Looking at the Text: Part I

In Matt’s last post, he gave an overview of the Big Bang time-line. I remember when I first heard about the Big Bang; my gut reaction was “that’s not what it says in Genesis. It can’t be right.” In this post, I am going to take a look at Genesis 1 and begin to address how we are supposed to reconcile Big Bang cosmology and Genesis cosmogony.

The Genesis account begins with those very familiar words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This sentence has had such a deep impact on our English-speaking culture. One interesting thought is that I have never seen any translational variance on this verse, but perhaps there isn’t any other good way to say this. It is at least note-worthy, though, that the NIV, NLV, KJV, NASB and ESV all say the exact same thing (give or take a comma). One might think to argue that even from these first words “in the beginning,” we know that the following account is not meant to be understood in a literal sense, but this is not necessarily the case, as other markedly historical passages begin with the very same phrase (e.g. Jer. 26:1).

Gen. 1:1 is nonetheless doing something quite unusual for the greater body of scripture, which, excluding the books of poetry and Revelation, operates on a largely factual/historical plane. Gen. 1 is not merely the beginning of the history of the Israelites, but the beginning of everything. It is almost impossible to put such an event into words (if you can even call it an event, since you can normally observe an event’s passing). What the writer of Genesis is doing here seems parallel in my mind to the way John begins his gospel: he prefaces a historical account of the life and suffering of Jesus with a theological metaphor, speaking of Jesus in abstract terms (word, light).  Gen. 1:1 is the ad hoc answer to the proverbial “why?”  You simply have to start somewhere.  One can see, though, a trend throughout Genesis towards the concrete/factual/historical, even immediately after the Fall (starting in Gen. 4), but the amount of detail and realism even progresses throughout the entire book (from Cain to Noah to Abraham to Joseph).  Part of this is of a practical nature.  If Moses wrote Genesis, then he surely knew more about Jewish history that was closer to his own time.  But this also reminds us of the inherent temporo-centrism of the Genesis account, which I plan to address in my next post.

Perhaps one of the clearest arguments in my mind for a non-literal/poetic interpretation of Genesis is the style of the passage.  I really wish I could read the Hebrew in its original form, but from the English, there are certain stylistic features that signal a different kind of literature.  The biggest component of this stylistic argument is the repetition.  “And God said…” is repeated each day, as well as “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first/second/third/etc. day.”  This kind of writing style seems to fit a more general “cosmogony” genre, and may signal to us that we are not to read it the same way as other passages.  In the same way, if you pick up a dictionary, open it to a random page and read “blog; /blag/-a website used to post personal ideas,” or something like that, because of the formatting, you know that it is a dictionary entry.  Or if you read “once upon a time…” you immediately know that the following account is not true; rather, it is a fairy-tale.  Similarly, Moses may be giving a metaphorical/theological/abstract/loose account of creation, and not a scientific treatise.  It is very difficult, though, to really hone in on exactly what genre the author of Genesis is indicating without a much more technical reading of the text (this process is referred to as “discourse analysis” and is the highest level of linguistic analysis).

In closing, I would like to bring to light our underlying motive for wanting to accept a literal interpretation.  We tend to feel that if we reject a literal reading, then we are rejecting the truth of the content, or at least on a slippery slope in that direction.  This does not have to be the case, though.  To say that a statement is “true” means one thing, but to say that a poem, or a proverb, or a sermon is “true” means that resonates deep within your heart or rings true to your experience.  We tend to try to evaluate truth in the most objective and scientific way possible, while there is more of a spectrum, but there are certain cases where this is not what we should do.  Take Jesus’ parables, for example.  If we ask “are they true?”  In the strict sense of the question, the answer must be “no.”  They are made up stories.  On the other hand, the truth they express is very real and often quite deep.  Perhaps we should not evaluate Genesis 1 on a True/False dichotomy, buy try to find the truth in it. We do not necessarily have to feel like we are sacrificing something or weakening our theological position by adopting a non-literal interpretation.  On the contrary, the most important thing to try to come to terms with is what the author intended for us to understand, and that provides us with the paradigm by which to evaluate the text, not our preconceptions.  We don’t read the Word of God; it reads us.

Also, one website I looked at was http://www.godandscience.org/youngearth/genesis1.html, and it might be a good place to poke around for more information.   I didn’t read the whole thing, but it seemed pretty level-headed to me.

James, the younger brother

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One Response to Looking at the Text: Part I

  1. cheno says:

    While i’m initially tempted to warn you of “…the slippery slop you’re on, brother.” and to admonish you to “stick to the facts, stick to the Word!” i really feel like to do so would be asinine. i’d probably be reading your post with my own preconceptions anyway, wouldn’t i?

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