As a boy growing up in a fundamentalist church, I was taught that God created the heavens and earth some six thousand years ago. I took at face value the “B.C. 4004” marginal heading to Genesis 1:1 in my Scofield Reference Bible. At Bible college, Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood was still considered to be the final word on the matter. For most of my life, then, I assumed that to be opposed to Darwinian evolution required one to embrace young-earth creation. That assumption was challenged, however, as I studied the Hebrew text of the creation account in its historic, literary and cultural context. As I did, I realized the author’s primary purpose for this account was not to date the universe and the earth. The text, while leaving absolutely no room for Darwinian evolutionary theory, did not rule out either view on the age of the universe—young-earth or old-earth. For me this was a turning-point in my thinking about the Genesis account.
As evangelicals, it is imperative that we give careful thought to these issues. A growing number of academics in the evangelical camp are comfortable with some degree of Darwinian evolutionary theory. On the other end of the continuum are conservative evangelicals who act like young-earth creationism is the sine qua non of orthodox faith. Neither of these positions is helpful, since they both fail the science and Scripture test. In the former, Darwinian evolutionary theory is scientism not science, while scriptural testimony is not given its due weight. In the latter, the creation account is read in a way that supports only recent creationism while scientists continue to corroborate the age of the universe as somewhere around 14 billion years and the earth 4.5 billion years. We evangelicals can do better; we must do better. Corban is thus to be commended for drawing attention to the creation motif in this current edition of its online journal.
This article is a study of the creation account itself (Genesis 1-2). This study does not concern itself with the origin of mankind; it deals only with the question of the age of the universe and the earth. These are separate issues and should not be confused. The text of Scripture in no way allows for any theory of evolution, including theistic evolution; the same however, cannot be said of the age of the universe and earth.
As I approach this subject, I do so with the highest regard for the text of the creation account. The fact that I no longer advocate young-earth creationism is due primarily to my conviction that the focus of the creation account lies elsewhere and thus leaves the age of the universe an open question. Because it is an open question, I welcome the input of science. My goal is to encourage evangelicals toward a more accurate understanding of the creation account as well as to encourage them to be open to objective scientific findings with respect to the age of the cosmos. Scripture and science should not be viewed as adversaries in the pursuit of truth, but rather as partners working in separate, but related fields of study. The ideal, in the case of the origin of the universe and the earth, would be an interpretation of the creation account that would allow for, not contradict, objective, reasonable scientific findings since God is the source of Word and world. Nelson and Reynolds, in the Counterpoints series book, Three Views on Creation and Evolution, write the article in defense of Young Earth Creationism. In their lead essay they aim at this ideal of finding common ground between biblical knowledge and scientific knowledge.
Nelson and Reynolds discuss the tension they feel between what they consider to be a reasonable interpretation of the age of the universe by modern science and a proper reading of the creation account. They admit that current estimates of the age of the universe present “a very plausible scientific picture of an ‘old’ cosmos.”  However, while believing that an old cosmos is “very plausible” from a scientific viewpoint, they nevertheless hold to the young-earth viewpoint because old-earth creationism is, in their judgment, based on a “less natural reading [of the text].” My contention is that young-earth creationists such as Nelson and Reynolds have erred in their judgment of what constitutes a “less natural reading” of the text and as a result have needlessly, and tragically, dismissed a “very plausible” proposal for the age of the cosmos. In this article I will attempt a reading of the text that allows for, rather than excludes, the current consensus among scientists on the age of the universe and earth. I will begin by pointing out that the message for the original audience was not how old the universe was; rather, it was worship resulting from a proper understanding and application of the principle of divine rest imbedded in the seventh day, the Sabbath. I will then point out that a “natural reading” of the text need not necessarily eliminate the possibility of an ancient cosmos.
Genesis 1 as Background for the Sabbath Command
The relationship of Genesis 1 to the command to Israel to observe the Sabbath cannot be overemphasized. From a strictly literary viewpoint, the seventh day stands out as the most important of all the days of creation. Genesis 2:1-3 closes the first pericope of the creation account and climaxes it. The emphasis upon the seventh day is unmistakable: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. And by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done; and he rested on the seventh day from all His work which he had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”
If we want to discover from the text itself a clue as to why the creation account is recorded as it is, we need look no further for at least one major purpose revealed in it—to show Israel the origin of the Sabbath command and to introduce the theology behind it. John H. Walton develops the theme of the Sabbath in connection with his larger theme of Yahweh preparing Eden (and the cosmos) to be his temple.
Given the view of Genesis 1 presented in this book, we get a new way to think about the Sabbath. If God’s rest on the seventh day involved him taking up his presence in the cosmic temple which has been ordered and made functional so that he is now ready to run the cosmos, our Sabbath rest can be seen in a different light. Obviously, God is not asking us to imitate his Sabbath rest by taking the functional controls. I would suggest that instead he is asking us to recognize that he is at the controls, not us. When we “rest” on the Sabbath, we recognize him as the author of order and the one who brings rest (stability) to our lives and world.
Walton and others have recognized in the Genesis creation account what can easily be missed if the account is examined primarily for evidence supporting one or another proposal for the material origin of the universe and mankind.
The theology of rest spans the entire biblical record, from Genesis, where the concept of divine rest is first introduced, through the time of Moses, in which the Sabbath rest becomes institutionalized, then through the time of Joshua, in which Yahweh promised to bring the nation to a resting place, through the time of the prophets, who connected the theme to the messianic age, and finally, to the consummation of history in which God’s people finally experience salvation rest. The author of Hebrews takes advantage of this eschatological, all-encompassing theology of rest and uses it to encourage his readers to stay faithful to their commitment to Christ (Heb. 4:1-11). In Christ, humanity already (the already/not yet scheme) has come to experience the Sabbath rest that God has provided (vv. 9-11). God’s final rest for his people will be consummated in the re-creation of the heavens and earth, when sin and death will forever be banished and God’s people experience the rest that is God himself.
The main theme that Walton develops is that the creation account should be understood in a way similar to other ancient Near East creation accounts, that of deity taking up residence in a temple. Key to developing that theme is his emphasis that Genesis 1 is about functionality, not material origins. The creation account is about Yahweh preparing a place—a temple—in which he can dwell, a place of worship and rest for his people. If Genesis 1 is primarily (exclusively, for Walton) concerned with how things already in existence become functional, then we should be less inclined to come to the text hoping to find evidence supporting either the young-earth or old-earth model. Where do we see this principle of functionality expressed in the record of the six days? Walton uses the record of the third day as an example of the functionality motif. The third day records gathering of waters into one place and the earth producing vegetation.
It is amazing to notice as this point that some interpreters are troubled by their observation that God doesn’t make anything on day three. We can imagine their quandary—how can this be included in a creation account if God doesn’t make anything on this day? By this point in the book, the reader can see the solution easily. Day three is only a problem if this is an account of material origins. If it is understood as an account of functional origins, there is no need for God to make something. Instead, we ask what function(s) were set up, and to that question we find ready answers.
The emphasis on the functional nature of day four—the luminaries—is obvious (“signs, seasons, days and years” are pertinent to humans), and realizing this should help, in Walton’s view, to ease the frustration experienced by those expecting to find some clarification on the problem of having light created in the first day, with the luminaries created on the fourth.
The text offers no indication of the material nature of the celestial bodies, and all it says of their material placement is that they are in the firmament/expanse. This is, of course, problematic if one is trying to understand the text scientifically. On the functional side of the equation, we find that they separate day and night (thus the link to day one), that they provide light and that they serve for “signs, seasons, days and years.” Finally we are told that their function is to govern the day and night—the closest the text comes to personification.
Generally speaking, Walton’s thesis that Genesis 1 has to do with function rather than origin makes good sense, although one does not necessarily rule out the other. But to his point, the Israelites, as any other people group in the ancient Near East, would never have questioned the idea that the universe was created; a statement on the origin of things might not have been deemed necessary. Of course the universe was created and, of course, a divine being (in their case, the one true God) created it. What other possibility could there be? If Walton goes too far in denying any reference to material origins in the creation account, he correctly asserts that the author’s main intent is to describe how an already-existing earth (1:2; how long it had been is a question not addressed in the text) was made habitable for mankind by Yahweh, thus becoming a place in which humans could worship and serve their God.
Walton merges the idea of Yahweh entering his temple with the emphasis on the seventh day in the creation account, in which God comes to rest in his creation.
This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God’s presence. Though all of the functions are anthropocentric, meeting the needs of humanity, the cosmic temple is theocentric, with God’s presence serving as the defining element of existence.
Temple and worship are themes that have often been noted in the creation account by Old Testament scholars. God’s command to Adam that he “cultivate and keep” the garden (1:27) has been seen as an implied reference to the tabernacle, both terms used regularly to describe the work of the Levites and priests. Sailhamer makes this observation, as do Wenham and Mathews in their commentaries on Genesis. Sailhamer feels that it is justified to translate “cultivate and keep” by “worship and obey.” While this may push the point too far, it highlights the larger idea that “Man’s life in the garden was to be characterized by worship and obedience. He was to be a priest, not merely a worker and keeper of the garden.” For a fuller discussion and defense of this position, see Walton’s more detailed treatment of this in his commentary on Genesis.
Also highlighting the seventh day is a literary feature of the text that has been the subject of much study and controversy, the so-called “framework hypothesis.”
The Parallel Arrangement of the Framework Hypothesis
Hamilton begins his commentary on Genesis 1-2 by observing, “It is obvious that the first six days fall into two groups of threes. Each day in the second column is an extension of its counterpart in the first column. The days in the first column are about the creation (or preparation) of environment or habitat.” He includes the following table that serves to highlight the seventh day.
|1 light 4 luminaries|
|2 heavens 5 fish, birds|
|3 earth, vegetation 6 land animals, man|
|Day 7 the Sabbath|
For a fuller discussion of this literary feature, see Mathews and Wenham, who notes in days three and six “a double pronouncement of the divine word ‘And God said’ (vv 9, 11, 24, 26) and the approval formula twice (vv 10, 12, 25, 31), so that they correspond to each other formally.” For the idea of the second set of three filling the first set with inhabitants, see especially Hughes. See also Collins’s discussion of this literary feature as well as a brief summary of it by Lennox.
The “framework hypothesis” (see footnote 13) continues to be examined and evaluated without a consensus on what precisely the author intended to convey by it. One need not, as do Walton, Collins and others, dismiss the possibility of six normal 24-hour days, but it cannot reasonably be denied that the six days were intentionally arranged in this fashion. However, if uncertainty exists (it does!) about the significance of the parallel structure of the six days, one thing is abundantly clear—in structuring the six days in this way, the Sabbath is given the pride of place that the author intended it to have. This is the heart of the creation account.
Having identified what the main point of the creation account is, we must now consider what the text does not say. The text does not intend to inform us as to the age of the universe and planet Earth. The text is thus not necessarily opposed to any scientific view on the age of the universe, nor does it necessarily support any view of the age of the universe. This, then, is an important admission to make for those who see young-earth creationism as an essential tenet of evangelical faith: the Genesis account of creation does not necessarily preclude an old-universe model.
The Creation Account does not Preclude an Ancient Universe
The young-earth creationist view is based in part on the determination that nothing precedes the six days of creation in Genesis 1. Thus, “In the beginning” signals the beginning of day one. But this is not necessitated by the text itself for a number of reasons, which can only be summarized here. First, it is clear that the six days do not begin with verses 1, 2 but with verse 3. The days are clearly delineated by the formula beginning with “And God said” and ending with “And there was evening and morning, a — day.” None of this appears in vv. 1, 2. This begins only with verse 3, not with verse 1. We find, then, the record of an initial act of creation followed by the six days of making the earth habitable for mankind. Some amount of time (how much is not stated) elapsed between verses 1, 2 and verse 3.
Secondly, the account of the six days concerns the earth and only the earth, not the universe: “The earth was formless and void” begins verse 2, which serves as a transition to the account of the six days. Stars are mentioned in the fourth day, but only in the context of the sun and moon being sources of light for the earth. So when did God create the myriad of galaxies that make up the universe? When did he create the Milky Way, which had to be in place for our sun’s Earth and its moon to have their place? A natural reading of the text would place the record of God creating the galaxies, including our own solar system, in the opening statement: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1). With this reading, the galaxies and the earth could have been around for billions of years before God began his work of making the earth habitable for mankind.
Thirdly, the Hebrew word translated “beginning” in 1:1 (רֵאשִׁית, rēshīt) is quite imprecise. It does not help us to determine when the heavens and earth were created. It tells us nothing about how long ago that beginning was, or, more to the point, how long the beginning extended. It only does if we assume that “beginning,” is contemporaneous with the first day of creation. This connection of רֵאשִׁית with the first day, however, is not necessitated by the text.
These observations about the text do not rule out the possibility that the universe, including the earth and its solar system, could have existed for billions of years before God moved to make it habitable for mankind. But even if Genesis 1:1 is not interpreted as a separate act of creation, viewing it instead as a summary of the six days, the opening phrase “in the beginning,” because it does not necessarily refer to a point in time, could still allow for the possibility that the universe and earth existed for billions of years before the six days of creation. This is not to say that the six days of creation took billions of years, but that “in the beginning” could include billions of years before the six days of “creation” (making the existing earth habitable) take place.
We return to Nelson and Reynolds’s epistemological goal of concordance between biblical knowledge on one hand and scientific knowledge on the other. Their rejection of an old-earth cosmology was based not on a lack of scientific evidence—they believe that science has provided a “very plausible” case for an old universe—but rather on their conviction that such a view entailed “a less natural reading” of the text. I have purposely avoided discussion of the scientific evidence in support of an old earth, assuming as I have that Nelson and Reynolds’s assessment is correct that science has made a “very plausible” case for an old universe. Indeed, it has. I have attempted only to show that a “natural reading” of the text does not necessarily rule out an old-universe view. This should resonate with all evangelicals. We should all want to be spared the embarrassment of discovering that we have painted ourselves into a “Copernican” corner by having dismissed verifiable, objective lines of scientific evidence because we have made the Genesis creation account to say something that it does not say.
In conclusion, two benefits surface for evangelicals in this approach to Genesis 1-2. The first is to recognize that the primary function of the creation account relates to the Sinaitic Covenant in general, and the Sabbath command in particular. God has entered his temple-rest and He invites His people to enter into His rest, experiencing the joy and fulfillment of worshiping the creator of all. The account serves as an invitation, but also as a warning to the Israelites assembled at the foot of Sinai—God’s rest is to be enjoyed only by repentance and faith in him. If we miss this, we miss it all.
The second benefit of understanding the creation account in this manner is the freedom that results from it. We will be freed from the insistence that young-earth creationism enjoy “absolute” status in our statements of faith, dictating thereby who is faithful to God and his Word and who is not. We will be freed from this becoming a test of fellowship among believers. This continues to be a divisive issue among sincere, faithful Christians; this ought not to be. Understanding the creation account in this way will also free us to continue searching for evidences of the age of the earth and the universe, without fear of where the evidence may lead us.
 Nelson, Paul and Reynolds, John Mark. “Young Earth Creationism.” Three Views on Creation and Evolution. J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds, eds. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999, 72.
 Ibid., 73.
 Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One—Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009, 145-46.
 Walton, Lost World, 57.
 Walton, Lost World, 62-63.
 Lennox, John C. Seven Days That Divide the World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. See “Appendix B: The Cosmic Temple View,” an analysis of Walton’s view, 130-49.
 Walton, Lost World, 83-84.
 Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, General Editors. Vol. 1. Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1987, 67.
 Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 1-11:26. The New American Commentary. E. Ray Clendenen, General Editor, Vol. 1A. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996, 209-10.
 Sailhamer, John. Genesis Unbound—A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books, 1996, 76.
 Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Terry Muck, General Editor. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001, 172-4.
 I use the term “framework hypothesis” because I know of no other term to describe the parallelism of the days. Some see this literary device as evidence that the six days are not literal days, or that there are only three days, not six. I do not.
 Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Pentateuch. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005, 21.
 Mathews, 144.
 Wenham, 6.
 Hughes, R. Kent. Genesis—Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word Series. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books (Good News Publishers, 2004, 24-25.
 Collins, C. John. Genesis 1-4. New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2006 73-74.
 Seven Days, 52-53.
 See, for example, the reasoning by Lennox in Seven Days,171-72.
 For typical uses of this term, see Gen. 10:10: “the b. of [Nimrod’s] kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar;” Deut. 11:12: “the b. of the year;” Job 8:7; 42:12: Job’s b. = the first part of his life as compared to the latter part of his life; Prov. 17:14: “the b. of strife is like letting out water;” Eccl. 7:8: the end is better than the b.; Isa. 46:10: Yahweh “declaring the end from the b;” Jer. 28:1: “in the b. of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year;” Hos. 9:10: “I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its b;” Mic. 1:13: “Lachish was the b. of sin for Judah.”
 For reading in this area, I would recommend as a starting place Portraits of Creation, edited by Howard J. Van Til (Eerdmans, 1990), for studies from a Christian and scientific viewpoint on various geological formations supporting old earth chronology (chapter 3, “The Discovery of Terrestrial History,” 26-81), astronomical observations supporting the current thinking that the universe is around 14 billion years old (chapter 4, “The Scientific Investigation of Cosmic History,” 82-125), and responses to popular claims of creation scientists supporting a young earth, such as the shrinking sun, footsteps of dinosaurs and humans in the same track, etc. (chapter 6, “A Critique of the Creation Science Movement,” 166-202). See also Christianity and the Age of the Earth by Christian geologist Davis A. Young (Zondervan, 1982) for more on geological support for an old earth (chapters 2-6) and a not-too-technical discussion of radiometric dating (chapter 7), a refutation of creation scientists’ argument related to the earth’s magnetic field (chapter 8) and geochemical arguments that support an old earth (chapter 9). For a briefer summary of the cosmic (astronomical) arguments in support of an old universe, I recommend Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth by Newman and Eckelmann, Jr. (Hatfield, PA. Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1977), 15-53 and two appendices, Appendix 2: Primeval Chronology (105-24); and Appendix 3: How Long is the Sixth Day? (125-35). Hugh Ross, in his Creation and Time (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), has two short but helpful chapters, chapter 9, “Scientific Evidences for the Universe’s Age” (91-102) and chapter 10, “Is There Scientific Evidence for a Young Universe?” (103-18), in which he evaluates a number of oft-heard evidences for a young earth.