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…and some atheists are convinced that this literal-and-only-literal-gosh-darnit interpretation has been replaced by science (see the opening statement of Richard Dawkins from his 2007 debate with John Lennox – and I’ll put a transcription of it as the first comment below).**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. ((An extended selection (let no-one dare say this is quote-mining!) from Dawkins’ opening statement in his 2007 debate with John Lennox))

    I regard it as an enormous privilege to be alive and I regard it as a privilege to be alive especially at the end of the 20th century, beginning of the 21st century, a privilege to be a scientist and therefore to be in a position to understand something of the mystery of existence, why we exist.

    I think that religious explanations, although they may have been satisfying for many centuries, are now superseded and outdated. I think moreover that they are petty and parochial, and that the understanding that we can get from science, of all those deep questions that religion once aspired to explain, are now better, more grandly, in a more beautiful, more elegant fashion, explained by science.

    I think that when you consider the beauty of the world, and you wonder how it came to be what it is, you’re naturally overwhelmed with a feeling of awe, a feeling of admiration, and you almost feel a desire to worship something. I feel this. I recognise that other scientists such as Carl Sagan feel this. Einstein felt it.

    We all of us share a kind of a religious reverence for the beauties of the universe, for the complexity of life, for the sheer magnitude of the cosmos, the sheer magnitude of geological time. And it’s tempting to translate that feeling of awe and worship into a desire to worship some particular thing – a person, an agent. You want to attribute it to a maker, to a creator.

    What science has now achieved is an emancipation from that impulse to attribute these things to a creator, and it’s a major emancipation. Because humans have an almost overwhelming desire to think that they’ve explained something by attributing it to a maker.

    It was a supreme achievement of the human intellect to realise that there is a better explanation for these things, that these things can come about by purely natural causes.

    The scientific enterprise is an active, seeking – an active seeking out of gaps in our knowledge – seeking out of ignorance, so that we can work to plug that ignorance. But religion teaches us to be satisfied with not really understanding.

    Every time one of these difficult questions comes up, science says, ‘Right, let’s roll up our sleeves and work on it.’ Religion says, ‘Oh, god did it.’ ‘We don’t need to work on it, god did it. It’s as simple of that.’ …Religion stuntifies the impulse to understand, because religion gives a facile, easy, apparent explanation… and it prevents the further work on the problem.”

  2. Firstly, I believe the context of the type of question Dawkins was referring to was that of how we got here which he discussed in the bit prior to your quote as well as in the opening paragraph.

    Secondly, I don’t believe you that the people in Biblical times believed anything other than a literal, 6-day creation story with a literal Adam and literal Eve. Take Romans 5:12 as an example.

    Thirdly, why do you target only Genesis 1-3? I’ve often heard Frank say Genesis 1-11. What is it that is in 4-11 that you would consider should be treated differently? Do you believe in the flood myth and the Tower of Babel?

    Fourthly, a significant proportion of America identifies as Christian and an outrageous proportion of those believe in literal 6-day creation. Speaking for myself, it is these types of people and their literal interpretation that I target when discussing topics such as evolution. I don’t really care what Genesis says or how it is ‘supposed’ to be read. Just that the evidence contradicts their belief. I don’t insist that Genesis be taken literally, I just observe that it is taken so.

    Perhaps one day there will be a new breed of Christians who will start their blog posts (or equivalent thereof) out with “What the Gospels are not: a play-by-play, atom-by-atom historical and scientific account of an actual virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus”. And so it’ll continue. ;)

  3. Hey Damian,
    1 – I’m not sure what you’re saying – surely the quote is used honestly?

    2 – did you see my footnote?

    3 – Cause it’s explicitly related to creation and human origins (‘how we got here’) – though yes, many scholars (like Yael in the PDF I linked to) extend the metaphor line to chapter 11.

    4 – That’s great :)

    5 – as for questioning the historicity of the gospels, we don’t (as you know) have to wait for some future “new breed of Christians” – that’s already happening. By the way, I’m not scoffing at your implication. Indeed, it seems logical enough (at first glance) that if one part of the bible can be metaphorical/poetic, than why not the whole thing? Though, again, those who should know, the best of biblical scholars (whether believing or not), are aware of little things called literary genres, which is just ever so slightly important to interpretation. :)

  4. I do have to chime in with Damian re. the people of the day not believing in the literality of Genesis. I think it blatantly obvious that they would have and why, as far as I can tell, the entirety of the Abrahamic faiths have up until fairly recently.

    To me, Genesis speaks of ‘spiritual’ truths; truths which were an advancement to the surrounding cultures (but with much still in common). Just as the gospels speak of ‘spiritual’ truths; again, truths which were an advancement to the proximal surroundings (but again, with much in common).
    It is the ‘spiritual’ truths which come first. The pen-to-paper crystalisations serve these truths, not the other way round. The almost-impossible-ness of the modern christian accepting this reversal, is just as it was for the Genesis-ites.

  5. Dale,
    1. I think you represented Dawkins’ quote as if he were saying that science replaces ALL that religion does but I believe he was only talking about the questions of how we got here. Regardless, I happen to believe that science is also encroaching on religious beliefs of the ‘soul’, demon possession and spirits that cause illness, an much else besides. Science doesn’t say much about things like morals (i.e. the ‘ought’ kind) because they seem to be subjectively self-described.

    2. Yes I did but I really don’t see how the opinion of a single, modern Jew should represent how the people of the Bible themselves literally thought the world came about. I personally don’t hold it against them though as they had very little information to base their understanding of their origins on.

    3. I’ve heard people like Frank give reasons of a ‘style’ of writing which provides them with a cut-off at Gen 11 which conveniently deals with the problematic issues of the flood and Babel. Would you extend this to Numbers where a donkey talks? And if so, what method are you using to determine what is myth and what is literal? What ‘literary genre’ is Numbers 22?

    4. It is great isn’t it? Just as I don’t take Genesis literally I don’t think any other atheists do either. I think we only respond to the literalness of the vocal Christians out there who are demonstrably wrong.

  6. Allow me to expand on my non-convenient, convenient approach to those first 11 chapters of the Bible since I have been named :D

    When I talk of literary style and genre, I’m not just talking about how those stories play out – I’m talking right down to sentence structure, paragraph structure, topical structure, rhythm etc etc. The story of the flood and tower may seen similar to the story of the donkey on the surface, but could be very different in the “back-end” so to speak.

    Relating this to Numbers 22, the answer for me is, I don’t know. I’ve never spent any time examining it beyond the story presented. My studies in this area have focused on Genesis and the Gospels because I see these as the foundational parts of the Bible for soooo many reasons – and they are very very different pieces of literature.

  7. Cheers Frank. Obviously I’m no where near as studied in the various structures of the books of the Bible and so I ask for tolerance when I make the following accusation:

    It seems to me that the rules that people establish for what should and shouldn’t be taken as literal in the Bible are based more on the fact that there is strong independent evidence that shows otherwise rather than some pre-defined and agreed upon methodology. It seems that if there was some irrefutable evidence that the donkey never talked then a new set of rules would eventually be made to suit the evidence. And I would suspect that if the creation story had accidentally said that God took billions of years rather than a handful of yoms that the story wouldn’t be dismissed as lightly.

    The problem I have with this is that it seems that everything that is written in the Bible no matter how outlandish (talking donkeys, snake staffs, virgin births, imminent return, etc) will be taken as literal fact in the absence of evidence otherwise. And that if and when evidence does become available rather than being concerned about all the other outlandish claims you believe you just adjust the ‘rules’ of interpretation. This doesn’t seem to me to be a very good way of getting to the truth.

    Is this a fair criticism?

  8. hey guys,
    been a busy day and going to be busy until monday, but a quick comment…

    I think this is where the obvious fact arises that ALLLLLLLLL of us come to a text like the bible (in general or Genesis 1-3 in particular) with a whole load of assumptions, ways of thinking, etc. Like colour-shaded sunglasses, these ‘colour’ our interpretation of the text. For example, Ian recently posted about Genesis 1, and his response to the text was very Ian-ish (there is a whole field for this called ‘reader-response criticism’).

    The first goal with reading a text is to understand what the writer meant. As with any text, the genre matters. Am I reading a newspaper, a tabloid, a magazine, a church newsletter, a blog-post, a science journal, song lyrics, etc., etc. ad infinitum. Poetry by nature is less literal and dripping with metaphor.

    Texts are usually intended to have an effect (inform, persuade, entertain, etc.) on people, so our response to a text is valuable in one sense, but trying to get at the original meaning often means that we have to read it not ‘on our own’. ((interesting to note that many a cult and not a few crusades have been started by people reading the bible apart from the wider interpretive community))

    In our modern context, the creation-evolution debate has no small effect on our interpretation of Genesis 1. And I’m convinced that none of this was on the mind of the writer(s). We have to 1. work hard at what the text means and 2. then discuss how we are affected by it (informed, persuaded, entertained, etc.).

  9. “And I would suspect that if the creation story had accidentally said that God took billions of years rather than a handful of yoms that the story wouldn’t be dismissed as lightly.”

    Um, didn’t you just make Dale’s point Damian? The atheist who seeks to confine the Christian view to a YEC take on Genesis dismisses the text on the basis of that “omission”. Those Christians that view the text as poetic aren’t dismissing it at all – not lightly nor heavily. In fact they’re embracing the text and saying we take it seriously enough to read it properly. The “omission” doesn’t worry them because they don’t expect to see it. It’s poetry.

    Does the omission concern you here?

    River Incident

    A shell arched under my toes,
    Stirred up by a whirl of silt
    That rifted around my knees.
    Whatever I owed to time slowed in my human form;
    Sea water stood in my veins,
    The elements I kept warm
    Crumbled and flowed away,
    And I knew I had been there before,
    In that cold, granitic slime,
    In the dark, in the rolling water.

  10. I only comment when I have something to say.

    Which I just did on Rhett’s blog.

    Plus I’m not a real student. Or even a real pastor for that matter.

  11. Out of interest, chaps, who believes which of the following are literally true?:

    Genesis 2:21 – “So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.”

    Genesis 9:28-29 – “After the flood Noah lived 350 years. All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died.”

    Numbers 22:30 – “And the donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?'”

    Matthew 1:18…23-23 – “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” … “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel'”

  12. Alright, I feel like I’m about to volunteer for a dodgy Japanese gameshow or something… but let me (foolishly?) put my hand up and say “I do…all of them”.

  13. …to others it might look like the beginning of a long list of verses which no matter how they are interpreted/understood by us will be scoffed at (i.e. believe ANY of them = irrational psycho; believe SOME and not others = selective psycho [[addition: implication being either way = psycho]]). Not exactly something that makes people want to bother discussing it them…?

  14. I agree with Dale, but will throw some thoughts in anyway.

    This is based entirely on what I believe the text takes as literally true, going back to the studies I have engaged with of the nearest to the original that we have, including contextual analysis.

    This is a much more nuanced game than many who dismiss the Bible give credit for and I have to be honest and say that I get a little frustrated with the dismissive attitude of many that ignore good rigourous studies and developments of studies around the Bible and seem to think that developments in understanding based on good research are simply people sliming around to fit the Bible to their preconceived ideas or that changed ideas are some sort of defeat or capitulation.

    It seems that every field except biblical studies is allowed to grow and develop. It seems that if there is a shift in Christian thought then we have been defeated… rather than a recognition that our tools for biblical interpretation are getting stronger all the time and are a lot better than they were in the “middle ages”. It’s partly why I don’t bother much with these conversations anymore… I simply don’t think they are fair – ie, when scientists disagree it’s rightly seen as part of the scientific process – a rigourous process that should compell us towards a right answer. The same thing in biblical studies is seen by “outsiders” as somehow very very bad and amounts to it all being wrong. I personally see the products of biblical studies in the same way any thoughtful person should see the products of the scientific process – it is growing, changing, developing and offering new tools and ideas all the time…. it keeps getting better. I love it.

    Alright, rant over and on to the options :)

    1 & 2 – Probably not.
    3. Don’t know, have never studied it.
    4. Could be swayed either way – it’s not a game breaker for me and there are lots of valid arguments around the word that is translated as “virgin” – pointing back to the OT passage in Isaiah that it quotes from, the Septuagint and some general murkiness around the understanding of that word.

  15. ((dale briefly emerges from the deep entrenched-ness of his work on an exegetical assignment to give frank a nod for the comment – esp. as he [Dale] really needs to keep going today/tomorrow to get it done for submission tomorrow night – good thing his sermon for sunday night is done!))

  16. Thank you Rhett and Frank. Dale, you’re being too paranoid fella; it’s a simple question that seeks to encompass a good range of statements from the Bible that are often interpreted differently. I’d be interested to have Jonesboy’s and your thoughts on which of those verses you interpret literally.

    (For the record, in case you hadn’t guessed it, I think none of them are literally true but suspect that the authors genuinely believed all of them to be at the time of writing and for many years after. Like Frank, I think that the ‘virgin’ translation could be a little more complex and am not sure what was originally written or intended).

  17. Damian,
    It wasn’t so much paranoia as much as pointlessness…? The feeling of going ’round in circles and esp. not having time for it at the moment!

    My responses would be similar to Frank’s, except for my following notes on the ‘virgin’ issue:

    In Hebrew, Isaiah 7:14, the word could mean ‘maiden’ or ‘young woman’, and yes the word used in the LXX (septuagint – greek version of OT) is also less than perfectly clear; BUT the NT has Mary saying “How can this be, since I’ve never ‘known’ (technically: ‘performed the horizontal mambo with’) a man?” – thus making the NT meaning of the word (in this context) clear.

  18. …and from what I understand, I’ve heard that a virginal conception is biologically possible, so there’s always the possibility that someone could suggest that [[for]] the conception of Jesus?

  19. Pointless Dale? But this whole topic is about the interpretation of scripture and what should and shouldn’t be taken literally. And I find it fascinating. You and Frank are reasonably convinced that there was no literal Adam who’s rib was removed but a very large contingent of Christians do believe this to be true. The description of Noah’s age appears to me to be written matter-of-factly but you believe this to be not literally true and yet the issue of a talking donkey remains unclear to both of you. And I’ve met Christians who deny that any of those verses are literally true.

    Even though I don’t believe any of them to be literally true I have to agree with Rhett in that I believe the authors believed it to be so and am wary of what I see as a dismissal of their beliefs in order to maintain a legitimacy that doesn’t actually need to be there for the Bible to be of some worth. I have to say that I respect Rhett’s views as well as the views of Christians who accept that the Bible contains a lot of made up stuff but still find the core message of Jesus life-changing. But I’m wary of what appears to me to be a retrofitting to suit evidence and I don’t think this method has anything to recommend it as far as getting to the truth of matters.

    If you are still reading this Jonesboy I’m still interested to see where you stand on the verses I quoted above.

  20. First, you say that you respect Rhett’s views, but I actually don’t think it’s correct/honest of you to say that you ‘respect’ the view (whoever might hold it) that there was a literal first human around 6,000 years ago? I’d have thought you have NO respect for that view?

    Second, it’s not retro-fitting to suit evidence, but rather simply trying to seek the truth concerning the Bible and the world at the same time. And having a conviction that the God of Truth is into both biblical and scientific truth; which means that if it seems (as it does to me) to be biologically true that humans have emerged from lower primates way more than 6,000 years ago, then the truth of Genesis 1-3 is not biological truth, but rather a different kind of truth.

  21. Damian,

    “I have to say that I respect Rhett’s views as well as the views of Christians who accept that the Bible contains a lot of made up stuff but still find the core message of Jesus life-changing.”

    Consider that there are many who simply cannot find the core message of Jesus life-changing without him actually being divine. I, personally, struggle to see the point of art and fiction for exactly the same reasons.

  22. Dale, ‘respect’ as in ‘understand’ and ‘appreciate’. Not as in ‘buy into’.

    Simon, I know what you are saying but some people find that the general message of turning the other cheek, looking after the helpless and so on is revolutionary (or, at least, was at the time and has flowed on into our current society). And I respect their reasons for their way of interpreting what aspects of the Bible should not be read literally; they’re probably very similar to mine and yours.

  23. First, you say that you respect Rhett’s views, but I actually don’t think it’s correct/honest of you to say that you ‘respect’ the view (whoever might hold it) that there was a literal first human around 6,000 years ago? I’d have thought you have NO respect for that view?

    For the record, if I’m anything (and I really don’t stay up at night thinking about this, I am an old earth creationist, so 6000 years would be a bit slim to me. If I really cared deeply for science I might spend time thinking about it, but for me there are just to many issues which come from a symbolic Fall so I don’t go there. But you aren’t going to find me handing out Creation science magazines. I’m not bothered about the Genesis 1: literal or poetry debate. I honesty don’t think the ancient Israelites read it as a scientific document.

    But I think problems arise when you see Adam as symbolic.

  24. Cheers Rhett, didn’t mean to represent you – was just wanting to distinguish between Damian’s respect for you and for your views

    On the 6,000 year marker, I presume you’d see the earth as much older, but still want to see a first human (literal Adam?) around that long ago?

    On ‘symbolic fall’ – though I’m not a Rob Bell fan-atic, I like his little phrase which says that the ‘truth’ of Genesis 3 is not that it ‘happened’, but that it ‘happens’ (i.e. the point of the Fall is that what a literal Adam did, but what we all do)…

    And on ‘symbolic Adam’, even though Paul would have had no reason to not see Adam as a real person, he does use Adam theologically as ‘symbolic’ for all humanity ‘in sin’ (and Christ for the redeemed humanity). Point being – in terms of theology (Christian Anthropology in particular), it works. :)

  25. You’ll have to forgive me for having a life and not joining in the comment fest :) In answer to your question Damian: I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours…

    The premise of this post was that some atheists hold Christians to a YEC view of Genesis rather than appreciating the breadth of literary device employed in the Bible (its not the Koran after all). You then advanced an interpretative approach which I read a bit like this: if one bit is outlandish, then the rest is outlandish, regardless of literary styles, which are primarily after the fact justifications for outlandishness. I googled outlandishness and all I could find was: “what Damian subjectively finds non credible.” But my question remains: in relation to the original post are we now as one single cell amoeba prior to division? The literary form IS a valid tool of interpretation?

    Your response would help me in answering your question regarding the possibility of post operatively-challenged, centagenarian, talking donkey virgins!

  26. You’ve lost me there Jonesboy. If you were asking me what my stance is on those four verses, I outlined it in post #24. If not, you might have to rephrase what you just said.

    And, please, let’s keep this conversation as non-confrontational as possible in the interests of trying to find a common understanding.

  27. Dale, I think Rhett raises a valid point: If the fall is taken to be a metaphor then a lot of questions are raised about the need for a belief in a literal death and resurrection. Why would God need to physically appear, die and rise again if the fall is but an analogy? If the ‘death’ brought on by the fall were spiritual rather than physical and for some reason the only way for God to fix the situation was to was to ‘die’ spiritually then why the story of the empty tomb and so on? I think it does open a bit of a can of worms theologically speaking.

  28. That’s a great question, and reading N.T. Wright’s “Surprised By Hope”, he is so certain that what was conquered on the cross was real, physical death: that Jesus is the firstfruits of what we will be (in a sense) after the ressurection of the dead. If death was part of the plan from the beginning for humans, that would mess with that, don’t you think?

    I agree with Brett that litereary genres are important. Understanding the text helps us to come to a fuller understanding of God’s word and that’s good. But I can also understand where Damian is coming from too. I think when seemingly all of a Christian’s interpretive decisions seem designed to make sure the outcome lines up with science (i.e. explaining away miraculous occurences) or culture (i.e. my pet subject: deemphasising things like sin) to me it just doesn’t seem to bed down quite right.

  29. ((Dale absolutely MUST focus on his exegesis at the moment, but will comment sometime after Friday 11:55pm!)) :D others do continue as able, etc. :)

  30. “Why would God need to physically appear, die and rise again if the fall is but an analogy?”

    When I was deconverting, I often wondered “Who’s this Jesus fellow, anyway? Show me the real deal!”
    If god is god, why all the showmanship and middle-men? God being god doesn’t need that!

  31. Hey Damian. I’m not seeing the confrontation in #37/38. Maybe a touch of irony? Jonesboy asked you a question at #16 that is spot on. You followed with a series of questions. I’m guessing Jonesboy (and me too) wants to know whether you’re open to the interpretation argument before engaging in answering questions that require the interpretation argument. Otherwise its just an experiment in “how far can I push the Christians towards recanting on their own texts?”.

    Jonesboy – atheist poetry – who’d have thunk it?

    Dale – great post. So much of the atheist rhetoric is an exercise in reductionism (and yes I know it cuts both ways). Heck maybe this is reductionism. Or have I just reducted myself?

    [slithers back to corner]

  32. Hi Viper. I thought I sensed a little hostility in Jonesboy’s post but perhaps I was misinterpreting the ‘irony’ you point out. Hence the plea for a goal of a common understanding. And I’m not avoiding his questions; I merely didn’t understand them. Hence the request for clarification.

    As I’ve said, I think that the people who feature in the Bible likely believed the creation story to be literally true. But I don’t think any less of them for it. I would have probably done exactly the same in their sandals given the knowledge they had access to at the time. But do I think you have to believe it to be literally true in order to still get something from it? No. So, yes, I think people ought to be interpreting much of the Bible as metaphor but I think it odd to assume that people 2000 years ago did so too.

    I think you misjudge my intentions with regards my questions on those four verses. I don’t want anyone recanting. I want to see what rules are applied when judging what should be literal and for what reasons. Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on those four verses Viper?

  33. Exegesis Done! :)

    OK – quick clarification for Damian on this:

    So, yes, I think people ought to be interpreting much of the Bible as metaphor but I think it odd to assume that people 2000 years ago did so too.

    The thing about metaphor is that it’s not always just ‘flowery language when technical language would do’ – the metaphor in the Bible has a referent; an actual ‘thing’ that it’s talking about. So it’s key to understand that (as I freely admit) even where metaphorical language is being used, it often is describing a real event – though sometimes that ‘real event’ is less obvious to us as it would have been to the original hearers/readers (which is where scholarship helps).

    When Isaiah talks about the moon turning to blood and the sun not giving its light, he’s talking ‘war-language’… A section of a story with a talking donkey probably was much enjoyed by listening children ’round the fire – and quite possibly (though I’ve not looked into it) never thought to be a *real* talking donkey. When the story of Jonah talks about the ship ‘wanting’ to break-up, it’s about the ship almost being broken by a violent storm.

    All different kinds of metaphors, with all different kinds of referents, which all have to be studied within the various needed contexts (literary, textual, historical, cultural narrative parallels, etc.) to see what an original hearer might have understood them.

  34. I can see what you are saying Dale but I think you are giving the people of the time credit for being more worldly-wise than I think they would have been. A good indication of this is to look at other cultures around the world and what types of beliefs they had. Everyone had an origin story and I think that everyone believed their origin story to be literally true until such time as further evidence came to light. The question of our origins appears to be universally important for human cultures and so I think they’d have taken them seriously.

    Like I say, I don’t hold their lack of knowledge against them.

    But let’s say that I grant you that the people 2000-4000 years ago were onto it and realised that the creation story was an analogy, that Noah didn’t really live to 950 years and that the story of a talking donkey was a fable with a message. What do we make of Paul’s beliefs when he says in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”. It seems clear to me that he is talking about Adam. What gives you reason to think that Paul saw the existence of Adam as a metaphor rather than literal truth?

    And here’s where it gets really slippery; if we explain all this as metaphor how can you suddenly switch on the literalism again when it comes to virgin births, miracles and the resurrection? I just don’t see a level of consistency being applied when judging what is literal and what is not.

    If the fall is a metaphor, why the need for a literal resurrection?

  35. “If the fall is a metaphor, why the need for a literal resurrection?”

    Amen. Give it another two thousand years….

  36. two quick points before I head out:

    First, the resurrection marks not only the defeat of sin (our fallen-ness), but also evil (both of which are far more than just ‘metaphorical’).

    Second, humans are not merely ‘metaphorically’/’spiritually’ fallen, but wholistically fallen (in mind, body, thought, deed, spirit, etc.); the point is not that our fallenness is ‘metaphor’, but is rather that our fallenness has less to do with picking a bit of ‘knowledge’ off the ‘knowledge tree’ (oops, the human race is screwed…), and everything to do with human disobedience.

  37. Damian,

    What do we make of Paul’s beliefs when he says in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”. It seems clear to me that he is talking about Adam. What gives you reason to think that Paul saw the existence of Adam as a metaphor rather than literal truth?

    I was able to find the following quote that now comes to mind in an old comment on this blog, which I think spells out things nicely… And the author – who else? – Wright :)

    The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol X, N.T. Wright Commentary on Romans, p.526
    “Paul clearly believed that there had been a single first pair, whose male, Adam, had been given a commandment and had broken it. Paul was, we may be sure, aware of what we would call mythical or metaphorical dimensions to the story, but he would not have
    regarded these as throwing doubt on the existence, and primal sin, of the first historical pair.
    Our knowledge of early anthropology is of course sketchy, to put it mildly. Each time another very early skull is dug up the newspapers exclaim over the discovery of the first human beings; we have consigned Adam and Eve entirely to the world of mythology, but we are stall looking for their replacements.
    What ’sin’ would have meant in the early dawn of the human race it is impossible to say; but the turning away from open and obedient relationship with the loving creator, and the turning instead toward that which, though beautiful and enticing, is not God, is such a many-sided phenomenon that it is not hard to envisage it at any stage of anthropoid development.
    The general popular belief that the early stories of Genesis were
    straightforwardly disproved by Charles Darwin is of course nonsense, however many times it is reinforced in contemporary mythmaking. Things are just not that simple, in biblical theology or science.
    One potentially helpful way of understanding the entry of death into the world through the first human sin is to see ‘death’ here as more than simply the natural decay and corruption of all the created order. The good creation was nevertheless transient: evening and morning, the decay and new life of autumn and spring, pointed on to a future, a purpose, which Genesis implies it was the job of the human race to bring about.
    All that lived in God’s original world would decay and perish, but ‘death’ in that sense carried no sting. The primal pair were, however, threatened with a different sort of thing altogether: a ‘death’ that would result from sin, and involve expulsion from the garden (Gen 2:17). This death is a darker force, opposed to creation itself, unmaking that which was good, always threatening to drag the world back toward chaos.
    Thus, when humans turned away in sin from the creator as the one whose image they were called to bear, what might have been a natural sleep acquired a sense of shame and threat. The corruption of this darker ‘death’ corresponded all too closely to, and seemed to be occasioned by, that turning away from the source of life, and that turning instead toward lifeless objects, which later generations would call idolatry.”

    Again, Paul would have believed in a (our terminology) ‘literal’ Adam/Eve, (having no reason not to) but would have been aware (as Wright points out) of the clearly ‘mythical’ dimensions to the story (like the eating of fruit from a tree which grows ‘knowledge’ – what colour, shape, size would this literal ‘knowledge’ be???).

  38. Dale, I’m afraid I don’t see how Wright’s explanation deals with the issue of the need for an literal, physical death and resurrection when the ‘fall’ is a metaphor.

    Fill in the gaps for me if you will:

    The first signs of living things we find date at around 3,500,000,000 years ago. Somewhat over 500,000,000 years ago one of the many family lines split into protostomes and deuterstomes, the ancestors of insects/slimy things and all other animals respectively. Our ancestors developed spines and were well out of the water and living on land by 300,000,000 years ago. Just over 100,000,000 years later they had become warm-blooded. 65,000,000 years ago our ancestors survived a very close call with an extinction event which killed off the dinosaurs. Very shortly thereafter they started scurrying around in the trees and became more and more like modern-day monkeys over the next 40,000,000 years. By 18,000,000 years ago they had lost their long tails and were living in family groups, presumably interacting with each other in the complex manner we observe in monkeys and apes today. About 6,000,000 years ago our family line split from the family line that became the chimps. We began to walk on two legs and became skilled at tool-use and hunting. Our close cousins, the beefy Neanderthals, died off. We lived in strong family groups and formed complex communication systems. [insert explanation of The Fall here]. By 42,000 years ago members of our species had already migrated as far as Australia. About 10,000 years ago the humans living in the fertile crescent learnt the art of agriculture and trade and again independently in the Americas around 8,500 years ago. A series of independent texts written up to 3,000 years ago were eventually brought together to form the book we now know to be Genesis around about 2,500 years ago. In them is the interpretation of the event of The Fall. 500 years later God provided a solution to the problem created by The Fall by sending himself to die for all mankind and to literally come alive again. The reason it had to be done this way was because [insert explanation here].

    (I realise that was kind of lengthy but this is the perspective I see things in when I hear someone talking of The Fall and the death and resurrection and I thought it might help you provide the explanations in a way that would make sense to me.)

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