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Genesis 2:4-9 – God Plays in the Mud

Genesis 2:4-9 – God Plays in the Mud

This is again from the Daily Bible Study series. One complaint I have about the reading is that they will split up chapters and even give the verses out of order. This is not, unfortunately, according to some coherent theory about the history of the text, so far as I can tell, but seems to simply be a convenient way to get the right texts for the Sunday reading.

There is a substantial change in the text starting with Genesis 2:4. The precise division depends on who is doing the dividing, but usually it is Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, and then 2:4b and following. These are the two creation stories.

These two stories describe creation in quite different terms. In Genesis one we have soaring literary prose. It is powerful, and likely intended for use in liturgy, a purpose it has served well many times. The key theological elements, emphasized by the literary form are power, control, success, satisfaction, and blessing (and perhaps more).

God is certainly involved, but the emphasis is on God’s power and glory and not on how close God is to creation. Genesis 1 could potentially be regarded as compatible with deism, seeing God as ultimate creator, but not as one interested in the day to day aspects of the world. Of course we have the Sabbath rest in 2:1-3, but a bit of interpretation, specifically not getting too literal, takes care of that. God is in charge.

I should make a couple of quick points. First, Genesis 1 is not poetry. It has poetic elements in the language, but it does not have the characteristics of Hebrew poetry. It is powerful, well-designed prose. Second, Genesis 1 is not a myth, when myth is used in a literary sense. While it uses some of the language and symbolism of mythology, this symbolism is used in quite a different way. There is none of the conflict between supernatural characters, for example. One could almost call it an anti-myth.

It is also not narrative history, nor is it science. It is theological in nature, and specifically liturgy. This doesn’t mean that it has no relationship to history or to science. It just isn’t trying to make testable scientific statements, nor is it trying to narrate a series of historic events in a form a historian might recognize. A good analogy might be the relationship of the liturgy of Good Friday and Easter Sunday to the events of the resurrection. Historical elements occur, but are never in focus. This is not a weakness. Liturgy takes its power from focusing on the divine elements and their connection to worshipers.

But with Genesis 2:4b we come to a very different picture. We see God planting a garden, forming a human being out of dust and then breathing the breath of life into that body. As we proceed through the text, we will see God personally involved with the human being.

There are those who think we solve problems with the text by noting different literary sources for Genesis 1 & 2. I do think that source criticism is accurate here in that these two stories of creation were at one point separate. But source criticism solves very little of what a text means as we have received it.

The problem with trying to resolve contradictions by referring to sources (and there are chronological issues between Genesis 1 & 2 if you take them as intending to present the events in precise order) is that it doesn’t really solve anything. We still have the text before us, and that means that somebody, somewhere, sometime thought they worked together.

This, to me, is evidence of the simple fact that this was not written, nor was it collected, by someone who was primarily concerned with chronology or with presenting narrative history.

In combination, these tell an exciting story. There is a God of ultimate power who does not have to fight with others in order to create, whose word brings things into existence, whose will is carried out, and who has no peer. At the same time, this God of great power is personally involved with the creation, getting his hands dirty, so to speak, and coming in contact so as to provide breath.

While on the sixth day, God is said simply to create the animals, in Genesis 2, the animals are created and brought before the original human so that he can name them, thus emphasizing and personally upholding the human’s authority and dominion. This same God of power is concerned that this first human is alone, and creates a woman, so we now have a first man and first woman, who are neither of them alone.

Either of these views by itself would be incomplete. Personally, I like to join them to Psalm 104, in which God as creator is presented as sustaining life on a moment to moment basis.

You can see my color-coded view of Genesis 1 & 2 here, and my thoughts on Psalm 104 here.

Why I Still Don’t Like Inerrancy

Why I Still Don’t Like Inerrancy

Andrew Wilson has a post on The Gospel Coalition (Voices) blog titled Why I don’t Hate the Word Inerrancy. In a certain way I have to agree with his conclusion:

But I don’t think the answer is to hate the word. If we were to abandon every word that had been tainted by poor use, we’d have to remove dozens of descriptors from our lexicon, beginning with “Christian”—only to find that the replacements we brought in were also sullied over time by clumsiness, groupthink, insensitivity, and arrogance. …

Just so! It’s pretty difficult to hate a word when the word hasn’t really done anything bad. It just fell into the hands of cruel people who have tortured it a bit.

But I still have to wonder about the value of the word in the first place. As a substitute for saying that God’s word is true, it draws much of its usage from the effort to narrow down the concept of what we mean by “true.” It ties truth to a collection of facts, to data, and not to the message. Properly interpreted, the message of the books of Kings in the Hebrew scriptures can be true without being accurate in every detail of the numbers. There are serious issues in the chonology of the divided kingdom, and resolving these is an interesting hobby, but it’s not really something that impacts the truth of the Bible message.

I think inerrancy, as used—and in effect a word is the way it is used—tends to put our focus on the wrong aspect of any story. It makes our first question be “did this happen precisely as stated?” rather than “what message does God have for me in this story?” That’s unfortunate.

I think there are worse problems for inerrancy than the ages and reigns of kings, but that provides a good starting point. Once we are past that, we need to look at how God communicates. How did God send us scripture? How did God cross the gap between infinity and our finite existence?

This is one of those questions that plagues discussion of topics such as the meaning of Genesis. I believe that God communicates to us in our language, and that Genesis communicated God’s message about creation to people who believed in an earth that was flat (though round, like a dinner plate), with the waters under and the heavens above. They also believed that earth was the center of the universe and had no concept of the size of the universe. In that context, God spoke about God’s involvement in human lives.

That means that the science of Genesis is doubtless in error, when looked at from our point of view. But it’s not in error by mistake. It’s in error intentionally. By God’s intention, not by the intention of the human authors who knew no better. It’s in error in the same way as my explanation of some technical topic might be if I presented it to a child.

And lest you get the idea that I think we are on a pinnacle or knowledge, I expect that, if the world continues and we don’t set ourselves back to the stone age through our own stupidity, people a few hundred years from now may consider our view of what the universe is like to be hopelessly primitive. They’ll look for new ways to tell the story of God’s involvement.

I don’t like the word “inerrancy” because it says that the Bible is going to mean what I think it needs to mean rather than saying that the Bible gives God’s message in the way that God wanted it to be presented.

As I read it, God did very little to scratch our modern itches.

The Bible Gives No New Science Revelations

The Bible Gives No New Science Revelations

My title is slightly modified from No Scientific Revelation in the Bible, posted by RJS at Jesus Creed, with links in turn to work by John Walton. I think this is an important point.

My argument since I was an undergraduate just trying to work my way through these issues, has been that if you can easily explain terminology used in terms of the cosmology of the time there is no adequate reason to try to read modern ideas into the text.

Some find every reference that might just allow them to sneak advanced scientific revelation into the text and try to claim that as evidence that the Bible writers had some advanced knowledge. But unless one makes a claim that is clearly different from what was commonly believed about the way the world works, and that claim matches later knowledge, there’s no basis to assume advanced revelation.

The Bible speaks within the world of its original hearers and readers. That shouldn’t be a problem for us. That is precisely what it should do. It’s our function to carry on the story in our world as we know it. Should the world carry on for so long, in another couple of millenia other people, who may know as much more about how the universe functions as we do compared to the ancients, will be telling the story within their context and their knowledge.

God didn’t intend to provide a science textbook, or a crib sheet for scientific advancement. I can make this claim because if God did try to do such a thing, it was a miserable failure. I prefer not to call God a miserable failure.

No Apologies for Believing the Bible

No Apologies for Believing the Bible

Mark Kellner (Adventist Review, Dec. 8, 2011) says he makes no apologies for believing the Bible. That’s great. Neither do I. (Jan M. Long responded to this at some greater length than I am on the Spectrum Magazine blog, to whom a tip of my hat.)

I don’t usually pick on my former denomination (I grew up and was educated in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church), but in this case, Kellner seems to make a very common mistake. He fails to distinguish the way he understands the Bible to mean from what the Bible says.

In this case, he’s particularly concerned with the creation story. Now I understand that this is a very controversial issue on which we can quite easily, and even reasonably disagree. (I note that I consider it much easier to disagree reasonably on the meaning of the biblical text than on the scientific evidence.) But here’s how Kellner phrases it:

One of the more popular fallacies being floated these days is that the Creation account found in Genesis is an allegory, a “celebration,” much in the way the ancient Hebrews took seven days to mark the inauguration of a temple.

Nonsense. Either the Creation account is true, or we can all sleep in next Saturday morning.

But believing the creation story is something other than a historical narrative doesn’t make it less true. If that were the case, we would make many of the Psalms less true than the books of Samuel and Kings, for example, and the parable of the trees (Judges 9:8-15) would be a gross deception. Most of us would regard those other passages as quite true, but true in a different sense than a historical narrative.

I regard Genesis 1:1-2:4a as liturgy. Liturgy is not less valuable than narrative history. It is valuable in a different way. It conveys different truths in a different way.

Of course the line about sleeping in next Saturday morning applies particularly to SDAs, who worship on Saturday, and would, based on a number of scriptures, see this as a celebration of creation. On the other hand, an SDA who believed that Genesis 1 was liturgy could celebrate creation next Saturday with every bit as much validity as any other act of worship. I doubt that Jesus was born on December 25th, yet I won’t mind commemorating it on that date. The liturgy may not represent historical detail, but it commemorates a core element of my faith.

So the Bible may be true or not, but the decision as to whether the Bible is true doesn’t guarantee the same result for my interpretation of it—or anyone else’s.

A Sense of the Spiritual

A Sense of the Spiritual

I once met a woman who claimed that Jesus had come to her in her kitchen and spoken to her. The reaction of friends, neighbors, and even family to this story was fairly negative. She was regarded as a bit odd, and finally quit talking about it. It was only with some hesitation that she told the group of which I was a part.

Now I see no particular reason to doubt that she saw precisely what she saw. It was, I believe, a visionary experience, and she would have no objection to its being described as such. But the general reaction to such an experience varies between tolerance and avoidance.

That story came to mind as I was reading the lectionary text from Genesis 28:10-19, which tells the story of Jacob’s dream of the ladder at Bethel. Jacob has a dream. Note that like the lady I met, he doesn’t try to claim some sort of physical presence. Yet his reaction (v. 17) is that “this is none other than God’s house, and this is heaven’s gate.” For him the presence of God was a profound reality, even though it was manifested in something as simple as a dream.

If someone said they saw Jesus in a dream, we would have a more positive reaction than people did to the visionary experience. We expect dreams. But we wouldn’t generally respond as Jacob did, considering the experience a profound spiritual event.

One of the things I suggest in trying to understand stories in the Bible is that we come as close as we can to understanding the way in which the characters in Bible times would have reacted. Otherwise we will fail to get the full impact of the story.

Spiritual things were very near, and God’s presence, even in a dream, was deeply sacred.

 

Lent 1A – Theme

Lent 1A – Theme

Well, I’m back again on one of my irregular forays into lectionary blogging. I hope visitors in the meantime have found value in the links to other people’s lectionary blogging found in my sidebar.

It’s not hard to find a theme in this week’s lectionary texts, nor to imagine why those are the texts for today. I think the Romans passage ties the theme together nicely, and if I were to teach this myself, I’d probably start from that point.

Paul tells us that one sin made everyone into sinners, and thus one obedient man, or one act of obedience (carried throughout his life) could make us right with God again. Our texts simply point to the pieces of the puzzle. In Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, we have the original temptation and fall. Here the first couple are placed in the Garden of Eden, but directed away from the tree. Yet they eat in any case.

In Matthew 4:1-11, we have the opposite effect. Note that in Matthew 4:1, it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted. Even more so than Adam and Eve were directed away, Jesus was directed into the test so that he could pass and show that he would reject divinity, improperly offered.  Adam and Eve were human and wanted to be gods. Jesus was God and accepted humanity (Phil. 2:5-11).

The final element of this puzzle is Psalm 32 which, in my view, connects us to the other two. It describes guilt, repentance and forgiveness. It is repentance, a turning to God and away from evil, that allows us to be incorporated into the family that Christ represented in his act(s) of obedience. Lent is not just about the fall and redemption. It is about us becoming part of that new family of faith, incorporated into God’s family, established by the obedience of Jesus Christ.

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.

Unbinding What Rules?

Unbinding What Rules?

A while back Dave Black linked to a review of Genesis Unbound by John Sailhammer.  The review is by Andrew Kulikovsky and is on the Answers in Genesis site, titled Unbinding the Rules.  The interesting thing for me about this review is that despite being very negative, it made me much more anxious to read Sailhammer’s book.

It’s hard to evaluate some of the criticisms without having read the book itself, but I’m going to comment on one, and write a bit more after I’ve gotten my hands on a copy of the book itself.  The one issue is the translation of Genesis 2:19.  To state the problem simply, there is a difference in translation between the NIV (continued in the NIV2011, ESV agrees) for example, and the NRSV amongst others.  To illustrate:

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. (NIV2011) So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, (NRSV)

The translation arises from the perceived need to reconcile the order of events in Genesis 1 and 2, since in 2:19 the animals would be created after human beings rather than before as in Genesis 1. Using a past perfect in English solves this problem.  The question, of course, is whether such a translation is legitimate.

Regarding this, Kulikovsky says:

According to Sailhamer, the rendering ‘ … now the Lord God had formed …’ for Genesis 2:19, is faulty because ‘the Hebrew  text doesn’t contain the proper verb form for such a translation’  (p. 89). This is a very surprising statement from a Hebrew  scholar. Firstly, Sailhamer seems to be confused over the  aspectual identification of the clause ‘had formed’—this is actually indicative of a pluperfect not a perfect. Secondly, the standard grammars1,4 stand against Sailhamer on this, as do modern translations such as the NIV.

I was rather surprised to see this, because the standard grammars say no such thing, and the NIV and ESV are pretty much isolated amongst modern versions in this translation.  The NLT, also evangelical, translated “formed” for example.  I had recently been investigating this issue to see just what support the NIV had for their rendering, and had found very little such support.

The footnotes, unfortunately, are duplicates of previous references, and simply point to Gesenius-Kautzsch (with the latter name misspelled), and to Waltke-O’Connor without referencing any particular page or section number in either grammar.  There are only two  direct references to Genesis 2:19, and only one provides a translation of the first part of the verse, which he translates “YHWH God formed …” (11.2.11d, p. 213), but there he is discussing the translation of the preposition min.  There are, of course, substantial discussions of Hebrew verb tense, but I cannot discover which would provide Kulikovsky with support for his view.  Sailhammer’s statement is hardly surprising; it’s pretty standard.

I would note that I have found cases cited in which the waw-consecutive form can be translated with an English past perfect.  They are very rare, and not too similar to the case of Genesis 2:19.  I’ll provide some references when I read and comment on Sailhammer’s book.

Quote of the Day – on Genesis 15:6

Quote of the Day – on Genesis 15:6

… In the Tanakh, faith does not mean believing in spite of the evidence.  It means trusting profoundly in a person, in this case the personal God who has reiterated His promise.

(from The Jewish Study Bible: featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation, page 35.)

I think that’s an excellent statement of what faith is and is not, and might also tie the usage of faith between James 2:23 and Galatians 2:15ff as it relates to Paul’s use of Genesis 15:6 starting in Galatians 3:15.

Interpreting the Bible IV – Scientific Statements

Interpreting the Bible IV – Scientific Statements

In my daily reading I encounter many different types of literature, each of which relates to the science I know in a different way. For example, I might read a newspaper, in which case the question is just what is an article about. Is it about art? I will look at it through one set of glasses. A report on a scientific discovery? My expectations change substantially. I might read a book of fantasy, in which case I expect very little relationship to real science. If I read a science text, however, I am going to judge it very critically on how well it conveys scientific information.

In each of these cases, what constitutes a “mistake” is going to differ greatly. “The sun sets in the west” is very proper in popular speech, in art, or in poetry. It’s questionable in a story about science, and in general would only be used as an example of how inaccurate popular speech can be in a science text.

If one criticized a poem for its scientific inaccuracy for such a statement, one would be viewed as odd. Viewing the Bible that way is pretty standard. Now I’m not denying here that the Bible has different types of literature in which scientific statements might be seen differently. What I will say, however, is that the Bible has nothing in it that qualifies even as a popular news story about a scientific discovery. It certainly has in it nothing close to a textbook on a scientific topic.

Yet many people expect a specifically scientific type of accuracy when they read the Bible. I believe this comes to some extent from the modern view of scientific knowledge as the best type of knowledge available. We want scientific proof that God exists or that miracles happen, because we believe that’s the best category of evidence available. We think the Bible should talk about science in some way, because science (in the modern science, not the older “general knowledge”) is the best type of knowledge there is.

Of course, God may have a different idea. Personally I would argue that God does talk about science, and he does so in the fabric of the universe. We hear that message through scientific study. I don’t want to get into the details of such a view here; suffice it to say it exists.

But we still must be careful in saying that the Bible does not make scientific statements. I’ve gotten into trouble on this before, because people often hear that as “The Bible doesn’t say anything correct about the physical world.” That’s not the case and it’s not my point. What I mean is that the Bible doesn’t make statements either with scientific precision, i.e. intended as testable hypotheses properly qualified, nor does it attempt to advance specifically scientific knowledge.

Now there’s a lot of room for disagreement there. Just how precisely must the Biblical statements agree with a modern scientific view? Laying aside the question of whether the modern scientific understanding of any topic is correct (what will people think of our current knowledge in another 200 years, not to mention 2,000 or 4,000?), one can at least divide that between those who believe that the Bible need not agree with scientific knowledge in any particular way (though it may) or those who believe that where the Bible makes a statement that impinges on science in any way, it must be accurate.

Let’s take a quick example, which I already mentioned previously. We know that the Bible is not a mathematics text, yet it almost accidentally mentions the ratio that is PI, though not providing us with a number calculated to any decimal places in 1 Kings 7:23:

Then he made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high. A line of thirty cubits would encircle it completely. (NRSV)

I know of some Biblical critics who are embarrassed that people bring this up as an objection to the Bible, and well they should be, because it really causes nobody any actual problems. On the other hand, it illustrates what I am talking about quite nicely.

There are several things that one might think about this statement:

  1. The writer is using approximations in his numbers
  2. The brazen sea isn’t precisely round, but perhaps oval, another type of approximation
  3. These are not builder’s plans, and thus the precise number is unnecessary
  4. There is no particular reason for the writer to provide us with the value of PI

All of which are quite possibly true. Some others have brought up issues such as measuring from the outside or the inside of the rim. I would note that Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have an easy means of expressing decimal places, and fractions are a mite wordy. So what is the difference here? PI is 3.1416, which is itself rounded from 3.14159, which is rounded from… Why do I choose a particular precision? I do so according to my need, in this case my need to show how we approximate numbers on a regular basis.

One could quite reasonably read the passage as “The sea was round, about 10 cubits across and about 30 cubits around the rim.”

My point? The precision of our statements of such topics depends on the need. I heard a similar example yesterday in a store. One of the clerks was giving directions. He said, “You turn right and then go 2 or 3 miles, and you’ll find Walmart on the left.” Is he giving lousy directions if Walmart is 3.3 miles? 2.7? 1.9? Actually, if he follows the directions he’ll find where he’s going.

Now compare this to directions I got about a year ago to find someone’s house. I was told to turn right and then check my odometer, because I needed to go precisely 1.1 miles and turn right on a road that didn’t have a clear road sign. I did so, and at 1.1 miles I turned right onto the specified road, and only saw the sign with the road name on it after I made the turn. The clerk’s directions were good for his circumstances, but would have failed for mine. On the other hand, giving a precise number to the tenth for finding Walmart would simply be distracting.

To get back to Genesis 1, if one assumes it is intended as a scientific treatise, one should be concerned with things like how days would be calculated before the fourth day when the sun was created. (Though I would note that one does not have to conclude from the text that the sun was actually created on the fourth day; it might be a case of revelation.) One might also be concerned with what “day” was before the fourth day. After all, the sun is created to “rule the day” suggesting that “day” already existed before the sun was there. But now I’m descending into silliness.

If, on the other hand, Genesis 1 is liturgy, there is no reason to expect a logical and scientific progression in the events. But between these views we have any number of senses in which Genesis might be heard as a form of narrative history, in which case, while it need not make scientifically precise statements, it could well make statements that would impact scientific data. For example, if the story says, “the sun set,” even if we allow the non-scientific nature of the way of indicating the end of the day, if there is no sun, the statement would be false–no sun, no setting.

In each case one must look at the particular genre and the nature of what the author is trying to communicate within that genre (witness my two instances, both of giving directions, but with different requirements), in order to determine what type of statements to expect, and the precision one must expect of them. A man describing the temple has no need to communicate the precise value of PI, while someone celebrating God’s creation of the world has no need to describe orbits or solar fusion.

Now I personally believe that not only does the Bible not make scientific statements as I have described, but that it speaks its message into a context of the knowledge of the audience. In other words, as God wishes to communicate things about his order, his control of creation, and his plan for humanity, he doesn’t distract them by saying that they don’t understand yet that the world is a sphere (though they did think it was round like a dinner plate), that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the reverse, or that stars were light years away.

Those points, as interesting as they would be to us today, would be a distraction. In fact, I would suggest that they would completely take over the more important message that the Bible has to deliver.

We think scientific knowledge is the most important; God doesn’t agree, and he communicated according to his priorities, not ours.