“Prior to writing this book I was a young-Earth creationist.”
So writes J. Gene White in his book The Real Genesis Creation Story as he builds his audacious case that the earliest chapters of the Bible have been mistranslated for over two thousand years. White is a Christian who became increasingly troubled by traditional evangelical explanations for the scientific evidence of an old Earth, yet he was also troubled by attempts to accommodate this evidence by interpreting the Creation account more metaphorically.
Feeling that there should be a “plausible explanation” to the apparent conflict between special revelation (the Bible) and general revelation (the created universe), White returned to the original Hebrew text to study the choices scholars made in translating the work into English. He came away convinced that the correct interpretation of Genesis describes a literal, recent six-day period where God reviewed, named, and blessed everything he had created over the last several billion years!
Clever, yes, but my first impression was that it was a little too clever, a little too convenient, a forced harmonization of modern science and a literal, inspired Bible – surely one or the other must be wrong. Surely one man could not so easily overturn thousands of years of Biblical scholarship.
But I kept reading. I was stunned as White presented a compelling case that not only was his “exemplar creation” a viable option for interpreting Genesis, but that in fact it was the traditional young-Eearth interpretation that has been forced into the text! Here is my attempt to summarize the points White makes in favor of this argument throughout his book.
The Argument For Exemplar Creation
First, White notes the inherent ambiguity involved in translating the original Hebrew (which contains less than 9,000 words) into English (which contains at least 200,000). “A single word in Hebrew may be capable of being translated into two, three, or more English words having a specific meaning.” Sometimes context makes a word choice clear, but, crucially, sometimes it does not. Additionally, the original Hebrew text has no accents, vowels, or punctuation, and the grammar of Hebrew verbs does not use tenses in the same way many Western languages do.
Second, White says “the Old Testament we have today is translated from the Masoretic Text,” produced by Hebrew scribes who, over 500 years after Christ, added “vowel points and accent points” that are “uninspired.” White says the choices the scribes made subtly reflected their existing biases and “helped embed young-Earth theology into the Biblical text.” Even worse, he says, is the more ancient Greek Septuagint, which also influences modern translations and reflects similar biases, along with outright flaws and sloppy scholarship.
Third, White notes that the traditional interpretation has many problems that run even deeper than the curiosity of a mysterious Light that apparently sustains plants for a day before the Sun arrives. For instance, the six-day chronicle begins in verse 3, leaving the question of the potentially much older chronology of verses 1 and 2. If verse 1 is simply a summary of the details that follow, as some argue, why do the details include God creating “the heavens” on day 4 but never actually creating “the Earth,” which is already there in verse 2? If the main idea of the story is that God speaks creation into existence, why does it mention him speaking everything but Earth itself?
Fourth – and this is where it got really interesting and mind-blowing – White argues that a faithful interpretation of the original Hebrew does not support interpreting Genesis 1 as God giving commands that led to spontaneous creation. White says the verbs express declarative statements; the simplest translation of Genesis 1:3 is “And say God be light and be light.” Scholars appeal to a Hebrew verb form called the “jussive” to translate the first be as let there be, but White claims this is an arbitrary designation that is not even applied consistently within Genesis 1, and he essentially accuses scholars of making up rules of Hebrew grammar so they can appeal to those rules to justify interpreting those verbs as commands, even though those grammar rules do not clearly exist anywhere outside the first chapters of Genesis! By contrast, White’s exemplar translation reads, “And God said, There is light, and light exists.”
Think that sounds like a stretch? White says this fundamental error has forced other words into more glaring mistranslations. For example, Genesis 1:9 is traditionally translated something like, “And God said, let the waters under the heaven be gathered together.” The Hebrew word qâvåh, translated here as an active verb “gathered,” is translated as the passive verb “wait” in every one of its other forty-five uses in the Old Testament (except for an ambiguous 46th use in Jeremiah that White argues is also mistranslated due to the Genesis mistranslation)! Furthermore, there are 5 other Hebrew words for “gather” that could have been used if that was the actual intention. White’s translation describes water and land that was formed long ago: “And God said, The waters under the sky wait in one place….” White makes similar appeals regarding a few other activity-implying words that he says are translated inconsistently in Genesis 1 compared to the rest of the Bible.
Finally, White underscores the magnitude of his ideas by presenting compelling evidence that Earth is much older than a few thousand years, including details about ice core and lake sediment layers that were new to me, accompanied by a compelling argument that “apparent age” is an unsatisfying explanation due to the lack of differentiation between essential and non-essential aging. He also deals with several implications of these ideas for those coming (as he did) from a young-Earth perspective, such as casting reasonable doubt on what I used to consider the ironclad notion that a straightforward reading of the Bible did not allow animal death before the Fall (I can go into more details if there is interest, but it starts with Romans 5 specifically mentioning that sin caused death to spread to all “men”).
Some Thoughts In Response
I have no idea how viable White’s translation actually is. He details the references and software he used to compare existing translations and conduct his own, and many of the details should be easy to verify, though I wonder what advanced Hebrew scholars would say about his claims regarding the command verbs. I asked a close friend with a Bible degree what he thought of the possibility of a self-taught theologian overturning centuries of scholarship, and to my surprise he thought it very plausible that an outsider’s fresh perspective could uncover issues with the ingrained groupthink assumptions of the academia. At the very least, White’s overall argument is both revolutionary and compelling enough that I feel it merits more of a response than it seems to have gotten; I only stumbled on White’s independent work through a mutual friend, and my Amazon review is the book’s first.
The rest of the Internet has not yet found it. Searches about jussive verbs led me to critiques of gap theories (which might be exemplar creation’s closest yet very distinct cousins), but White’s translation accounted for the objections I found. I have only found one direct critique, which accuses White of using some of the same poor translation techniques he ascribes to his predecessors, though that does not make the predecessors superior, and there may arguably be semantic differences. The critic takes issue with the theological implications of White’s translation on the six-day work week, though I can think of a response that arguably makes White’s position stronger. Notably, the critic says nothing to weaken White’s fundamental claims about the jussive syntax or inconsistently translated action words. If there are no deal-breaking errors, even if some of White’s interpretive details reflect a surface-level misunderstanding of the complexities of Hebrew grammar, so that instead of being the strongest viable option it is simply about as viable as the traditional interpretation, it would still be extremely compelling due to its greater harmonization with general revelation.
Now young-Earth creationists tend to deny that there is any conflict with general revelation, pointing out assumptions and positing endless variations of pre-aging and other speculations (my favorite might be that the gravity of God’s presence caused a wormhole effect that made the rest of the universe age at a different rate). I certainly agree – to a point – that God can do anything he wants and it is foolish to limit his infinity with our finite thinking; I am always hesitant to definitively rule anything out. But when there is no evidence for such speculations either in science or Scripture, and the only reason such speculations are even proposed is to explain evidence that seems to conflict with the Bible, perhaps that unfalsifiable skepticism that is applied to the evidence should also be applied to our translated interpretations of that Bible – surely God could have done whatever he wanted regarding the uncertainties of one just as well as the other.
I should note at this point that while White believes there is firm scientific evidence for old life on an old Earth, he does not believe there is firm scientific evidence for evolution, and he envisions God creating a slowly unfolding array of “product line extensions” (e.g. Cambrian explosion) to populate the Earth over hundreds of millions of years. It is interesting to think about how much of the stated evidence for evolution (ex. fossil order) would overlap with a theory of animals existing for hundreds of millions of years but not evolving, per se. I am almost certain that evolutionists would have many objections, pointing to evidence of inherited genetic mutations across species, for instance, but I wonder if the distinctions of such classes of evidence and their relative strengths have been seriously evaluated from any angle.
I confess I have an emotional reaction of not liking the idea of animals tearing each other to pieces before the Fall, as it seems odd for a “very good” (though perhaps not perfect?) creation and also seems to break the nice parallels of an eschatological Edenic regeneration with lovable lions and lambs. But I am no longer convinced it is a black-and-white case on the logical/theological grounds to which emotions much accede. (Besides, if evangelicals are already comfortable with the classic question of “how can a loving God send people to hell,” then “how can a loving God send zebras to crocodiles” is surely a far less troubling issue.)
This post is getting long. I wanted to provide a fair summary of White’s ideas to elicit feedback and critique, both to prevent myself from falling for potential errors and to try to promote the ideas to a larger audience. If I have at all piqued your interest, I highly recommend reading White’s book; it is a bit long-winded with some amount of tangents and repetition, and the organization at times feels disjointed, but it was clearly diligently prepared by someone with a love for the Scriptures, and it is full of intriguing nuggets (perhaps God could have literally formed man from the ‘dust’ because all the elements in our body are present in the Earth’s crust). There are many things I mentioned above that could be explored in more detail in future posts, if there is sufficient interest. And if you happen to know any advanced Hebrew scholars, feel free to invite them to stop by…