The Issue: What does Genesis 1-2 Say about God and Humans?

Sometimes debates about text get so much attention one forgets what the text is all about. It’s like the old “we’re here to drain the swamp not worry about gators.” Genesis 1-2 has been swamped by gators so much there’s no swamp left to drain! That is why someone like Tremper Longman’s study, “What Genesis 1-2 Teaches (and what it doesn’t),” in Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation, is so valuable for all of us to read — just to remember the big picture.

Tremper opens with a claim of inerrancy — that the Bible is wholly true — but the issue is what kind of truth is the “wholly true” teaching us. Here’s where’s headed: Gen 1-2 tell us about God and that God created but not how God created. There’s a huge difference.

So, first, we have to determine the genre of Genesis 1-2: what kind of literature is it? It’s a narrative, but not all narratives are historical narratives; there are fictional narratives; there are mixed narratives — some fiction and some history.  The presence of figurative language (the days, the breath of life and Adam’s “rib”). There are strong connections — both as assumption and as criticism — of Ancient Near Eastern creation stories. This influences the genre question. The difference sequence of events in Genesis 2 tips our hat to two creation stories combined and not one creation story split. Genesis 1-2 fits with 12-50, but the two are not identical. So Gen 1-2 is historical but not completely. He calls it “theological history.”

What does it teach?

God, the God of Israel — the one and only God — created everything, including stars and humans. Creation is dependent on God and God is independent of creation; God is involved — hence, theism and not pantheism or deism. God is not gendered; humans are. Humans have a relationship to God and to one another. The relationship of man to woman is mutuality and equality, not superiority. Humans are images of God, statues of God in this world put here to represent God.

One of Tremper’s contributions is a sketch of creation stories elsewhere in the OT: Psalms 8, 19, 136, 24, 33, 74, 104; Proverbs 3:19-20; 8:22-31; Job 38:4-11. The conclusions? There are multiple accounts of creation in the Bible, not just one! They vary in description of what happened. There is lots of figurative language. They are not telling us how God created but that God is creator. Yahweh and none other is the creator.

On the historical Adam, Tremper does not think it is required for a proper reading of Genesis 1-2. Nor does he think Romans 5 requires a historical Adam and Eve; one can compare the fictional or representative with the historical (Jesus).

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.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello I agree that an allegorical interpretation of the text is possible without giving up inerrancy.

    The same can be safely done with respect to Jonah and the whale.

    But can we also consider the genocide on the Amalekites as a symbolic story?

    Does the text allow that?

    I’d be really interested to receive an answer from you and one of your answer.

    I reject inerrancy, but if certain allegoric interpretations are textually possible, I might revise my position.

    I try to approach these topics rationally but also with humility.

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • David Philpott

    “Nor does he think Romans 5 requires a historical Adam and Eve; one can compare the fictional or representative with the historical (Jesus).”

    Scot, does he think that Paul did not believe in a historical Adam? Or is he saying Paul was wrong? I guess I find it hard to argue that Paul did not believe in a historical Adam in light of passages like 1 Tim 2:13-14. I’m not a NT scholar, so I could be wrong.

  • Jeff Martin

    Here’s a couple of questions I have never seen addressed from the egalitarian perspective – What does it mean that Adam named Eve? If Adam was standing next to Eve when the serpent was talking why did the serpent address the women specifically?
    Another option that hardly anyone has talked about is what if Genesis was written from a patriarchal perspective? Esp. if the account is a mythical representation then it should be assumed that it was written from that perspective.

  • Dianne P

    I’m not an NT scholar either, but I thought it was widely (though maybe not universally) thought that Timothy and Titus were not written by Paul. If that’s the case, then no conflict.

  • David Philpott

    Yes, I know many scholars think that they weren’t written by Paul. However, I don’t think that any of them are inerrantists. Give that Longman has called himself one, I’m not sure this would solve the issue.

  • pastordt

    I like the sound of this one. And Tremper’s one of my favorites. Win/win. Thanks for highlighting it, Scot.

  • Susan_G1

    Genesis 1,2 and Romans 5 seem so critical in theodicy. Does Longman get into that at all?

  • NateW

    I would say that the most important thing i have learned about Genesis (and the bible in general) is that it is first about a particular people’s temporal and finite ways of understanding, relating to, remembering, and passing on practical wisdom about living in right relationship with God’s ETERNAL being. As such, the primary point is not it is not a matter of recording stuff that God DID in the distant past but about helping the next generation recognize in the world around them what He IS doing RIGHT NOW. The creation story then may or may not be historical in the sense that there was once a literal Adam, but the more important point is that it is CERTAINLY historical in the sense that every human being has lived it afresh, and continues to do so.

    We are stewards of the earth NOW. Every day, every moment, We are busy giving names (good/evil, worthwhile/pain in the @$$, lovely/contemptible, beautiful/ugly) to every person, place, and thing I encounter. God has declared it all “good”—Do I trust that this is true, that the verdict on creation, on me, is “good,” or do I follow in the footsteps of Eve, of Adam, allowing myself to be deceived into belief that what I see around me and within me (at the deepest root of my soul) is “not enough”? Sensing my distance from God, do I strive to attain more so as to become like Him, or do I trust his word, “behold, I am with you” even all of the stuff surrounding me as I sit here typing, of everything I in every present moment,

    The Bible is historical in the sense that it HAPPENS to everyone, whether or not it happened or not. The moment we begin to argue about historical facts is the moment that we can be sure that we have been deceived in the same manner as Eve, desiring knowledge above God Himself.

    The past has never existed. Every moment that any soul has ever existed has been the present. Today’s troubles are enough for me!

  • mc

    The question is usually posed wrongly.

    It’s not “do you believe in a literal 7 day
    Creation?”

    The right, the honest question is “do you believe the
    writer of Genesis intended us to believe in a literal 7 day Creation?”

    I finally decided against the literalist/Young Earth after
    hearing a Creationist speaker at a local church. Frankly his arguments did not
    stack up. (The critical one was his answer to my question asking how do you
    explain light from remote Galaxies taking millions of years to reach us if the
    universe is only 7K years old.)

    Science and Inerrant Scripture cannot contradict. If they
    appear to do, then there are 3 options:

    1, We understand the science wrong

    This appears to be the position of most of the Young
    Earthers. It’s an atheist plot. I’m sorry I don’t buy conspiracy on that scale,
    especially when they include large numbers of devout God-fearing men and women
    of science.

    2, We understand the Scripture wrong

    This is my position – and it is certainly true that the
    literal interpretation of Genesis was questioned by many Christian writers long
    before Darwin. I’m sure the religious authorities where sincere when they
    declared Scripture taught that the Sun went round the Earth, not vice versa – but
    they were also wrong.

    3, If you can’t accept either of the above, then you are
    forced, assuming you have a sincere conscience, to reject the inerrancy of
    Scripture, and in many cases the faith as well.

    It’s my fear that for too many people option 3 appears
    to be the only one they can honestly take. And I consider that unnecessary and
    dangerous.


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