“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (5): Charles Halton

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (5): Charles Halton July 7, 2014

Today’s “aha” moment is the 5th in our series and brought to you by Charles Halton (PhD Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion), assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University.

Halton is the managing editor of  Marginalia and just completed editing Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters (Zondervan, February, 2015). He is working on several other projects, one of which is with co-author Saana Svärd The First Female Authors: An Anthology of Women’s Writing from Mesopotamia (Cambridge, forthcoming). His essays have appeared in the Journal of Biblical LiteratureScandinavian Journal of the Old TestamentCuneiform Digital Library NotesAncient Near Eastern StudiesBulletin for Biblical Research, and Books & Culture. He lives with his wife and daughter in Louisville, Kentucky. Charles tweets from the incredibly creative handle @charleshalton and virtually resides at www.charleshalton.com.

Halton’s “aha” moment will be familiar to many who have studied Genesis–and for that very reason is worth raising…again and again.


When I was in seminary I was told that if I wanted to learn of the origins of the universe and how humans came to be, then I needed to consult the Bible, and most specifically, the book of Genesis. On questions of science and history, they said, the Bible is entirely accurate. Furthermore, they continued, at no point should scientific discoveries change the way we understand the Bible’s clear, unified story concerning the origins of the world.

In this last point, my professors were merely recapitulating the view expressed in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a document that professors at many conservative Evangelical schools must agree with. Article twelve of the statement includes this assertion: “We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

As a young and eager seminary student this made sense to me, particularly when I considered the syllogistic reasoning that often went with it: God spoke the Bible, God always is true, therefore, the Bible is true in all it says including its teaching on the origin of the world. Fair enough, that made sense.

Until I read the Bible.

What I found out, when I paid attention to the details, is that there is no one, singular teaching on creation in Scripture. There are several creation narratives and they conflict with one another. And they conflict on the most superficial level—the order of creation.

For me—like so many others have done—all I needed to do was read the first two chapters of the Bible, the creation accounts in  Genesis 1 and 2.

Genesis 1 presents the world as created in six days. If we take the sequence literally, things are created in this order: light, sky, earth, plants, stars and sun and moon, aquatic animals, birds, land animals, and, finally humans in large number. In other words, humans—and many of them—are created last.

But when we come to Genesis 2, the one human (Adam) is created first, even before plants had grown (Gen 2:5). After the human is made, God sows a garden and plants begin to sprout. After this, God begins the process of identifying a suitable companion for the human.

At this point, it gets a bit tricky if you are reading the Bible in translation. One of the difficulties in studying the Bible is that modern translations sometimes obscure what the Bible really says.

In most cases, the translators have good motives for this and they believe they are doing their readers a favor—making the text more clear and steering them away from error. In many cases this is entirely appropriate and is beneficial.

But then there’s Genesis 2:19. This is where God is trying to find a companion for the human, and so he forms the animals (maybe that will provide a suitable companion for the human?).

Genesis 2:19 reads, “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the sky….” This conflicts with Genesis 1 where the animals were already created (days 5 and 6) before the humans were.

Two of the most popular translations within the Evangelical world—the ESV and NIV—obscure the natural flow of the passage. The Hebrew verb is a “narrative preterite,” which indicates sequential action (e.g., “and then this happened”). But these translations say “had formed”—i.e., “had previously formed” back in Genesis 1.

In other words, “had formed” is a translation aimed at harmonizing the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2, thus reconciling the contradiction between them. In doing so, these translations opt for a rather forced reading of the Hebrew. (For what it’s worth, ancient Greek versions render this verb with the construction kai + an aorist verb, which shows that they interpreted the verb as a narrative preterite and not as a pluperfect. The KJV also translates it as “formed.”)

Once I saw these conflicting accounts of creation I was fearful. The entire artifice I had learned, which asserted that the Bible alone has the true story of the scientific origins of the world collapsed. If the biblical authors couldn’t agree on the sequence of creation, how could I trust the rest of what they said?

But then, through the help of some very patient friends, I began to understand that God communicates to us in the forms that make up our contextual environment, such as language and culture. It could be no other way.

And this applies to the biblical authors as well. They were people who lived in a pre-scientific age for which discussion of big bangs, the speed of light, and genetic codes would have made no sense. They explored the nature of the universe with the tools that were available to them—the literary forms and tropes of their day, their observations of nature, and their religious understandings.

The authors of Scripture were not concerned, as many are today, about conflicting orders of creation—they put them side by side for goodness sake! This reveals, at least to me, that Scripture begins not with a scientific treatise but with two theological stories. And as we turn to Scripture’s pages we should separate the theological messages of its authors from the accouterments of their cultural context. The fact that the author of Genesis 1 had no knowledge of the human genome nor astrophysics does not diminish the worth of their theological vision. At the same time, we are not required to believe that the earth was created in six days when every single facet of the scientific study of nature tells us otherwise.

I think it is exciting that, in Christian confession, God speaks to us through the writings of people long dead. Instead of trying to change the word of God to accommodate our expectations, the voices of Scripture call us to think beyond our own cultural contexts and contemplate what it has meant and what it now means to follow after God in the myriad of contexts in which the people of God live. This challenges us even on the level of the expectations we bring to our study of the Bible. Should we really prize philosophical consistency and weed out contradiction if the biblical authors saw no need to?

It is also exciting that we as humans have the freedom and capability to study the Scriptures and in them learn of our life with God and also to explore the world that God has made and try to figure out how it came to be. But with this freedom comes great responsibility. Interpreting the Bible well is difficult and we will constantly disagree with one another as we do it.

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  • Great story!

    So, can we not assume that the translators of the ESV and NIV knew perfectly well the tense of the verb but deliberately chose to translate it according to their views — even if, granting them the benefit of a doubt (and quite a heavy dose of benefit), they did so for the sake of clarity?

    If they do so here in Genesis, do they not also do so elsewhere? I now have even more confidence in the trustworthiness of the NRSV for maintaining the integrity of translating this passage accurately. If the NRSV will translate a difficult word or passage accurately, in spite of any theological consequences, then that’s the translation I want.

    • Just Sayin’
      • Tim

        Yes, there are many other translations I prefer to this one. It’s why I refer to it as the “New Inconsistent Version”.

        • Paul D.

          Someone on Twitter suggested the “Not Inspired Version. 🙂

          • Josh T.

            I think “Not Inspired Version” was originally a joke by (and/or possibly a tongue-in-cheek poke at) King-James-Only fundamentalists. I think that’s the context I heard it in back in the mid ’90s.

      • mikeaubrey

        Every other translation does the same thing…just in different ways. The idea that the NRSV is more reliable is a lie that this author is telling himself. It’s mistakes are simply in different places with different motivations.

        • John

          I would argue that the mistakes in the NRSV are significantly less and of lesser import.

          • Brian P.

            Every one translations does do the same thing and yes in different ways. But yet also as John points out… in different quantities too.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    This one is true for me also. Imagine my surprise when I was told that Gen 1 and 2 could be read in concordance with each other only to find out it is not true. By the way, pointing this out is a way to lose friends that believe differently.

    • Bryan

      “pointing this out is a way to lose friends that believe differently.” This is so sad yet so true.

    • Derek

      Yikes, what type of friend’s did you have? Seems quite petty and divisive to divide over such an issue.

  • Craig Wright

    I have a version of the ESV copyright 2001 that says, “So out of the ground the LORD God formed…” , with a footnote saying,”Or had formed.”

    • Charles Halton

      Hi Chris,
      That is odd, the electronic version on Bible Gateway has it the other way around.

      • Derek

        The electronic version is the updated version. There were revisions on the ESV in 2007 and 2011, I believe.

      • Craig Wright

        I came upon this discrepancy when I was teaching on Gen. 1-2 in an adult Sunday school class at my church. I had checked several versions, as to the translation of Gen. 2: 19, including the ESV, so I said in class that the only version that was different was the NIV. A class member, with an app on his phone, said that the ESV agreed with the NIV. I had received my hard cover ESV as a complimentary promo at a lecture at Biola Univ. several years ago. It looks like the translation was changed. I know that committees are involved in translation work, (as a Wycliffe friend tells me), so this makes you wonder about what goes on. Is it a matter of integrity, peer pressure, or fear? It undermines one’s confidence in the evangelical community.

        • Charles Halton

          I agree with you, Craig. And it is disconcerting that apparently the ESV went backwards in their revision–opting for a tendentious reading that went against the underlying grammar instead of their original translation which was in line with the Hebrew and Greek versions as well as the tradition of English translation (KJV).

        • Brian P.

          Note the analysis of: http://claudemariottini.com/2011/07/05/translating-genesis-219/

          Practical belief in “Sola Scripture” seems quite unevidenced as this is a one-of-many: http://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/articles-and-resources/deliberate-mistranslation-in-the-new-international-version-niv/

          The problem with the evangelical community is that “integrity” has been centered on party-line keeping, “peer pressure” (and much more) has been a means to keep this, and “fear” has been the primary tool to enforce–fear of inter-personal shunning, fear of non-employability, not to mention fear of the granddaddy of the all–eternal conscious torment.

          In contrast, Oliver Wendell Holmes gets credit for this:

          “Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.”

          Communal faith out to be more like a friendly scrimmage of football than the keeping of a shared lie.

          Would like to think of a Jesus of Nazareth type who might be aligned more so with a liars-be-damned-to-their-own-hell impatient break in the kenosis.

  • God is trying to find a companion for the human, and so he forms the animals. But couldn’t God have simply given Adam a map on how to get to Nod?

    • Eric Weiss

      Yeah, it appears God took awhile to realize that none of the animals was a “fit” for Adam. Is this just an example of folklore humor, a precursor to Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Or is there a hint of potential bestiality?

      • John

        It was the Neanderthals.

        • Aceofspades25
          • Brian P.

            I once read something Hugh Ross wrote speculatively about the Nephilim. He used a phrase such as “demon sperm.” It was an apex of my head shaking in response to Evangelical apologetics. Evangelicalism is so rich with the manifestations of Poe’s Law that there’s no way for it ever to Jump the Shark.

    • Would you prefer that God restrict reality such that it suddenly transitions between one perfect state to the next? I’m trying to extend your implied suggestion for how an omnimax deity would work, and take it all the way to its logical conclusions. You could probably do a better job at it than, if you’re up for giving it a shot.

      This world obviously prefers the gradual, descent with modification approach. Some readings of the Bible could have God preferring this too—preferring to wrestle with Jacob than “skip to the end”. Indeed, it seems like it’s the serpent in the garden who wants to “skip to the end”. Hey Adam and Eve! Wanna take this shortcut to theosis! Here ya go!

      Most people don’t seem up to really trying to construct a perfectly rational system of understanding that is both cohesive and believable. So instead, they wave their omni-wands, saying God should have just done this or that, not realizing that they aren’t necessarily constructing a rational world. Now, perhaps they don’t care, but I’m guessing you do—you seem to actually care about pervasive rationality. So wanna give this a shot? I’ve been itching to have a serious, rigorous discussion on this issue. :-/

  • Kim Fabricius

    Jeez, Chicago Statement evangelical culture – all these great-escape stories read like an ecclesial version of The Truman Show. It’s little short of tragic that what should be a “Duh!” has to take the circuitous form of an “Aha!”.

    • peteenns

      It’s only a Duh after the Aha.

      • Brian P.

        Would be a great Christian novel if there are any lurking, aspiring authors. Consider blending together 1) Cron’s Chasing Francis, 2) the Truman Show, and 3) The Chicago Statement into a Joseph Campbell monomyth framework and you just might have something the post Evangelical, post Donald Miller Millenniums would love.

  • Chris Bishop

    One tends to get the impression (although they would of course deny it) that many conservatives of the inerrancy school think that Adam and his contemporaries were in factSouthern Baptists.

  • Ron

    I think the issue is not so much the “aha” moment of discovering that there are problems with the Bible, but what one does next with this information and why? In other words, how does one then work out a Christianity that makes sense if the Bible is problematic?

    • John

      In my experience, not so much. What I mean is that there is hundreds of years of literature and scholarship on that topic; it is doubtful that any individual will come up with something to add to the conversation. In my experience the real “afterward” issue has to do with relating to community, power structures, and often (for those who make a living in the Bible) career path and other difficult decisions.

  • John

    What has been interesting to me is that so far everyone in this series says essentially the same thing – my “a ha” moment came when I actually read the Bible (implied: and accepted it for what it is instead of what I want it to be). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this mirrors my own experience.

  • Jacob L. Wright

    I really enjoyed reading this! Wonderfully written.

    On one statement I would push back:

    “And as we turn to Scripture’s pages we should separate the theological messages of its authors from the accouterments of their cultural context.”

    I understand the point that is being made here in relation to the context of evangelicals struggling to find a sustainable hermeneutic. But I fear it poses some of the problems of disembodied readings that Boyarin treats in his Carnal Israel.

    But once again, I really enjoyed this piece!

    • Charles Halton

      Good point, Jacob. It was a short piece so that part in particular would need to be nuanced quite a bit.