Several years ago Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III published a short book Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins. Longman refers to this book in his essay How I changed My Mind About Evolution. A combination of factors led him to think more deeply about the biblical story of creation and this book was part of that process. The last two chapters of Science, Creation and the Bible discuss the genre and purpose of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 and the impact that has or should have on our interpretation of these passages. This is worth another look.
Genesis 1 and 2 use different approaches to deliver different but related messages. They contain different details, and different ordering of those details. The fact that the passages are distinct is a significant observation, and helps to inform us of the genre and intent of the author who brought the book of Genesis together as a whole. Genesis 1 and 2 are not two different views of the same historical event to be harmonized, but presentations of a theological message in a non-literal genre. The ancient view of cosmology is incidental to the message. Even the mode of creation of the first man – from clay of the earth – is a common motif in Ancient Near East writings, and is incidental to the message.
The important and complex theological truths being presented to the ancient Hebrews are most effectively cast in terms of the familiar – in this case in terms of creation concepts that were well known throughout the ancient Semitic Near East. (p. 123)
Summarizing the discussion of the creation accounts in Genesis …
In short, we propose that Genesis 1 and 2 are nonliteral accounts, housed in an ancient cosmology and a story of humankind’s beginnings, whose purpose is to teach important theological truths.
If we are on the right track, the next step is to determine the theological concepts that the Genesis 1 and 2 author was proclaiming to his hearers and to us. (p. 126)
Given these observations on Genesis and additional discussion of other OT creation accounts, Longman and Carlson propose as their central thesis that Genesis 1 and 2 constitute a worldview statement of the ancient Hebrew people. As such these accounts of creation belong prominently at the beginning of scripture.
This proposal contrasts with the view that Genesis 1-3 was an ancient origins account of the material world and of people and that it was intended as such. Many Christians assume that the purpose of Genesis 1-3 is to present an account of material origins. The choice, then, is to either disregard original intent of the authors and search for a deeper theological truth or to take this account of material origins seriously as a constraint on “true” science. The proposal by Longman and Carlson also contrasts with John Walton’s view that Gen 1 -3 is an ancient origins account, but one that describes creation of function rather than the material universe (The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve). In all three books there is agreement that the incidental context in the ancient Near East including cosmology and ‘science’ should be separated from the message, but some difference in the understanding of the message. I will elaborate on the proposal by Carlson and Longman, but the question of message and intent is an important one to consider.
What is the theological message of Genesis 1 and 2? How is this identified?
The genre of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 is story. According to Longman and Carlson the ancient understanding of cosmology and biology, the ancient origin and creation myths of the people, were used as the framework of a story intended to convey an important message in a familiar form. The message is not in the incidental details of the story, but in the way those pieces are put together. Any good story, Moby Dick, A Christmas Carol, The Lord of the Rings, Huckleberry Finn, uses concepts familiar to the intended audience to convey a meaning, and the truth is in the meaning independent of the historicity or scientific truth of the incidental details.
The genre of the surface level of each Genesis creation account is story, related to observations and experiences of the ancient Hebrews. But there is a second level, a story beneath the story, that teaches the theology of the ancient Hebrews. … Part of the thesis of this book is that the purpose of the two Genesis creation passages is best understood as proclaiming theological truth, but this truth is not in blow-by-blow historical or scientific accounts of creation. … Instead, these are creation accounts that work together below the surface to articulate something much more important and, because of this importance, were placed at the beginning of our Bible. (p. 133)
The intent of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 is a worldview statement that sets the foundation for primary worldview questions, questions that provide a general outlook on life and proper focus on life for God’s people. The kinds of questions addressed are not scientific or historical, but metaphysical, philosophical, and theological.
How is it that things exist? Things exist because God planned and prepared the universe, the world, and the living creatures of the world. God is responsible for the good creation in which we live.
Why do we exist? We exist as a specific decision of God and we exist for a purpose in creation.
Who are we? We are God’s creation given dominion over the earth to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, to rule over the living creatures. The man was formed to cultivate the ground, to live in relationship with his wife as a suitable partner, to live in relationship with God.
What does God think of creation? This world is God’s good creation and God has a high regard for and purpose for humankind as his creatures.
What are we to do? We are to develop, serve, care for, preserve the world we’ve been given and we are to do so in relationship to each other and in relationship with God.
Genesis 1 and 2 dispute other theologies and worldviews. In this video (one of many available on YouTube featuring Tremper Longman III) Longman describes something of his view of the creation accounts as responding to the ancient Near Eastern context and proclaiming a new worldview, a new outlook on life and purpose.
(0:50) But you see this is an imposition of a modern reading on the scriptural text. The biblical text is not disputing Darwin. It is actually disputing ancient near eastern ideas about creation, and it is picking up a lot of their descriptions and applying it to God. So, just a quick example, when Genesis 2 talks about Adam being created from the dust of the ground and the breath of God, that is clearly not a literal description of the way God did it because God doesn’t have lungs to breathe breath in. It is not the word for the Holy Spirit there. It is the word for breath. It is to be contrasted with Babylonian depiction of creation where the god Marduk takes the dust of the ground and mixes it with the blood of a demon god. So its not giving a literal description. It is saying something about who we are as human beings.
Genesis 1 and 2 are for us today. In answering the worldview questions Genesis 1 and 2 speak to us today as they spoke to the original audience. They do not speak against evolution, or modern cosmology. They are not contra Darwin. But they do speak against the view of scientific naturalism that there is nothing beyond the world we see. They speak against the absence of purpose and direction proclaimed by many who take science as the foundation of all knowledge. They speak against those today who will value humankind no more than the other plants and animals of creation. Genesis 2 speaks against those who degrade or devalue the partnership between husband and wife. In fact, the worldview answers given to the original audience are the answers we need today. These are foundational answers for the people of God throughout all time.
A search for truth. The biblical hermeneutic developed by Longman and Carlson models an approach to scripture that is focused on faithful Bible reading. In many respects it is more faithful to the way that Scripture uses Scripture than is the overly literalistic approach preferred by many Christians today. Paul and the author of Matthew, for example, took the story of Israel very seriously, but also felt free to see layers of meaning in the text. Paul’s discourse on Abraham’s seed and Matthew’s reference to Hosea (out of Egypt I called my son) are only two of many examples I could give. We need to read the Bible faithfully, continually, completely, and for the overarching story. If we do this we will not go far wrong, how ever much “true” science we find in Genesis 1 and 2.
What do you think – does the understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 as worldview statement make sense?
What are the drawbacks of this view? What do we gain or lose?
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.