Genesis Unbound: A Perspective on Creation

(The author, Zach Kennedy, is an associate pastor at Central Baptist Church in Springhill, LA.  He is a new contributor to After Math.)

Writing is hard work. It takes time, effort, concentration, and inspiration. After using these precious resources to take care of my family, work, and other projects, I would rather spend my free time watching an episode of Sherlock, playing an old video game (such as Blades of Steel), taking yet another personality quiz on buzzfeed, or reading. But the formation and articulation of one’s ideas and thoughts is important, so to the keyboard I come once more.

Fortunately, I have something I truly believe is a worthwhile contribution not only to my blog and personal growth, but to ongoing and current issues in theology. Specifically, this post will be a review of John Sailhamer‘s Genesis Unbound. Sailhamer’s book is exhilarating and intriguing. In fact, I would say it is one of the most interesting tomes on biblical studies I have read in quite sometime. In reviewing his work, I hope to expose his views to many who are probably unaware of his take on Genesis 1 and 2.

The Problem of Limited Options

Today Christians are given a very small set of options.

Option 1: They can hold to a young earth view of creation, which sees the earth as 6,000-10,000 years old, in which the account of Genesis 1:1 through chapter 2 is seen as encompassing the whole cosmos.

Option 2: They can hold to a less literal reading of the chapters in which the days of the creation week are interpreted as ages in time (the Day-Age view) or where perhaps there is thought to be a long gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and the rest of the chapter in which the earth become chaotic (the Gap Theory). This latter view may also entail a belief in some form of the theory of evolution, generally known as “Theistic Evolution” (the idea that God created everything, but used evolution as a process of creating species of animals and mankind

These seem like the only two options.  Sailhamer seeks to provide a better third way.

Option 3: In Genesis Unbound, John Sailhamer attempts to present readers with a view of Genesis 1 and 2 that takes the text at its own word. He seeks to draw out the meaning that is in the text, its grammar, and its context within the larger Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible).

His thesis is that Genesis 1:1 refers to the creation of the entire cosmos, and that Genesis 1:2 through chapter 2 highlight and detail the preparation of the Garden of Eden, which is also within the Promised Land.

Genesis 1:1–A Summary Statement?

Genesis 1:1 is generally taken to be a title or a summary statement, with the rest of chapter 1 through 2:4 detailing how God created the heavens and the earth. Sailhamer argues instead that Genesis 1:1 presents the first stage of creation, with 1:2-2:4 presenting a second stage of creation. This may sound strangely familiar–ahem, (cough) “Gap Theory!”  It is actually quite different.

One of Sailhamer’s first claims about Genesis 1:1 and the rest of the chapter is that the Hebrew word בראשׁית, translated as “beginning,” is often misunderstood. Within the Bible, it is always used to convey an extended but undetermined amount of time rather than a specific moment in time.1 As examples he gives the following:2

  • Job 8:7, where the term is used to refer to an unspecified period of time in Job’s early life
  • Genesis 10:10, which refers to the early part of Nimrod’s kingdom

In most English translations, Genesis 1:1 reads: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (ESV). The author explains that the Hebrew word ארץ, translated “earth,” more often than not simply refers to land in which humans dwell. It is the same word used to refer to the Promised Land which will be given to Abraham’s descendants. In fact, Sailhamer goes so far to say that from 1:2 onward, any time the word translated “earth/land” is used, it refers to the Garden of Eden.

What allows Sailhamer to make such a sweeping claim? He gives the following four reasons1:

  1. The close relationship between the first two chapters of Genesis supports a localized view of the “land.”
  2. The biblical location of “the land” with respect to the city of Babylon “in the east” indicates that throughout these narratives the author has in mind the promised land.
  3. The central theme of the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) is the Sinai Covenant and God’s gift of the land.
  4. Later inter-biblical interpretation clearly saw the promised land as the focus of the creation account.

In support of his fourth assertion, Sailhamer cites Jeremiah 27:5–“It is I (God) who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.” In context, it is very clear that “earth/land” refers specifically to the land of Israel and Judah, as God is about to give it into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar. Comparing Jeremiah 27 with Genesis 1, Sailhamer argues that the “land” is the same in both accounts.4

But if ארץ is better translated as “land” and שׁמים as “sky,” what does this mean for Genesis 1:1?

Genesis 1:1–Creation of the Cosmos at Large

Rather than a heading, Sailhamer argues that Genesis 1:1 is a distinct part of creation: the creation of all that exists apart from mankind. The author asserts that the words “sky” and “land” come together to form a singular idea–a merism–for all created things, the cosmos and all that exist within their sphere aside from mankind. Thus, everything aside from mankind and perhaps certain types of plant and animal life are already present on the earth in Genesis 1:1, prior to the Creation week of Genesis 1:2-2:4.

Genesis 1:2-2:4–Preparation of The Garden of Eden

The phrase typically translated as “formless and void” in Genesis 1:2 merely means “uninhabitable” or “wilderness.” In other words, the “land” was not fit for man to live in.7 The term ”good” as used throughout Genesis 1:2-2:4 does not mean “inherent value or goodness as a quality” but rather “good in the sense that it is beneficial for mankind.”8 Finally, the simple juxtaposition of Genesis 1 with Genesis 2 strongly suggests that the land in the former is related closely to the Garden in the latter.9

Throughout Genesis 1, there are two important words used to describe God’s actions that differ from one another–the terms “make” (עשה) and “create” (ברא). The term “make” carries the idea of putting something in order rather than creating from nothing.10 For instance, Sailhamer discusses the issue of light supposedly existing apart from the sun. He states that the language of Genesis 1:3 does not describe light coming into existence for the first time.  Rather God is commanding the sun to rise. As examples, he shows that the same Hebrew phrase is used to describe the sunrise in other places of the Bible (Exodus 10:23; Nehemiah 8:3; Genesis 44:3).11

Sailhamer asks, “Why does God have to ‘make’ the sky, land, and seas during the following week if He has already created them ‘in the beginning’?”12 His argument is that when Genesis describes God “making” the sky and the land on the second day, it carries the idea of “making” a bed, i.e., putting it in order.13 He believes this interpretation should extend to everything that is “made” in days one through six.

Day 4 (creation of the heavenly bodies) could be a sticking point for Sailhamer’s perspective given the fact he has already argued the sun, moon, and stars were created in Genesis 1:1.  However, Sailhamer argues that the phrase would be better translated “let the lights in the expanse be for separating the day and night.” Thus God was not creating the sun, moon, and stars here, but rather was delineating their purposes within creation.14

Garden of Eden=Promised Land?

The author points out that the Garden of Eden and the Temple are similar in two ways. Israel’s temple was in the midst of the Promised Land where they would meet with God and worship Him. The Garden lay in the midst of a land and was a place where Adam and Eve were to have special fellowship with God and worship Him. Secondly, the people of Israel dwelt safely in the Land so long as they obeyed God’s commands, and so also Adam and Eve stayed in the Garden as long as they followed God’s directives to them.17

Sailhamer believes that these parallels subtly communicate that the Garden of Eden and the Promised Land are closely related geographically. The boundaries and borders that are associated with the Garden of Eden are also similar to the ones later used to describe the borders of the Promised Land.18

Is Sailhamer’s View New?

Although his views seem unknown to many, this may merely be due to the fact that no one else has articulated them so well as Sailhamer. Also, ministry leaders Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson have publicly supported Sailhamer’s views by quoting from Genesis Unbound.19 With this being the case, one may justifiably wonder why the perspectives espoused by Sailhamer are not more widely known and taught within Bible colleges and seminaries at the very least, much less preached in the local church.

One reason may be that it is simply too different from views historically held by the church and would be seen by conservatives as too close to liberal views for comfort.

All in all, I thought Genesis Unbound was a pleasantly fresh take on Genesis 1 and 2, particularly because it focused on the text of the Bible itself. So many approaches to Genesis today start with claims of science and work their way backwards to the text, rather than starting with the text and letting the Bible speak its own voice. This to me is the primary strength of Sailhamer’s approach.

I believe he also makes some of the deeper levels of reasoning–including arguments based on Hebrew phraseology and grammar–accessible even to lay-readers. It is written at a fairly attainable level, and could be studied even as part of a Sunday school class in a local church. I believe the majority of his assertions are bolstered well with evidence.

One thing I do wish is that Sailhamer would have gone a little further in Genesis and considered the Great Flood of Noah’s day. Although his purpose was not to interact with scientific claims as such, I would love to have heard his take on the Hebrew of Genesis 6-9 and any bearing it might have on the evidence we have available today.

Although I cannot definitively say I think his view is “THE ANSWER” in the debates surrounding Genesis 1-2, I definitely feel his argument ought to be in the mix. His view takes the Bible seriously and literally.  It also jives better with modern science than some views out there. Anyone who is interested in studies on creation should read this work.

John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound 2nd Ed. (Colorado Springs: Dawson Media, 2011), 32-33, 42. 
Ibid., 42-43. 
Ibid., 56-59.
Ibid., 59-60. 
Ibid., 62. 
Ibid., 70. 
Ibid., 126. 
Ibid., 98-99. 
10 Ibid., 116. 
11 Ibid., 121. 
12 Ibid., 115. 
13 Ibid., 115-116. 
14 Ibid., 140. 
15 Ibid., 360-37. 
16 Ibid., 114-115. 
17 Ibid., 75. 
18 Ibid., 77-79. 
19 Matt Chandler and Jared C. Wilson, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 96-97. 

One thought on “Genesis Unbound: A Perspective on Creation

  1. I think he makes far too much of the word reshit, here. He’s either trying to rescue the text from being called allegory (Day Age, Theistic Evolution) or from calling it myth (Framework, Creation Narrative), or both.

    The plain meaning of the narrative clearly teaches that Gen 1:1—2:4 is the accounting of everything God created in 6 24-hour days (That’s how John interpreted the text 1:1—3). And if that’s true, one must reconcile how Gen 1—2 describes the creation of all things with what we know to be true about the nature of everything we know about the cosmos. And 6-day creationists don’t have it right because they don’t take the text literally enough. If they did, they’d have to believe that that the sun, moon, and starts were part of the firmament holding back the waters above the earth.

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