One thing that’s surprising in reading nineteenth century history is that the dominant Christian position when Darwin came along wasn’t Young Earth Creationism. In fact most of the thinking Christians had accepted the findings of geology which, though the likes of Sedgwick and Lyell were opposed on many things, had presented a strong case for a much older earth than Archbishop Ussher’s celebrated biblical chronology.
Varying ways of explaining the rocks and fossils left Christian thinking is something of a state of flux about interpreting Genesis, but one common solution was to treat the Genesis 1 account as only the last (and humanly significant) of a series of two or more creations and extinction events, of which the ancient geology and palaeontology were vestiges. The whole of the previously hidden prehistory was hidden in that first biblical statement, “The earth was without form, and void [tohu wa-bohu].”
The advent of evolution complicated the issue because of the necessary continuity between creations, but the idea has survived in the Gap Theory common among Old Earth Creationists. Its weakness would seem to be the rather gratuitous consigning of most of world history to a space between the lines of the Bible, together with the tacit assumption that the ancient writer knew about the earth’s age but deliberately left it out.
Well, what goes around comes around: old ideas may actually gain credibility from new research. When I read about these early appearances of “Gap Theory” it reminded me of John Walton’s ANE understanding of Genesis as a functional account, rather than a material one. John demonstrates that the purpose of Genesis 1 is (as I’ve summarised on several occasions before) to show God’s careful ordering of the functions of the cosmos for the good of mankind, who would in turn function as his viceroys and priests, that is as his image, in what was to be a cosmic temple.
The tohu wa-bohu which God transformed was not non-existence, but lack of order relating to human life with God. Thus elsewhere in Scripture, deserts and ruins are considered tohu because they are useless to mankind: owls, vultures and serpents are “chaos creatures” (Walton’s phrase) because they live in such places rather than serving mankind. Eschatological promises of the waste becoming fertile are the extension of the realm of “creation” into what is presently wild and chaotic.
Walton shows how this parallels the mindset of the other ANE writings, and I might draw attention to those Mesopotamian cosmogonies in which the focus is the establishment of a particular city, such as Eridu, as the temple-centre and home for the particular god. A commonly associated idea is the descent of the kingship from heaven. To us such accounts read like a wrong-headed version of the making of the world, but it is not unlikely that, to the people of Eridu, the existence of the world, and even of humanity, before the city’s foundation was well-known, but irrelevant: history only really began when the god began to reign in his city, and to be served properly so that the cosmic order of seasons, crops and blessing could be maintained.
A modern equivalent is the way that, in school history until recently, Britain began with the Romans, what came before being a shapeless and unimportnat mass called “prehistory”. The fact that ancient writers referred to particular tribes and rulers in pre-conquest Britain, and that there are pre-Roman coins and inscriptions, made no difference. I imagine pre-columbian history is under-represented in US schools as well.
Having a mind to that, a new version of the Gap Theory makes a lot of sense. Current scholarship (at least in the form of those who agree with Walton) says that the purpose of Genesis is specifically the ordering of man and his environment in relation to God. That only makes sense in a historical context in which mankind found itself in relationship to the true God, and that is essentially a theological event, whatever speculation one might make about the anthropological situation. From a literary point of view, Genesis covers all the bases accurately, if in a style intended to invoke a temple inauguration text. Conceivably such a revelation from God to men, or to a man, could have even taken place in a literal week. Even more conceivably (for it matches ANE practice) the consecration of the first temple to Yahweh in which his cosmic order of worship and service was established might well have taken six literal days without any forcing of the text or implication of anti-scientific miraculous events, other than the miracle of God’s concern for people.
On such an understanding, the world before those events – the world not only of uniformitarian sedimentation, cataclysmic vulcanism, dinosaurs and hominins, but of landscapes, livestock and even civilisations familiar to the writer – were legitimately the tohu-wa-bohu of Genesis 1.2. Except that there was no gap – just a transition from the old to the new world in which God chose to dwell with men. The author of Genesis, of course, would have known nothing of ancient prehistory, but neither was he woefully ignorant of it: like all the human history before God’s creation of his cosmic temple made earth his footstool, it was simply beyond the purview of his writing brief.
Even so, just as the taming of the desert brings order from tohu, so our knowledge of deep time does not simply reveal a hitherto unknown chasm of biblical ignorance before the Genesis creation account. Rather it enables us to bring that lost world into the cosmic temple and, through our understanding, appreciation and thanksgiving, enlarge the true realm of the creation to God’s glory.