It has pleased God our Father to tell us something about the origin of the great realities which we see with our eyes and which cause us to magnify his name. He was not under obligation to anyone to do this. Nor was there any mortal to whom he could explain these things as to an equal. But he was pleased to do this because he wanted to be honoured by us as the only and almighty God (Rev.4:11). This is a lesson of Genesis 1 that no one may call into question.
Perhaps he also wanted to guard Israel against the foolish notion that things arose as the result of a struggle of fearsome primordial monsters, or against the mistaken conception that those things together constituted a second god, which had existed next to him from all eternity. Therefore God let us know something about the origin of all things, namely that they all owe their existence to his creative hand. It was his prerogative to make use of whatever language and time he pleased, and of whatever nation.
Naturally these things were of considerable influence on the manner of presentation. The Lord did not express himself about these things in the concepts of the 20th century. He would not have been understood if he had. The Scriptures sometimes speak of the earth as though it had four corners and rested on pillars (Job 9:6; Jet. 49:36; Rev.7:1 and 20:8), and sometimes as though the land floated on water (Ps.24:1).
Is it possible for us, who have now learned to speak in completely different ways, to dismiss these passages as untrue, or must we in some way or other seek to bring them into harmony with the exact results of science? Surely that is completely unnecessary; they already are in harmony. There is no question of conflict here. Each passage is simply speaking with its own purpose and above all in the language of its hearers and readers.
How would the prophets, the poets and the singers of Israel have been understood by themselves and by their contemporaries if they had spoken the language of our days? It is understandable that we do not have controversies about those pillars and foundations; it would be simply too silly.
But can we then say that we do have the right, on the basis of contemporary knowledge concerning the structure and history of the universe and the earth, to criticize what we are told in Genesis 1, and that we must then exert every possible effort to try to reconcile the one with the other? Let me give just one example.
In Gen.1:6-8 we are told that God made the firmament. In the Hebrew the word that is used is raqia’. We must not give this word the same meaning as our words “atmosphere” or “stratosphere” because these are modern concepts. If Old Testament scholar Brongers is right, the Israelites conceived of this as a vault, made either of cloth or flattened metal, having doors and windows in it, and water above it.
Now some people today will immediately say that such a vault does not exist at all, and that therefore it cannot have been created by God either. We would not be able to deny this. But does this mean that we have declared Gen.1:6-8 to be untrue? Or must we now exert ourselves to rescue this part of Scripture from the hands of the critics by reading our concept “atmosphere” into the Hebrew word in question? Both responses are illegitimate.