In this video “Conversation,” Pete Enns addresses some assumptions about ancient readers and writers that are relevant to the way we should read Genesis in the 21st century.
One such assumption, says Enns, is that ancient people share the same view of the cosmos as do we. This is a flawed assumption, however, because ancient peoples did not think about outer space in quite the same way. Perhaps they imagined levels of heaven or subscribed to the notion of a three-tiered universe, but their scientific understanding of the universe was limited—and perhaps irrelevant to what they expected of biblical texts.
If we think that the biblical authors think about those things the same way, notes Enns, it may actually create an impediment for having a high view of the Bible. “Ironically a high view of the Bible is one that recognizes its lowliness—it is a positive thing to keep in mind that God is not afraid to speak in ways that people understand,” he says.
Another mistaken assumption may be the degree to which ancient authors think about writing history. Ancient “historians” did not follow the same models of documentation like contemporary historians. Perhaps the best way to illustrate that is to look at the New Testament. In the Gospels, there are four stories about Jesus that do not say the same thing about the same things. Yet, says Enns, “that seems to be okay for God to do that.” As such, our pressure is not to make these texts say the same things. “In antiquity, that’s how you get a full picture of someone—by giving different portraits,” he concludes.
Enns’ remarks echo those of theologian John Calvin, who argued in his Institutes that God must condescend to us in order for us to understand his message. He writes,
For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in
so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little
children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much
express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the
knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of
course, stoop far below his proper height.