Problems in methods of interpretation—Genesis 1–11: Part 2
This article was originally prepared by Noel for the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. It was published in the Theolog Review Vol. 8, 1972 and is reprinted by permission. This series of articles has been specially modified for use in Ex Nihilo.
‘One of the fundamental beliefs of evangelical Christianity is that “the Bible is its own interpreter”. This belief comes under attack when Christians try to interpret Genesis 1–11 so as to fit into evolutionary biology and uniformitarian geology. Various justifications are given for this, e.g. “the Bible is teaching religion and not science”, or "we must interpret Genesis by general revelation (=science)”, or “the Bible was written in terms of the naive unscientific beliefs of its day”. When each of these arguments is examined it is found that it involves interpreting the Bible according to ideas drawn from outside the Bible. Thus the Bible is no longer its own interpreter.’
Is there any explicit teaching within the Bible itself that suggests its details are not to be pressed in matters of the physical creation? I know of no such teaching. When reference is made to the original creation, the creation narrative is treated as fact without any reservation. Consider Peter’s argument in 2 Peter 3:5–7, 'But they deliberately forgot that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and with water. By water also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.' Note that he does not shrink from reliance upon some of the details of the Genesis narrative. Other examples of Biblical references back to Genesis (e.g. Exodus 20:11; Matthew 19:4; Romans 5:12-19; 1 Tim. 2:13-14), to be considered in more detail below, show a similar reference to specific details such as creation in seven days (Exodus 20:11) and creation of woman from the man (1 Timothy 2:13–14).
This should in itself be enough to dismiss the frequent statement that we may not press the details of the account. Yet, most people would want to interpret scripture upon a basis of Kantian philosophy. But this philosophy itself is not sanctioned by Scripture. No clear distinction is ever made in the Bible between statements concerning the physical creation and theological statements. One influences and determines the other. Note that in the Biblical references given above, the form which the original creation took is made the basis of theological and/or ethical teaching. The separation between physical creation and theology is one that has to be imposed upon the text by us. It is not naturally there in the Bible.
The Literary character of Genesis 1
It seems a more serious attempt at exegesis when appeal is made to the literary nature of Genesis 1.1 Even here care is needed that an outside standard be not imposed. One cannot simply define Genesis 1 as poetry by using a standard of poetry drawn from outside the Scripture, without assuming the very point at issue. Even if Genesis 1 were poetry, we would still be entitled to inquire what truth it conveys. Our answer to that question would have to be framed in terms of the rest of Scripture. If we take the passages referred to above we obtain enough to place us in conflict with modern evolutionary approaches. Thus the claim that Genesis 1 is poetic does not resolve the problem.
Furthermore, by what criteria do we call Genesis 1 poetic? The parallelism of days 1–3 to 4–6 is often cited. This however, is merely parallelism that makes up Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry consists of a series of couplets or triplets exhibiting complementary, climatic or antithetic parallelism e.g. in Psalm 5:1, ‘Give ear to my words, O Lord’ is complemented and paralleled by ‘Consider my meditation’. This is clearly different from the fact that on days 1–3 God creates the environment and on days 4–6 the creatures who are to live and rule in the respective environments. One is a parallel of ideas in successive stichoi, the other a parallel of ideas which may be several verses apart.
Nevertheless it may be argued that the very fact that Genesis 1 exhibits such a structure proves that it is not to be taken literally. Surely, to state this argument is to refute it. Short of some sort of metaphysical presupposition that regards history as totally random and all order in historiography as being a result of arbitrary human imposition, I cannot see how one would ever prove such a proposition. The attempt to make a case by analogy from the book of Revelation is quite beside the point. If we took elements of Revelation as symbolical without explicit Biblical warrant then we would be guilty of imposing an outside standard upon the Scripture. Revelation itself tells us that we are meant to see symbolism in its pictures: ‘the great city, which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified’ (11:8); ‘And a great portent appeared in heaven’ (12:1); ‘and on her forehead was written a name of mystery, ‘Babylon the Great … I will tell you the mystery of the woman … This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains … and there are also seven kings … The waters that you saw, where the harlot is seated, are peoples and multitudes … And the woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth’ (17:5–18). It is the lack of a similar interpretation of the ‘symbolism’ of Genesis which so sharply distinguishes Genesis and Revelation.
Even though there is no logical reason why the presence of a structure should prove that a passage is not to be taken literally, this idea seams to have great emotive appeal. The whole question of structured history needs to be examined more closely. The title of this paper limits discussion to Genesis 1–11. This is because among evangelicals anyway there is a willingness to accept the historicity of the patriarchal narratives. However, the patriarchal narratives are structured history in the same way as the earlier chapters of Genesis. They fit within a framework created by the heading ‘These are the generations of …’ (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12, 19 etc.). There are clear instances of parallel structure. Thus the experiences of Isaac parallel those of Abraham. Both have barren wives (15:2; 16:1; 25:21). Both lie concerning their wives (20:2; 26:7). Both face famine in the promised land (12:10; 26:1). Both make a covenant with the Philistines (21:22–34; 26:26–33). If parallelism of structure proves that a passage is not historical then the patriarchal narratives are not historical. This of course is the conclusion of many liberal exegetes, but evangelicals once more maintain an inconsistency, being willing to apply a higher-critical principle in one area of Scripture but not in another.
If one looks carefully at these structured histories, one sees that the structure is theological. Abraham and Isaac both face barrenness and famine because they both experience the trial of faith in being forced to believe the promise of God contrary to the physical situation (Romans 4:17–18; Hebrews 11:8–12).2 The structure that underlies the parallelism of Genesis 1 is that of covenant vassal and suzerain. On days 1–3 the environment or vassal was created and on days 4–6 the appropriate creature or suzerain to live and rule in that environment. This notion of covenant head and vassal underlies also the story of the Fall in that on the fall of the suzerain the vassal is placed in rebellion against its Lord (3:17–19). Further the idea of covenant structures the whole of history into old and new covenant each under their respective heads (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:45–49). For the historian who proceeds on antitheistic assumptions such a theological history must be rejected. He must assign all such histories to the category of theological subjectivism. A theologically structured history presupposes a God who actively shapes history so that it conforms to his plan. A liberal exegete who denies the existence of such a God must dismiss as true history all Biblical accounts which see theological patterns in history. The evangelical has no basis for such an a priori dismissal of structured history. The fact that Genesis 1 displays a structure in no way prejudices its claim to historicity.
Scriptural interpretations of the Genesis account
So far the views discussed have consisted of statements about Scripture which were not themselves based on Scripture. An a priori statement about the Bible cannot claim Biblical authority. Discussion of this area has been obscured by the number of these statements and there is a need to return to interpreting Scripture by Scripture and not by hypothesis. There are a number of passages which reflect upon the original creation. Some have been referred to in other connections above.
Exodus 20:8–11 is significant in that it gives us a clear answer to the debated question about whether the ‘days’ of Genesis are to be taken literally. The commandment loses completely its cogency if they are not taken literally.3
This passage is also important in giving a proper direction of our thought. It is often said that the creation is described in seven days because this is the pattern of labor to which the Hebrews were accustomed. The text however says the very reverse. The Hebrews are to become accustomed to a seven-day week because that is the pattern that has been set by God. The point is an important one as it is crucial to the distinction between true and false religion. The oft-repeated claim that human thought and custom has created the categories through which, of necessity, all God’s activity must be viewed is a denial of the spirit of Biblical religion. It gives to man the priority which rightly belongs to God.
Psalm 104 deserves more consideration in this question than it usually receives. The Psalm follows in a general fashion the order of the creation days. The one point that is of particular interest is that the psalmist has integrated the account of Genesis 1 with that of the creation of springs in Genesis 2:4–6. The reference to springs falls where one would logically expect it between the account of the creation of dry land (Psalm 104:6–9) and that of vegetation (Psalm 104:14–17). The problems of relating the accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 is outside the scope of this paper but any attempt must begin with Psalm 104. Unfortunately some evangelicals have accepted too readily the assertion of the documentary hypothesis that they are independent accounts of creation. The psalmist knew better. A number of passages which refer to the original creation of man and woman and their relationship may be considered together (Matthew 19:4; 1 Corinthians 11:8–9; 1 Timothy 2:13–14). Note that the account is taken literally and made the basis of teaching on the relation of man and woman. Even if in only this point we take issue with evolutionary theory we find ourselves in complete antithesis to naturalistic evolution. If on the authority of Scripture we hold to the Biblical account of the creation of man and woman then we can give up all hope of a harmony between the Bible and ‘science’. The proper subject of this paper is the interpretation problem and these passages are adduced to show that the rest of Scripture sees the early chapters of Genesis as literal history. It may be objected as a last resort that only those details of the account mentioned as literal by the rest of Scripture may be taken literally. Even if this point be granted there is still enough contained in just these few verses to reopen the battle with evolutionary theory. However the argument that only those passages in Genesis 1–11 referred to elsewhere as literal accounts are to be taken as such may be summarily dismissed. The early chapters of the Bible are clearly a unity and whatever interpretation method is valid for part is valid for all. This fact has been realized by those who have sought by various arguments to find evidence of ‘poetry’ in one part and to extend it to all. Yet all these attempts in so far as they were not attempts to see how the rest of Scripture treated the chapters in question must be condemned as methodologically faulty. Scripture is its own interpreter.
Against this one might argue that even though the NT treats Genesis 1–11 as literal, this should not be taken as proving that it is a literal description. One may argue that the NT writers were accommodating themselves to the beliefs of the time or that these passages are referred to only as illustrations and that their literalness is not implied by the NT usage. The first alternative must be rejected as involving a denigration of Christ and his apostles. The accommodation argument when used as a way of avoiding the implications of Christ’s use of the OT for the doctrine of Scripture has been rightly rejected by evangelicals.4 It is inconsistent to attempt to revive it to avoid the implications of NT teaching on another subject. Furthermore the fundamental objection against a rule of exegesis drawn from outside Scripture applies here also. If the accommodation idea is to be allowed in the discussion then it must first be demonstrated that it is itself taught by Scripture.
The second alternative will not bear examination. Clearly in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14 the argument of Paul would collapse if the details of the account to which he refers did not happen as recorded. It is foolish to suggest that his point would still be valid even if woman was not created after and from the man and even if Eve was not beguiled into sin. Similarly Peter’s point is without cogency if the world was not destroyed by the Flood (2 Peter 3:5-6).
The thrust of this paper has been to direct discussion away from theoretical pre-exegetical arguments over the interpretation of Genesis and to concentrate on the way the rest of Scripture interprets it. We meet simple literalism in the scriptural exegesis of Genesis. Certainly not every detail of the chapters in question is referred to elsewhere but when they are literalism prevails.
If this be the case why has so much discussion been concentrated on arguments which are not only inconclusive but also diminish the right of Scripture to be its own interpreter? I suspect that the real debate is not interpretation at all. If it were, then it would have been decided long ago by a comparison of Scripture with Scripture. The real problem is that we as Christians have in a double sense lost our historical perspective. We have forgotten that the church has always been under pressure to allegorize Genesis so that it may conform with Plotinus or Aristotle or some other human philosophy. We have treated the problem as though it were a modern one, as though we alone have had to face the onerous task of holding to a view of cosmic and human origins which is out of sympathy with the philosophical premises of our culture.
The second sense in which we have lost our historical perspective is that we have forgotten that until our Lord returns we face strife and conflict in this world. We have sought to avoid that conflict in the intellectual realms. We have accepted the claim of humanistic thought that its scholarship is religiously neutral when the Bible teaches us that no man is religiously neutral. Man either seeks to suppress the truth in unrighteousness or to live all his life to the glory of God. In that total warfare scholarship is no mutually declared truce.
- Thompson, J.A., Genesis l-3 Science? History? Theology?, Theology Review 3/3 p. 16. Back to Text
- The attempt to explain these parallel incidents in terms of the documentary hypothesis is shown to be ridiculous if an attempt is made to assign each parallel to a different source in every case in which a parallel exists. The cases of both Abraham and Isaac lying concerning their wives is often used as proof of the documentary hypothesis. However, inconsistently, the theory attributes both barrenness accounts and both famine accounts to J. The inconsistencies become more evident if the parallels in the life of Jacob are also considered. Basically the documentary hypothesis is able to make a plausible case by ignoring most of the incidents of ‘duplicate’ narratives. When all are taken into account then it is clear that the ‘duplicate’ narratives and the other ‘criteria’ for dividing documents come into conflict. Back to Text
- John Murray (in Principles of Conduct [London: IVP; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957], p. 30) claims that Genesis 2:2 refers to ‘the seventh day in the sphere of God’s action, not the seventh day in our weekly cycle’ (emphasis his). Consideration of this question would involve a lengthy treatment of the meaning of God’s seventh-day rest. The frequent affirmation that the seventh day of Genesis 2:2 is still continuing needs to be proven. Murray unfortunately omits such proof. Briefly it may be argued that the text gives no indication of such a sphere distinction. The text is not concerned with God as He is in Himself but with God’s activity in a temporally conditioned creation. Even the seventh day refers not to God in Himself but to God in relation to His creation. At this point I can agree with Murray (ibid., p.31): God’s rest is the rest of delight in the work of creation accomplished. ‘And God saw all that which He made, and behold, it was very good' (Genesis 1:31). This is expressly alluded to in Exodus 31:17 in connection with God’s Sabbath rest,‘On the seventh day He rested and refreshed Himself’ and means surely the rest of satisfaction and delight in the completed work of creation. Back to Text
- Packer, J. I., ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God (London: IVP, 1958), pp. 59–61. Back to Text