Having spent many words critiquing Ken Ham and AiG’s approach to this discussion, it is about time that I offered an alternative constructive approach to teaching Genesis 1.
As I prepared to teach Genesis 1 in adult Sunday School, I thought it might be helpful to share how I teach Genesis 1 in a Church setting based. My suggestions here are developed from how I teach prepare my undergraduate students (see my review of Michael Cosby’s Interpreting Biblical Literature.)
Many instructors will have just taught Genesis 1 and today was the first day of Genesis in the Lifeway series. So, while it might have been helpful to post this last week, immediately after teaching is a great time to evaluate and plan for next time. Keep a journal or file of your teaching experiences and lesson plans.
So, now is a great time to reflect on how you might teach Genesis 1 next time. Likely, you will have more than 30 minutes to teach Genesis 1 but our Sunday School class often gets a late start (many small children to be readied and dropped off) and we like to share before the lesson. I am one who is willing to truncate my lesson if sharing and praying for one another seems like the needful thing on any given Sunday.
Here are the 7 basic steps. I will elaborate on each and how you can prepare yourself.
- For the time being, set aside the Young Earth vs. Old Earth debate and questions related to science.
- Don’t start with Genesis 1.
- Have people read and briefly discuss other Biblical descriptions of God’s creative activity.
- Draw particular attention to how the Biblical authors depict God in relation to the sea and the sea monsters (Leviathan and Rahab).
- Using sea monsters as a transition, provide your class with examples of pagan accounts of origins from the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern culture.
- Now have a volunteer read Genesis 1 while you draw a diagram on the board.
- Now open up a guided discussion.
Step One: Set aside questions about the Age of the Earth and Evolution.
As the instructor or discussion leader, you set the parameters and the tone of the discussion. Do not let someone else’s agenda and questions sidetrack or hijack the conversation.
Remember, your primary aim is to help your students to understand Genesis 1. In my experience, as Genesis 1 is understand in its historical context, people get caught up in the “good news” of Genesis 1. Especially as you teach them about the views of the pagan cultures around them.
In my experience, if you don’t bring it up, then most of the time no one raises it. On those occasions when someone does raise a question or concern about evolution, the age of the earth, etc. offer to take time later to address this topic either at the end of the lesson, in a future class, or over coffee. If you make this promise, then follow-up on your promise.
[When I teach this to undergraduates, after I have accomplished what I want to accomplish, then I tell them I am willing to talk or answer questions about Genesis 1 and science during office hours or over coffee. In my case, I also tell them that I address this issue directly in my Christian Heritage class where I spend a whole week on Christianity and Science. I usually have a couple of students take me up on this offer.]
Step Two: Don’t start with Genesis 1.
There are few places in Scripture where contemporary Christians have already either formed a very strong opinion or are afraid to voice their opinion because they know it is controversial. Genesis 1 is one these texts, if not the primary example. If you were to begin a study on Haggai, you are virtually working with a blank slate. Yet, when you are teaching Genesis 1, you must ask your students to clean some items from their slate.
So, before you turn to Genesis 1, you need to gently challenge those presuppositions and help those who are afraid to voice their opinion to feel comfortable. So, put everybody on common ground. Take them to someplace unexpected and with fewer pre-suppostions and prejudices.
Here is where many textbooks and Bible teachers often turn to other ANE myths. When teaching Christians, I think making this move at this stage is a mistake. First, many Christians have been warned about or have seen such an approaches on TV used to undermine the authority of Scripture. Indeed, some do use this approach to say, “See, the Bible is just a product of its culture. It is just another myth.” To begin here is to potentially put some in a defensive posture.
Second, as I have a high view of Scripture myself and I want to affirm and engage my students who have similar views, I turn to other Scripture passages. Everyone is familiar with the account of creation in Genesis 1. Maybe they are aware that Genesis 2-3 is another account but most contemporary Christians are not aware that these are not the only texts that give an account of God’s creative activity. Even if they have read these passages, they likely have not slowed down to consider them as closely as Genesis 1.
Step Three: Start with the Psalms and other biblical texts that describe God’s creative acts.
Familiarize yourself with the following biblical texts: Psalm 74:12-17; 77:17-20; 104 & Isaiah 51:9-10 www.biblegateway.com (These are not the only texts but these are short and get the point across. From the New Testament, you could read John 1 and/or Colossians 1.)
Have volunteers read these texts. Depending on time constraints and your preference, comment or ask for thoughts after each text is read or after all of them have been read.
I like to ask open ended questions like: What caught your attention in these texts? Were you reminded of other biblical texts? etc.
If you ask questions that are “right/wrong” questions, even adults are afraid to be wrong and will remain quiet. If you ask them what they see and what comes to mind, there is no wrong answer. Yet, you can engage with whatever is said and guide the conversation to keep it on track.
Step Four: Draw attention to how the biblical authors depict God in relation to the sea and the sea monsters (Leviathan and Rahab.)
In my experience, most people are willing to admit that they do not think God ripped open a giant sea monster at creation or during the exodus. Also, people note the more violent nature of some of these texts. Also, those familiar with the Bible will see how these creation accounts sound a lot like the Exodus. So, where do these sea monsters come from?
Step Five: Teach your class about the role of sea monsters in other ANE myths.
You will need to familiarize yourself with a few ANE theogonies (origins of the gods) and cosmogonies (origins of the world and human beings). In these accounts, human beings are accidents or formed out the blood and excrement of the gods. We are poop people made to slave for the gods.
From here you can talk about how Israel uses the popular and pervasive images of the day to tell a radically different story about who God is, what kind of world we live in, and who people are. Rather than leftovers from a cosmic battle or slaves to the gods human beings are the pinnacle of creation in the Genesis account.
Share an image of the three-tiered cosmos. The cosmos as the Ancient world including the Israelites understood it.
John Walton has two books that will be very helpful in your preparation: Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament and The Lost World of Genesis One. Or download Rikk Watts’s talk Making Sense of Genesis One. Walton and his wife, Kim have put together an excellent resource for Sunday School teacher. Their Bible Story Handbook has lesson plans for 175 bible stories. For other reading recommendations for understanding Genesis see my “Favorites” page.
Step Six: Have a volunteer (or volunteers) read Genesis 1:1-2:3. As it is read, draw a diagram based on the following image on the board or have a prepared keynote presentation.
As each day is read, fill in the appropriate day. Show the pattern of forming places of habitation (1-3) and filling of habitats (4-6). I draw the Ark of the Covenant on day 7 because it God’s footstool. I like to make boxes with day seven on top and then draw the stages. (I am no artist. So, this injects a little humor.) In day seven, I draw (poorly) the Ark of the Covenant because the earth is God’s footstool.
Step Seven: Go back and forth between observations from the class and your own guiding comments about what this creation account says about the nature of God, the world, and humanity especially in light of the surrounding culture.
Please feel free to share your thoughts about my advice or your own suggestions. Tell us about your successes or failures and what you have learned as a teacher over the years.
Related Post: Why Seven Days?