The Difficulty with Genesis

I happened to scroll through a debate happening on a page promoting Young Earth Creationism, it started when a woman made the comment that Genesis 1 & 2 are in complete conflict and cannot both be true. Of course this kind of comment is going to trigger people on the page and the debate will rage. I have no good reason for scrolling through the comments– I think I was just trying to waste time– but I did and honestly my head hurt from trying to make sense of the conversation. To begin with neither side admitted the obvious truth… the other person is right; yep, both sides were right but not in the way they thought.

The side defending the unity of Genesis 1 & 2 never admitted there are real difficulties in reading those two passages back-to-back. Honestly, there is some serious tension between day six (1:24-31) and the events of chapter 2. This is particularly true if one reads these texts as history or science texts in the modern senses of those words, which of course is how those defending this page were reading the texts. Watching the exchange take place, I was floored that so many Christians, who would probably claim to be astute Bible readers, seemed so ignorant of the Scriptures. They failed to understand how someone could have difficulty reconciling these two very different creation accounts. What a poor witness to the faith. How can we take the Scriptures seriously if we do not give credence to the difficult problems posed by reading them? The individuals trying to defend Scripture failed to acknowledge these difficulties and so made themselves look more ignorant of their own Scriptures than their opponent.

But, the woman who started the debate is likewise oblivious to the ignorance she perpetuates. Does she honestly believe that the author of Genesis is so stupid as to write mutually contradictory claims back-to-back and that of the millions of people to read these accounts only a handful have ever notice? Does she honestly believe that no one would have thought of redacting one of the stories or altering it to fit the other in the centuries which have elapsed since its writing? The reality is this woman assumes that Genesis 1 & 2 are modern historical or scientific texts and therefore she thinks the difficulties she sees amount to contradictory claims. I can forgive people for such thoughts, especially on a Young Earth Creationist page where they are actively reinforcing such ideas. Though she can be forgiven to a degree, if she can recognize the obvious tensions in the text should she not ask further questions like “Do all Christians and Jews not see this or do they have a different understanding?” The truth is she is missing the boat on how to read the text and her questions should point out that fact.

I believe the best books to read on Genesis are very modern ones because the authors write to a modern audience who are stuck in a 21st century mindset (I’ll list a few at the end). But if I only reference late-20th and early-21st authors the claim might be leveled that I (and they) are only trying to reinterpret the Bible to fit with Darwinian evolution. Instead I would like people to wrestle with St. Augustine who wrote 1400 years before Darwin. Augustine famously wrote several treatises and books on Genesis 1 & 2 and though he is debating different issues from many we discuss today much of what he says is still relevant. Augustine wrestled with many of the tensions that we wrestle with today, including the fact that day and night cannot exist without the Sun, and the differences between 1:24-31 & chapter 2. And Augustine is not the only pre-Darwin Christian thinker to wrestle with these issues and come to thoughtful conclusions. Reading Augustine leads to a few conclusions:

  • Genesis 1 & 2 were written in a different culture
  • Genesis 1 & 2 poses difficulties to any reader outside that culture
  • Genesis 1 & 2 are meant to be next to one another

The core belief which untied all the positions I saw in that debate was a worldview assumption that there is only one way of telling the story of creation. All of these modern readers understand the question of origins from a historical or scientific perspective because that is what permeates our culture. We then naturally have a difficulty understanding other cultures which do not rely on our scientific understandings. Historians are beginning to learn this as they dig into indigenous oral traditions. I love John Walton’s illustration of this principle, “How was your home made?” Now obviously you can answer with a detailed description of the building process (scientific data); but you can also talk in terms of the events that lead you to buying the house or moving in (historical terms) or you can talk in terms of the story and comfort of your family living in the home (relational/story). Which of those three answers is correct– obviously, they all are and context will tell the audience which of the methods you are using. If we step outside our context it becomes more fuzzy which of these methods one is using, especially when the language changes.

When I look at the conversation which started this post, I see two groups of people both trying to cast Genesis 1 & 2 into the same categories as Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design or Yuval Noah Hari’s Sapiens which is a category mistake. I find the science interesting and a great exercise for my mind, but I am not qualified to comment on what aspects of science are true or not. Consequently, I am not able to judge if the Young Earth Creationist group have a scientific case. However, I do think they have the same issues as the antagonist on the page, both seem to want to force Genesis into their own understanding of the origins of the universe without bothering to ask whether or not it is telling the story in the same way. It is allowable to say Genesis is not telling the story you want to hear, but before challenging the consistency of the document, ask if you are looking for the right story. Listening to Genesis’ story takes real effort but if we do that we are rewarded with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the cosmos.

For more on how to read Genesis 1 & 2 try:

John Walton The Lost World of Genesis One, The Lost World of Adam and Eve

Peter Ens The Evolution of Adam

2 thoughts on “The Difficulty with Genesis

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  1. Personally, I don’t see why anyone would need any advice on “how to read Genesis” or any mythology for that matter. Yes, there are two accounts of things, a number of things in fact, and they are obvious to anyone actually reading Genesis. This occurs in other books as well, they are called doublets and they probably occurred when the book was being redacted, edited, “sewn together” as it were. Then it makes much more sense in terms of how it ended up in its present form. Richard Eliot Friedman’s book “Who Wrote The Bible” provides excellent insight as to the work that went into what became the Hebrew Bible. Trying to encourage people to read “modern” editions only serves to further obfuscate the “truth” behind the book; it must be read in its original language, in its original time. Part of the reasons we have all the difficulty interpreting scripture is mainly because it has been edited, translated, copied, miscopied so very many times, usually to serve some preconceived idea of what it should say, or mean, etc. by interested parties.

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    1. I agree with this but I do want to clarify I am encouraging people to read modern discussions on Genesis and though I think modern translations are good for helping people respond to the text, yes understanding the original language provides the best insights. I do want to push back that editing is behind the tensions in the text. While this kind of form criticism has its place, I find that especially in Genesis 1 & 2 the appeal to redaction comes from a modern reader trying to push the text into modern categories. I do not mean to rule out an editor, I simply want to point out that I think there is more to the relationship between Genesis 1 & 2 than simply an editor shoehorned to mythologies together. Friedman is good but I tend to find more narrative approaches more persuasive than source critical approaches.

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