The Old Testament is a collection of ancient texts written in contexts that were quite different from ours. Genesis is an ancient document. As Christians we believe that it was inspired to tell God’s story and to reveal his work in his creation. But even when read in a good translation and through eyes of faith, there are cases where we should step back and consider the ancient context. This is especially true of the primeval history in Genesis 1-11. These are important stories – but they may or may not be intended as we often interpret them.The story of the flood in Genesis 6-9 raises a number of questions. Unlike the nursery decorations with cute animals boarding a pleasant boat, this is a story of depravity, death and destruction leading to a redo of creation. How are we to understand the story? Over the centuries, as we have learned how big the world actually is, how many diverse species of animals exist and have existed, the questions have increased.
Too hot, too cold or just right? John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and Tremper Longman III, Distinguished Scholar of Biblical Studies at Westmont College (recently retired from his position as a professor), have worked together on a new book exploring the question of ancient context of Genesis especially as it relates to the story of the flood. In The Lost World of the Flood their intent is not to provide a single “correct” interpretation – but to explore the context and “provide an interpretation based on the conviction that the Bible is the Word of God – Scripture that speaks truly.” (p. viii) They go on:
Our goal is not to convert the reader to our conclusions, or even to persuade the reader to adopt our way of thinking. Instead, we seek to bring information to the reader’s attention that has helped as we have struggled with the passages. If readers deem that information useful and beneficial, we are gratified. But for readers who cannot accept our findings, believing that Scripture makes claims that require other conclusions, we hope that at least we have shown how our particular interpretation is the result of faithful interpretation. (p. viii)
I expect that some will feel that John and Tremper have strayed too far from traditional interpretations of the flood and that Scripture makes claims beyond the ones they see (i.e. their reading is too cold). Others will feel that they haven’t gone far enough – they have found more history in the story than warranted (too hot). But regardless of where we find ourselves along this continuum, it is important to remember that our interpretations are never inerrant and that the ancient context is important for a proper understanding of Scripture. We can all learn from John and Tremper as they wrestle with the text as Old Testament scholars and as Christians.
Genesis as an Ancient Document. The first chapter of the book explores what is means to acknowledge that Genesis is an ancient document and the value of considering its ancient context as we read the stories. This discussion is similar to that in the other books of the Lost World series – including Lost World of Genesis One, Lost World of Adam and Eve, and Lost World of Scripture. There is a new illustration, however. One I haven’t encountered before. I will quote it at length here.
We will illustrate by using the metaphor of a cultural river. In our modern world the cultural river is easily identified. Among its currents are various fundamentals such as rights, freedom, capitalism, democracy, individualism, globalism, market economy, scientific naturalism, an expanding universe, empiricism, and natural laws, just to name a few. Some may wish to float in these currents, while others may struggle to swim upstream against them, but everyone in our modern world inevitably is located in its waters. Regardless of our diverse ways of thinking, we are all in the cultural river, and its currents are familiar to us.
In the ancient world a very different cultural river flowed through all of the diverse cultures: Egyptian, Phoenician, Assyrian-or Israelite. Despite variations between cultures and across the centuries, certain elements remained largely static. Continual course adjustments have little effect on the most persistent currents. People are People, but few of the currents common to the ancient cultures are found in our modern cultural river. In the ancient cultural river we would find currents such as community identity, the comprehensive and ubiquitous control of the gods, the role of kingship, divination, the centrality of the temple, the mediatory role of images, and the reality of the spirit world and magic.
The Israelites sometimes floated on the currents of that cultural river without resistance, and we should be neither surprised nor critical. At other times, however, the revelation of God encouraged them to struggle out of the current into the shallows, or even to swim furiously upstream. Whatever the extent of the Israelites’ interactions with the cultural river, it is important to remember that they were situated in the ancient cultural river, not immersed in the currents of our modern cultural river.
We seek to understand this embeddedness so we may be faithful interpreters of the biblical text. God communicated within the context of their cultural river. God’s message, God’s purposes, and God’s authority were all vested in Israelite communicators for Israelite audiences, and the message took shape according to the internal logic within their language and culture. We cannot be assured of authoritative communication through any other source. We must therefore find the message of God as communicated through those intermediaries in their ancient cultural river. (pp. 6-7)
What this means, John and Tremper go on to explain, that it shouldn’t surprise us to find ancient understandings of cosmology or physiology in the text. These were not relevant to God’s message and any attempt to correct them would only have muddied the waters. We also shouldn’t expect to find elements of modern science hidden within the text. The text doesn’t address these elements of our modern cultural river. It didn’t need to and to do so would only have perplexed the original audience and, again, have muddied the waters. The intended meaning is inerrant, but sometimes we need to dig past the surface to truly understand the intended meaning. When we see an element in a passage that swims upstream against the ancient cultural river, we should pay close attention.
There is more in this chapter, but this is enough for one post.We will dig into more of the book in the coming weeks.
What do you think of the metaphor of a river?
How important is the ancient context?
If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.