Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The account of creation in Genesis 2

Chris Tilling is hosting an interesting discussion on evolution vs. creationism, and whether Genesis 1-2 should be interpreted literally or regarded as mythology.

(As usual, Chris provoked the discussion and then vanished into the cyber-ether. I'm beginning to wonder whether he really exists.)

I have a couple of posts on this topic that I've been meaning to publish. Actually, I've posted my first observation before, as a guest blogger on Jewish Atheist's blog. I'm referring to the middle section of that post, where I argued that there are two variant accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Both accounts insist that humankind is the focal point of creation. Genesis 1 makes the point by recounting that humans were created last — the crowning jewel of creation. Genesis 2 makes the point by recounting that humans were created first — thus taking precedence over everything else:
These are the generations
of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

When no bush of the field was yet in the earth1 and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land … then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground….

(Genesis 2:4-7a)2
There are at least two variant details in the accounts of creation.

Genesis 1 Genesis 2
"days" of creation 7 1 — "in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens"
order of events humans created (day 6) after vegetation (day 3) humans created before vegetation, "when no bush of the field was yet in the earth"

Sceptics might suppose that the editor of Genesis was sloppy, and didn't notice the hopeless contradiction between the two accounts. This is a constant temptation:  to suppose that "primitive" peoples lacked intellectual sophistication.

More likely, the editor considered that he had two creation stories which approached the topic from two different vantage points, and he was loathe to lose either of them. The presence of variant details was simply immaterial.

Why was it immaterial? Because neither account of creation is a lab report:  they belong to the literary genre, myth. Myths are "metaphorical [nonliteral] narratives about the relation between this world and the sacred."3

Alternatively we could set out to describe the literary genre in more nuanced terms, as the evangelical scholar Gordon Wenham4 struggles to do:
Whereas the layman tends to see the issue in simple categories of myth or history, theologians have for various reasons tended to avoid this polarization. … Von Rad and Westermann call Gen 2-3 simply narrative (erzählung) and Coats calls it a tale.

Similarly, Otzen (Myths in the Old Testament, 25) states, "The narratives in the opening chapters of Genesis do not have the character of real myths." But the garden of Eden story does fulfill functions often associated with myths in other cultures. It explains man's present situation and obligations in terms of a primeval event which is of abiding significance. Marriage, work, pain, sin, and death are the subject matter of this great narrative. And this narrative is replete with powerful symbols — rivers, gold, cherubim, serpents and so on — which hint at its universal significance.

Yet for the author of Genesis it is clear "that here a factual report is meant to be given about facts which everyone knows and whose reality no one can question" (von Rad, 75). The introductory formula "This is the history of the heaven and the earth" (2:4) not only links this cycle of narratives with those which follow (e.g., 5:1 or 11:27), but implies that the characters who appear in Gen 2 and 3 are as real as the patriarchs.

But to affirm that Gen 2-3 is "a factual report" is not to say it is history, at least history in the normal meaning of the term. …

If earlier commentators tended to think in terms of the writer of Genesis putting into words a vision of the garden which was disclosed to him, or recording a primeval tradition for posterity, modern writers … prefer to think in terms of divine inspiration working through the author's creative imagination. …

Whereas a modern writer might have been happy to spell this out in abstract theological terminology — God created the world good, but man spoiled it by his disobedience — Genesis puts these truths in vivid and memorable form in an absorbing yet highly symbolic story. It is argued that such an understanding of the story's composition can account for its use of mythological motifs from neighboring peoples and its points of connection with other parts of the OT, particularly the covenant and wisdom traditions.
You can see Wenham struggling here. It's easier to say what the genre isn't than to say what the genre is:  it isn't myth, or history "in the normal meaning of the term", or abstract theology, or pure "revelation" as understood in previous generations, or mere tradition.

The opening chapters of Genesis borrow motifs from the myths of neighbouring peoples, and they fulfil the function of mythology, and they use archetypal symbols (e.g. the serpent) — yet Wenham still wants to deny that myth is the right literary category. He prefers to think in terms of "divine inspiration working through the author's creative imagination". This seems to bring us back to von Rad's label, narrative, albeit an inspired narrative.

In my view, Wenham's unease with the label myth is unnecessary. It's better to acknowledge that these chapters are Israel's myth, while carefully explaining what one means by the term. Wenham himself admits that the writer borrows motifs from the myths of neighbouring, pagan peoples:  not in agreement with their theology, but rather in a deliberate effort to subvert their accounts of creation:
The known links of the Hebrew patriarchs with Mesopotamia and the widespread diffusion of cuneiform literary texts throughout the Levant in the Amarna period (late 15th century) make it improbable that the writers of Genesis were completely ignorant of Babylonian and cognate mythology. Most likely they were conscious of a number of accounts of creation current in the Near East of their day, and Gen 1 is a deliberate statement of Hebrew view of creation over against rival views. It is not merely a demythologization of oriental creation myths, whether Babylonian or Egyptian; rather it is a polemical repudiation of such myths.5
Well-meaning believers thus miss the point when they get hung up over a literal seven days of creation. The point is, not Marduk (or Ra, or whomever) but YHWH.

Moreover, that YHWH is no tribal deity, but Lord of all the earth, which is his handiwork. And we might list other "points" as well. The opening chapters of Genesis are a fount of multiple, foundational doctrines. One of the characteristics of myth is its capacity to hold a "surplus of meaning":  more layers and depth of meaning than a merely literal use of language can sustain.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
1"Earth" is the alternative translation given in a footnote to the English Standard Version. In the main text, the ESV translation is, "When no bush of the field was yet in the land".

2Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

3Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, p. 71.

4Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 1, discussing the form/structure/setting of Genesis 2:4-3:24.

5Genesis 1-15, discussing the form/structure/setting of Genesis 1:1-2:3.

17 comments:

Jamie said...

I'm taking a course this semester entitled Issues in Origins (on how to approach Gen. 1-11), and last night the two professors for the class made the point that only a minority of Hebrew scholars believe Gen. 1-11 were not meant to be understood literally. In other words, the people who study the actual Hebrew text, as opposed to NT scholars or systematic theologians, etc., hold that the writers meant it to be understood literally.

Of course, not all such scholars believe that the account is accurate in a literal sense, but they nevertheless believe that the writers thought it was.

Would you agree that most Hebrew/OT scholars hold that it was meant literally, or not?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I don't read widely enough to quantify what a majority of scholars teach. You have to understand, the literature on these topics is vast. Wenham has three or four pages of bibliography just for Genesis 1:1-2:3.

I think you might be misspeaking when you oppose "the people who study the actual Hebrew text" to "NT scholars or systematic theologians". Any scholar (as opposed to a church pastor) who writes a commentary on Genesis is working from the original Hebrew text, not an English translation.

OK, I'll express an opinion even though I probably shouldn't. I strongly doubt that "only a minority of Hebrew scholars believe Gen. 1-11 were not meant to be understood literally". I say this because I think scholars almost universally see some kind of relationship between the biblical text and Babylonian and Egyptian myths.

For a long time, scholars agreed that the biblical account was lifted straight from the Babylonian myth, Enuma elish. Now they've backed off that claim, and they consider parallels in other myths to be more relevant.

It's hard for me to understand how the biblical writer could consciously lift motifs from pagan myths, yet mean his account to be interpreted literally.

I think we also have to factor in other considerations: (1) To what extent was the text designed for easy memorization? (2) Was there a previous version used as a liturgy in worship? (3) To what extent was it designed as a polemical document — e.g., to inculcate the importance of Sabbath observance? I'm confident that most scholars would embrace one or more of those possibilities, which again slant the text away from a strictly literal account of history.

I'm quite sure that the profs at the school you're attending will disagree with 99% of what I'm saying. That's OK, if they can back up what they're saying. But this doesn't look like an auspicious beginning to me. I can't be categorical about it, but I am inclined to think they are wrong.

Cliff Martin said...

Stephen, excellent post.

I agree with you about calling myth, myth. To me, this does not devalue the accounts, nor does it negate the notion of revelation. When I teach the stories of Genesis 2 and 3, I have no qualms about teaching them as though they are historic accounts. That seems to be how Jesus approached them. They convey truths with what I consider a high degree of accuracy, even if the conveying mechanism is myth. So the issue of historicity is moot, in my opinion, and merely a distraction from the task of getting to the essential truths.

I’ve been enjoying our exchange over on Chrisendom. Yeah, where does Chris hide out? I think he is still alive. He left a comment on my blog a couple of days ago. One word long. But I assume he must have typed in those funny letters that prove he has a pulse. So ...

Chris Tilling said...

It is true. I am alive! I'm just relaxing on holiday in England and am thus not so often at the keyboard. I've at least been enjoying your discussion though!

Chris Tilling said...

Great post, btw.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Stephen,
Good post. Yes Wenham's commentary is excellent. I actually like his characterization of the initial chapters of Genesis as proto-history.

I saw your mention over at Chrisendom of Kidner's commentary. How does it compare to Wenham's?
thanks,

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Cliff:
They convey truths with what I consider a high degree of accuracy, even if the conveying mechanism is myth.

That's how I see it, too. By all means, let's defend the Bible as a book that speaks the truth. But let's not insist that truth must be told in a certain way. Modernists want their truths to be expressed propositionally, but it seems obvious to me that the ancients expressed truths in other, metaphorical ways as well. Why can't we get our heads around that?

• Chris:
Hey, I'm glad you popped by! My little cheap shot was unfair, since you had announced that you were on vacation.

You certainly picked a good topic to post on before your vacation: it has kept us happily occupied for a week in your absence.

• Steve:
I take it you two Martins are related to one another?

I haven't read extensively in either Kidner's or Wenham's commentary on Genesis. But from what I have read, I think the best thing to say is that they complement each other quite nicely.

They're obviously written for a different audiences, with Wenham's commentary having more scholarly substance to it. But no one should despise Kidner's commentary for its brevity.

Kidner is an excellent writer, who uses the space available to him judiciously. He may dismiss a five-verse block in two sentences. But wherever we come to Genesis with burning questions, like this issue of evolution, Kidner drops in an additional note which allows him to explore the subject with an adequate depth.

I admire Kidner because he tackles the thorny questions directly and fearlessly. I sometimes find commentaries are happy to survey the various points of view on offer without taking a decisive stand of their own. Kidner deserves top marks for giving the reader something to respond to, whether in agreement or in disagreement.

He's a bona fide evangelical (unlike me!), as his effort to preserve the notion of a historical Adam demonstrate. But his approach to these thorny issues is so thoughtful, I never feel that he's feeding us an ideological apologetic.

I also admire Wenham's commentary, which supplies so much more detail about how other scholars are approaching the text. But the result is, it's a much more academic resource.

When you're in the pulpit or the Sunday School clasroom, you're working with the text as it appears in the Bible. I understand why the JEDP theory is a useful critical tool, but it's of little or no value to a preacher-teacher.

Wenham's indepth discussion of Babylonian myths interests me more, and I find it quite instructive. So I'm glad he takes that approach, and I do think the two volumes have complementary strengths.

Steve Martin said...

Thanks Stephen. I think I will try to round up Kidner's book now.

I just perused your site briefly & thought you might be interested inNancey Murphy's "Beyond Fundamentalism and Liberalism?". Have you read it? This is an excellent treatment on the reasons why liberals and fundamentalists interpret things the way they do.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

No, I haven't read it. I'll add it to my list!

An old favourite of mine is co-authored by David Edwards and John Stott: Evangelical Essentials: A liberal-evangelical dialogue. Edwards (the liberal of the title) read Stott's published works and sets out to rebut them. Stott responds, though his responses are much shorter than Edwards' chapters.

I found the book informative, and I appreciated the irenic spirit in which the two carried out their dialogue.

Steve Martin said...

I haven't read the Stott / Edwards dialogue but I did read the Pinnock / Brown one - I'm assuming they are somewhat similar. A fascinating exchange for sure. The reason why I personally liked the Murphy book so much because the lights went on for me with a "So that's what 19th / early 20th century liberal theologians were trying to do". Same objectives as the fundamentalists, but very different theological strategy. Coming from a fundamentalist mindset in which liberal & athiest are pretty much indistinguishable, it was definitely an enlightening read.

Cliff Martin said...

Stephen,

Re: They convey truths with what I consider a high degree of accuracy, even if the conveying mechanism is myth.

It does seem to me that when the fundamentalists responded to the liberals around the turn of the last century, they chose the wrong battle. They chose a battle on the basis of the scholarship. Wrong line in the sand. The modernists had them beat on the scholarship of textual criticism. The battle should have raged over how we interpret the new data instead of the data itself.

I take it you two Martins are related to one another?

Steve didn't answer, so I will. Steve lives in Ontario, Canada, I live in Oregon. We've never met, and only became acquainted through his web blog. I mentioned incidently that I had ancestors who had lived in Ontario. After a little searching, we found that we are 5th cousins! So the answer to your question is sort of yes and no.

Jamie said...

Stephen:I think you might be misspeaking when you oppose "the people who study the actual Hebrew text" to "NT scholars or systematic theologians". Any scholar (as opposed to a church pastor) who writes a commentary on Genesis is working from the original Hebrew text, not an English translation.

Yes, that was a bit unfair. Sorry. I realize commentators are working from the original languages, but still, there is a difference between a Hebrew scholar and, say, a systematic theologian. They're going to bring very different perspectives to the text, and that's what I meant to emphasize.

I strongly doubt that "only a minority of Hebrew scholars believe Gen. 1-11 were not meant to be understood literally". I say this because I think scholars almost universally see some kind of relationship between the biblical text and Babylonian and Egyptian myths.

Well, I don't exactly know how my profs were quantifying the literature; I may have a chance to ask this week.

I am aware of the relationship between Israelite and Babylonian/Egyptian myths, but does the relationship preclude the author of Genesis intending his text to be understood literally? Is he not subverting those other myths?

Regarding the issue of literalness, I am thinking of your recent post comparing the Israelites to Native Americans, where I agreed with you that neither the author nor the readers of Genesis would have understood the text "literally" in the same way we understand it "literally." On the other hand, I also cannot imagine they thought of it as "myth" in the same sense we mean the word "myth."

Cliff: They convey truths with what I consider a high degree of accuracy, even if the conveying mechanism is myth. So the issue of historicity is moot, in my opinion, and merely a distraction from the task of getting to the essential truths.

I agree with you in one sense. However, I have a really hard time seeing how the myths can be "true" without being in some sense historical. Most specifically, how can the mythical account of a Fall reflect an essential truth about the world unless there actually was some sort of a Fall? And if there was a Fall, where does that fit in the scientific account of things? In this case, the "truth" of the myth seems to outright contradict the "facts" of science, and I have trouble seeing how they can be combined.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Jamie:
A Hebrew scholar and, say, a systematic theologian [are] going to bring very different perspectives to the text.

I don't think that's going to be a determinative consideration here. A scholar in a given language can only tell us the range of meaning of a given word or phrase. For example, "turn" may refer to a literal change of direction, or it may refer to an act of repentance: a spiritual/ethical turn. I don't think a linguist can presume to tell you which way a word is being used in a specific context, without recourse to the same sorts of considerations that a systematic theologian would bring to bear on a passage.

But maybe I'm mistaken about that. I like the perspective you're bringing to bear on these questions, and I certainly wouldn't want to cut your inquiry short.

I am aware of the relationship between Israelite and Babylonian/Egyptian myths, but does the relationship preclude the author of Genesis intending his text to be understood literally? Is he not subverting those other myths?

That is a legitimate possibility. I think Wenham might agree with you. But I wonder whether "literally" is the right word to use.

You ask Cliff about the historicity of the Fall. Do you suppose it's possible that the Fall could be historical without requiring us to interpret the account of the Fall literally? When we read elsewhere, "All the trees of the fields shall clap their hands", we know this is not meant literally (the first clue is, trees don't have hands!). A passage can be metaphorical (not literal) without being untrue. I'm not certain, but I think Wenham would agree with the way I've just framed the issue.

I agreed with you [elsewhere] that neither the author nor the readers of Genesis would have understood the text "literally" in the same way we understand it "literally." On the other hand, I also cannot imagine they thought of it as "myth" in the same sense we mean the word "myth".

I think that's Wenham's objection to the word "myth". It implies, to modern sceptics, groundless, worthless conjecture. That's how "we" typically understand myth. I agree that's not the right way to view Genesis.

Wenham therefore thinks it's safest just to avoid the category "myth" altogether. But I would say there's nothing wrong with the category, it is our understanding of the category that is faulty.

I maintain that Genesis is true in various respects where Enuma elish and other ancient myths are false. Yet I also maintain that both belong in the literary category "myth".

Again, I think you're taking a good approach to the question, and I am interested to see how you ultimately fit the pieces of the puzzle together. I hope that I demonstrated, at least, how much Wenham himself is torn over the issue of how to categorize the text.

Jamie said...

I don't think a linguist can presume to tell you which way a word is being used in a specific context, without recourse to the same sorts of considerations that a systematic theologian would bring to bear on a passage.

True, and perhaps I am pressing the point too far. But I still think scholars from different disciplines are going to bring different perspectives to bear on the text. If you're a Hebrew scholar looking to understand the Hebrew language and the Hebrew mind, you're going to see things one way. If you're, say, a systematic theologian working to develop a system of doctrine in which science and theology can fit together, you are going to read things a different way.

Either way, though, I'm no expert on this question. I'm curious to ask my profs about it, though, and figure out why they said that only a minority of Hebrew scholars believe the beginning of Genesis was not meant literally.

Do you suppose it's possible that the Fall could be historical without requiring us to interpret the account of the Fall literally?

Yes. BUT--my problem is that your view of things doesn't seem to allow for that possibility. I'm not sure exactly how to explain my point here, but maybe I should just ask you exactly what it is about the first few chapters of Gen. that you think is true. Where, precisely, does this myth reflect an actual reality?

At the very, very least, you would have to agree that Gen. teaches that God created the world, and that he originally created it good, and that something happened at some point that messed it up. Even if you don't think the details are literally true, at least those broad strokes must be true.

But if the scientific account of things is accurate, can any of those points be true? Where is there room for an originally "good" world in evolution? Where is there room for some tragedy that marred this good creation? To repeat my earlier question, where exactly is the truth in Genesis?

In other words, interpreting Genesis as metaphorical rather than literal doesn't solve the problem, as I see it. Even if Genesis is metaphorical, there is still a conflict between the myth and science.

Cliff Martin said...

Jamie: At the very, very least, you would have to agree that Gen. teaches that God created the world, and that he originally created it good, and that something happened at some point that messed it up. Even if you don't think the details are literally true, at least those broad strokes must be true.

Excellent contributions, Jamie. A few facts to consider with reference to your above comment:

1) Entropy (the tendency of everything to decay, the steady decline in available energy in the universe, rust, rot, death, etc.) has been in effect since the very beginning of the cosmos. I assume that, since God pronounced it “good” that this arrangement met his purpose. But Romans 8:19-21 makes it clear that it is not his intention to leave it this way indefinitely.

2) After the Fall, all God had to do was send Adam and Eve outside the Garden walls. Conditions inside Eden were idyllic. But we do not know what the conditions were outside the walls prior to Adam’s sin. But we do know that Adam and Eve had been given a mandate to “subdue” the earth. And this term “subdue” assumes they would meet up against resistance and opposition.

3) We know that, prior to the Fall, the Serpent was already on the earth.

So I would ask you, Jamie, exactly what do you think “messed up” the cosmos, and when did it happen?

Cliff Martin said...

Jamie,

Regarding your earlier question about myth conveying truth ...

I do not know how "close" to the actual historical events Genesis 3 is. To me, it does not matter. When I teach this story, I teach it as straightforward narrative. (I believe this is exactly how Jesus approached Genesis 2 and 3.) It would get in the way to debate the historicity of the story, so I tend not to. I approach it as a story, the truth of the events being less important than the progression of sin, guilt, shame, hiding, divine confrontation, restoration, consequences of sin, etc. (If you were sitting under my teaching, you might mistakenly assume that I thought the story was literally true ... and that would in no way offend me!) These universal truths are repeated over and over. There may, or may not have been some seminal event that corresponds to Genesis 3. It may or may not have involved just one man and one woman. They may or may not have been the first spirit possessing humanoids. The story of the Fall, whether an isolated historical occurrence ala Genesis 3, or a mass defection of early man, or an existential experience common to all humans, the story faithfully conveys all the essential truths right down to the smallest detail.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Jamie:
If the scientific account of things is accurate, can any of those points be true? Where is there room for an originally "good" world in evolution? Where is there room for some tragedy that marred this good creation?

These are good questions to which I have only partial answers.

I did indicate that I have a second post in mind. I intend to follow up with a quote from Derek Kidner's commentary on Genesis: his attempt to reconcile the biblical account with evolution. I offer it as an illustration only: one evangelical scholar's attempt to accept evolution while affirming that Adam was in fact a historical human being.

In my view, the evidence of science is compelling: the earth is ancient, the animal species really did arise via a process of evolution, and human beings are a recent arrival on the scene. (Cliff would add that entropy has been operative from within a fraction of a second of the big bang.)

Viewing the first eleven chapters of Genesis as mythological doesn't solve all the problems — I concede the point. It's only a first step, leaving a lot of serious exegetical questions in its wake.

On the other hand, insisting on a literal interpretation of Genesis doesn't grapple with the problems at all.