible account agree in having the simplicity of an old world story for the child races of the world. But if you want to feel in full force the meaning of inspiration, you have only to compare the two stories, to compare the gross polytheism and superstition into which the poor stupid age naturally drifted—and the pure, dignified, sublime account given to teach a chosen race who should bear the torch of God's light for humanity.
Reading the two together you feel at once how like they are and yet how unlike. You see that they are both simple stories in simple form for the child races of the world.
But one tells in simple childlike way of many gods with evil human passions at the head of creation. The other tells in the same simple childlike way of one God, holy and just and good who created everything in the heavens and the earth, who made the sun and the moon which the Chaldeans worshipped, and the great bulls to which the Egyptians prayed, and who as the crown and summit of His whole creation "made MAN in His image, after His likeness, and gave him dominion over the fish and the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth." Some think that the Chaldean story is a corruption of a purer original. Others think that God's inspiration enabled the Chosen Race to purify an older story and to see with the keen intuition derived from on high, that "In the beginning GOD created the heavens and the earth."
But, however this may have been, no one can compare this Hebrew statement with the Chaldean or Egyptian or any other in the world without a sense of the presence of God.
A deep sense of God's inspiration in the Old Testament comes from comparing it with the writings and thoughts of other nations around. When you read of the dark ages of Greece and Rome, the stories of their filthy gods and goddesses, and the deeds of their brave, cruel, boastful men—it never occurs to you to expect any trace of sorrow for sin or longing after holiness. Then turn to read the early prophets of Israel pleading only for righteousness and the psalmists crying and longing after God and mourning in deep agony for their sins, and you feel at once this sense of God's presence, of God's inspiration, of God's great purpose to raise up one nation as the teachers and prophets of the world.
In deepest sincerity I am saying what I feel. No man can honestly place the writings of Scripture beside any other writings of their time without confessing that the best proof of the inspiration of the Bible is the Bible itself. Has any man ever found conviction of sin and conversion to God resulting from the study of Greek or Roman classics? We find it continually resulting from the study of the Hebrew classics. We believe that the Bible is inspired because it inspires.
Many difficulties that have been found by superficial readers in the story of creation arise from misunderstandings which should have been corrected in us in our childhood and which it is our business to correct in the pupils of our day. I don't mean that we should necessarily speak to them of doubts and difficulties; but that we should avoid the teaching and correct the misapprehensions which lead to such doubts and difficulties.
Take, for instance, the vague impression in many minds that science demands a much greater antiquity for the world than the Bible accounts would allow. This impression has been, I think, originated mainly by the statement in the margin of many old Bibles that Creation took place B.C. 4004. Of course, this marginal note is no part of the Bible. It is but a mere human conjecture inserted 300 years ago. But it has turned out to be a mischievous conjecture. Because it is on a page of the Bible, people have unconsciously accepted it as of some authority, and feel troubled when they read in authoritative scientific works that probably four million and four would be nearer to the truth. Tell the pupils to draw a pencil mark through that 4004; and in future when you read of the millions of years that go to make a limestone rock, and the millions or billions that may go to make a planet—when your mind almost reels at the stupendousness of the thought, remember that the Bible puts no difficulty in your path by setting limits to the time. This marvellous old Creation story simply says "In the beginning," which may have been thousands, or millions, or billions of years ago. In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
So far for statements that are clearly not in the Bible. Next comes a statement that is in the Bible: that Creation was finished in six days. I suppose nobody now believes, except the children, that the Creation was finished in six literal days of twenty-four hours each. The children believe it still; and one sometimes feels it a pity that we have to correct them. For this story, belonging to the child races of the primitive world, has been apparently with intention cast in this simple form, so that it should be intelligible to even the simplest minds in all the ages. Perhaps the earliest writer or teacher of it thought—no doubt, the primitive races who learned it thought—that the Creation was begun on the first morning of a certain week, and cleanly finished on the last night, as a carpenter might finish off his week's work. It was a simple notion, but sufficient for them, and nothing would have been gained by explaining to them that this framework of six days might represent millions of years. It would have been premature. It would have been bewildering to men who could form no clear conception of large numbers or long periods of time. It would have been utterly useless for the purpose intended of helping men's lives nearer to God. People were but big children, needing children's teaching for their simple, undeveloped minds. The teaching must be true, but popular and elementary. Does anyone seriously believe that it would have been well to teach them in an accurate science lesson about the "HOW" of Creation; to teach them, perhaps, about evolution, and the nebular theory, and the "uncompounded homogeneous, gaseous condition of matter," and the vast stretches of time needed for making the universe? Of what use would all this bewildering knowledge have been in teaching the one fact of supreme import for them to save them from grovelling, debasing polytheism; that it was God, holy and good, who made all things; and that the crown and summit of His work was man?
I don't think it matters at all that the early simple minds should have so read the Creation story, or that simple people should still believe that the world was created in six literal days. Good Christians and holy men in all ages have done so, and their religion was none the worse for it. But it matters very much if people insist that this is the only possible belief consistent with Scripture, that the truth of inspiration is pledged to this belief, and that to doubt it is to doubt the inspired Word of God.
For the framework of six scenes or days is no essential part of the story. And the writer of this Book of Genesis seems to go out of his way to show this. For, as I have said, he gives you a second Creation story side by side with the first (ch. ii. 4-26), differing from it as one of the Gospels differs from another, yet helping to make the lesson more complete. This second version is not at all arranged in the six days' framework; nay, it rather thinks of Creation as done in one day—"in the day" (ii. 4)—which caused a great deal of controversy for ages in the Church. This second version also is not particular to give the same order of Creation; while the teaching about God and man is just the same in them both. The Creation Psalm, also (Psalm 104), which is a paraphrase of this story, lays no stress on the time or on the order of the Creation. And the same is true of all the passages in the Bible praising God for His creative work. Surely this should make it at least probable that to teach the time and the exact order was no part of the object of inspiration, but to teach the great lesson, so essential to religion, that all things come of God.
But let there be no mistake here. Let there be no flippant talk that because the purpose of the Bible is religious and moral, therefore the account of the Creation here is to be treated lightly, or as unworthy the attention of scientific men. For this Creation story is at the foundation of all science as well as of all religion. Even men who doubt its supernatural origin must at least see what it has done for the world in saving it from subjection to the grotesque myths and nature-worship and polytheism which grew wild in the world, and which would have made a true science of nature impossible. Where the sun and moon were gods, and the crocodile and ox were reverenced as divine, and men bowed down in fear at the many deities warring in the stormy heavens, a true science of nature could not be. Where the powers of nature were worshipped and feared, there could never be the confidence or freedom needed for the study of nature. To the Hebrew poets and prophets alone there is calm and peace. They have learned the inspired Creation Story. To them there is no power in nature save the one supreme will—snow and hail, fire and vapour, stormy wind, fulfilling His word. All through the Bible runs that deep and reverent teaching of which the keynote is struck in these opening words of Genesis, and whose influence has given to mankind the liberty which made possible the scientific attitude of mind.
But, people say, it is not a scientifically correct account of Creation, and, therefore, could not be inspired by God. Perhaps it is not a scientifically correct account; but does it follow, therefore, that it is not inspired of God? When a child asks us questions about the phenomena of nature, do we give him scientifically correct accounts? Would it be wise to do so? Would he understand us? We consider the capacity of the child's mind, and impart to him as much truth as he is capable of receiving on the matter in a simple, imperfect, popular way. We aim at a teaching that will be intelligible, that will not teach him what is false, and that will not have to be unlearned by him by-and-by, when his mind grows able to understand the full scientifically accurate account. And if some scientific professor should object that our explanation was very imperfect, we should think that though that professor might know a good deal about science, he knew very little about teaching children.
I want you to see that it is an entirely false issue when you ask: "Is this a completely scientific account of Creation?" The question is rather: "Does this Genesis story accomplish what seems to be its purpose?"
Is it not simple enough for the youngest child in our Sunday schools to understand it, and remember it?
Is it not lofty and elevating enough for the philosopher in its conceptions of the greatness of God and the dignity of man as the child of God?
Is it not helpful to science in its delivering men from the terror of nature; in its conception of the unity and universality of creation; in its introducing the great idea of creating—i.e., making out of nothing—which pagan nations unaided have always been unable to attain?
And does it not fulfil the further condition that the simple old child-lesson will never have to be laid aside, but only enlarged, and its details filled in? For all the ages up to this it has served its purpose; but men say now that it does so no longer. Science has been teaching us the marvellous discoveries of evolution—of germs of life developed through ever higher stages for myriads of years; and foolish, hasty people say, "The Bible is now disproved. All things have come not by direct creation of God, but by slow, age-long development from lower stages." Perhaps this theory will be superseded by a better; but at present it seems a very probable theory. Does it overthrow the Bible? Is the old creation story contradicted if this theory be correct?
Nay, rather, has it not for thoughtful readers of the Bible received a new light and glory? Men have gone back to the old Creation story to read it again in the light of this new discovery about evolution. Many students of Scripture at first were perplexed. Then they went back. They saw at once that creation would be just as Divine and miraculous if it were slow and gradual. Doubtless God could instantaneously make a mighty oak; but surely it is no less wonderful if He should only make the little acorn, of which I could carry a dozen in my hand, and yet, every one of which contains within it a mighty oak endued with power to carry on a succession of mighty oaks through ages to come. This roughly illustrates the difference between the idea of direct creation of a world completely fitted up at once, and that of a slow, gradual evolution which men of science at present think to be the truer theory of creation.
Men saw, I repeat, that the Creation story was at least not incompatible with evolution. Then they examined the old document more closely in the light of this new science, and they saw that there was absolutely no warrant in it for looking on the world as a ready-made piece of work. They saw in the inspired story—what men had not looked for before—a foreshadowing of this magnificent process. It reveals a law of continuous development in creation. "These are the generations of the heavens when they were created." "The inspired historian saw no Almighty Hand building up the galleries of Creation; he heard no sound of hammer nor confused noise of workmen; the Spirit of the Lord moved upon the face of the deep; chaos took form and comeliness before His inspired vision; and the solar system grew through a succession of days to its present order and beauty;" and at last, when all things were ready—after how many myriads of years we know not—man came forth of the dust, the summit of the whole creation, for "God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."
Instead, therefore, of assuming an apologetic tone for this Creation story, try to understand its purpose and its effect on life; try to realize what a check it has been on the wild growth of mythologies and debasing nature-worship; what a foundation it has made for the science and religion of the world; how it has taught, what could never have been otherwise learned, that all things come into existence through the originating will of God; that the summit of the whole Creation is man, the child of God, into whom the Divine breath has been breathed, to make him akin to the Almighty.
Learn thus a deep reverence for the story, which shall show through your teaching, and shall help your pupils of this new generation to more solemn thoughts about the Bible.
Lesson on the Creation Story
Genesis I. and II. to v. 4
Read carefully the introductory Lecture to this Lesson. Note that the teaching to be emphasized is (1) that all things come from the hand of God; (2) the dignity of man made in God's likeness, the end and summit of Creation.
§ 1. The Creation Story
I want you to look back a long time—to the time when you were not here in the world. How long ago? Ten, fifteen years? Was anybody here then—father? mother? Were there animals? trees? rivers? etc. All without you! How could they have got on without you! Now we go back still farther, before father, mother, or anyone that you know; go by steps or stages back to St. Paul; back to Isaiah, to Moses, to Abraham, to Noah. Back behind all; before men, women, trees, anything existed; all a mass of dull cloud and vapour, and darkness, and confusion. What does the Bible say? (ch. i., v. 2.) We don't know how many thousands or millions of years ago. Was anybody here then? God. Was there ever a time when God was not in the world? What was God going to do with all that confused, cloudy mass, without form and void? To make a world. How did He begin? (v. 2). And then? (v. 3.) You see how easy for God to make everything; just a brooding of His Spirit—just a word of His power. "He spake and it was done."
Now, do you know that this Creation story is probably older by far than Moses—older by far than the Book of Genesis, where it has been inserted? Perhaps in substance older than Abraham, or perhaps revealed to Abraham, and used by his children and descendants long before Moses's day as a little Bible fragment to keep their thoughts right with God.
Fancy Moses, and Joseph, and Isaac being taught this old story by their mothers in some such form as we have it to-day.
See how simply that story was taught. In seven periods, seven divisions or little chapters, or seven "days." This made it easy to remember, and to teach to the children and the simple big people in the wandering tribes. We do not think that God made everything in six exact days of twenty-four hours each; but that was the simple Eastern way of learning it.
Some people think that the whole story was perhaps revealed to the inspired writer in a vision of six scenes or days, as if a magic lantern should show it in six pictures. We do not know. Could God have made everything in six days or six hours? Yes; just as easily as in six thousand years. But the world has the appearance of having been very slowly made, and certainly took many thousands of years.
And so you have to learn to-day the story that was taught to the children, and men, and women in the early ages of the world. What does it say was made on first day (or period)? second? third? etc. What did God say of each day's work? [Question carefully but rapidly through the chapter up to v. 25, trying to leave on the mind the impression of the gradual, orderly way in which Creation progressed from the formless void of v. 2, through all the stages, until at last the earth stood ready for its final purpose; and then, when all was prepared, after perhaps enormous periods of time, God made man. (Be careful to lead up to man's creation as the climax.) If teachers teach it wisely, this story, so simply learned by the child-races of the world, will never have to be superseded as science advances. By-and-by, if the pupils should learn all that science may have then to tell about how the Creation was accomplished, the old story of their childhood, in its simple grandeur, will still remain as the eternal framework, Science only has to fill in the details.]
§ 2. The Use of the Creation Story
Now, why do you think this Creation story was so very important for men to know? Why should they care? Because they could not help caring. The cows, and horses, and lions did not want to know how they came here; but men can't help wondering and asking, Where did I come from? What am I here for? Where am I going to? Did anyone make me and all things about me? or did we just come of ourselves, by chance, with no one to care for us. If somebody made us, what sort of being was it—good or bad, loving or hostile—a god or a brute? Men could never have the courage to struggle on without knowing, or at least guessing, something of these things. Do you think they could ever find out by themselves? Who must teach them? God.
Would it make any matter if people never learned the answer to their questions? If they thought they came by chance, or that the sun and moon, or a number of not very good gods, had made them, or that some great big elephant made them, or a crocodile, as some of them thought in Egypt where Moses lived—would it matter? Why? Because if I thought that I came by chance, or was made by bad gods, or by a brutal crocodile or elephant, I should be always frightened and troubled, and I should feel that I was a low, degraded thing; so I should never be likely to rise up to a life of beautiful deeds and noble thoughts. But if I somehow found out that a noble, righteous, loving God had made me, with His own nature in me, and was watching over me as His own child, and wanted me to be noble and righteous and loving, just like Himself, would not that make a difference? Therefore God began His Bible with this glorious statement—"In the beginning God created," etc.
Would it be any comfort to the poor world of olden days? Think of the poor, simple, frightened people who did not know. They saw earthquakes, and lightning, and fierce, raging seas. They heard the wild storm-wind breaking down the trees, and the beasts of prey roaring in the forest, and they trembled, and feared, and prayed to these animals, and these strong forces of nature around them. And perhaps they asked in their wonder, Did anyone make these? Does anyone rule them? Did anyone make us? Where did we come from? Does anyone take thought for us? Can anyone help us? Can the sun and moon save us when we, in Chaldea, pray to them? Can the crocodiles and river be appeased when we sacrifice to them in Egypt? And God's answer came at last. Like a cool, soft hand upon the world's hot brow, there came this peace of God through the Creation story: "In the beginning GOD created the heaven and the earth. And GOD made two great lights, the sun and moon that ye worship; and GOD made the great monsters that you are so terribly afraid of; and GOD made you, and breathed His breath into you to make you holy. You are the greatest thing in God's creation, for you are most like to God." Would not that be a comfort to them, and a help to make them brave and good?
§ 3. Man in God's Image
Read from v. 26. Now we come to the final act of Creation. On what day? Yes. That is the last of the great periods of Creation. All the dead things—earth, and sun, and moon—were made. The earth was made, the animals were made; and all were good. All obeyed the law of their nature as God designed; they had to do it. The sun and moon could not help rising and setting, could they? But at last God was going to make the noblest thing of all—a being with some of His own divine nature in him; a being with a free will, who could obey or disobey as he pleased. So He said, "Let us make man;" and He made man. And, like a boy awaking in the morning, and wondering, and asking, "Where am I?" the man awoke into life, and rose upright, and knew at once that he was not like the beasts around him. Why? i. v. 26; ii. 7. "In God's image, after God's likeness." Even to us, in spite of the Fall, much of this likeness remains. There is a spark of God's nature in every one of us; we have a consciousness of God; we have a feeling within of a great eternal rule of right stamped on our soul; and when we do right or wrong, something inside us praises or blames us; and when we want to do a bad thing, it insists "you ought not;" we can't prevent it doing so; and sometimes it frightens us, and points us in the dark midnight to a great judgment hereafter. Did you ever feel this curious feeling? What do we call it? Conscience! Yes, it is the part of us where the Holy Spirit dwells, and by which He prompts us to every good thought and deed. Is this true of the beasts? (Make the children realize this difference between man and beast, and thus understand the meaning of "God's image and likeness.")
Is it not a glorious thought that man is the chief work—the crown of all God's Creation? That when Christ came to earth, it was not as an angel, but a man. Whenever you think your life insignificant, and that it does not matter whether an insignificant thing such as you does right or wrong, think that we are related to God—in kinship with God, as none of the beasts are. Remember this, that you are made in God's image and likeness; that we are so important in His sight that He thought it worth while spending thousands and thousands of years in preparing this earth for us as a sort of platform on which we should live, and form our characters, and grow Godlike and fit for heaven; that He thought it worth while at last, when all else failed, to come down to earth, and take our nature, and die for us. Is it not a shame to disappoint Him?
Questions for Lesson I
Does Bible tell how long ago God began creating the world?
What does it say?
Must six days mean six literal days?
What was created on first day?
Tell of some of the other days.
What was the final act of creation?
What does this teach us about Man? For whose sake was the world created?