The Good, the Bad and the Ugly about Reading Genesis 1-2

Among evangelicals one can find a number of views on how to read Genesis 1-2: the literary approach and the literal approach are two typical approaches, though behind them all is one simple question: Historical or not? And then this one: In what senses is it historical or non-historical? The big problem here is that one’s conclusions enter into the polemics of evangelicalism where some think anything less than “historical all the way down” (including light before the sun) throws evangelicalism under the bus while others think there’s plenty of room for other considerations (and honestly hold to evangelical convictions in all other regards).

For me a problem enters when one view contends it alone is faithful while the others have caved in, and it is even more problematic when the principal evidence and scientific discussions are ignored or denied. This is the case with Todd Bealls’ contribution to J. Daryl Charles, Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation. After we read a perfectly reasonable sketch of how to read Genesis 1-2 in a literary reading with clear historical referentialism at work by Richard Averbeck, Bealls chooses to do polemics against everyone else’s readings but his “literal” (more below) reading. A big disappointment because I’d like to read an honest sketch of his reading — all the polemics dropped — of Genesis 1-2, but my disappointment was shared by the responses by the other authors in this multi view volume. Some observations and these are more or less found as well in the respondents, though I jotted these down before I read their responses:

1. He opens playing the Elijah, or victim, game. Like Elijah in wilderness Beall claims his view alone is faithful and the rest are caving in and that he’s persecuted for it. Skip his first two paragraphs and go to his first question.

2. He asks if one should have two different hermeneutics for Genesis 1-11 (or 1-2, or just chp 1) than for Gen 12-50. He says they are the same, the hermeneutic should be the same, that it should be literal. He’s got some good points here; I’m not sure it as water tight as he’d like and most readers of Genesis 1-2 don’t agree with him. Yes, these chps are narrative prose; but how does one know when “narrative” is “historical referentiality” vs. the non-historical and literary? (Point 5 below touches on this.)

3. Which raises for me an observation. Beall has a colossal hermeneutical blunder: he equates a “literal” reading with “historical referentiality” without a shred of evidence or defense. The fact is that a literal reading can be fully literal and the text itself not at all be concerned with historical referentiality (John Collins’ response points this out too). Here’s an example. Luke 10:30 has Jesus responding to the man’s question about who is my neighbor: Jesus says, “In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead….” I know of almost no one who thinks this isn’t a parable yet most think it is a parable. There’s no indication it is a parable — it doesn’t say “And then Jesus told this parable…” It just says “A man…” and if one takes it as a parable, it could be pure fiction; if it is not a parable, it could refer to a historical referent. My point is this: Most think it is a parable because it comes off that way though there’s not a shred of evidence in the text that is a parable or an imagined story. In Beall’s logic we’d have to take this as a historical referent story and not a parable. This is the problem for Beall’s logic: How do we know when a narrative is historical or fictional? He doesn’t spell it out and for me it ruins this chp.

4. Another question he addresses: is Genesis 1 from an ANE worldview? This, by the way, is one way to answer the historical referentiality question but Beall gets too polemical here. Because the text is from God it doesn’t have to be — or isn’t — an ANE worldview. “Why would God have used ANE myths to reveal truth to Moses…?” (52). One could ask “Why not?” He says instead it is polemics against the ANE worldview, which is almost a way of saying it partakes in the ANE worldview. I could go on: the point I’d make is that this text emerged in the ANE, it was for people who lived in the ANE, it has parallels and differences from the ANE, and all texts emerge from and speak into and against their cultures. Denying a text’s cultural embedness is a colossal hermeneutical blunder. Every text reflects its culture. Historical conditionedness is part of the human condition so when God chose to speak he did so in space and time, and that space and that time is not the same as ours today.

5. How do NT authors approach these texts? This is a more fruitful approach for someone who wants to deny the importance of the ANE context. Yes, I would agree that the NT writers assume the text of Genesis 1-2 (and beyond) when they speak: Jesus, Paul, et al.. But I’d like to see him address one question: Does the authority of a biblical worldview rest on that worldview being historical? Let us say that Jesus is saying “the two, as the Bible says, became one.” Is his view based on the fact that his worldview is rooted in that worldview or because the text of Gen 1-2 is historical? In this section I think Beall assumes that “literally” can only be “authoritative” if “literal” means “historical.” Is that compelling?

6. He then says those who are opting for literary readings of Genesis 1-2 are accommodating themselves to theistic evolution. Maybe, but I’d rather not question the motive of Tremper Longman and Pete Enns and John Walton and believe that they really do think Genesis 1-2 needs to be read in a more historically nuanced way so that it is more in tune with ANE culture, something that is simply not characteristic of the tradition that developed leading to the view Beall now defends. As we have become both more aware of science and the ANE texts we need to listen and learn.

He then sees this all as a slippery slope, his terms. This is a scare tactic and not logic. Slippery slope logic is unworthy of intellectual rigor.

About Scot McKnight

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

  • Peter Murphy

    Peter Enns has an article referencing Lesslie Newbigin’s “The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society that’s relevant to Scot’s comments (www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/08/inerrantism-is-more-muslim-than-christian-a-though-from-lesslie-newbigin/) . Todd Bealls’ understanding of inspiration does seem more fitting for a Muslim than for a Christian.

  • Josh Steele

    Thanks for posting this helpful pushback!

    This is only a somewhat-related question, but I’ve been wondering if there’s any way to distinguish between various slippery slope arguments. I think they obviously all suffer from intellectual laziness, but are some stronger than others?

  • DMH

    All slippery slope arguments assume the iron clad truth and righteousness of their own position and then criticize others for moving away from it. It is just question begging.

  • NateW

    When Jesus tells a parable, does it even matter whether it is based in history or not? Perhaps he witnessed this event happening and was retelling it and perhaps he made it up on the spot. I don’t think it matters either way because the events themselves are not the point but are a channel of deeper ineffable spiritual truth. Likewise, I contend that whether genesis is referencing history or is a literary device isn’t something that needs to be known in order for one to decide whether to believe that it is true and to arrange ones way of living in light of it. I think that both those who believe that only their literal historical understanding is faithful and those who believe that only their literary understanding is faithful both miss the point. In reality either way can be true if the fruit of Christ is born out in the WAY they hold their particular belief and the way they treat those who don’t.

  • Marshall

    “historical all the way down” (including light before the sun)

    If you believe modern cosmology, there really was light before the sun, of which the Cosmic Microwave Background is the distant rumbling thunder. Matter condensed to the point where light could shine (… photons could propagate non-trivial distances …) about 380,000 years after the Big Bang; the first stars didn’t ignite until about BB + 400 million years, and our sun until much later than that.

    There are problems with the science of a literal reading, but this is not one of them. (#4, yes. How would God have given modern cosmology to ANE folk, even if he thought it were important??)

  • AHH

    That’s right; a better choice would have been “including morning and evening before the sun”. Not to mention the earth and vegetation before the sun. And the solid “firmament” holding back the waters above the Earth should be the death knell for any attempt to read Genesis 1 as an accurate scientific description.

    Is this the same Beall who wrote a fundamentalist-leaning book called something like Erosion of Inerrancy a few years ago? Sounds like this is coming from the same place.

    On #6, the blanket assignment of motive that literary readings are accommodating theistic evolution is contradicted by many throughout history who read Genesis 1 as theological literature without endorsing evolution. I believe John Walton is in that category unless he has shifted in the past few years, as I believe was C. John Collins until recently. Not to mention Augustine, and many 19th and 20th century readers.

  • scotmcknight

    Not the same person; the book on inerrancy was by Greg Beale.

  • Phil M

    A bit late to the party, but nevertheless:

    He then says those who are opting for literary readings of Genesis 1-2are accommodating themselves to theistic evolution

    This can be just as equally levelled at literal interpreters – especially considering that the literal reading of genesis 1-2 only became such a hot theological topic fairly recently in history: that literal readings of Genesis 1-2 are accommodating themselves to 6-day creationism (or any variation of 6-day creationism)


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