This post continues Steve’s 3-part series on the Biblical heavens and earth, exploring comparisons between Genesis 1, Jeremiah 4:23-27, and Matthew 24:35. Part 1 can be seen here.
The first part of this series showed what the biblical heavens & earth is not: it is not a scientific universe. This second part will look at what the biblical heavens & earth actually is. When we stop trying to understand Genesis 1 in harmony with modern science, it frees us to understand it in harmony with the rest of Scripture. It is then that we learn the creation of the heavens & earth isn’t so much about the creation of the universe, but the creation of the Jewish universe.
A question of biblical context
Genesis is not about the history of the world or of all humanity. Genesis does not tell us where the Eskimoes or the Aborigines come from. Instead, Genesis only tells us about the people and lands in the vicinity of the Holy Land. The creation account is the introduction to the book of Genesis, and Genesis is the introduction to the rest of the books of Moses, the Law of Moses. So the context is not the world, but the Jewish world.
The structure of the six-day creation account
As mentioned in the previous post, the order of creation does not make scientific sense. But this doesn’t mean the creation account is illogical or was written half-hazardly. In fact, Genesis 1 and the order of creation were written with great care and has a logic of its own, even if that logic isn’t scientific.
The creation account is written in a stylized six-day format. The first three days are parallel with and correspond to the last three days. On day one, there is darkness and God creates the domain of light. On day four, God fills the domains of dark and light with the sun, moon, and stars. On day two, God separates the waters above from the waters below, creating the domains of sea and sky. On day five, God populates the sea and sky with fish and birds. On day three, God creates land and plants. On day six, God populates the land with land animals and man, giving them plants to eat.
The six-day creation and the Ten Commandments
The heavens & earth were created over a period of six days, leading to something strange, God’s day of rest. Since God is not flesh, why would He need a day of rest? The obvious answer is that He didn’t need rest. He “rested” in order to establish the Sabbath commandment.
What is interesting about the teaching of the Sabbath in Gen. 2:1-3 is that this is the only passage that speaks of the Sabbath until we get to the time of Moses (Exo. 16:22ff). There is no indication of people observing the Sabbath until this time. The Sabbath is, of course, one of the Ten Commandments. This brings up the question of when the six-day creation account was written. As written, there were no human eye-witnesses, so it must have been revealed. But to whom was it first revealed? It seems likely to have first been revealed to Moses, around the time the Ten Commandments were revealed.
Gen. 1 itself ties the six-day creation to the Law of Moses and the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments is sometimes known as the Decalogue, literally the “Ten Words,” or sayings of God. God is recorded as speaking on ten different occasions in Gen. 1: v.3, v. 6, v. 9, v. 11, v. 14-15, v. 20, v. 22, v. 24, v. 26, and v. 28-30. So Gen. 1 was written in clear view of the Ten Commandments, which had not been revealed prior to Moses (Deut. 5:1-3).
The significance of the six-day creation and the Sabbath
There are two rationales given for the Sabbath commandment: #1. because the heavens & earth were created in six days (Exo. 20:8-11) and #2. because the Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt (Deut. 5:12-15). While YECs cite Exo. 20:8-11 as a major proof of their interpretation, it is actually a major disproof of the YEC view.
The Sabbath not only applied to the Jews and all peoples in the Jewish land, but also to the Jews’ work animals. Furthermore, the Sabbath applied to the Jewish land itself (Lev. 25:1-4). Notice the specificity and limits of this commandment: it doesn’t apply to all people, but only this people; it doesn’t apply to all animals, but only to their animals; and it doesn’t apply to all lands, but only to this land. But using the logic of Exo. 20:8-11, if the entire universe and all living things were created in those six days, then the Sabbath law should apply to everything: to all peoples, to all animals, and to all lands.
But of course, the Sabbath commandment was never a universal commandment (Deut. 5:1-3). Christians are not under the Sabbath law (Col. 2:16) because we are not under the Ten Commandments (2 Cor. 3:7-18) because we are not under the Law of Moses (Gal. 3:24-25). Whatever was created in six days is subject to the Sabbath commandment. If the six-day creation is about the actual universe and all of mankind, then it is bigger than just the Law of Moses and is still applicable to us. But since it is not applicable, it is not speaking of the material universe.
Genesis 2, the parallel creation account
Whereas Gen. 1 appears to describe the creation of our universe, the parallel passage in Gen. 2 interestingly suggests merely the creation of a garden, the Garden of Eden. The Garden’s location is discussed in conjunction with four rivers: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. The Gihon is located in Cush, which is in Africa. The Tigris and Euphrates are in Mesopotamia. Which land lies between Africa and Mesopotamia? The Holy Land. Throughout Scripture, the Holy Land is referred to as the field and the vineyard of God – in other words, God’s garden. So we see that the creation of the heavens & earth is the creation of the Garden, and the creation of the Garden is the creation of the Holy Land.
The parallels between Adam and Israel
Hosea 6:7 explicitly compares Adam and his sin with Israel breaking the Mosaic Covenant. As we shall see, there are many parallels between the two.
Adam is not created in the Garden, but rather to the west of the Garden (Gen. 2:7-8). In the same way, the Hebrews became a numerous people in the land of Egypt, which is west of the Holy Land. God then places Adam in the Garden and gives him a law to keep. Likewise, God places the Hebrew nation in the Holy Land and gives them the Law of Moses. Adam breaks God’s law and is driven out of the Garden to the east (Gen. 3:24). Likewise, the Jews broke God’s Law and were driven into exile in Babylon, which is to the east. (This is significant, because it will tie in with Revelation and the new heavens & earth, which we will see in part three.)
The destruction of the heavens & earth
Jeremiah 4:23-26 is key to understanding the creation in Genesis 1, as it speaks of it directly, but in a way we may not expect. “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light” (Jer. 4:23). Jeremiah has a vision, and it is the undoing of Genesis 1. The words here are unmistakably the words used in the beginning of the Genesis creation account.
What is destroyed when the heavens & earth are destroyed? Jeremiah tells us, “I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the LORD, before His fierce anger” (Jer. 4:26). The destruction of the heavens & earth is the destruction of the Holy Land and the Jewish cities. Let that sink in. It is not the destruction of planets or stars or continents, it is the destruction of a small piece of land. But to the Jews, it is the destruction of their whole world. (Also see Jer. 27:5, where God speaks of the earth He created, and yet in context, it appears to only refer to the vicinity of the Holy Land.)
For the sake of brevity, I will not take up the space here to prove the context, since the evidence is abundant and not generally disputed. The headlines in my Bible for the surrounding text are “Judah Threatened with Invasion” Jer. 4:1-18, “Lament over Judah’s Devastation” Jer. 4:19-31, “Jerusalem’s Godlessness” Jer. 5:1-13, “Judgment Proclaimed” Jer. 5:14-31, “Destruction of Jerusalem Impending” Jer. 6:1-21, and “The Enemy from the North” Jer. 6:22-30. My point in quoting the uninspired sub-titles isn’t to prove I am correct, but to prove the mainstream understanding of Jer. 4:23-26 is that this refers to how the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem and the Temple. (Babylon is to the east of Judah, but due to geography, it would approach Judah from the north, hence “The Enemy from the North.”)
At this point, some will conclude that Jeremiah was merely being dramatic and poetic in describing the destruction of Jerusalem, but he doesn’t actually mean Jerusalem is the heavens & earth of Gen. 1. That is in fact how many people take it. But that is not how Jesus took it…
Jesus on the heavens & the earth
Jesus predicted in Matt. 24:34-35 that the heavens & earth would pass away during His generation. This has led many skeptics to mock Jesus for being wrong, and it has led many Christians to develop confused interpretations. But Jesus got it exactly right, and there is a very simple explanation.
The context of this prophecy is clear, Jesus was predicting the doom of Jerusalem and the Temple, and it would be fulfilled in that generation (Matt. 23:34-24:3). Just as Jeremiah prophesied Jerusalem’s doom in his generation, Jesus describes Jerusalem’s coming destruction as the destruction of the very heavens & earth. History testifies that Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed approximately forty years later (perhaps even exactly forty years later – as we do not know the precise year of Jesus’ crucifixion).
Since Jeremiah and Jesus equate Jerusalem with the heavens & earth, it is not surprising then that the Apostle John in Revelation equates the New Jerusalem with the new heavens & earth (Rev. 21:1-2). The New Jerusalem is identified as the bride of Christ in Rev. 21:9-10. This bride arrived back in Rev. 19:7-9, upon the destruction of “the great city” (Rev. 18:1-19:6). The great city was identified as the place where “their Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11:8), which is Jerusalem.
So the destruction of the heavens & earth is the destruction of Jerusalem. And when Jerusalem is destroyed, the New Jerusalem arrives. And when New Jerusalem arrives, so also arrives the new heavens & earth.
The sun, moon, and stars
Some will try to avoid the implication that Jesus was saying the heavens & earth would be destroyed in His generation. One of the ways people try to avoid this is by claiming Matt. 24:35 is a transition away from Jerusalem to the end of the world. But in Matt. 24:34, when Jesus said “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” “all these things” includes the destruction of the sun, moon, and stars described in a few verses prior (Matt. 24:29). This corresponds to Mark 13:24-25 and Luke 21:25, which also speaks of the removal of the powers of the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars.
In context, the sun, moon, and stars of the heavens & earth cannot refer to the literal sun, moon, and stars. Then what are they? Let’s go back to Genesis for additional context. In Gen. 1:16, the sun and moon “govern” over the day and the night. In Joseph’s dream, the sun, moon, and stars are symbols for authority (Gen. 37:9-11). So the sun, moon, and stars are symbols for the authorities in the land because they are over the land, giving light to all of those in the land. So when Jesus predicts the end of the sun, moon, and stars, He is speaking of the overthrow of the Jewish leaders when their nation is destroyed, which is precisely what the Jewish leaders feared (John 11:48).
This same symbolism is used in regard to New Jerusalem. In this city, there is no need for a sun or moon, since the Father and Son provide all the light that is needed (Rev. 21:23). The ruler of New Jerusalem is God the Father, and His crowned prince, Jesus Christ, the Son. Therefore there is no need for a mere human king or crowned prince, the “sun and moon.”
Noah’s flood in the New Testament
Although many Christians (especially YECs) believe Noah’s flood was global in scope, the NT suggests it was not a global judgment, but merely a local flood. One of the YEC arguments for a global flood is based upon references to Noah in the NT. They believe Noah’s flood is compared to the future Second Coming, which is the final judgment of all nations and all generations at the resurrection. The problem is, the NT never compares Noah’s flood to the Second Coming. When the NT speaks of Noah in reference to a coming day of judgment, it is always in reference to 70 AD, which was a local judgment. So the YEC argument actually ends up disproving the YEC interpretation.
It is undeniable that in Luke 17:26-29, Jesus compares Noah’s flood to the local judgment against Sodom. In this passage, both Noah’s flood and Sodom’s doom are compared with a third judgment, when “the Son of Man is revealed.” Does this speak of 70 AD, or the Second Coming? The disciples did not understand this to be the global, universal judgment at the Second Coming, because they ask “Where, Lord?” (Luke 17:37). The Second Coming is universal, so there is no “where?” because it will be everywhere! This is speaking of a local judgment “Where the body is, there also the vultures will be gathered.” This passage lines up with Matt. 24:28, 37-41, and Luke 21:20-24, all of which speak of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD.
In 2 Peter 2:4-8, the Apostle Peter likewise compares Noah’s flood with Sodom’s destruction, as well as to the coming of the day of the Lord (2 Pet. 3:3-13). This day of the Lord is linked with the arrival of the new heavens & earth, which as we’ve seen, is linked to the destruction of Jerusalem and the old heavens & earth. This fits the time frame of the letters of Peter, which were written at the end of his life in the 60s AD, when he said “The end of all things is near” (1 Pet. 4:7). If Peter was speaking of the end of our material universe, then he was wrong. But Scripture is not wrong, and like Jesus, Peter got it exactly right. Peter didn’t predict the end of the universe; he predicted the end of the Jewish universe, which is the heavens & earth.
If the Genesis creation is not universal, why does it sound universal?
At this point you may be wondering, “If the creation is only about the Jewish land and people, and if Noah’s flood was merely local, then why does the Bible use language that sounds like it is speaking about the entire planet/universe?” This is an excellent question, and the answer, as always, is to be found in the context of the Bible.
Although the Bible was inspired by God, remember that Genesis was written by and to the ancient Hebrew. The ancient Hebrew, like all of those who lived at that time, had a scientifically naïve view of the world, similar to how we thought of things as a child before we grew up and became educated about our world. The key, then, is to think as a child.
When I was a child, I had a jigsaw puzzle of the 48 contiguous United States of America. In this puzzle, America was surrounded by blue (there was no Mexico or Canada indicated in the puzzle). Being a child, this puzzle became my view of the entire world – there was only America. I grew up in the height of the Cold War, so the first non-American country I became aware of was the Soviet Union. When I learned of this other country, I assumed it fit somewhere in the puzzle map, and obviously it must’ve been rather small and insignificant(!).
From this example, it is easy to see that we naturally tend to think of our country, our land as the biggest, or at least the center of the world. There may be other lands out there, but they are on the fringe and not nearly as important as our own. Thus our land equates to the whole world, or at least much of the world, and certainly the most important part.
This can be seen in several places throughout the Bible. Both Daniel 4:1 and 4:22 describes Nebuchadnezzar as being king of all the earth. Obviously, both Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel had to be aware there were lands and peoples beyond the borders of ancient Babylon, but in their thinking, Babylon constituted the bulk of the world, or at least the important parts.
The same thinking can be seen in Col. 1:23, where Paul claims the Gospel has been “proclaimed in all creation under heaven.” Paul said this even as he had plans to take the Gospel to places it had not yet been taken! Clearly, then, Paul is only speaking of much of the Roman empire, and equates the Roman empire with being the bulk of the world.
Let’s look at one more example, this time from within the book of Genesis. When God destroys Sodom, which was a local judgment, nevertheless, Lot’s daughters saw it as the end of the world. This is why they hatch a scheme to get their father drunk, that they may have children and preserve their family, and presumably, mankind (Gen. 19:30-36).
So when Genesis describes the creation of the Jewish people and land as if it were the creation of the universe, or the flood as if it was the end of the planet, this is because this is how it was perceived. The earth wasn’t some small speck wandering through the vastness of space, the earth was the universe. The Jewish land wasn’t just a small land in the midst of a large planet, it was the earth. When the flood wiped out their cities, it wiped out their whole world. So when we get to the time of Peter, the destruction of Jerusalem isn’t just the end of a city, it is “the end of all things” (1 Pet. 4:7).
There are many more points to be made concerning the creation, Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, the sons of God & the daughters of men, Noah’s flood, and the like, but this is to provide an introduction to a different way of thinking: using the Bible to interpret creation, rather than modern science. In short, the creation of the heavens & earth is actually the creation of the Jewish universe. In the third and final part of this series, we will look at what this means for the new heavens & earth.
Steve is a teacher and a preacher in the Churches of Christ.