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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters, Part 2

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October 5, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters, Part 2

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

We saw last week that wisdom was represented as a woman in Proverbs. (We looked at Proverbs 8:22-31, but you can see it almost anywhere in Proverbs 1-9.) This is called “personification,” i.e., when human traits are given to something abstract to make it seem more concrete. We do this today, for example by referring to death as the Grim Reaper.

Ancient Israelites, as well as other ancient cultures, personified the concept of wisdom. (When personified, Wisdom is normally written with an upper case W to distinguish it from wisdom the concept.) Since wisdom was also an important attribute of God, this personified Wisdom came to be associated very closely with God himself. Not only was Wisdom there early on with God, the first of his works (Proverbs 8:22), but also some early interpreters assigned a superior, more God-like role to Wisdom.

Wisdom is Creator

For some early interpreters, Wisdom was not just the first of God’s works, but actually involved somehow in the act of creation. That is one way of handling the absence of any reference to Wisdom along with the other created things in Genesis 1. She was creating right along with God.

For example, the Jewish philosopher and biblical interpreter Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. to A.D. 50) writes,

And who is to be considered the daughter of God but Wisdom, who is the firstborn mother of all things (Questions in Genesis 4:97).

Wisdom is firstborn, similar to what we see in Proverbs 8:22, but she is also the mother of all things. Wisdom has a creative role.

Some interpreters found a clever way of “seeing” Wisdom in Genesis 1:1, by associating her with the word “beginning.” Remember that in Proverbs 8:22 God made Wisdom “the beginning of his works.” “Beginning” is the same Hebrew word in Genesis 1:1. Some early interpreters saw this as a “hook” to bring the Wisdom of Proverbs 8 into Genesis 1:1.

This move is seen in two Targums to Genesis 1:1:

With wisdom did God create and perfect the heavens and the earth (Fragment Targum to Genesis 1:1)

In the beginning with wisdom did God create (Targum Neophyti to Genesis 1:1)

It is not clear whether wisdom is personified in these Targums, but that is neither here not there. In the minds of these interpreters, there was a need to see wisdom in Genesis 1 but not as a created being. “Beginning” is the hook that allows it.

Philo, never one to shy away from creative interpretations, went a little further. He said that “beginning” was one of Wisdom’s names.

By using different names for it, Moses indicates that the exalted, heavenly wisdom has many names: he calls it “beginning,” “image,” and “appearance of God.” (Allegorical Interpretations 1:43)

Other ancient interpreters went further and equated God and Wisdom: to speak of one is to speak of the other. The Wisdom of Solomon (early first century A.D.) gives a lengthy overview of Israel’s history. Whatever God did in the Old Testament, this author said Wisdom did. For example, it was Wisdom who delivered Israel from Egypt (10:15-21). This author is not pitting Wisdom against God. He is saying that “Wisdom” is one way of talking about the God of the Old Testament.

These different takes on “wisdom” were all generated by ancient interpreters trying to account for things like Proverbs 8 and the absence of any reference to wisdom in Genesis. Ancient interpreters saw that Wisdom “needed” to be either created prior to anything else or somehow be part of the creation process. They simply filled in what the Bible left unsaid.

We are not that Different

As much as we today might look at this imaginative approach as subjective and uncontrolled, ancient interpreters felt they were doing precisely what God wanted them to. Actually, these ancient interpreters felt that, by leaving things unsaid, God was actually inviting them to “fill in the gaps.”

But before we are too hard on these interpreters for “making things up,” we need to take the log out of our own interpretive eye first. We might agree or disagree with what ancient interpreters said about wisdom, but we should not be too hard on them for filling in the gaps. We also fill in the gaps when we read. Let me give one example.

If you talk to anyone who has grown up familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth, they will be able to recount the story with ease. Mary rides into Bethlehem on a donkey, led by Joseph. She is about to give birth but one insensitive innkeeper after another turns them away. They make their way to a manger, and after Jesus is born, the three wise men come and present him with gifts, surrounded by farm animals.

This is very familiar, but the problem is that much of this is not really in the text but in the “gaps.” Read Luke 2:1-7. There is no donkey, no mean innkeeper(s), no manger (rather a feeding trough), no three wise men (no number is not given, let alone the traditional names of Melchior, Caspar, and Belthasar), no farm animals.

We fill in the gaps, too. Surely, Mary could not have walked to Bethlehem in her condition: she rode a donkey. Surely the innkeeper(s) must have been cranky not to take in a pregnant woman, so we make them out to be surly. (Truth be told, Jerusalem must have been overflowing with people due to the census ordered by Augustus. Who knows how many people had to be turned away.) Surely, a feeding trough implies a farm setting with animals and all, so we supply them. Surely, the fact that three gifts were given—gold, frankincense and myrrh—implies that there were three wise men. We even give them names, to boot.

Whatever ancient interpreters might have made up, at least they were typically very conscious of what they were doing and very intentional in how they did it. We today are not always as self-conscious about what we say the Bible says.

Here is something to think about. How much of what you see in the creation stories in Genesis is in the text and how much of it is not? And listen to others when they talk about the creation stories. To what extent are they reading the text or reading into it? Then before you get too critical, read the creation stories again and take note of the “gaps” in the text (such as, “Where did Cain get his wife from?”). We all fill them in. How do you fill those gaps, and why do you fill them the way you do?

If you enter into that process, you will have entered the long and honored history of biblical interpretation, where neither the questions nor even some of the answers are all that new.

We will continue next week with more on Genesis 1.

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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Jon Garvey - #34055

October 9th 2010

Simple reading? That shows me Abel raising flocks to feed or clothe a large population with animal produce (before Noah), I see Cain having a wife, and mythic elements paralleled in ANE literature that is known to have been familiar in Israel at the time of the monarchy.

You know all this from the discussions here - are you sure your post isn’t a case of “Living is easy with eyes closed”?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34299

October 11th 2010

The cause of “natural evil” is simple, it is death.  Without death there is no suffering.  The only problem is that without death there is no life for life is based on the physical.  In other words the only beings in existence would be angels if they existed, because they help God rule the universe.

If humans want to exist, then they must die.  All physical beings die.  If we want to have eternal life, we must die.  If we want to be redeemed by the death of Jesus Chrsit, we must die.  The cause of natural evil is death, but it is also our pathway to life with God. 

Is natural evil evil, or is it part of God’s plan to transform humanity into mature beings?

nedbrek - #34359

October 12th 2010

Jon, sorry for the delay: “Genesis 3: the curse is exactly what it says there: the serpent subjugated, womankind damaged in their marital relationships, man reduced to toil and - most of all - mankind excluded from fellowship and the tree of life. Since nature is not mentioned, why does it have to be different afterwards?”

I don’t see it.  You propose a Fall ~6k years ago.  Men and women are supposed to have been living much the same for easily 20k years (having spread all over the Earth by this time), probably 100k years, and possibly 1My (depending on how one views early Homo).

What exactly is different here?  Food production, physiology, psychology - these are all the same.  What does “tree of life” even mean in this context (spiritual death)?  Are you suggesting a literal, physical tree?

“And as for ‘external theories’”
Those are theories to explain the data consistent with Biblical interpretation - the exact opposite of using men’s ungodly theories to interpret the Bible.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34401

October 12th 2010

Nedbrek and Jon,

The Hebrews did not make a sharp distinction between humans and nature.  The curse does affect nature because humans have to struggle against nature to survive, and death is always a threat.  It is my understanding through Jesus that nature is not evil, but clearly death and suffering are natural and thus considered natural evil by many.

One issue is that Jesus has reversed the curse of Genesis 3.  Humans most importantly are no longer denied access to the Tree of Life.  We have the gift of eternal life though our faith in Jesus Christ.  This would also mean that women are no longer subject to their husbands.

Jon Garvey - #34465

October 13th 2010

@nedbrek - #34359

Start with an analogy. I know a poor pastor in Sri Lanka, a bass player from Tatarstan, a Swiss engine-driver, a leading banker, A scottish aristocrat - and you. If I meet them, I sense they are in Christ and I have more in common than with my neighbours. In a lifetime of medicine, I found Christians dealing with, say, death in a unique way. The Bible says they are a glorious new creation, a different race, the children of God. Yet all that is denied by many - they’re ordinary, but deluded.

If my Adam is implanted in an ANE culture, the physiology and food would be the same. The psychology very different from non-Adamics - but not detectably now since prehistoric. How can you uncover the thought life of those without literature? Cave paintings might be spiritual art, hallucinogenic trips or clever imitation.

One could surmise that some cultural features arose through Adam’s line - eg blood sacrifice (ANE around that time), or even writing. But the point is what Genesis says was unique to A&E. And that is: covenant relationship with Yahweh, seclusion in his service as preparation for ruling the world, access to eternal life, legal innocence and a single command from God. (...)

Jon Garvey - #34466

October 13th 2010

The fall takes away relationship, the garden, the execution of his office, eternal life, and innocence.

It adds shame and conscience (a major new - how much of human psychology is based on that), interaction with the world outside the garden, longing for the lost eternal and for God, fear of God’s wrath and resulting enmity to him, the growth of wilful, perverted evil in the race, maybe the escalation of misplaced subjugation of the world (the role without the wisdom), the pollution of the earth with shed human blood, and so on. It also adds the need for salvation to restore the spiritual endowmens God had given him, and to reverse his negative impact on the creation.

Projecting back, advanced Non-Adamic man would have no sense of right and wrong, but no wanton evil either (imagine your chimp society, the odd battle balanced by social cohesion - but no torture, no idolatry, no covetousness, no agape, no faith.) Stuff like cities and agriculture is incidental - only different in degree from Neanderthal use of fire or H erectus using tools.

All unnecessary if the world was created de novo in 4004BC (but does “appearance of age” include Lascaux, Natufian Jericho etc ?). Out of space now!

Jon Garvey - #34467

October 13th 2010

@Roger A. Sawtelle - #34401

“This would also mean that women are no longer subject to their husbands.”

Nor slaves to their masters, children to their parents, citizens to their governments and Christians to their pastors…

Important to distinguish carefully between what was the result of the fall, what was instituted before the fall and what is reserved for the eschaton.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34549

October 13th 2010

Jon Garvey - #34467

@Roger A. Sawtelle - #34401

“This would also mean that women are no longer subject to their husbands.”

Nor slaves to their masters, children to their parents, citizens to their governments and Christians to their pastors…

Important to distinguish carefully between what was the result of the fall, what was instituted before the fall and what is reserved for the eschaton.


I am under the impression that slavery is wrong, so yes slaves are not to be subject to their masters.  The Decalogue says, “Honor your parents,” not obey.  In a democracy the citizens rule the government, “government by the people, for the people, and of the people.”  If we have the priesthood of all believers, we are not subject to our Pastor.  Jesus said, “I have not come to be served, but to serve.”

Paul told husbands and wives to submit yourself to one another.  Eph 5:21

Dave Taylor - #34657

October 14th 2010

I recently read an essay by Frank Sulloway, a historian of science, about how and why Charles Darwin “rejected intelligent design.” Turns out Darwin couldn’t square what he discovered in the field with contemporary creationist theories, including something called “centers of creation.” The problem is that “centers of creation” are an interpolation from a relatively brief creation text. IMO, Darwin rejected a contemporary attempt to fill gaps; he didn’t need to rejected divine creation per se, but because the prevalent creationist views didn’t “fit,” he did.

(The essay appeared in Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement, John Brockman, ed.)

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