February 10, 2006

Reevaluating Genesis

For some time now, I have been curious about the fact that, although I have been taught, and it always seemed to me, that the most straightforward interpretation of Genesis 1-3 was that God created the earth in 6 astronomical days (I never understood why they necessarily had to be 24 hour days, but whatever), many commentators, both Jewish and Christian, writing before the development of the modern scientific theories which Evangelicals often accuse of prejudicing intepreters, have adopted a "day-age theory" understanding of the text. Augustine and Nachminides are supposed to be good examples (I haven't read the primary sources). I also noted, quite some time ago, that in the flood narrative, the Hebrew term for "world" literally means "inhabited earth" (an article I read recently claimed that it could refer to a particular land, as in "the land of Israel" as well, but I'm getting to that), so that if the annual floods of the Tigris, Euphrates, and possibly the Nile were to rise to unprecedented heights in the same season, so as to join one another, a native speaker of the language who believed God was responsible for the weather might have uttered a phrase translated as "the flood covered the whole earth."

Now, to clarify, I have never been a "young universe" creationist. That is, I see absolutely no Biblical justification for the belief that the whole universe is merely a few thousand years old. The reason for this is that I have believed basically ever since I started looking at it that the first two chapters of Genesis contain not two but three creation narratives.

If you remember your high school (or perhaps middle school) English class, you will probably remember being taught that in writing essays you should begin your introductory paragraph with very broad statements and, over the course of the paragraph focus in to your thesis. This is precisely what I believe the beginning of Genesis does. The subject matter of the Bible is the relationship between God and man. The subject matter of the Torah is the relationship between God and Israel. Genesis serves as an historical introduction to these topics. Verse one I take to be the first account. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." That is, at the very beginning of time, before anything at all existed, God create everything that exists, ex nihilo. The first story deals with the creation of the entire universe. The next story, found in 1:2-2:3, is about the creation of the planet earth, the location where the action of the story is to take place. Interestingly, this account begins, in verse 2, with "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters." The first account is a creation ex nihilo account, but the second is an order from chaos story. This implies that the ex nihilo creation of the matter of the universe had already taken place when God began to form the planet earth in the second story. The third story, found in chapter 2, focuses further on the creation of mankind from the dust; that is, from the material of the planet earth. Later we get the history of the human race, and then we focus to the history of the Hebrew people.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that what I have labeled the second account, the account of the creation of the earth, uses the phrase "Evening came, and then morning: the first day" in 1:5, and similar phrases in several other places, and this is what led me to suppose that there must be six astronomical days; that is, that the earth must rotate about its axis 6 times during the course of the whole creation. However, there is the problem that the counting of days begins before the creation of the sun in vv. 14-18. This can be solved simply by pointing out that the text of the passage can support a reading on which God merely places the pre-existing sun, moon, and stars in the sky, making them visible to (yet to be created) people on earth and appointing them as time keepers. On the other hand, I once read that Nachminides said that the Hebrew word for "evening" had originally meant "chaos" (because darkness is associated with chaos), and "morning" had meant "order," so that these lines should in fact be read as "there was chaos moving to order, and it was one time-period." This can solve the difficulty of there being days before there is a sun, or at least before the sun is visible from earth.

Now, recently I read two more interesting articles. The first was from the blog Higgaion, which I found through Biblical Studies Carnival II. The article is entitled "Why I Am Not a Creationist". In this article, Christopher Heard, who, according to his profile, is a professor of religion in Oak Park California (doesn't say what school), makes six points in an argument that the creationism current in Evangelical circles is bad Scriptural interpretation. I will deal briefly with each of his points.

"1. Creationism depends on genre confusion." This argument I have heard before. The claim is that the first chapter of Genesis is "a highly structured ... theological paean to God." Now, I don't know anything about semitic paeans, but I do know something about songs with theological content today. For instance, when I was in Sunday school as a child, we learned a song that began "In the beginning, God made the sea / And the forest filled with trees / He made the mountains up so high / And on the very top He placed the sky." Now, one mights ask whether God made the mountains before or after the trees, whether the sky is the sort of thing that one can "place" (since it is not really an object per se), whether it makes sense to talk about the sky being "above" anything, since we are really talking about space and there is not an absolute "up," and so forth, but none of these questions has any bearing on the "truth" of this song. The song is "true" in the sense that God really responsible for the creation of the things named, regardles of how or in what order He went about it. However, I suspect that the genre conventions for a semitic "theological paean" do involve rather more direct literal truth than the genre conventions for Sunday school songs (particularly this one, which was, in fact, about the reason for the creation of the hippopotamus), such that we can probably still expect Genesis 1 to be at least a "poetic account" of real events, whatever that means. I have heard people claim that there is no difference of genres within the single book of Genesis, and I don't read Hebrew so I can't adequately evaluate the conflicting claims, but I suspect that there is a genre difference between chapter one and the rest of the book, although chapter 2 probably belongs to the same genre as the parts of the book that are verifiably historical. In short, I really don't feel qualified to evaluate this claim or its consequences without first doing a great deal of study on the Hebrew language and early semitic cultures ... maybe some day ...

"2. The Bible tells multiple creation stories." I've heard this one before too, and never thought it was very important. I do not see Genesis chapters 1 and 2 as being contradictory at all, but Professor Heard makes a new and interesting point that I had not seen before. He believes that Psalm 74, beginning in verse 12, is yet another creation account. I think this is probably just another version of the order-from-chaos account found in Genesis 1:2-2:3, but I don't know what to make of large portions of it, especially the stuff about Leviathan. Hmm.

Points 3-5 are intended to show, collectively, that the Biblical creation stories are similar to Babylonian and Egyptian accounts, and what the readers are really supposed to notice is the differences, which mostly have to do with the type of deity involved. I agree that this is the most important point being made by the Biblical accounts of creation, but am not at all convinced that this completely invalidates any attempt to glean other truth from them.

"6. Biblical creation texts seem perfectly comfortable with the idea of intermediate agents/causes in God's creative activity." I like this point. Look, for instance, at Genesis 1:24 where God commands "Let the earth produce living creatures." The earth produces the living creatures, at God's prompting. Why, then, is the Biblical text taken as precluding any use of naturalistic operations on God's part?

The second article I read recently was "Young Earth Creationism: A Literal Mistake" by Dick Fischer (HT: Sun and Shield). This article overblows some of its points and comes up with some consequences that I find theologically untenable (as, e.g., that Adam and Noah literally existed, but not all human beings alive today are descendents of this bloodline), but he makes two important points that I want to examine. His overall argument is that a straightforward, literal interpretation of Genesis is actually incompatible with young earth creationism.

His first point regards literal 24 hour days. The first point people always make to this is that Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 seem to suggest that we needn't take this literally. I would respond to this by asking about the "there was evening and there was morning" portions, but he answers this objection to. Psalm 90:6 talks about grass growing in the morning and being cut down in the evening. This is, of course, not literal, and some commentators have thought that "morning" was used for a general period of growth, and evening for a period of decay. Furthermore, Genesis 2:4 says "This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens." If we take the word "day" in the literal sense of the English word, then one 24 hour day must be equal to six 24 hour days, which is, of course, impossible.

The second interesting point is that some of the discussion of Eden actually sounds like it is talking about irrigation. In particular, the term sometimes translated "mist" in Genesis 2:6 sometimes means "fountain." The area described is a desert with fertile river valleys, but very little rain (between the Tigris and Euphrates), so the text could be describing the local situation there where the land was watered by irrigation and annual floods, but received no rain.

Increasingly it seems to me that the Genesis account is not intended to say what it has been made to say. Also, I have been unable to find any evidence of anything like young earth creationism prior to about 1850. This would seem to indicate that it is not part of historical Christian belief, but rather a reaction against certain modern anti-Christian influences. Today its wide acceptance among Evangelicals is probably due to the threat posed by the Neo-Darwinist philosophy of people like Richard Dawkins, which is indeed hostile to Christianity, but goes far beyond the actual scientific theory of evolution.

Christianity does, of course, insist that God created the world. Furthermore, it seems that, although man himself was formed from the earth, and woman from man, rather than ex nihilo (Gen. 2:7, 2:22), God "breathes the breath of life" into the man, and this, certainly, tells us that Christians must hold that something unique happened at the creation of the first man, which did not happen with regard to the animals. I certainly have yet to be completely converted to having no qualms about accepting evolutionary theory as presently understood by science, but through the considerations listed above, I am beginning to see that there really is no good reason to suppose that Christianity requires belief even in the limited form of young earth creationism that I had previously accepted (as I had often said, "the earth as we know it today was formed by God from chaos six to ten thousand years ago" - this is nothing so radical as the position Fischer argues against, but still somewhat troubling). This is something I intend to continue to evaluate critically, as I am still uncertain as to exactly what it is we are supposed to understand as the message of the early chapters of Genesis. In particular, it still seems to me that because of the way Christian theology draws lessons from history it is necessary that the story of Adam and Eve and the garden records a real event (though perhaps not completely literally) through which sin entered the world, and that all human beings alive today are their descendents.

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