Search This Blog

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Genesis 1 and 2: "Straightforward historical narrative"?

I have been following Dr. Joel Duff's Naturalis Historia blog for some time.

Yesterday, he offered what I called a "concise summary of some key issues" that divide young- and old-earth creationists one from the other.

The post has generated a fair bit of discussion. And, because I thought Dr. Duff's comments were so useful, I have been "listening" and participating in the discussion.

Anyone who has followed the debates between young-earthers (à la Answers in Genesis) and most old-earthers will recognize the concerns expressed by someone who calls himself "LAR-15" who protests Duff's analysis of some of the issues:
It seems you have misidentified the foundational assumption. It isn’t that the earth is young; it is that the Bible is the Word of the God who cannot lie, and therefore it must be accurate. The young earth is a conclusion from that revelation.
Those who affirm the OEC and the authority of the Scripture have very great difficulty as is seen in the lengths to which they must go to try to defend both. In the end, the Genesis creation account is straightforward historical narrative, in terms of its genre. To read that as some sort of framework or poetic device flies in the face of everything we know about Hebrew grammar and syntax. The only way out is Waltke’s position when he said years ago that Moses intended 6 24-hour days, but that wasn’t what actually happened. But nonetheless, the assumption is that the Bible is right.
To bail out with the claim that the Bible doesn’t intend to teach us about science is akin to an newspaper article saying 2+2=5, but it’s not really wrong because it wasn’t intended to teach math. And that assumes that Genesis wasn’t intended to teach us how the world got here, something that is a prior assumption taken to the text and then the text is read in light of the assumption. No other conclusion is possible. (Just like you accuse YEC of doing.)
Since I feel a great affinity toward what I believe LAR-15 was trying to say, and, yet, since I also find myself objecting strenuously to several of his claims, I wrote the following response.
LAR-15: I would question the factuality of your fifth sentence ("In the end, the Genesis creation account is straightforward historical narrative, in terms of its genre"), the meaning you intend to convey by your second sentence ("the Bible is the Word of the God who cannot lie, and therefore it must be accurate"), and, then, whether your third sentence ("The young earth is a conclusion from [God's biblical] revelation") is a NECESSARY conclusion (based on your intended meaning in your second sentence and the problems associated with your fifth sentence).

The key, however, is your fifth sentence. And so I will seek, here, to respond to your claim.

As Miller and Soden point out, in In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood,
Genesis . . . was written more than 3,000 years ago, and it was written in Hebrew. To understand it fully, one must read it first in its original language and try to understand it in relation to its original author (Moses), in relation to its original readers (Israel recently released from slavery in Egypt), and in relation to the culture, worldview, and literary genre of the text. This is an issue in the debate on origins that is often--perhaps usually--ignored by Christians. For those who would ignore it, the meaning of the text is self-evident: "The real question involved in this debate is, Do we accept the plainest meaning of the Bible, or do we insist on a reinterpretation in light of the prevailing opinion of scientists?" The plainest meaning . . . is indeed what we want to find, but the issue is, the plainest meaning to whom? We must start with the plainest meaning to the original recipients. (p. 48)
And when you look at those original recipients in their cultural context, you realize that the language God-through-Moses uses in Genesis 1 and 2 is not at all "straightforward historical narrative" as you and I might expect from any modern text. Not at all.

But/and when you do consider the original recipients' cultural context, you realize God-through-Moses is seeking to answer questions very different from what any of us modern American readers tend to ask. The historical questions themselves are different. And the answers really and truly have virtually nothing to do with the physical universe (or cosmos/cosmology) with which we are familiar. they do, indeed, have to do with the cosmos/cosmology, but they have to do with a cosmos/cosmology with which ancient Egyptians--and recently emancipated slaves of said Egyptians--were familiar.

As Miller and Soden note, however, the cosmos/cosmology presented in the Bible is very similar to the cosmos/cosmology of Ancient Egypt, and yet it is presented in a dramatically new and different manner. FOR EXAMPLE, while one finds all the same basic "players" in the Bible as one would in the Egyptian cosmos, the "gods" of Egypt (and the "gods" of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cosmologies) are shown to be without power (much as the Egyptian gods are embarrassed in the narrative of the 10 Plagues in the Book of Exodus).

The sun and moon are "gods" in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian contexts; but "the Genesis account does not name the luminaries and thereby does not name any of the gods of the ancient Near East, whether Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or Canaanite. While the general purposes for the luminaries are the same between the biblical and ancient Near Eastern perspectives, in the biblical account the lights are not deities. They are merely parts of God's creation, doing his bidding and accomplishing his will. They do not have independent rule or power in creation but are completely under God's control, doing his bidding" (p. 132).

This is not a place for me to develop Miller and Soden's full thesis. Their book is relatively brief and exceptionally clear. I encourage you to read it on your own. I did--and do--want to point out, however, how great the divide is between the world into which the Genesis account was released and our world today.

But I would like to quote one more section from Miller and Soden with respect to the cultural context:
[T]he ancient Near Eastern world did not sharply distinguish between their stories of cosmology and "history." Neither cosmology (how the universe came to be) nor cosmology (how one understands the universe, including the relationship of the gods) in the ancient world was understood in scientific or historical terms but as symbolic, metaphysical explanations or as a means to "articulate the incomprehensible and the marvelous, while attempting to express such phenomena in a rational manner." (p. 156) [Final quoted text is from Vincent Arieh Tobin, "Mythological Texts," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (p. 459).]
And finally. About those "clear" references to seven, literal, 24-hour days, listed in Genesis 1. Miller and Soden point out three "very interesting" features of those days to which my attention has never otherwise been directed by any other authors whose works I have read.
  • "There is no known record of any other society framing creation in seven days, so the use of it in Genesis 1 does not appear to be directly dependent on Israel's ancient Near Eastern mind-set. The use of a seven-day period of time, however, commonly appears in ancient Near Eastern mythology, legend, and cultic practice. . . . The number seven was . . . not always intended to be a literal number; instead, it carried symbolic significance, being generally understood to express the ideas of completion, perfection, or fulfillment." (pp. 155-156).
  • "Most translations of Genesis 1 do not accurately represent the Hebrew text when it comes to the numbering of the days of creation. Most translations refer to 'the first day,' 'the second day,' 'the third day,' and so on. In fact, the Hebrew text lacks the article 'the' on days 1 through 5. It should read as the New American Standard Bible translates: 'And there was evening and there was morning, one day' (v. 5); 'And there was evening and there was morning, a second day' (v. 8), and so on through day 5. . . . It is only when we come to day 6 that the definite article is used: 'And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day' (v. 31). This detail of the Hebrew text is significant because it is very unusual. The normal way of indicating the 'first' of anything is with the Hebrew word for 'first' (the ordinal) and not the Hebrew word for 'one.' The Hebrew phrase used here is almost always translated and understood to mean 'one day' in its other uses in the Hebrew Bible. . . .

    "[W]e must wonder why it is written in such an unusual way if it is to be understood as a simple consecutive twenty-four-hour period. The sixth and seventh days do have the article ('the sixth day' and 'the seventh day,' 1:31; 2:2-3), although day 7 does not use the summary formula, 'There was evening and there was morning, day x.' Clearly the sixth and seventh days are set apart as distinct in the listing of the days." (pp. 49-50)

    Miller and Soden note that this strangeness in the text may seem insignificant. After all, "It still tells us that there were seven days, doesn't it?"

    "The point is," they respond, "Genesis does not state the sequence like a Hebrew reader might have expected. Instead, it uses a very unusual way of expressing the days and makes a significant change in the last two days. It is as if the writer is telling the reader to pay attention because this is not a normal week. . . . There is clearly an intended sequence. But the arrangements may be logical (or theological), not necessarily chronological (or scientific). And perhaps there is even more significance, or a different significance. . . . The point here is the unique presentation, suggesting to the original readers something other than a normal or straightforward reading of a simple week." (pp. 50-51).
And, finally,
  • Miller and Soden note that "if we were reading [Genesis 2] independently of any other text, we would naturally assume that it is giving us a chronological timeline for creation.

    "If Genesis 2 is taken most naturally (chronologically), however, as the creation of all the plants, the animals, and the birds, then it contradicts the order of creation in chapter 1. . . . Furthermore, chapter 2 implies only one creative day. There is no reference to any other days and, in fact, the chapter begins with reference to a single day (Gen. 2:4 literally states, 'in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens'). . . ." (p. 55)

    Miller and Soden note that the standard evangelical "solution" to this apparent conundrum is "simply" to "explain" that "the author intended to give a non-chronological order in chapter 2 in order to make a theological point (for example, mankind is seen as central to creation rather than as the climax)." But, say Miller and Soden, "If chapter 2 is out of order for theological reasons, why must chapter 1 be in order chronologically? The only reason for this assumption is because it makes sense to us and because we have assumed that the enumerating of the days requires it. [But i]f the lack of the article on the first five days shows us otherwise, then a strict, linear chronology of Genesis 1 is not necessarily required." (p. 56)

    Ultimately, then, they conclude, "The point is that one cannot take both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 'literally' without creating contradictions between the creation accounts. This is a final clue from the passage itself that it is not meant to be taken literally, or as if it is scientific information." And then, finally, "When we come to recognize some of these clues that the original audience would have intuitively noticed, we realize that our naively 'plain' meaning was not plain in the same way to the original audience." (p. 57)
And so. IF the language God-through-Moses uses in Genesis 1 and 2 is not "straightforward historical narrative" as we modern Americans might expect, THEN the fact that "the Bible is the Word of the God who cannot lie, and therefore must be accurate" is kind of beside the point when it comes to deciding whether the Earth is old or young. And, finally, it is illegitimate to claim that "The young earth is a conclusion from [God's biblical] revelation." Rather, it is a conclusion from someone's (potentially faulty) INTERPRETATION of the Bible based on that person's (potentially faulty) ASSUMPTIONS about the intended meaning of the text of Scripture.

1 comment:

  1. The more deeply I explore that magnificent poem, the more I'm convinced that the YEC view is a very awkward fit with the text.

    In addition to asserting the superiority of the God of Abraham over near-eastern deities, Genesis 1 displays God's gradual faithfulness. God doesn't do everything all at once, but carefully develops the necessary context, step by step.

    This theme is repeated in Genesis 2, although with a different sequencing. In the first account, God waits to create man until he has prepared a garden for him, and in the second account, God waits to plant the garden until man is there to cultivate it.

    The point can't the precise speed or sequencing, since we're given two incompatible sequences back to back. But both of these stories reinforce the idea that God works in a gradual and orderly way. God does things step by step, because his works are interdependent, and we should both trust in and emulate his patient ways.

    Had he chosen to, God could certainly have created everything in a week... but this particular poem would have been a bizarre way to communicate that.