Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Interpretations of Genesis 1

I've taught a course now four times for Houghton University called Science and Scripture. I'd like to write a book based on the course. The chapters might be something like:

Table of Contents
1. Four Perspectives on Science and Faith
2. A Mixed History
3. Creation and Big Bangs
4. Interpretations of Genesis 1
5. Quantum Indeterminacy and Faith
6. Predestination and Free Will
7. Adam, Eve, and Genetics
8. Interpretations of Genesis 2
9. The Theory of Evolution
10. Interpretations of Genesis 3
11. Paul and the Fall
12. Evolution and the Fall
13. The Climate Change Debate
14. A Theology of Creation Care
15. Body, Soul, and Scripture
16. Scripture and Personhood
17. Four Perspectives Revisited

Last night we were largely in #8, but I thought I would jot down some notes on #4.

Approaches to Genesis 1
There have been some interesting approaches to Genesis 1 over the years. Here are a few:
  • allegorical approach -- From the Jewish philosopher Philo in De Opificio to Augustine, it was not uncommon throughout history to interpret Genesis 1 allegorically. In general, the Protestant Reformation tried to shut down this approach to Scripture, although the fact that Scripture itself does it deconstructs any prohibition (e.g., Gal. 4:24). How can you hold 1) that Scripture is the final authority, 2) observe that Scripture uses allegory, and yet 3) conclude that you cannot interpret Scripture using allegory? It is thus incoherent for someone to insist we take the Bible only literally if Scripture is the final authority. On the other hand, this obviously doesn't give an endorsement to every allegorical interpretation.
  • six literal 24 hour days -- This is clearly a traditional approach to Genesis 1 in recent centuries. Both Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 seem to treat the days of creation as literal days. With regard to science, this interpretation might reinterpret indications of the earth's great age in one way or another (e.g., with recourse to catastrophies rather than uniformitarianism). Alternatively, the apparent age theory suggests that God created the universe looking old (e.g., with light already having arrived, with radioactive decay looking old, with fossils of extinct animals in place (???), with human DNA looking like it derived from a robust pool of ancestors, etc).
  • gap theory -- The gap theory supposes that something happened between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Perhaps Satan fell. Perhaps evolution happened in there. Perhaps this is where we put the dinosaurs. This was a fairly common approach in the early twentieth century to try to fit Genesis and evolution together, a reminder that when the theory arose, Christians were used to science and faith fitting together and that even some conservatives like B. B. Warfield and Charles Spurgeon initially tried to harmonize the two. That was before the lay of the land became more polarized and fixed. 
  • The main verse used in support of the gap theory is Isaiah 45:18 -- God did not make the earth "tohu ("formless," one of the words used in Gen. 1:2). So then how did it become that way? The gap theory suggests something must have happened to mess it up. However, I suspect this is a misinterpretation of Isaiah 45:18. In context, Genesis 1 creation is arguably the ordering of chaos. God is thus fixing the tohu from the beginning.
  • the day-age theory. This approach sees the days of the creation not as 24 hour periods but as ages or epochs. "A day is as a 1000 years" for the Lord (Ps. 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8). The literalists would respond that typically when a number is used with the Hebrew word yom, it refers to a literal day.
  • The preceding views are what we might call concordist views. I described them to my class as "strange brews." They mix modern concerns with an ancient text and come out with Frankensteins of a sort. It can be done from the "I favor 24 hour days" side or the "I like modern science" side. 
  • the framework theory. I have never liked this label. From what I can tell, the label simply means we should read Genesis 1 in context, within its original literary and historical "framework." I suspect opponents to this approach don't like that way of defining it, but as far as I can tell, the title means we should read Genesis 1 within its original "framework." Well, duh. What's the other option? Shoving our pre-conceived notions on the text?
  • From a standpoint of original meaning, this is the inductive Bible study approach. Let us induce the literary structure of Genesis 1 then ask how it likely was understood in its ancient near eastern setting. The biblical text can mean more than this to us, but interpretation starts there. In theory it could fit with any of the above approaches. The reason it is scorned is because it usually arrives at different conclusions than what its opponents want it to.
  • The "framework" theory usually concludes that Genesis 1 is not presenting the desired literal, scientific view of creation. The framework approach typically concludes that Genesis 1 is rather in dialog with other ancient creation stories and that its literary structure does not line up with what the modern creationist movement wants it to.
  • In general, the framework hypothesis usually concludes that Genesis 1 should be read more as a poetic picture of creation rather than a literal or scientific one. Some in this category might classify it as "mythological," but clearly this term would be misleading to many audiences and I avoid it like the plague.
The Literary Structure

Clearly, the bulk of Genesis 1 divides up creation into six days, with Genesis 1:1-2 as a sort of introduction. As John Walton and others going back to Augustine have inferred, the creation story seems to divide into two halves that correlate to each other. Walton has suggested that, in Days 1-3, God creates the functions of the cosmos. Then in Days 4-6, God creates the "functionaries" that rule over those functions.

Walton also has interesting suggestions with regard to what "God saw that it was good" might mean. He suggests it means something along the lines of "Everything's working the way it's supposed to." We might note that day seven doesn't have a morning and an evening. Walton suggests that now that the house of the cosmos is built, God can now rest from that work and start living in the house. One of the most intriguing suggestions of Walton is that Genesis 1 could have been a yearly liturgy read at a New Year's festival in ancient Israel.

Sometimes when I am leading a group through Genesis 1, I will draw a literal reading of the chapter on the board. Some observations. 1) This is creation of the earth, not really the universe as a whole. It mentions the stars, but from a phenomenological point of view (as they appear to us). This is not our sense of solar systems and galaxies, which most Christians are ok with (I could see there rising a movement against belief in the solar system and universe happening if someone made an issue of it, so I won't poke. Our ideologies are so easily manipulated. I could easily see a "Christian" movement rise militantly toward a flat earth society.) 

2) The sun, moon, and stars are placed beneath the waters above the dome of the sky. This is an up and down cosmos. 3) the land would have been pictured as flat, not as a globe. 4) As is often noticed, light (the function) is created before the causes of light (the functionary). 

We might also note the possibility that Genesis 1:1-2 do not require an ex nihilo reading. Verse 1 can be read as a general statement that is played out in the rest of the chapter (the unit actually goes to 2:3). You might argue that the chaotic waters of 1:2 are never created in the traditional sense. Rather, order is what is created from them as raw materials. Genesis 1:2 then becomes the state of things when God begins to create.  

Probably something should be said here also about source theories of the Pentateuch. In such theories, Genesis 1 is usually a preface or introduction to the entire collection.

Historical Background

This latter interpretation would seem to make the most sense of Genesis within its historical context. Creation ex nihilo would seem to be a doctrine that especially arose in the Gnostic controversies of the 200s AD.

The claim is usually made here that Genesis 1 should be read in dialog with other creation stories such as the Enuma Elish. What would stand out here is 1) the fact that God alone creates, 2) that God is a creator of order (e.g., what I call "kind" theology), and 3) that humanity is the pinnacle of creation, actually liked by God and the image of God.


In general, I suspect we are misreading Genesis 1 if we take it as a blueprint for science. It seems to me that it was doing something else. The meaning of a text is in how the words are being used, and there is a sense in which the meaning of a unit of text is a matter of what that text is "doing." This is a function of genre. This is something bigger than the mere surface "locution." It gets to the "illocution" or intention for the text. 

Those who know my hermeneutic know that I believe a text can come to take on legitimate, inspired meanings beyond what it first meant. This is why I believe creation ex nihilo is an inspired reading of Genesis 1 even if it is not the original meaning. But the first meaning of Genesis 1, it seems to me, had to do with the Ancient Near East. The original purport of Genesis 1, it seems to me, was to indicate that God alone was creator and in control, that God brings and has brought order out of chaos, and that humanity is God's representative on the earth, the steward and guardian of God's world.

Lots of scientific conclusions can fit within that understanding.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this. I await your thoughts on comparing Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

John Mark said...

I was taught the Gap Theory, which no one seems to talk about today (that I know of). I like the idea of Genesis 1 as a ‘creation poem’ not meant to be taken literally. I think NT Wright has said “It’s bigger than that.” I like how you have approached it and as always have given me much to think about. .

Ken Schenck said...

Thank you both!

aservantofJehovah said...

Daniel9:25,26KJV"Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times. 26And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. "
So whatever one thinks of the fulfillment of this prophecy ,the days of these weeks are not 24 hours in length

Joe Kissane said...

This is a good explanation of the different theories. I have always thought about the Gap Theory as I do not understand why God would create anything in a state of chaos/disorder. I like John Walton's approach to Genesis 1 & 2. N.T. Wright has some interesting points of view on this as well. I look forward to your notes on Genesis 2.

"actually liked by God" I believe you intended to write "likened"?