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Overview of Recent Developments in Evangelical Interpretations
of the Opening Chapters of the Book of Genesis
Gary E. Schnittjer
Copyright © 2011
Reading Guide (pdf version)for selected views on the beginning narratives of Genesis.
IThe purpose of this overview is to lay out a selection of evangelical interpretations of the first few chapters of the book of Genesis. For convenience I will use the views presented at a conference sponsored by Bryan College in the early fall of 2011. I understand these presentations will form the basis of a forthcoming “five views” book. My summaries are brief and often paraphrased, the five views book should be consulted for the details. Following the summaries, I will discuss how these views relate to several significant issues, especially the question of Adam and Eve as historical persons, ancient Near Eastern creation writings and Genesis, and scientific developments. I am not interested in presenting my own readings of Genesis here.
The conference was well-designed, full of charitable and spirited interaction between the participants. While the diverse interpretations approach accents points of distinction, the points of commonality should be kept in mind. All of the presenters agree on the vast majority of issues in biblical interpretation—ninety five percent or more by their common admission. For example, each of the participants embraces an evangelical stance, meaning they each espouse scripture as divinely inspired and inerrant. Moreover, each considers the gospel of Christ the central and defining issue of human existence. I will begin by sketching the broader context of the present conversation.
IIWhy have evangelical scriptural interpretations been multiplying in recent years? During the nineteenth century the discovery of large numbers of ancient Near Eastern creation myths and the rise of an evolutionary theory of human origins both introduced elements which have been brought to bear on interpretations of the first few chapter of the scriptures. Regarding the former, biblical scholars, especially Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), argued that the creation account in the book of Genesis is the ancient Israelite version of the Mesopotamian myth Enuma Elish. The Israelite version of the myth, explained Gunkel, was refracted though their monotheistic and anti-mythological outlook. The evangelical response against this and many other issues was categorical rejection. Many other things were going on which complicated matters, especially critical challenges to traditional views of the historical Jesus and the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (see overview of historical interpretations of Genesis 1).
Regarding the latter, many evangelicals adapted their interpretation of Genesis 1 to coordinate with evolutionary theory (including most fundamentalists like William Jennings Bryan and C. I. Scofield). Many saw a large gap of time between the original creation and the six days of the Genesis creation story. Others understood the “days” of the creation week referring to ages in which God accomplished creation through different stages of evolution. Over the last fifty years, “literal six day” (Gen 1) plus “young earth” (Gen 5 & 11 genealogies with few or no gaps) plus “flood geology” (Gen 6-9) and many other arguments have been brought together to affirm a literal reading of the biblical creation story in concord with an interpretation of manifold scientific matters which stands in contrast to prevailing theories.
In the past couple of decades, especially more recently, long developing evangelical biblical scholarship has come of age, so to speak. Many evangelical academic programs have courses of study on the ancient Near Eastern context. Evangelical scholarship on these writings has developed to the point of recalibrating selected approaches to scriptural interpretation. Other evangelical Christians work within the scientific enterprise and have come to new interpretations, especially regarding the genomic evidence. The prevailing interpretations of the genomic evidence lead many to see the original human population as thousands rather than a single pair. These new insights and views, along with many other developments within biblical studies explain, in part, why there have been so many new evangelical interpretations in the last decade.
Some evangelicals look at all of this as the newest in a long line of faddish interpretations. Others see the present set of questions as necessary and forward-looking since the ancient Near Eastern writings and scientific developments have been around long enough for scholars to have better sense of their implications.
The larger evangelical churchgoing public may not have a good sense of any of these matters. Steve Martin (not the comedian) stated in a blog that “very few evangelicals have the time, energy, and focus to 1) thoroughly investigate the evidence from biology, geology, genetics, paleontology, anthropology and related scientific disciplines and 2) navigate the maze of Ancient Near Eastern cultural history, ancient Hebrew linguistics, Christian Theology, Biblical Studies, and Old Testament exegesis.”
Here follows a brief summary of five evangelical views of the first few chapters of the Bible.
Todd Beall (Capital Bible Seminary)
billed as literal, “recent creationist” approach to Genesis 1
Beall asks, expecting a negative answer, “Should we use two different hermeneutics for Gen 1-11 and Gen 12-50?” He claims that in the last couple of decades evangelicals shifted by and large from literal to literary in order to make room for theistic evolution. Historical narration is meant to be read literally. There is no need for a Ph.D. or hermeneutical posturing or ancient Near Eastern parallels to understand the text. What is important is to have a consistent hermeneutic for reading all of the scriptures. Thus, myth-only or literal-only are superior to any mixed hermeneutical approaches. The figural approach is inconsistent because of two hermeneutics.
Beall says that Genesis 12:1 is “narrative tense,” which implies continuation, in other words, he follows the vav-consecutive view of vayyiqtol verbs. In this view, the so-called vav-consecutive verbs normally continue temporal-sequential or logical narrative which could be translated as “and then” or “ and so.” Since Genesis 1-11 and 12-50 both use “and these are the generations” (ve’eleh toledot) both should be read the same way.
Beall asks, expecting a negative answer, “Should we read Genesis 1 as a separate genre?” He says it is not a poem, hymn, or legend. Genesis 1 is beautiful, some say exalted prose, but is prose narrative.
Beall asks if Genesis 1 represents an ancient Near Eastern worldview. If so, how does that have bearing on our reading? Repeatedly, the Bible tells Israel to avoid other cultures and their influence categorically. The creation account was supernaturally revealed to Moses. Why would God communicate such a unique event using a pagan worldview? When comparing ancient Near Eastern creation and flood myths there are more differences than similarities. Perhaps the similarities point to a shared memory of the actual event.
According to Beall the elephant in the room is this: Recent non-literal views are not motivated by new interpretive discoveries, but by an accommodation to current scientific theories. In another place Beall explains, “The reason for abandoning a literal understanding of Gen 1 and 2 is not new. Christians who are convinced that evolution is, to a large degree, correct, have needed to try to harmonize what they view as ‘science’ with their understanding of the Bible” (see Beall 2009). The other reason Beall thinks many evangelical scholars have “abandoned” a direct reading of Genesis 1 is a desire to be seen as “reputable” by mainstream scholarship (see Beall 2009).
Richard Averbeck (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
Genesis 1 as “real creation” and “observational perspective on cosmos”; billed as “literary/intertextual” approach)
Averbeck explains that the sections/units of Genesis 1 featuring “narrative tense” verbs, starting with “and God said” (vayyomer) in 1:3, progressively eliminate the conditions in 1:2.
Averbek argues the we need to read Genesis 1 in light of other biblical contexts on creation. He uses the different perspectives in the Gospels as analogy for reading together. He illustrates how Psalm 104 can serve as a guide to read Genesis 1 (the psalm follows the same order as the days), and Psalm 104 clarifies some of the details.
Averbeck claims the ancient Israelites knew that “waters above” referred to clouds. They knew there was not “windows” in the heavens. Reading like this is too literal. He compares Genesis 1 to Baal’s palace window, when Baal worries about his three daughters (light, rain and earth), yet he makes a window in the clouds anyway (see the Ugartic cycle of Baal myths). This demonstrates that the “widows” are in the clouds, not the sky itself.
Averbeck says we need to avoid over-reading in terms of science and myth. We need to read the text analogically or “observationally” (by which he seems to mean phenomenologically). He argues that we should simply take a common sense ancient agrarian view of the cosmic elements. He illustrated this a couple of times with reference to his own experience growing up in farmland. The idea that the text refers to real creation of things that were not there before is the most sensible way to read Genesis 1 in ancient Near eastern context and now.
John Walton (Wheaton College/Wheaton Graduate School)
Genesis 1 & 2 as ancient cosmology, that is, create as make functional & cosmos as sacred space
Walton claims he has no science to promote, and that he has no exegetical interest in science.
For Walton the appropriate starting point is to ask, “What is the Bible demanding of us? We must understand the scriptures as the ancient author and audience understood it. God’s purpose is carried out through human purpose. The scriptures were not written to us. Yes, for us. We must work to join the ancients. Authority is vested in the author. Message transcends culture but its transmission is culture-bound.
Walton says that while we call ancient views mythology, the ancients call it reality. They did not think in terms of material creation. The text is not designed to address our questions and interests; it reveals God’s instructions and his will. By definition there can be no modern scientific explanation in the Bible. God met the ancients where they were. For example, the scriptures say love with your whole heart, think with kidneys, and so on. Same is true with the cosmos.
Walton’s central argument is about what he calls functional ontology, the way the ancients looked at existence. God named light “day” not because he was naming a physical object, but because he was assigning the function of light. Moderns have a material ontology, existence is a function of material. For ancients, existence is predicated on function. In the beginning, according to Genesis 1, the cosmos is not lacking matter, but lacking order (1:2). Genesis 1-2 does not portray a view of material origins, it is telling a different story.
For Walton Genesis 1 is about God creating his cosmic sacred space. The purpose of a temple for the deity to rest. God’s rest is God’s rule because it is his enthronement (see Ps. 132). A temple is not a temple until it is inaugurated or dedicated as in the seven-day ceremony of initiating Solomon’s temple.
C. John Collins (Covenant Theological Seminary)
Genesis 1 as analogical days & pre- and proto-history as alternative worldview
Collins seeks to read Genesis 1-2 “with the grain,” which for him includes viewing the days as analogical days. The key is understanding the purpose of the text and what it supposed to do if we say that the Bible is from God. If it is from God, we view it as a good tool for its job and we should read it for what it is designed to do. Genesis 1 is historical and it is seen that way in the Bible. What is meant by “historical”? Historical does not mean the absence of pictorial elements or literary features.
Collins sees Genesis 1:1-2:3 as a kind of preface because it is before any “generations of” (toledot) which begin new sections throughout Genesis. Since Genesis 1 is set apart by being before the first toledot, we need to use a different hermeneutic. “And he said” (vayyomer) starts all six days (used two times on day six). Thus, 1:1-2 is its own thing and the seventh day is also different. The seventh day does not say vayyomer but it does say “and he blessed.” The seventh day has no refrain “evening, morning,” and thus the seventh day does not end (Collins says Jesus alludes to this in John 5:17; cf. Heb. 4:3-11).
Collins asserts that the six days are not necessarily the first six, but the six days used to set up creation for humankind. Genesis 1 is distinguished by using non-typical names for all things except God (’elohim) and human (’adam). Genesis 1 narrates in broad strokes, not detail. Collins calls it “elevated prose, almost liturgical” and highly structured.
What about the days? Are they like our perception of days? Collins explains that God’s creation is presented like an Israelite work week. After a week of creating he rested and he was refreshed (see Exod 31:17). The purpose of the text is to set up a work week as a model for humans.
Tremper Longman III (Westmont College)
Genesis 1 as polemic literary presentation of creation and other primeval narratives; billed as “theistic evolution”
Longman began by stating that he espouses theistic evolution, yet maintains that his interpretation of Genesis 1 is not related to his provisional scientific views. He says Genesis 1 and 2 do not teach theistic evolution or evolutionary creation, but the creation account is not threatened by evolution. The Lord is creator or all things.
Longman considers the scripture as inerrant. As such, it needs to be interpreted according to its intended genres. Genesis 1-11 and 12-50 are both history, they are both theological history, and they display different levels of interest in presenting details. Specifically, Genesis 1-11 shows less degree of interest in historical details than 12-50. Genesis 1 is not interested in explaining “how” God did it.
What are the textual signals which indicate genre? Longman views Genesis 1-2 as using highly figurative language, like “day” with an evening and morning, even before there are celestial bodies. The language is stylized and not presenting an actual sequence of events. The accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 lack a good deal of corresponding detail. These are a few of the elements which point toward the figural intention of the first chapters of Genesis.
Longman thinks Genesis 1 and 2 use ancient Near Eastern mythical language to present its narrative. For example, Genesis 2:7 plays off Atrahasis in a polemical and critical manner by showing the dignity of humans. He notes the absence of a conflict motif in Genesis 1 and 2, which is used elsewhere as in Psalm 74, which displays God’s creating work as defeating a multi-headed sea monster. Job 38 and Proverbs 3 present creation like building a house. Psalm 24 speaks of the land on water while Psalm 104 refers to water on land. Longman notes that the far past and far future in the Bible are referred to using intense language (see Gen 1-11; Dan; Rev).
IVSome of the more interesting elements of the five views participants are where they land on selected key issues. They each regard the ancient Near Eastern context as far more significant to biblical interpretation than scientific findings. Moreover, each one is concerned with the centrality of the gospel of Christ within the scriptures.
In the thematic presentation that follows, I offer my summary of the participants’ views presented at the conference, and in some of their writings. The materials below are not meant to be a recording of exchanges, even if a few come from exchanges. Rather, the discussions spanned a variety of related topics. I have arranged some of the participants views around several key issues.
ancient Near Eastern creation myths and Genesis
Averbeck: Yes, there are points of contact between ancient Near Eastern materials and Genesis 1. They share an observational perspective from a society of agrarian farmers and cattle-herders. They understood the way the physical world worked.
Beall: The similarities with ancient Near Eastern materials seem to come from shared memory of the actual events.
Collins: There are well-recognized “parallels” between Genesis 1 & 2 and ancient Near Eastern writings. What are the functions of these parallels in their own culture? The ancients thought they referred to real events. Ancient pre- and proto-histories were mythologized yet demonstrate the social stratification by which their culture was ordered; thus, workers knew where they fit in the stratified order.
Walton: The scriptures are not simply borrowed myth, nor is the issue a question of “influence.” It is a matter of shared culture between the ancients not about the influence of particular pieces of literature, or specific parallels. They are ancients and looked at the world in a specific way. In a recent book Walton writes, “To claim that both the Bible and the ancient Near Eastern texts draw on a similar cognitive environment and describe the processes of ‘origins’ in similar ways in no way suggests that Genesis ‘borrowed’ from Gudea or any other piece of ancient Near Eastern literature. To insist that these similarities could only be the result of borrowing is a gross misunderstanding of appropriate methodology, something that I have attempted to make clear from the beginning of this book. Instead, the Israelites shared with the rest of the cultures of the ancient world certain basic concepts about temples, rest, and cosmos that are naturally reflected in an account such as Genesis 1. The claim is not that Genesis 1 borrows the literary form of temple-inauguration accounts but that it is informed by the same cognitive environment that can be observed in contemporary (in the broad sense of that term) temple-inauguration accounts” (Walton 2011, 183-184).
the question of genre
Longman: There is a polemic edge to the ancient Near Eastern mythic allusions in Genesis.
Beall: The lights as created is a polemic against the Egyptians who worshiped the sun.
Walton: The text is not a polemic, the Israelites view Genesis 1 as the beginning of their reality. The various ancient Near Eastern cultures have differences of opinion, but they work within the same cognitive environment of shared conventions. This is not to say that Walton sees an accord between Genesis and competing ancient writings in other ways. Walton writes, “Monogenesis refers to the idea that all of humanity emerged from a single human pair—ostensibly the general viewpoint in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 1 Chronicles 1-9); polygenesis, reflected in the rest of the ancient Near East, is the view that humans were created en mass—a logical procedure, since the gods desired slave labor” (Walton 2011, 195, n. 1).
Averbeck: The polemic in Genesis is a transformed pattern. The struggle is not to bring about creation, but a battle against the serpent and a battle over humans.
Collins: Genesis 1 shows who God is, who humans are, and introduces the significance of Israel. The pre- and proto-history in Genesis provide an alternate worldview story.
Beall: The text does not present pre- and proto- history, but simply history. The discussion raises the ‘deeper question’ of how was the Bible written. Even the author did not appear to understand. Beall uses Daniel and Ezekiel as examples and implies that the author of Genesis 1 may not have understood the revelation he received and wrote. The similarities with ancient Near Eastern materials seem to come from shared memory of the actual events.
Averbeck: Genesis 2 is the real world Israel was in and familiar with: there were two of four rivers and the shrubs (term for desert plant) in wilderness. Genesis 2 is, in this way, different from Genesis 1. Genesis 2 is the world they knew. Man and woman are real.
Beall: The same kind of historical narrative and same hermeneutic should be used from Genesis through all Bible. The entire Bible is literal and should be read plainly.
Collins refers to the genre of Genesis 1 as neither poetry nor prose, but “exalted prose narrative,” distinct from poetry and from “ordinary” prose (see Collins 2006, 43-44). He acknowledges that the verbal structure is vayyiqtol, but that other factors point to its “unusual” character: “highly patterned,” “exceedingingly broad stroke in its description,” including the fact that no species other than humans “gets its proper Hebrew name,” the sun and moon are called by “unusual names” (“greater light” and “lesser light”), and the heavens are called by a rhetorically “high” name, “expanse” (raqia’) (see Collins 2006, 43-44).
the question of Adam and Eve as historical persons
Collins: The biblical storyline requires a common ancestry. The New Testament teachers referred to Adam as an historical person (see Matt 19:3-5, citing Gen 1:27, 2:24; see Rom 5; 1 Cor 15).
Longman: Is the historicity of Adam and Eve essential to the truth of Genesis theology narrative? Genesis 1-11 is high style prose and is truthful, though not historical. Hosea 6:7 uses “as Adam” which could be a literary figure or person. Biblical genealogies are not merely historical and straightforward, they have theological purposes and use historical persons, but the connections can be invented to serve the ideological point. The Genesis 1-3 narrative represents the first humans, and can be used in to speak to the truth about humans. The New Testament writers refer to Adam as a literary character who signifies the truths his narrative teaches.
Walton: Adam and Even are historical persons. Yes, genealogies are somewhat literary, yet also refer to historical persons. Genesis 2 provides archetypal descriptions not as historical narratives, even though these are historical persons. In the New Testament they, like Abraham, are treated as archetypal even while they are historical.
Longman claims the views he holds concerning Genesis 1-11 are not because of science. In the case of the exodus and conquest, Longman regards these as historical in spite of prevailing winds to the contrary.
Collins thinks “death” in 2:17 is “spiritual death,” however, he infers that human mortality also follows the fall (see Collins 2006, 161).
Walton suggests that death need not be thought of as an effect of the fall, except in the case of human mortality (see Walton 2009, 99-101).
the Genesis creation narratives and scientific developments
Beall stated that though he is labeled a “recent creationist,” he doesn’t care. He is a recent six-day creationist, but that of itself is not important to him, and he is such only because he seeks to read the Bible literally and consistently.
Longman: Why keep stretching the text? Longman states he is not a scientist, and has no stake in this science or that. He respects the work of some Christians genomic scientists, and understands from them that the interpretation of the evidence points convincingly to a sizable original human population.
Walton: As we figure things out (science), reality often turn out more complex than it seems, and we may again need to allow for a greater complexity than we had expected.
Collins writes, “More significantly from an exegetical standpoint, the kind of concordism on display in nineteenth century studies of Genesis assumes that the Bible writer’s purpose was to describe the same sorts of things as the contemporary scientist does. This is a highly problematic assumption, when one considers the audience for whom Genesis was written – Old Testament Israel, whose main concerns were dominated by subsistence agriculture” (Collins 2011, 107).
Collins urges biblical scholars to both affirm the historical witness of the biblical creation narratives, and encourage Christians working in the scientific enterprise to commit themselves to pursuing truth. Concerning scientific pursuits by Christians, Collins writes, “At this point I am mostly asking that we be careful. This is why I have sought ways to allow advocates of these conclusions to stay within the bounds of sound thinking. In other words, even if someone is persuaded that humans had “ancestors,” and that the human population has always been more than two, he does not necessarily have to ditch all traditional views of Adam and Eve, and I have tried to provide for these possibilities more than to contend for my particular preferences on these matters” (Collins 2011, 119-120).
Also see bibliography on Genesis 1-3.
Richard Averbeck. “Ancient Near eastern Mythography as It Relates to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 3 and the Cosmic Battle,” 328-356, in James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard, eds. The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions, The Proceedings of a Symposium, August 12-14, 32011 at Trinity International University. Eerdmans, 2004; idem, “The Sumerian Historiographic Tradition and Its Implications for Genesis 1-11,” in A. R. Millard, James K. Hoffmeier, and David W. Baker, eds., Faith, Tradition, and History. Eisenbrauns, 1994, 79-102. Todd Beall. “Christians in the Public Square: How Far Should Evangelicals Go in the Creation-Evolution Debate? ”Associates for Biblical Research (Aug 30, 2009); idem, “Contemporary Hermeneutical Approaches to Genesis 1-11.” in Terry Mortenson, and Thane H. Ury, eds. Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth. Master Books, 2008, 131-162. C. John Collins. “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62.3 (2010): 147-165; idem, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. Tremper Longman, III, How to Read Genesis. InterVarsity Press, 2005; idem, with Richard F. Carlson. Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins. IVP Academic, 2010. John H. Walton. “Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Ancient Near East: Order out of Disorder after Chaoskampf.” Calvin Theological Journal 43 (2008): 48-63; idem, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. Eisenbrauns, 2011; idem, The Lost World of Genesis One. InterVarsity, 2009.
 “Reading Genesis 1 & 2: An Evangelical Conversation,” Sept 30, Oct 1, 2011, sponsored by The Bryan Institute for Critical Though and Practice. The moderator of the forum was Victor Hamilton (I am guessing Hamilton will serve as editor of the forthcoming five views book).
 For my interpretation of Genesis, see The Torah Story, and for a brief presentation of the function of the image of God in humans, see “Built-in Responsibility.”
 See R. Numbers 1993. For bibliographic details of references in parentheses and notes, see bibliography on Genesis 1-3.
 See Olasky 2011, 38-40 for references.
 Quoted in Olasky 2011, 38.
 I am using “narrative tense” here for general readers (a term from GKC, § 111) to simplify the several competing theories of the Hebrew verb held by the participants. While some, like Beall use vav-consecutive and others aspectival approaches and others linguistic approaches, they each understand the other approaches to the vayyiqtol, and interact without basing their arguments on a particular grammatical/linguistic approach over and against the others. That is, the participants share the view that the vayyiqtol/vav-consecutive/converted-imperfect/preterit verb primarily bears a narrative sense as opposed to the verbal and other literary signals of Hebrew poetry.
Thank you to Rebekah Devine for typing my conferences notes, and offering numerous suggestions improvement of an earlier draft of the presentation above.
Also see an historical survey of seven ways to read Genesis 1
Gary E. Schnittjer
Copyright © 2011
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