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John Sailhamer's "Historical Creationism"

In the ‘creation’ debate there seems to be no end of views. Awhile ago I laid out my present position HERE which is akin to John Sailhamer’s “historical creationism” while acknowledging aspects of the CC view... seeing the value of appreciating the “both/and” as opposed to “either/or” approach which can sometimes have folk talking past each other. I haven’t had the opportunity to read Sailhamer’s work but have explored a number of reviews and articles of those who have. This “analysis” below of John Sailhamer’s Genesis Unbound is extremely good and enlightening and the smattering of futurist type “already not yet” suppositions aside is quite brilliant...

Science, the Bible, and the Promised Land

An Analysis of John Sailhamer's Genesis Unbound

January 01, 1998 by Matt Perman

There is a genius in Genesis 1-3 that is often concealed by modern interpretations of the text. The genius of these chapters is the profound significance they give to the destination of the redeemed by establishing a unity between God's work of creation and plan of redemption. Many modern interpretations of Genesis, unfortunately, obscure this genius by assuming that the six days of Genesis 1 are about the creation of the entire universe. Additionally, this assumption places Genesis in direct opposition to what appear to be the solid findings of modern science concerning the age and creation of the universe.

"Because of this error," writes Dr. John Sailhamer in his provocative book Genesis Unbound," many Christians have felt torn between an allegiance to the Bible and a recognition of the findings of modern science -- a tear that is neither necessary nor helpful" (John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound [Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1996], p. 13). The purpose of Genesis Unbound is to show that this tear is not necessary because "when Genesis 1 and 2 are understood as ...Moses intended them to be understood, nearly all the difficulties that perplex modern readers instantly vanish" (13-14).

Sailhamer's convincing analysis of Genesis not only resolves the apparent conflict between science and the Bible, but also (and, I would argue, more importantly) opens up to us the depths of God's plan to bless His people. Genesis Unbound unveils the genius of Genesis 1-3 that is so obscured by many modern interpretations and will consequently make you marvel at the ways of God in creation and redemption and give you a stronger comprehension of the profound unity of the Bible.

My purpose in this analysis of Genesis Unbound is to set forth the understanding of Genesis 1-3 that Sailhamer argues for (called "historical creationism"), why I believe that his understanding is correct, and to more fully develop the amazing implications of his view that he brings out. For this reason, this will not strictly be a review of the book, but more of an "expansive" analysis of the book. My motive and prayer in this work is the same as Sailhamer's goal in writing Genesis Unbound, namely that "you will come away with a new appreciation for and understanding of the genius of these first two chapters of the Bible. We should be awed and grateful that God chose to give us this remarkable glimpse into His mighty works at the dawn of time!" (16).


Genesis Unbound is divided into four parts. The first part explains why the issue of science and the Bible is important. Part two marshals out the evidence for historical creationism and why it resolves the apparent conflict of science and the Bible. It is thus "the heart of the book" (15). Part three seeks to clarify the picture by taking the reader through a brief exposition of Genesis 1:1-2:4a. As such, it builds "on the foundations laid previously in the book" in part two (16). Finally, part four is written to give us "a better sense of the historical, philosophical, and interpretive issues that brought us to where we are today" (16). It shows that Sailhamer's view is not new, but was held by many before the rise of modern science. And it shows where the erroneous interpretations of Genesis came from.

In this analysis, I will not strictly follow Sailhamer's format. Instead of marshaling out the evidence and then clarifying the picture in two separate stages as Sailhamer does, I will seek to clarify the picture as I marshal out the evidence. Then, I will seek to show the glory that is revealed by the genius of Genesis 1-3 by stepping back to behold the whole picture as it relates to the rest of the Bible.

How to Set Forth Your Case

There are two main ways that you can establish your case for something. The first way is to build your case as you go through the arguments for it and then unveil it in its entirety at the end. In this method the arguments function almost like pieces of a puzzle that don't come together in their full unity until the very end. The benefit of this method is that it preserves mystery and thus perhaps a greater "aha" experience when the full puzzle is finally unveiled. But the difficulty is that it is hard to do this in a coherent way that does not "lose" the reader due to the lack of a system in which to place the arguments as he reads.

The second way to argue your case is to state your view first and then argue for it. This often gives greater coherence to your case when you build your arguments because the reader will have an overall framework in which to place them. In other words, he will not get lost because you will have given him a map that shows him where he is headed. Thus, the reader can more directly see how each successive argument fits into the large scheme of things, how they connect to each other, and how they connect to your overall aim in writing. The result is that your case will generally be easier to follow and will probably stimulate more connections between your arguments in the reader's mind.

This is the approach that Sailhamer takes. He reveals his view in its entirety first and then backs up to build his case for it. This is, I think, a major strength of the book because it gives the reader a framework in which to integrate the arguments and thus makes it easier to evaluate them. But, of course, it reveals that Sailhamer is "neither a card shark or a successful novelist," for as he himself says, "right at the beginning I want to show you my hand and reveal some of my best plot twists" (13).

Historical Creationism and the "Unbinding" of Genesis

To see the uniqueness of Genesis Unbound, we must recognize that there are three main positions on the apparent conflict between science and the Bible. Creationism, first of all, teaches that, according to Genesis, God made the universe in six twenty-four hour days and therefore the earth is very young (since humans, who were created on the sixth day, have only been around for perhaps 10 to 20 thousand years). This view declares that modern science is wrong in its belief that the earth is old and generally attempts to provide its own scientific evidence to counter the evidence for an old earth.

Second, progressive creationism teaches that the days of Genesis are not twenty four hour periods, but unspecified periods of time (ages) in which God made the universe. This view, unlike creationism, agrees with the scientific evidence for an old earth, but, like creationism, does not accept evolution. Theistic evolution, on the other hand, teaches that the earth is old and that God used evolution to create the universe.

Sailhamer's view, called historical creationism, affirms the inerrancy of the Bible, upholds the historicity of Genesis, and rejects evolution -- just like creationism and progressive creationism. As Sailhamer writes, the author of Genesis "does not expect to be understood as writing mythology or poetry. His account, as he understands it, is a historical account of creation" (45).1 The main difference is that historical creationism denies the three central assumptions lying behind the other three views. These three assumptions are, first, "that the chapters' primary purpose is merely to describe how God created the world. Another is that originally the world was a formless mass, which God shaped into the world we know today. A third is 'the land' which God made during the six days is 'the earth' in its entirety, as we know it today" (11).

The early chapters of Genesis are "bound" by several bad translations in the English Bible "because those incorrect assumptions lie behind the English translations of Genesis 1 and 2 which we use today. Like it or not, Genesis in the English Bible is 'bound' by those assumptions. A major part of my task in this book is to loose those bonds and release the chapters to speak for themselves. Hence, the title" (11). What, then, is the meaning of these early chapters in Genesis that has been "bound" so often by these assumptions? To this question we will now turn.

The Meaning of Genesis 1 and 2

Sailhamer argues that Genesis 1 and 2 recount "two great acts of God" (14). The first great act is the creation of the entire universe-our planet, the animals, the sun, moon, stars, etc. This is recounted in 1:1, which declares that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The Hebrew word translated "beginning" does not mean an instant of time, but an "indefinite period of time." Since, then, God created the entire universe in an unspecified period of time, "we cannot say for certain when God created the world or how long he took to create it" (14). For this reason, the scientific evidence for an old universe does not contradict Genesis one. And this is the case even if we interpret the "days" as twenty four hour periods and not ages of time.

The second great act of God is recounted in 1:2-2:24 and "deals with a much more limited scope and period of time. Beginning with Genesis 1:2, the biblical narrative recounts God's preparation of a land for the man and woman He was to create. That 'land' was the same land later promised to Abraham and his descendants...According to Genesis 1, God prepared that land within a period of a six-day work week. On the sixth day of that week, God created human beings. God then rested on the seventh day" (14). One of the stunning truths this brings to light is that "when Israel was promised a land in which to live out God's blessings (Gen 15:8), it was not the first time God had prepared a place for them. From the beginning, God had prepared that place for His chosen people" (p. 92). When we understand this, we see that the land is a central unifying theme of God's acts of creation and redemption.

In sum, Sailhamer argues that Genesis 1:1 refers to the creation of the entire universe and that God did so over the period of an unspecified length of time that could have been one year or fifteen billion years. The text just does not say. Genesis 1:2 and following, which recount God's acts during the six days, therefore do not refer to the creation of the universe. They speak of a time after the creation of the universe when God prepared a land (which is the same land later promised to Israel) for Adam and Eve whom he was to create on the sixth day. And the reason that God had to prepare the Garden for Adam and Eve was, among other things, because "the earth [promised land] was formless and void [a deserted wilderness], and darkness was over the surface of the deep" (v. 2).

This view is very uncommon to us today and so it will take much defending. The remainder of this analysis will therefore consist mainly in an unfolding of the main arguments for historical creationism. In other words, now that the "whole picture" of historical creationism has been unveiled, I will back up and argue to the whole picture. I will, however, save the unpacking of some of the greatest implications of Sailhamer's view until towards the end.

The whole article won’t fit here so read the rest of these thought provoking propositions in the full article right HERE.

Views: 1253

Comment by davo on December 3, 2010 at 1:10am
Of interest you will notice the unity and link the author also makes between the Adamic, Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.
Comment by Norm on December 3, 2010 at 8:31am

It appears Sailhamer like most futurist Genesis expositors doesn’t take the eschatological ramifications of the “Beginning of the Heavens and Earth” into consideration. Otherwise if the beginning had been the physical creation of the earth in Gen 1:1 then the physical demise should have occurred at AD70. It gets back to Preterism 101 and the defining of what is the Heavens and Earth.

Heb 1:10-12 And, Thou, Lord, IN THE BEGINNING DIDST LAY THE FOUNDATION OF THE EARTH, AND THE HEAVENS ARE THE WORKS OF THY HANDS: (11) They shall perish; but thou continuest: And they all shall wax old as doth a garment; (12) And as a mantle shalt thou roll them up, As a garment, and they shall be changed: But thou art the same, And thy years shall not fail.
Comment by Tim Martin on December 3, 2010 at 9:25am

What Sailhamer gets exactly right is that creation must be understood in the context of Israel. He does divide off Genesis 1:1 as the physical universe statement, so he has, in effect, a gap theory with the gap occurring between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2.

I'm not a fan of gap theories. Of course, Sailhamer is a premillennialist, so I suspect that method comes naturally to him.

I would recommend getting his Pentateuch as Narrative book. By bringing creation (at least the portion after Genesis 1:1) into a covenant context, he makes some brilliant insights that work perfectly within a full covenant creation model.

Tim Martin
Comment by davo on December 4, 2010 at 10:46am
Norm: Otherwise if the beginning had been the physical creation of the earth in Gen 1:1 then the physical demise should have occurred at AD70.

Actually Norm I agree with Tim's thoughts here… "What Sailhamer gets exactly right is that creation must be understood in the context of Israel." – as I understand it… there was most definitely a "physical demise" of "the creation" in AD70 i.e., OC Israel and her 'lake of fire'. This was the very same Israel that the "physical creation" i.e., preparation of "the land" etc of Gen 1:2ff was all about. How many times did covenant violation experienced in physical chastisement? – virtually always.

That Sailhamer equates verse one as a stand alone statement speaking to the greater whole is no problem in my opinion – certainly taking it as such resolves many of the constant queries you guys get about "so what verses actually state God made this physical creation" etc. But even that said… you can still take your position on verse one if you must and what he postulates accordingly STILL makes perfect sense, IMO.

IOW… this idea that a "physical beginning" requires or demands a "physical end" is somehow a problem [contrary to how your position keeps advocating it] really DOES work WHEN you simply view "the creation" on the "local" plane – as per Sailhamer's approach and as I wrote in my piece at that link where you commented etc.

The physical and the covenantal go hand-in-glove, you cannot have one without the other, or as I've said elsewhere… to deny one is to diminish the other. Jesus was physically put to death… this had covenantal ramifications for the world i.e., for the inhabitants thereof – very physical people.

Tim… generally speaking, I wonder if sometimes from our respective positions we might view and designate particular emphasis' relative to other positions that might not go as far as we might like to think. Like the apparent or "in effect" time differential between Sailhamer's verse one and verse two; but does that necessitate a "gap theory" as per that typical understanding? – maybe it does, but again, why/how is that a "problem"? and if it is [I can't see that it is] is that an insurmountable problem?

And yeah I've had his Pentateuch as Narrative on my wish list for a while now. :)
Comment by JL Vaughn on December 4, 2010 at 11:41am

The physical and the covenantal go hand-in-glove, you cannot have one without the other, or as I've said elsewhere… to deny one is to diminish the other.

The physical is part of, contained within the covenantal. Not hand-in-glove. The covenant is the totality.


Comment by davo on December 4, 2010 at 12:50pm
I don't know Jeff, as I see it "contained within" is semantically close to "hand-in-glove" i.e., they [physical/covenantal] go together - no needless straining of the gnat IMO.
Comment by Tim Martin on December 4, 2010 at 1:01pm

When you get into The Pentateuch as Narrative you will see the problems he creates with his view of Gen. 1:1. It is an indispensable component of his futurism. He makes this clear at various points, including this statement:

“The term beginning in biblical Hebrew marks the starting point of a specific duration, as in 'the beginning of the year' (Dt. 11:12). The end of a specific period is marked by its antonym, 'the end,' as in 'the end of the year' (Dt. 11:12). In opening the account of Creation with the phrase 'in the beginning,' the author has marked Creation as the starting point of a period of time. Hence will here be the beginning of the history that follows....

The history to be related from this point onwards was heaven and earth for its object, its scenes, its factors. At the head of this history stands the creation of the world as its commencement, or at all events its foundation.' By commencing this history with a 'beginning,' a word often paired with its antonym 'end,' the author has not only commenced a history of God and his people but also prepared the way for the consummation of that history at 'the end of time.'

The growing focus within the biblical canon on the times of the 'end' is an appropriate extension of the 'end' already anticipated in the 'beginning' of Genesis 1:1. The fundamental principle reflected in 1:1 and the prophetic vision of the end times in the rest of Scripture is that the 'last things' will be like the 'first things': 'Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth' (Isa65:17); 'Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth' (Rev 21:1). The allusions to Genesis 1 and 2 in Revelation 22 illustrate the role that these early chapters of Genesis played in shaping the form and content of the scriptural vision of the future…

Already in Genesis 1:1 the concept of 'the last days' fills the mind of the reader.

Sailhamer, TPaN, pp. 83-84

Davo, do you see what I mean?

This is not to say that his work is not very interesting to read. It is. He has some brilliant insights when he is working out his framework of Genesis being understood rightly only within the context of Israel. Most of those points work seamlessly with the CC model; they enhance it, actually. But, taken as a whole, Sailhamer's view of Genesis 1:1 is not going to work with full preterism. It is merely one aspect, the origination point, of his futurist theology.

Another issue is that he does not address the ANE concepts brought to light in more recent scholarship like Walton's work. Can't blame him for that too much because a lot of it was not available when he did his original work.

And then there is the issue of original authorship of Genesis. Sailhamer, as a modern evangelical, assumes Moses. That point is highly questionable in my opinion (since I see Genesis more in line with ANE stuff that predates Moses quite a bit), but if Moses is not the first author (more likely Moses is the "editor" that put it all together from pre-existing writings) then Sailhamer's whole approach needs to be reworked. It changes things.

However, if the story of Israel begins with the story of Adam, then...

Hope that helps,

Tim Martin
Comment by davo on December 4, 2010 at 1:37pm
Yeah thanks Tim that's interesting. Funnily enough I'm reading Walton's 'Lost World' right now while on my night shift and Walton references Sailhamer's 'Genesis Unbound' and his thoughts on "beginning" on page 45…

It's all grist for the mill, but I thought this article above was really quite well done.
Comment by Norm on December 4, 2010 at 2:04pm

I didn't elaborate much on my post but simply pointed out the ramifications of what I understood Sailhamer infered concerning Gen 1:1. Tim covers pretty well what I percieved was his take.

However I also take the begining to concern Israels's begining which I'm sure you have seen my Six Days of Genesis overview. I just consider Adam as the begining of Israel and the covenant people comprising the H & E. I think we have some common ideas but diverge on some as well. It's the same with Sailhmer, Jordan or Beale in that I take the good and shake out the futurist tending stuff [not saying your is futurist tending].

Gen 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.
Comment by Tim Martin on December 4, 2010 at 5:26pm

hahahaha.... In my copy of Walton, I have the first sentence underlined and I have this scribbled on the margin to the right:

"Covenant Creation/ Sailhamer TPaN quote 83-84."

See, Sailhamer has brilliant insights. Think how that notion of "beginning" works in the CC approach matched up with Covenant Eschatology! But Sailhamer's model doesn't quite work... That is what Walton is saying between the lines and in the next section, too.

Tim Martin


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