Assumption, Identify Yourself!

Assumption, Identify Yourself! October 19, 2012

Perhaps you do what I do at times. I wonder what assumptions some folks have when they read Genesis 1 or 2 or 3. Most folks don’t get too worked about Genesis 4–11. Since so much matters in Genesis 1–3, it’s a good test case for assumptions.

What assumptions are at work in the following: the scientific creationist? the theistic evolutionist (or evolutionary creationist)? the intelligent design reader? The historian of the ancient near east? the evolutionist? 

Example: once teaching a course I asked my students to read Genesis 1-6 after having read Atrahasis, an ancient near eastern text about creation and a flood. The assignment was fairly simple: If Atrahasis is the assumption of Genesis, what do you now see? It led to dozens of observations, no the least being a rather boorish set of gods in that text in comparison to the all-powerful God of Genesis 1-6. The assumption informed how to read Genesis.

Example: in teaching Genesis 3 over the years I found the serpent talking an opportunity to explore assumptions. Some assume this happened — as the text says — so they think either that there were snakes with voice boxes or that God did a miracle. Others assume — because they know science and snakes — that, since snakes don’t talk, the incident in Genesis 3 is taking on fictional/mythic dimensions. Discovering assumptions, sometimes knowing it is hard to admit, is important for reading Genesis.

Richard Briggs, in a chp in Reading Genesis after Darwin, explores the hermeneutics of reading Genesis in light of other books or ideas. He examines whether Genesis 1-2 is monotheist or does “let us” perhaps open another window? And what about creating out of the dust in Genesis 2:7 when compared to creating out of clay and blood and spittle in Atrahasis? What happens to the ages of folks like Methuselah when compared to the roster of kings in Sumeria — where some lived 21,000 years and others up to 72,000? Is this an attempt to counter the god-like history to a more mundane, human kind of history? Briggs thinks the first two are difficult to know while the ages issue is clearly a response.

Briggs’ point is this: Genesis is triangulated: Reader, Genesis and Atrahasis or other ancient near eastern texts. What assumptions are at work in this kind of reading? One of his points is that Darwin’s science is one of the assumptions at work in many readings. In other words, and this is a big one, do our comparisons with other texts generate new meanings or do they lead us to discover original meanings?

I’m a fan of John Walton’s conclusion that Genesis 1 is a cosmic temple creation … but is his use of cosmic temple imagery something that generates a new reading of Genesis or is it leading us to a more original reading? Others have asked: Is this a reading that assumes Darwinian science and therefore seeks for a reading that does not contradict evolutionary science?

Does Darwin, then, force us to rethink what we think or have believed is the right reading of Genesis? Has it awakened us or forced us to chase a red herring?

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