On reading Genesis as literature: the dialogic of Genesis 1–3

 “An utterance is always a reply.” –Mikhail Bakhtin

The act of creatio ex nihilo is one reserved to God alone, for no work of art—including literature—is formed in a vacuum. As much as the reader’s own experience plays into the interpretive framework of any text1, so the text’s literary framework is governed by the experience of the author2. Following this axiom, it may seem sensible to begin our study of Genesis by positioning ourselves ‘behind the text’—that is, to capture to the best of our ability the literary, linguistic, and cultural experience of the author so as to dissect the story analytically. But this method betrays the very function of narrative, its mimesis of reality3, which “according to [Paul] Ricoeur…creates a world…meant to be entered, inhabited, and appropriated by the reader.”4 The literary study of Genesis cannot be reduced to an external scientific appraisal, for our primary interest is not whether the narrative represents reality but how:

As the reader dwells in the created world of the story, new possibilities are opened up for articulating and conveying truth and meaning,” so that “narrative…configures a world that has the potential power to refigure the reader’s world.”5

Ultimately, we want to answer “What truth did the author mean to convey?” Our answer to this holistic question is commonly formed by preliminary observation, however, and so it guides our interpretation of the particulars from which it is supposedly drawn. One may be inclined to describe Genesis 1–2:4 as history, for example, because it recounts a temporal sequence and prefaces the much larger history of Israel. Fair enough; the story does proceed from point A to point B. But how do we ascertain that the narrative flow of the text (e.g., “there was evening and morning…”) necessarily describes a chronological sequence of events, rather than a logical sequence of thought?6 We immediately appeal to our predetermination of the story’s intended truth, wherein the unknown parts are made familiar in light of the whole. This Platonic circle is self-reinforcing by nature, and without conscious self-critique cannot improve our understanding of the author’s truth. On the other hand, if we appeal instead to linguistic data (e.g., the semantic domain of terms like ‘day’, ‘create’), cultural data (e.g., comparative literature studies), or scientific data (cosmology and history), do we ‘widen the circle’ or have we already abandoned the narrative world in which that truth is articulated?

I begin this way that we might contemplate how to decipher the narrative of Genesis 1–3 exegetically (operating within the text itself) while maintaing a sort of critical realism7—whether overtly or not, the histories of the text and its author do inform our interpretation. These goals are seemingly at odds with one another, because critical inquiry presumes that we are not necessarily bound to the rules of the story. Leo Strauss describes the tension thusly:

“We are confronted with the incompatible claims of Jerusalem and Athens to our allegiance. We are open to both and willing to listen to each. We ourselves are not wise but we wish to become wise…By saying that we wish to hear first and then to act to decide, we have already decided in favor of Athens against Jerusalem.”8

Such is the paradox of our task, but we are not immobilized by it. We all depend on critical analysis, if for no other reason than because the ancient story must be translated. Even if we learn Hebrew, for example, the connotative disparity between our language and theirs is not one that can fully be bridged.9 Our understanding of the text is always limited because it results from a continuous interaction between the narrative language and extrabiblical concepts—neither of which we can know exhaustively. Each informs the other within the mind of the reader. Perhaps the best way to proceed, then, is to vocalize our hermeneutical reliances at every step, so that we are always open to critique, not least from ourselves:

A recognition that humans are interpreters who have finite interpretative contexts and that understanding, explanation and new understanding are hermeneutical, having the capacity to create suspicion, counter dogmatism, and check reductionism, applies to both science and biblical interpretation. A hermeneutics of finitude and suspicion…begins to make us aware of our own situatedness and offers a critique of any notion of a view from nowhere, while also providing the necessary trajectory towards a robust hermeneutics of trust.”10

The importance of humility cannot be overstated when the task also concerns spiritual growth. We have the advantage here in that the biblical text constantly reminds us not only of our fallibility, but our proclivity thereto. Our pursuit of knowledge should be accompanied, therefore, by prayer and study alike. And although we turn to the Spirit and the Word for wisdom, our reliance thereupon should not be used in and of itself to bolster our conclusions—that is, to conflate God’s inerrancy with our own.

Genesis is…?

Fill in the blank to expose your bias: history, myth, poetry, allegory? Western thought is thoroughly systematic, often to our demise. Consider, for example, the dialectic pursuit of the species in evolutionary biology. Within that paradigm, the clear delineation between one species and the next is not a predictable phenomenon, unlike in Linnaean taxonomy which was built upon the notion of created kinds. Nonetheless, taxonomists and systematic paleontologists carry on heated debate over where to draw lines in the shifting sand because further analysis presupposes such categories. We think categorically because we perceive things abstractly; everything belongs to a transcendent ideal because that is how we connect the dots.

This tendency to articulate truth abstractly, however, derives not from the Hebrews but from the Greeks. If you were to ask a modern American philosopher to explain the challenge of theodicy, for example, he/she might begin by defining the attributes of God, world, man, sovereignty, evil, and justice. Definitions yield contradictions; contradictions yield dialectic; dialectic becomes treatise. Truth is monological from beginning to end.

How might a priest in ancient Israel respond to the same question? I believe that on the basis of biblical tradition, we can do more than just speculate. The priest does not begin with disambiguation. Instead, he introduces you to the character of Iyyob (Job), whose name is simultaneously a pun for ‘persecuted one’ and ‘repentant one’. Job is described as a righteous man who suffered greatly, and seemingly without cause. The philosophical dilemma of theodicy is explained through narrative as Job matches wits with several interlocutors in search of the source of his suffering. Truth is dialogical and polyphonic; the debate is open-ended and we are not sure whose side to take. At last, God enters the picture to settle it for us. His discourse is sharp, His rhetoric condemning. ‘You are wrong to attribute evil to Me, but your friends are wrong to attribute that evil to you.’

In the end, no final answer is given that would justify Job’s suffering in plain terms. God’s justice is incontrovertible because it is unknowable, and to question God’s motives presupposes one’s own divine authority (a false premise). God gives and takes for his own reasons, and we are wrong to demand a moralistic framework.11 In fact, a moralistic framework would undermine the righteousness of Job, which finds ultimate expression in the face of adversity—not blessing. The author does not approach the question, however, like a theologian or a philosopher. Abstract concept is explained through concrete story, which appeals to the imagination over logic. Truth remains dialogical, and contradiction serves as a vehicle to explore truth—not to define it.

In Genesis also, narrative is the preferred mode of expression for abstract thought. Whenever we try to apply modern categories to its story, we run the risk of reductionism. Discussions on ‘myth’ and ‘history’ in Genesis are potentially misleading, for example, because they assume the Greek categories of mythos and historie12. Nonetheless, we are western thinkers and cannot help but to observe how Genesis is or is not like our own writings. Along these lines, one of the most helpful guides I have found comes from Diepstra and Laugherly (2009):

Genesis is…

  • Revelatory, in that it offers a unique perspective of the cosmos—its structure, origin, and eschatology.
  • Historical, in that it recounts the beginnings of the cosmos, and specifically the origin and place of Israel within that cosmos.
  • Theological, in that it explicates the covenant god of Israel and his relationship to the cosmos (mankind in particular).
  • Literature, in that its truth is conveyed through narrative, which is “laced with drama and saturated with symbolic artistry that engages the imagination of the reader.”13

I prefer this fourfold approach (which may be expanded) because it holds the many disciplines in healthy tension so as to avoid the reductionism that follows when one is applied to the exclusion of others. We may consider that effect for each category as follows:

  • Genesis is just a dictation of God’s message, or just a polemical response to contemporary cultures.
  • Genesis is just an account of what really happened before Israel, or just an improved version of conflicting histories of man/civilization.
  • Genesis is just an explanation of who God is, who man is, and what God requires of man, or just a profession that God created/guides the cosmos, but not how.
  • Genesis is just ancient historiography/mythology, appealing to fantasy over fact, or just a representation of the contemporary setting of the author.

Our human tendency, especially among academics, is to approach Genesis on the level that feels most comfortable to us. Admittedly, you will see this tendency in my own writings.14 It can be quite easy for a theologian to ‘theologize’ all historical aspects of Genesis, for example, because he/she feels ‘that is the main thrust of the text’. Similarly, the historian may tend to ‘historicize’ all theological aspects. But we should not dismiss their insight simply because it is exclusive or cursory. Conversely, it can be just as easy for the common reader to opt for a ‘plain reading’ of Genesis because he/she is yet unfamiliar with contributions from academia. With these constraints in mind, let us enter the narrative world of Genesis.

Trajectory of the creation narrative in Genesis 1–2:3

Heaven and earth are split along two complementary paths in the first creation narrative. From a divine perspective, everything moves in orderly fashion from chaos to order; from ‘good’ to ‘very good’; from work to Sabbath rest. What appears a dark and dismal portrayal of primordial earth—set in darkness and clothed by unbound waters—soon fades from sight as the cosmos are divided into recognizable forms and adorned with majestic inhabitants. Unlike their mythological counterparts, the various forces of nature offer no resistance to the covenant god of Israel. He speaks, and it is done.15 Nonetheless, his actions are described as ‘work’, conveying a sense of temporary incompleteness but with a clear goal in mind. God may rest from his work when all is harmonious and in working order—when chaos no longer threatens the functional unity of its parts.

From an earthly perspective, the creative works of God are systematically focused toward his most prized work, and what has often been called the ‘pinnacle’ of God’s creation: mankind, who alone bears the divine image. The respective days of creation answer the ‘problem statement’ of Genesis 1:1, that “the earth was without form (tohu) and without inhabitant (bohu)”, in exactly that order. First, the chaotic seas are divided from each other and from the land. Second, each habitat is filled with the appropriate occupants. The stage is set for mankind to “fill the earth and subdue it”, that he may share with God in the act of creation and ultimately the Sabbath rest. As the divine representative on earth, he is called to a life of imitatio dei, in which he will work to extend God’s glory across the earth until he likewise can rest.

All of the described events look forward to the seventh day. This narrative flow is most explicit in the sixfold refrain “there was evening, and there was morning…”, which not only indicates the passing of time but a temporary rest between working days. Yet on the seventh day, the refrain is absent. We need not inquire what God was doing on the ‘eighth’ day, because within the narrative world of Genesis 1–2:3, the seventh day is without end.

Stylistic and thematic considerations

–= Toda traducción es una traición =–

The principle that ‘every translation is a betrayal’ is conveniently demonstrated by translating into English this Spanish proverb, whose rhyme and alliteration (tr…ón, tr…ón) are lost in the process. Repetitive elements (including some rhyme and alliteration) abound in the creation narrative, even within the first sentence (br…br, et ha…et ha; see Hebrew in citation below). Some of these elements have already been mentioned, and nearly all are associated with the number seven. Jeff Morrow summarizes thusly:

The number seven is important for the form and content of Genesis 1 as the number of perfection in the ancient Near East, the number relating to covenant, and of course, the number of the day known as the Sabbath… Genesis 1:1 contains seven words: běrē’šît bārā’ ’elōhîm ’ēt hašāmayim wě’ēt hā’āreṣ. Genesis 1:2 has fourteen words, seven times two. Furthermore, significant words in this passage occur in multiples of seven: God (35 times, i.e., seven times five), earth (21 times, i.e., seven times three), heavens/firmament (21 times), “and it was so” (7 times), and “God saw that it was good” (7 times).16

Although Genesis 1–2:3 cannot accurately be described as ‘poetry’,17 its style is perhaps more comparable to the Psalms than to the court history of David. Genesis 1:27 even contains a parallelistic tricolon, which is found in some Hebrew poetry18. Personally, I find the term ‘Creation Hymn’ most helpful and appropriate. Regardless of how we identify the stylistic genre in modern terms, however, we should not ignore the implications of these ‘semi-poetic’ elements for us, the reader. Far from reducing Genesis to imaginative fantasy, the author presents the story in such a way that it addresses an ever present reality for endless generations to come19. Marc Vervenne unfolds this line of reasoning (emphasis added):

“In my opinion…[Gen 1,1–2,3] is best expressed with the title ‘Cosmic Liturgy of the Seventh Day’. This compositional unit contains a rich theology concerning the creative and sanctifying hand of Elohim viewed from the cosmic perspective. ‘Creation’ is understood here as a continuous transition from disarray to order, from unrest to rest, from chaos to harmony. While this process is presented as a primeval event it has, in fact, everything to do with history and with the temporal situation of the readers/listeners…The ‘seventh day’ is a free space in history, one which is not bound to time or place. Within this space, Israel escapes from the natural and social ‘primal powers’ which can throw her back into chaos. To participate in the rest of the seventh day is to participate in the continuous creative activity of Elohim and to ward off the many-sided menace posed by the powers of chaos.”20

The style of Genesis 1–2:3 is such that it can easily be memorized and sung/recited among the congregation. In doing so, we not only celebrate God as unrivaled Creator of all that is, but we pray “Let your will be done on earth as in heaven”. The building of God’s kingdom (and sanctifying of His people) through the gospel message is no less a work of creation than the acts founds in Genesis 1–2:3.

Is there any external evidence that Genesis 1–2:3 was intended to function liturgically? We gain some insight from comparison to contemporary literature, such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish. This ancient creation hymn—which begins “When on high the heaven had not been named, and earth below had not been called by name” and is recorded on seven tablets—celebrates the victory of Marduk over Tiamat and her husband Apsu; over the powers of chaos. Each year, the text was read publicly at the New Year’s Festival, which itself offered divine hope that life would return to the barren (uncreated) land that Spring/Summer. Similarly, Genesis 1–2:3 may have been related to the Feast of Tabernacles in Israel, which took place over a week’s time, culminated in a Sabbath rest, and celebrated the coming of the new year through God’s creative work.21
Thematically, the Genesis narrative shares much with its mythological counterparts:22 the primordial state is characterized by water (the chaotic sea); God overcomes that chaos by separating and naming each part; all of God’s actions are told as part of a story (the base etymology of mythos). More important than such broad similarity, however, are the numerous ways in which the Genesis narrative counterpoints its pagan relatives. The author of Genesis incorporates pagan myth not through accommodation but via metaleptic reorientation so as to create a sharp polemic thereagainst. The ‘great deep’, called tehom in Hebrew, echoes the name of the Babylonian goddess Tiamat, but she has been robbed of all her vitality, being represented here as inanimate waters that are entirely subject to the will of Elohim. The god of Israel neither fights rival deities nor gives birth to them; he (alone) is simply there in the beginning. The god of Israel thus has no mythos in the technical sense. His ‘story’ has no beginning and no end, despite the general trajectory of its path.

Even the heavenly hosts are demythologized and their cosmic reputation is laid low. For the Babylonian god Marduk, the stars were placed as trophies unto his outstanding victory. The Sun and Moon were themselves divine offspring of former gods. In Genesis, however, the creation of the heavenly hosts precedes that of earthly inhabitants, not only temporally but in terms of dominance:23 they were made to serve man and all life on earth; “to separate the day from the night, and…for signs and for seasons and for days and years” (Gen. 1:14). The author’s polemic is thus subtle and implicit, depending on the order of creation and the fact that sun and moon are each deprived of a proper name. Summarizing, Leo Strauss writes:

Not only did the biblical God not create any gods; on the basis of the biblical account of creation one could doubt whether He created any beings one would be compelled to call “mythical”: heaven and earth and all their hosts are always accessible to man as man. One would have to start from this fact in order to understand why the Bible contains so many sections that, on the basis of the distinction between mythical…and historical, would have to be described as historical.24

Trajectory of the creation narrative in Genesis 2:5–3:24

In the blink of an eye, the land again appears barren (Gen. 2:5). There is no man to cultivate the earth and no rain to water it. Yet in a second blink (Gen. 2:6–8), God forms man from the barren clay and brings life to the land. In this case, God’s creative work is described narratively as a series of responses to what is lacking in the primordial situation. Unlike the creation hymn, where God speaks, makes it so, and declares it to be ‘good’, in the Eden narrative God recognizes that things are ‘not good’ and then acts to remediate the problem (e.g., Gen. 2:18). Every created thing appears to tend to the needs of man. From the beginning, God is intimately concerned with man and his environment, like an artist who colors the canvas around the centerpiece of his work.

Stepping aside from the immediate context, we should briefly consider the broad trajectory of this story within the narrative unity of the Pentateuch. Harold Bloom writes concerning the author of Genesis 2:5–3:24 (called J by convention):

The Deuteronomist memorably incorporates J in his chapters 31 and 34, dealing with the death of Moses. I give here…Yahweh’s first and last actions: “Yahweh formed man from the dust of the earth,” and “Yahweh buried him, Moses, in the valley in the land of Moab, near Bethpeor; and no one knows his burial place to this day.” From Adam to Moses is from earth to earth; Yahweh molds us and he buries us, and both actions are done with his own hands.25

God calls us to communion with him and cares for us in life and death. Such is the distinguished attribute of the covenant god of Israel and the grand telos of man. Already, we should recognize that geography offers no guide to the garden in which man was set; the garden is where God is. On this point, the Eden narrative is thoroughly eschatological.

Next, two additional characters are introduced to the story: woman, taken from man, and a serpent, who appears out of nowhere. Man’s ability to fulfill his vocation as divine image is now contrasted and challenged by his peccability, through which he desires too much. The author transitions from one to the other by means of wordplay: the man and the woman were naked (arom) and unashamed, but the serpent was more cunning (arum) than other creatures.

“Did God really say…?” The serpent casts doubt on the accuracy and pertinence of God’s word and portrays it as self-serving: ‘he knows that you will become like him, knowing good from evil’. In response, the woman lusts for the fruit26, seeing that it was good for eating, delightful to the eyes, and able to make one wise. Her husband overlooks God’s command and lusts to fulfill his wife’s passion, which becomes his own:

The best interpretation understands the eating of the tree as the assertion of moral autonomy. In other words, by eating the fruit, the human couple is essentially claiming that they know better than God.27

And so they ate, and in eating they attained divine knowledge. But the irony of their action is revealed subtly by the immediate result: their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked. The cunning (arum) serpent has exposed the nakedness (arom) of man, who is now ashamed before God. In the order of their entrance, each character now departs through a curse: the serpent, the woman, and the man.

All hope is lost, it seems, for the idyllic garden of God. The tension between the serpent and the woman will become a perpetual reality. Each blow (to the heel and to the head, respectively) is a crippling death blow to the other—mutually assured destruction28. Even the woman’s desire for her husband will cause her to become subservient to him. As for man, he was placed in the garden to bring life thereto, but now he will work outside of it, met only by frustration until death reveals the vanity of his life. Thorns and thistles shall remind him that he is not so similar to God as he presumed.

God banishes the man from the garden, “and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life” (3:24). At this point, the narrative offers a peculiar hope not in what it states explicitly, but in silence. God “drove the man out”—what about the woman? Does she still have access to the tree of life? Surely she does not, for it is guarded by the cherubim. But the silence is telling, even mysterious, and it draws us back to the preceding verses.

Up to this point, we have seen creation in several modes: God formed the man and planted the garden, but the man cultivates the land to bring forth vegetation; God formed the animals, but the man names them; from man (ish) God formed the woman, and so the man names her woman (ishtah). God, man, and land all do their part in creation, which is described in tangible terms normally ascribed to potters and artisans. Yet none of them are given a proper name in this narrative; none except the woman, through whom there is hope for new life: “Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.” (3:20) The name Eve, which actually echoes the Aramaic word for ‘serpent’, is simultaneously a play on the word for life. Its true etymology is centered around hope, though it hangs by a thread.

With this simple pronouncement, the history of mankind is set in motion. Forward and backward, the story of Eden will cycle back on itself as the ‘seed of the serpent’ and the ‘seed of the woman’ clash together under variegated circumstance. Yet all is not in vain, for the creator god has become the redeemer god: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” (3:21) God has not given up on his garden, and neither should we.

Stylistic and thematic considerations

The Eden narrative is deceptively simple, written in plain terms that encompass the common human experience, but sufficiently foreign that it elicits imaginative speculation to explain its symbolism.29 Wordplay, thematic reversal, irony, and drama add levels of meaning which can be sought for a lifetime. Nonetheless, what we find on the surface is sufficiently powerful and accessible to transform the most unsophisticated mind.

On a literary level, the style of the Eden narrative stands in stark contrast to the preceding creation hymn. The story is immanent, and the sentiments of its characters are reflected in the text itself. Regarding the author of Gen. 2:5–3:24, Robert Alter observes that:

“his prose imparts a sense of rapid and perhaps precarious forward movement very different from [Genesis 1’s] measured parade from first day to seventh. It is a movement of restless human interaction with the environment, even in Eden: here man works the soil, which cannot realize its full inventory of nourishing plant life until that work has begun…”30

While the imago dei is not expressly assigned to man in the Eden narrative, the author’s description of man’s actions demand such a role. Man’s vocation to cultivate the earth and bring life thereto directly reflects that of his maker. In naming the animals, man does not endeavor to satisfy personal curiosity, but to share in the sanctifying acts of ‘dividing’ and ‘calling’ that are so systematically ascribed to God in the creation hymn. In a sense, he thus mimics the creation of living creatures “of all kinds” (Gen. 1:21, 24). Lastly, man is a being in relationship—in blessed communion with his environment, his wife, and his god. Mankind is simultaneously the one and the many, and his own multiplicity parallels that of the majestic and incomprehensible Elohim31 (cf. Gen. 1:26–27).

According to the author of the Eden narrative, the Lord himself walks among the garden (Gen. 2:8) and even posits rhetorical questions which, on the surface, seem to defy his omniscience. Such depictions of Yahweh recur throughout the well known narratives of Genesis, especially the account of Jacob. Rather than consign such accounts to the phenomenon of ‘anthropomorphism’, I offer a profound reversal of thought in the following comments by Harold Bloom:

[Yahweh] sensibly avoids walking about in the Near Eastern heat, preferring the cool of the evening, and he likes to sit under the terebinths at Mamre, devouring roast calf and curds. [The author of Genesis] would have laughed at his normative descendants—Christian, Jewish, secular, scholarly—who go on calling his representations of Yahweh “anthropomorphic,” when they should be calling his representations of Jacob “theomorphic.”32

In other words, the imaginative depiction of Yahweh in the garden should not cause us to liken God to man, but to see how Adam is portrayed in the divine image. This subtle intermingling of characteristics does not come without a sense of irony, however, as the lustful desire to be too like God results in the cursing and exile of mankind.

Genesis 1–3 as history

The opening statement of Genesis, typically translated as “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”, does not necessarily bind the story to an earthly timeline. It merely states that God alone is the transcendant author of history and the basis of our appeal when chaos threatens our well being (i.e. when things are less than ‘very good’). As we have noted previously, the timeline of Genesis 1–2:3 has no end, and God himself has no beginning. From a canonical perspective, the creative work of God is not yet finished, for the creation hymn is recaptured in the subsequent grand narratives of the Bible (including the gospel).

We do a great injustice to the text, therefore, in trying to establish when in earth history these ‘six days’ took place. There is no need to expand each day to fill great aeons (old-earth perspective) or to confine them to 144 hours at the head of history (young-earth perspective). The creation hymn is written liturgically—not simply to remind us how history began, but to remind us where history is going. The book of beginnings is a book that points forward by pointing back.33

Several parallels to the garden story can be found in Ancient Near Eastern literature, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. I only mention this in passing to highlight the magical and mythological character of those stories. For example, the trees of Dilmun are adorned with precious jewels and metals. Such treasures are not present in Eden (and they certainly don’t grow on trees), but there is mention of them in the surrounding lands. Consequently, “through the seemingly irrelevant description of the land of Havilah, [Genesis] has quite clearly sought to naturalize a mythological aspect of the garden.”34

On the other hand, the Garden of Eden is sufficiently ‘strange’ that it would be imprudent to locate it in time and space. To eat from the two trees in the center of the garden is a moral act, without specific regard for nourishment. The serpent is able to speak—eloquently at that. Although the four rivers would be familiar to the Near Eastern reader, as well as the lands of Havilah and Cush, they each flow out of the garden to water the whole earth. The setting is generally Mesopotamian, but the geography has been subverted to the narrative world of the author. The Cambridge Bible Commentary (1973, p. 10) describes a similar didactic in Greek literature:

[Story myths] may also be the conscious literary creation of a teacher whose concern is to help others to share his insights into the meaning of life. Plato’s myth of the prisoners in the cave in Book VII of the Republic is a good example… When Glaucon, after listening to the story, says to Socrates, ‘You are describing a strange scene and strange prisoners’, Socrates replies ‘They resemble us’.

From a historico-critical perspective, therefore, the garden is not a ‘real’ event in time and space. From a literary perspective, however, that is the point. The reality of the garden transcends plain history but is immanent to every inhabitant thereof.35 By historicizing the garden and its narrative inhabitants, the author has universalized the human condition that is so articulated by the history of God’s Israel.36 In other words, we should not simply read the biblical history in linear fashion, moving from one event to the next so as to reconstruct all of human history. On the basis of intertextual and thematic links, we should rather read the biblical narratives as a palimpsest,37 in which peeling back the narrative layers serves to elucidate the overlying topography:

Gospel
––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Monarchy/Exile/Return
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Exodus
––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Patriarchal
––––––––––––––––––––
Flood
–––––––––––––
Creation
––––––––

So we can say that Genesis is history, but this position is insufficient. What kind of history? Certainly not the documentary and explicative forms we employ in our classrooms today38—we insult the author of Genesis by reducing his work to such. In the terms of Paul Ricoeur, Genesis is poetic historiography in that it “takes the reality of the past, interprets…and then shapes it into a narrative through which a community of readers understands itself in the present.”39 I conclude, therefore, with Diepstra and Laughery (2009), who summarize the relationship thusly:

So, where does Genesis 1–3’s credibility lie for both science and Scripture? It lies in the “power of story” where imagination and the revelatory realities of God, and the world He created meet. The biblical story of beginnings brings together the meaningful structure of reality without wedding itself to a static architectural statement about the world.40

Genesis 1–3 as literary diptych

So far, I have split my comments between Genesis 1–2:3 and Genesis 2:5–3:24. What about Genesis 2:4, and what about the unit as a whole? There is plenty that can be said about the contrast between the two units,41 and I don’t intend to be exhaustive on this point. Instead, I want to offer some insight from the structural form of the book of Genesis. Thomas L. Brodie42 identifies 26 literary diptychs in Genesis: 6 from the primeval history, 7 dealing with Abraham, 6 concerning Jacob’s beginning and his life, and 7 concerning Jacob’s sons and his death43. The first is found in Genesis 1–3, for which Genesis 2:4 acts as a hinge point.

In general, a diptych is a picture or story with two panels that are joined by a hinge. Each panel may complement or contrast the other so as to engage the audience in a dialogue that is aimed toward a greater truth. For example, I might fill two conjoined picture frames with contradictory self-portraits: one of me happy and one of me sad. This is my life in dialogical tension, since neither fully explains my personality, but together they communicate a complex, polyphonic reality.

Likewise, the two creation narratives of Genesis paint very different portraits of earth’s beginnings, but to dismiss them as contradictory is not only absurd—it misses the point entirely. As previously noted in the case of Job, contradiction is the vehicle by which truth is to be explored—rather than the means to falsify proposition—in the Hebrew bible. The creation hymn proceeds from chaos to order and Sabbath rest. Conversely, the Eden narrative generally proceeds from order and harmonious communion to chaos, exile, and brokenness. We can represent the unit graphically as follows:

Chaos                             Order      [Hinge]      Order                        Chaos
Genesis 1:1–2 ––––––> Genesis 2:3  [Gen. 2:4]  Gen. 2:5–9 ––––––> Gen. 3:24
–––––––––––> Sabbath Rest   //   Communion <–––––––––––

The literary unit of Genesis 1–3 thus functions like an open book, whose pages gravitate toward the center. The hinge point in Genesis 2:4 reads:

…these are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens…

Notice the chiasm: heavens, earth, created, Lord God, made, earth, heavens. The structure of the verse turns the page for us so that each narrative is to be read in light of the other. Sabbath rest and communion with God are thus presented as the very telos of the cosmos. When we reach the end of chapter 3, we should find ourselves prompted to read the Eden narrative in reverse by asking the question “How do we get back to the garden?” This question is addressed thoroughly by subsequent biblical narratives in which a ‘return to Eden’ is the thematic end. For example, Deuteronomy 30:15–16 reads:

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

The reference to life, good, death, and evil strongly echo the trees of the garden and the associated commandment. Prior to the Mosaic discourse, the new generation of Israelites in the wilderness are described as those who “have no knowledge of good and evil” (Deut. 1:39). Before they enter the land of Canaan, Joshua is met by a ‘man’ with a drawn sword (Josh. 5:13), reminiscent of the cherubim guarding Eden. His identity is revealed when he commands Joshua “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” (Josh. 5:15).

The dialogic of Genesis 1–3

As modern readers, we need to be very cautious in our hermeneutical approach to Genesis, which seems to present truth in dialogue. This concept is foreign to the western mind, but has been rediscovered and articulated primarily through the work of the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. On this point, T.L. Brodie is worth quoting at length, as he applies the dialogical concept of truth to Genesis:

The perspective of modern rationalism…is essentially single, linear. Reality is weighed and measured. History is the facts. Such an approach is not to be neglected; it can be monumentally useful. But reality is more complex, and so is the mind. Even for physics, reality is elusive, composed ultimately not of waves or particles but of wavicles, whatever these may be… Genesis had no idea of modern physics, but at some level it knew that reality is not solid, that the mind and heart and soul need breathing space. And God is not solid—not a wooden idol—but can be viewed and experienced from diverse perspectives. The twofold picture of creation, for instance, forms, as it were, a sense of space, a place in which the mind, instead of fastening, perhaps idolatrously, on one image is teased to another viewing point. One mirror gives a single image; but two facing mirrors give processions of images, resonating energy and depth. The diptych structure therefore…is one way both of evoking the richness and elusiveness of reality, and also of opening the mind, of giving it breathing space and freeing it from a form of spiritual and psychological fundamentalism.44

Rather than abstracting the creation narratives to pure metaphor, or reducing them to a single event in history, I argue that we can faithfully apply Genesis 1–3 to every sphere of life through a literary-canonical approach that also recognizes the complexity of the narrative’s reality. Our quest is never ending, like the dialogue itself, but we continue to live out the experience in our own lives and in worship. God is not one-sided, to be known and analyzed like an experiment, but the Creator God is also the Redeemer God. His truth is presented dialogically. He has made us and called us to communion with him; to bear his image so that the glory of God in Eden would cover the whole earth. But uncreation and exile remain equally imminent realities for the one who presumes to determine good and evil for oneself.

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‘Ideas, of their nature, are dialogical; they are held in response to others and in anticipation of what others may say. “An utterance is always a reply”.’45

Notes:
1. See my last post, On reading Genesis as literature: breaking the hermeneutical bonds of a modern controversy
2. This concept is elegantly captured by the literary phenomenon of intertextuality (cf. A.S. Byatt’s essay here; also Hays, R.B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1989), 254 p.)
3. I merely intend to echo the better articulated and more involved argumentation of Auerbach, E., Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton University Press, 1953), 616 p.
4. Diepstra, G.R., and Laughery, G.J., 2009, Interpreting Science and Scripture: Genesis 1–3: European Journal of Theology, v. 18, p. 5–16.
5. Ibid., p. 12.
6. As argued in Burke, K., The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (University of California Press, 1961), p. 201–207.
7. I am borrowing this term and its usage from Wright, N.T., New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press, 1994), p. 31–46. Though focused on New Testament studies, Wright’s methodological insights as a historian-theologian are both pertinent and profound.
8. Strauss, L., The Beginning of the Bible and Its Greek Counterparts, in Genesis: Modern Critical Interpretations (Chelsea House, 1986), p. 25.
9. To demonstrate this disparity, picture the following in your head: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Does that picture look anything like this? If so, you have already read the text very differently from its original audience.
10. Laughery, G.J., and Diepstra, G.R., 2006, Scripture, Science, and Hermeneutics: European Journal of Theology, p. 35–49. Citation from p. 38.
11. By ‘moralistic framework’, I am referring to a basic reward-punishment system. The book of Job, among other wisdom literature, challenges the idea that good comes to the good and bad comes to the bad; that there is a simple cause-effect relationship between righteousness and reward, evil and suffering. For a more detailed discussion, I recommend Hayes’ lecture Responses to Suffering and Evil: Lamentations and Wisdom Literature from Yale University (2011).
12. Strauss (1986).
13. Diepstra and Laughery (2009), p. 9.
14. I am an aspiring geologist by profession, but only an amateur student of theology/history/literary criticism, heavily influenced by the limited selection of works from each discipline that I have read thus far.
15. The Cambridge Bible Commentary, New English Bible, Genesis 1–11 (Cambridge University Press, 1973), eds. P.R. Ackroyd, A.R.C. Leaney, J.W. Packer, 118 p. “Genesis 1 strips creation of this mythological character. The entire conflict theme has disappeared. The God of the Genesis creation story is not one of the forces of nature, not even the supreme fertility god or Nature with a capital N. He stands over against the world as its sovereign creator, the source of everything in it, but not identifiable with it. He is wholly other, the transcendent God.” p. 14
16. Morrow, J., 2009, Creation as Temple-Building and Work as Liturgy in Genesis 1-3: Journal of the Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies, v. 2, p. 1.
17. Kline, M., 1958, Because It Had Not Rained: Westminster Theological Journal, v. 20, p. 146–157.
18. Niskanen, P., 2009, The Poetics of Adam: The creation of אךם in the Image of אלהים: Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 128, p. 417–436.
19. The Cambridge Bible Commentary (1973): “[The tragedy of Gen. 2:15–3:24], for the narrator, is not ancient story but an ever present reality. Religious motifs, from many different circles in the Ancient Near East, are taken by the narrator and transformed in the crucible of his own experience. Faith, like poetry, communicates some of its deepest truths through symbols which, steeped in tradition, are yet capable of being given ever new meaning.” p. 48
20. Vervenne, M., 2001, Genesis 1,1–2,4. The Compositional texture of the Priestly Overture to the Pentateuch, in Wénin, A. (ed.), 2001, Studies in the Book of Genesis: literature, redaction and history: Leuven University Press, p. 53.
21. The Cambridge Bible Commentary (1973), p. 14.
22. For a brief overview, see Lim, J., 2005, Genesis 1–11 and its Ancient Near Eastern Parallels: Asia Journal of Theology, p. 68–78; also Sarna (1966). A more comprehensive study can be found in Walton, J., 2006, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Baker Academic, 368 p.
23. Ibid. “Deliberately [the fourth day account] avoids naming the sun and the moon, both of which were widely worshipped. The stars were likewise often thought to control man’s destiny. This entire astrological fatalism is here swept into the religious wastepaper basket.” p. 21
24. Strauss (1986), p. 29.
25. Bloom, H., Genesis: Modern Critical Interpretations (Chelsea House, 1986), p. 4.
26. cf. James 1:13–15.
27. Longman III, T., How to read Genesis (InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 111.
28. Burke (1961) writes “And there is to be an eternal enmity between man and the serpent”, the latter of which he calls “the image, or narrative personification, of the principle of Temptation…” p. 207.
29. Ricoeur, P., The Symbolism of Evil (Beacon Press, 1967), p. 232–242. See also Stefanovic, Z., 1994, The Great Reversal: thematic links between Genesis 2 and 3: Andrews University Seminary Studies, v. 32, p. 47–56.
30. Alter, R., The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981), p. 144.
31. Niskanen (2009).
32. Bloom (1986), p. 5.
33. For a full exegesis of this concept (so elegantly captured in the book’s title), see Fesko, J.V., Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis with the Christ of Eschatology (Mentor, 2007), 208 p.
34. Sarna, N.M., Understanding Genesis: the heritage of biblical Israel (Shocken Books, 1966), p. 25.
35. The Cambridge Bible Commentary (1973), “The characters in this story do not have personal names…This is the story of ‘Everyman’. The trees in the garden are not ordinary trees… The garden has strange creatures in it, a talking serpent and a guard of cherubim. The whole purpose of the narrative is not to describe what once happened but to explain certain puzzling features of life and human experience known to the narrator.” p. 28–29.
36. Ricoeur (1967), “The proto-historical myth [of Adam] thus served not only to generalize the experience of Israel, applying it to all mankind, at all times and in all places, but also to extend to all mankind the great tension between condemnation and mercy that the teaching of the Prophets had revealed in the particular destiny of Israel.” p. 242.
37. A palimpsest is an ancient document (paper, leather, etc.) whose text has been scraped off so that another can be written in its place. See this article by Mark Sprinkle at Biologos for an artistic and hermeneutical usage of the term.
38. Diepstra and Laughery (2009), p. 10.
39. Ibid., p. 10.
40. Ibid., p. 14.
41. See Alter, R., Composite Artistry: P and J, in Genesis: Modern Critical Interpretations (Chelsea House, 1986), p. 49–56.
42. Brodie, T.L., Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary (Oxford, 2001), 614 p.
43. Ibid., p. 18.
44. Ibid., p. 27.
45. Brodie, T.L., Genesis as Dialogue, in Studies in the Book of Genesis: Literature, Redaction, and History (Leuven University Press, 2001), ed. A. Wenín, p. 311.

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16 responses to “On reading Genesis as literature: the dialogic of Genesis 1–3

  1. Hi Jon! I'm finally getting around to reading and commenting on your thoughts. : )

    I find your basic approach to understanding Genesis to be fundamentally flawed. Your thinking commits two basic related errors: 1. You conclude the Genesis accounts to be non-historical without sufficient evidence. 2. You ignore biblical evidence that the accounts are intended as historical.

    Your argument that the Genesis creation accounts are unhistorical rests primarily on an inference you make from your observations of the various literary aspects of the accounts. Although I might argue with a few of your literary observations, you have pointed out a number of legitimate literary elements in the text. For example, I find your discussion of the text as “liturgical” in some way somewhat persuasive. It is apparent, as you note, that the creation texts are not written in exactly the same form as the history of the kings of Israel, or even the histories of Abraham and his family, and other similar histories. Although the texts are not strictly speaking “poetic,” they do certainly contain a highly stylized form of writing that might be called “liturgical” in some sense. You have rightly pointed out various examples of wordplay, possible chiastic structures, and literary motifs foreshadowing later elements of biblical history. You have also rightly pointed out the polemical nature of the accounts, as they contrast with and yet connect with the myths of other Near Eastern cultures.

    However, your inference from these observations to the conclusion that the Genesis creation accounts are not historical–that is, they do not tell us about real, historical events that actually happened in the past (see, for example, your language in this sentence: “From a historico-critical perspective, therefore, the garden is not a 'real' event in time and space.”)–lacks sufficient evidence. The fact that these literary motifs occur, or that the text might have been read at the Feast of Tabernacles, or that it has a polemical purpose, or that it tells us about ourselves and was intended to have application to the lives of readers, simply does not necessarily imply that the text is not intended also to tell us what actually happened in the past–to recount historical events.

    To be continued . . .

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  2. Some specific examples of your general tendency to leap to unwarranted conclusions of a-historicity, a tendency present generally throughout your posts on this subject: You jump from the fact that the first creation account does not record an end to the seventh day and that this was not relevant to its purpose (which observations are true) to the conclusion that there is no end to the seventh day because it is a-historical. This is simply not evidenced in the text itself. You jump from the “strangeness” of the garden of Eden to its a-historicity. The fact that the garden was “strange” in some ways, with a talking snake and special trees, does not necessarily imply a-historicity. You allege a connection between jeweled trees in the Epic of Gilgamesh and special metals found around the land of Eden, a connection which is a bit of a stretch, and then conclude that Eden is not a real place in space and time on the basis of that connection. To make this argument, you would have to show that the Epic of Gilgamesh was not intended as history, which you haven't done. If you could show that, you would still have to show that there couldn't be historical truth recorded in Genesis that the Epic borrowed (the authors of the Epic were humans as well, descended from Adam and Eve in the biblical viewpoint), and you would have to prove the connection better, as it is a stretch. Your contrast between the Greek and Hebrew ways of thinking is overblown. The Greeks told stories to get at truth (you yourself referenced the Allegory of the Cave), and the Hebrews sometimes spoke in prosaic, non-narrative ways, such as Solomon's description of God as filling heaven and earth and therefore unable to dwell in the temple, or Paul's argument for the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15. Both of these are prosaic, non-narrative, logical arguments. Your contrast between Greek and Hebrew thought forms is highly exaggerated. You conclude from this that the Hebrews were not interested in history, when their own writings suggest otherwise. You allege that Genesis 1 and 2 contain contradictory creation accounts, and yet you do not demonstrate this by dealing with attempted reconciliations. You do likewise in attempting to understand Matthew's genealogy. Etc.

    You refer to Diepstra and Laugherly and their fourfold way of understanding the purpose of Genesis. I think their scheme is actually very helpful. You point out the danger of picking out some of the purposes of Genesis to exclude others, but your posts are fundamentally guilty of precisely that. You use the other three purposes to exclude history. This is a fallacious, unwarranted inference. You simply have not put forward sufficient evidence to conclude the a-historical nature of the Genesis creation accounts.

    To be continued . . .

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  3. In addition, you have ignored a wealth of evidence within the Bible itself that the authors of the Bible were indeed interested in history, and that they believed the narratives of Scripture, including Genesis 1 and 2, to be providing it. First of all, the texts themselves are in the form of talking about what happened in the past. They are in the form of recounting history, with no evidence in them or around them or anywhere in Scripture that they are merely parables, etc. Other places in Scripture confirm the historical nature of the accounts. Exodus 20:8-11 refers to the earlier creation account in Genesis 1 as being historical. The Book of Hebrews refers to Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt (3:16-19), the story of Joshua (4:8), the historicity of Abel, Cain, Enoch, Noah and the flood, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Joseph, the conquest of Jericho, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, etc. (Hebrews 11). It calls these men a “great cloud of witnesses,” describing them as in heaven watching us and cheering us on as if in a race, which implies their reality. The Apostle Peter refers to the creation account in Genesis 1 specifically and to the flood as historical events (2 Peter 3:5-6), comparing them to events to come in future history. The Apostle Paul refers to Abraham and David as historical, as well as the giving of the Law (Romans 4:1-8, Galatians 3:15-18). Jesus refers to Noah and the flood as historical (Matthew 24:37-39), as well as Sodom and Gomorrah and its destruction (Matthew 10:15). Jesus refers to marriage being instituted by God in Genesis 1 (Matthew 19:4-5). The Apostle Paul refers to the story of Adam and Eve, and particularly Adam being formed before Eve (1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 11:7-12). He uses this temporal relation to establish a theological point. The Books of Chronicles confirm the history in the earlier books of the Bible. The prophets in the Old Testament refer back to the events in earlier narrative portions of the Bible. You talk about Adam and Eve representing “Everyman.” In a sense, you are right. But in another sense, they are important not as archetypes of “Everyman” but as historical figures who did historical things. Paul, in Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15, and elsewhere, traces sin back to the historical sin of Adam, clearly referring to Genesis 3. We do not come into the world in the same condition as Adam, because of something he did uniquely in the past. All the genealogies of Scripture, insofar as they go back that far, trace right through from present (to the writer) history to Adam and Eve without any indication that there is a passing from history to a-history. Luke, for example, traces Jesus right back to Adam in a historical line. I could go on and on pointing out this kind of evidence. I can add more if you like. the Bible itself, both in the Old and New Testaments, clearly understands its narratives (unless specifically indicated otherwise in the text) to be presenting history, including Genesis 1-3. You have allowed very dubious inferences made on the basis of literary observations to overshadow the clear testimony of what the Scriptures actually say about themselves.

    What do you think?

    Mark

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  4. Thanks Mark for getting back to me, but I must say this is a perfect example of why I prefer phone conversations. 🙂

    “1. You conclude the Genesis accounts to be non-historical without sufficient evidence. 2. You ignore biblical evidence that the accounts are intended as historical.”

    I never concluded them to be non-historical, but rather stated the opposite. Therefore, the biblical citations which assume the accounts as historical (that is, which refer to the narrative content of a story to make a point, such as in the NT)were not relevant to my discussion. I have not ignored these citations any more than you ignored the nature of the thousand-year reign of Christ in your response.

    Many of the your remaining comments rest on faulty suppositions about what I actually said. My intention was to demonstrate what a literary approach could add to our reading of Genesis, not to prove that these events never actually happened. You also assume a very simplified, nuanced, and anachronistic take on what 'history' is and could be. The result is a forced, but false, dilemma on whether a passage is “historical and actually happened” or “non-historical and never happened”, which overlooks the manner in which I defined and employed this term.

    Nontheless, in some places I argued that we shouldn't take certain parts of the accounts as having concrete historical referents. As you point out:

    “From a historico-critical perspective, therefore, the garden is not a 'real' event in time and space.”

    I'm not sure what missing evidence you seek. The garden described grew in a land that never existed among rivers that never flowed that way, contains trees that give life and moral capacity, and is inhabited by two characters named “mankind” and “woman” (not to mention Yahwheh, who walks there in the cool of the evening). The manner in which the story is used by later authors has no bearing on the original 'intent' of the narrative. The fact that it is written as prose also has no bearing. My hope was to show how the literary structure and connections to contemporary literature in the Near East support a far deeper and psychologically complex description of the nature and vocation of mankind than we are accustomed to in our traditional readings. This hardly negates the weight of the story theologically or historically–whatever the case, man is the way he is because he asserted himself morally and epistemologically over God and therefore requires redemption of all his being–but it does require us to consign the 'historical' and 'mechanistic' details to the mysteries of the faith. For me, that is far more reasonable (not to mention, preferable with regard to faith in practice) than to defend the idea of 'Genesis as dry, blunt journalism' just to protect our traditional theological systems.

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  5. Just to be clear I haven't ignored your comments entirely, I want to offer a few more impressions.

    “You jump from the fact that the first creation account does not record an end to the seventh day…to the conclusion that there is no end to the seventh day because it is a-historical.”

    I don't believe the account is a-historical and never drew that conclusion. I do believe these days do not correspond to 24-hour periods in the history of Earth, but that the author has narrativized a very historical reality: the providence and goodness of God.

    “You allege a connection between jeweled trees in the Epic of Gilgamesh and special metals found around the land of Eden…and then conclude that Eden is not a real place in space and time on the basis of that connection.”

    Another false claim. First, *I* didn't make this connection, but cited another author who did. Secondly, I used this connection (which is warranted also by references to Eden in Ezekiel) to corroborate my prior conclusion that Eden was not a real place in time/space.

    “Your contrast between the Greek and Hebrew ways of thinking is overblown.”

    I am not the first to make this contrast. I cited multiple authors and gave a biblical example of how I thought the contrast was useful. Yes, the Greeks also had their myths and the Hebrews had their discourse. So has every other culture in history. Is there no contrast? Or do you object to an apparent generalization where I intended none?

    “First of all, the texts themselves are in the form of talking about what happened in the past. They are in the form of recounting history, with no evidence in them or around them or anywhere in Scripture that they are merely parables, etc.”

    Petitio principii; cf. my second article for more discussion.

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  6. I do understand that you hold that Genesis 1-3 is historical in some sense–namely, that it is a mythical account recounting events that didn't actually happen which happen to refer to another set of events that did happen (such as some kind of creation and some kind of fall that happened in the past).  I apologize for not pointing that out more clearly.  But you do indeed hold that Genesis 1-3 is non-historical in that it is not intended to be an actual description of specifically real, historical events.  For example, you do not think that it is teaching as truth that Eve really was formed out of Adam's side while he was sleeping, that if we went back in time in a time machine we would see this event occur.  That is what I mean by saying you hold Genesis to be a-historical.  I do not assume that only one way of being “historical” is possible.  But I do think that the text gives no clear indication that Genesis 1-3 is a-historical in that sense and lots of reason to think it isn't.

    The Scriptures themselves do not give any clear indication that when they refer to events as happening in the past they mean anything other than that those events actually happened in the past.  Think of the genealogies, for example.  The fact that Luke traces Jesus's genealogy back to Adam clearly indicates that Adam is a historical ancestor of Jesus in the same sense as is David–Adam, Seth, and Noah are presented as real people who lived in the past and who had children leading down to Christ.  The Scriptures repeatedly describe events in Genesis 1-3 as having actually happened in the past, with no indication that some kind of mythico-historical ideas are being used.

    The evidence you cite for understanding Genesis 1-3 as mythical rather than historical (in the sense I established above) is insufficient.  I pointed this out earlier regarding the reality of the garden of Eden.  You say, “The garden described grew in a land that never existed among rivers that never flowed that way, contains trees that give life and moral capacity, and is inhabited by two characters named 'mankind' and 'woman' (not to mention Yahwheh, who walks there in the cool of the evening).”  How do you know the land never existed?  How do you know the rivers never flowed that way?  Sure, the first humans are given unusual names, which is not surprising as they are the foundation of the human race.  Sure, the garden has unique, sacramental properties.  None of this proves the garden is a-historical.  Those who believe the garden to be historical are quite easily able to account for literary and unusual features of the account, but those who think the garden is a-historical are, I think, unable to account for fact that the Scriptures present them as events that occurred in a number of clear ways without any indication that they are anything other than actual events that occurred.

    To be continued . . .

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  7. You say that “the manner in which the story is used by later authors has no bearing on the original 'intent' of the narrative.” It is impossible to figure out the “intent” of the original narrator, in one sense. He could have been making up a story. He could have been lying. Who knows, if we look at it from a naturalistic point of view. But as Christians, the way the rest of Scripture treats the account is very important in determining how the account should be read. Scripture over and over again, without any exceptions, refers to the events of Genesis 1-3 as real, historical events that actually happened in the past, in a number of different ways, without giving any clear indication that any alternate reading is intended.

    “For me, that is far more reasonable (not to mention, preferable with regard to faith in practice) than to defend the idea of 'Genesis as dry, blunt journalism' just to protect our traditional theological systems.” I am not advocating presenting Genesis as “dry, blunt journalism.” I acknowledge the rich variety of purposes and functions the text has. But one of those functions is clearly to tell us what actually happened in the past, and that is what I am insisting on. I do not so insist “just to protect [my] traditional theological system.” I so insist because I think the evidence supports my claim.

    “Another false claim. First, *I* didn't make this connection, but cited another author who did. Secondly, I used this connection (which is warranted also by references to Eden in Ezekiel) to corroborate my prior conclusion that Eden was not a real place in time/space.” I realize that the claim did not originate with you. But as you seemed to be endorsing it and using it, I used shorthand and referred to it as a theory of yours. This is a good example of how you have insufficient evidence to support your reading of Genesis. In my earlier posts, I mentioned that there may be a bit of a stretch in linking the Genesis account of the garden to the Epic of Gilgamesh, but that even if there is a connection, it really says nothing about the intended or actual historicity of the account. There are plenty of reasonable ways in which someone who believes the account to be historical can understand such a connection. This is a general problem with pretty much all of your alleged evidence for a non-historical take on Genesis 1-3. You pick on literary features such as this one that simply can't bear the weight you place on them as they don't imply or even suggest that the account is non-historical and you seem to place much of your argument on them.

    To be continued . . .

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  8. “I am not the first to make this contrast. I cited multiple authors and gave a biblical example of how I thought the contrast was useful. Yes, the Greeks also had their myths and the Hebrews had their discourse. So has every other culture in history. Is there no contrast? Or do you object to an apparent generalization where I intended none?” I think you did indeed overgeneralize. I don't deny some difference in Hebrew and Greek ways of thinking, as well as between some Hebrew and other Hebrew ways of thinking and some Greek and other Greek ways of thinking. But your claim that Greeks think abstractly in a way that Hebrews don't tend to, and that Hebrews tended to think more in narrative form and not so much abstractly is too overgeneralized. I gave some counter-examples. And even if there are cultural trends, they do not warrant the conclusion that Genesis 1-3 is a-historical. I see no reason to think that the Hebrews were generally less concerned about the factuality of their historical accounts than anyone else. If you are going to make such a significant assertion that Genesis 1-3, although they seem to be presented as historical and accepted as historical throughout Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, with no clear indication otherwise, are actually not historical, and you are going to base that (at least partly) on the assertion that Greek and Hebrew thought forms are so different that Hebrews just wouldn't have cared whether or not the events in Genesis 1-3 really happened, the burden of proof is on you to do a better job providing evidence for that claim. And even if you could show this, you would also then have to show that the Bible is not an exception to a general Hebrew trend here. Perhaps Near Easterners didn't care about factual history (though I find this claim highly dubious and in need of proof). That doesn't prove the Bible isn't or the Bible writers weren't. The Bible is very different from other Near Eastern writings in many ways; why not in this way as well? I see no indication from within the biblical text that the biblical writers were not concerned about factual history or the historical nature of their accounts. The way they actually discuss it suggests otherwise. You are inventing attributes of the Hebrew mind for which you have no real evidence, mostly basing them on exaggerations from some real but irrelevant thought patterns, and using this to ignore how the Scriptures themselves actually talk about Genesis 1-3. And the fact that you cited multiple authors supporting your claims is irrelevant. There are lots of authors who have made lots of false claims. I am interested not in how many scholars you can line up, but in the merits of your actual arguments.

    In short, it seems to me quite clear that the Scriptures themselves, without exception, refer to the events of Genesis 1-3 as real, historical events, in very strong terms, and that there is simply no clear evidence in the Scriptures that some kind of non-historical history is really intended in the text. Your argument is primarily based on literary characteristics of the text, but those you bring up simply do not imply a non-historical reading of Genesis. They are perfectly consistent with a historical reading. If you wish to maintain that Genesis 1-3 can reasonably be taken as non-historical (in the sense I have defined it), the burden of proof is on you to provide sufficient evidence that the text can be read that way. Without such evidence, it is unreasonable to simply assume that the language of historical events that the Scripture uses can be understood non-historically. I don't think you have provided that evidence.

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  12. Jonathan,

    Beyond Genesis 1-2, I see two other places in which Moses states the amount of time God spent on creation (Ex 20:11 and 31:17). Thus we have Moses stating three different times that creation took place over six days followed by a day of rest. While I can see how someone might think Gen 1-2, when considered in isolation, is some kind of literary construction which could discourage acceptance of a literal one-week creation, doesn’t that view become harder to maintain when Ex 20:11 and 31:17 are simultaneously considered?

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    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your comment. I do see your point, which I too would have argued at one time. But I think it poses a challenge only if 1) you interpret those texts in Exodus to be a flatfooted connection between our own 7-day week and the work week of God, and 2) you assume that Moses was the singular author of both. I find both of these positions to be unlikely.

      First of all, Exodus 20 argues from the structure of only one of the two creation narratives to assign a theological meaning to the Israelite workweek—not the other way around. It does not say, for example, “We work 144 hours over six days, and therefore the exact same number of hours must have passed on the cosmos as God stitched them together.” Instead, it moves from the chronology of a mythic narrative to say “Look, this is what our Sabbath represents.” To make some sort of flatfooted comparison between the texts is to miss the point of Exodus 20, I think, which more overtly connects the ritual and worship of Israel to God’s work as creator. In other words, the Exodus narrative begins the long story of how God’s people built his tabernacle/temple and were commissioned to be his image on this Earth. In Genesis 1, God built a cosmic temple and took up reign. In the Israelite narrative (beginning with the Pentateuch), God’s chosen people built a temple (which itself was a representation of the cosmos) and were molded into a humanity that bore his image.

      From this, we might understand the seven-day structure of Genesis 1 to be arbitrary, and Genesis itself hints at that when it juxtaposes a creation narrative with a different timeline (Earth and heavens already formed when God makes humanity, all of this refered to simply as “the day in which the Lord made them”). Theoretically, the author of Genesis 1 could have described God’s work over 7 years, or thousands, and so forth, and it would have been just as valid. But he writes the story as though God worked like an Israelite, which I would term a ‘theomorphism’ of Israel herself (it tells the reader that when they work 6 days and rest on a seventh, they take upon themselves the divine work).

      Note also that when the 10 commandments are repeated later in the Pentateuch, there is no reference to Genesis as justification for the 7-day structure. Why would it be missing, unless the mention in Exodus 20 were simply a rhetorical device (within the context of the tabernacle narrative) to ‘theologize’ the Sabbath, so to speak?

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  13. Jonathan, thanks for your reply.

    I want to make sure I understand what you are saying. Therefore, please allow me some follow-up.

    Which, if any, of the five texts in question (Gen 1, Gen 2, Ex 20, Ex 31, and Dt 5) do you think Moses wrote?

    I have inferred three elements of your view, and would appreciate your either correcting or confirming each of them. (I’m not asking you to defend them; I’m only wanting to be sure I correctly understand your view.)

    – Gen 1 and Gen 2 are two different – and conflicting – creation narratives.
    – Rather than the seven-day creation narrative giving rise to Israel’s seven-day work week, it was Israel’s seven-day work week that gave rise to the seven-day creation narrative. That is, Israel was working six days and resting one before there was a creation narrative attributing the same pattern to God.
    – The creation narratives are myth. That is, they are man-made literary creations intended to sustain and nourish Israel’s intentions to represent its God to surrounding peoples.

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    • Sure, thanks for clarifying. Here are my answers, in order:
      • Personally, none of the above. I’m not persuaded that any of the Pentateuch (as we know it today) was written directly by Moses or someone in his time. That’s not to exclude the possibility that some or much of it was derived from written/oral traditions from Moses and/or priests in his generation.
      • Yes, I think Gen. 1 and 2 were written separately and hence their details conflict. Perhaps conflicting is not the best word, but there is literary tension. In the form we have, Genesis places these narratives side by side (I think) to elucidate far more profoundly a complex subject (what it means for God to be creator, us to be his creation/image, etc.).
      • Yes, the seven-day week was not unique to Israel and did not originate with them. And there are multiple narratives in the ancient world that used a 7-day structure to recount some story of the gods (I’d have to look those up again). Besides, Genesis 1 is not written as though God sat down with the author and said, “Ok, here’s how it happened.” Neither does it claim to have been written this way. Outside of this scenario, the author has no knowledge of prehistory. It makes far more sense, in my mind, that the author moved from immanent experience to project God’s creative work in prehistory.
      •Yes, and whether or not they are ‘true history’, as we commonly use the term, these narratives still qualify as myth, because they recount stories of God(s).

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  14. Thanks; that was all very helpful.

    Is there any more to your definition of “myth” than “narratives [that] recount stories of God(s)?”

    How would the non-originality of the seven-day week and the seven-day creation narrative in Israel’s history preclude the possibility of an original seven-day creation narrative preceding the original cultural practice of a seven-day week?

    Do you subscribe to theistic evolution or would you categorize your view differently?

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