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Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Genesis 1 –11: Background, Context, and Theology

Let’s face it. Scripture is often very difficult to understand & interpret. Anyone who states otherwise probably hasn’t read it very thoroughly or is glossing over the difficult passages. As Christians we may agree that the bible is divinely inspired, and agree that it is God’s revelation, but we will often disagree on what the inspired author actually meant, and what specifically God’s revelation reveals. So it is no surprise that Christians can on the one hand share a commitment to the integrity and divine inspiration of the Genesis creation stories, but on the other hand arrive at radically different conclusions on how these stories should be interpreted.

Interpreting Genesis 1 to 11: Introduction

To faithfully and fruitfully interpret scripture, particularly puzzling sections of the bible, it is helpful to understand the background of the biblical author, the culture of day, and the context in which the message of scripture would have been received. This is particularly true of the early chapters of Genesis since the worldview of these authors, and the cultures they describe, are so vastly different from our own. As Gordon Glover’s post indicates, modern ANE scholarship has shed new light on the worldview of the biblical authors and their audience.

Although most Evangelicals (including many Evolutionary Creationists) have traditionally interpreted Genesis 1-11 as an historical narrative, most would also agree that the divine message goes beyond, and is much more important than, simply teaching history and science. So leaving aside the question of historicity, what message is being conveyed by the early chapters of Genesis? What important and eternal truths should we take from these narratives? Does the context of ANE culture help clarify the message the inspired authors intended to convey?

A Radical Prologue

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are a natural sub-unit of the book. It can be viewed as a prologue to the rest of the Genesis, and indeed the Pentateuch; it is an introduction to the accounts of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, and the giving of the Law. The stories recorded in these early chapters show strong similarities to ancient Mesopotamian myths, accounts that were almost certainly recorded prior to the writing of Genesis. Although the narratives and scientific worldviews portrayed in Genesis are similar to these Mesopotamian myths, the theology it contains is radically different. In fact, Genesis is a complete repudiation of Mesopotamian pagan assumptions about God, humanity, and the world.

The Mesopotamian view of Creation

The ancient Mesopotamian accounts include stories about the creation of the gods, gods that included the sun, the moon, the stars, and sea monsters. Creation was not an account of the forming of matter, but of the ordering of eternal matter. According to the Mesopotamians, matter pre-dated the formation of the gods. The myths recount events in the lives of the gods, including their internal bickering, wars, and even the murder of the primary god by his progeny. These events showed that the Mesopotamian gods were far from perfect or even good; they displayed characteristics of selfishness, vengefulness, and capriciousness. Man was created as somewhat of an afterthought, and his primary purpose seems to have been to feed the gods.

A global flood account was also part of the Mesopotamian mythology. The gods had become tired of the noisiness of humanity, were concerned about human overpopulation, and thus brought about a flood to destroy their own creation. However, once the flood started, it soon raged beyond the control of the gods and they became terrified for their own safety. When the flood finally subsided, a lone human survivor was found, saved not because of his righteousness, but because he was the favourite of one of the lesser gods. The primary god was in fact quite surprised to find him alive. The theme of the story of man following the flood was one of progress. Even though he started out quite humbly, he advanced beyond these modest beginnings. There was great optimism for humanity improving itself even further.

The Hebrew view of Creation

The theology of the early chapters of Genesis stands in stark contrast to that implied by other Near Eastern primeval history. Rather than many gods, there was but one God. The Hebrew God was not one of the pantheon, but Lord of the universe. This was no local deity concerned with the internal politics and religious rites of a single nation. Rather than being part of nature, this God was the primary cause of nature. Rather than ordering pre-existing matter, he created it. Everything, including objects the Babylonians viewed as gods (eg. sun, moon, stars, sea monsters), was created by him and was subservient to him. There were no stories about God. The Genesis record contains no theo-biography; God simply was. God was both omniscient and omnipotent; there was no need for him to be afraid of his creation, or even surprised by anything. He was in complete control. Finally, God was good, and loved his creation. Rather than treating it as a useful object, he genuinely cared for it. Rather than being capricious and unpredictable, God was an orderly divinity that could be trusted.

The Genesis view of humanity was also quite different from the view held by the Hebrews’ neighbours. Rather than an afterthought, man was the apex of creation. Rather than a functional slave, he was created in God’s image, held a place of honour, and was given the responsibility of caring for the rest of creation. God went out of his way to provide for man (food, a wife, clothing) rather the other way around. Unfortunately, man was disobedient to God. Man’s problems are and were a result of this disobedience. Rather than being optimistic like the Mesopotamians about man’s progress, Genesis was very pessimistic about his ability to progress on his own. The story of the Tower of Babel is a scathing satire on Babylonian claims that their ziggurats were reaching upwards to the gods. In fact, God needed to descend to reach their towers. Rather than demonstrating a powerful and growing civilization, these towers symbolized confusion. On his own, man could not reach God or solve any of his problems. It was only through God’s faithfulness that man had any hope at all.

A God of Love, not Violence

Finally, one needs to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the violence evident all around them was not an inherent feature of Creation. As Lesslie Newbigin states in “A Walk Through the Bible” (Hat Tip to Fire and Rose):

The first chapter of Genesis was almost certainly written during the time when Israel was in exile in Babylon. And we must picture these writers as slaves under the shadow of this mighty empire with its palaces, fortresses and temples. Babylon had its own account of creation, as we know from the work of modern scholarship. It was a story of conflict, battle and bloodshed. Violence was the theme underlying the whole creation story as the Babylonians understood it.

The writers of Genesis had a quite different picture of God. They were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. They knew God as the redeemer God, the God who had saved his people from bondage. And they had a totally different picture of God’s creation—not as the result of violence but as the action of a God of love and wisdom who, out of sheer love, desired to create a world to reflect his glory and a human family to enjoy his world and give back his love.

Creation is a doctrine shared by all Christians. As part of the good news, we need to proclaim the message of creation to a fallen world. Our creation story in Genesis communicates truths about God and humanity, truths revealed by God through the writer of Genesis to all of humanity, in all cultures, in all places, and throughout all of history. Although the message is contained in literature that is accommodated for an Ancient Near East mindset, it is not truth relevant for this culture only.

Genesis speaks to a world consumed by violence, selfishness, and greed. It speaks to a world that is convinced there is no purpose. It speaks to a world that thinks human reason can overcome any problem, and that humanity can “rise above our evolutionary impulses”. In short, it speaks to our world too. Though the truth in Genesis is contained in a vessel that is foreign to a modern, science-oriented culture, it is a truth that modern man desperately needs to hear. Let’s make sure the world hears this message, and not the one that is garbled, tainted, and damaged by a dogmatic insistence and focus on specific scientific claims.


Cliff Martin said...

Excellent post, Steve. Perhaps your best post yet! If we set aside the science and historicity issues for a moment, the exciting, positive, practical, applicable-to-our-day theological truths of early Geneses leap off the page! We can then, if we want, return to questions of historical and scientific accuracy, but they can then be seen for what they are: moot issues ... interesting discussion fodder, but beside the point.

stc said...

That's a good, clear survey of a lot of data. I'm in agreement with most of it, with a couple of quibbles.

The Hebrew God was not one of the pantheon, but Lord of the universe.

This is the larger of my two quibbles, I suppose. In Genesis 1, when God says, "Let us make man in our image," the tradition may very well be thinking in terms of a pantheon. There are indications at various points in the Hebrew scriptures that YHWH was thought of, initially, as one God among others; that the gods of the other nations really existed, but they were not the equal of Israel's God.

"Deutero-Isaiah" is generally regarded as the first biblical writer to profess true monotheism.

Rather than ordering pre-existing matter, he created it.

This is a matter of dispute, too. When Genesis 1 says, "the earth was without form and void", it seems to speak of God working on existing material. It's just that the material was shapeless and lifeless until YHWH went to work on it. I'm not sure that this makes matter eternal, though that might be implied. It could be that the question is simply not answered one way or the other.

I don't think either of these points challenges the core of your theology in this post. That Israel took some time to recognize YHWH's uniqueness doesn't change the fact that that's where the OT comes out in the end.

Steve Martin said...

Thanks Cliff. I’m optimistic that this type of discussion will become more the norm within the Evangelical church. Maybe even sooner rather than later.

Stephen: Very good points. In fact, on the second (creation ex nihilo) I was thinking of making some qualifications here – but the post was probably too long already. I do think that it is very likely that the ancient Hebrews were convinced that God pre-dated matter – but this is by no means a slam dunk. As well, although I am impressed by the fine-tuning argument and the correlation of “The Big Bang” of science with “creation ex nihilo”, I am not putting my “faith” in the Big Bang. If, as Polkinghorne states in “Science and Christian Belief”, we find out that “universes can be born out of a quantum vacuum” or that “we cannot determine a boundary of the beginning” (pages 73-75), this will not shake my faith. It will be simply one more interesting challenge.

On the first, that the Hebrews were not wholeheartedly monotheistic, I guess I haven’t read much on this but frankly, just from reading the Old Testament at face value (eg. some of the Psalms, the ten commandments), it seems that the Hebrews felt that other gods existed.

I think the key point though is that the Hebrew conception of their God was radically different from the Mesopotamian view.

Cliff Martin said...

These discussions will become more prominant. And they will tear at the fabric of the evangelical church. I forsee the question of early Genesis becoming the next major divisive issue in the church, and the battle will be bloody. The issue will rise because the believing scientific community, long holders of their peace, are beginning to speak out.

I presented some of my views in my own fellowship (where I am the primary teacher) yesterday. I actually quoted from this post because you show how that if we are faithful to the truth, the power of Scripture is enhanced, and Genesis is not marginalized. So who has the "higher value" on Scripture? The open minded thinker who accepts the clear findings of science and thus walks in greater truth? or the close minded literalist?

Anonymous said...

Science is the God of this age.

And it has provided the means for destroying all life on earth.

Excuse it all you want, but the weapons are there, provided by atheistic scientists (Dawkins assures us most sientists are atheists) who sell to the highest bidder.

Its too late.

They have won.

Next stop, Armageddon.

Cliff Martin said...


Your chosen eschatology leads you to an inevitably bleak outlook. Science is substantially in the purview of atheistic scientists precisely because, after Darwin, believers by and large abandoned science. Your attitude perpetuates the mistake. Until Darwin, science was driven by faith and theism. Because of the hair-brained reaction of fundamentalism, we largely ceded science over to atheism around the turn of the last century. This was a sad mistake. Now the atheists use science as a club to beat up on believers.

But all is not lost. Dawkins may be right (“most scientists are atheists”). But their majority status is not overwhelming. Francis Collins, equally qualified to comment, claims that 40% of working scientists are theistic Christians. So your suggestion that science as a whole is a sold-out anti-christian conspiracy is not likely to be true.

Anonymous said...

My Christian Co-worker would say, look, if the story of Adam and Eve wasn’t a real event, and if a day isn’t a day, and if Adam and Eve were a fable, a story about God, but not a true story, then, then Jesus would have died on the cross, to cleanse the world of the sins of a fable. The same is true of the story of Noah. It just simply can not represent a real event in history, but, more a event that occurred in time to a group of people, that taught us some lesson about God. Yet he insists that it is the word for word truth of the history of the world.

At first, I dismissed his argument out of hand, but then, the more I thought, the more of a quandary I found myself in. To me, there must be more to the story than simply putting all the animals on the Ark, or the entire world descending from Adam and Eve. Yet the church is so caught up in the divine truth that they need to tell one whopping lie after another, to make it all work.

Your analysis is good, but I think it’s important to look at the change or “evolution” of God in these passages. The various names and state of God changed a number of times. The world went from a many “gods” and one true God, to one God.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Elbogz,

I can’t agree with your Christian Co-worker on the necessity of a literal Adam and Eve. No one is convicted to repent & turn to God because an ancient ancestor named Adam sinned. We are convicted because of our own sin. The good news of the Gospel is the Jesus died on the cross for your co-workers sins, for your sins, and for my sins. Whether there was a literal Adam or not does not change the fact that you, him, and I all need redemption.

On the “evolution” of God, I would call it the “evolution” of humanity’s understanding of God. Yes, the ancient Hebrew understanding of God & theology was very different than ours (eg. they seemed to have no concept of the afterlife). They may have even believed that other gods existed (see above comments by Stephen and my response) but certainly viewed their God very differently (ie. he was Lord of the Universe & if these other gods existed, they were ruled by him). Some say this demonstrates that monotheism is simply the last stage in the development of human theology (with the implication that God is simply a construction of the human mind). I see it as God’s progressive revelation to humanity.