Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Extended Humpty Dumpty Semantics and Genesis 1

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Extended Humpty Dumpty Semantics and Genesis 1

Article excerpt

The Bible is often interpreted by making the language say what has been decided on subjective grounds, that is, by going beyond Humpty Dumpty's view of language. The more popular interpretations of the opening passage of Scripture that are currently encountered are described and analyzed. Some, less likely because they are obsolete or uncommon, are also mentioned. Most are incompatible with the Hebrew text.


The interpretation of Scripture often falls under extended Humpty Dumpty semantics. Humpty Dumpty claimed, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less." (1) The extended version changes one word: "When I encounter a word, it means just what I choose it to mean." Unfortunately, adherents to this stronger claim seem generally unaware of their commitment. Still, it is evident in three common interpretations of Genesis 1, (2) and in others less common.

Genesis 1 presents the story of creation. Five major interpretations are found among American Protestants. (3) The most popular one among current American evangelicals understands events taking place in six normal days, 6-10,000 years ago. Indeed, some insist on the more recent date. This is young earth creationism (YEC). (4)

A second view has the list presenting the order of events that extend back billions of years: days represent sequential ages. This requires that the sequence agree with the history of the universe and, especially, the earth. This view, concordism or old earth creationism (OEC), commonly allows the ages to overlap. (5) Two variants published in PSCF cannot be discussed for lack of space. (6)

A third view, once popular, combines elements of the two main approaches. It holds that the universe is ancient, like OEC. However, there was a cataclysmic destruction, so that life had to be re-created a few thousand years ago, like YEC. This gap theory was popularized in the Scofield Bible. (7)

A fourth view representing the six days of Genesis 1 as visions, is compatible with a series of creative acts, like OEC but without the constraints of sequence, and with theistic evolution, a divinely directed evolutionary development of creation, with perhaps a few creative interactions. (8)

The fifth view makes the passage strictly a literary product, a Hymn of Creation, a rewriting of ancient myths to reject polytheism and promote monotheism, (9) specifically the God of the Hebrews. (10) This approach is almost certainly connected to acceptance of organic evolution.

The question I raise is: How compatible is the explicit language of the text with each of these views? I am, in most cases, not discussing the claims of science (11) or technical matters relating to the derivation of the Hebrew terms and their meanings in the light of other ancient languages, though mention of some of these will necessarily be made. My question primarily concerns the language of the biblical texts.

Verses 1 to 5

The first words in Genesis raise a question. Which are we to understand: "In the beginning God created ..." or "When God began to create ..."? Students of Hebrew say that the language is ambiguous. The notion of an absolute beginning, though generally adopted, cannot be proved from this passage. Ancients could have read it as no more than the shaping of something available. A phrase from a later period, held by Greek and Roman philosophers, is ex nihilo nihil fit, from nothing is nothing made, a flat denial of the very possibility of creation ex nihilo. The Hebrew verb, bara', (12) does not necessarily refer to an absolute origin. (13) The former of the two translations is essentially required by both YEC and OEC. Either view fits gap theory, the visions view, or literary construction.

What God created or began to create were "the heavens (14) and the earth." Is this a statement of origin or an introduction to the entire passage? The common OEC view holds that this refers to the entire universe, including the solar system. …

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