Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters

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September 28, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters

Introduction

Genesis and the creation stories have been read, discussed, thought about, pondered over, debated, and written about since well before the time of Jesus. Much of my graduate study was focused on the literature of this time period and how these authors interpreted the Bible. These early biblical interpreters began to flourish sometime after the return from Babylonian exile and into the first century A.D.

I have learned two things from studying early biblical interpretation. First, many question that comes up in the modern study of the Old Testament were already anticipated in some form by very astute ancient readers. We sometimes think that modern liberal German scholars were the first to see, for example, tensions and contradictions in Genesis. That is not true. Ancient Jewish readers also took note of such things.

Second, and related to the first, I was stunned by how carefully these ancient interpreters read the Bible. Their attention to detail is humbling. I quickly realized that, despite my years of regular Bible reading, I had never in my life paid that close attention to the actual words on the page as these ancient interpreters. It was actually inspiring to me to see how their respect for the text—and God—drove them to pay such close attention to every detail.

I would like to begin this week looking at the kinds of questions that the creation stories of Genesis raised in the minds of early interpreters and how they were handled. This will show, first of all, that a close, faithful reading of Genesis actually raises interpretive questions—then as it does now.

Genesis requires explanation. It takes work to understand Genesis, in part because what the texts say, and as importantly what they don’t say. And early interpreters wasted no time rolling up their sleeves and digging in.

Second, by watching ancient interpreters at work, we will see that evangelicals today may have something to learn from them. Perhaps the explanations themselves will not always sound convincing—I certainly don’t adopt them all. But to consider the approach of ancient interpreters will model for us what it means to read closely and carefully. More often then not, when I read the work of ancient interpreters, I come away thinking “I never noticed that before, but there it is, plain as day.”

There truly is nothing new under the sun, as one biblical author famously puts it (Ecclesiastes 1:9). We are not isolated but stand at the end of a long line of interpreters that extends back about 2,500 years. It is good to get to know them a bit.

Genesis 1:1

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” You might think this is pretty straightforward, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

Thanks to the creation texts now known to us from other Mesopotamian cultures, readers today understand that “in the beginning” probably does not mean “at the very outset”—where there was first “nothing” and then God brought all things into being from nothing. (For example, see John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, where he argues that Genesis 1 refers not to the origins of the material universe, but to how those pre-existing materials are now designed to function by God.) Today, most scholars translate Genesis 1:1 “When God began creating” or something like that.

Ancient interpreters were also drawn to the first words of the Bible, but for different reasons. They knew nothing of these other ancient Mesopotamian stories. Instead they felt that, even if left to itself, the phrase “in the beginning” requires some explanation.

Some ancient interpreters felt that Genesis 1:1 couldn’t actually be about the beginning: God must have been creating even before, which is what several other passages in the Old Testament suggest.

One example is Proverbs 8, especially verses 22-31. There we read that Wisdom was the first of God’s works (v. 22) that God brought forth before the world began—before oceans, springs, mountains, hills, earth, fields, or dust (vv. 23-26). In fact,

I [Wisdom] was there when he set the heavens in place,
When he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
When he established the clouds above
And fixed securely the fountains of the deep… (vv. 27-28).

The passage continues like this for a few more verses. In Proverbs, Wisdom is a personified female figure. Genesis doesn’t talk about any of this, which gave a number of ancient interpreters pause to wonder whether Genesis 1:1 really tells the whole story.

Hence, we read the following:

One of our ancestors, Solomon [the assumed author of Proverbs], said more clearly and better that wisdom existed before heaven and earth, which agrees with what has been said [by Greek philosophers].

Wisdom existed before Genesis 1:1. Note also this author’s concern to help align the Bible with current thinking at the time. Such an effort is not simply a modern issue but has been with us for a long, long time.

Another ancient interpreter, Philo of Alexandria (about 20 B.C. to A.D. 50), writes, “Wisdom is older than the creation…of the whole universe” (On the Virtues, 62).

For these and other ancient interpreters, despite what “in the beginning” seems to mean when taken on its own, the Bible itself forces one to reconsider. The “plain meaning” of this text was hardly plain to them at all.

For us today, here is a thought to ponder. We may not agree with how these interpreters handled Proverbs 8, but how should we handle it?

We continue our look at Genesis 1:1 next week.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Rich - #32428

September 28th 2010

Pete:

No argument concerning the explanation for the origin of the angels.

When you say that wisdom is “the first of God’s creation according to Israel’s wisdom tradition,”
could you be more specific.  I’m interested in the actual Hebrew words used for how wisdom comes to be.  Does God “bara’” wisdom, for example?  Or does he only “‘asah” it?  Or does he “yatzar” it?  Or is it “born”?  Or does it simply “come to be”?  The vocabulary makes a theological difference—not to the overall argument of your article, I know, but a difference all the same.  At stake is whether or not wisdom is uncreated.  If it’s uncreated, it does not have the same ontological status as heavens, earth, animals, or man.  Even if it’s “emanated” from God, it has a different ontological status than created things.  I realize this is a side issue, but if you know some sources from the Bible or the rabbinic writings, let me have them, and I’ll drop the discussion here and read up on it.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #32430

September 28th 2010

Pete Enns wrote:

Roger,

Jesus is a sage in the spirit of Hebrew and ANE wisdom figures. Among other things, we see this in his telling of parables (a wisdom activity), his contrasting of wise and foolish (e.g., ten virgins), and his delightful ability to confound the Pharisees within about two sentences. The word wisdom is not all over the NT, but the idea is.

Pete,

Like all analogies, my opposing wisdom and the Spirit has its limits.  Wisdom is not bad, but at times it is the good acting as the enemy of the better. 

Let me try to put it this way.  Solomon asked for wisdom to rule God’s people rightly, and God granted his wise wish.  This wisdom is understanding God’s covenant with God’s people and administering it properly.  Solomon apparently forgot the First and Second Commandments.  Instead Ecclesiastes is Speculation claiming that life is without meaning.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #32431

September 28th 2010

Part 2,

The Logos, not Wisdom, is the source of the structure, Meaning, and Purpose of Reality.  Jesus is coupled with Moses, the Lawgiver, and Elijah, the Prophet, never Solomon.  Jesus was also a Rabbi in the style of the Pharisees, so He was able to counter them using logic and Biblical arguments.  God spoke in parables through the prophets. 

Jesus came to bring Salvation, not knowledge.  His wisdom was putting first things first, not speculation about the nature of reality, such as philosophy.


Pete Enns - #32432

September 28th 2010

Rich,

Some of this involves an interesting lexical discussion, and basically the culprit is Prov 8:22, where wisdom is “brought forth” (qnh) as the first of God’s works. The root can also mean “possess” or perhaps even “beget” (which is a Christian favorite since it strengthens the connection between Christ and Wisdom). Birthing has some support in Gen 4:1 with the birth of Cain (derived from qnh), and create has precedent in Gen 14:19 and 22.

But in all this, the main point is not so much how we might solve this issue today. Personally, I feel that the personification of wisdom in Prov. 8 is metaphorical, and the litany that follows in vv. 23-31 establish wisdom’s “closeness” to God—she is “before” everything else—and this simply serves to set up vv. 32-36 where, based on wisdom’s pre-creation origin, she is worthy of the closest attention. That is the point of Prov. 8 and it sets up the entire book in my opinion.


Pete Enns - #32433

September 28th 2010

But regardless of how we might approach this today, my main point in this and subsequent posts is to observe what ancient interpreters noticed about Genesis and how they cleverly addressed it. Some of their conclusions will sound better to us than others, but hopefully we will all see the value of our own hermeneutical self-consciousness.


conrad - #32443

September 28th 2010

Well the ancient interpreters did not know about singularities.
So a “universe without form” got some other interpretation.
Now I think it is proper for us to review the ancient text for better fits with REALITY,... AS WE NOW KNOW IT.


Untitled Vanity Project - #32671

September 30th 2010

LOL so the point you are making is that people have been seeing issues with the genesis mess from day one?  Well taken!

Everyone should join me in celebrating Blasphemy Day over at Untitled Vanity Project, I’ll be doing Blasphemy themed posts all day long!

~Rhaco


Pete Enns - #32756

October 1st 2010

UVP,

You may have missed the point. Ancient interpreters weren’t bothered by this “mess” but saw God in the process of interpretation. They were not franticly trying to clean things up, as, say, modern fundamentalists do. They did not think that the “mess” somehow disproved God or something like that. You seem to suggest that your first paragraph flows into the next, but this is certainly shortsighted.


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