t f p g+ YouTube icon

Let’s Come at this From a Different Angle

Bookmark and Share

December 4, 2009 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Let’s Come at this From a Different Angle

This is the fourth of Enns' multi-part series on an incarnational model of Scripture.

Much of the concern surrounding the Christian faith and the acceptance of evolution and modern cosmology and geology centers on how to read the opening chapters of Genesis. Very often, and rightly so, that discussion turns to such issues as how modern data, such as extra biblical texts and scientific developments affect how we read Genesis.

That is all fine and well, but let's come at this from a different angle.

There is a factor that rarely enters the discussion among conservative readers of Scripture. It is only one factor, but it is very important.

If we want a clue as to how to read the opening chapters of the Christian Bible, we should go to the closing chapters.

At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, in the very last chapter of the last book, we read the following:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5, NIV).

 

The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic book, which means it is a figurative, symbolic description of what the "end" will look like. Much of Revelation is concerned with showing God's ultimate rule over history, and how he is bringing that history to its consummation in Christ.

 

And note how history will end: in a garden, with a river, a tree of life, and the removal of the curse. I hope bells are going off right about now.

In a manner of speaking, the point of the entire story of redemption laid out in the Christian Bible is to get us "back into the garden," to regain what was lost, for the obedient Second Adam to undo the disobedience of the first Adam.

The book of Revelation, however, is not a literal description of events in time and space. To be sure, God will bring history to its consummation, but the description of that consummation in Revelation is figurative or symbolic. That is the nature of apocalyptic literature in the ancient world, and Revelation participates in that literary convention.

Although it has occasionally been tried, a "literal" (meaning time-space, historical) reading of Revelation does not work at all. The message behind Revelation is something God will do in history, but the description of those events are figurative. This is especially clear beginning in Chapter 21, where we read of a "New Jerusalem" descending from the sky. Its description is a symbolic amalgamation of Jerusalem, temple, and Garden of Eden imagery. It is not a literal city crashing down on the Earth, but a theologically potent, concrete, ancient description of what God will eventually do in time and space.

The use of such imagery was a powerful communicator of theological truth to ancient peoples--and it should be to us, as well. And here is my point to ponder: the symbolic, non-literal nature of the renewed Garden in Revelation 22 should suggest to us, quite strongly in fact, that the Garden of Genesis 2-4 likewise, although communicating theological truth, is also symbolic and non-literal. Both are "true," deeply so, but neither are literal, historical, or physical.

Discuss amongst yourselves, but try to keep it nice.


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.

Learn More


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 1 of 2   1 2 »
Scott Mapes - #908

December 12th 2009

This is a very insightful reading of the early chapters of Genesis in light of their canonical context.  It is a very compelling argument.


VIA - #910

December 13th 2009

I concur that figurative is the appropriate way to read Genesis, however I would also suggest that it is necessarily on it’s own terms, not just because Revelation alludes to it. This is not to say that seeing through the Revelation is illegitimate, just simply to say it is unnecessay.

I would also suggest that this can miss the greater hermeneutic of listening very carefully to authors and texts on their own terms. Can’t we all just do that and stop imposing our anachronistic perspectives on these texts?


tobi - #915

December 14th 2009

this book helped me alot through my struggles, and to arrive at a point where i feel that i am both free to be intellectually honest and at the same time enjoy a deeper trust in the God who inspired scripture.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #917

December 14th 2009

VIA,

I would suggest that figurative and literal are modern constructs.  The ancients likely had very different ideas about such things than we do.

You suggest that applying Revelation to Genesis is unnecessary.  I suggest that it is absolutely necessary.  It may not be correct, but we must try it and test it before we discard the idea.

In Rev. 21, does John give several descriptions of the one thing that he saw?  Or did John see several things?

If the new heavens and new earth is the holy city is the new Jerusalem, is the bride of Christ, is the tabernacle, then all of these things are God’s new covenant people, the Church.

The first heavens and first earth passed away and there is no more sea.  The Gen. 1 creation passed away with the new creation of the Church.  The Gen. 1 creation was the creation of the old covenant people, God’s first temple, the bride Israel.  The sea are the non-covenant “Gentiles.”

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile.” “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away and there is no more sea.”

Seeing Genesis through Revelation gives a view of the ancient text that we would never have imagined.  If this view is correct, Gen. 1 has nothing to do with physical creation just as Rev. 21 has nothing to do with the end of the physical world.

Seen through Rev., Adam is the spiritual father of Israel, Abel is the first martyr, and the flood was a covenant judgment against the covenant line of Seth (much like the two destructions of Jerusalem)

Viewing Genesis through Revelation is absolutely necessary.

Blessings.


via - #938

December 16th 2009

Jeffrey,
Thank you for your loving and detailed response. I’ll do my best to address your thoughts fully, yet concisely.
1. To suggest that “figurative and literal are modern constructs” is inaccurate. The kinds of literary criticism on those kinds of writings is most definitely modern, however, the genre is as ancient as writing itself. Ancients wrote, spoke, and interacted in very figurative ways (e.g. Job, Psalms, and yes, Genesis, Aesop, Homer, Plato, etc.)
2. Perhaps I can clarify “unnecessary,” and restate again that my propose does not “de-legitimize” the reading through Revelation. When I say “unnecessary,” I mean to suggest that the book itself has an autonomous integrity, by itself, just as the book of Genesis. To disregard that, and propose that we are unable to read Genesis WITHOUT some sort of outside assistance (and much later, and different language even) does an injustice to the text itself. This is why I suggest “on its own terms.”
3. I’m confused as to your next line of questions. Please forgive me as I’m not certain as to the point you’re making. Are you suggesting that we must classify the “Revelation” as “one” or “many?”
4. The next several statements are challenging for me, for they are so assumptive, allegorical, and typological in meaning, it’s hard to address them briefly, especially in what the terms mean. So, let me see if I can do justice to a fuller explanation in this post:
4a. “The heavens and the earth” in Genesis 1 is a “merism,” a poetic technique to mean “everything.”
4b. The “sea” refers to the chaos BEFORE the Creation. Later, through Jewish understanding, the “sea” became synonymous with evil, the “gates” to Hades, and the progenitor and symbol of Pagan cult practices (e.g. Baal)
4c. THEREFORE, when John alludes to all this in Revelation, he is using that imagery, imbued with new contextual meaning, to say that the kind of chaos and the marred Creation will be restored.
4d. The “There is neither Jew nor Gentile” reference from Galatians has more to do with an internal Jewish debate of identity than it does the Genesis Creation or the Revelation. I’m terribly sorry, but your connections, while particularly valid for a “modern” allegorical approach, are not what the authors themselves were saying. And this is the point of my suggestion. ...
You mention if “this view is correct,” when referring to a view of the ancient text “that we would never have imagined.” I have not discounted nor made your view illegitimate. I am merely saying THIS IS NOT WHAT THE ORIGINAL AUTHORS INTENDED by mere fact of the genre of their writing, the time in which they wrote, their audience, and in accordance with the literary criticism we utilize today.
With this view, Genesis 1 has EVERYTHING to do with physical creation, and Revelation 21 has EVERYTHING to do with the reality of that/this physical creation and what God is going to do in and through it, despite its depraved state

I imagine that this exchange has now been taken to a whole other level, and for that, I apologize. I submit this in love, and a cautious and conversational tone.

Blessings to you as well.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #954

December 16th 2009

Via,

What I’m suggesting here is an old view that has not been in print for 100 years.  I already took the discussion “to a whole other level” and I’m willing to go as far as you are.

1-2) Yes, Genesis is much older than Revelation, but Genesis and their understanding of Genesis shaped Revelation.  That must be so.  Revelation uses the same creation/decreation language.  We are not part of that culture.

3) Rev. 21, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”

I was asking, does the new H&E = the Holy City = the new Jerusalem = the bride = etc?  Or are these things all different?  Did John see one thing in this vision, or many things?

In vs 9, John is told, “Come see the bride.”  He was shown the city.  John saw one thing in Rev. 21, not many things.

If all these “things” listed were one thing, then they were not a physical thing.

You likely have never seen/considered the point I just made.  Take some time and think it through.  Please read Rev. 21 and think of it in terms of John saw one thing in his vision.

This is difficult.  It was for me.  It goes against everything we were taught.

The new H&E is not physical.  It can’t be.  It is the Church, the new covenant people, the bride of Christ, the new creation, etc.

4) The next point is even more difficult.  If the new H&E, the Church is not physical, then we need to also consider that the first H&E was not physical.  The Gen. 1:1 H&E is the original old covenant people.

Yes it seems wild.  But it works.

You might want to click my name and read a bit on my website.

Blessings.


Martin Rizley - #956

December 17th 2009

Jeffrey,
I think your analysis is failing to grasp the difference in literary genre between Genesis and Revelation.  Genesis is the book of beginnings; its interest is historical, insofar as it was written to inform the covenant people of God, who had recently been brought of bondage in Egypt, concerning the origin of many things.  It was written to explain many of the “how“ questions—how the world began, how the human race began, how sin entered the world, how corporate worship began, how God judged the world with a flood, how the nations were divided up and given different languages, how the nation of Israel began by God calling one man (Abraham) and entering into a covenant with him.  By contrast, the book of Revelation is the book of endings.  Its interest is eschatological, and the form in which God revealed the future to John was through apocalyptic vision, which by its very nature, is highly symbolical.  So the two books represent two different very different types of literature—the one, historical narrative, the other, apocalyptic vision.  Clearly, therefore, the opening chapters of Genesis have in view the creation of this present physical earth on which all creatures dwell.  They do not have in view the creation of the Old Covenant people of God, since Old Covenant Israel does not come into being until the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, the great patriarch of that nation. 
There is no question that certain images in Revelation represent the church, the holy people of God.  Since the church is described elsewhere in the NT as God’s temple and as a holy city, I believe you are right in seeing the New Jerusalem as a vision of the glorified church herself, the bride of Christ.  However, I don’t think the “new heavens and the new earth” represents the church per se, but rather the eternal “resting place” of the church.  Throughout Scripture, the concept of land and rest are closely associated.  Canaan represented the land where Israel (God’s Old Covenant people) would find rest from all her enemies.  The Lord Jesus presents himself as the Rest Giver of His people; and in 2 Peter, the new heavens and the new earth are seen as the eternal dwelling place where God’s people find eternal rest—they are not a symbol of the people themselves!    Moreover, the whole biblical teaching on redemption is that it involves our bodies, as well as our souls.  Christ was raised bodily from the dead, and so shall we be at the end of the age.  Resurrected bodies need an eternal dwelling place, and that is provided by the new heavens and the new earth (a real place) which God is preparing for his people.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #958

December 17th 2009

Martin,

I discussed the genre of Genesis and Revelation in my book.  Milton Terry’s classic, Biblical Apocalyptics, covers that subject extensively and shows Gen. 1-11 and most of Revelation to be of the same genre.

There is a lot of evidence that demonstrates Gen. 1:1-11:26 in it’s earliest finished form predates Moses and was even written before Terah moved to Haran,  Gen. 11:27 starts a new account that was originally penned in a newer writing style that was invented near Haran about the time of Terah and Abraham.  I highly recommend Wiseman’s Ancient records and the structure of Genesis.

If all this is true, and both Terry and Wiseman are highly thought of and frequently quoted, then the common views of Genesis and their relation to Revelation need to be carefully rethought.

I am working along these lines and I believe my work is bearing fruit.

Blessings.


Peter Enns - #973

December 17th 2009

Jeffrey,

When you have time, I am interested in your claim that Gen 1-11 is pre-Mosaic. I may not be able to get back to this thread too often in the next few days, but I’ll do my best.

Martin,

I agree that Gen and Rev are not of the same genre, but not at all for the reasons you state. It seems to me that you have not yet grappled enough with the very challenging genre issues.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #976

December 17th 2009

Peter,

I recommend the Wiseman reference above.

If you go to Amazon and search on

Wiseman Genesis

You will get a long list of books that quote from Wiseman.

Basically, in ancient Sumer and ancient Akkad, all cuneiform tablets end with “written by name, date.”

In Akkadian, written by was the word “TOLEDAH.”  Sumer had a different language, but used the same cuneiform symbol.

For genre, see Milton Terry’s work.

In case I lose track of this article, please remind me with an email.  My address is on my website.

Blessings.


Peter Enns - #1024

December 19th 2009

Jeffrey,

I looked at what you suggested.

The positions you advocate are not influential among trained biblical and ANE scholars.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #1032

December 19th 2009

Peter,

Of course not.  But what’s the title of this post, “Let’s Come at this From a Different Angle.”

Your trained biblical and ANE scholars contradict each other.  Why?

They have some false assumptions that they are unwilling to give up.

The biblical scholars quote Wiseman favorably, yet refuse to discuss his conclusions.  They also quote Milton Terry favorably but again, ignore his conclusions.  Ignore, as in, they don’t discuss them at all.

The ANE scholars admit that their intepretation requires man to predate Adam.

Wiseman said Adam was a Sumerian.  The ANE scholars deny that Adam was a Sumerian yet force Adam into a Sumerian context.  Can you explain that?

The ANE scholars insist Moses wrote what is essentially a Sumerian document for Gen. 1-11.  The Biblical scholars claim Adam wrote a document that became part of Gen. 1-11.

All of the pieces for what I’ve proposed are available from these scholars.  They are almost there.  So why dismiss my “Different Angle” just because I’m the first one to see all these connections.  (Actually, some of the ANE scholars say this stuff privately.  They don’t want to be branded as heretics and lose their jobs.)


peter Enns - #1035

December 19th 2009

Jeffrey,

I appreciate your passion, but you are making a number of assertions here that are either unfounded or idiosyncratic. I’m all for different ways of looking at old issues—actually, educational psychologists tell us that that is a sign of a healthy mind—but here is no conspiracy of silence among biblical and ANE scholars.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #1036

December 19th 2009

Peter,

Please read the first chapter of my book (click my name), then go talk to any conservative preacher, elder, or college professor about the contents.  You will quickly learn that certain things are better left unsaid if you want to lead a quiet life in the evangelical church.

Blessings.


Peter Enns - #1047

December 20th 2009

Jeffrey,

I read the first chapter and some other things. I can appreciate where you are going with some of this, and I think I can sense some of the opposition you face re: things like prophecy and the flood, fpr example. But a couple of things. First, I know plenty of conservatives for whom these things are not at all issues because they have solved them in other ways. There may be a particular sub-group of “conservatives” (I really think we should say Fundamentalists) who might be a part of this conversation, though. Second, I’d like to know who “the biblical scholars” are who quote Wiseman. You seem to suggest this is widespread.  Third, I am wondering whether study of original languages is part of your own background. I am asking only because the first step in formulating independent views on Scripture is a thorough working knowledge of the text. from what you have available on your website, I could not tell. Fourth, have you vetted the contents of you book to trained scholars or gone through publishing houses where peer review is the norm? Otherwise this book reads like simply a self-published treatise. Seeing if reputable, trained scholars could blurb your book would go a long way toward establishing credibility.


beaglelady - #1054

December 20th 2009

If anyone is interested, This weekend’s Wall Street Journal has a good article on conspiracy theories: < a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704238104574602042125998498.html">

A Conspiracy Theory Theory—How to fend off the people who insist they know the ‘real story’ behind everything


beaglelady - #1055

December 20th 2009

Oops! I messed up the link. Here it is again:

A Conspiracy-Theory Theory—How to fend off the people who insist they know the ‘real story’ behind everything

(Probably there are forces that don’t want me to get the link right)


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #1060

December 20th 2009

Peter,

Christian publishing houses have policies against publishing things that are too controversial.  Especially something that many consider heretical.  Not one of them would touch it.  They made it clear that it was because of the specific issues we raised and not the quality of our work.

We never discussed Wiseman’s theories or the language issues in the book.  We developed our view of creation from Scripture.  Sorry for the confusion.  My Sumerian is minimal and self-taught.  Not something to brag about in a book.

Go to Amazon and search on Wiseman Genesis.  It will give you a good sampling of those who quote Wiseman.

Blessings.


beaglelady - #1067

December 21st 2009

Jeffrey,

Does Wiseman have any credentials? Do you?


peter Enns - #1075

December 21st 2009

Jeffrey,

I don’t want to press the point and so be misunderstood, but publishers like Baker and IVP, to name two, publish a lot of controversial books (mine among them). “Controversy” is a fluid term, for it depends on the reader. Also, controversy sells books which is a major consideration for publishers. Just a thought.


Page 1 of 2   1 2 »