On reading Genesis as literature: breaking the hermeneutical bonds of a modern controversy

On the absence of Genesis

Recently, I realized that I could not think of a single instance over the past 10 years in which Genesis was used as the primary text of the sermon. Of course, I limited my thought experiment to congregations that I had personally attended, and though I acknowledge that there are too many exceptions to make a sweeping generalization, I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences. Today, Genesis is a relatively neglected text in the arena of ecclesial exposition. Given its canonical importance in the biblical text, however, and the primacy of the Genesis narratives in biblical theology (or redemptive history), I am eager to witness—if not facilitate—a radical reversal of this trend in the church body. In short, I am of the opinion that Genesis should be read, preached, and studied at least annually within every congregation.We need not be subtle in answering why pastors commonly consign Genesis to a reference in passing, rather than the point of departure for most sermons. A great deal of controversy in the modern church has centered around the Genesis narratives—a problem noted by the very title of this blog. Drawing from the sentiments of personal acquaintances (including some pastors), I realize that most church leaders have approached Genesis with caution, not wishing to ignite a divisive dialogue among the laity. They realize that when Genesis is read, hands go up, and not a few members ultimately wish to hear their own position fortified and certain others denounced.

Any sophisticated study of Genesis, moreover, necessarily entails some very difficult questions (regardless of one’s hermeneutical inclinations). What do we say about the historicity of the patriarchs? Of the flood? The age of the earth? How does the cosmogony given in Genesis 1–2 intersect with modern science—or does it? Unfortunately, we all share an epistemic stumbling block in that we live in a society born out of the European Enlightenment and demand systematic and scientific understanding of nearly every topic we encounter. Could it be that we have inappropriately projected this mentality back onto Genesis? I hope to convince you that we have indeed.

Warrant for caution or resolution?

A common challenge to pastors thus arises out of the fact that diverse opinions are accompanied by a ubiquitous philosophical ambition for singular truth. When preaching through Genesis, one must decide 1) whether or not to take a firm stance on any one view; 2) which views to teach or critique; and 3) whether any view should be bound to the conscience of the believer. Consequently it seems that all too often, sermons on Genesis constitute more a commentary on the demographics of the church than on the biblical message.

I want to submit to you, therefore, that we can move forward by reading Genesis apart from this modern controversy. In other words, let us avoid anachronism by critiquing the reader before the text. Once we recognize the hermeneutical bonds of our own Sitz im leben, we are better prepared to approach Genesis for what it really is: a piece of ancient, divinely inspired literature and historiography that functions both theologically and polemically within its own unique time and place.

When people ask me which ‘view’ of Genesis I take (the day-age view, the six-day view, the analogical day view, the framework hypothesis, etc.), I typically respond with “none of the above”. I do not intend to be cunning with this answer, but critical. In my experience, many of these views begin by taking a firm stance on the modern controversy over science/faith, the age of the earth, etc., and then interpret scripture accordingly (these presuppositions may or may not be vocalized). Even Ken Ham—who would snidely respond with the truistic “I take the biblical view!”—is not free from the influence of his rejection of modern geology and evolutionary theory on reading scripture. Appealing to a ‘plain, common-sense reading of the text’ adds absolutely nothing to the discussion, not least because no such reading exists. The ideal of ‘common sense’ is as fluid as society, culture, and even academic disciplines.

I am alluding here in part to the postmodernist challenge to literary criticism. [In case I have raised a flag in your mind at the mere mention of this word, please bare with me.] We need not capitulate to relativism to appreciate postmodernist theory in at least one positive light: it stands a necessary challenge to the reductionism and arrogance of modernism. Any critique of a text must simultaneously be a critique of the reader. Literalistic readings of Genesis are often simplistic and theologically unsophisticated, in part because they aspire to narrowly define meaning so as to avoid any influence from ‘modern science’ or liberalism. In so doing, however, they separate the text from its own Sitz im leben, treating it as an autonomous entity that functions more like a mirror than a window. Consequently, biblical literalists ultimately tell us more about themselves than the worldview of the biblical authors. In this sense, their readings are more ‘postmodern’ than they would freely admit, but without any critical force.

Through a glass darkly

Before one accuses me of placing Genesis beyond the reach of any non-expert in literary criticism (this includes myself, by the way), I should clarify that our ‘misreadings’ are not necessarily fruitless. In no way do we undermine the perspicuity of scripture by highlighting interpretive difficulties. Consider, for example, J.P. Fokkelman’s (1975) metaphor of the living text:

The birth of a text resembles that of man: the umbilical cord which connected the text with its time…is severed once its existence has become a fact; the text is going to lead a life of its own, for whenever a reader grants it an adequate reading it will come alive and become operative and it usually survives its maker. Whereas the creation of a text is finite…its re-creation is infinite. It is a task for each new age, each new generation, each new reader, never to be considered complete.

In other words, all forms of literature function artistically in that two parties are involved—the author and the reader. Both parties contribute to the significance of a text, which—as an explicative symbolism—cannot be reduced to mere words on a page or an object of scientific analysis. Readings can be effectual, therefore, without mimicking authorial intent (the most pertinent examples can be found in the New Testament usage of the Hebrew Bible), since all readings are in fact dialogues between the reader and the text, or between the reader and the author.1

Nearly all literary critics admit that we can never truly read an author’s thoughts after him/her. They are divided, however, on whether the very pursuit—futile or not—constitutes a worthy goal. We gain some insight, perhaps, in the writings of E.D. Hirsch, who is best noted for distinguishing between the ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ of a text. ‘Meaning’ is ultimately rooted in authorial intent, according to Hirsch, who finds himself in the academic minority (albeit, a highly valued one) for positing that authorial intent is theoretically knowable. Although Hirsch writes in response to the New Criticism, embodied to some extent by Fokkelman’s metaphor, their insights need not be taken as mutually exclusive. Commenting on the previous citation by Fokkelman, for example, B.W. Anderson (1978) writes:

Frankly, I must admit to misgivings about some exercises in rhetorical criticism which seem to be purely formal, almost mathematical, and lack a dimension of depth that adds richness to the text. Moreover, some biblical theologians wonder whether this new form of literalism, which disavows interest in historical questions, leads us to a docetic view of revelation…Despite these reservations, one is compelled to agree that the proper starting-point methodologically is with the text as given, not with the reconstruction of the prehistory of the text which, as Fokkelman observes, is usually ‘an unattainable ideal.’

Anderson’s use of the term “literalism” here should not necessarily be equated with the hermeneutic of young-Earth creationism (as I’ve used it above). Instead, he is contrasting two broad schools of thought: those which begin with the text alone (literalism), and those which begin with the ‘prehistory’ of a text (i.e. compositional history, such as the documentary hypothesis surrounding the Pentateuch, and/or the cultural setting of the author). In the former, readings lack depth and preclude any meaningful historical discussion; in the latter, readings are potentially misguided by the pursuit of an impossible standard. In light of this analytical tension, Anderson exhorts us to consider the “functional unity” of the received text first; the unified message of the text’s literary components are to be established at the outset. Then—and only then—are we free to explore the historical function and genesis of each component or literary source.

If we endeavor to treat the biblical text not as a mirror, which can only serve to reorient our own paradigms and experience, but rather as a window to the author’s message, then we need to be acutely aware of all presuppositions we bring to the discussion. We should not pretend, moreover, that the spotted window can be polished to perfection with the ‘Windex’ of modern literary analysis. As in real life, cleaning the ‘windows of biblical narrative’ may only enhance their reflective quality. The influence of the reader on a text is ultimately inescapable, but a perceptive mind can at least distinguish in general between the reflection and what filters through the glass—given that it knows what to look for. Lastly, we should be conscious that even biblical narrative recounts history ‘as through a glass darkly’ because it is selective of the facts, and through stained glass because it explains those facts poetically in terms of God’s eschatological providence.2

The need for a new (hermeneutical) exodus of Genesis

What I have proposed here is neither novel nor exhaustive (despite my optimistic subheading). At best, I have provided an outline and a point of departure for the discussion to follow. I won’t pretend to have all the right answers, but I hope that I have at least asked the right questions. Can we read Genesis apart from modern controversies regarding science and faith? If so, how? Lastly, does this ‘fresh perspective’ offer any unique value to the church? Does it mitigate or only deepen the outstanding conflict among congregations today? Perhaps, the proof is (or will be) in the pudding.

Inasmuch as literary analysis tends to atomize textual elements, our reading of Genesis should remain conscious of an organic unity in the biblical text. In other words, however we tackle the elusive meaning of Genesis 1, our reading should simultaneously explain how Genesis 1–2:4 functions in the literary unit of Genesis 1–3. To be consistent, and to test the predictive power of our reading, we can apply this principle to the greater literary units of Genesis 1–11, Genesis 1–50, the Pentateuch as a whole, and the Hebrew bible as a whole. In each case, we can ask whether our reading elucidates these later texts—i.e. whether it functions canonically—or causes hermeneutical conflicts. For the Christian, our reading of Genesis 1–2:4 should also elucidate the gospel narratives to be effective or acceptable, I think.

Take the example of Genesis 1:2, which tells us that “the spirit of God was moving over the waters” (NASB). This chaotic prelude to creation is recounted intertextually in a number of subsequent narratives—most notably following the climax of the Flood narrative, where “God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided” (Gen. 8:1; consider that the same word is used for ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’). If we are inclined to remain focused on the meteorological characteristics of the wind, then we will inevitably miss how the author has set the stage for a new creation of heaven and earth around Noah, God’s new Adam. Genesis 8 effectively retells the creation narrative of Genesis 1, which begs the question: are the six days of creation merely a past reality? Is God still resting?

In Exodus 14:21, the Lord “swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided,” thus retelling the exodus story as a new creation of heaven and earth centered around Israel, God’s new Adam. What does this tell us about the vocation of Israel? About the mechanism and significance of God’s role as creator? Matthew’s gospel (especially the genealogy) is perhaps the most explicit in presenting the incarnation and gospel ministry as a new creation centered around Jesus, God’s new Adam. In Matthew 3:16, we are even told that “After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove…”. How does Genesis 1:2 function canonically in these texts? Do our previous interpretations of Genesis 1–2:4 deprive it of such a function?

This literary-canonical approach presupposes organic unity to the text (i.e. divine inspiration) without dismissing the literary contributions of individual authors and their cultural (sociological) settings. If done well, we can further proceed to ask historical (and scientific) questions surrounding the text without drawing the false dichotomy between ‘story’ and ‘meaning’. In other words, we need not take upon us the imprudent and impossible task of separating reality from metaphor, myth from history, and modern science from ancient phenomenology. Finally, we can even delve into questions regarding the compositional history of the Bible (including the Pentateuch) without deconstructing the meaning and significance of the biblical message.

When we read Genesis, we enter into dialogue with a very distant conversational partner. Will we let him speak, or simply listen for the echo of our own monologue?


1. To offer a more practical example of this concept, consider the love sonnets of Shakespeare. The same sonnet can be read differently by two parties without betraying the message of the author: the first is a 65-year-old widower who was married for 30 years; the second is a 16-year-old girl who is jealous of her older sibling’s recent engagement. For the widower, the text serves as nostalgic realism, appealing to his own romantic experience, which now stands distant. For the young girl, the same text serves as fantasy, appealing to an experience hoped for, but not yet realized. We need not conclude, however, that Shakespeare’s message is entirely lost to the difficulties of interpretive relativism.

2. I cannot take credit for this metaphor, but I found it too insightful not to share. I hope that it serves its purpose.

References Cited:

Anderson, B.W., 1978, From Analysis to Synthesis: the interpretation of Genesis 1–11: Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 97, p. 23–39.

Fokkelman, J.P., 1975, Narrative Art in Genesis: Specimens of Stylistic and Structural Analysis: Amsterdam, 260 p.


6 responses to “On reading Genesis as literature: breaking the hermeneutical bonds of a modern controversy

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