on reading genesis 1-3

What Genesis 1-3 is not: a play-by-play, atom-by-atom historical and scientific account of creation.  The author/community which produced the text clearly had other things in mind than producing such a thing.*

This is widely accepted by people who should know: scholars in fields relevant to Genesis 1-3 (biblical scholars, ancient near east religion scholars, hebrew linguists, experts on ancient semetic poetry, etc. – see relevant examples in the Denver Seminary Old Testament bibliograpy – updated annually). Yael Klangwisan spoke on Genesis recently at a TANSA event at Laidlaw college, and a very informative PDF of her slideshow can be found here.

Unfortunately there are two kinds of people I know of that both tend to insist that Genesis 1-3 is intended as a ‘factual’ report of the exact, literal events of creation.  These two types of people are (who would have thunk it!?) young-earth Creationists (YEC’s)… and many (not all) atheists.

YEC’s are convinced that science supports their literal interpretation (see pretty much anything on this site)…

…and some atheists are convinced that this literal-and-only-literal-gosh-darnit interpretation has been replaced by science (see the opening statement of Richard Dawkins from his 2007 debate with John Lennox – and I’ll put a transcription of it as the first comment below).**

Meanwhile, there are those who are willing to listen to what Genesis is really trying to get across, and who refuse to use science to prove their religious or anti-religious views.

*Many/most/all? of the characters in the Bible, for example, would have been aware of the poetic and metaphorical nature of Genesis 1-3, though would naturally have had little/no reason to question whether or not it took 6 days for God to create the world, etc.  A prime example of just how much the literal-ness of this text does not matter in Jewish thought is the story of when Ray Vander Laan asked the world-class Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner how long the days of creation were; to which the reply after a long pause was “I’ve never thought about that.”

** No… wait… Dawkins doesn’t only say that the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is replaced by science, he says that religious explanations in general are replaced by science…  Wow.

110 thoughts on “on reading genesis 1-3”

  1. I’m still unsure as to whether I’ve been under the wrong impression regarding your beliefs in the ultimate authorship of the Bible.

  2. Damian,
    1. Authorship is to be distinguished from inspiration. The Bible can be ‘authored’ 100% (‘ultimate’ly) by humans, and yet be ‘inspired’ by God.

    2. Both authorship and inspiration are distinct from the central issue of both the post and subsequent discussion: interpretation.

  3. Hmmmm, and now I’m asking myself why I’m not getting a straight answer.

    Perhaps you misunderstand what I mean by ‘ultimate’. Of course everyone recognises that every word in the Bible was physically written by a human and so when I use the word ‘ultimate’ I mean whether scripture has God’s divine stamp of approval. A book that is ultimately authored by God is significantly different from a book like, say, The problem of pain because, when it is interpreted correctly it is absolutely true whereas CS Lewis’ books carry no such guarantee.

    Up until now I’d been thinking that some people here saw some of the writings in the Bible as being as potentially fallible as CS Lewis’ writings but after reading through the comments again and noticing the hesitation to question tales of talking donkeys in the absence of any evidence to the contrary I began to question my assumption.

    If you believe the ‘ultimate’ authorship as being divine then you will have two options available to you regarding an account of a talking donkey; either it is literally true or it is a deliberate analogy with another meaning. If you believe that the Bible is as prone to human error as any other document of the time then you have a third option which is that the account of a talking donkey is completely made up (which doesn’t necessarily stop you from deriving some meaning from it as per the deliberate analogy interpretation).

    My layman’s reading (based on a non-ultimate-authorship interpretation of the Bible) of the talking donkey account indicates that it’s not poetic or metaphorical and so it seems a fairly simple conclusion to draw that it is mythological or a mistake and that the people of the time (and Jesus’ time) wouldn’t have had too much of an issue believing it literally because they were more superstitious than we are today and those errors and misunderstandings would have been recorded in the absence of divine ‘inspiration’. It was the hesitation that I detected in your answers that made me question whether we had a common understanding as to the authorship of the Bible. Hence the question which I’ve not yet received an answer to.

  4. Damian, authorship/inspiration issue is a side issue. That’s not avoiding the question, that’s just me wanting to keep the discussion from getting distracted from what I honestly don’t think is needed/helpful. With the Donkey example, here are the issues of interpretation (none of which have anything to do with authorship/inspiration):

    1 – Original Meaning: What did the person/community which produced the text intend it to mean? Did they intend the text to be read literally? What was their rhetorical purpose? What non-biblical literary forms can this text be compared to – and with what results? Were literary forms of that time as sharply divided into ‘fact’/’fiction’ as the 21st century? etc. Are there any clues from the literary context that give us indications as to how it was meant to be interpreted?

    2 – Later (ancient) Interpretation: How did later (yet still ancient to us) interpreters understand this text? What questions/concerns did they bring to the text? Were these questions/concerns the same as the original writers? What (ancient) assumptions did they read the text with? What interpretive methods were used? How did they interpret other texts?

    3 – Modern Interpretation: What questions/concerns do we bring to the text? Are these the same questions/concerns of either the original writers or the later interpreters? What (modern) assumptions do we read the text with? What interpretive methods do we use?

    The question of what the original writers meant and/or later interpreters understood can be explored without bringing in the issue of divine inspiration/authorship.

  5. Dale,

    The question of what the original writers meant and/or later interpreters understood can be explored without bringing in the issue of divine inspiration/authorship.

    If the Bible is *not* divinely inspired and you assume it is how will you ever discover whether a story of a talking donkey was a pure fabrication or not? You’ll be forced to examine the structure of the story for hints of poetry and, failing that, have to accept it as literal fact.

    However, I still don’t even know whether the concept of a ‘human-error’ interpretation is off the table or not because you are, for some reason, refusing to answer.

  6. Damian,
    ((passing question: just what the heck is a “pure fabrication”, and what literary purpose (inform, persuade, report, entertain, etc.) does one perform??))

    If the Bible is *not* divinely inspired and you assume it is how will you ever discover whether a story of a talking donkey was a pure fabrication or not? You’ll be forced to examine the structure of the story for hints of poetry and, failing that, have to accept it as literal fact.

    I’m really struggling to follow your logic here. (I’ve re-read it several times!) Please expand if you can be bothered – sorry! For me, I’m still failing to see how the question of inspiration relates to whether or not a donkey talked. Can God only inspire texts which are communicating literal facts?

    I still don’t even know whether the concept of a ‘human-error’ interpretation is off the table or not because you are, for some reason, refusing to answer.

    I just re-read (again) your definition of ‘human-error’ interpretation, and I don’t think the description is even really about interpretation, but rather inspiration (it seems concerned with God not putting his stamp of approval on the writings).

    Please be patient, I’m honestly trying to understand you here – but I really don’t think the inspiration issue (what role God had in influencing the text, or what God may or may not think about the text) helps or hinders people seeking to understand the range or layers of meaning intended by the origial writer.

    For example: Whether or not Moses (or whoever) was inspired, we can still talk about Genesis 1-3 in terms of literary structure, style, rhetorical purpose, etc., and how modern cosmologial knowledge relates to and/or shapes our interpretation of it ((possibly including a speculation as to how a poetic/theological text like Genesis 1-3 might have been written if it had been written with awareness of modern cosmological knowledge, etc.)).

    Do you see how the ‘inspiration’ topic is a side issue here?

  7. I’ll tell you what, just answer this question: when you attempt to interpret the scriptures (OT or NT), do you start with the assumption that they are ‘God-breathed’? (meaning that if there is a story of a talking donkey there is a reason for its being there that is fundamentally different to, say, the talking donkey in Shrek. i.e. that the creator of the universe wanted the story of the talking donkey to appear in this collection of writings.)

    Or do you think that the scriptures are a collection of stories like those of any civilisation where the occasional myth or fabrication may turn up such as the possibility that people may have orally passed on genealogies and, with each telling, bumped up the ages of their heroes and ancestors? And that some of these stories about as God-inspired as the Maori story of Tane Mahuta.

  8. Damian,
    When I attempt to interpret the scriptures (OT or NT), (in other words, when I seek to understand the meaning of the text), there are various things that I will think about; and whether or not God specifically had a hankering for a talking-donkey story in the Scriptures (or whether or not God particularly likes the tree metaphor, as it’s right throughout scripture) is not one of them.

    Four (at least?) possible options for the donkey story:
    non-inspired scriptures, w/ literal talking-donkey story
    non-inspired scriptures, w/ non-literal talking-donkey story
    inspired scriptures, w/ literal talking-donkey story
    inspired scriptures, w/ non-literal talking-donkey story

    No offense, but if you keep pretending that inspiration has a direct effect on whether or not a passage is intended by the writer to be literal/metaphorical, that’ll be a tad frustrating! :)

  9. Post title: reading genesis 1-3 (topic = interpretation)

    Comments 2 thru 86: how should genesis (in particular) and the bible (in general) be read and interpreted.

    Comments 87 thru 98: mostly fooling around, Dale pushing up his hits ;) , and a few links.

    Comments 99 thru 109: Damian raises topic of inspiration, which Dale struggles to see as being relevant… both Dale/Damian get annoyed… And then…

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