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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters

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September 28, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters

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


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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Mairnéalach - #32298

September 28th 2010

1 Corinthians
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The wisdom of in Proverbs 8 is the Tree of Life—the Cross, which was from before the foundation of the world. It puts to shame fleshly wisdom, which is only capable of seeing fleshly things like evolution, which says that it is more blessed to receive than to give, and which says “be fruitful and multiply” is the only word from God. The last word of true wisdom is from Isaiah - “let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree”, and Matthew, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

Evolution is grand, but, like much of what God has created, it is passing away.

RJS - #32301

September 28th 2010


What do you think of Peter Bouteneff’s book “In the Beginning”? I found it a useful survey of thought, both Jewish and early Christian.

Pete Enns - #32302

September 28th 2010


I like it. It is a very helpful summary of early thoughts in Genesis. I have referred to it numerous times in some projects I am working on.

John Noble - #32303

September 28th 2010

Thanks so much, Pete.  I’m glad for this series in particular because I’m teaching a SS class on Genesis now and we’re dealing with ANE texts and their connection to the Bible. I’m sure that I’ll be citing you in the weeks to come.  Keep up the good work!

Samuel Sutter - #32314

September 28th 2010

out of all my seminary books “extra” purchases - I probably refer to Kugel’s “Traditions of the Bible” - the most often… almost weekly.  I love it! Sometimes I love what I read, other times I’m just confused - can’t wait until you post on day two: I want to know more about the ignition of the seven bonfires of Gehenna (Mid. Konen) Sometimes interpreters do look at detail to find things that I would never see, but sometimes it seems like someone discovering things about their own fingers at a Phish concert - and I’m not sure what to make of it.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #32319

September 28th 2010

The problem with the use of Wisdom or Sofia as the architect of Creation is that it seems to conflict directly with John 1 where God the Logos is the meaning and purpose of Creation. 

I see a clear conflict between a Greek world view based on Sofia, Wisdom, philosophy vs a Christian world view based on Logos, Love, relational theology.  Unfourtunately it seems in most circles, conservative and liberal, the Greek world view wins out.

Andrew - #32334

September 28th 2010

“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.”

Excellent point, Peter.  I was working through the Hebrew of several parashot in the Midrash Rabbah a few quarters ago and was struck by the same thing;  The Rabbi’s saw the tensions and wrestled with them.  Their harmonizing efforts are often lampooned by modern day interpreters, but they show two things: (1) the Rabbi’s knew the Bible REALLY well and (2) it doesn’t take higher-critical categories to notice just how jarring the biblical texts can be.

Daniel Mann - #32340

September 28th 2010

Peter and Andrew,

I don’t think that it’s legitimate to associate the deconstructions of liberal German scholars with the struggles of the ancient rabbis over the text of Scripture. While both groups understandably were engaging the perplexities of the text, the ancients were trying to reconcile the text while the liberals were attempting to reformulate it according to their own skeptical presuppositions.

By associating the two groups, you seem to lend legitimacy to the skeptics.

Rob Kashow - #32346

September 28th 2010

Nice Pete. One observation/ additional evidence on the wisdom issue as interpretive problem as seen by ancient interpreters is Targum Neofiti’s expansion of Gen 1.1: ‘in the beginning with wisdom ...... created.”

Pete Enns - #32347

September 28th 2010

Rob,  Ha you got me. I left that one out for space considerations.

Sam, no doubt sometimes ancient interpreters find what they want, They go fishing. But, what studying these interpreters helped me see is how we all do the very same thing without even knowing it. The biblical text has enough ambiguity and “gaps” that we often fill.

Thank you, John!

Andrew, and sometimes their “harmonizing” is extremely creative, so much so that the harmonizing actually creates all sorts of other problem. Also, as you know, multiple answers to these interpretive challenges were welcome by ancient Jewish authors. They did not seem too concerned about solving the problems once and for all but accepting the text’s invitation to engage. God is not always found in the answer but in the process (whoever has ears let him hear).

Adam - #32348

September 28th 2010

I always found it interesting that many of the original scholars to attack the reliability of the Jewish scriptures in the 19th century happened to be German.

Norm - #32349

September 28th 2010

Genesis reflects a subversion of the Babylonian creation pattern.  Paul and John draw upon the theology of Genesis recognizing that the story was written with hidden messages by the implementation of symbolic characters framed within an ANE creation account for the establishment of the People of God. However it is unique as the first Creation does not measure up and is to be replaced with a new “kosmos” world order ushered in by God Himself through Christ.

Rev 21:1 ASV And I saw A NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH: for THE FIRST HEAVEN AND THE FIRST EARTH ARE PASSED AWAY; and the sea is no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, NEW JERUSALEM

This idea is picked up from Isaiah which demonstrates a continuity of thought for hundreds of years within Judaism ending with messiah.

Isa 65:17 ESV “For behold, I CREATE NEW HEAVENS AND A NEW EARTH, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. 18 … in that which I create; for behold, I CREATE JERUSALEM to be a joy,

This language is often interpreted literally yet it is simply ANE creation language describing a changing of the guard regarding how God’s people will relate to him. We physicalize these accounts outside the ANE mindset mistakenly.

Norm - #32350

September 28th 2010

For some reason my first post did not take and so I will repost it which precedes the one above. Read the next post first and then the one above.

Norm - #32352

September 28th 2010

I think we can take our interpretation of the OT and especially Genesis from how the NT writers used and framed it. Quite frankly they do not appear set in their mind that Gen 1 is about a technical account of planet earth and its inhabitants. Instead it appears to correlate with the ANE approach of describing what the NT authors call the “kosmos” which infers a worldview association of a particular people brought into existence much like the Babylonian story provides the impetus for whom their dominion existed in their minds.

There is very good evidence that Gen One’s creation account is a prologue introducing the 7 stages of creation that will consummate with Christ and the eternal never ending Sabbath Day Rest. Starting in Gen 2:4 we encounter the beginning detailed account of the of the creation events throughout the stages of Israel’s history. This story of Genesis was probably finished toward the late part of the First Temple period and reflects the conflict with the Greater Nations as illustrated by the tower of Babel story.

The stories of Adam, Noah and Babel draw upon the commonality of the ANE world and demonstrate the cohesion that Israel was bonded together with them.

Jon Garvey - #32358

September 28th 2010

@Roger A. Sawtelle - #32319

Roger, don’t you think you’re creating a slight false dichotomy? Proverbs is hardly the production of a Greek mind, and the only wise God, Christ the wisdom from God and the Spirit of wisdom are well-represented in the Jewish New Testament.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #32364

September 28th 2010


Thank you for your response.

The fact is as you have pointed out that there is a Wisdom tradition in the OT.  Proverbs of course is a prime example.  Ecclesiastes is another example, where the Teacher or Preacher identified with Solomon, the “wisest” of men (whose son and successor, Rehoboam, was a spoiled fool) proclaims that Life is empty of meaning. 

I am suggesting that there is tension between the royal Solomonic wisdom tradition and the prophetic covenantal tradition in the OT, with the prophetic tradition usually winning out.

Looking at my concordance, there is really little about wisdom in the NT.  The primary statement is where Paul proclaims that the foolishness of God (Jesus Christ) has overcome the wisdom of this world, Greek philosophy, in 1 Corinthians.

Certainly one can say that the Logos has an intellectual aspect, but Jesus is the Logos, not human created wisdom and philosophy.

Pete Enns - #32366

September 28th 2010


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.

Jon Garvey - #32373

September 28th 2010

@Roger A. Sawtelle - #32364

“I am suggesting that there is tension between the royal Solomonic wisdom tradition and the prophetic covenantal tradition in the OT, with the prophetic tradition usually winning out.”

Here I’m going to purloin your “cooperation rather than conflict” motif. To me the fact that both the prophetic and wisdom literature ARE in the Old Testament suggests that, under God, Israel valued both.

I count 11 citations from Job and Proverbs in the NT, and part of Romans 8 is a commentary on Ecclesiastes. Wisdom is attributed to the young Jesus and the “deacons” of Acts 6. The Eternal Son contains all the hidden riches of wisdom in Colossians. The word of wisdom is one of the charismata in 1 Corinthians. Paul prays that the Ephesians will receive the spirit of wisdom, and James urges anyone lacking it to pray to God for it. And, of course, Romans 11 has that eulogy to the depth and riches of God’s wisom, and there’s a hymn to it in Revelation 5.

I think it’s a mistake to try and split up the attributes of God. There is no conflict between his love, his justice, his holiness, his wisdom or any other of his qualities.

Rich - #32411

September 28th 2010

Pete Enns:

As always, I enjoy your columns, which remain the best ones on Biologos.  Your teaching style is excellent, as you bring the novice in Biblical studies up to a higher level, step by step, in a logical order.

I endorse your methodological preamble, and I agree with you wholeheartedly that studying the ancient Jewish commentators can be very educative for readers today.

The example you’ve chosen for this section, however, is oddly weak.  Granted, “Wisdom” exists before creation.  But “wisdom” is not an *object*, like heavens and earth and seas and vegetation and animals and so on.  So there’s nothing in the example that indicates that the Genesis account leaves out the creation of any component of the *physical* world.  Further, your sources don’t say that “wisdom” is *created*, do they?  On a Christian view, if “wisdom” is identified with the Logos and hence the Second Person of the Trinity, then it’s eternally *generated*, not *created*; and from a Jewish perspective, isn’t it most likely that “wisdom” is a personification of God’s own wisdom, hence uncreated?  So again, the Genesis account leaves out nothing as far as the creation of the *world* goes.  But I gather you are just setting the stage ...

Pete Enns - #32426

September 28th 2010


Thanks, and you gather correctly. Although, wisdom is personified in Proverbs and is also the first of God’s creation according to Israel’s wisdom tradition. That prompted the early interpreters to ask “if Genesis is about beginnings, why didn’t they talk about wisdom in Gen 1?” Jubilees had the same problem with the absence of angels in Gen 1 and so that author just found a place (at Gen 1:2) and put them there.

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