Creationism as a “theory” does not agree with the overwhelming evidence for a 13-billion-year-old universe and a 4.6-Byo Earth. That much is clear. It (and the new Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.) also completely ignore centuries of careful Biblical scholarship and supporting archaelogical research.
There are two main ways to read the Bible, especially the Old Testament (OT). (1) As a document transmitted from God directly to Moses and other writers, which is the traditional Jewish and Christian view. (2) As the synthesis of a variety of sources, written by a variety of authors, who may or may not been divinely inspired, which has been the interpretation of many Jewish and Christian scholars since the 17th century.
[Islam, it should be noted, honors both the Old and New Testaments, but teaches that these scriptures have been corrupted. Only the Holy Quran as given to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) communicates Allah’s true Word.]
Creationists are an extreme “camp” within category 1. They hold that every single word in Scripture is not just divinely transmitted but must also be taken literally. In particular, the first few chapters of Genesis, to creationists, are a word-for-word account of how God created the universe, the Earth and everything on it. They place special emphasis on the separate creation of humans (Adam and Eve), which they insist is evidence that humans are not animals like God’s other creations and could not possibly be descended from earlier primates.
The Creation Museum has two displays (here merged to be side-by-side, courtesy of an Eastern Kentucky U student) that eloquently illustrates this last point.
This childlike reading of the Bible gradually passed out of favor among theologians and scholars beginning with the Enlightenment. For one thing, the growth of analytical science suggested the traditional view was flawed. For another, close reading of the text suggested that no one person had written Genesis, much less the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament
According to literary and linguistic analysis of the Pentateuch, there were at least four different sources. Four are identified by letters: J (for the many references to YHWH), E (for the references to Elohim), P (for priestly, and frequent use of El Shaddai and Elohim) and D (for the author of Deuteronomy and several other OT books). At some point in its history, Judaism merged the various sources into one “universal” book.
An example of this merging is right there in Genesis: there are two versions of the creation of humans. In 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Adam and Eve (not yet named) were created at the same time.
But in chapter 2, God first creates Adam from the dust of the earth (2:7), and then Eve out of Adam (2:21): “So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; 22 and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.”
The documentary hypothesis proposes there were originally two separate accounts of God’s creation of the world, which at some later date were edited into the book we call Genesis. There are other differences in language and chronology between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, as well, which the scholars submit as further evidence of the book’s patchwork source material.
Biblical literalists love to use archaelogical evidence to support their insistence that the Bible is an accurate historical document, but they tend to ignore other archaelogical evidence that the Israelites were just one group of people in a religiously complex milieu. Genesis is remarkably similar to other creation stories of the region, and the Old Testament’s references to God’s various names (Elohim, El Shaddai, YHWH, etc.) and His dominance over other gods (Baal, Ashtoreth) are a reflection of the polytheism of the Canaanites and Israelites.
If God had dictated the Bible to Moses (or whomever), one would assume He would know His own name (unless He had multiple personality disorder) and would not need to remind us that He’s top dog. After all He created the world, no?
In many respects, the early religion of the Israelites was probably as polytheistic as their immediate neighbors, the Canaanites, and other ancient peoples of the region (Phoenicians, Greeks, Babylonians, etc.). Unlike the other peoples, however, the Israelites eventually adopted monotheism. Clues to this centuries-long process are all over the OT.
The Canaanites worshipped a triad of gods, El (the male creator god), Asherah (his female consort, a fertility goddess) and Baal (their son, a weather/harvest god). El and Baal were associated with the bull; and Asherah with the Tree of Life and the serpent or snake.
The Israelites of the time also had a creator god, YHWH. After years of coexistence with the Canaanites, El and YHWH were conflated into one patriarchal deity. So we see references to both El (as Elohim and El Shaddai) and YHWH in the OT, as well as mentions of His dominance over deities.
THe Hebrew name for Asherah was Ela, and later Hawah, which became Eve in English. In Genesis Eve was lured by the serpent to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and to convince Adam to do the same. El/YHWH was not pleased, and kicked them out of Paradise. Some scholars point to Eve’s subordinate place under Adam (and disobedience to YHWH) as a parallel to the early YHWHists’ efforts to suppress worship of the goddess Asherah.
Even as the priests of the El/YHWH gradually made him the supreme and only god of Israel, Baal still probably had many followers, since he directly affected the success of the harvest. Thus there are several derogatory references in the OT to Baal and his weaknesses compared to YHWH (see 1 Kings and Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab). Eventually the characteristics of Baal were absorbed into El/YHWH.
A literal reading of the Bible ignores all this rich background, much of which is corroborated in other literature of the time and in the archaelogy of the region. It’s a naive, overly simplistic version of Judaism and Christianity, and creationism is a persistent outgrowth of it.
[NOTE: I relied on several sources for the information in this post, but the three most useful were:
http://www.religioustolerance.org/cosmo_bibl2.htm — compares literal and non-literal interpretations of Bible. It’s worth the time to read through the entire set of pages.
http://www.adath-shalom.ca/israelite_religion.htm#before — an exhaustive study of the origins of Judaism. You should read the entire outline to learn what they don’t teach in shul or Sunday school.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documentary_hypothesis — unlike many Wikipedia entries, this is unbiased and well cited. It agrees with other sources I have read.
[NOTE 2: Since writing this post, I came across John Wilkin’s more detailed study of Genesis at Evolving Thoughts. Read that, too.]