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Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Interpreting the Genesis Creation Accounts in the Light of Modern ANE History

This is a guest post by Gordon Glover, author of Beyond the Firmament.
Modern evangelicals have one unfortunate thing in common with modern atheists, modern agnostics, and modern liberals—they are all modern. In other words, we all tend to have inappropriate and unrealistic expectations as to what something written by the hand of God should look like to 21st century believers 3500 years after the fact. Here is just one example:

“God would never incorporate any themes or ideas from the pagan cultures surrounding Israel. That is simply not befitting of Holy Scripture!”
Is that so? Who decided this? Unfortunately, once we draw this shortsighted line in the sand, we have no choice but to defend the Bible against all archaeological evidence that challenges the Bible’s originality. The problem is that year after year, more and more ancient cuneiform tablets are unearthed that not only predate the Hebrew language (and therefore the OT), but also appear to be source material for many of our favorite OT Bible stories. By continuing to ignore or explain away this material, we are actually subverting our Christian witness by being intellectually dishonest. Perhaps in our zeal to defend God’s Word against worldly attacks, we have backed ourselves into an impossible corner. And our only way out is to attack those for whose salvation we toil.

Let’s take the Hebrew cosmos for instance. This 3-story model of the universe with its flat earth, vaulted sky, and waters above the heavens, is structurally no different than the Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies—both of which God’s people would have been very familiar with (Joshua 24:3, Exodus 1:15-19; 2:1-10, Acts 7:22)—which explains why we can find many references to this model throughout the Bible. While this ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) model of the universe might make little sense to us today, could it have possibly served a useful purpose to the Hebrews as they left Egypt and headed for the promised land? What if God, in his infinite wisdom, had very good reasons for borrowing this ANE cosmology? Rather than run from this idea, let us embrace it for a moment.

What would have been the reaction of the notoriously hard-headed Hebrews if Moses came down from Sinai and said something like,

“Hey guys, check this out. God just told me about creation and guess what? You’re never gonna believe this, but the earth is actually round! No kidding! And there is no solid firmament holding back an ocean of water above us either—can you believe those silly Egyptians? No wonder God kicked their butt! And the earth is actually whirling though space at incredible speeds with the other planets, and there are two more planets that we didn’t even know about! As soon as we get to the Promised
Land, we’re starting a university!”

You might think I’m just trying to be funny, but this is actually what many modern Christians expect to see when they read Genesis. But could there have been other important considerations at the time—perhaps more important than giving the Hebrews a 21st century cosmology?

To illustrate why God is God and we are not, let me relate to you a familiar story that I recently heard. When an English schoolteacher named Anna Leonowens (i.e. Anna and the King) attempted to teach Siamese children about water freezing in the sky and falling to earth in white flakes called snow, her students did not marvel at her knowledge of meteorology. They were actually very offended. In fact, the adult classroom helpers actually asked her to leave. The Siamese people were quite offended that Anna would think them so gullible as to believe such absurdities. The entire incident completely destroyed her credibility. Only the King was able to restore her teaching authority after he reassured the class, with eyewitness testimony (the king was educated in England), that her statement about snow was factually correct.

So already we can see one good reason why God would do such a thing with the telling of His own creation story—even if the material details given fail to satisfy the scientific demands of some future culture such as our 21st century western world. God was wisely protecting the tenuous credibility of His prophet, Moses. The monotheistic creation account of Genesis, set against the backdrop of the pagan polytheistic versions, would have already represented a radical paradigm shift for any ANE people. But had God also elected to correct the erroneous ANE cosmology, this powerful monotheistic message would have been completely obscured by the incredible physical details needed to describe the universe as we know it today.

Now this raises a very interesting question for those who practice “creation science”. If the purpose of the Hebrew creation story was not to provide Israel (or us) with accurate scientific knowledge about the cosmos, why then do so many Christians reject any version of natural history that fails to conform to the Hebrew account?


Unknown said...

Very good points, and if I may add a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis, I think he can contribute much to this discussion:

"I have been suspected of being what is called a Fundamentalist. That is because I never regard any narrative as unhistorical simply on the ground that it includes the miraculous. Some people find the miraculous so hard to believe that they cannot imagine any reason for my acceptance of it other than a prior belief that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical or scientific truth. But this I do not hold, any more than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation "after the manner of a popular poet" (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction. The real reason why I can accept as historical a story in which a miracle occurs is that I have never found any philosophical grounds for the universal negative proposition that miracles do not happen. I have to decide on quite other grounds (if I decide at all) whether a given narrative is historical or not. The Book of Job appears to me unhistorical because it begins about a man quite unconnected with all history or even legend, with no genealogy, living in a country of which the Bible elsewhere has hardly anything to say; because, in fact, the author quite obviously writes as a story-teller not as a chronicler.

I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical. We must of course be quite clear what "derived from" means. Stories do not reproduce their species like mice. They are told by men. Each re-teller either repeats exactly what his predecessor had told him or else changes it. He may change it unknowingly or deliberately. If he changes it deliberately, his invention, his sense of form, his ethics, his ideas of what is fit, or edifying, or merely interesting, all come in. If unknowingly, then his unconscious (which is so largely responsible for our forgettings) has been at work. Thus at every step in what is called--a little misleadingly--the "evolution" of a story, a man, all he is and all his attitudes, are involved. And no good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights. When a series of such retellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.

Thus something originally merely natural--the kind of myth that is found amongst most nations--will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself would not have served. Generalising this, I take it that the whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature--chronicle (some of it obviously pretty accurate), poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of Gods word. Not all, I suppose, in the same way. There are prophets who write with the clearest awareness that Divine compulsion is upon them. There are chroniclers whose intention may have been merely to record. There are poets like those in the Song of Songs who probably never dreamed of any but a secular and natural purpose in what they composed. There is (and it is not less important) the work first of the Jewish and then of the Christian Church in preserving and canonising just these books. There is the work of redactors and editors in modifying them. On all of these I suppose a Divine pressure; of which not by any means all need have been conscious.

The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivet, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not "the Word of God" in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.

To a human mind this working-up (in a sense imperfectly), this sublimation (incomplete) of human material, seems, not doubt, an untidy and leaky vehicle. We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form--something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table. One can respect, and at moments envy, both the Fundamentalists view of the Bible and the Roman Catholics view of the Church. But there is one argument which we should beware of using for either position: God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done--especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it.

We may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself, in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired. He wrote no book. We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context. And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system. He preaches but He does not lecture. He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the "wise-crack". He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be "got up" as if it were a "subject". If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, "pinned down". The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam."

C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 109.

Anonymous said...

Wow - that's a really good quote. I've not yet seen that one. I'll be sure and file this one away!


Cliff Martin said...

Good post, Steve. And thank you, VBM, for the C.S. Lewis quote ... yes a little lengthy, but well worth the read.

Clearly God was not too worked up about what we might call accuracy in the written revelation. The questions of the scientific correctness of Genesis 1, or the historicity of Job have little or no impact on my love for, and use of, the OT. It just seems to marvelously accomplish the purposes of God in my heart in spite of its less than literal perfection.

Should we then stop our investigation of these hard questions. No, we must not. The quest for a deeper understanding of God and his purposes demands that we pursue the nature of revelation, and the historical/scientific accuracy of the Bible. But speaking from my own heart, these investigations have little impact upon my personal relationship with the Revealer of Truth, a relationship which was forged in the simple reading of Scripture.

My personal views of revelation are a bit freer than Glover’s. At some point, you and I will discuss those views, I’m sure. But I am in no way put off by Glover. I appreciate the his contribution.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
Just to be clear, this was Gordon’s post (I think you mean’t “Good post Gordon”).

VBM (um, you are the same as vancemac from euangelion right?): Thanks for the CS Lewis quote. One of the things that constantly amazes me is richness of Christian thought over the past two millennia on how to interpret scriptures. The belief I had growing up in a conservative Evangelical environment was that “The bible was simple. All Christians interpreted the bible simply like we did up (besides the 1000 years of darkness between Constantin and the Reformation) until the liberals botched it very recently.” In fact, many, many Christians have grappled with these issues including the church fathers (eg. Augustine), the reformers (eg. Luther and Calvin), the inerrantist defenders of the bible (eg. Warfield) and modern
”Evangelicals” (eg. Lewis), and none of them take that approach. For myself in my journey, I do not feel like I’m leaving orthodoxy, or extending orthodoxy, but simply rediscovering orthodoxy.

David W. Congdon said...


Very nice post. Your opening line is the best part of it, in my opinion. I have been trying to make this point for quite some time.

One question. In your discussion of Moses and his meeting with God at Sinai, you seem to give the impression that Moses is the one who wrote Genesis. Is that right? Do you think that Moses is the author of Genesis, or at least of the creation account? It just struck me as odd, because if you accept modern historical research on the biblical text, I would expect you to also differ from the traditional "fundalit" (fundamentalist-literalist, coined by Madeleine L'Engle) on the authorship of Genesis.

Anonymous said...

Good point about Moses and Genesis. A great body of scholarly work indicates that the scriptures we have today evolved over many centuries from whatever thoughts Moses would have originally put down post exodous. In fact, my understanding is that the Hebrew language of the Pentateuch probably did not even exist in that form during Moses' time.

That's all well and good, but when I speak to other brothers and sisters in Christ, I pick and choose my battles carefully. Such a thing would completely distract from the core of my argument. In the spirit of Revelation, you could say that I am "accommodating" my remarks to my audience, who are conservative Christians like myself, but that may not have been exposed to some of the more scholarly work behind the OT manuscripts. If not presented in the proper framework, such argument could tend to undermine the authority of Scripture, which is something the secular world is quite aware of.

The human authorship of Genesis in its final form is a battle for another day.


Unknown said...

Yes, I am the same Vancemac who posts at Euangelion!

I like the CS Lewis quote since he goes even further than me! :)

Steve Martin said...

Just to clarify for others, GJG above is Gordon, the author of this post.

Hi Gordon,
Like I indicated earlier, I appreciated this post. In some ways, "unfortunately" there is nothing I disagree with strongly enough to make the dialogue on this post more interesting. (eg. I could argue that Moses probably wrote in the 13th century BC rather than 15th century BC, but given that we probably both agree the final form was not nailed down until something like the 5th, that's pretty much irrelavent).

You said:
"If not presented in the proper framework, such argument could tend to undermine the authority of Scripture, which is something the secular world is quite aware of."

Agreed totally. It does take much wisdom (unfortunately more than I've demonstrated at times) when to say what. I think that might be the topic of my next couple of posts, particularly given the exchanges at: http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2007/09/04/the-gospel-of-the-young-earth/ and http://euangelion.wordpress.com/2007/09/04/creationism-v-evolution-the-danger-of-misplaced-dogmatism/. I do think you and Vance are doing a good job - looks like the two of you have waded into these debates a little more than I have.

On your last comment: "The human authorship of Genesis in its final form is a battle for another day." - I'd probably say "The 100% human and 100% divine authorship of Genesis ..." .. but I know you already have that view.