With the recent Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate and the conservative religious reaction to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new educational TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the spotlight is once again on Creationists — a vocal minority of the Christian public that believes “biblical creation” as described in Genesis ought to be taught in place of scientific theories about the origins of life and the universe.
Although the scientific absurdities of Creationism have been widely addressed, the biblical and theological failings of this doctrine are less well known. Even outside Creationist circles, most Christians (even most theologians, perhaps) know very little about the subject. What exactly did the ancient Jews believe about the creation of the world, and how are those views expressed in the Bible?
It is a common misconception that Genesis 1–3 is the key passage for understanding biblical creation. After all, this story (two stories, actually) is found at the very beginning of the Bible and seems to provide the basis for what comes after. This simplistic approach, however, ignores the complicated history of the Bible’s compilation and canonization — not to mention the rich cultural background of Palestine. Genesis 1, in fact, is a rather late retelling of a story that is woven throughout much of the Bible — the Psalms, Job and Isaiah in particular — and does not really mean what many people think it does.