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In this week’s video, John Dickson, biblical historian and senior research fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University speaks with Greg Clarke about how to read the text of Genesis 1.
Clarke begins by noting that there are many questions people have about how to read the first book of Genesis and asks Dickson both how we should interpret it, and why is this is such an emotional issue.
Dickson responds by pointing out that for many people who take the Bible seriously, “it says that that the earth was created in 6 days and that’s it, either you are faithful or you are not.” On the other hand, he notes that for skeptics like Richard Dawkins, the text of Genesis 1 is devoid of scientific thought relative to creation, a point that is used as evidence to support their belief that Christianity is ridiculous.
Both readings are literalistic, says Dickson, and misunderstand the basic genre of Genesis. He offers a distinction between the ways of reading. A literal interpretation asks: what was the author actually trying to convey? A literalistic reading, in contrast, asks what the writer actually says. It is a genre question.
For example, readers usually understand the genre of the parable and accept that it may or may not be a true story. The point though isn’t that something happens in a concrete way, but that the parable is trying to convey a message. Similarly, a proper reading of Genesis 1 relies on an understanding of its genre—and most scholars agree that it is very clear that the text is not an example of historical prose.
Instead, there are numerous literary elements found in Genesis 1. These include things like parallelism, rhythm, and number symbolism. These literary devices are so prominent in the text that it would have been “quite clear to an ancient reader that the author is trying to convey something through the artistry of literature” says Dickson. Therefore, to read Genesis 1 literally instead of literalistically is to be sensitive to the original intent of the text.