How should we interpret the opening chapters of Genesis?

A critique by a biblical scholar who rejects the historical-critical method of interpreting Genesis.

Randall W. Younker, PhD, is professor of Old Testament and biblical archaeology and director of the Institute of Archaeology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Some of the most contro­versial chapters in the Bible are Genesis 1–11. Many scientists have argued that everything in the universe, including planet Earth and the life on it, came about by purely natural means—that God had nothing to do with its ori­gins. In direct contrast, the first 11 chapters of Genesis assert that God, by the power of His spoken word, created everything—the sun, moon, stars, this planet, and all life on it.

The key challenge to the Genesis claim comes as a result of the scien­tific study of nature—what believers refer to as “God’s Second Book.” As modern scientists have stud­ied the earth—particularly through the disciplines of geology and paleontology—they have observed phenomena in the layers of the earth’s crust that they interpret as requiring millions of years to form. In addition, scientists have noticed a sequence of fossils in the geologic column that they suggest shows change or evolution from simple life forms to more complex, modern ones. Finally, as scientists have studied certain radioactive elements in the geologic strata, they have seen that the lowest rocks seem to be very old—some hundreds of millions of years—and that the upper layers gradually show less age. (It should be remembered that most scientists work within a worldview that rejects the idea of God a priori—before reaching any conclu­sion whatsoever—so the explanation for all phenomena encountered are interpreted within a purely naturalistic philosophy.)

Putting these observations together—the large number of thick strata, fossil sequences, and radiometric dating—scientists have concluded that the earth and life on it took millions of years to form. This broadly accepted conclusion con­tradicts the common understanding of the biblical account of origins: God created life on the world by the power of His spoken word in six lit­eral days a few thousand years ago.

Influence of modern scientific concepts on biblical scholars

Since the 1800s, many biblical scholars have been strongly influ­enced by the findings of science in the areas of geology and paleontol­ogy as well as by the naturalistic philosophy for understanding the world in a manner that removes God from the picture. These schol­ars have concluded that the Bible should likewise be viewed through a naturalistic lens. Thus, disregarding Scripture’s own description of the revelation/inspiration process, they do not study the Bible as a book of divine origin, but rather consider it a book of purely human origin. Consequently, the Bible is viewed or understood as unreliable since humans are clearly capable of mak­ing mistakes. For these scholars, the fact that the Bible was composed in antiquity—before the advent of mod­ern science—makes it even more likely that the Bible’s description of origins is erroneous. In view of this critical understanding of the Bible, biblical historical critics proposed an alternate process by which the Bible came into existence. This alternate process denied the Bible’s self-claim of supernatural origin, replacing it with the view that the text was the outcome of a purely natural, human process.

In the case of Genesis, scholars suggested that the book was not written sometime before 1450 b.c. by Moses under inspiration. Rather, Genesis was written and edited by a number of unnamed authors (often referred to as J, E, and P) and “redactors” over a period of several centuries between 1100 and 450 b.c. Scholars who promote this view—often referred to as “historical critics”—have offered several lines of evidence for their reconstructions of Genesis. They point to phenomena in the Genesis text such as appar­ent doublets, contradictions, and anachronisms in an attempt to show the complex, diachronic manner in which Genesis was composed. The identification of these purported phe­nomena in the text has led them to suggest, for example, that Genesis 1 and 2 present contradictory Creation accounts written at different times and for different purposes.

Their rejection of the super­natural manifested in the world has also led these critics to reject any supernatural or miraculous claims in the Bible, such as the idea that God could create the earth and its life-forms merely by speaking and that this occurred over the course of only six days. The critics prefer to accept the conclusions reached by the bulk of contemporary science—that the earth and its life-forms came into existence through purely natural processes over millions of years. Also rejected is the idea that the entire surface of the earth, as we know it, was destroyed by a divinely initiated flood. For them, no global fl ood occurred. And if there was any flood at all, it was only local in nature.

The biblical critics also argue that the Creation account in Genesis is full of naive ideas that prove the account cannot be historically true or scientifically plausible. For example, they claim the Hebrews possessed a naive cosmology—an unscien­tific understanding of the structure of the universe. Pulling together different biblical texts, and mak­ing some assumptions about what neighboring ancient Near Eastern peoples thought, the biblical critics reconstructed what they thought the Hebrews would have actually believed about the nature of the uni­verse. In this reconstructed Hebrew cosmos, the heavens were seen to be like a hollow upside-down metal bowl resting over a flat earth, with the sun, moon, and stars fixed to the underside of the dome where humans could see them at night. The dome was also thought to have gates allowing for the occasional flow of water (rain) from the waters above the heavens. The critics assumed as well that the ancient Hebrews believed in large subterranean seas and a literal hell.

Impact on evangelical Christian interpretation

Modern scientific concepts also made a significant impact on certain schools of evangelical interpretation of Genesis. The dilemma for these evangelicals is to maintain a high view of Scripture (contra the histori­cal critics) while acknowledging the conclusions of modern science. The approach these evangelicals have taken has been to “de-literalize” the early chapters of Genesis. For these individuals the days of Creation are not literal; the Flood is only local if it happened at all. This allows these evangelicals to avoid pitting the truthfulness of the Bible against the understandings of modern science.

This evangelical, nonliteral inter­pretive approach to Genesis has been roundly and severely criticized by liberal historical critics. For example, the respected Old Testament scholar James Barr (who does not accept the biblical Creation account, but thought that the writer of Genesis did), wrote

so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their read­ers the ideas that:

1. creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience;

2. the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronol­ogy from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story,

3. Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extin­guished all human and animal life except for those in the ark.1

Barr’s comments show that, in his opinion, the evangelical attempt to “de-literalize” the creation account in Genesis was not acceptable.

Responding to critical arguments

Each of the arguments put forth by the historical critics for the noninspired, alternate origin of Genesis has been thoroughly critiqued by biblical scholars who reject the historical-critical method. For example, careful analysis of the word for “day” (yom) in the Creation account shows it does not mean an indefinite period of time, but rather, a literal day of about 24 hours such as we know today.2 Thus, the Bible does, indeed, state that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Similarly, an analysis of the Hebrew word for “flood” (mab­bul) shows it to be a unique word for a global water catastrophe leading to the literal destruction of the entire world—a “de-creation” of the work God executed during Creation week.3 As for the idea that the Hebrews had a naive view of the cosmos, recent studies of the Hebrew word for “firmament” (raqia) show it does not mean an upside-down metal bowl.4 Indeed, a review of the history of critical biblical scholarship shows that nineteenth-century scholars were the inventors of the belief that the ancient peoples (Hebrews and others) conceived of a flat earth with a metallic, half-domed sky.5

Other challenges concern­ing the unity and antiquity of the Creation/Flood account have also been addressed. For example, the presence of doublets (two different names for God [Elohim and Yahweh]6 and the telling of the Creation story twice in Genesis 1 and 2) has been shown to be a common narrative technique in ancient Near Eastern literature, and thus does not neces­sarily reflect the existence of more than one author.7 Apparent contra­dictions—such as whether plants were created on day four of Creation week (Genesis 1) or were not added until after the Creation week was finished (Genesis 2)—have been con­vincingly explained. In the example mentioned, the Hebrew words for “plants” in chapter 1 are different from those used in chapter 2.8 The plants created on day four in chapter 1 are those of fruit trees suitable for food. In contrast, the plants found in chapter 2 include thorns and thistles or certain grasslike plants requiring considerable work to bring to har­vest. The context of chapter 2 clearly shows this second group of plants came about as the result of sin.

Finally, the appearance of the so-called anachronisms in Genesis—for example, the appearance of tents and camels in the second millen­nium b.c.—has been shown, in many cases, not to be anachronisms at all. Renowned Egyptologist and scholar Dr. Kenneth Kitchen has shown that tents were common in the ancient Near East in the second millen­nium—just as the Bible describes.9 Similarly, the presence of camels prior to the time of David has also been well documented in recent times.10

I had the privilege of contributing to this conclusion upon discovering an ancient petroglyph (rock carving) of a man leading a camel by a rope in a Bronze Age context (pre-1400 b.c.) north of the traditional location of Mount Sinai (Wadi Nasib).

A number of literary features in Genesis, such as the structure of Genesis 1–11, are more typical of the second millennium before the Christian era than the first—suggest­ing that much of Genesis reflects earlier times. For example, several second millennium “primeval his­tories” exist—origin stories such as the Akkadian “Atrahasis Epic” and the Sumerian “Eridu Genesis” with which Genesis 1–11 have much in common. Among these featured is a clear organization by parts—all three of these primeval history stories contain three sections—a creation story, the rise of a problem, and a judgment by flood.

While ancient Mesopotamian cul­tures produced later flood stories (like the Gilgamesh Epic) and creation sto­ries (like the Enuma Elish), these later versions were no longer “complete” primeval histories containing all three elements—creation, problem, and flood.11 The fact that all three exist in Genesis would indicate that Genesis was composed at the same time as its Mesopotamian counterparts—in the second millennium. That fits with the biblical view that Moses wrote the book of Genesis sometime before 1400 b.c. Of course, the Genesis version differs significantly from its Mesopotamian counterparts. In fact, several scholars have noted that the author of Genesis was deliberately challenging the Mesopotamian ver­sion by being “polemical.”12 That is, the author of Genesis was disagree­ing with the Mesopotamian version of creation and claiming to provide the correct version of how things came into being.

It is worth noting that a num­ber of literary features in Genesis 1–11 suggest the author intended to provide a historical narrative of earth’s early history—not simply a theological statement or a nonliteral, literary depiction of Creation, such as a poem, parable, saga, myth, or other ways of writing. First, for example, the unity of the narrative of Genesis 1–11 continues into the rest of Genesis and, indeed, runs into the book of Exodus. Together, these books tell a continuous story from Creation, through Abraham, Joseph, the descent down to Egypt, and the Exodus. In fact, many scholars have identified the Creation story of Genesis 1–11 as a prologue to the rest of the Pentateuch. Second, a certain Hebrew verbal form exists—the waw­consecutive—that is typically used for historical narratives (such as is found in books like the Chronicles and Kings). The waw-consecutive is found in the Creation account as well, suggesting historical intent and purpose for the narrative. A third literary feature clearly points to the “historical impulse” of these chapters: the appearance of toledoth formulas, usually translated as “these are the generations of . . .” Finally, many elements in ancient Near East parallels of primeval histories can be shown to be historical.13

Summary

Taken together, the evidence suggests that it remains eminently reasonable to conclude that (1) Genesis is in fact an early literary work—the product of the second millennium before the Christian era, (2) the text was composed as a uni­fied account, although there may have been some minor editorial work at a later time, and (3) the text was intended to be understood by its authors as an authentic account of earth’s origins in which the world was created in six literal days and later destroyed by a global flood.

Notes:

1 James Barr, Oriel professor of the interpretation of the Holy Scripture, Oxford University, England, in a letter to David C. C. Watson, April 23, 1984. Barr, consistent with his neo-orthodox views, does not believe Genesis, but he understood what the Hebrew so clearly taught. It was only the perceived need to harmonize with the alleged age of the earth that led people to think anything different—it was nothing to do with the text itself.

2 See Gerhard F. Hasel, “The ‘Days’ of Creation in Genesis 1: Literal ‘Days’ or Figurative ‘Periods/Epochs’ of Time?” Origins 21, 1 (1994): 5–38. Hasel shows that the Hebrew clearly means literal days in Genesis 1.

3 See Kenneth A. Mathews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1–11:26 (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1996), 365, 366, where he argues that the author is using mabbul to refer to a cataclysm that was worldwide in scope.

4 See Robert C. Newman, The Biblical Firmament: Vault or Vapor? (Hatfield, PA: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 2000), 150. Newman’s position is supported by commentators such as Mathews.

5 Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1991). For an exhaustive discussion about what the ancients since the time of Christ thought about the heavens, see Edward Grant, Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200–1687 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

6 See Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1966), 121–123.

7 See Isaac M. Kikawada, “The Double Creation of Mankind in Enki and Ninmah, Atrahasis I1–351, and Genesis 1–2,” Iraq 45 (1983): 43–45; and Duane Garrett, Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 21–25.

8 See Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1964), especially his discussion of plants in Genesis 1 and 2.

9 Kitchen, The Bible in Its World: The Bible and Archaeology Today (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977), 58, 59. See also James Hoffmeier, “Tents in Egypt and the Ancient Near East,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 7, 3 (1977): 13–28, and Newman (2000).

10 Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 338, 339.

11 See Kitchen (1977), 31–36, and Kitchen (2003), 422–427 for a more extensive discussion.

12 Hasel, “The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” Evangelical Quarterly 46 (1974): 81–102.

13 For a discussion of the historicity of the Genesis narratives, see Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 49, 50; again, see Kitchen (2003), 422–427, who discusses the historical aspects of the early Genesis accounts in their ancient Near Eastern literary contexts. However, it should be noted that Longman and Kitchen do not accept the literal Creation account in Genesis 1–11.


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Randall W. Younker, PhD, is professor of Old Testament and biblical archaeology and director of the Institute of Archaeology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

July 2012

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