The Right Kind of Place

Whatever approach you take to reading Genesis 1-2 I think we can agree with John Collins when he says Genesis 1-2 makes the earth the “right kind of place in which we live out our story” — before God our creator. This conclusion of Collins’s is found in his chapter “Reading Genesis 1-2 with the Grain: Analogical Days” in J. Daryl Charles, Reading Genesis one-two: An Evangelical Conversation.

Now a big point about how some read Genesis 1-2 and I want to lay my cards on the table: the harder one presses Genesis 1-2 to be “historical” or a narrative about when and how God created the universe, the more one presses the Bible to be wrong. All I’m saying is that if we force the question of historicity, we are forcing the Bible into the molds of science and history, and the more we do that the more we become accountable to science and history, and the more we are actually measuring the truthfulness of the Bible by science and history. (This is a good subject for discussion: Do you think those who press Genesis 1-2 to be historical are making the Bible subject to scientific or historical methods?)

Collins’s approach is to see the “days” of Genesis 1 to be analogical days: that is, the depict God at work over six days with a day of resting that corresponds to how Israelites work and rest. They are God’s workdays that correspond to Israel’s workdays. I find this odd, to be honest: does this not make human experience determinative for how to depict creation rather than divine reality determinative for human life? Maybe not, what do you think?

Collins:

1. Genesis 1-2 needs to be read as coherent with Genesis 1-11, and he gives three big reasons: the setting in the book of Genesis connects Genesis 1-2 to the rest of the book, esp with Genesis 1-11; the parallels to Ancient Near East “myths” connects Genesis 1-2 to chps 1-11; and there are linguistic links between 1-2 and 3-11. Thus, the texts are to be read as a coherent whole. Yes, of course, at some level. But coherency’s got its own problems and one can at least argue for coherency and tension. His big point is that there are not “two creation” accounts. The two accounts can be “coherent” and non-overlapping, as John Walton points on in his response to Collins.

2. But I find tension between this reading of Gen 1-2 in context of 1-11 and the whole of Genesis when he then later segregates Genesis 1:1-2:3 from the rest as exalted prose. So, I agree with this second conclusion and would ask for more clarification then of what “coherency” means. The way 1:1-2:3 is described makes me think he’s about given back his idea that there are not two creation accounts. He opens up smoothing over by an editor of “whatever” sources… which seems to me to be giving back his point. Maybe I misunderstand him.

3. It’s obvious then that he sees Genesis 2:4ff as filling in the details unrelated in the 6th Day of Genesis 1.

4. Then he says this: “So, then, the six ‘creation days’ are not necessarily the first actual days of the universe: they are not even necessarily the first days of the earth itself.” What are they then? “They are the days during which God set up the earth as the ideal place for human beings to live — to love God, to serve one another, to rule the world with wisdom and good will” (85). Yes, indeed, I say.

5. Genesis 1:1 is background to the rest.

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.

  • josenmiami

    I agree with the following statement: “and the more we do that the more we become accountable to science and history, and the more we are actually measuring the truthfulness of the Bible by science and history.”

    Karen Armstrong makes this very point in her book “The History of God.” She believes that the Orthodox tradition left room for mystery and avoided the tendency to over-rationalize the faith whereas in the West, the attempt to make faith ‘rational’ wound up putting us at the mercy of the rational critiques of science and history. Christian Smith makes similar points about the attempt to turn the Bible into a history or science text.

  • Scott Irenaeus Watson

    I find this “Sabbatarian interpretation” to be on target. I say this because Evangelical readings are ‘modernist’ to the bone;their concerns are not about the things that matter in reality, religiously speaking: the relationship of YHWH to the community he’s brought into being and how this is played out in praxis and a community ethic. YHWH is not some abstract principle or modernist agent but, in scriptural terms, the One who brought a people into being as his witness/agents for his salvific purposes. This is inscribed in the very structure of time itself, in his creative/salvific purposes, for this reason.

    Another reason this is so plain to me is that I live in a county in new York with a very large Hasidic Jewish population. You KNOW when Shabbat and Jewish holidays roll around: In Hasidic areas everything closes, you see everyone walking and many agencies and other businesses shut down on Jewish holidays. It’s glaring that most would be Christians don’t understand the importance of the sanctification of time as constitutive of real theology, the kind that really matters and is really biblical.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Scot,
    Thank you for this post. As a historian, I agree wholeheartedly that many evangelicals push scripture to be measured by science and history, and modernist-enlightenment science and history at that. Scott I. W.’s comment is right on point.

  • Paul Bruggink

    Re “Do you think those who press Genesis 1-2 to be historical are making the Bible subject to scientific or historical methods?)”

    I think they are, and I think that it is an unfortunate mistake. The clearest case I have seen for Genesis 1-2 not being historical can be found in Figures 5-1 and 7-1 in Denis Lamoureux’s “Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution.”

    Many authors, including Tremper Longman III in his chapter of “Reading Genesis 1-2″, have discussed the theological messages that Genesis 1-2 is intended to convey.

  • Rick

    But is this reasonable? Is not the Christian faith one that has a strong historical aspect? God working through history?
    If so, does it not then become more of a question about genre, and which portions are history based (and how), and which ones are not?

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Short answer: Yes it is a question of genre and the ways that stories are historically based. Claims of Manifest Destiny and land free for the taking by Europeans are one kind of historical story. But they are of an entirely different genre than stories of the theft of land from and removal of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans to extract their labor.

    Regarding Creation and Genesis 1-2, we lack historical evidence for how God did it, yet some people press for using Genesis as historical evidence for the how.
    Randy

  • AHH

    It seems like a “no-brainer” that there is some such connection between the 7-day pattern of Genesis 1 and the Hebrew Sabbath. Genesis 2:3 even says so. I don’t see anything “odd” about the inspired writer of Genesis 1 telling the story in such a way as to reinforce the Sabbath concept that was important to ancient Israel.

    I also agree with Scot that it makes more sense to see the two creation narratives as two (not wholly unrelated) stories rather than trying to shoehorn them into one story.

    The “right kind of place” observation would seem to reinforce those who see connection to Israel’s history, with the Garden paralleling the Promised Land and Adam paralleling Israel. Although I doubt Collins himself would hold that view.

    I wonder sometimes when I see writers (I can’t tell if Collins is doing this) argue for ONE reading of Genesis 1 to the exclusion of others. As though it was only setting up the sabbath pattern, or only depicting God building his cosmic temple or only a polemic against the polytheistic religions of Babylon and other surrounding cultures or only a semipoetic hymn to Yahweh for his creative work. Why can’t it be all of those things, a multilayered story saying important things to Isrrael about its identity and about the God they follow?

  • Norman

    I tend to believe that the 7 Day Sabbath week originated long before Genesis was written and is simply picked up and used to illustrate a theological idea or process. The Genesis writers IMO borrowed everything to exemplify their theology whether it was taking the various thousand year old myths that we find and reworking them or taking the husband and wife example and used them to build stories around.

    Genesis 1-2:3 IMO is simply following an outline pattern and presents the big picture overview in an exalted poetic format that acts as a template for what has happened or is going to happen in Israel’s history. The Jews understood the days as representative of their various historical ages and related them as often having already passed but some of the days were to come and then there would be the last Day when Messiah comes and then the Sabbath Rest Day after Messiah completed His work. The early Christian First Century Barnabas Epistle goes so far as to call the period after Messiah as the 8th Day and the beginning of a New World. Genesis 2:5 simply starts fleshing out in detail that big picture introductory Prologue which finds it’s ending with the attribute of the Image of God fully endowed through Messiah.

  • danaames

    As to your problem with “coherency,” Scot, I think I see a parallel to Willard’s understanding of the SotM. The Beatitudes are the most exalted language, and the rest of the sermon, even if treating different “subjects,” still forms a coherent whole with the Beatitudes while spinning off from it. It’s still all One Thing, and Matt 4.17 (and following up to Matt 5.1?) is the background to it.

    AHH, I agree with your last paragraph.

    Dana

  • http://incandescentink.blogspot.com/ Candice Gage

    Question: Do you think those who press Genesis 1-2 to be historical are making the Bible subject to scientific or historical methods?

    I think so. Some parts of scripture are not scientific or historical, and when we hold them to a standard they were never meant for, they fail. I think the problem is that somewhere along the lines Christians became so caught up in Special Revelation (scripture) that they dismissed General Revelation (creation). The problem is that God reveals himself through both, and each is meant to inform the other.

    If we silence General Revelation and expect Special Revelation to tell the whole story, we quickly run into trouble reading Genesis. For instance, if a Jewish day was sundown to sundown, but there was no sun until day 4, how were those first days measured? The earth must have been turning, but at what speed, since it didn’t have the gravitational pulls of the sun, moon, and other planets to steady it? And since the sun didn’t show up until day 4, how were plants growing on day 3? Perhaps it was some special light that God created on day 1 that warmed the earth? And suddenly we are asking the wrong questions, looking for answers that aren’t there, making obscure passages mean things they don’t mean, and frankly, making ourselves look both silly and ignorant to the rest of the world.

    If we let General Revelation speak, we are free to let Special Revelation tell its own story. Science indicates that Genesis 1-2 is not telling us the technicalities of the creation process.Therefore, Genesis 1-2 must be telling us something else. What is that something else? That, I think, is the right question to begin with.

  • Paul Bruggink

    Well put!! The something else, of course, is a number of theological lessons.


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