Worldviews are curious things. They are challenging to detect because they are not things we look at but look through. Consequently, we assume everyone else sees, feels, and thinks the same way about the whole lot before us. The stories, practices, symbols, and praxis embedded within our culture inform how we understand the world before us. The assumptions we make can dramatically affect how we understand and interpret scripture. It seems the more removed the original authors are from our culture, the more dramatic the differences.
The Latter-day Saints are no exception. We believe God calls prophets in all ages, and the doctrine of Christ has been the means of salvation through all generations of time. However, how that doctrine was communicated is rarely the same because the cultural worldviews are never the same. It seems the Lord enters the culture of the time to reveal his truths. Many times, those truths hit with such force, we end up reeling and scrambling because what was revealed shatters accepted assumptions and presuppositions.
The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote that the Saints “fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions.”[i] The creation narratives are a classic case of missing the point because of worldview differences. Modern orthodox Jews, Christians (including Latter-day Saints), and secularists have the entire business framed as a science versus religion debate. The original authors saw the creation narratives as God bringing order and thus creating a temple whereby God can dwell among his people.
I’ll be as clear as I can from the outset: The creation narratives in Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and the temple have nothing to do with scientific perspectives or claims. Bringing a scientific lens to an ancient Near Eastern temple text is about as true to the authors’ intent as asking a city planner to comment on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. While the population of a hamlet is smaller than a village, that fact has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s Danish prince by the same name.
Likewise, the creation narratives speak of creation, but the ancient Near Eastern worldview of that word is markedly different than the modern Western and post-Enlightenment age where the scientific method is assumed. When we read the creation narratives, we are not learning how God brought the material earth into being, but how God ordered the creation in such a way that we can have union and relationship with God.
Perhaps one more image may suffice. Mother asked, “Why is the water on the stove boiling?” Tom, the elder brother, always the scientist, insisted the water was boiling “because the burning gas heated the water to 212°F at 1 atmosphere of pressure, or, sea level.” Tom’s younger brother Isaac sat staring at Tom with a look of bewilderment. Finally, Isaac flatly stated to both his mother and Tom, “The water is boiling because I want some hot chocolate. Would you both like some?” Now, there is nothing wrong with Tom’s answer, except that his mother was not asking about the whys and hows of thermodynamics. In addition to being a whiz at science, Tom had also mastered the art of missing the point.
Unfortunately, many well-intended disciples of Jesus Christ miss the point of the creation narratives because our culture has a different set of lenses than those who wrote the ancient scriptures. While the modern world, including members of the restored Church, see the creation narratives through a scientific and post-Enlightenment lens, prophets of the ancient Near East had an entirely different set of lenses. Consequently, many stumble and fall because of a perceived conflict between science and religion. Alas, such individuals falter because they have entirely missed the point like Tom.
If I may be so bold, what a physicist, geologist, or botanist think of the creation narratives is just as relevant as hearing from a medical doctor, bus driver, or college cheerleader. Those disciplines are entirely different from the world of the ancient Near East. While everyone has a fascinating perspective to offer, the relevant perspective for understanding the meaning of the text is what the original authors thought, and that requires inhabiting the culture and worldview of the ancient Near East. The questions they seek to answer are different from ours because we live in different cultural climates. While a debate about a Steady State vs. Big Bang cosmology is fascinating, it is irrelevant to the worldview of the biblical authors. To say otherwise is to misinterpret, or even disrespect, the lives, values, philosophies, and cultures of those whom the Lord first revealed himself.
We are squeamish at the thought of casting lots to determine the mind and will of God. However, Proverbs is quite explicit that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (ESV, Proverbs 16:33). The New Testament apostles lost no sleep at the idea of casting lots to decide who should replace Judas in the Twelve. We balk at such notions, or at the very least, form justifications and lengthy apologetics to soothe our modern sensibilities. The same may be said about translating ancient texts or divining the will of God using seer stones. To the secularists, it is foolishness, and to many modern Christians, it is a scandal; but to those in the biblical world, it’s called Yom Shlishi, or Tuesday.
Nephi taught, God “speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3). Similarly, in the Lord’s preface to the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord said, “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (1:24). It seems the Lord finds people where they are—in their culture, language, presuppositions, and assumptions. What is icky or “eww” to one culture may be, and often is, the window of revelation to another.
Let us now turn to three ideas in the creation narratives that are central to understanding the purpose and intent of the biblical authors.
What does it mean to create? What does it mean for something to exist? Our ontology, or philosophy of existence, differs from the ancient Near East. When we speak of creation, we speak of something coming into material existence or to give something form and shape. To those of the ancient Near East, the word create was concerned with bringing order from non-order or disorder. A house of order is a house of God because it functions according to God’s mind, will, and plan.
Many Christian denominations accept the theology of creation ex nihilo, or “out of nothing.” Latter-day Saints counter the idea that matter was already materially present, but God, or “gods” in Abraham, organized and reorganized the self-existent matter. We are then quick to point out “there is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter” (see Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8). All fine and good, except there is one glaring problem: those who gave us the Old Testament would look at the debate as irrelevant to their narrative.
The Greeks were the ones who convinced other civilizations that the material world was discernible, but by that time, the Torah and the writings of Abraham were well in the past. The modern Western world’s ontology is built upon Greek philosophy with Judeo-Christian values. Members of the restored Church recognize the problem of mingling Greek philosophy with Christian doctrine. However, many in the Church fail to realize that our interpretation of ancient scripture is also flawed when seen through the lenses of a modern worldview. For example, we assume when Moses or Abraham used the word create, their view of creation was the same as ours.
The ancient Near Eastern perspective of creation narratives is not about material creation but about the gods bringing order. Once order is established, the gods can take up their rest, which is their rule. Those in that ancient world assume they hear a temple text when they hear or read that a god rests. Therefore, speaking about an expanding universe 13.8 billion years from a Big Bang or light traveling 186,000 miles/second is gibberish. It isn’t about natural selection, Darwinian, theistic, or any other kind of evolution. Those are the lenses our culture assumes, but the creation narrative in Genesis is a temple text to the ancient Near East. God is establishing a temple, and he is calling Adam and Eve not to be his stewards but his priest and priestess.
In the Old Testament, the word rendered create comes from the Hebrew bārāʾ. The ancients did not produce a Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary or any other sort of dictionary for that matter. Like any language, the meaning of a word comes from the context in which it is used. The Hebrew bārāʾ is used over fifty times and describes God’s activity. John Walton, a scholar of Hebrew and the ancient Near East, notes bārāʾ takes a variety of objects. Some examples are people groups, Jerusalem, phenomena (wind, fire, cloud, calamity, darkness), and abstractions (purity and praise).[ii] In other words, while bārāʾ can describe material creation, it always describes God bringing order.
The Prophet Joseph Smith commented that the word bārāʾ does not mean creation “out of nothing,” but rather “it means to organize—same as a man would use to build a ship—hence we infer that God had materials to organize from—chaos—chaotic matter—element had an existence from the time he had.”[iii] The Prophet used the word to argue against the notion of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”), but the word has broader implications than organizing material. Bārāʾ is God’s work of bringing order to the earth, country, region, life, or anything in a state of non-order or has been disordered.
Days of Creation
You’ve heard the theories: Are the creation narratives talking about a “day,” as in 24 hours, or are they talking about an unspecified length of time? In the Pearl of Great Price, the book of Abraham never speaks of “days” but separates the creative periods by “times.” Then there are those references where one day of the Lord is a “thousand years” to our reckoning on the earth.[iv] Therefore, the reasoning goes, the Lord may have created the heavens and the earth in six thousand years then rested for another one thousand.
Those are all lovely theories but are entirely missing the point. The word rendered as “day” in the Old Testament comes from the Hebrew yom and is 24 hours. But where we go wrong is what we believe God is doing in that time. Through our present lenses, we assume this is a reference to the age of the earth, but that is not how the culture of the ancient Near East perceives the text. The Genesis account is a temple inauguration or, what Latter-day Saints would call, a temple dedication. The age of the earth has nothing to do with the text because the material used to bring order is assumed.
Solomon’s temple was built over seven years, but it was inaugurated/dedicated in a series of seven days (see 1 Kings 8:65; 2 Chronicles 7:9). To the ancient Israelites, the “temple” was created in a seven-day festival. It was dedicated to the place of God’s rest or rule. Remember, in the ancient world, gods rest in temples. The Bible does not reference how long the earth was materially constructed. Such a question is not the concern of the ancient writers. The earth’s material construction was assumed, but the account in Genesis is about how God brought order and function to the earth, thus creating a temple where God can rest.
The Salt Lake City temple is another example many members of the restored Church can understand. The material construction took forty years between February 14, 1853, concluding with an Open House on April 5, 1893. The creation/inauguration/dedication occurred in dedicatory services between April 6-24, 1893. The Genesis account is not concerned with the material building process but with ordering and assigning functions to what was already present. Wilford Woodruff’s dedicatory prayer of the Salt Lake Temple is not concerned with the age of the earth, but with all things under heaven and earth, fulfilling the “measure of its creation” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:19).[v]
There are jokes aplenty within the homes of the Latter-day Saints regarding how “busy” the Sabbath is. Yes, you’ve heard the tune in Primary classes: “Saturday is a special day, it’s the day we get ready for Sunday.” I haven’t heard it sung in a very long time, and I currently serve in the Primary! I think the song may have been scuttled because we all know the truth. We tell ourselves that Sunday/Sabbath/Church is a day of “rest,” but no matter of telling will make it so! For many Latter-day Saints, Sunday is the busiest day of the week!
I believe the problem with resolving the two opposing forces of Sabbath rest and, well . . . actual rest, is in the rendering of the word rest. Modern Westerners view the word rest as mere ceasing from activity. We also—entirely justified, it seems—supplement the definition with this phrase: “and has settled in for a long and needful nap!” When the Bishop comes calling, or I am late preparing a lesson for the day, the jabs and jeers about “rest” inevitably boil to the surface. That definition of rest is not how the scriptures use the word.
The Hebrew word for rest is šābat which is the genesis for the English word sabbath. The verb šābat means to cease from engaging in one’s current activity. “Semantically,” John Walton notes, “it refers to the completion of certain activity with which one had been occupied. This cessation leads into a new state which is described by another set of words, the verb nûḥa and its associated noun, mĕnûḥâ. The verb involves entering a position of safety, security or stability and the noun refers to the place where that is found.”[vi] In other words, when God rests, he ceases from one activity to begin a new one. Sabbath “rest” is about ceasing one activity to enter into a new state of being.
We see this sort of thing played out all the time. In setting up a computer, we purchase the case, install the motherboard, the RAM, video card, and other necessary components. We position the monitor and keyboard in ideal locations for our eyes and hands. Then we plug it in to begin the actual work. We cease our activity in setting up the computer to engage in the work for which the computer has been created. We have already taken materials and ordered them in such a way for the real work of writing my novel, preparing my lessons, sending emails, and ordering Christmas cards and presents. When the computer has been set up appropriately, I “cease” the preparatory work of computer setup to fulfill the purpose of the computer’s creation.
Likewise, when Jesus invites, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” he isn’t promising us a nap (see Matthew 11:28). Instead, he is inviting us to “go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day.” For the Sabbath “is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:9-10). He further instructs us to “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep (ourselves) unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). We cease (šābat) our temporal labors so that God can rule in and through our lives as his agents.
By “organizing” ourselves and preparing “every needful thing” during the week, we can focus our attention upon the purpose of our creation which is to assist the Lord in bringing to pass the “immortality and eternal life” of his children. As God created (ordered) the earth in seven days, our task is to establish a house where God can manifest himself. We are to “establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God” (see Doctrine and Covenants 88:119; Moses 1:39). The seventh mandate is to have a “house of God.” As we fulfill our covenantal responsibility of ordering and organizing every needful thing in the home, the order of establishing a house of God becomes a promise of God’s rest and rule in our lives.
The theme of God establishing his rest and rule is common throughout the scriptures. For example, John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning” the same way as Genesis (see John 1:1). The apostle John proceeds to narrate seven signs “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:31). The seventh sign is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. When God rules and takes possession of the temple of the body, there is life. Jesus demonstrated this promise and principle in the most significant sign of all, the eighth sign, which is his own resurrection.
Divine rest is a common theme in the Doctrine and Covenants. The Lord said, “be patient in tribulation until I come; and, behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me, and they who have sought me early shall find rest to their souls” (54:10). Speaking of the millennial reign of the Lord, when a man “dies he shall not sleep, that is to say in the earth, but shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye, and shall be caught up, and his rest shall be glorious” (101:31). These references, and many others, employ the ancient meaning for the word rest rather than modern assumptions about ceasing all activity. God seeks to rule in and through us as his image-bearers, and when we allow his will to become ours, God has taken up his rest in us.
Why does any of this matter? All other things being equal, the sun will still rise tomorrow, the Church will roll forward, and I will still have to pay my taxes. Who cares whether there is a conflict between science and religion or whether the creation narratives are temple texts?! How does this affect my relationship with my wife, my children, or the world in general? Does it really matter all that much whether Moses or anyone else, for that matter, was writing a temple inauguration rather than ancient cosmology? What significance does it have in my life? There are many relevant reasons, but a divine sense of purpose and value are central.
Purpose conveys the idea of a goal or a reason for something to exist. If we read the creation narratives through modern lenses, not only are we misreading and misrepresenting the ancient authors, but we miss the all-important and consuming point: God desires to take up his rest on the earth, in our midst, and within our lives. As he ordered the earth from matter and material in a state of chaos, so also will he order our lives and take up his rest in us. This process is a journey along the covenant path, line upon line, and from grace to grace.[vii] This process is first seen in the temple narrative in the creation accounts.
Value is about something’s moral worth. To have value is a designation of good and evil or right and wrong. Repeatedly, we hear in the creation narratives that the process “is good” and that some things are “not good.” In other words, we learn priorities and principles that enable us to function in God’s created order. For something to be “good” in the ancient Near East is to perform according to the order established by the gods. In the creation narratives, we see what enables and what prohibits us from fully enjoying the rest of God.
Divine rest is the result of God bringing order. God desires to create a temple of the earth, a temple on the earth, and a temple within our souls. Our physical bodies are “the temple of the Holy Ghost” (1 Corinthians 6:19). The creation narratives are not about scientific assumptions or lenses, but about the gospel story of the earth and God’s children beginning in a state of emptiness and desolation and being brought into a state of order and rest (see Abraham 4:2; Doctrine and Covenants 132:8). With moral agents, God will never impose or force his way. Therefore, C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘there are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”[viii] Only when God has completed the work of his temple does he say, “it is finished” (see John 19:30; see also Genesis 2:1).
[i] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , 520.
[ii] Scholars of the ancient Near East who believe the Bible to be the word of God are invaluable in understanding the context and culture of the biblical world. I recommend John Walton’s Lost World series as highly accessible for all readers. See also Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm; Michael LeFebvre, The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context; E. Randolph Richards, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible and Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World; Patrick D. Degn and David S. Christensen, Types and Shadows of the Old Testament: Jesus Christ and the Great Plan of Happiness.
[iv] See Abraham 3:4; Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8.
[vi] John Walton, The Lost World of Gensis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), see Proposition Seven.
[vii] 2 Nephi 28:30; Doctrine and Covenants 50:22-24; 93:8-20.
[viii] The Great Divorce, revised edition, (New York: HarperOne; 2015), 50.