John Sailhamer holds to a view which he calls “historical creationism,” or what we might call the “Creation of the Promised Land.” Put simply, everything after Genesis 1:2 describes the preparation—not the creation—of the Promised Land for human beings. Other Old-Earth interpreters—like David Snoke—also affirm this local view of creation.
Sailhamer argues that Genesis 1:1 refers to the creation of the universe, because it uses the merism “heavens and earth,” which refers to the entire universe. However, Genesis 1:2 doesn’t use this compound expression, and therefore, the term “earth” (ʾerets) can simply be translated as “land,” not “earth.” Under this view, apart from Genesis 1:1, the opening chapters of Genesis refer to the creation and filling of the “land”—namely, the Promised Land. Sailhamer writes,
God created the universe during an indeterminate period of time before the actual reckoning of a sequence of time began. In Genesis 1, the period which follows ‘the beginning’ is a single, seven-day week, which itself is followed by a vast history of humanity, leading ultimately to Abraham and the people of Israel.
In many ways, Sailhamer’s view is a soft gap theory. It states that an indeterminate length of time occurred between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Again, to be clear, Sailhamer affirms that Genesis 1:1 refers to the creation of the universe. However, after Genesis 1:2, he argues that Moses has “chosen rather to concentrate on the creation and preparation of the land” for humans. Sailhamer argues that the giving of the Promised Land to humans is the focus, because God owns it.
Should we translate the word “earth” (ʾerets) as “land”?
This is certainly a plausible translation of the term, and the translator needs to make a judgment call based on the context of the word. In fact, the term (ʾerets) is translated “land” elsewhere in the opening chapters of Genesis (Gen. 2:5-6 ESV; 2:11-13). Many argue that the perspective of the narrator in Genesis 1 is the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2), and he would have a local view of the land around him from this perspective. This is in stark contrast to the idea that Genesis 1 describes creation from outer space, which is neither in the text—nor in the mind of an ancient reader. Therefore, perhaps only the local land is in view—not the entire planet. According to Sailhamer’s thesis, the creation in Genesis 1 describes God’s “task of populating the land He is preparing for mankind.”
Most commentators agree that Genesis 2 is an expansion upon Day Six, and it gives very similar geographical borders to the geography of Israel. For instance, the geographical marker of the Euphrates River applies to both the Garden (Gen. 2:14), as well as Israel (Gen. 15:18). Sailhamer notes, “The biblical location of ‘the land’ with respect to the city of Babylon ‘in the east’ indicates that throughout these narratives the author has in mind the promised land.” He points out the literary parallel of “fruit trees” (Gen. 1:11) with the trees and fruit of the Garden (Gen. 3:2).
Thinking of Genesis 1 as the Promised Land also makes sense of Jeremiah’s allusions to the “land” as “formless and void” (Jer. 4:23). Under Sailhamer’s reading, Jeremiah describes Israel in this way because this is the same geographical territory of Genesis 1. Furthermore, Jeremiah writes, “I have made the earth, the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and I will give it to the one who is pleasing in My sight” (Jer. 27:5). This is another allusion to Genesis 1, and yet, the context for this passage refers God giving the land of Israel to whomever he desires.
How do we interpret the creation week?
Under Sailhamer’s reading, the six-days of creation could be literal days, where God prepared the Promised Land for humans. Though he doesn’t commit himself to such a view, the length of the days wouldn’t affect his thesis one way or the other.
Day One. God didn’t create the Sun on this first day, because Genesis 1:1 already explained the creation of the entire universe. Instead, God’s command for light (“let there be light”) likely refers to the sunrise over the Promised Land.
Day Two. The local land may have been temporarily flooded, and so, God evaporated the water into clouds.
Day Three. Notice that God didn’t create the land; it already existed on Day Three. Rather, it merely appeared when the water evaporated. Afterward, the land allowed for the growth of vegetation and fruit trees.
Day Four. God had already created the universe, which included the sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 1:1). These merely appear for the purpose of measuring time in the land. Moses mentions the sun, moon, and stars because of the “role they play in the affairs of men on the land.”
Day Five. The existence of birds and sea creatures refer to the filling of the land—not the creation of these species from nothing. The expression “Let the waters teem” (Gen. 1:22) also occurs during the plagues in Egypt, where we read, “The Nile will swarm with frogs” (Ex. 8:3). Sailhamer notes that frogs obviously existed as a species before the Exodus, but God supernaturally caused them to flourish in the Nile during this time.
Day Six. Sailhamer affirms that God created the first human couple on this day, and he also affirms that Genesis is history—not “mythology or poetry.” He gives the standard arguments for why the Bible teaches that Adam and Eve were the sole progenitors of the human race (e.g. genealogies go back to Adam, Eve is the “mother of all the living,” Gen. 3:20, etc.).
Sailhamer’s view seems to be a modified gap theory—though it differs in two central ways: (1) it only refers to the local Promised Land—not the entire planet, and (2) it doesn’t state that the world was recreated after a divine judgment. Sailhamer’s thesis simply focuses on God’s preparation of the Promised Land for the first human pair. Therefore, the text of Genesis simply doesn’t address many of the questions that modern people are asking about science and scripture.
Doesn’t Exodus 20:11 contradict this reading?
(Ex. 20:11) “In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”
For one, the “six days” of Genesis do not begin until Genesis 1:3. Therefore, Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) occurred before the six days mentioned here.
Second, Exodus 20 states that God created three things: (1) the heavens/atmosphere, (2) the earth/land, and (3) the sea. These correspond quite well to what we see God creating in Genesis 1:2 and following—namely, the sky, the land, and the sea.
Third, Exodus 20:11 uses the term “made” (ʿasah), rather than the term “create” (bara’). This language stops short of stating that God created from nothing. Rather, this describes him filling the land.
Fourth, the subsequent verse refers to honoring one’s father and mother “that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you” (Ex. 20:12). Clearly, the Promised Land is in view here—not the Planet Earth.
Does the Promised Land refer to Israel?
In our estimation, this is a weakness of this view. The equation of the Garden with the geography of Israel is faulty. Regardless, this view could refer to the creation of the Garden—not Israel.
 David Snoke, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), p.148.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.14.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.44.
 John H. Sailhamer, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), p.13.
 John H. Sailhamer, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), p.14.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.139.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.72.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.57.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.113.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.122.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.131-132.
 John H. Sailhamer, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), p.13.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.141.
 John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1996), p.45.