In my years as a priest and of sharing the Gospel, I have heard many reasons offered for not becoming a Christian: scandals associated with clergy, the wealth of the Church, the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc. etc. I thought I had more or less heard it all, and so was unprepared for a reason one young man offered to justify his rejection of Orthodoxy—namely, that dinosaurs were not in the Bible. I blinked a few times, and was left temporarily speechless (something of a rarity with me, to which those who know me well can attest). His idea was that since dinosaurs obviously existed (their skeletons adorn our museums), then if the Bible was God’s Word, he should be able to read about dinosaurs in the Bible. Since he could not find them there (I refrained from mentioning certain fundamentalist interpretations of Leviathan and Behemoth in the Book of Job), then obviously the Bible could not be God’s Word and he could not remain Orthodox. He was referring of course to the old supposed conflict between Science and Religion, and in this arm-wrestling match, it was clear to him that Science had won. No Biblical dinosaurs, no more church-going.
So, what’s the deal about dinosaurs? Why aren’t they in the creation stories in Genesis? Apart from the absurdity of supposing they’re not there because they aren’t mentioned by name (the duck-billed platypus isn’t mentioned by name either), it’s a valid question, and one that leads us headlong into the question of how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis.
Interpretation of the creation stories too often degenerates into an argument between the theory of evolution vs. what is sometimes called “creation science”. By “evolution” the average non-scientific person means the notion that Man descended from the apes, or from a common ancestor of apes and men. The name “Darwin” is usually thrown about, regardless of how the ideas in his On the Origin of Species have fared in the scientific community since Darwin wrote it in 1859, and most people’s knowledge of evolution is confined to looking at the famous evolutionary chart in National Geographic, showing how smaller hominids kept walking until they became human beings like us. By “creation science” is meant the view that the Genesis stories are to be taken as scientifically or historically factual, so that the earth (often considered to be comparatively young) was created by God in six twenty-four hour days. Since the time of the “Scopes monkey trial”, the argument between “evolutionists” and “creationists” has been going strong, and is often fought in the nation’s courts and departments of education. Arm-wrestling indeed.
Happily for people with weak arms like myself, the Church does not call us to take part in this arm-wrestling match. The creation stories in Genesis were not written, I suggest, to give us a blow-by-blow account of how we got here. Rather, they were written to reveal something fundamental about the God of Israel and the privileged status of the people who worshipped Him. We assume today that the ancients wanted to know how we got here, and how we were created. In fact, they were mostly uninterested in such cosmic questions, and the creation myths that existed in the ancient near east spoke to other issues. Most people back then, if they thought of the question of cosmic origins at all, assumed that the world had always existed, and the various gods they worshipped were simply part of that eternal backdrop. That is where the creation stories were truly revolutionary. Their main point was not merely that God created the world; it was that the tribal God of the Jewish people was sovereign over the world.
We take monotheism for granted, and spell “god” with a capital “G”. For us, God is singular and unique by definition. It was otherwise in the ancient near east. That age was populated by different gods, each with his or her own power, agenda, and career. And this is the point: in the Genesis stories, none of these gods are there. In the opening verses we read, “In the beginning God (Hebrew Elohim, a Jewish name for their God) created the heavens and the earth” and “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that Yahweh God made earth and heaven.” The creating deity is called “Elohim” and “Yahweh”—the names for the Jewish God. Other rival deities are simply not there. It is as if they do not exist. They had been dethroned and demoted by their omission from the story. The opening verse of Genesis is a salvo fired into the world of polytheism, a ringing declaration that their gods were nobodies.
We keep reading and discover that this Jewish God made everything that existed by His simple word of command. He simply said, “Light—exist!” (two words in the original Hebrew), and light sprang into existence. In the creation myths of the pagan cultures of that time, the gods created by lots of huffing and puffing (in an Old Babylonian myth, the god Enlil uses a hoe), but not so the God of the Jews. He is above all that. For Him, a simple sovereign word suffices. In fact, in the first chapter of Genesis, all the cosmos was brought into being by Him uttering ten simple commands (yep, it does foreshadow the Ten Commandments, given later).
And Man is portrayed in these stories as the sum and crown of creation, giving the human person a dignity never before known. Man is said to have been made “in the image of God”—a revolutionary statement, since in those days, only kings were thought to be in the divine image. Despite this, Genesis invests the common man with this royal dignity. And even more: it says that woman shares this image and rule with him. In the ancient near east, women were chattel; in Genesis, she is a co-ruler of creation with the man.
The stories of Genesis cannot be read apart from their original cultural context, and when we read them as they were meant to be read, we see that the creation story was a gauntlet thrown down before the prevailing culture of its time. The creation stories affirmed that the Jewish God, the tribal deity of a small and internationally unimportant people, alone made the whole cosmos. That meant that He was able to protect His People. It meant that, properly speaking, all the pagan nations should abandon their old gods and worship Him. These stories affirm that the Jewish God is powerful enough to have created everything by a few simple orders. They affirm that Man is not the mere tool and slave of the gods, whose job it is to feed the deities and care for their temples. Rather, Man is a co-ruler with God, His own image and viceroy on earth. And Woman is not a thing to be sold, inferior to Man. Rather, she shares Man’s calling and dignity.
These are the real lessons of Genesis. It has nothing to say, for or against, the theory of evolution. Its true lessons are located elsewhere.
So what about dinosaurs? I happily leave them in the museums, to the makers of movies (I love “Jurassic Park”), and the writers of National Geographic. The creation stories of Genesis give me lots to ponder and to live up to without multiplying mysteries. As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.”