Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters, Part 2

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We saw last week that wisdom was represented as a woman in Proverbs. (We looked at Proverbs 8:22-31, but you can see it almost anywhere in Proverbs 1-9.) This is called “personification,” i.e., when human traits are given to something abstract to make it seem more concrete. We do this today, for example by referring to death as the Grim Reaper.

Ancient Israelites, as well as other ancient cultures, personified the concept of wisdom. (When personified, Wisdom is normally written with an upper case W to distinguish it from wisdom the concept.) Since wisdom was also an important attribute of God, this personified Wisdom came to be associated very closely with God himself. Not only was Wisdom there early on with God, the first of his works (Proverbs 8:22), but also some early interpreters assigned a superior, more God-like role to Wisdom.

Wisdom is Creator

For some early interpreters, Wisdom was not just the first of God’s works, but actually involved somehow in the act of creation. That is one way of handling the absence of any reference to Wisdom along with the other created things in Genesis 1. She was creating right along with God.

For example, the Jewish philosopher and biblical interpreter Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. to A.D. 50) writes,

And who is to be considered the daughter of God but Wisdom, who is the firstborn mother of all things (Questions in Genesis 4:97).

Wisdom is firstborn, similar to what we see in Proverbs 8:22, but she is also the motherof all things. Wisdom has a creative role.

Some interpreters found a clever way of “seeing” Wisdom in Genesis 1:1, by associating her with the word “beginning.” Remember that in Proverbs 8:22 God made Wisdom “the beginning of his works.” “Beginning” is the same Hebrew word in Genesis 1:1. Some early interpreters saw this as a “hook” to bring the Wisdom of Proverbs 8 into Genesis 1:1.

This move is seen in two Targums to Genesis 1:1:

With wisdom did God create and perfect the heavens and the earth (Fragment Targum to Genesis 1:1)

In the beginning with wisdom did God create (Targum Neophyti to Genesis 1:1)

It is not clear whether wisdom is personified in these Targums, but that is neither here not there. In the minds of these interpreters, there was a need to see wisdom in Genesis 1 but not as a created being. “Beginning” is the hook that allows it.

Philo, never one to shy away from creative interpretations, went a little further. He said that “beginning” was one of Wisdom’s names.

By using different names for it, Moses indicates that the exalted, heavenly wisdom has many names: he calls it “beginning,” “image,” and “appearance of God.” (Allegorical Interpretations 1:43)

Other ancient interpreters went further and equated God and Wisdom: to speak of one is to speak of the other. The Wisdom of Solomon (early first century A.D.) gives a lengthy overview of Israel’s history. Whatever God did in the Old Testament, this author said Wisdom did. For example, it was Wisdom who delivered Israel from Egypt (10:15-21). This author is not pitting Wisdom against God. He is saying that “Wisdom” is one way of talking about the God of the Old Testament.

These different takes on “wisdom” were all generated by ancient interpreters trying to account for things like Proverbs 8 and the absence of any reference to wisdom in Genesis. Ancient interpreters saw that Wisdom “needed” to be either created prior to anything else or somehow be part of the creation process. They simply filled in what the Bible left unsaid.

We are not that Different

As much as we today might look at this imaginative approach as subjective and uncontrolled, ancient interpreters felt they were doing precisely what God wanted them to. Actually, these ancient interpreters felt that, by leaving things unsaid, God was actually inviting them to “fill in the gaps.”

But before we are too hard on these interpreters for “making things up,” we need to take the log out of our own interpretive eye first. We might agree or disagree with what ancient interpreters said about wisdom, but we should not be too hard on them for filling in the gaps. We also fill in the gaps when we read. Let me give one example.

If you talk to anyone who has grown up familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth, they will be able to recount the story with ease. Mary rides into Bethlehem on a donkey, led by Joseph. She is about to give birth but one insensitive innkeeper after another turns them away. They make their way to a manger, and after Jesus is born, the three wise men come and present him with gifts, surrounded by farm animals.

This is very familiar, but the problem is that much of this is not really in the text but in the “gaps.” Read Luke 2:1-7. There is no donkey, no mean innkeeper(s), no manger (rather a feeding trough), no three wise men (no number is not given, let alone the traditional names of Melchior, Caspar, and Belthasar), no farm animals.

We fill in the gaps, too. Surely, Mary could not have walked to Bethlehem in her condition: she rode a donkey. Surely the innkeeper(s) must have been cranky not to take in a pregnant woman, so we make them out to be surly. (Truth be told, Jerusalem must have been overflowing with people due to the census ordered by Augustus. Who knows how many people had to be turned away.) Surely, a feeding trough implies a farm setting with animals and all, so we supply them. Surely, the fact that three gifts were given—gold, frankincense and myrrh—implies that there were three wise men. We even give them names, to boot.

Whatever ancient interpreters might have made up, at least they were typically very conscious of what they were doing and very intentional in how they did it. We today are not always as self-conscious about what we say the Bible says.

Here is something to think about. How much of what you see in the creation stories in Genesis is in the text and how much of it is not? And listen to others when they talk about the creation stories. To what extent are they reading the text or reading into it? Then before you get too critical, read the creation stories again and take note of the “gaps” in the text (such as, “Where did Cain get his wife from?”). We all fill them in. How do you fill those gaps, and why do you fill them the way you do?

If you enter into that process, you will have entered the long and honored history of biblical interpretation, where neither the questions nor even some of the answers are all that new.

We will continue next week with more on Genesis 1.


About the Author

Pete Enns

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.

More posts by Pete Enns