The Good, the Bad and the Ugly about Reading Genesis 1-2

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly about Reading Genesis 1-2 August 12, 2013

Among evangelicals one can find a number of views on how to read Genesis 1-2: the literary approach and the literal approach are two typical approaches, though behind them all is one simple question: Historical or not? And then this one: In what senses is it historical or non-historical? The big problem here is that one’s conclusions enter into the polemics of evangelicalism where some think anything less than “historical all the way down” (including light before the sun) throws evangelicalism under the bus while others think there’s plenty of room for other considerations (and honestly hold to evangelical convictions in all other regards).

For me a problem enters when one view contends it alone is faithful while the others have caved in, and it is even more problematic when the principal evidence and scientific discussions are ignored or denied. This is the case with Todd Bealls’ contribution to J. Daryl Charles, Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation. After we read a perfectly reasonable sketch of how to read Genesis 1-2 in a literary reading with clear historical referentialism at work by Richard Averbeck, Bealls chooses to do polemics against everyone else’s readings but his “literal” (more below) reading. A big disappointment because I’d like to read an honest sketch of his reading — all the polemics dropped — of Genesis 1-2, but my disappointment was shared by the responses by the other authors in this multi view volume. Some observations and these are more or less found as well in the respondents, though I jotted these down before I read their responses:

1. He opens playing the Elijah, or victim, game. Like Elijah in wilderness Beall claims his view alone is faithful and the rest are caving in and that he’s persecuted for it. Skip his first two paragraphs and go to his first question.

2. He asks if one should have two different hermeneutics for Genesis 1-11 (or 1-2, or just chp 1) than for Gen 12-50. He says they are the same, the hermeneutic should be the same, that it should be literal. He’s got some good points here; I’m not sure it as water tight as he’d like and most readers of Genesis 1-2 don’t agree with him. Yes, these chps are narrative prose; but how does one know when “narrative” is “historical referentiality” vs. the non-historical and literary? (Point 5 below touches on this.)

3. Which raises for me an observation. Beall has a colossal hermeneutical blunder: he equates a “literal” reading with “historical referentiality” without a shred of evidence or defense. The fact is that a literal reading can be fully literal and the text itself not at all be concerned with historical referentiality (John Collins’ response points this out too). Here’s an example. Luke 10:30 has Jesus responding to the man’s question about who is my neighbor: Jesus says, “In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead….” I know of almost no one who thinks this isn’t a parable yet most think it is a parable. There’s no indication it is a parable — it doesn’t say “And then Jesus told this parable…” It just says “A man…” and if one takes it as a parable, it could be pure fiction; if it is not a parable, it could refer to a historical referent. My point is this: Most think it is a parable because it comes off that way though there’s not a shred of evidence in the text that is a parable or an imagined story. In Beall’s logic we’d have to take this as a historical referent story and not a parable. This is the problem for Beall’s logic: How do we know when a narrative is historical or fictional? He doesn’t spell it out and for me it ruins this chp.

4. Another question he addresses: is Genesis 1 from an ANE worldview? This, by the way, is one way to answer the historical referentiality question but Beall gets too polemical here. Because the text is from God it doesn’t have to be — or isn’t — an ANE worldview. “Why would God have used ANE myths to reveal truth to Moses…?” (52). One could ask “Why not?” He says instead it is polemics against the ANE worldview, which is almost a way of saying it partakes in the ANE worldview. I could go on: the point I’d make is that this text emerged in the ANE, it was for people who lived in the ANE, it has parallels and differences from the ANE, and all texts emerge from and speak into and against their cultures. Denying a text’s cultural embedness is a colossal hermeneutical blunder. Every text reflects its culture. Historical conditionedness is part of the human condition so when God chose to speak he did so in space and time, and that space and that time is not the same as ours today.

5. How do NT authors approach these texts? This is a more fruitful approach for someone who wants to deny the importance of the ANE context. Yes, I would agree that the NT writers assume the text of Genesis 1-2 (and beyond) when they speak: Jesus, Paul, et al.. But I’d like to see him address one question: Does the authority of a biblical worldview rest on that worldview being historical? Let us say that Jesus is saying “the two, as the Bible says, became one.” Is his view based on the fact that his worldview is rooted in that worldview or because the text of Gen 1-2 is historical? In this section I think Beall assumes that “literally” can only be “authoritative” if “literal” means “historical.” Is that compelling?

6. He then says those who are opting for literary readings of Genesis 1-2 are accommodating themselves to theistic evolution. Maybe, but I’d rather not question the motive of Tremper Longman and Pete Enns and John Walton and believe that they really do think Genesis 1-2 needs to be read in a more historically nuanced way so that it is more in tune with ANE culture, something that is simply not characteristic of the tradition that developed leading to the view Beall now defends. As we have become both more aware of science and the ANE texts we need to listen and learn.

He then sees this all as a slippery slope, his terms. This is a scare tactic and not logic. Slippery slope logic is unworthy of intellectual rigor.

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