A Conversation About Genesis (RJS)

A Conversation About Genesis (RJS) October 11, 2012

We’ve been looking at the question of beginnings from the perspective of the early church fathers using Peter Bouteneff’s book. The post Tuesday concentrated on Basil – and his Hexaemeron.  But it is also useful to listen to what contemporary Christian thinkers and biblical scholars have to say about Genesis. This twelve minute clip comes from the new BioLogos DVD From the Dust directed by Ryan Pettey.  An abbreviated version of this clip is contained within the film, the entire clip is included in the bonus footage on the DVD. The film is intended as a conversation starter – and is aimed at a Christian audience addressing the questions that many Christians wrestle with when it comes to science and the Christian faith.  In this clip  a number of different scholars, biblical scholars, scientists, and theologians comment on Genesis. It is a pretty good line up: Alister McGrath, John Polkinghorne, John Walton, Karen Strand Winslow, Chris Tilling, Nancey Murphy, Peter Enns, Ard Louis, and N. T. Wright.

A couple of highlights. John Walton points out the importance of culture in translation (6:18-6:35):

We’re well aware that people have to translate the language for us. We forget that people have to translate the culture for us. And therefore if we want to get the best benefit from the communication we need to try to enter their world, hear it as the audience would have heard it, as the author would have meant it, and to read it in those terms.

N. T. Wright at 8:17-9:05 reflects on the intent of Genesis 1 – he agrees with Walton, but also takes it in a his own direction.

Telling a story about somebody who constructs something in six days … it’s a temple story, it’s about God making a place for himself to dwell and this is heaven and earth and what you do with that is the last thing is you put an image of the God into this temple and suddenly Genesis 1 instead of it being  “were there six days?” or “were there five?” or “were there seven?” or “were they 24 hours?”, it’s actually about when the good creator God made the world he made heaven and earth as the space in which he himself was going to dwell. And putting humans into that construct as a way of both reflecting his own love into the world and drawing out the praise and glory from the world back to himself. And that’s the literal meaning of Genesis.

And again at 10:32-11:05:

This world was made to be God’s abode, God’s home, God’s dwelling. He shared it with us and he now wants to rescue it and redeem it. So that we have to read Genesis for all it’s worth and to say either it’s history or myth is a way of saying I’m not going to study this text for all it’s worth. I’m just going to flatten it out so that it conforms to the cultural questions that my culture today is telling me to ask. And I think that is a form of actually being unfaithful to the text itself.

The whole clip is great – but if you only have time for a small bit the stretch from 8 or 9 minutes to 11 minutes shouldn’t be missed.

Basil looked at the text of Genesis 1 in the terms of his day. He didn’t read it with a consciousness of 21st century science, although he did have a sense of the futility of reading it in terms of 4th century science. He and Wright are on the same page in at least one respect, and probably more. The point of Genesis 1 is not science. It is not about concordance with science of the 4th century or the 21st century. It is about God, the glory of the creator and his creation.

What do you think of Wrights symphony analogy?

Do we tend to read the notes without experiencing the music when we read Genesis, or much of the rest of scripture for that matter?

From the Dust is available for purchase from Highway Media or from Amazon, ($20 DVD, $25 Blu-Ray).

A study guide for From the Dust has been prepared by David Vosburg, associate professor of chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. The guide was developed especially for use with college students, but can be used with a much broader group.

If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    I love the quote that if we read Genesis as simply history or myth we flatten the Bible out and make the Bible conform to our own culture today. Powerful and excellent . . .

  • Kaleb

    Hi RJS,

    The reasoning offered by these scholars makes perfect sense to the confusion many have today with faith and science. My question is this… It is easy to argue, based on this video and logic, that the Genesis story does not have to be literal in terms of an actual creation account for it not to have multiple meanings theologically. I think the bigger issue for most people that read the ‘days’ in a literal sense of creation account have is with the next portion of scripture with Adam and Eve. People feel more threatened with the Adam and Eve in terms of giving in on creation as a precursor to giving in to the idea of Adam and Eve not being literal. I know you have addressed this elsewhere, but I have still not heard a simple logical conclusion with how we should understand the passages of dealing with Adam and Eve’s fall, and the son who would crush the serpent. If this portion is not to be taken literally in terms of 2 people from who all descended, how do we describe sins inheritance? The narrative seems to point to a specific reason sin is here and it starts with one action. Do we have to redefine this? If Adam and Eve are among many humans are the rest thrown out of the garden for their failure? I would love to have some help dealing with these issues because I have heard no convincing way as I have in the video above.

  • AHH

    Kaleb @2,
    The book The Evolution of Adam by Pete Enns addresses a lot of your concerns. You might not be convinced, but I think this OT scholar has a lot of insightful things to say about the role of “Adam” in the Old Testament, and for Paul.

  • This perspective really reflects that of my seminary education (post-conversative?), and it’s a joy to see this more fully-orbed perspective on God, the Bible, and what God is up to available at the popular (or lay) level.

    Thank you!

  • CGC

    Hi Kaleb,
    Good questions . . . One suggestion I have for you is to look at the biologos website on a written response to interpreting Adam and Eve. They give three or four different scenarios to your question. Here are some possible things to conside:

    1. In Jewish thought, there is this idea of corporate sin (we tend to think only in individual sin). For example, Achan and his whole family are killed for Achan’s sin (this pattern of corporate responsibility is throughout the OT). So yes, Adam and Eve could have been the first or representative or a whole group of people.

    2. However you work these issues out Kaleb, one very good and challenging book to think in different terms even about salvation and election is William Klein “The New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election.” What we need to break out of is this kind of rugged American Individualism in how we interpret Scripture while missing it’s more corporate elements.

  • CGC

    PS – I believe it was Peter Enn who suggested that Adam and Eve represented Israel. I suspect that Enn’s does not believe there was a literal man or woman but one still does not have to take that road. Certainly, there is a first man or first woman or even representatives of humanity or Israel for the whole group. I do think people are missing the Christological focus which is on Christ in reading the canonical Bible (whether somebody believes in a literal Adam or Eve is not crucial for the Christian faith and is certainly not a litmus test with God for whether people are his Children or not). And like RJS has said (putting this in my own take now), this issue is a minor issue and not the major thrust of Scripture. It was not the major focus of the earliest Christians and it certainly should not be our main focus today. Christ is the focus and many of our concerns of pitting the literal or real against the figurative or symbolic is our own modern cultural constructs, certainly not the way the Bible puts these issues. It’s only modern ways of reading the Bible a certain way that puts these issues which ends up sounding like, “The Bible says it and that settles it” as if that is God’s divine intent for us to focus on which a closer reading of Scripture I believe suggests otherwise.

  • Norman

    One of the biggest oversights IMO concerning the days of Genesis that I have determined from looking extensively at the ancient literature is that they have no semblance whatsoever of a literal application by 2nd Temple Jews. Yes Genesis 1-2:4 is a temple creation account but it is also a past and prophetic shorthand account of the history and future of faithful man found in the world of Judaism proclaiming the intent of God and Christ (Gen 1:26 let us).

    Throughout the OT and related Jewish literature the Days act as a division of periods and times which highlights their history and projects to a climatic ending on the sixth Day. Augustine lays it out but most folks don’t realize that he picked these ideas up from the earlier Jewish literature itself.

    Augustine: Tractate 9:6 … And we know that the law extends from the time of which we have record, that is, from the beginning of the world: “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 Thence down to the time in which we are now LIVING ARE SIX AGES, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know. The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as Matthew the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to John the Baptist; Matthew 1:17 the sixth, from John the Baptist to the end of the world. Moreover, GOD MADE MAN AFTER HIS OWN IMAGE ON THE SIXTH DAY, BECAUSE IN THIS SIXTH AGE IS MANIFESTED THE RENEWING OF OUR MIND THROUGH THE GOSPEL, after the image of Him who created us; Colossians 3:10

    What Augustine proposes here has already been well established in earlier 2nd Temple literature and in fact the OT uses the concept of the earlier days and latter days to distinguish a period of time that is coming to an end. The authors of Genesis and the OT were projecting that their way of life had a terminal ending when Messiah would come on the 6th Day and complete the prophecy of Gen 1:26 by imbuing the Image of God upon the faithful. Indeed Jesus states that God is still working and has not entered His rest in John 5:17 and that the 7th Day rest has not yet been attained in Heb 4.

    So historically we all have understood Gen 1-2:4 to be the time up to Adam’s creation but that doesn’t really catch the power of how it was understood by the Jews themselves. It’s a recapitulation or introductory prologue set before the opening Chapters of Judaism that has its seed of faith beginning with Adam. However the Jews and Christians worked Genesis into many variant illustrations that fit their theological needs as it is quite malleable but messianic Jews understood it to climax with them.

    Once one discerns this ancient understanding of periodization or segmentation by ANE writers illustrating epic stories being played out in their real time it starts to make sense of much of the concepts that often go over our head.
    Here is one of the closest Christian understandings (first century) of Genesis 1 that clearly lays out that they considered the work of Christ to have been prophetic from Gen 1:26. I submit that Augustine drew upon this literature to help reflect his above thinking.
    Barnabas 6:11
    Forasmuch then as He renewed us in the remission of sins, He made us to be a new type, so that we should have the soul of children, as if He were recreating us. For the SCRIPTURE SAITH CONCERNING US, how He saith to the Son; Let us make man after our image and after our likeness, and let them rule over the beasts of the earth and the fowls of the heaven and the fishes of the sea. And the Lord said when He saw the fair creation of us men; Increase and multiply and fill the earth. THESE WORDS REFER TO THE SON.
    Again I will shew thee how the Lord speaketh CONCERNING US. HE MADE A SECOND CREATION AT THE LAST; and the Lord saith; Behold I make the last things as the first. In reference to this then the prophet preached; Enter into a land flowing with milk and honey, and be lords over it.

    Behold then WE HAVE BEEN CREATED ANEW, as He saith again in another prophet; Behold, saith the Lord, I will take out from these, that is to say, from those whom the Spirit of the Lord foresaw, THEIR STONY HEARTS, AND WILL PUT INTO THEM HEARTS OF FLESH (Ezekeil and 2 Cor 3 references nv); for He Himself was to be manifested in the flesh and to dwell in us.

  • CGC

    Thanks for this Norman. I will only add one thing to your insightful words and that is in the exegesis of Genesis one on “day,” there is a change in day six and seven from the previous five (which I think goes along Norman to make the points you are suggesting). The Hebrew text lacks the article “the” on days 1-5. Obviously the writer of Genesis is revealing a kind of “climax” and emphasis on day 6 and 7 from days 1-5.

  • DMH

    Does anyone know if the DVD From the Dust would be appropriate for the high school level?

  • Kaleb

    OCG / AHH,

    Thank you for your responses. I like the collectivist approach idea and understand our idea of individual sin is seriously lacking in the way it affects restoration; like ripples in a pond it goes outwards.

  • Norman


    It seems the Jews were quite symbolically inclined with the use of the “day” concept as depicted below from the book of Jubilees which is likely a 2nd Century BC exploration of Genesis. If you notice we see perhaps where Peter picked up his concept of “a thousand years as a Day” and also the Barnabas letter uses that unique descriptor also in the first century. What is interesting is the “death” of Adam is considered within the context of the “day as a thousand years” where he did not attain that Day’s length. We also know from Revelation that the 1000 year lifespan is metaphor for eternal life. So Adam died without attaining 1000 years which is the plight of Israel and the Nations who were bound up collectively/corporately in Adam’s death. Paul presents these concepts in Romans 5-8 and 1 Cor 15 as well.

    Jubilees 4: 29 … “Adam died, … And he lacked seventy years of one thousand years; FOR ONE THOUSAND YEARS ARE AS ONE DAY in the testimony of the heavens and therefore was it written concerning the tree of knowledge: ‘On the day that ye eat thereof ye shall die.’ For this reason HE DID NOT COMPLETE THE YEARS OF THIS DAY; FOR HE DIED DURING IT.

    “At the close of this jubilee Cain was killed after him in the same year; for his house fell upon him and he died in the midst of his house, and he was killed by its stones; for with a stone he had killed Abel, and by a stone was he killed in righteous judgment.”
    End quote.

    Also notice above how Cain is used to exemplify Apostate Judaism as the older brother who murders the righteous younger brother. This is polemical against 2nd Temple Jews who idolized their temple and projects a prophecy that had become fulfilled in the destruction of the first Temple and is expected to also manifest this calamity again against the second Temple. Jesus Olivet Discourse is built around that understanding and 1st John makes the connection again with Cain and apostate Jews rejecting Christ the better sacrifice. Just as Jubilees describes the Apostate Jews died in the midst of their house of stones at AD70 at the hands of Titus the Roman General.

    Here is the Barnabas quote using the “day as a thousand years” to describe the first century
    Remember Barnabas is not using a literal 1000 years or 6000 years but this like Augustine reflects the 6 ages or aeon’s of Biblical history and it’s culmination.

    Barnabas 15:3 He speaks of the Sabbath at the beginning of the Creation, “And God made in six days the works of his hands and on the seventh day he made an end, and rested in it and sanctified it.”
    4 Notice, children, what is the meaning of “HE MADE AN END IN SIX DAYS”? He means this: that the Lord will make an end of everything in six thousand years, for A DAY WITH HIM MEANS A THOUSAND YEARS. And he himself is my witness when he says, “Lo, THE DAY OFTHE LORD SHALL BE AS A THOUSAND YEARS.” So then, children, IN SIX DAYS, that is in six thousand years, everything WILL BE COMPLETED.

    You can start to grasp above the concept of earliest Christians and messianic Jews who saw these times as the consummated end of the Messianic period. Our problem is the tendency to read things literally when we don’t understand the literary concepts being utilized. Augustine and the early church fathers tended to fall into this trap in various stages/levels and it’s been perpetuated ever since. But the literature is there if we want to sort it out.

    Finally in Jubilees 23 we see this prophecy from the 2nd century BC concerning regaining the opportunity that Adam lost regarding the 1000 year life span. Remember this is employing Jewish numerology to drive home theological points concerning the attainment of eternal life through the Messiah.

    Jub 23:26 And in those days the children shall begin to study the laws, And to seek the commandments, And to return to the path of righteousness. And the days shall begin to grow many and increase amongst those children of men TILL THEIR DAYS DRAW NIGH TO ONE THOUSAND YEARS.

    Read the whole chapter 23 of Jubilees to gather the overriding context of judgment and redemption that is arriving, but resist the temptation to over literalize symbolic apocalyptic style writings. The message is embedded within the symbolism as it is in Revelation 12 as an example.

  • Watched the last 2-3 min as OP suggested.

    Two quick/related thoughts.
    1. the Bible (OT and NT) emphasizes that God is the Creator of the universe and all that we see (ie material world) and dont see. There are many references back to the Genesis account that see this being an event to which the origins of man/woman, sin/death, and marriage are all ascribed.So we do need to wrestle with how all of the Scriptures see this event, not just Gen 1-3 in isolation and how it may relate to ANE myths.

    2. the questions we ask are not necessarily making the Genesis story “conform to our own culture today”. As we read it we need to try to understand it the way Jews (Moses time, Exile, and first century) have. When we see a literal Adam/Eve and Fall it is because Jesus refers to Abel as an actual person, the genealogies in Chronicles/Matthew link back to the story, the 10 commandments are based on it, and Paul sees the Fall as a historical event from which we need to be saved (Rom 5/1 Tim 2). So that culture says we need to examine how we understand the narrative


  • Finishing last sentence from post above.

    So that culture and those documents say we need to examine how we understand the narrative even if we set aside the literalness of the 7/24 hr day part. Is this narrative only to create a temple/image filling illustration of creation? If so why are its characters and actions central to the rest of the story and woven through out it?

  • Paul D.

    One problem I have is that Protestant theologians all seem to be doing “theology on stilts,” mostly ignoring the past century of scholarship on the Jewish scriptures. When we realize, for example: that Genesis is probably a late, even Hellenistic, work; that it was composed from multiple sources and redacted over time; and that the Jews did not regard the Eden story as explaining the origin of evil and instead tended to use the flood stories and Enochic literature for that purpose; then there is little point in quibbling over what the Grand Divine Message of Genesis 1 is, because what we have is a human book with a history, not a divine book from time immemorial.

  • Rick

    Paul D.- “One problem I have is that Protestant theologians all seem to be doing “theology on stilts,” mostly ignoring the past century of scholarship on the Jewish scriptures. When we realize, for example: that Genesis is probably a late, even Hellenistic…then there is little point in quibbling over what the Grand Divine Message of Genesis 1 is, because what we have is a human book with a history, not a divine book from time immemorial.”

    First, I think your “all” may be stretching it. I am confident that scholars such as N.T. Wright, Scot, etc… are quite familiar with such scholarship. Do they, and others, always agree with it? That is a different question.

    Second, are you saying that Genesis should not be considered part of inspired Scripture/part of the canon?

  • CGC

    Hi Paul (#14),
    Can you give a date of Genesis and a major source you are refering to when it comes to the late dating and context of Genesis.

    Thanks in advance.

  • Tim Atwater

    Norman (#12), Peter is quoting first and foremost Psalm 90:4 (as are Jubilees and etc)

    Paul D (#14) there is no evidence of Genesis being as late as you suggest — and on the widespread assumption of much redaction (on which i will be agnostic, except that i would put any such much earlier if it happened — note the absence of fragmentary texts traceable to alleged (or real) sources such as J, P, E, etc…) And read Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, at least the intro and first chapters…

    Walton’s short book is very good.
    thanks to RJS for this post and the whole series…


  • Norman

    Tim #17,

    Don’t dispute that Psalm 90 may be and likely is in view. However the quote by Peter and the Barnabas letter are much more reflective of the Jubilees vernacular. This reinforces the consitent application of its definition as it’s applied to Adam’s death in Jubilees where it reflects Jewish numerology that has a proven track record of use.

    I don’t really see Psalm 90: 4 though as reflecting substantially the point that Peter and the Baranabas Epistle do while Jubilees is very informative. Psalm 90 appears more of just a simpler poetic reference. There is more to digest in the other accounts. We also don’t really know when Psalm 90 was written so it’s a bit of a stretch to categorically posit your premise. The concept appears to have been in vogue throughout 2nd Temple Judaism.

    Psalm 90:4 For a thousand years in Thine eyes [are] as yesterday, For it passeth on, yea, a watch by night.
    2 Peter 3:8 … that one day with the Lord [is] as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day

  • RJS

    DMH (#9)

    I don’t think anyone answered your question. I doubt if it is right for most high school church groups – but it could be with the right leadership to guide conversation. It also depends on the general position of most of their parents.

    I think it would be a great DVD for high school teachers and leaders. It would give the leaders/teachers the knowledge and perspective needed to help high school students and to prepare them for the future.

  • DMH

    RJS Just saw this, thanks. I have just emailed you with a more general question.