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From the Dust: The Book of Genesis

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July 6, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's video features Ryan Pettey. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Last week we debuted the first clip from the documentary “From the Dust”, directed by filmmaker Ryan Pettey. It is our sincere hope that, above all else, the film can become a focal point for some of the big questions that inevitably arise at the intersection of science and faith.

To help foster such dialogue, we are including several discussion questions with each clip from the film. In the transcript below, you’ll find several prompts that are meant to help viewers dig deeper into the material being presented. Mouse over each highlighted region and a question will appear on the side. We encourage you to watch this video with your friends, your church, your small groups and Sunday School classes, your pastors -- or anyone else for that matter – and take some time to discuss what is being said (and maybe even what isn’t). You may not all agree, but you will find yourselves engaged in fruitful and spirited conversation. And it is this kind of conversation that will help move the science and faith discussion forward. We have more discussion questions that go with this transcript and we'd be happy to send them to you to foster further conversation within your church or small group setting.

Editor's Note: The full documentary is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. You can order the film here, and learn more about the project here.

"The Book of Genesis" Transcript

Dr. Alister McGrath: “The Christian church has always wrestled with the interpretation of Scripture, realizing both how important it is and also sometimes how difficult it is to get it right. Certainly, the opening chapters of Genesis have been a topic of much debate throughout Christian history.”

Dr. John Polkinghorne: “The Bible is very important to me, but it is very important to recognize that the Bible is not a book. The Bible is a library. It has all sorts of different kinds of writing in it—It has histories, it has stories, it has poetry, it has prose. When we read Genesis one, we have to figure out, what am I reading? Am I reading a divinely dictated textbook to save me the trouble of doing science, or am I reading something, in fact, more interesting and profound than that?”

Dr. John Walton: “We have to approach Genesis 1 for what it is. It is an ancient document. It is not a document that was written to us—we believe the Bible was written for us like it is for everyone of all times and places because it is God’s Word—but it was not written to us. It was not written in our language. It was not written with our culture in mind or our culture in view.”

Dr. Alister McGrath: “It is not about the authority of Scripture, it is about the interpretation of Scripture. What method of interpretation do I use in the case of each individual passage?”

Dr. Karen Strand Winslow: “Biblical scholars urge people to take a literal, plain reading of the text…but I think in the controversy between theology and science, literal is often used to mean scientific, as if it is scientific, and that is a whole different story.”

Dr. John Walton: “We are inclined by our culture to think of the creation narrative as an account of material origins because we think about the world in material terms. For us, that is kind of what is important about origins. People come to Scripture thinking that they need to integrate it with science and so, they want to either read science out of the Bible or they want to read science into the Bible. That is not the way to do it because inevitably you end up making the text say things that it never meant to the ancient audience.”

Dr. Chris Tilling: “We are importing meaning into the text; we are bringing our own presuppositions and assumptions into a text and reading it in light of that as if it were in the text. Now, there is a sense in which we all inevitably do that, but there is also a sense in which we need to be aware when the times that we do that are damaging to the reading of the text.”

Dr. Nancey Murphy: “When I was a kid and the film industry was still relatively new, it was possible to depict people from two centuries ago as modern Americans dressed up in togas. As the film industry has gotten more sophisticated, they have gotten better and better at creating human figures that actually look and behave and think as they probably would have in the past. So, we Bible readers ought to be equally sophisticated and recognize that someone who was writing three thousand years ago, which is very hard to imagine, that these people must have been very different from us, with very different concerns. They certainly had very different understandings about how material things worked.”

Dr. Peter Enns: “One of the benefits of understanding the historical circumstances of the Bible is that we are reminded of how incredibly old this literature is. Let’s understand it in view of what we could even remotely expect of the Biblical writers to say.”

Dr. Nancey Murphy: “We can understand what our own creation stories are saying better, if we know what the creation myths were that were known at the times that those stories were written—for instance, to realize that a lot of the Genesis stories were written as a counter measure against the other cultures’ creation stories. That throws an immense amount of light on what parts of the story we are supposed to be paying attention to.”

Dr. Chris Tilling: “The Gilgamesh epic, for example, has a flood narrative and so forth, and so it wants to reflect creatively and theologically in light of those creation myths; it is going to be something recognizable.”

Dr. Peter Enns: “Genesis one shares theological vocabulary with the other stories—it just sort of takes things and turns it on its head.

Dr. Nancey Murphy: “If one creation myth talks about the earth being created as a result of the battle between gods, we know to look in our creation stories to say, ‘wait a minute! Is violence intrinsic to the very creation of the universe?’ We find very clearly written that no, it is not.”

Dr. Peter Enns: “It’s Israel’s declaration that Yahweh is worthy of worship. It is a potent and counter-intuitive theological statement in the ancient world where people say, ‘That is totally different from anything we have ever seen.’”

Dr. John Polkinghorne: “The stories of the ancient world were not so concerned with minute, literal accuracy as we are today. People wrote not to give you sort of a factual, journalistic account of what is going on, but to tell you the significance of what was happening.”

Dr. Ard Louis: “And so what we see is that there are these really interesting structures in the Genesis text, which suggest that it is not describing the creation process as this is the order in which it happened. Rather, it is taking that story and emphasizing theological points. It talks about days; there was morning, there was evening—but the sun and the moon are not created until the fourth day. So why, for example, did the writer of Genesis put the sun and the moon on the fourth day? It is a very strange thing to do, and it is not as if it is only moderns who realize ‘Oh dear! Something is wrong.’ People at any time of history would have realized that that was an unusual way of writing down a journalistic account. And, of course, the reason most likely is that people of that day worshipped the sun and the moon, and the Israelites were always being drawn away that way, and the people around them were doing that. And so, what the writer was saying is, ‘no, I am going to demote these things to the fourth day. They are not the first thing to be created; they are something to be created somewhat later.’”

Bishop N.T. Wright: “This is simply the sort of language that people use to refer to concrete events, but to invest those events with their theological significance.”

Dr. John Walton: “We are well aware that people have to translate the language for us. We forget that people have to translate the culture for us, and therefore, if we want to get the best benefit from the communication, we need to try to enter their world, hear it as the audience would have heard it, as the author would have meant it, and to read it in those terms.”

Bishop N.T. Wright: “There is a distinction which is there in Scripture between heaven and earth. But the thing about heaven and earth is that they are supposed to overlap, and have an interesting, interlocking, interplay with one another. They are never supposed to be far apart.”

Dr. John Walton: “In the ancient world, they didn’t have a line between supernatural and natural. God was in everything. You couldn’t talk about God intervening because you can’t intervene in something you are doing—and to them, God was doing it all. That kind of functional aspect was very important to them.”

Bishop N.T. Wright: “In Genesis, God makes heavens and earth, and it appears that humans are in the world, but God is around as well because the heavens and earth have not split apart.”

Dr. John Walton: “The temple and the cosmos were all blended into one. If we used a modern metaphor it would almost be like the temple was the oval office. It is kind of where all the business is done, where all the work is run. It is the hub of activity and control, and when Deity took up his rest in the temple, it wasn’t for leisure or relaxation…it was to settle down to the work now that everything is set up and ready to go.”

Bishop N. T. Wright: “Telling a story about somebody who constructs something in six days, it is a temple story. It is about God making a place for himself to dwell…and this is heaven and earth. What you do with that is, the last thing is you put an image of this God into the temple. Suddenly, instead of Genesis one being about ‘were there six days or were there five or were there seven or were there twenty-four hours…,’ it is actually about when the good Creator God made the world, he made heaven and earth as the space in which he himself was going to dwell and put in humans into that construct as a way of both reflecting his own love into the world and drawing out the praise and glory from the world, back to himself. That is the literal meaning of Genesis. To flatten that out into, ‘this is simply telling us that the world was made in six days’ is almost perversely to avoid the real thrust of the narrative.”

Michael Ramsden: “If this is an inspired book, if this really is, you know, something where God is revealed and can speak through it, it shouldn’t surprise us that we find multiple layers of depth.”

Bishop N.T. Wright: “Genesis is one of those books like a Shakespeare play or like a Beethoven symphony or something where you can describe what it sort of literally says. Here is a Beethoven symphony; here are the notes, ‘Duh, duh, duh, duh.’ Then, you think, ‘well, that doesn’t actually catch what is going on in this’, and you want to use bigger language about the opening of Beethoven’s first symphony. This is an amazing statement about the power of empire and the fate of man…and goodness knows what! You still have got to play the notes. This world was made to be God’s abode, God’s home, God’s dwelling place. He shared it with us, and now he wants to rescue it and redeem it. We have to read Genesis for all it is worth. To say, either history or myth is a way of saying, ‘I am not going to study this text for what it is worth. I am just going to flatten it out so that it conforms to the cultural questions that my culture today is telling me to ask…and I think that is a form of actually being unfaithful to the text itself.”

Dr. John Walton: “The account in Genesis one is not intended to be an account of material origins. If that is so, then the Bible has no narrative of material origins, and if that is so, we don’t have to defend the Bible’s narrative of material origins against a scientific narrative because the Bible does not offer one. We can let the text be what it is and take it for what it is. That is the most literal reading that you could have.”

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Ryan Pettey is a filmmaker and the director/editor of Satellite Pictures. He produced the feature length video From the Dust, which examines the question of human physical origins from a theological, historical and social perspective.

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Norman - #63129

July 6th 2011

There’s an old adage that says … “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”.

These are all very good insights from very learned scholars but they are talking above the common man’s head in most respects. There is overconfidence within the fundamentalist minded church that one should be able to rightly discern Genesis without the help of scholarly input. Therein lays the battle between those who study deeply and those who expect they are already enlightened. People need to understand the culture and theological intent of the ancients who wrote these pieces of literature but they do not necessarily want to invest the time into the investigation. It will take generations for our culture to become more in tune with this appreciation.

Darrel F - #63132

July 6th 2011

Remember, Norm, that Jesus spoke in parables that conveyed deep truths in ways that could be understood and loved by children.

The problem, as I see it, is not that this is way over the heads of most people.  The truths are simple, even though it is taking great minds to help us appreciate the beauty of that simplicity.

Norman - #63135

July 6th 2011

Dr. Falk,

Indeed the subject matter is comprehensible concepts that should not intimidate. However there should also be recognition that the information is vast in scope and we as a culture are still amateurs in this investigation.

Christ spoke in parables and yet opined that not all would avail themselves of His simple inferences. There is then soberness in recognizing the reality of our times [or any for that matter] in regards to difficult biblical concepts that just do not lend themselves to simple evaluations. If the faithful are culturally inclined to listen to those who have paved the way, then knowledge is easier to disperse and collectively awareness increases exponentially.

Having stated the guarded observation just means that one simply needs to roll up the sleeves and continue to press forward. I’m not about giving up on the overriding great idea in any shape or form but just want to be realistic with what lays ahead.

theothinker - #63133

July 6th 2011

I like how John Walton put it once.  He said something to the affect that as we need Hebrew and Greek scholars to translate the text for everybody, likewise we need ANE scholars to translate the ancient culture for everybody.  In order to understand the Scriptures we need both.  

I think if we can accept the need for scholars to “translate” in one area, we should be able to accept the need for scholars to help in other areas.  As long as the translations are not held private to a scholarly few, but accesible to everyone, then it seems that understanding what the Bible is saying is open to all.
theothinker - #63134

July 6th 2011

Just realized he said it in this video too!  I still like it.

Jon Garvey - #63130

July 6th 2011

EM>You couldn’t talk about God intervening because you can’t intervene in something you are doing

The side note asks how ID supporters would respond to this. I imagine some of them would say that, for example, introducing information into creation was how he was doing it, not how he was intervening in it.

Walton is pointing out, after all, the false dichotomy between “natural” and “supernatural”. The Bible would therefore apply this false dichotomy to methodological naturalism as much as to the God of the Gaps. It speaks in the same terms of God raising the poor from the dust, feeding the ravens, deciding the cast of the lot, delivering Israel from Egypt with a powerful hand, knitting the embryo together in the womb, defeating his enemies, giving his law, etc etc.

The universal truth in all these is that God has a purpose and fulfils it unopposed. To restate the margin’s question, what implications does this have for supporters of random mutation and/or natural selection?

R Hampton - #63136

July 6th 2011

“The universal truth in all these is that God has a purpose and fulfils
it unopposed. To restate the margin’s question, what implications does
this have for supporters of random mutation and/or natural selection?”

If I were to roll an eleven on a pair of dice, I could neither prove nor disprove God’s involvement in the outcome. It’s a question of belief. So it can not be claimed that randomness & nature can be empirically determined to be either purposeful or purposeless. Thus Atheists and Creationists/IDers go beyond the bounds of evidence to make such claims.

Jon Garvey - #63152

July 7th 2011

Walton, of course, was not pointing to empirical evidence, but to the worldview inherent in the Bible. In other words, their belief. The marginal note was appealing to the same, to the intent: “If this is indeed what Bible writers thought, what implications does this have for ID supporters who wish to adopt a Biblical worldview?”

The context of my final paragraph is therefore the same, and hasn’t been answered: “If this is indeed what Bible writers thought, what implications does this have for supporters of random mutation and/or natural selection who wish to adopt a Biblical worldview?”

KevinR - #63143

July 7th 2011

Dr Walton makes the strangest of statements, here:

“The account in Genesis one is not intended to be an account of material origins”

In reading Genesis 1, the overwhelming sense is that of things being materialized! So where or how does he get to this kind of conclusion? Does he have secret knowledge that we do not have access to?

Is he Gnostic?

Norman - #63144

July 7th 2011

Here is his Secret.

He studied, researched and wrote a book so that others may also have the opportunity to understand the concepts better. In other words he has done much of the leg work for you and made it easily accessible to also get up to speed on ancient literature.

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate


theothinker - #63148

July 7th 2011

I second Norman’s comment.  The book he mentions unpacks that one sentence he gave in the video.  After reading the book, his argument is compelling.

TruthSeeker - #63161

July 7th 2011

Hi Kevin,
I think the key here is that there is no account of material origins. In other words, Genesis 1 seeks to reveal the truth that the physical world was brought forth by God, but Walton’s point is that Genesis 1 is not describing how that scientifically happened.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #63146

July 7th 2011

R. Hampton wrote:

I style=“mso-bidi-font-style: normal”>If I were to roll an eleven on a pair of dice, I could neither prove nor disprove God’s involvement in the outcome. It’s a question of belief. So it can not be claimed that randomness & nature can be empirically determined to be either purposeful or purposeless. Thus Atheists and Creationists/IDers go beyond the bounds of evidence to make such claims.

SPAN style=“mso-ansi-language: EN” lang=EN>R, are you saying that empirically an acorn is not produced in order to grow a new oak tree?  Are you saying that the purpose of my lungs is not to breathe and the purpose of my heart is not to circulate blood throughout my body?  If so this empirical world that you live in must be some strange world.

SPAN style=“mso-ansi-language: EN” lang=EN>You are repeating the bogus ideas of the Gospel according to Jacques Monod, which sound good if one is looking for a “rational, scientific” basis for atheistic materialism, but do not hold water under close “objective” scrutiny. 

SPAN style=“mso-ansi-language: EN” lang=EN>Empirical means by observation or experimentation.  Monod’s ideas are not based on either, but the idea that nature cannot think and therefore is not rational or has no purpose.  Because he deliberately rules out the possibility of God as the Creator and Provider of rational order and purpose to nature, he comes to the conclusion that nature and the universe have no rational order or purpose.  He specifically rules out the empirical experience of humanity that indicates that life has rational order and meaning in favor of his materialistic, atheistic point of view.

SPAN style=“mso-ansi-language: EN” lang=EN>To whom it may concern, please fix the system.


Jon Garvey - #63153

July 7th 2011

The correct phraseology, Roger, is that your heart and lungs happen confer a selective advantage…

I remember my haematology tutor back at Med School, who was always aplogising for speaking teleologically. I’ve forgotten most of the haematology, but I’ll never forget, “Of course, one shouldn’t speak teleologically, but…”

You have to sympathise with her - I challenge anyone to teach the cascade system of blood clotting without alluding to purpose. In fact, I’m don’t think there’s be anything about it worth teaching.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #63167

July 7th 2011

FONT face=Calibri>Jon,

Thank you for your comment.  People like to poke fun at PC, politically correct.  It looks like we have a problem with SC, scientifically correct or IC, ideologically correct.  It is sad when intelligent people are forced to conform to as artificial system that is clearly phony. 

Have you read Monad’s book?  Even the person who wrote the preface in the English paperback edition pointed out the problem with his ideas which Monod never resolved.  Monod clearly says that he was a Marxist atheist as well as a scientist who lost faith with Marxism so is looking around for some new ideology to replace it to support his atheism.  He proposes to build his socialist utopia on the ethics of knowledge, whatever that means.  He rejects religion as animism.   

 I sure hope our heart and lungs give us an evolutionary advantage, so we can live.  I am sure you have picked up on the circular thinking.  Live forms survive because they are fit.  They are deemed fit because they survive and reproduce. 

But of course why do we need an evolutionary advantage?  So we can better adapt to our environment.  One can see why Dawkins rejects the Why Question.   

Charlie - #63183

July 8th 2011

After watching this video and considering the implications of the assertions of the men and women in this video, I am reminded again of the incredible mishandling of Scripture that can occur in so-called scholarly circles. The foundation of this video and the people in it is that the ‘meaning’ of Scripture is above the actual ‘reading’ of it. That is, we can assign the meaning of the text from outside of the text itself. The comments of Drs. Louis and Murphy demonstrate this misunderstanding. If Scripture declares itself to be absolute truth, then the Scripture itself cannot be scrutinized nor interpreted by other accounts, whether of creation or of history itself. Scripture is right and true and, in fact, the only accurate account of creation in existence, i.e. God created everything in existence from no previous substance by His command in six 24-hour days (Hebrews 11:3). The Babylonian tradition and other accounts are the ones that need emendation, not the Scripture. And in contrast to Dr. McGrath, it is an authority issue. Understanding and believing the authority of Scripture directs the interpretation of Scripture. Jesus said that the Law of Moses will be used to judge the Pharisees in the day of judgment (John 5:45). That sounds pretty authoritative to me.  Our submission to, and trembling at, Scripture as God’s very Word is what God desires (Isaiah 66:1-2).

Cal - #63186

July 8th 2011

You missed the point completely.

When one learns to read, one has to learn nuances of language. Sometimes it is poetic, sometimes it is prosaic. You can’t understand a text unless you know who it was adressed to, what the culture is like, and what the language is like. To understand the power of an account or why a certain phrase was used, one must understand the culture. You can’t abstract texts, it misses the purpose.

dcarollo - #63194

July 9th 2011

The Bible you read today (unless you’re reading the earliest Greek copies in the Chester Beatty Library) is largely a product of “scholars”.  Most who understand the translations from Hebrew > Greek > English is not always straightforward.   But even when reading a modern translation—it is STILL possible to get the main point.  (For example:  The point of Exodus 20:11 is to “keep the Sabbath”,  not a lesson in cosmological origins).    

Charlie - #63242

July 11th 2011

The example you give is a good example of the issue at hand. In Exodus 20:11, the command to Israel from God through the prophet Moses was to “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” That is, Israel was to recall that last day in the creation week at the end of their own weeks, recall all the significance of it, and maintain its distinction, or “holy” status (which God Himself declared), as a matter of regulation for the nation. Which command, by the way, would be impossible if God did not, in fact, create everything in six 24-hour days. But notice the conjunction, “for”. This little word tells us why Moses included the reference to the creation week in this command. It was precisely because God created the world and all it inhabitants in six days and rested on the seventh day, that Israel was also supposed to work six days and rest on the seventh as a pattern after God Himself. Thus, the theology of the Sabbath derives from the text, and is not imposed upon the text, or derived from ignoring portions of the text. As to being a lesson of cosmological origins, does it not refer to those origins? Does it affirm or deny a six day creation? Does it affirm millions of years of evolution? Does it support a straightforward reading of Genesis 1-2? It is clearly a reference to the fact of six days of creation “work” by God so that He then rested on the seventh day. If it is not a lesson on cosmological origins, then what is it? The main instruction is to “remember the Sabbath”, that is true, but it is also true that the importance of remembering the Sabbath is based upon God’s work pattern as exampled and thus becomes an integral component in the meaning of this text. I would recommend that people in this forum read very carefully Dr. Robert Thomas’ book entitled Evangelical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids:Kregel, 2002).

Cal - #63322

July 14th 2011

The Israelites did not know what an hour was, they kept time by the sun rising and the sun setting. If a “day” was this cycle of time, and there was no sun or moon until the 4th day, then what is Moses talking about? Unless God told Moses some otherwise unintellgible gibberish about hours and minutes etc. that would only be understood hundred and hundreds of years later.

G8torBrent - #63323

July 14th 2011

“clearly” “the fact of six days of creation work”.

I would suggest it is only “clear” to you based on your presuppositions about how to interpret the text, not based on the sort of scientific data that leads us to declare one thing and not another “fact.”
It is all the more likely that since the text in question (Genesis) wasn’t meant to be taken as a historical/chronological account of material origins (based on some of the observations pointed out in the video, like the presence of night and day preceding the creation of the sun and moon; and based on differing orders of the two creation accounts) that there is a greater meaning about life we are to take from it. Like perhaps, how work is godly, but all-consuming work is idolatry. Denying the addiction to toil and prosper is tantamount to forcing ourselves to focus completely on God.
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