Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters
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.
“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.