Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 4

I’m continuing my blog series on why one should not interpret Genesis 1 in a literal fashion. I’ve mentioned the highly stylized nature of Genesis 1 (here), the internal coherence between having lights without light sources (here), and the fact that Adam is said to do too much on the sixth day (here). Another good reason to not interpret Genesis 1 in a literal fashion is because there exists literary incoherence between the first and second creation accounts.  When one compares the two chapters with each other, it becomes readily obvious there are chronological, theological, and temporal differences between the two accounts. Most evangelicals typically hold to a one-event view when it comes to the earliest chapters of Genesis. The creation of the universe is found from Genesis 1:1-2:3 and then chapter 2:4-25 is an elaboration of what occurred during or on the sixth day. This harmonization of the two accounts is understandable. People may harmonize because of issues with inerrancy, the skepticism associated with Israel borrowing from other cultures, or because the two accounts may seemingly contradict.  I do not think the two accounts stand in contradiction but in contradistinction- they are describing an event that happened in space-time history from different angles or viewpoints. This means there are multiple initial creation accounts but only one creation. In the ancient world, there was more than one version of how things started. The Israelites could have multiple accounts and not be upset or flustered. It is fitting to point out that we have the same thing within the Gospels. There are multiple accounts of many of the same events with different theological and literary points made and it does not bring inerrancy into question. The historical books of the OT also describe the same events from different viewpoints. Now on to the differences.

Bruce Waltke in his Old Testament Theology summarizes the sequential differences remarking:

If there is tension between day 1 and day 4 of the first creation account, there is an even greater tension in the temporal connections of the second creation (2:4-25) account with the first (1:1-2:3). The second creation account, as presented in the KJV, gives the following sequences of events: God fashions Adam, God plants the garden of Eden and the plants grow, God forms the animals. Adam names the animals, and God “builds” Eve. The NIV partially relieves the temporal tension by rendering the ambiguous narrative waw in 2:8 and 19 by pluperfects, “God had planted a garden” (2:8) and “had formed the animals” (2:19), allowing the sequence: planting the garden, forming the animals, naming the animals, and building Eve, a temporal sequence more harmonious with the first account. Nevertheless, even if one accepts this harmonizing rendering, the temporal burden involved in a straightforward reading of the two accounts is still unbearable. According to the first account, God made man and woman on the sixth day, and according to the second account, he made woman in the garden. Then, assuming the temporal harmony of the two accounts, God planted the garden before making Eve, and presumably he planted the garden on the third day along with other vegetation. But a straightforward reading of the second account envisions the trees as having sprouted and matured to the point of bearing fruit in three days. To be sure, creation may assume apparent age (“mature universe”), as when Christ turned water into wine as a sign and wonder that the new age had begun, but the text recounts that I AM “made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground (wayyasmah, Hiphil, 2:9) as a natural process with no indication that he intended it to create wonder.

Further differences within the two accounts can be seen below as the two accounts are paralleled with each other.

The theological portrait of the main character (God) is different within the two accounts.  Genesis 1 presents a creation with no hint of battle or struggle. It came about by the Sovereign and powerful word of the Lord, a king’s decree if you will. God is announcing things to be within his temple as the supreme temple-builder or architect. This is not a king who says things and sometimes they happen. He speaks and it happens! All of creation is doing exactly what God says. In other creation accounts, many other gods would say something and nothing would come from it. This is not the portrait of God within the first account. There is no fight or questioning within the Gen. 1 narrative. This is a God who gets what he wants when he wants. He is not tame. He is a transcendent king who makes things come into existence. It is a picture of a God who is far off. Genesis 2 presents a potter in the dirt painstakingly creating his works. The second creation account presents God as one who is ever so near; he is immanent. The image is of someone deep down in the mud working (vv. 7-8, 22) as a potter works with the clay. It’s the image of God with dirt under his fingernails. God is said to lean down and breathe life down into the nostrils of Adam. That’s not the image of a king. It is a picture of a God who is near. The Bible starts with this tension and carries the motif to the very end. God is far off but so near. God commands and it is formed yet he is in the mud working with his own hands. God is completely different from us but yet we’re so much like him. There is good reason for including both these two accounts.

One possible objection would be the claim that in Matthew 19:4-5, Jesus referred to events in Genesis 1 and to events in Genesis 2 as one harmonious account. The Pharisees approach Jesus and attempt to trap him with a question concerned the ethics of divorce. During Jesus’ time, there was a significant debate between Pharisaical parties on the correct interpretation of Moses’ divorce regulations (Deut. 24:1), as noted in this excerpt from the Mishnah,  9.10: “The school of Shammai says: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her. … And the school of Hillel says: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him. … Rabbi Akiba says, [he may divorce her] even if he found another fairer than she” (see Mishnah, 9 for an example of a Jewish certificate of divorce and the terms required for remarriage; see also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 4.253 for the phrase “whatsoever cause”). The goal was to catch Jesus between a rock and a hard place. In response to their shyster, theological quandary, Jesus appeals to God’s intent in the institution of marriage found within Creation. Jesus avoids the Pharisaic argument about reasons for divorce and goes back to the beginning of creation to demonstrate God’s intention for the institution of marriage. It is to be a permanent bond between a man and a woman that joins them into one new union that is consecrated by physical intercourse. In his response, he quotes from both creation accounts as one event (Gen. 1:27 in Matt. 19:4 and Gen. 2:24 in Matt. 19:5-6). I do not think that this objection is very good though. Those who hold to a two creation accounts viewpoint agree that the Creation stories are both a narrative unity. The author or final compiler (s) included both stories as a narrative unity to expressly and adequately describe the majesty of the God of the Hebrews over the universe. This is how Jesus can refer to the Creation account and use inspired and authoritative words found within both descriptions of the one event.

For these reasons, it is likely best not to interpret Genesis 1 in a literalistic fashion.

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2 responses to “Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 4

  1. Austin, I enjoyed reading your posts. I tend toward a more literal approach to Genesis 1, but I’m not as much a critic of other views as I was when younger. Reading your 4 posts has prompted me to reflect on the passage again. For discussion purposes, I’ll leave the follow thoughts:
    1. Differing accounts can be an affirmation that something specific and historically real did happen that the accounts describe. If so, it is just as reasonable to seek to harmonize the accounts as it is to conclude that neither is an actual description of what really happened.
    2. Avoiding Gen. 1:1-2:3 for a moment, it could be argued that there is nothing textually to indicate that a different literary form is used in Gen. 2:4-11:32 compared to 12:1-50:26. If this is true, it is as reasonable to take Gen. 2-11 as history as it is Gen. 12-50.
    3. Gen. 2 seems to present a detailed account of God preparing creation for man. A similar perspective is seen in Gen. 1:26-30 with man being given dominion over creation.
    4. Turning to Gen. 1, what if the creation of light/darkness and Day/Night is a way to describe God’s ordering of time as we know it. The description ends with this time emphasis – the first day. The description of the heavenly bodies on the 4th day also emphasizes the time element in verse 14. The order then is that God created time (1st day), and he created heavenly bodies to operate according to the time functions he created (4th day). With this understanding, it is not unreasonable to speak of light/dark being created before heavenly bodies.
    5. Concerning your blog about too much occurring on the 6th day: in Max Andrews’ list, nothing in 1-7 needs to take much time. The same is true for 9-12. That leaves just Adam naming the animals. For the sake of argument, picture looking at and describing animals for 10 hours straight, taking a nap, and waking up with Eve there. If all you knew to that point was hours of animals, it is reasonable to say, “At long last!” (per James Miller’s quotation). 🙂
    6. If the above points are valid, it is just as reasonable to see Gen. 1 as describing 6 actual day periods – particularly if the ordering of time is an emphasis of the account – as it is to see it as a poetic literary device, even though it has stylistic elements.
    It will be a fun day (or extended period of time, or I’m just using day to refer to a certain reality but I’m using it as a literary form that emphasis the experience but not the element of time) in the future when we are in God’s presence in a more ultimate way and he reveals the wonderful realities behind the mysteries inherent in interpreting passages like this one!
    Joel Wolfe

    • I appreciate you reading and commenting on my blog. As you can likely tell from the thing I’ve written on here, I enjoy discussing this topic with fellow believers. Here are some thoughts from your post.

      1.I’m not affirming that it isn’t historical. I would readily agree that something occurred within real, space-time history. Yet, if we were actually there, it might not look exactly as the text so artistically describes. It’s historical. But, following C. John Collins, I think that “historical” likely doesn’t include what I would normally think. He says the following about what historical doesn’t mean:

      a-“historical” in this sense is not the same as prose, and certainly does not imply that Genesis 1-11 has no figurative or imaginative elements,
      b- historical is not the same as “without motif, themes, and symbolism” of the ancient context
      c- historical is not the same as “complete” in detail” or “free from ideological bias,” neither of which is possible of desirable anyway, and
      d- historical is not necessarily the same as “told in exact chronological sequence” unless the text claims this for itself.

      Though Dr. Collins sees 2:4-25 as an elaboration of what occurs on the sixth day, I tend to agree with him when it comes to the type of “history” Genesis 1-11 attempts to portray. In Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?, he uses the phrase “mists of antiquity to describe the genre of Genesis 1-11 saying “ I say…’the mist of antiquity’ to remind us that we are dealing with the kind of literature that deals with ‘prehistory’ and ‘protohistory.’ The Assyriologist William Hallo uses the term “prehistory” for the period of human existence before there were secure written records, and ‘protohistory’ for the earliest stages for which there are records. And, as Kenneth Kitchen argues, in the nineteenth century B.C., people ‘knew already that their world was old, very old.’ Therefore the ‘mists of antiquity’ represents the perspective the ancients themselves would have held. I see no reason to dispute the view that Israel’s narrative of prehistory bears a relationship with the narratives of prehistory found in Mesopotamia…This implies, like those other stories, Genesis aims to tell the reader a true story of origins; but it also implies that there are likely to be figurative elements and literary conventions that should make us weary of being too literalistic in our reading. That is, the genre identification, prehistory and protohistory, does not mean that the author had no concern for real events; far from it, it implies that real events form the backbone of the story.” (57-58) Bruce Waltke mentions other types of textual inferences within his OT Theology that I’ve yet to write on as to why the narrative genre in 1-11 is different from 12-50 (it’s internal, temporal incoherences, the anthropopathy, and the relationship between other ANE cosmogonies).

      2.I think the way the story is crafted would lend to the idea that straight historiography is not being pursued. I do think that Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament are linked intimately together.

      a.Commands issued to Adam are given to Abraham and others (1:28; 12:2; 17:2,6,8; 22:16).
      b.The “blessing” idea is explicit in 12:2-3 and is combined with being fruitful and multiplying in 17:20; 22:17-18;26:3-4; 28:3: these echo God’s blessings upon the original pair (1:28).
      c.The idea of “offspring” and “seed” ties the rest of Genesis with the first eleven chapters (3:15; 4:25; 12:7; 13:15-16; 17:7-9).
      d.Abraham, Abel, Noah, and Israel mirrors Adam by building altars to sacrifice to the LORD.
      e.Israel is to be a nation of priests over God’s earth much like Adam and Eve were priests and vice-regents over the earth (Exo. 19). The prophets call Israel to be the people through whom the LORD will act in relation to the whole world.
      f.Outside of Genesis 1-5, explicit references to Eden as a prototypical place of fruitfulness occur in Gen.13:10; Isa. 51:3;Joel 2:3, and Ezek. 28:13; 31:8-9; 36:35.
      g.Adam is mentioned in the genealogy of 1 Chronicles 1 as-well-as the genealogies in the earlier chapters of Genesis and Luke (3:38).
      h.The tree of life receives further mention in the OT & NT (Prov. 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4; Rev. 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19).
      i.Numerous passages refer back to creation (Psa. 8; 104)
      j.Human rest on the Sabbath imitates God’s rest after his work on creation (Exo. 20:11, echoing 2:2-3).
      k.Malachi 2:15 is likely referring to God’s intent in marriage (Gen. 2:24).

      But, that doesn’t imply that what is going in Genesis 1-11 is the same as Genesis 12-50. Collins again affirms that “…the author may well use such devices as anachronisms if it serves the purpose; ‘historical verisimilitude’ (aiming to get all the details of life exactly as the characters would have known them, even if the audience did not live that way) is not strongly claimed by the text.” (60).

      3.I understand the reason behind interpreting it that way. But, what about the varied sequences between the two accounts (or between the account and then second description)?

      4.That is interesting. I’ll continue to think on that. I agree that there has to be a good reason why the author would describe the events like that.

      5.Adam was a very busy man. 🙂

      6.Whether the days are literal 24-hour days or some sort of anthropomorphic days isn’t fully decided within my mind just yet. I currently would describe myself as being one who holds to a Literary Framework Hypothesis when it comes to Genesis 1 and advocates of that viewpoint vary on whether or not the days are literal 24-hours days. The viewpoint affirms that “Exegesis indicates that the scheme of the creation week itself is a poetic figure and that the several pictures of creation history are set within the six work-day frames not chronologically but topically. In distinguishing simple description and poetic figure from what is definitively conceptual the only ultimate guide, here as always, is comparison with the rest of Scripture. In other words, the distinctive feature of the Framework interpretation is its understanding of the week (not the days as such) as a metaphor. Moses used the metaphor of a week to narrate God’s acts of creation. Thus God’s supernatural creative words or fiats are real and historical, but the exact timing is left unspecified. Why the week then? Moses intended to show Israel God’s call to Adam to imitate Him in work, with the promise of entering His Sabbath rest. God’s week is a model, analogous to Israel’s week. The events are grouped in two triads of days. Days 1-3 (creation’s kingdoms) are paralleled by Days 4-6 (creation’s kings). Adam is king of the earth and God is King of Creation.” This was taken from the PCA’s Report of the Creation Study Committee found here (http://www.pcahistory.org/creation/report.html#d3).

      I wholeheartedly agree and look forward to that fun day. I love this topic and appreciate the good and fruitful dialogue. Thanks Mr. Wolfe.

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