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Reading the Genesis Creation Accounts

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December 1, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

Today's video comes courtesy of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), a not-for-profit media organization that offers a Christian perspective on contemporary issues by engaging mainstream media and the general public with well-researched material about the relevance of Christianity in the 21st century. For more, see publicchristianity.com.

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.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

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consulscipio236 - #42215

December 1st 2010

Understanding the genre issue and ancient cosmology/metaphysics can help you understand the bible much more clearly. Once you understand some of the “first principles” that guided the way the ancients understood the world, and understand the way the Israelites viewed God, these early Genesis stories flow almost naturally. For example, if you assume that the initial state of the universe is disorder embodied in the “dark sea” mentioned in Genesis 1:1, then Noah’s flood is an obvious reboot of creation. The story doesn’t have to be “borrowed” from another culture, it is obvious to all ancients that this is the only way to give “new life” to the world (i.e. the story is simply common sense to a ancient). If you understand that things only exist if they are seperated from something else, Adam being created by being seperated from sand makes sense (even the name “Adam” is closely related to the Hebrew word for “sand”). I have read books on this topic, and one thing they make clear is that the ancients didn’t write eyewitness history. These events aren’t intended to be taken as events seen by an eyewitness and recorded in some form of ancient journalism.

John Dickson - #42242

December 1st 2010

I’m pretty sure the last line of your staff commentary should read “Therefore, to read Genesis 1 literalistically instead of literally is to be insensitive to the original intent of the text” or else (preferably) “Therefore, to read Genesis 1 literally instead of literalistically is to be sensitive to the original intent of the text.” But what would I know

Paul D. - #42253

December 1st 2010

John: I agree, although I think the Biologos writer was just using his (or her) own terminology, where a “literary” reading corresponds to Mr. Dickson’s “literal” reading, and “literal” corresponds to “literalistic”.

One thing that I think would hammer the point home even further would be to do a parallel examination and comparison of all the OT creation stories — Gen. 1, Gen. 2, the ones in Psalms and Job, etc. — to demonstrate that creation stories are always highly metaphorical and incorporate pre-existing imagery from other ANE stories (like the serpent or Leviathan).

Paul D. - #42254

December 1st 2010

Also, I apologize for just now noticing that the “John” I was replying to was the very same Mr. Dickson from the video. :D

John T - #42957

December 8th 2010

The Old Testament creation histories (not stories) are not metaphorical at all.  Genesis 1 presents the events Chronologically while Genesis 2 dealt in more detail with the creation of man and woman.
When combining the accounts, we discover that on the sixth day both Adam and Eve were created.
As a man, I appreciate that God’s design was for man not to spend even ONE NIGHT alone without the companionship of a woman.   

I have been following the creation-evolution debate for about fifty years now, and I find it ironic that over the last few years, Christians have seen fit to unilaterally abdicate the authority of scripture when new discoveries and understandings have removed so many of the supposed difficulties.  I believe that two points are in order:

1) Jesus Christ wrote in stone on the tablets given to Moses that he created everything in six days as a basis for the Sabbath, and he was not metaphorically speaking.

2) Leading evolutionists are almost unanimous is linking evolution and atheism. Dawkins, Gould, etc.  Intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens see them as symbiotic.

Genesis is integral to almost every aspect of our faith.  When I want to know what is important to God, I see what Satan attacks the most.

Paul D. - #42992

December 8th 2010

“Jesus Christ wrote in stone on the tablets given to Moses that he created everything in six days as a basis for the Sabbath, and he was not metaphorically speaking.”

Um, Jesus wrote what on what stones, according to what evidence? (And what language would Jesus have written the tablets in anyway?) I apologize if you’re being sarcastic and I missed it.

“Leading evolutionists are almost unanimous is linking evolution and atheism.”

So they suck at philosophy.

“When I want to know what is important to God, I see what Satan attacks the most.”

Geocentricism must be more important than we realized then.

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