The Seven Days of Creation: Fact or Myth or Something Else?

I have been writing about faith and science and last week I wrote about how much of the perceived opposition between faith and science comes not from the scientific facts themselves, but from the impact the stories constructed from those facts have had on the popular imagination. The stories provide what we could call a philosophical interpretation of the facts, most often a philosophical interpretation that has been bad and even false, despite the truth of the facts.

Now it is time to turn to the 1st chapter of Genesis, which tells the story of creation. By faith we accept the story as true, revealed by God who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Just because we accept the story as true, does not yet tell us how it relates to the facts. Is the story true the way a myth can be true, because it conveys a true meaning, or is the story true the way a fact-based story is true, because of both the facts and the meaning? Or is the matter a little more complicated?

So lets start with the evident facts. The 1st chapter of Genesis speaks to us of the basic facts of a world with which we are all familiar. We readily recognize the sky, the sea, the land, the sun, the moon, the stars, the plants, the animals, and man. Indeed, in a general way, everything is complete and nothing is missing from the picture.

Children will often ask about dinosaurs. Well, dinosaurs are land animals that were created by God on the 6th day, so they too are accounted for in the narrative.

The 1st chapter of Genesis also tells us that this entire world, “heaven and earth”, was created by God. That is not a ‘scientific fact’, because it does not fall into the scope of science, but we could call it a philosophical and religious fact.

It is a religious fact because it is revealed by God, but it is also a philosophical fact because it can be grasped in some measure by human reason.

The word of God points this out. In the Old Testament we read: From the greatness and beauty of created things, their original author, by analogy, is seen. (Wis 13:5) And, Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. (Rm 1:20) In other words the human mind is capable of arriving at some sort of knowledge of God’s existence, power, and beauty by way of a consideration of the created world. That is a work not of scientific reason, that examines the mechanisms and structures of created things, but of philosophical reason, that examines more the meaning and origin of things.

Where we have stumbled in the modern era is by assuming that everything in the story of Genesis, everything about the way the story is told, is also ‘fact’, fact like scientific and historical fact. The real stumbling block for our mind is the seven-day structure of the narrative.

Some will think that the Bible is asserting as ‘fact’ that God created the world in six twenty-four hour ‘days’. That is a supposed ‘fact’ that is easily addressed once we grasp that the Hebrew word ‘yom’, which is translated as ‘day’, can refer to a more indeterminate period of time.

That still leaves us with the problem of the order of the days. Some people will then try to reconcile Genesis and scientific fact by showing how the development of the world in the six days actually matches the order of development shown to us by science. Not only do these efforts run into problems with the actual text of Genesis, but they also raise the question, “Are we missing the point?” Was God’s intention and the intention of the sacred author really a matter of revealing the secrets of cosmic history that would later be discovered by science?

Before the age of scientific discovery it was common among Christians to assume both the 24 hour day and the order of the days as ‘fact’ (despite certain difficulties in the text). There didn’t seem to be any overriding reason to the contrary. So some Fathers of the Church, like St. Basil the Great (4th century), commented on Genesis on the basis of that assumption.

Nevertheless, at least one ancient Father of the Church, St. Augustine (4th to 5th century), took a very different approach to what he referred to as the literal interpretation of Genesis. He saw the seven days neither as 24 hour periods nor as an order of time as we know it, but as divisions of angelic knowledge of the created world. The ‘periods’ of knowledge might be successive, but the reality of the created world was simultaneous. It would be as though we were to look at a painting first as a whole, then, in our mind, divide it into parts, and finally examine the details in each part. The painting, with all its parts and details was always there complete, but our examination passed through successive stages.

Next Sunday I will begin to take a look at the meaning of the Genesis story. I will not delve any further into St. Augustine’s interpretation, but we have seen enough to pass over the stumbling block of the structure of seven days. It is more a vehicle of narrative meaning, than a factual element of the story.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.