Creation, Cosmology, and Context (RJS)

The introduction to a series on William P. Brown‘s new book, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, started a little slow. The formula of the book shows a trend most notable in Chs.  3-9 where the seven creation texts are considered, the relation between science and scripture seems almost concordist – while always denying a concordism. The ancient authors did not know modern science and it was not revealed to them yet Brown considers similarities or correspondences.

But I will leave that for another post.

Today I would like to look at Ch. 2 where Brown considers the literary and cultural context of the creation narratives in scripture. This discussion makes a nice connection with the post on Robinson’s book Absence of Mind, Peter Enns recent posts Gligamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood (not to mention Inspiration and Incarnation),  and John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One.

Ch. 2 of Brown’s book contains a brief overview of creation stories in Mesopotamian and Egyptian history. The stories of Mesopotamia have particular resonance with the Biblical creation narrative. According to Brown:

The framers of creation in the Bible inherited a treasure trove of venerable traditions from their cultural neighbors. Instead of creating their accounts ex nihilo, the composers of Scripture developed their traditions in dialogue with some of the great religious traditions of the surrounding cultures, particularly those originating from Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as those of their more immediate Canaanite neighbors. … Indeed, many of these traditions constituted what could be called the cultural “canon” of Near East antiquity, and it was in relation to them that ancient Israel developed its own. (p. 22-23)

This is a rather abrupt start, and presents a view that stretches the understanding of scripture for many evangelicals. There is a point though, and whether we feel Brown takes it too far, or whether we follow along willingly, we should read scripture in the context and, in so far as possible, through the eyes and intent of the authors and audience.

What role does an understanding of ancient Near East context play in our understanding of the form, genre, and function of scripture?

Marilynne Robinson puts it more clearly in context of the discussion we began in the posts on her book:

Elegant Babylonia, Greece to Assyria’s Rome – ancient yes, and far from primitive. There are no grounds for supposing that a “bunch of Mesopotamians” could have nothing to tell us, or could have said nothing to interest the biblical writers, for that matter. We are entirely in the habit of finding meaning in the writings of ancient India or China or Greece. We are also familiar with the phenomenon of literary allusion. (p. 24-25)

The biblical writers reform, reframe, and retell the story, When there are similarities with other ancient Near East sources these are not surprising and do not undermine the fundamental message and purpose of the biblical text.

In other words, reframing the story is granting its given, that humankind can experience devastation, and then interpreting it in a way that radically restates the conception of God and humankind implied in it. Babylonian culture was powerful and influential. The Gilgamesh epic was found in various forms throughout the ancient Near East. It is absurd to imagine that the most dramatic part of it could simply be patched into the Hebrew and no one would notice the plagiarism. To retell their story with changes would be to defend against its pagan theological implications, and also to address what are, after all, questions of very great interest.

All this assumes that these ancients had an intellectual life, that they had a meaningful awareness of surrounding culture. Archaeological evidence of continuous contact is well established. (p. 25-26)

Robinson suggests that if we grant the biblical writers at all stages the human experience, the intellectual life we take for granted in ourselves, a fully human existence, a mind, then the nature of the texts and their relationship to surrounding culture is neither surprising nor damaging.

Peter Enns gives a related perspective and insight in his book and his series of posts on BioLogos. In the post on Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish (full posts here):

But with subsequent discoveries from other cultures (Sumerian, Egyptian, Canaanite) and other time periods, scholars came to a more sober conclusion: Babylonian culture did not have such a widespread influence, and Genesis 1 was not directly dependent on Enuma Elish.

Instead, these texts are two examples of the kinds of theological themes that pervaded numerous cultures over many centuries. The stories are not directly connected, but they share common ways of thinking about beginnings. They “breathe the same air.”

A little further in the post:

… It is very clear that these stories share a common, ancient, way of speaking about the beginning of the cosmos. They participate in a similar “conceptual world” where solid barriers keep the waters away pre-existent chaotic material exists before order, and light before the sun, moon, and stars.

Those similarities should not be exaggerated or minimized. But they are telling us something: even though Genesis is unique, and even though Genesis is Scripture, it is an ancient story that reflects ancient ways of thinking.

Genesis 1 cries out to be understood in its ancient context, not separated from it. Stories like Enuma Elish give us a brief but important glimpse at how ancient Near Eastern people thought of beginnings. As I discussed in an earlier post, ancient texts like Enuma Elish help us calibrate the genre of Genesis. That way we can learn to ask the questions Genesis 1 was written to address rather than intruding with our own questions.

There is a growing voice – at least so it seems to me – of Christian scholars who suggest that one prong of an age-old approach to interpreting Genesis 1-11 is wrong. The context of the text has been often misunderstood. Some (peripheral I suggest) elements of theolgy have been misconstrued on the grounds of misinterpretation. This isn’t a modern disavowal of miracles because miracles don’t happen, a denial of the power of God, or a liberal debunking of scripture as a human creation. Rather it is a suggestion by sincere Christians that the context, form, origin, and purpose of the text as Scripture has often been misunderstood to some extent. The impetus comes from a number of directions including science, archaeology, history, and textual analysis.

There is also a resistance – sometimes a strong resistance – to this reinterpretation and rethinking. The resistance isn’t unexpected or surprising. Rather it is healthy and indicates that this is a conversation that we need to have.

What do you think of the suggestions made by Brown, Robinson and Enns?

What role does knowledge of the ANE context play in our understanding of Genesis 1-11?

If you wish, you may contact me at rjs4mail[at]att.net

 

  • Rick

    RJS-
    “The context of the text has been often misunderstood. Some (peripheral I suggest) elements of theolgy have been misconstrued on the grounds of misinterpretation.”
    “There is also a resistance – sometimes a strong resistance – to this reinterpretation and rethinking.”
    Your “peripheral” may be someone else’s “essential”. I think this is where much of the tension develops. Until there is a more uniform understanding (and agreement) on of how this impacts creation, Adam/Eve, the Fall, death, sin, and Paul (Romans), that tension will continue.

  • RJS

    Rick,
    You are right of course. What is peripheral and what is essential is a key question.
    Brian McLaren in A New Kind of Christianity suggests that conventional Christianity looks back to Jesus through the eyes of the church and the eyes of Augustine and Paul – and this is a problem. His understanding was revolutionized when he started in the beginning and looked forward to Jesus for his understanding of Christianity (A new kind).
    I think McLaren has it wrong though – our church has looked from the beginning to Jesus. This is why Genesis is such a sticking point. Our church has also looked at Jesus through Augustine taking both the bad and good of his thinking.
    My view today is that we start with Jesus – as revealed in the gospels and the epistles (can’t dismiss Paul as McLaren seems wont to do). We then read the OT in the light of our Christology and interact with later thinking in the church from this Christ centered starting point. The Christ-centered reading of the OT was the approach of the early church.
    I will also claim that this ‘new’ approach to viewing Genesis 1-11 has no impact on our starting point and foundation (Gospel, Christology, Jesus). It does call into question some of the structures we have built on this foundation. Hence the need for discussion.

  • Rick

    RJS-
    “The Christ-centered reading of the OT was the approach of the early church.”
    Exactly, which would calm those who worry about the attempts to dismiss church tradition. It appears the EO churches have remained stronger on this than either the RC or Prot. churches.

  • Pete Enns

    RJS,
    Thank you for laying out the issue so very clearly. If I can bring Kent Sparks into this discussion, he reminds us that all of this largely comes down to the matter of proper genre identification–and then the necessary theological work of bringing that identification into conversation with Christian thought, some of which has been resistant at times to identify the genre of Genesis as anything other than unique, literal, historical, etc.

  • Norm

    Knowledge of the ANE is important for cultural background but it is limiting beyond that point. What is more important in concerning Genesis is how it was defined and used throughout scripture. Paul and John through their writings help us interpret it through the eschatological end that was upon them. Ezekiel provides a vast allegorical interpretation of Genesis 500 years before Paul and John demonstrating that trying to apply the ANE cultural approach is of limited value as well. There is so much difference between the Hebrew approach contrasted to their neighbors that it is dangerous to over emphasize that comparison.

  • dopderbecck

    Great post. I have come to believe that the strongly concordist approach simply is spiritually and intellectually irresponsible. As you point out, it doesn’t really respect the text or the text’s authors and editors, and ultimately it doesn’t really respect the God who gave us the texts we have received through those authors and editors. At the same time, I think Rick (#1) is right — there is a necessary tension in that we must read the Biblical texts canonically and theologically as well as critically and historically.
    I’m not sure I’d characterize this as a “growing voice,” however. This is old hat for most of the world of Christian scholarship. What I might say is that evangelical theology is finally maturing to a point at which it is accepting what everyone else has known for many decades — notwithstanding vocal, entrenched, and influential pockets of resistance. And at the same time, evangelical theology is offering an energy that perhaps mainstream theology sometimes lacks. So perhaps there is a “growing voice” of post-conservative and post-liberal scholarship that is taking criticism, history, canon, and theology seriously all at the same time.

  • james

    You said:
    “Robinson suggests that if we grant the biblical writers at all stages the human experience, the intellectual life we take for granted in ourselves, a fully human existence, a mind, then the nature of the texts and their relationship to surrounding culture is neither surprising nor damaging.”
    I agree heartily with this post and think it so healthy and humanistic to think this way. Although i know as soon as i use a word like humanistic that i might be seen as a liberal.
    My point is that theories like divine inspiration–which i support–have for some reason made the human side of producing the biblical text to be minimized and even avoided. Also, conservatives religious folk often seem driven to prove how unique the Genesis account is–to the disparagement of other groups as if they are morally reprehensible.
    To approach these issues the way this article does, on the other hand, is great! It is wonderful to see such thoughtful books which help us understand these texts better and understand being a human being created by God.

  • AHH

    What dopderbeck #6 said.
    But then the issue is that this understanding of the genre of early Genesis (and other texts), which is finally becoming accepted in the world of Evangelical scholarship (with notable exceptions, like the seminary that forced Pete Enns out), is still pretty foreign to the average person in the pew, and perhaps even to the average Evangelical pastor.
    So for now we are still in a place where most Evangelicals are missing the genre and trying to read early Genesis as a science text and/or as modern-type historical writing, resulting in (unnecessary) tension with science and with the doctrine of inspiration. Do we have to wait a couple of generations for understanding to “trickle down” to the wider Evangelical church? Or can people like Walton, Sparks, and Enns (and each of us?) help the church move faster toward reading these texts in a healthier way that affirms their inspiration while respecting their context and genre?

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    Hasn’t there been a conflict of another sort in much of Christian scholarship? The genre of Genesis has been more widely recognized, but there has been a pressure for a modernist approach that denies divinity and revelation as playing a role in the genre.
    I think we do have a growing voice looking for an approach that neither diminishes orthodox Christian belief nor remains anchored with an ancient cosmology and science. This isn’t new – it has been developing for a few hundred years at least.

  • Phil

    # 8, AHH
    I agree whole heartedly,
    “this understanding of the genre of early Genesis…is still pretty foreign to the average person in the pew, and perhaps even to the average Evangelical pastor.”
    As a conservative church ass. pastor turned church planter this has been on my mind for some time. All you have to do is look at the bookstore shelves to see what parishioners are buying. This influence of Dr. Dino & AIG on our people is quite great. Coming into the congregation I used to be more vocal about OEC only to quickly realize that if I was to continue I would have to avoid such confrontations.
    I have found Walton’s work and others, refreshing, pointing us to another way to read the text rather than trying to fit it to a framework it was not meant to be read as, however, too many pastors don’t understand this.
    I find that there is little presentation that is contrary to YEC that is equally accessible as AIG. Until there is, I don’t think you can sway pastors or parishioners.

  • Rick

    Phil #10 wrote:
    “I have found Walton’s work and others, refreshing, pointing us to another way to read the text rather than trying to fit it to a framework it was not meant to be read as…”
    You are right, and I think Walton in particular is an interesting case because of his beliefs and views, including that of Scripture. He would hold to what many, if not most, would view as essentials.
    If people in the pews knew where he stood, they probably would be more willing to listen to his views on genre.
    All this comes back to a theme RJS has brought up at various times:
    Who do we trust? How do they earn that trust? Once that trust is established, especially regarding what are considered essentials, then the ball can start to be moved forward.

  • Norm

    Milton Terry recognized the poetic and apocalyptic nature of Genesis over a hundred years ago and his hermeneutic approach is still in vogue. So the Genre of Genesis has been out there for all to see since the 1880’s but largely ignored because the reality is that lay people and pastors can’t easily get their minds around it in our present culture. And when a pastor does he is in jeopardy of becoming just another layman himself it he persist from the pulpit. So its “slow and steady as she goes”.

  • Brett

    “I find that there is little presentation that is contrary to YEC that is equally accessible as AIG. Until there is, I don’t think you can sway pastors or parishioners.”
    Good point. YEC is an internally-consistent closed system, that makes perfect sense as an explanation… at least for all the data within the system. An alternative paradigm which introduces a lot more untidy questions is hard to “argue” for convincingly. People want “answers in Genesis”, not an essentially unsolvable mystery.
    What I understand is meant by a concordist position is also one that is tending towards creating a self-contained, internally logical whole. If only Genesis and evolutionary theory can be correlated on a point-by-point basis (with the days of creation matching specific time periods, and Adam and Eve as the first two Homo erectus to develop a conscience and introduce genetic Sin into the world), then we would have a more complicated but still all-encompassing model of our origins. This too is easy to mount an argument for, but it (I think obviously) is misguided.
    Unfortunately, life and the Bible are messier and more difficult than our watertight systems of interpretation. I’m still not sure how to fit historicity, historiography, and “true myth” together (in Genesis or the rest of the OT) but I’m pretty sure it won’t all fit into one package.

  • JHM

    I think it’s perhaps not so much an issue of genre identification but more an issue of the nature of God’s revelation. If one believes God’s revelation works through the theological principles of the stories told in the Bible, then the historical/scientific details of the story don’t really matter as long as we are able to rightly find the “moral of the story”. If, on the other hand, you view revelation as God recording for us a history of his interaction with humanity, through which he communicates his will and character, then perhaps the detail do matter.
    I’m personally trying to hit this issue head on as much as I can in the hopes that God will help me out. On one hand I can appreciate some of the reasons why Pete Enns, et. al are saying what they are, but I’m also disturbed sometimes with how some of these interpretations seem to strip away much of the meaning that people find in these stories. For instance, it seems to me that Genesis now says nothing to the origin or nature of sin, suffering, Satan, the imago dei, etc.

  • Percival

    Great post. I do think this is a growing voice especially because of the accessibility of Walton’s work for the average layman. Also, Walton’s work has put forth a positive view of what the text meant rather than just saying that it is not literal and not historical and not scientific. The discussion needs to move towards helping people in the folding chairs understand what the text does mean instead of what it doesn’t. Evangelicals abhor a vacuum in biblical interpretation.
    Dopderbeck said:
    I’m not sure I’d characterize this as a “growing voice,” however. This is old hat for most of the world of Christian scholarship. What I might say is that evangelical theology is finally maturing to a point at which it is accepting what everyone else has known for many decades
    However, I think this evangelical work goes beyond what the liberals did by taking inspiration seriously. It brings a new view of what inspiration means, which is why Enns’ work is exciting. He’s not rehashing liberalism; he’s taking the inspiration of the Bible seriously.

  • RJS

    JHM,
    I am going to have to come back to these topics I think. I do think that Genesis speaks to the nature of sin, suffering, and the imago dei. The form of revelation though is not history dictated to Moses.
    On the origin of sin and Satan – this is an area where I think we may have been misled in the interpretation of Genesis by a literal historical reading. But I don’t claim to have all the answers, and it is all worth some discussion.

  • JHM

    RJS,
    I would love to have some assessment from you, Scot, Pete, dopderbeck, etc. on what exactly Genesis is supposed to be telling us in regard to these themes. What I struggle with is I think the authority of Genesis, and indeed most of the OT, in light of this “new” (new to me anyway) interpretation. When Genesis was rooted in some sort of history (even if written through symbolism) it had more authority on my life. How do I understand Genesis’ authority in light of the new understanding?

  • Phil

    RJS
    “On the origin of sin and Satan – this is an area where I think we may have been misled in the interpretation of Genesis by a literal historical reading. But I don’t claim to have all the answers, and it is all worth some discussion.”- RJS
    In regards to origin of sin…Do you believe in polygenism or monogenism? If polygenism, how do you reconcile it with Romans 5?
    I’m not asking if to argue, just want to learn more about this.
    Thanks

  • RJS

    Phil,
    Well – I am not quite sure how to interpret the sin, death through one man part of Romans 5.
    On polygenism and monogenism, we are all one interrelated people, one species, descended from a relatively small common population. Some forms of polygenism seem entirely unacceptable. Of course the bigger issue is Adam and sin. David Opderbeck gave one possible approach to thinking about this on his post here: A “Historical” Adam?. I have made similar suggestions at times, this is definitely a possible. I am not sure the faith or scripture requires such an approach however.

  • Trav

    Tim Keller’s piece was quite helpful in bringing together a historical Adam and Eve and evolutionary theory.


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