art bible science

form & fill

Just before the 6 creation days in Genesis 1, the earth is described as ‘tohu va vohu’ (formless and void; or wild and waste; or chaotic and empty).  It has no shape (un-formed) and has no stuff (un-filled).

The 6 days of creation (the ‘hexameron’) divide into 2 sets.  The first set of 3 days is a ‘forming’ set, and the second set of 3 days is a ‘filling’ set.  What was un-formed is formed, and what was un-filled is filled.

If God had needed to, I’ve no problem believing that a God with a different kind of power than anything we’ve seen in our universe could have created in six 24-hour literal days – or in a single moment.  Heck, if God really had wanted to trick us, he could have even created all things 5 minutes ago, and given us all memories.  I’m personally persuaded that the universe is very, very old, and that human beings arrive very, very late on the scene (heck, even in a literal 6-day understanding, they come last).  I see this as both poetic and patient of God.

But what the author(s) of this ancient creation poem are saying with the wording and structure of Genesis 1 has to do not with ‘how long it literally took God to create’, but with a God who forms what was formless (order out of chaos), and who fills what was unfilled.  ((Oh yeah, and a) that all the created things (worshipped by surrounding cultures) are not gods, b) that all the created things are ‘good’, and c) that humans have a unique role in the creation; but that’s another post.))

14 replies on “form & fill”

What?!! You’re not a “Six literal day, Young Earth Creationist?”


Yeah, big deal. How important is that to the overall plan of man’s depravity and God’s grace?


Which part of Genesis 1 and 2 is poetry?
Note: It does clearly state how long God took to create.
It actually creates problems for some plants if they have to live for millions of years before insects and birds are created so that they can reproduce.

Hi Ross, welcome to the blog,
The main point, for me, is to note that the main point (or main points) of this passage is (or are).
One could also say that it creates rather large problems for the concept of a ‘day’ without a sun and moon (day 4). But again, the ‘main point’ of this passage is monotheism (one god not many, and not making an idol out of any created thing –> sun, moon, stars, natural forces, beasts, etc.).
Can you agree that the main point is the main point?

Not too long ago Science was a part of Natural Philosophy. A few thousand years before that, Poetry and Polemic was fused with Science too. I agree with you, Dale, that poetic motivations were at play with the writings of Genesis. But in every respect the people of the day would have thought it to be factually and ‘scientificaly’ correct, too.

I think Simon makes an interesting point when he states that “in every respect the people of the day would have thought it to be factually and ’scientificaly’ correct, too.” If this is correct, and I think it may be, perhaps this is why both Jesus and Paul seem to refer to Adam and Eve as literal, historical people. Simply because to them, in their world, that is what they were considered to be.

Indeed, we have every reason to suppose that Jesus, Paul and a host of other 1st century folk would have had little or no reason to question the literal historcity of Adam/Eve. This ‘(pre)scientific’ assumption, however, would have been peripheral to the theological convictions regarding the nature of God and humanity as expressed in the Genesis creation songs/poems/stories – and you can rest assured that Jesus/Paul/etc. certainly would have recognised the poetic/symbolic features of these.

((We could discuss such things as whether or not 1stC Jews would have (for example) seen the talking snake as a literal thing or not, but probably don’t need to here. Suffice to say that I think they would have been far more able to catch the poetic/theological features of these passages than modern readers who bring modern scientific questions to a text not written to answer them!))


I was wondering if I could bug you, if you have time, with a question I have? Young-earth creationism maintains that the sin of Adam resulted in physical death, as supported by Gen 2:17, 3:19, Rom 5:12-14, 1Cor 15:20-26. How do you read these passages given that death has been present ever since life first evolved? ie. Death has been present within creation a long time before sin. Do you think that the bible teaches that sin causes death? Perhaps you know of a book that addresses this issue?


Hi Jonathan,
For the moment, I’ll just copy/paste a bit I’ve quoted before from N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans, which I think handles it fairly well. Let me know what you think.

The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol X, N.T. Wright Commentary on Romans, p.526
“Paul clearly believed that there had been a single first pair, whose male, Adam, had been given a commandment and had broken it. Paul was, we may be sure, aware of what we would call mythical or metaphorical dimensions to the story, but he would not have
regarded these as throwing doubt on the existence, and primal sin, of the first historical pair.
Our knowledge of early anthropology is of course sketchy, to put it mildly. Each time another very early skull is dug up the newspapers exclaim over the discovery of the first human beings; we have consigned Adam and Eve entirely to the world of mythology, but we are stall looking for their replacements.
What ’sin’ would have meant in the early dawn of the human race it is impossible to say; but the turning away from open and obedient relationship with the loving creator, and the turning instead toward that which, though beautiful and enticing, is not God, is such a many-sided phenomenon that it is not hard to envisage it at any stage of anthropoid development.
The general popular belief that the early stories of Genesis were
straightforwardly disproved by Charles Darwin is of course nonsense, however many times it is reinforced in contemporary mythmaking. Things are just not that simple, in biblical theology or science.
One potentially helpful way of understanding the entry of death into the world through the first human sin is to see ‘death’ here as more than simply the natural decay and corruption of all the created order. The good creation was nevertheless transient: evening and morning, the decay and new life of autumn and spring, pointed on to a future, a purpose, which Genesis implies it was the job of the human race to bring about.
All that lived in God’s original world would decay and perish, but ‘death’ in that sense carried no sting. The primal pair were, however, threatened with a different sort of thing altogether: a ‘death’ that would result from sin, and involve expulsion from the garden (Gen 2:17). This death is a darker force, opposed to creation itself, unmaking that which was good, always threatening to drag the world back toward chaos.
Thus, when humans turned away in sin from the creator as the one whose image they were called to bear, what might have been a natural sleep acquired a sense of shame and threat. The corruption of this darker ‘death’ corresponded all too closely to, and seemed to be occasioned by, that turning away from the source of life, and that turning instead toward lifeless objects, which later generations would call idolatry.”

This ‘(pre)scientific’ assumption, however, would have been peripheral to the theological convictions regarding the nature of God and humanity as expressed in the Genesis creation songs/poems/stories…

I think you are dead wrong, Dale, to the same degree that you would be mortified (or, more pertinently, unable to accept this scenario) if in a thousand years people claimed that the christians of today realized that the factuality of the gospels was merely “peripheral” to the theological motifs within.
I put it to you that just as you could never accept the above situation, neither could the genesis-ites accept your statement above. Indeed, it is you that is imposing a pre-scientific worldview upon them!

Sorry Simon, but whilst I can appreciate the point you’re trying to make (which may well be a good one in other cases), I think you’re not giving appropriate attention to the different literary genres.

Thanks for your response Dale,

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to give the matter much thought. I like what NT Wright has to say. I think that spiritual death as a result of sin is a clear theme running right throughout scripture. It makes a lot of sense to me and also makes sense of the passages I gave. However, the problem for me is that these passages seem to speak not only of spiritual death but also of physical. The issue, in my mind, requires more than pointing out the spiritual dimension of death, which is real and prominent, but also dealing the apparent physical nature of death as a result of sin that is implied by these verses. Or is physical death not implied by these passages?



Thanks Jonathan,
I think (a rather large) part of the issue is the contrast between the post-enlightenment worldview we swim in and the pre-enlightenment waters the Bible’s authors swam in – where, for example, the distinction between ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’ death was less sharp perhaps (and I say that neither intending to imply any kind of wholesale bow-to or dismissal-of the Enlightenment!)?

If the authors of Scripture were writing today, they would use modern language, modern metaphor, etc. and would engage with modern life (including modern scientific understanding) – without, I hasten to add, forgetting the wisdom of the past, etc.. Our task is to discern (faithfully) what the message of Scripture is today. And I think personally that the almost certain reality of our evolutionary biological origins doesn’t negate anything Scripture would say to our modern world – if written today, so to speak.

So I guess that’s me saying (in a very over-wordy way!) that even if there are passages that speak of sin leading to physical death (again, they don’t use ‘spiritual’ as an adjective like we do), we can understand them in ways that are a) faithful to the theological purpose of the writers, and b) also happen –i believe– to be in harmony with science.

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