Genesis 1-3 on How to Interpret Genesis 1-3

Genesis 1-3 on How to Interpret Genesis 1-3 February 9, 2012

As Evolution Weekend draws near, many of us will be taking some time to address matters related to evolution in our religious communities. Here are a diagram and a cartoon, as well as some links and other resources, that I think are useful on this occasion.

First, RJS at Jesus Creed wrote a post which  shares a useful diagram from Pete Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam which helpfully draws attention to the fact that there are internal inconsistencies within the early chapters of Genesis.


Far from viewing the contradictions as a problem to be resolved, we ought instead to treat these as internal indicators of something important about the author(s)/editor(s) of Genesis: they did not think that the point of these materials was to fit them into a unified coherent account of “what actually happened.” This is crucially important. Not only those who try to force Genesis 1-3 to agree with modern science, but those who try to harmonize all the details within those chapters, are going against the grain of the text itself, and thus show that their aim is not to do as much justice as possible to what the text actually says, but rather to force the text to conform to an Enlightenment understanding of truth, historicity, scientific accuracy, and consistency that the text is clearly not concerned with.

Next, here’s a cartoon that I’ve seen before and meant to share:

It is worth pointing out how well groups like young-earth creationists fit the type of Christian viewpoint that is being parodied in the cartoon. Their hodge-podge of details from Genesis and pseudoscientific claims depict the “truth about creation” as neither what scientists conclude, nor what most interpreters of Genesis have understood the text to mean down the ages. As a result, they set up their own perspective as though it were normative and the “historic Christian faith” when in fact it is a latecomer and a rather bizarre aberration in the history of Biblical interpretation and of Christian thought more generally.

Also on this topic are David Henson’s thoughts on giving thanks for Darwin, Brian LePort on John Walton’s seventh proposition concerning Genesis 1 (and it seems really timely that he is now reaching proposition 8!), and Open Parachute on “ID Research and Publications.”

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  • Ian

    Amen. And that’s a great table by Enns.

  • Mike B.

    I mostly agree, but I’m not completely convinced. One of the perplexing things about the Pentateuch is the fact that its constituent sources are allowed to coexist, apparently intact and largely unaltered, even when they conflict with one another. While there is editorial activity, it does not appear that the editors attempted to harmonize contradictions within the text, at least not often. There are a couple of possible interpretations for this, both of which are somewhat speculative. The first is what you are suggesting, which is that the editor(s) were not interested in creating a harmonious or coherent account, that they were more comfortable with contradictions that we are. This could be right, but I think the more plausible explanation is that by the time these texts were compiled into a single volume, they were already regarded by the communities that transmitted them as sacred tradition, and thus could not be significantly altered without protest. The compiler probably assumed, as do most conservative readers of the text today, that no matter what apparent contradictions may have existed, they nonetheless somehow fit together. The task of harmonization was, therefore, not one that an editor was free to undertake in the text itself, but was a job for commentators and interpreters, as it has been for centuries now among first Jewish and then Christian expositors.

    It’s hard to articulate precisely why I think this is the better explanation. Perhaps its the fact that the Torah in its current form is probably a product of very early Judaism, and that this fits what we know of later Judaism (Why introduce discontinuity into the picture when you don’t have to?). Perhaps it’s the fact that the alternative view makes these ancient editors sound a little bit too much like modern progressive theologians. It makes it easier for us to accept contradictions in the Bible if we believe that they were never meant to be harmonious. It seems a little too convenient.

    Ultimately, all of this involves trying to read the minds of people whose thoughts we cannot ultimately know. We do not know precisely when the Pentateuch was compiled, or under what circumstances. We don’t know what parties were involved or what their agendas were. Was it a committee of scribes or a single editor? What was the original function of these texts before they were compiled? All of these are important questions that would help us understand how the text was meant to be read. But ultimately, we don’t have any of this information. We only have approximations and educated guesses.

  • That is a great table. I might just carry one around in my wallet from now on. 🙂 Thanks for the shout-out, too, Dr. McGrath!

  • Jan-Wim Wesselius’s “The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible” discusses such adjacent accounts that give variant explanations for events from the perspective of comparison with “Histories” by Herodotus. The most obvious difference between the two works (Histories and Primary History – Gen to 2 Kings) is the Greek work is structured around an intrusive narrator (who is himself a character in the work, and not the real author — I have discussed some of the scholarship about this on my own blog over the years) while the Primary History of the Hebrews is an exercise in studied anonymity. Bernard Levinson in “Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation” offers us plausible explanations for this contrasting anonymity.

    But the point is that two contrasting accounts are often found side by side in the Primary History and that this is consistent with Hellenistic historiographical practices — with the only difference being the intrusion/absence of a narrator’s voice.

    In this case, given the parallelisms, we are also faced with the strong likelihood that we are not looking at independent traditions that somehow were forced together, but at a single authorial creator behind them both. This is consistent with more recent studies (albeit admittedly minority ones at this point) that do argue that Primary History is, after all and just as Spinoza himself originally opined, the work of a single author. That it is also the product of Hellenistic times is the solutions Mr Ockham would like best, too.

  • Just Sayin’

    Who let Godfrey in?

    • Sorry if I interrupt the general expressions of ignorance or simplistic Creationist-bagging by attempting to share some informed scholarly research on the question.

  • I think the author of the second Genesis (the one with the seven days) knew about the earlier version, Genesis 1 (with the garden of Eden), but thought it was too amateurish, flawed and limited in scope. He then wrote his own, hoping that would replace the first one. However the original one remained accepted by many (and the second one found its own adherants). So later, a compiler, knowing well about the conflicts and differences, had no choice other than intermix them the best he could into his text (the whole Genesis book), sometimes with his own short paragraphs in order to link passages of the two.
    I figured also the first author was probably a young Jewish prisoner of the Assyrians, when Nineveh and Assur were still existing. He had very limited knowledge of the outside world and was living in the semi-arid South, flat with some hills (as in the area around today Baiji, Irak) which he understood as being mountains. He heard about ancient local legends, observed that the rare rain was at time very abundant and causing flood. He assumed continuous rain would cause total flooding because he did not envisioned uplands and true mountains. He thought nowhere there was enough rain for cultivation without irrigation or to feed the major rivers continuously. He also heard of some unfinished ziggurat in Babylon and some higher mountains in the North (Urartu/Armenia).

  • BrotherRog

    Another way of looking at the creation order in Genesis 2 woman isn’t the “fitting helper” but rather, since she was created last, and since it escalates in importance, woman is the peak and zenith of creation. Makes sense to me. : )