Book Review: Genesis Unbound

Book Review: Genesis Unbound

Sailhamer, John H. Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1996.

Note (January 11, 2017): I just discovered while writing about Dr. John Sailhamer’s death, that there was a new edition of this book published in 2011, shortly after I wrote this review.

My interest in this book was aroused when I read a review from Andrew Kulikovsky of Answers in Genesis. I made some preliminary comments on that review in my post titled Unbinding What Rules?, and set about getting a copy of the book, which is out of print, via Interlibrary Loan. I must confess my biases, and admit that getting an unfavorable review from someone at AIG made it more likely that I’d read the book! That said, I’m very glad I took the time to get a copy and read it.

The Book

The book contains 239 pages of text and seven pages of notes, but no indexes. A scripture index would be particularly helpful. (As a publisher myself, however, I know not to blame the author for this.) The author writes clearly and in plain English. Though you will find many references to Greek, Hebrew, and even occasionally another language or so, there is nothing that cannot be followed without knowledge of those languages.

In fact, the language is plain to a fault, and the explanations may seem just a bit redundant if you have studied this topic. As I read, however, I kept in mind that most readers would not have made a particular study of this topic as I have, and thus what appears redundant to me will contribute to clear understanding for others.

I don’t feel any need to avoid “spoilers,” as Dr. Sailhamer sets out precisely where he’s going in the introduction. He then proceeds to do precisely as he said. In the first section, running through page 34 he lays out the controversy about Genesis, the reasons for it, and its importance.

In the second section, which runs through page 96, he examines a number of general themes in Genesis 1 & 2, opening up some additional perspectives, and building the background information you will need to understand the material that follows.

In the third section, through page 156, he goes through the creation account day by day, explaining his understanding of the details of the creation days as well as of Genesis 2 in relation to Genesis 1.

In the fourth section, he examines how we got to this point and why the various schools of thought about Genesis exist, and why our English translations tend to reflect these same ideas. Here he introduces us to ancient and medieval commentators, and to their views of Genesis. This latter section is the most important part of the book, though it could not stand alone without the previous discussion.

I think anyone with a solid grasp of the English language who will take the time to read carefully can grasp the arguments in this book. There are certain elements of the argument that are based on knowledge of the languages, and in those cases you can only go back and check Dr. Sailhamer’s work if you can use various lexical aids, such as a source language concordance. Nonetheless, the argument is clear enough even without that.

I appreciated the lack of anathematization of opponents. In discussions of Genesis there are way too many accusations of heresy, atheism, obscurantism, and so forth. Sailhamer is clear about what he believes is right and wrong, but he manages to express this without the kind of vitriol that one often finds in such books.

Overview of the Thesis

Since the author has chosen to put his cards on the table (and I borrow his metaphor here), I will go ahead and lay out my summary of it for you.

Sailhamer sees three major schools of thought regarding Genesis, in particular amongst evangelicals, but these probably also cover mainline and Catholic positions fairly well. These are young earth creation, old earth creation, and theistic evolution. In addition he acknowledges ruin and restoration or the “gap” theory, though he doesn’t spend as much time on it as he does on others.

He accuses each of these views of using science to interpret the Bible in their own way, i.e. of forcing their particular worldview and cosmology onto the text of scripture rather than letting the text speak for itself.

In place of those views, he proposes Historical Creationism, which he defines on pages 44 & 45. Historical creationism holds he Genesis account to be historical, but interprets the details somewhat differently. Genesis 1:1, rather than being a title, a summary of what is to follow, or even an introductory clause, is the account of the creation of the universe, “heavens and earth” being a merism expressing the concept of “universe.” The following days describe the preparation of the promised land and the Garden of Eden for human habitation and the creation of human beings to live there.

Sailhamer cites extensive parallels of language and theme in the creation account and references to the promised land, and believes that he can locate the Garden of Eden there. He is not giving some explicit location within the promised land, or even telling us anything about the size of the garden. He is simply claiming that the garden was located in the promised land.

Thus once ‘erets is translated “earth” in “the heavens and earth” (presuming one doesn’t go all the way and just use “universe”) it should be translated as “land” throughout the remainder of Genesis 1 & 2. I think anyone who reads Hebrew will recognize that this is possible, and anyone who has studied the concepts and imagery of creation in the Old Testament will recognize the extensive parallels that exist in creation, the exodus, the exile and return, and so forth.

As he goes through the days of creation, Sailhamer then deals with specific details of what actually happened on each day. For example, he does not see the heavenly bodies as created on the fourth day (Genesis 1:14) but rather as being designated to their purpose in serving soon-to-be-created humanity.

He can thus both take the days of creation as literal 24 hour periods, while at the same time accepting that the earth itself is very old. The planet, as such, was created in Genesis 1:1, while a seven-day creation week prepared the land for human beings, and included the special creation of humankind.

He rejects any notion of ruin and restoration, thus avoiding the linguistic problems with translating Genesis 1:2 as “And the earth became…”, a mistranslation that results from simply counting occurrences of a Hebrew word (hayah) without considering tense or syntax. His view is similar, however, in where it places the creation week, though not in the details and the scope. Most ruin and restoration creationists would see the creation week as a recreation of the entire earth, and not a preparation of a local land.

Sailhamer sees this as more in accord with science, even though he avoids basing his interpretation on meeting the requirements of current scientific evidence. I think this latter point is one of the major weaknesses of this view, as I will discuss below. Throughout the book, there are discussions of specific scientific issues, such as the age of the earth, the age of humanity, the relationship (or not) of the hominids to modern humans, and so forth. Sailhamer believes that human beings were specially created without dependence on prior genetic material and thus are not related to the hominids (p. 171).

The Positives

I often stop people in classes and conversations when they say something like “We don’t take that literally around here.” It’s a sentence I hear quite frequently in my home church, a United Methodist congregation. What I always ask is this: “Just how do you take it?” The problem is that too many people think that questions about the Bible may be settled with an answer to the question “Is it literal?” But one will find that there are many gradations and types of “not-literal.”

In this book Sailhamer has made it clear that one also cannot simply answer the question the other way either. Just because someone takes a passage literally doesn’t mean that they take it correctly, even if it is intended literally. We bring some baggage to the process and we have to deal with that fact if we are to let the text speak to us on its own terms rather than forcing it to fit into ours.

Out of the three camps (four if you include Ruin and Restoration), all but theistic evolutionists would claim that they are taking Genesis 1 & 2 literally in some way, yet they agree on very little regarding what the account actually says.

Sailhamer takes the task of letting the text speak very seriously, even where this requires clearing some thorns and thistles out of the way. He primarily supports his view by referring to other texts and the usage of biblical words in their various contexts. He does not neglect syntax, and barely brushes by etymology. All this makes for good reading.

I should refer here to his handling of Genesis 2:19, which I also mentioned in my previous note. Sailhamer dismisses the NIV translation “had created” with a simple “…the Hebrew text doesn’t contain the proper verb form for such a translation” (89). I would refer, however to some potential counter-examples, including 1 Kings 13:12, which presents a clear, contextual pluperfect (wayir’u, “had seen”). One should note the context, however, and the sequence of thought, which indicate that this is not one of those rare instances where the wayyqtl form can be used for the pluperfect. Waltke cites three examples.1

Overall this book is probably the most challenging and fascinating work on Genesis that I have read, even though ultimately I find myself in fundamental disagreement. Or perhaps I find it so useful precisely because it challenges many of my approaches so fundamentally, and, I confess, effectively. While agreeing with a book is nice, I prefer a book with which I disagree, and yet find profitable.

Negatives

I’m going to leave the issue of overarching approach to scripture to my own response in the next section. I’m limiting myself here to the portions of the book that many will find frustrating.

Sailhamer has bent over backwards to be fair to the various views, yet he has failed to accomplish the impossible. (Shocking, isn’t it?) I think advocates of any of the opposing views would find fault with his summaries of their viewpoints. In terms of young earth creation, I think Kurt Wise or Todd Wood would be eager to deny that they allow science to determine their reading of Genesis, and with some justification. Both see the current evidence for evolution to be very strong, yet they believe that the Bible teaches a young age for the universe (thus their preference for young age over young earth), and they are willing to place their faith in God’s word as they understand it, and wait for science to catch up.

On the other hand, the implication that theistic evolutionists believe God had limited involvement in the process of creation simply because he uses a mechanism such as biological evolution to accomplish his purposes. I personally believe that God is directly involved in the movement of every subatomic particle, and that an infinite God has no need to diminish his attention to what we humans see as great matters in order to supervise small ones.

That said, I must again say that Sailhamer is fairer to his opponents than the vast majority of writers on this divisive topic, so perhaps this negative is more of a positive!

I was more disappointed with the various scientific excurses, which do not, in my view, reflect the best in scientific thought on those topics. In addition, the scientific explanations showing how science would support Historical Creationism seem to me to detract from the original argument–understanding the text on its own terms. I do understand the desire to show that this interpretation does not contradict major scientific evidence. But these excurses on science are all subject to extensive debate and the science has advanced even since the date of publication. It’s interesting to note that one of the defects Sailhamer sees in other views is that they depend on the current cosmology. If his view is correct, for example, those who reconciled Genesis with the Ptolemaic universe were wrong. Might it not be the same for any reconciliation to current science on human origins or the origin of life itself?

I referred earlier to one more issue, the reading of Genesis 1:14 which Sailhamer discusses extensively (131-135). He states that Genesis 1:14 clearly has a substantially different meaning than Genesis 1:6. He is trying to establish that the sun and moon and other heavenly bodies were created in the beginning (Gen. 1:1), and thus could not be created on the fourth day. After several readings, I can’t see an adequate syntactic warrant for this. It’s possible I have misunderstood the argument.

Response

The reason this book, good as it is, did not ultimately convince me, is that my disagreement is at a more basic level, one which would probably be beyond the scope of a book this size. The first point is that I don’t take Genesis 1 & 2 literally, and I don’t fall into the trap of failing to specify how I do take it. But more on that in a moment.

One of the great features of this book is Sailhamer’s discussion of ancient and medieval commentators on the text. At the same time, he begins this discussion with Ptolemy on the one hand and with Hellenistic Jewish efforts to accommodate the Torah with Greek thought, particularly cosmology. I would go further, and look at the relationship between Genesis and ancient near eastern literature. While I agree that Genesis 1 was not copied from Sumerian sources, I do not agree (and did my research on this for my MA) that the cosmology and other symbols are not present and are not related. Of course, I must confess that if I were writing a book, the opposite criticism would likely be levied-that I had neglected the later commentators and cosmologies.

At the time I completed my degree I saw no direct relationship between Genesis 1-2 and Mesopotamia, but since then I have become convinced that Genesis 1-2 is a direct challenge to the theological views represented in that material. (Note again that I’m not claiming direct relationship, but again that’s beyond the scope of this already rather long review.) The very absence of such things as conflict between the gods, of a great windstorm, and of the contempt for humans is very telling.2

But what of the cosmology? Can one maintain that Genesis 1-2 is divine in origin, while claiming that it reflects the cosmology of the time? I think so. I’d refer to my 2005 blog post, The One Ended Cord. If God is to communicate with humans in language that we can understand, he must use our language. That does not mean simply language that we have in our lexicon. It must be language as we can understand it.

In my view, God chose not to teach us new cosmology in Genesis 1, but  rather to declare his involvement in creation and the fact that he is ultimately the creator of everything and involved in everything, and to do so in a context we could understand.

Since our understanding of cosmology has changed and will likely continue to change, we need to see that message in new forms, translated in terms of cosmology, if you please. We could wish that God had spoken in terms of our cosmology, but since we don’t know the future, we do not know what will be discovered next week, next month, or next year that might change all that. I see the cosmology in which the creation story is clothed as no more ultimately important than the specific language in which the story is spoken. It is the medium, not the message.

Thus I disagree as to the type of literature we’re dealing with. It is not narrative history. It is not intended to relate a series of events in a historical sense, not because somebody was too stupid to figure it out, but because we are all too ignorant to understand an actual narration of God’s creative activities. God, who inspired the story, knows precisely what happened. Me? Not so much.

So what do I call this? Well, I see Genesis 1:1-2:4a as liturgy, though doctrine packed liturgy. I think it works well as such and it frames the remainder of the story in that fashion. This is as good a place as any to discuss those extensive parallels I referenced at the beginning of this review, which I think Sailhamer has established so thoroughly. I would see those referenced as specifically shaped by the Genesis story, relating God’s redemptive power to his creative power. In other words, the relationship is reversed. These stories do not refer to Genesis or use it’s language and imagery because Genesis was specifically about the promised land; the promise of the land and God’s redemption and provision as repeated through biblical history, are couched in terms of creation because the creator God is also the redeemer God.

Conclusion

I suggest reading this book. There are too many narrow readings of Genesis, and too few challenges to our various supposed orthodoxies on the topic. There are many ways of looking at these issues, and you need to be acquainted with a variety of them in order to speak intelligently on the topic. Dr. Sailhamer has made it easier for me to take another step toward speaking intelligently, for which I am grateful.

[updated 2:42 pm to correct embarrassing misspelling of author’s name]


1 Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1990, 33.2.3.

2 Gerhard von Rad. Genesis. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972, 63-67.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Genesis Unbound

  1. I personally believe that God is directly involved in the movement of every subatomic particle, and that an infinite God has no need to diminish his attention to what we humans see as great matters in order to supervise small ones.

    I didn’t realize you were such a closet Calvinist!

    It’s funny, but I think you’re view on literalism in Genesis 1 is in one respect more conservative than mine! I think theistic evolution is fully compatible with a literal reading of the text, and you don’t. You could even deny that any of the events happened and treat it as a complete fiction while taking it literally. Taking it literally is just a matter of reading the story in a way that the words it uses speak, in the story, of the things those words seem to speak of. Literalism contrasts not with those who take the story to be a useful fiction but with metaphor. Jesus never claimed to be a plant, so when he says he’s the vine he isn’t speaking literally. But the tree of knowledge of good and evil functions in the story as a literal tree, even if some people who accept that won’t consider there ever to have been such a tree in history. The days function in the framework of the semi-poetic narrative as days, even if they don’t represent 24-hour periods of time in reality.

    I have a soft spot for Sailhamer. I really enjoyed his Genesis commentary when I was looking through a number of them on several passages. I’ve later concluded that he’s wrong on Genesis 6. He takes the sons of God to be the faithful Sethites and the daughters of men to be the unfaithful Cainites. At the time, I was convinced, though, even with all the other commentaries I looked at arguing for alternative views. I’m greatly looking forward to his Numbers for WBC, which I keep hearing is about to come out, but it doesn’t seem to be happening yet.

  2. I didn’t realize you were such a closet Calvinist!

    🙂 I think I’m more of a closet agnostic. God is sovereign and involved at all points, yet human beings are to be held responsible. Something between the Wesleyan-Arminian position and Openness theology seem to me to explain this best, but I admit to not being very satisfied. In my view, each group can bring forward a selection of texts that make a strong case–as long as one doesn’t read the rest. So bottom line, I really don’t know how they fit together.

    It’s funny, but I think you’re view on literalism in Genesis 1 is in one respect more conservative than mine! I think theistic evolution is fully compatible with a literal reading of the text, and you don’t.

    You are probably correct here, though in the rest of the paragraph, I think we’re using slightly different definitions of “literal.” But for this one point, I think our definitions coincide. I think Genesis 1 & 2 expressed creation very accurately, as accurately as could be done speaking into the cosmology of the time. I treat the cosmology more as language than as fact. Thus I think it is literal in its original sense, but has to be translated.

    The days function in the framework of the semi-poetic narrative as days, even if they don’t represent 24-hour periods of time in reality.

    You’re right, that does illustrate the difference. I think the original author was thinking in terms of 24-hour periods. Not God, who inspired, but the human author who wrote. Since God chooses to communicate with humans, we have to see through human language.

    I too look forward to the WBC volume, though I have no information on its release. I have found WBC quite useful, and as I think you already know, I love studying the Torah.

  3. Henry,

    Good, fair summary of Sailhamer’s book. I was lucky enough to have learned Hebrew from Sailhamer and take a Genesis exegesis with him while in seminary. So, I guess I have my biases too. 🙂

    You said that you had a hard time following along with Sailhamer’s argument about the difference in syntax between Genesis 1:6 and 1:14. I had the same trouble, but I think I read in either his EBC Genesis commentary or in his Pentateuch as Narrative that the main difference is the use of infinitives in Genesis 1:14. In 1:6 two ‘hyh’ verbs stand alone in their own clauses as a jussives, “Let there be an expanse in the midst…and let there be dividing…” In 1:14, however, the jussive ‘hyh’ verbs are followed by infinitives, making them purpose statements (I think Sailhamer uses GKC here). If this is right, 1:14 is no longer about God speaking the sun, moon, and stars into existence, but is, in a sense, telling the already-existing lights what to do. “Let the lights…be for dividing….and let them be for signs….” With such a position, Sailhamer could still argue that all the lights mentioned around 1:14 were all created in the beginning (1:1).

    The part of Sailhamer’s argument that I find most satisfying is his insistence that in 1:1 the “beginning period of time” is indefinite. Whether or not this comes across in the book, I know that in class he said that Genesis 1:1 could have contained billions of years (his stance) or could have taken milliseconds (which young earth creationists would prefer). For him, it really doesn’t matter since Genesis 1:1 isn’t about the length of time, but about the purpose and significance of God as the Creator and Maker. I see this as a strength that can be adjusted for a wide variety of views on the age of the earth. I’ve put together a number of resources on my own blog about Genesis, some of which might help solidify some of Sailhamer’s arguments, if you’re interested.

    For me, your criticisms of the book weren’t so much that Sailhamer was wrong, but that he didn’t address issues that you also thought were pertinent, such as the chapter’s implicit (or maybe explicit) challenge of other ANE creation stories. Almost as if Sailhamer forget to include a chapter. 🙂 I guess in the end I haven’t read any other views which make better sense of the Hebrew syntax in these opening chapters, while also understanding them in a biblically-informed and theologically robust manner that takes its clues from how the later Israelite prophets understood the chapters.

    Andy

    1. Andy,

      Thanks for commenting. I think you’re largely correct about my criticisms. As a publisher myself, I’m well aware of how such criticisms can annoy. With regard to one of my own books, a reviewer mentioned he wished a certain topic was covered more thoroughly. When I read that I remember that my co-author and I had discussed that very issue, and had deleted a number of pages in trying to keep the book within mission.

      I also appreciate your explanation of the difference between Genesis 1:6 and 1:14. I’ll have to look at it further. I’m unconvinced within a minute or so of looking at it, but it deserves more study.

      It’s always nice to hear from someone with some personal contact with an author!

  4. Hello Henry,

    This blog post was of particular interest to me. I have been scratching my head wondering how to interpret Genesis 1 and 2. I lean toward a literal creation day, but how can you already have a universe in 1:1 with light? if light hasn’t been created yet (day 1) and how do we see galaxies 13 billion light years away?

    I came across a website that proposes a solution to this, but feel as though it is grasping for some way to make sense of it? This may continue to perplex me for quite some time. http://www.creationscience.com/onlinebook/FAQ13.html

    I just read Genesis yesterday and blogged about it. I am reading the 66 books of the Bible in 66 days and blogging about the experience. Here is the link: http://66in66.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/genesis-redemptive-story/

    in Christ’s love,

    Daniel Lovett

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