Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Genesis 1 In Context

How do we read the first chapter of Genesis? First of all as a scientific treatise, one that may help us reconcile the claims of modern science with Scripture?  This is frequently the position Christians take in our days, and in a sense it is understandable, given the cultural situation wherein we find ourselves.  But if understandable, it is also regrettable. Reading the first book of Scripture primarily for what is considered its scientific information threatens to hide from us the fact that the book is part of God's redemptive-historical revelation, his message of his dealings with his people and with the world; indeed, his message of salvation. As one Reformed theologian rightly said, Genesis 1 is ultimately a revelation of Jesus Christ. A single-minded concentration on the age of the earth and the length of the days of creation has very little to do with this central message. We must learn again to read Genesis 1 from the proper perspective.

I have suggested one way of doing so in the three-part series "Genesis 1 in Context" (see under "collected papers" in the sidebar, direct link here). Herein we look at Moses' account as the divine proclamation that the God who redeemed Israel from Egypt is also the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth. Israel, which is ready to enter the promised land, must learn to trust in Him alone and to ignore the gods of the surrounding nations. These gods are in focus, however. In the series I argue that Genesis 1 is at least in part a polemic against the religions of Babylonia, Egypt, and Canaan.  The first of these is described in some detail in Part 1. Part 2 focuses on such elements as the symbolic meaning of the number seven (in Genesis 1 and throughout Scripture) and the principle of separation (which again we frequently meet in both Genesis 1 and elsewhere in the Bible). Part 3 returns to the Babylonian creation story and provides further evidence of the polemic nature of Genesis 1. It focuses, among other things, on the creation of sun, moon, and stars, the role of the "creatures of the deep," and the differences between the nature of humanity according to Genesis 1 and the Babylonian account of creation respectively.


John Barach said...

A few thoughts on the paper "Genesis 1 in Context":

(1) While you point out that Moses is generally held to be the author of Genesis, that isn't stated anywhere in Scripture itself, is it?

About the closest I can find to support for that idea are these two data: (a) Jesus speaks of "Moses and the Prophets," presumably including everything from Genesis through Deuteronomy as "Moses," and (b) there is talk of Moses commanding circumcision, while circumcision is commanded in Genesis 17.

Nevertheless, it seems entirely possible to me that Moses' work on Genesis consisted of final editing (as someone obviously edited Deuteronomy after Moses' death and included the reference to his death at the end). Nothing in Scripture rules out the possibility that, say, Joseph wrote Genesis.

Furthermore, regardless of Moses' involvement and regardless of when that took place, it seems entirely likely to me that the stories in Genesis predated Moses. There is no need to assume that Israel heard them for the first time from Moses after the Exodus. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to learn that Adam wrote down what we know call "Genesis 1," having received it directly from God Himself.

You yourself acknowledge that Moses may have drawn on sources, oral and written. Therefore, the assumption that everything in Genesis must be related to Moses and the situation of Israel at the Exodus already seems faulty and potentially misleading.

And all the more so when you begin to speculate about the role that Moses' education played in the preparation of Genesis. You speak about him being trained in the Egyptian schools, and then add that he might have known all about Babylonian relgion, too, which is, of course, sheer speculation.

And what role did all of this play? We simply don't know. We don't need to assume that it played any role at all in the writing of Genesis. But it appears to be (almost) crucial for your subsequent argument to suggest that this education did play some role, such that we need to know about Egyptian and Babylonian mythology to interpret Genesis!

John Barach said...

(2) You state that "There is a strong, although indirect, polemical element in Genesis 1." Later, you add that "Its presence becomes clear ... if we give attention to the world in which the Israelites lived and to the religious traditions of the nations that surrounded them."

From that starting point, you go on to talk about Babylonian myths (without, I mention in passing, discussing why Moses, leading the people from Egypt to Canaan, would be so worried about correcting Babylonian ideas!). You say that the account in Genesis 1 "contradicts" the Babylonian cosmogony.

But none of what you have written proves that Genesis 1 has a polemical intent at all.

First, it's important to keep in mind that the fact that a text can be applied polemically does not itself mean that it was written as a polemic. There are many passages in the Bible -- maybe this is true of every passage in the Bible! -- that can have some polemical application, but that doesn't indicate that these passages were written as polemic.

The story of Jesus' resurrection has obvious polemical applications, but that doesn't mean that it was written with a polemical intent.

Likewise, Genesis 1 may have polemical applications (e.g., against sun worship). But the fact that it can be applied in this way does not mean that it was written as a polemic against sun worship, let alone that we need to know something about sun worship in order to understand Genesis 1.

Second, there is nothing at all in Genesis 1 that, taken by itself, would incline us to see it as polemical. When the prophets or psalmists mock the pagan gods, their polemical intent is obvious. But there's no hint of polemical intent anywhere in Genesis 1. No one reading it by itself would say "This was written to attack someone else's beliefs."

Third, to say that Genesis 1 has a "polemical element" or a "polemical intent" requires acceptance of certain assumptions.

I have two imaginary books on my desk. Book 1 is a novel about a godly and faithful marriage. Book 2 is an argument for doing away with marriage altogether.

It's certainly possible that Book 1 was written with some polemical intent or that there's a polemical element in Book 1. But since Book 1 never refers to Book 2, never interacts with its arguments, never even talks directly about why marriage is good, no comparison of the two books would reveal that polemical intent (though an interview with the author might). Mere comparison of Genesis 1 with pagan mythology doesn't reveal that Genesis 1 is a polemic against pagan mythology.

Furthermore, in order for Book 1 to have been written with a polemical intent, as a response to Book 2, Book 1 must have been written after Book 2.

In stating that Genesis 1 is (at least in part) a polemic against pagan mythology, you are assuming that the pagan mythology came first and that Genesis 1 came later, in response to it. But that assumption itself cannot be proven and is, in fact, questionable.

Is it not, in fact, likely that pagan mythology is a corruption of the truth, truth known by Adam and his descendants? In that case, it may even be possible that pagan mythology involves a polemic against God's revelation (just as Book 2 clearly involves a polemic against God's institution of marriage, if not against Book 1 itself).

John Barach said...

(3) When it comes to the days of creation, you draw out a number of ideas and implications, some of them linked polemically with pagan mythology. Again, though, the fact that you can apply Genesis 1 against pagan mythology doesn't mean that it was written against a background of and as a response to pagan mythology.

But why should the ideas matter and the historicity not? Sure, you can draw doctrinal implications from the text and apply it polemically and so forth. But you may not pit those implications against the historicity of what the text describes, any more than we do with the accounts of Jesus' resurrection.

We can draw all kinds of implications from those accounts. We can apply them polemically against various forms of paganism and unbelief. We can note the symbolism in them (e.g., Mary mistakes Jesus for "the Gardener": he is, after all, the second Adam). But none of that in itself is the point of the passage, and none of those things exists or matters apart from the historicity of the resurrection on the third day. Imagine someone talking about the symbolism of "three" in the Bible, and then implying that we don't need to believe that Jesus really was raised on the third day. Or imagine someone saying that, because we understand all these implications and ideas in the text, we don't need to ask ("The text doesn't intend to answer") whether Jesus really was raised from the dead on the third day. We have the ideas; we don't need the history. That is Gnosticism.

(4) You talk about the symbolism of the number seven. But isn't it possible that you're getting things backwards here?

The reason the number seven often has to do with completion and fullness is precisely because the world was created and reached its preliminary eschatological completion in seven days. The symbolism of the number seven is grounded on Genesis 1, and from that point it snowballs into the rest of Scripture. Instead, you start by talking about the meaning of the number seven, point to its use elsewhere in Scripture, and then read it back into Genesis 1. But that raises the question: How did the number seven get that significance? If you don't start with Genesis 1, you can't get to the answer.

(5) In passing, I'll point out that, while the panel structure you describe (three days of forming, three days of filling) has some value, it also has some flaws. It makes Day 4 (lights) parallel Day 1 (light), but the lights in Day 4 are put into the firmament (Day 2), which clearly includes everything we call outer space. It makes Day 5 (fish and birds) parallel Day 2 (waters and firmament), but the fish in Day 5 are in the seas (Day 3) and the birds multiply on the earth (Day 3), so that there is a closer parallel between Day 5 and Day 3 than between Day 5 and Day 2.

In this connection, I'll add that it is also possible to see a chiastic structure in Genesis 1:1-2:3. And then, I'll add that no amount of literary structuring necessarily means that the events did not take place in the way and in the order described. The entire book of Judges is a chiasm. So, arguably, is 1-2 Samuel. So are other paragraphs, passages, and books of the Bible. But the literary structuring does not imply that these books are non-historical or that, in asking about their historicity, we are asking the wrong question.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

I thank br. Barach for his attention but urge him to reread (or perhaps to read for the first time?) the articles in question. I promise that a serious, unprejudiced reading will show that they contain full and often detailed answers to all the questions he raises. It will also make clear that interpreting Genesis 1 redemptive-historically, as I do, rather than as a scientific treatise, does not deny its historicity, but strongly affirms it.

Benjamin said...

I thank Dr. Oosterhoff for her very helpful articles outlining the context in which its original hearers would have heard Genesis 1. It appears some can be bothered by this treatment of Genesis 1, but I can only describe Dr. Oosterhoff’s approach as good exegesis. In part 3 of the essay she succinctly states what her approach requires: “that we give attention to the original context of the document in question, namely to the apparent intent of the author, the times in which he wrote, and the situation of the primary readers or hearers.” This is how we should approach every Biblical text.

I became aware of contrasts (and similarities) between Genesis 1 and Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythologies a few years back, and have continued to study this topic. Reading and understanding Genesis 1 in light of the cultural and religious context of the Israelite nation has greatly enriched my understanding of and appreciation for Genesis 1, and not least my faith in the one and sovereign God. In becoming familiar with ANE cosmologies, which the Israelites were undoubtedly encountering on a regular basis, the theological significance of the Genesis creation account is only heightened.

Comparing and contrasting the Babylonian and Canaanite cosmologies with Genesis 1 is important, but if Moses was indeed the one to put it to papyrus, the Egyptian creation stories may be just as, or more, relevant. After four hundred years of life in Egypt, a relatively advanced and established culture, it is reasonable to assume that the Hebrews were strongly influenced by the mythologies of Egypt. In fact it is stated in Joshua 24:14, “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.” Egyptian mythologies would be the first the Genesis account stands firmly against. The similarities are clear, and the differences are striking. But the theological thrust of Genesis 1 over against Egyptian cosmology is similar to the contrast it brings out against the other ANE cosmologies: YHWH is One, YHWH is Sovereign and YHWH is separate from creation.

Ben Vandergugten

Tony Jelsma said...

Benjamin makes some good points. The fact that the ten plagues of Egypt were a systematic dismantling of the Egyptian deity system supports his suggestion (and I concur) that the Israelites had probably absorbed the Egyptian belief system. However, the other ancient near eastern deities also needed to be kept in mind, particularly those in the land of Canaan where the Israelites were headed. Deuteronomy and Joshua have many warnings (with good reason) to the Israelites not to worship the Canaanite gods. Thus I see that Genesis 1 is a polemic to all the ancient near eastern mythologies which the Israelites would encounter, not just then but also in the future.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thanks, Benjamin and Tony. Egypt and Babylonia were the two dominant civilizations on Israel’s borders, and I too believe that warnings were issued against both religions, and of course also against the religions of Canaan (which may in part have been derived from those of its neighbours). I focused on the Babylonian account because the biblical polemic against it seems to be particularly clear. And yes, for me also reading Genesis 1 in this way has strengthened my faith in God’s omnipotence, majesty, and greatness. It has also served me, as I wrote earlier, as a strong affirmation of the absolute historicity of the creation account. A related aspect, by the way, which I did not explore, is how to account for the undoubted and sometimes striking similarities between the first chapters of Genesis and parallel pagan historical traditions. That's something I still hope to look at one of these days.