Part 4: The Genres of Genesis
The early chapters of Genesis cannot be right if we suppose them to be writings of accurate science. We have before us two basic interpretive options, each represented already in the older work of Augustine and Calvin. On the one hand, we have Augustine’s strategy. Augustine tells us that Genesis is more theological and allegorical than scientific, so if it seems scientifically wrong this is because we’ve read the book incorrectly by taking it as a book of science. In other words, Augustine’s “solution” for the conflict between Scripture and science is generic: once we understand the non-scientific genre of Genesis, then we can no longer say that Genesis has its science wrong. On the other hand, we have Calvin’s strategy: Genesis is not a book of science and, precisely because of that, we can admit as irrelevant the fact that it reflects ancient and errant views of the cosmos.
Among evangelicals who wish to accept (or at least be open to) evolutionary theory, many have sided with Augustine. The claim is made that the Genesis creation account is not science but rather more like the ancient creation stories from Egypt and Mesopotamia, which are typically understood as myths. The term “myth” is controversial and not always carefully defined. The main point is that myths are assumed to be creative, symbolic, theological writings and are not designed to answer technical questions about the structure of the cosmos and the origins of life. In other words, these texts were written by ancient people who did not have access to the kinds of information that they would have needed to answer even basic scientific questions. One evangelical who epitomizes this approach is Greg Beale, who advances the idea that Genesis 1 is not amenable to scientific criticism because it was written in a genre that used “Cosmic Temple” imagery (i.e., myth) to depict the created order.1
This approach is partly right and far better than the fundamentalist attempt to turn Genesis into a science book, but in the end I do not find it convincing. The primary difficulty with this approach is that, in certain important respects, Genesis turns out to be a work of ancient scholarship that really is informed by science … but informed by ancient science rather than modern science. The modern distinction between “myth” and “science,” or “myth” and “history,” simply did not exist in antiquity, or at least not in the same way as it does for us. The Egyptians used the same word (gnwt) to refer to what we would call “myths” and “histories,” and in Mesopotamia we observe that scribes consulted myths like Enuma Elish when they were creating scientific cosmologies.2 And it is precisely in these cosmological works, and not merely in myths, that we find a belief that there were “waters above the heavens,” as Genesis also has it. In other words, though the ancient scribes did not necessarily think that myth and scholarly cosmology was precisely the same genre, they did believe that the two genres were closely related.
Given the parallels between the cosmology of Genesis and ancient cosmology, are we not wiser to view Genesis as a book of theology and ancient scholarship? I think that the answer must be yes. For if we look elsewhere in the early chapters of Genesis and compare them to other ancient texts, at almost every step we are confronted with the genres of ancient scholarship.
The flood story, for instance, was a standard feature in ancient histories. Equally at home in ancient scholarship was the use of genealogies, of eponymous ancestors to explain the origins of nations and ethnic groups, of numbers that were mathematically and/or astronomically interesting, and a belief that the gods were responsible for humanity’s many languages.
So Genesis does reflect the views of ancient scholarship and even of science. At the same time, it’s also quite true that there are parts of Genesis 1-11 that seem to be creative works of theology rather than ”pure” science or history (as we might put it). The author(s) used a creation story to project a weekly sabbatical pattern into the order of human life in (Genesis 1). In the next two chapters (Genesis 2-3) he combined various mythical motifs—found in Near Eastern stories like the Gilgamesh Epic and Adapa Legend—to produce a second creation story and the story of humanity’s fall. In fact, the very pattern of “creation, population growth, flood” seems to be patterned after the Atrahasis Epic. So, generically speaking, Genesis is more than “myth or science.” It is a highly intentional piece of ancient scholarship that combines what we call myth, legend, history and science into a theologically oriented composition.
If we add the insights of Calvin to those of Augustine, then I believe we have before us some of the theological resources that we need to understand Genesis. On the one hand, Augustine was right. There are theological and symbolic elements in Genesis that we should not mistake for science or history. On the other hand, Calvin was right. There are elements in Genesis that really do reflect an ancient and scientifically errant view of the cosmos.
The verdict is in. One way or another, it is not a good idea to use the book of Genesis as a guide for our modern scientific queries, or even to expect it to enter into modern scientific conversation. Rather, our science should be deduced mainly by carefully studying God’s world and by receiving the results as a “word” from God and as evidence of his majesty and creativity. I freely admit that this “conclusion” leaves us with more theological work to do. We still have the apparent problem that death entered the cosmos before human beings existed, and also the pressing question of how the “Adam” of Genesis, and more importantly of Romans, should be understood in light of theological orthodoxy and the evolutionary process. But those are questions to consider at another time.
1. See G. K. Beale, Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority: The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), 161-218.
2. Donald B. Redford, Pharaonic King-Lists, Annals and Day-Books (Mississauga: Ben-ben, 1986), 65-96; Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005), 321-22.