I’m starting a short (I hope) series on interpreting the Bible. This is in response to a series of posts I read recently. The first two were from EvolutionBlog, OEC vs. YEC and The “Terrible Texts” of the Bible. I then encountered A question for Christians on Positive Liberty, which discusses some poor (in the both mine and the post author’s opinion) exegesis used with regard to homosexuality. Though I do read Positive Liberty, I actually went to that post via Dispatches from the Culture War, who agreed with and commented further on the post here.
I have two more kind points of meta-posting. First, what interests me in these posts in particular is that all of the authors involved are people I read regularly and respect, though obviously I disagree with them on some issues. I’m not talking here about stupid approaches to the Bible, but rather, misunderstanding of Biblical studies as an academic enterprise and also of the role of the Bible in Christianity. Second, I’m posting this here on my Threads blog, rather than on my Participatory Bible Study blog, because I’m most interested in commenting on the social aspects.
Now for those who were not too bored by the introduction . . .
What distresses me here is that while those involved in scientific endeavors quite rightly expect others to note technical nuances in their fields, or at least to admit those nuances are inaccessible to them, they often don’t grant similar respect to another field. I’m going to get to material on the Bible and homosexuality in later posts, but right now let me just illustrate from the creation vs. evolution debate.
It’s quite common for a scientist, let’s say an evolutionary biologist, to comment on how some creationist fails to comprehend details of an issue because that person is a non-specialist. This is very important and quite appropriate, because people who don’t understand certain issues precisely can make wildly silly remarks about it. An engineer may not be well equipped to understand cell development. I’m not really all that well equipped to understand any of the above, which is why I stick my nose in a book when posting on science and/or get someone more expert to check what I write. (On a blog, I can count on correction in the comments, but those usually come from people who know even less than I do.)
Similar courtesy is often not extended to experts in Biblical studies, however. Scientific experts are quite quick to comment on just how people in Biblical times understood the world, and what their statements on such topics actually mean. One example is the common statement that the Bible “clearly” supports young earth creationism, so that anyone who is a Christian but doesn’t support a young earth is “going against the Bible.” It’s one of the few things on which non-theistic evolutionists and young earth creationists can agree!
But stating that the Bible “clearly” supports young earth creationism is an example of “obvious exegesis.” I use that particular collocation of words in my title because it makes my hair stand on end. I hope I can make some of my readers feel similarly about it as I write.
In discussing this I’m going to look at two aspects of Biblical interpretation. First, exegesis. I’m going to simplify by restricting the word “exegesis” as I use it here to mean “getting to understand what the original author meant to the people to whom he originally spoke or wrote.” (We’ll find, however, that even such an apparently simple label as “original author” is somewhat complex.) Second, we have application, or the way in which people who use the Bible in their lives in some way take Biblical statements and apply them. This one isn’t so simple either, and not just because modern Christians try to accommodate the Bible to modern science.
For this introductory post, let me simply take a look at one statement from Jason Rosenhouse:
But for all of that, I do still have quite a bit of sympathy for their interpretation of Genesis. It sure looks to me like twenty-four hour days and a young-Earth were what the Biblical authors intended. The text itself describes the days as being bracketed by an evening and a morning, which is a very odd way of speaking if something other than twenty-four hour days were intended. . . .
Now oddly enough, Rosenhouse gets around in the paragraphs following this one to a couple of the key points of exegesis that do not fit into a young earth model, but he misses significant details, and also some of the key ways in which an expert in appropriate areas in Biblical studies would look at the text. Note here, of course, that I am not an “expert” in the “doctoral degree and academic involvement” sense. I’m a popularizer. That’s important, because an expert in any one of the areas I’ll touch on would make this more complex than I do, not less.
So is it so obvious that Genesis describes creation in seven literal 24 hour days? That all depends. In what context are we studying what part of Genesis? Rosenhouse does not that Genesis 2 is different from Genesis 1, but he only notes the length of time involved, not the key point, which is that Genesis 2 is itself a creation story that differs from Genesis 1, that it does not have any days of creation at all, and that it is chronologically incompatible with Genesis 1. If I step beyond Genesis I should point out that Psalm 104 is also a creation story that skips that part.
So when we do exegesis, we have several levels at which we can look:
- The textual pre-history, in this case Genesis 1:1-2:4a vs Genesis 2:4b-24. We will get a different answer to our questions in looking at the original intent of each author. (Note that I have a breakdown of these stories according to the sources here.)
- We can look at the redactor who somehow combined the two stories. The interesting thing here is that he is unlikely to have been unaware that the two stories do not share a time framework, and are not actually chronologically compatible. In interpreting the combined text, we have to take that into consideration. Did he mean Genesis 1 to be taken as the chronological framework, which should then be imposed on Genesis 2, or did he see them as compatible in another sense? (If, as I argue below, Genesis 1 is liturgy, while Genesis 2 is a narrative sharing many, but not all, characteristics with myth, then it is quite possible that he intended the reverse–that Genesis 2 is closer to the history, while Genesis 1 is the way in which it is celebrated liturgically, and the time framework is entirely liturgical.)
- We can look at their canonical position as part of the Torah. This involves adding the Sinai experience and the 10 commandments, which pushes us back in the direction of a literal creation week.
- We can look at them in the broader canon of scripture, in which case we must not only add those points at which a literal creation week is described, but those texts, such as Psalm 104 or Proverbs 8 that describe creation differently.
- Finally, we get to the point of application, as in what is the community that uses the Bible as scripture expected to believe about this material. This is where those who are not part of the community, and especially those who once were but no longer are tend to be very dogmatic. The “true” Christian way is to figure out what the original author said and then to believe that. I’m going to deal with this in a later post, but I will simply note for now that this has never been the actual approach, even when people most vigorously claimed it was.
So what would the “obvious” exegesis of Genesis 1-2 be, actually? I hope I’m giving you the sense that this is not quite so simple. Rosenhouse is certainly right on one point, in my view. Genesis 1-2 was not intended to describe the process of evolution. As he says:
Ultimately, it is very hard to believe (to put it kindly) that a writer setting out to communicate a lengthy creation process over billions of years would have written anything like what Genesis records. . . .
Just so. It’s hard to believe, and you shouldn’t believe it.
But then he says:
Or you can take the most sensible approach. That’s where you recognize that the Bible (more specifically the Torah) is not inerrant, and it is not the word of God. . . .
While I certainly agree that the Bible is not inerrant, the rest simply does not follow. A simplistic idea of how one gets from scriptural text to doctrinal belief is posited and then discarded. An idea of the word of God that may or may not be correct (or more importantly held or not held by a community) is assumed and then dismissed.
If I believe that errancy is incompatible with the phrase “word of God” then obviously I must discard it if I discover error–or, perhaps, alter my view. But having discovered that Genesis does not describe evolution does not remove the option of allegory, or any number of other points. (I’m going to discuss the meaning of “word of God” in a later post in this series.)
So let’s go back to the initial point of “obvious exegesis.” Just what did the Biblical writers think they were writing in this case. Was it chronology? Was it narrative history? Allegory? Myth? Here is where I find myself most annoyed with superficial looks at what the Bible might mean, whichever end of the spectrum they come from. Allegory is a particular type of literature. Myth is a particular type of literature, as is narrative history, theology, liturgy, and so forth. All of these occur in the Bible, and all of these are written to answer different questions or to serve different roles.
Those liberal Christians who call Genesis “myth” are doing as much or more disservice to the Bible as those Christian fundamentalists who treat it as science or history. It is none of the above. In fact “it” cannot be so classified, because “it” combines different types of literature into one text.
The redactor of Genesis had before him (or in his head) genealogies, stories from various sources, poetic elements, liturgy and theology, which he wove into a new text we call Genesis. I would argue that Genesis 1 is liturgy, and that is a fairly common view amongst experts. Now liturgy is not myth and it’s not allegory, though it may partake of aspects of both. For example, when the minister on Easter Sunday morning announces “He is risen!” as part of the liturgy, nobody supposes that he is claiming that Jesus just rose from the dead, nor does one suppose that the liturgy means that this rising occurs annually. Nobody who understands the liturgical calendar supposes that this statement is made precisely (even to the day or week) of the anniversary of what it celebrates.
Neither does Genesis 1 necessarily mean that the writer or those who used it in their liturgy actually believed that the earth was created in six literal days followed by a literal day of rest. In fact, allegorical interpretations of the seventh day come much before modern times, as, for example, in the book of Hebrews. But even earlier you get sabbatical years and cycles of seven years, all based on this same concept.
Were you to ask the Israelites just what they believed at the time when Genesis took on its current form, I would personally guess that they would believe something like a literal week “a long time ago.” (I would note that Daniel seems confused on some chronology that occurs over only a few centuries. We’re talking millenia. That probably means “ancient times.”) I also think they would be surprised at the question, simply because it didn’t occur that much in their world. My guess as to their answer is not obvious, however, it’s just my guess. They might have just looked at the questioner oddly and had him locked up as nuts!
Genesis does not answer the kind of questions we seem to want answered regarding origins, because those were not the questions that the authors wanted answered, and they wouldn’t have had a clue as to the answers even if they had asked them.
Note that I have not excluded Jason Rosenhouse’s view. Much of what he says the Biblical text doesn’t mean is quite likely correct. But looking at what it does mean is substantially more complex. Understood in its historical context I would say that the Bible provides very little comfort for any of the groups. The Biblical authors would, I think, be equally surprised by efforts of young earth creationists to lock their days and their chronology into stone, by the day-age efforts of old earth creationists, and by efforts of some Christian evolutionists to suggest that the Bible really teaches their view. It simply doesn’t tell any of these stories, or answer the questions these stories intend to answer.
I intend to continue with posts on the meaning of the phrase “word of God,” on how scriptural application is determined, and how this relates to the issue of the Bible and homosexuality as I continue.