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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Before Creation

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November 2, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Before Creation

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

Over the past few weeks we have seen some examples of how ancient interpreters read Genesis. They were very “active” readers; they would dialogue with the text, ask it questions, and seek clarification. They would ask questions like “Why doesn’t Genesis talk about the creation of angels?” or “Why doesn’t Genesis mention Wisdom’s role like we see in Proverbs?”

These kinds of questions were not threatening to ancient interpreters. Quite the opposite: instead they thought of them as invitations by God to engage the text more carefully.

To remind our readers, I would like to review why these ancient interpreters are worth taking the time to look at.

  1. Ancient interpreters regularly pick up on real interpretive problems and challenges in the biblical text that tend to pass us by. We benefit from their close reading by becoming close readers ourselves.

  2. Paying attention to the interpretive challenges of Genesis corrects the notion that the meaning of the creation story is “obvious” and that debates over what it means is nothing or than making obscure what is plain.

In other words, watching ancient interpreters helps us read more closely and to do so more humbly. It hopefully opens up conversations about what the Bible is saying rather than closing them down.

This week we continue looking at Genesis 1 from an ancient point of view. An issue that has long attracted attention is whether anything already existed before the creation of the world. Again, from a modern point of view, knowing what we know about creation stories from ancient Mesopotamia, Genesis 1 is a story of ordering chaos, which is depicted in Genesis 1:2 as a dark, watery mass. There was “something” there where God began forming the cosmos in Genesis 1.

Don’t get sidetracked on this point. Ancient Jewish interpreters could not have been expected to pick up on this specific point. But they were still wondering whether there was anything around before the vents described in Genesis 1. Many seemed to think there was.

For example, things like Torah and the Temple—those central elements of Israelite and later Jewish identity—were surely not merely “creations” like everything else. Law and worship existed somehow before mundane things like mountains and beasts of the field.

This “had” to be so, as early interpreters picked up on some passages in the Old Testament that helped them establish their case.

For example, Psalm 11:4 speaks of Yahweh’s “holy temple” in heaven. In fact, according to Exodus 25:9, the tabernacle (the moveable precursor to the Temple) was to be made according to the “pattern” that God would show Moses. The conclusion to be drawn is that there is a Temple up there somewhere, a Temple that is not mentioned among the creative acts of God in Genesis 1 because it existed beforehand.

Hence, you had ancient interpreters making explicit what is implicit. The Wisdom of Solomon, a book we have met already in previous weeks, refers to the tabernacle as a “copy” of what God had prepared “from the beginning” (9:8), before God made Paradise (according to 2 Baruch 4:3).

Even though Genesis makes no mention of such a heavenly, pre-existent Temple/tabernacle, early interpreters picked up on other biblical clues such as Psalm 11:4 and Exodus 25:9, which speak of a heavenly sanctuary and concluded that it was a preexistent sanctuary.

Some early interpreters even thought the Garden of Eden existed before the world’s creation. As with the sanctuary, the reason for drawing this conclusion seems to be a verse in the Old Testament, but this time it seems to be based on a misunderstanding of a verse.

Genesis 2:8 says that God planted a garden in Eden miqqedem. That is the Hebrew phrase, and it is normally (and correctly) understood today as “in the east.” The Greek Septuagint, Philo, and Josephus took it that way, too. However, one possible meaning of this phrase is “of old,” which is how other interpreters took it, for example one of the Targums (Aramaic translations) and the Vulgate, and so translated the verse something like “a garden in Eden previously” or “from the beginning.” This led other interpreters to make more explicit comments, that the garden was planted “before the earth appeared” (2 Esdras 3:6), or “2000 years before the world was created” (Targum Neophyti to Genesis 3:24).

It all came down to a verse that was misunderstood.

Another type of example concerns the Law of Moses, the Torah. God gave the law to Moses, but surely something so central to Israel was not an afterthought. Rather, it was a reflection of God’s will—his character—and so to know the law was to know the mind of God. Hence, some reasoned that it was in God’s mind long before, even before the creation of the world.

The Bible does not actually say that the Law of Moses preexisted creation, but one can see why early Jewish interpreters would have thought it to be important. So, the second century B.C. apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus handles it this way: that author equates Wisdom, which existed before creation according to Proverbs 8, with “the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us” (Ecclesiasticus 24:23). In other words, law is a form of wisdom, and so is preexistent. Similarly the first century Jewish philosopher Philo equated the word by which God created in Genesis 1 with Torah.

What these examples show at the very least is that the story told in Genesis 1 was not considered a complete story that accounted for all there is. There were gaps that needed to be filled. Things that were important to faithful Jews—like law, sanctuary, not to mention wisdom and angels (which we have looked at in previous posts)—are not mentioned but still need to be accounted for somehow, whether as part of creation (as with angels) or prior to creation (law, sanctuary, and Eden). These were questions ancient interpreters were asking, and they searched for answers in scripture.

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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Adam - #38107

November 2nd 2010

The best description of this that I have heard is that this is a telelogical narrartive. The ancients had an “ontology” (philisophy of what it means for something to exist) that was functional, not material. Our ontology of the comosos is that it exists because it has material substance. To the ancients, the comosos existed because it had function and meaning (telelogy is the philosophical study of meaning and purpose, which derive from function and not material substance). The “firmament” (the solid dome in the sky that kept the “waters above” from flooding the Earth existed because it had function (the Earth didn’t flood, except for that one time anyway). Though they thought of it as solid, it existed because its function was known to exist, not because its material substance was known to exists. In a functional ontology, things exist because they have purpose, thus they come into existence because they are given purpose (they are given purpose by being given form and function), not because they are given material substance. When God “seperates light from darkness” this makes no sense if we look at it from a material standpoint, but it does if we look at it from a functional standpoint.

Jeff - #38112

November 2nd 2010

I would add a third reason why ancient observers are worth reading - or perhaps an addendum that speaks more broadly than those two reasons listed above:

It takes us out of our own culturally informed/dominated perspectives. Even those of us who disagree strongly with one another are more on the same page in our interpretive assumptions than we often think, as C.S. Lewis has noted. So, aside from the specific questions and potential correctives that the ancients may offer, they help us look more objectively at our own cultural prejudices - even if we were to ultimately reject their particular conclusions about a text.

Pete Enns - #38119

November 2nd 2010

Adam, that sounds like John Walton, right? Which is good

Jeff, I appreciate what you are saying and I agree—and I was sort of getting at that embedded in the two reasons I gave—but you are more explicit. An analogy in my life is when I taught seminary with students from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. The questions they asked of the text and the answers they found there were sometimes jarring for me, but I could see the problem was more with me than with them. In fact, I came to think of it as a real shame when other cultural perspectives came to be “tamed” to western academic ways of knowing.

Dennis Venema - #38125

November 2nd 2010

What I find encouraging about this is that it shows that every culture, time and place has had its struggles with scripture - why doesn’t it explicitly address what I want it to address? Why is it apparently silent on questions of great importance for my culture?

In other words, this is nothing new. Christians (and Jews before them) have been engaged in this sort of activity for a very, very long time.

Hopefully, like some before us, we can view this as an invitation to engage the text on its own terms, and not erect complex schemes to wedge what God was saying into a box that suits what we want it to say.

JKnott - #38139

November 2nd 2010


I see what you’re saying about a tendency to treat the Bible as if it is “clearer” on what we want it to say than it really is. In fact I don’t conceptualize the perspicacity of scripture as if it is something resident in the text itself. However, at some level we have to accept that God in Christ can speak through the text even to non-scholarly types. And in fact, there is often a tension between perspicacity of the text (in itself, really) and inerrancy. Take the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Attempts to harmonize them always tend to go away from understandability of the texts in themselves, because what they sure SEEM to be saying is contradictory. So I guess what I’m saying is don’t be too quick to confuse inerrancy with perspicacity, at least in all of their respective forms.

Pete Enns - #38141

November 2nd 2010


Did I say anything about inerrancy—or perspicuity—or scholarly vs. non-scholarly readings? I think we are on different wavelengths here.

Tim - #38143

November 2nd 2010

Dr. Enns,

This is a bit off-topic, but I think this ground has been tread over and over at Biologos concerning the historicity of the Genesis 1-3 account.  I think there is a broader hermeneutical issue at play here concerning a fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture.  I have read your book, Inspiration and Incarnation, and found it very valuable in laying out a more robust hermeneutic of scripture than what I was familiar with as a prior fundamentalist.  But I still felt your wrestling with Biblical issues centered on some relatively “tame” issues.  Right now, I’m wrestling with a few different questions: (1) is the ANE concept of “herem” responsible for the genocides in the conquest accounts? (2) is Daniel a combination of court tale and quasi-prophecy written (at least in part) in the 2nd century BC?  (3) is there theological inconsistency in the OT (thinking Job as a story rejecting prior OT teachings of reward and punishment as directly and firmly morally contingent in this lifetime) and NT (thinking of Johannine theology as contrasted with Matthean and Markan theology)?

Wow, OK that’s a lot I guess to answer.  But maybe something brief would help me out a lot in this journey Dr. Enns.  Thanks!

conrad - #38152

November 2nd 2010

Comment removed by moderator.

JKnott - #38180

November 3rd 2010


I’m sorry if I was off base. I certainly didn’t mean to come off as chiding you or anything.

What I was getting at was what I thought we would both see as the context in which your numbered point 2 above assumed:

2.Paying attention to the interpretive challenges of Genesis corrects the notion that the meaning of the creation story is “obvious” and that debates over what it means is nothing or than making obscure what is plain.

By “obvious” I assumed you were referring to the perspicacity issue. And in my experience at least this issue connects to the inerrancy one, doesn’t it?

Again, I didn’t mean to say you were wrong about anything but I simply hoped to put in my two cents worth on what may be lurking in the background for your readers as much as for you.

Pete Enns - #38186

November 3rd 2010


Ha Ha, now I feel like I was off base in my response   I don’t mind being chided or being wrong. I only meant to say—with all the lack of nuancing that is the hazard of internet dialogue—that I wasn’t getting how we were connecting. Now I get what you are saying.

Pete Enns - #38188

November 3rd 2010

Tim 38143

Well, you understand that each of these questions deserves a very long answer, but basically:

(1) Yes, the ANE context of annihilating one’s enemies is very much part of the cultural background for the biblical “herem” texts.

(2) What you state is the ubiquitous SCHOLARLY understanding of Daniel, which I happen to share, although you would certainly get various opinions from others.


Pete Enns - #38189

November 3rd 2010


(3) Job’s view of retribution (also Ecclesiastes) is normally understood as challenging what Proverbs (and Deuteronomy) says on the matter—although just what those books say is not all that simple to summarize. It may help to see Job/Eccl sort of like lament Psalms, which say “Yeah, I know how it’s “supposed” to work, but I don’t see it at all. In fact I see the opposite.” I think it is great having that dialogue in the Bible. To think of this (and other instances, like theological differences in the Gospels) as “inconsistencies” runs the risk of not listening to what these texts say, as if our first obligation is to remove the “inconsistency.” Our first obligation is to respect the text. For what it’s worth, A LOT has been written on the issue of theological diversity in the OT. I have a few pages on it in my book Inspiration and Incarnation. Also, google John Goldingay. He has a whole book on it.

Tim - #38222

November 3rd 2010

Thanks Dr. Enns for answering my questions!  That helps me out a lot

paul - #38285

November 3rd 2010

This is interesting, Pete, but all it shows is that people have always just made stuff up when it comes to “scripture.”

Every generation reinterprets the words based on their own cultural bias. There is no “correct” interpretation.

Dunemeister - #38472

November 4th 2010

@ paul - #38285

Really? They “just made stuff up”? That sounds rather condescending. Why not they “wrestled with”, “contended with”, or “took seriously” the text?

Besides, saying there is no “correct” interpretation is true but trivial. We as Christians hold that the text is penultimately authoritative for us. So I take a different lesson. The lesson seems to be that, because we hold to the penultimate authority of this text, we ought to respect it. This means, among other things, that we ought to notice what the text says and doesn’t say, and then ask the question “Why?” We ought to wrestle with the text on its own terms, but that will mean in turn utilizing and challenging our own biases (we can’t jettison them in any case). This will create the humility without which we cannot see God.

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