Assumption, Identify Yourself!

Perhaps you do what I do at times. I wonder what assumptions some folks have when they read Genesis 1 or 2 or 3. Most folks don’t get too worked about Genesis 4–11. Since so much matters in Genesis 1–3, it’s a good test case for assumptions.

What assumptions are at work in the following: the scientific creationist? the theistic evolutionist (or evolutionary creationist)? the intelligent design reader? The historian of the ancient near east? the evolutionist? 

Example: once teaching a course I asked my students to read Genesis 1-6 after having read Atrahasis, an ancient near eastern text about creation and a flood. The assignment was fairly simple: If Atrahasis is the assumption of Genesis, what do you now see? It led to dozens of observations, no the least being a rather boorish set of gods in that text in comparison to the all-powerful God of Genesis 1-6. The assumption informed how to read Genesis.

Example: in teaching Genesis 3 over the years I found the serpent talking an opportunity to explore assumptions. Some assume this happened — as the text says — so they think either that there were snakes with voice boxes or that God did a miracle. Others assume — because they know science and snakes — that, since snakes don’t talk, the incident in Genesis 3 is taking on fictional/mythic dimensions. Discovering assumptions, sometimes knowing it is hard to admit, is important for reading Genesis.

Richard Briggs, in a chp in Reading Genesis after Darwin, explores the hermeneutics of reading Genesis in light of other books or ideas. He examines whether Genesis 1-2 is monotheist or does “let us” perhaps open another window? And what about creating out of the dust in Genesis 2:7 when compared to creating out of clay and blood and spittle in Atrahasis? What happens to the ages of folks like Methuselah when compared to the roster of kings in Sumeria — where some lived 21,000 years and others up to 72,000? Is this an attempt to counter the god-like history to a more mundane, human kind of history? Briggs thinks the first two are difficult to know while the ages issue is clearly a response.

Briggs’ point is this: Genesis is triangulated: Reader, Genesis and Atrahasis or other ancient near eastern texts. What assumptions are at work in this kind of reading? One of his points is that Darwin’s science is one of the assumptions at work in many readings. In other words, and this is a big one, do our comparisons with other texts generate new meanings or do they lead us to discover original meanings?

I’m a fan of John Walton’s conclusion that Genesis 1 is a cosmic temple creation … but is his use of cosmic temple imagery something that generates a new reading of Genesis or is it leading us to a more original reading? Others have asked: Is this a reading that assumes Darwinian science and therefore seeks for a reading that does not contradict evolutionary science?

Does Darwin, then, force us to rethink what we think or have believed is the right reading of Genesis? Has it awakened us or forced us to chase a red herring?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Trav

    Good questions.

  • http://www.internetmonk.com Chaplain mike

    Start with context. Genesis is Torah and it introduces the story of Israel.

    Rarely do I hear this.

  • Tim

    The parallels John Walton picked up on between Genesis 1 and other ANE accounts regarding the nature and role of creation, cosmos, and temple have been recognized for quite some time. He synthesized a lot of that very well (downplaying the material a little too much, unfortunately), but the identification of Genesis 1 as an ancient near eastern temple creation text is very well supported, IMO.

    But I do agree that unchallenged assumptions present a real difficulty in discerning whether you are reading what you expect (or wish) to find into the text, as opposed to arriving closer to its intended meaning. But in this regard I think our modern post-enlightenment assumptions cause far greater difficulty in this regard than an approach that delves into the original culture along with its literary forms, conventions, and motifs.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    As I’ve listened to these conversation, I find myself wondering something. First, some background.

    I was raised Arminian and mildly anabaptist. (Church of the Nazarene in 1960s and 1970s) Certainly I knew people who took Genesis 1-3 as historical reporting but I knew plenty who didn’t. It just didn’t seem that big a deal. I frankly don’t ever in my life remember having faith-shaking moments worrying about these passages or remember having many conversations with people that did have this challenge.

    For my most of my adult life, I have, with little reservation understood the universe to be ancient and human beings to have evolved. I presumed the Genesis 1-3 stories were related to some significant historical realities, possibly talking about actual historical events couched in genre and language that made sense to folks centuries ago. About fifteen years ago I started coming across people for whom this struggles were big, particularly post-Evangelicals I encountered as part of the emerging church stuff. I came across Hugh Ross’s “Reasons to Believe Stuff” and was intrigued by concordist approach to things, something I had never really explored. I read RJS’s stuff here at Jesus Creed and had a couple of email exchanges with her. That quickly led me to reject Ross’s approach. I think Walton and Enns have been two of the most helpful people for me on this topic in recent years. I don’t have a hard fix on all the issues but I’m not consumed by needing one either.

    So here is my question: Is this Genesis 1-3 problem more acutely felt by certain segments of what was once the grand Evangelical alliance, namely conservative reformed and fundamentalist Christianity? I just don’t remember that many people with my background, or people I know who grew up, say, Mennonite, being as troubled by all of this.

  • Jeremy

    I think the problem is absolutely felt more acutely by certain segments of Evangelicalism. I grew up in a non-denominational charismatic church that wasn’t ultra-conservative or fundamentalist by many standards, but we had Ken Ham speak at the church on multiple occasions. Biblical literalism was the air we breathed even if, ironically in hindsight, it didn’t result in us looking like the more stereotypical “fundamentalist” church communities.

    This caused me all the all-to-familiar heartache when I headed off to college and was exposed to “wordly” science. I was pretty stubborn so it wasn’t until my late 20′s that I began questioning and re-evaluating things. Thank God there were people like Scot and Peter Enns out there to help that transition!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Excellent post. but off-topic: This morning I am getting several virus warnings from AVG regarding this site – maybe from a sidebar ad? Please check.

  • http://gospelthemes.blogspot.com/ Tom Schuessler

    I’m Catholic and we grew up to love Genesis. Genesis 1-3 borrows from Near East lit (Enuma Elish) of course and that’s fine for a perfectly normal expression of the primitive worldview but theologically it is a power refutation of the polytheism of Israel’s neighbors. Here is a great example from Derek Leman: The word for rainbow is simply the word for a bow. In Gen. 9 God places his bow in the sky. Similarly in the Mesopotamian myth, Marduk made a constellation out of his bow (Enuma Elish 6.82-90), the one he used to defeat Tiamat (Sarna) – in the war between the gods. In Gen. 9 it is one God, holy and sovereign, and God’s might, his bow, is no longer an object of fear (as when he decided to institute the flood) but of protection (through his covenant not to flood the world again).

  • Norman

    The dust of the ground is not to be taken as totally literal but the term represents humanities mortal nature contrasted to a heavenly or spiritual nature (life through the flesh or life through the Spirit). Paul clarifies the terms extensively in 1 Cor 15 but if one does a word search of the OT concerning “dust” and its etymology the picture becomes more understandable. The writers of the OT used the “dust” modifier to illuminate the fragility or less than capable ability of man without God’s higher standards. This means that the Serpent being the lowest of creatures figuratively represents humanities propensity to do things their own way and through their own strength. The serpent in the OT & NT represents Apostate Judaism and paganism that resist the Higher Heavenly Spiritual calling that God intends for those who bear His Image. That is why the serpent was doomed to eat the dust all the days of his life because that is the path it chose. Christ and the Apostles used this understanding to illustrate the contrast to those of the old Kingdom who chose to live under that bondage and its master to those who chose freedom through Christ in the New Kingdom. If you keep “dust” as mortal man when you see it’s usage you will do well in often grasping the context and connotation of the implication at hand. At least it should help clear up some of the more pertinent verses.

    Having worked my way through many layers of biblical understanding I was able to comfortably consider evolution fully. I believe understanding both scripture and science frees each other up leaving one to independently evaluate them in their own environment. I think when one sees obvious issues in the scriptures that are scientifically contradictory it’s just natural to investigate things then to determine if there is something there lurking that may not be apparent to a casual reading. When one starts peeling the layers of ancient OT and NT literature back it of course becomes apparent that we simply don’t know how to read that literature as it was intended. It’s easy to see why because it’s written with a veiling approach intentionally and it would have required even the Jews to have trained scribes versed and invested in this veiling to unpack it for the populous. So don’t feel too bad about us moderns’ not getting it as it wasn’t intended to be easily deciphered as it was typically antiestablishment in purpose.

    In fact those first Christians and the prophets often paid with their lives when its purpose became obvious to the rulers. Ask Jesus and the Apostles and the myriad of martyrs about how easy it was to convince the general population at large.

    I would say that not to use our God given inquisitiveness, curiosity and discernment skills when we encounter issues of question is not utilizing our gifts. We would surely be a less than worthy lot if that is the way we operated in life.

    Just a quick note about the long life spans in the OT. If we study other Jewish 2nd Temple literature it basically lays out how the Jews understood and used the long lives. The story presentation in Genesis is that Adam was supposed to live to 1000 years in the Garden which infers eternal life in Jewish numerology. However he and his offspring never quite make it that far because they were fallen from Garden life and on their own they get progressively worse in regard to violence and corruption and that is when the flood sets in and cleans house. The story line continues with progressively less and less long lives reflecting the further decay and corruption that will continue to unfold until Messiah when at that time men will start to live the full 1000 years as originally expected (metaphorically speaking). That is indeed how John in Revelation applies the 1000 year life of the faithful Christian. I believe its chapter 23 or 27 in the 2nd century BC Book of Jubilees that lays this process out in its story form. Things really aren’t as difficult if we study the entirety of the ancient literature, unfortunately who has time for that except biblical scholars and nerds who then have to explain it to others who really don’t want to hear it. ;-)

  • RogerJS

    Here are the two options:

    1) The first approach says there are similar stories, e.g. the flood, found in a number of Near East ancient literature. Therefore, the scholars conclude that Judaism is not revealed by God, but is merely a collocation of concepts from around the Near East region. Here, the conclusion is that Genesis draws from, or, as Scot McKnight says, triangulates with the Near East stories.

    2) The alternative is that the flood happened as per Genesis, and that from the flood-survivors came Israel, as well as the other nations. i.e. the other nations in their collective memory would have some recollection of the flood. However, the God-inspired text is the Bible, while the other non-Judaistic Near East accounts are corrupted versions.

    Why do scholars discount the 2nd option, and side exclusively with the 1st option? It’s as if scholars, without any argument or reasoning, take the 1st option because it is the academic, non-spiritual, historian’s approach. Scholars don’t give reasons why they don’t take option 2. It’s as if option 2 is not even on the table as an option.

  • http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A10ULJVWJGVUYD/ref=cm_pdp_rev_all?ie=UTF8&sort_by=MostRecentReview Paul Bruggink

    For a “The Lost World of Genesis One” approach without the focus on function vs. material, I recommend Johnny V. Miller & John M. Soden’s new book “In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context.” They make no assumptions about science, but deal with the Genesis 1 text entirely from the issue of what Genesis 1 meant to the original author(s) and original readers.

  • http://sammatteson.wordpress.com Dr Sam Mateson

    I am a practicing physicist and university professor and I am also a Christ-follower who came to faith young in a southern culture steeped in fundamentalism. I can attest that the faith-science dichotomy was and is raised repeated in my mind and in the minds of my students by the text of Genesis. My first faith struggles were, in fact, with the challenges to belief that the Noahic flood entails (e.g. its conflict with the uniformitarianism of geology and the lack of evidence for a world-wide flood as well as questions regarding the amount of water required for a cosmic inundation.)

    Over the years, concordist treatments have left me unsatisfied, as well as much of materialistic exegesis. (Cf Roger JS’s comment regarding option 1 and 2). But perhaps there is an option 3 or at least 2)b:
    The events recorded in Genesis preserve cultural memories of events that actually occurred but that are shaped by relevation of the character of YHWH to His people. For example, perhaps there was a great inundation that predated even written language, as Ballard’s expeditions to the Black Sea have suggested. But the story and meaning of the event then were interpreted theologically and dramatically. Perhaps the original work was less a history (in the modern sense) than a morality play or an object lesson. Perhaps the accommodationist view as expressed by Denis Lamoureux is a more helpful assuption in reading the Adamic story: that the Infinite, the All-knowing Creator accomodated his timeless revelation to the language, idiom, knowledge and world view of His people.

    Thus, I contend: Moses did not do Quantum Mechanics even if YHWH does; Job did not appreciate Black Holes even though the Creator holds them in His hands; Behemoth and Leviathon were not apatosaurus and T. Rex, since no one had ever seen one except the ancient of days.

    Nevertheless, my digresson affirms the point of the original post is well taken. What assumptions one brings to the reading deeply influence what one takes away.

  • Jeff

    The real problem is that the conservative professors treat Genesis One as creationism or bust and so never offer pre-Darwin readings of the text to ponder even though they are available.

    And with the question presented in the cartoon about how to tell if something is metaphorical or literal, we can take a look at comparing the snake in the garden versus the talking Donkey of Balaam. In Genesis 3 the serpent just starts talking whereas in the Balaam story it specifically says that God gave speech to the animal. So this helps us in telling the difference. Since snakes do not talk, and God was not trying to talk through the serpent, then we can take it as mythical, whereas the donkey story we should take more literal because of it being specifically pointed out that God had to intervene becuase things like that do not normally happen.


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