SPECIAL TOPIC: A HERMENEUTICAL APPROACH TO GENESIS 1-11

A. Studying Genesis 1-11 is difficult because

1. we are all affected by our own cultures and denominational training

2. today several pressures consciously and subconsciously affect our view of "the beginnings"

a. modern archaeology (Mesopotamian parallels)

b. modern science (current theories)

c. the history of interpretation

(1) Judaism

(2) early church

3. this opening literary unit of the Bible is presented as history, but several things surprise the interpreter

a. Mesopotamian parallels

b. eastern literary techniques (two apparent accounts of creation)

c. unusual events

(1) woman created from a "rib"

(2) a talking snake

(3) a boat with all the animals on board for a year

(4) mixing of angels and humans

(5) long life of people

d. several word plays on the names of the main characters (cf. K. 3)

4. Christians need to be reminded of how the NT reinterprets Genesis 1 and 2 in light of Christ.  He is the Father's agent in creation (cf. John 1:3,10; I Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2), of both the visible and the invisible realm (cf. Col. 1:16). This new revelation shows the need to be cautious of literalism in Genesis 1-3.  The Trinity is involved in creation.

a. God the Father in Genesis 1:1

b. God the Spirit in Genesis 1:2

c. God the Son in the NT.

This may explain the plurals in Genesis 1:26; 5:1,3; 9:6. 

 

B.  Genesis 1-11 is not a scientific document, but in some ways modern science parallels its presentation (order of creation and geological levels). It is not anti-scientific but pre-scientific. It presents truth

1. from an earth perspective

2. from a phenomenological perspective (i.e., the five senses)

It has functioned as a revealer of truth for many cultures over many years.  It presents truth to a modern scientific culture but without specific explanation of events.

 

C. It is amazingly succinct, beautifully described, and artistically structured.

1. things divide

2. things develop

 

D. The keys to its understanding are found in

1. its genre

2. its relation to its own day

3. its structure

4. its monotheism

5. its theological purpose

 

Interpretation must balance

1. an exegesis of the verses

2. a systematic understanding of all Scripture

3. genre specificity

It reveals the origin of physical things ("and it was good," cf. 1:31) and the corruption of these things (cf. 3). In many ways the Christ event is a new creation and Jesus is the new Adam (cf. Rom. 5:12-21).  The new age may be a restoration of the garden of Eden and its intimate fellowship with God and the animals (compare Genesis 1-2 with Revelation 21-22).

 

E. The great truth of this chapter is not how or when, but who, moving rapidly toward why! 

 

F. Genesis reflects true knowledge but not exhaustive knowledge.  It is given to us in ancient (Mesopotamian) thought forms, but it is infallible truth.  It is related to its day, but it is totally unique.  It speaks of the inexpressible, yet it speaks truly.  Basically it is a worldview (who), not a world-picture (how). 

 

G. Without Genesis 1-3 the Bible is incomprehensible. Notice how quickly the story moves from (1) sin to redemption and (2) humanity to Israel. Creation forms an integral but passing piece of the account of God's choice of Israel for the purpose of world-wide redemption (cf. Gen. 3:15; 12:3; Exod. 19:5-6 and John 3:16; I Tim. 2:4; II Pet. 3:9). 

 

H. Your answer to the question, "What is the purpose of Inspiration and Revelation?" will affect the way you see Genesis 1.  If you see the purpose as the impartation of facts about creation, you will view it one way (i.e., propositional truths).  If you see it as conveying general truths about God, humanity, and sin, then possibly you will see it theologically (i.e., paradigmatic).  If, however, you view the basic purpose as the establishment of a relationship between God and mankind, possibly another (i.e., existentially). 

 

I. This section of Genesis is surely theological.  As the plagues of the Exodus showed YHWH's power over the nature gods of Egypt, Genesis 1,2 may show YHWH's power over the astral gods of Mesopotamia.  The main element is God.  God alone did it for His own purposes.

 

J. I marvel at my own ignorance! I am appalled at my own historical, cultural, and denominational conditioning!  What a mighty God we serve!  What an awesome God has reached out to us (even in our rebellion)!  The Bible is a balance of love and power, grace and justice!  The more we know the more we know we don't know!

 

K. Here are the basic approaches of some helpful books:

1. Genesis 1-2 interpreted along the lines of modern science:

a. Barnard Ramm's The Christian's View of Science and Scripture (good scientifically and theologically)

b. Hugh Ross' Creation and Time and The Genesis Question (good scientifically but weak theologically)

c. Harry Peo and Jimmy Davis' Science and Faith: An Evangelical Dialog (very helpful)

d. Darrel R. Falk, Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology (evangelical approach to theistic evolution)

2. Genesis 1-2 interpreted along the lines of Ancient Near Eastern parallels

a. R. K. Harrison's Introduction to the Old Testament and Old Testament Times

b. John H. Walton's Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context

c. K. A. Kitchen's Ancient Orient and Old Testament

d. Edwin M. Yamauchi's The Stones and the Scriptures

3. Genesis 1-2 interpreted along the lines of theology from LaSor, Hubbard and Bush's Old Testament Survey

a. "Literary device also is found in the names used.  The correspondence of the name with the person's function or role is striking in several instances. Adam means "mankind" and Eve is "(she who gives) life."  Surely, when an author of a story names the principal characters Mankind and Life, something is conveyed about the degree of literalness intended!  Similarly Cain means "forger (of metals)"; Enoch is connected with "dedication, consecration" (4:17; 5:18); Jubal with horn and trumpet (4:21); while Cain, condemned to be a nād, a "wanderer," goes to live in the land of Nod, a name transparently derived from the same Hebrew root, thus the land of wandering!  This suggests that the author is writing as an artist, a storyteller, who uses literary device and artifice.  One must endeavor to distinguish what he intends to teach from the literary means employed" (p. 72).

b. the theological implication of Genesis 1-11

"Implication for Gen. 1-11.  Recognizing the literary technique and form and noting the literary background of chapters 1-11 does not constitute a challenge to the reality, the "eventness," of the facts portrayed.  One need not regard this account as myth; however, it is not "history" in the modern sense of eyewitness, objective reporting.  Rather, it conveys theological truths about events, portrayed in a largely symbolic, pictorial literary genre.  This is not to say that Gen. 1-11 conveys historical falsehood.  That conclusion would follow only if it purported to contain objective descriptions.  The clear evidence already reviewed shows that such was not the intent. On the other hand, the view that the truths taught in these chapters have no objective basis is mistaken. They affirm fundamental truths: creation of all things by God; special divine intervention in the production of the first man and woman; unity of the human race; pristine goodness of the created world, including humanity; entrance of sin through the disobedience of the first pair; depravity and rampant sin after the Fall. All these truths are facts, and their certainty implies the reality of the facts.  Put another way, the biblical author uses such literary traditions to describe unique primeval events that have no time-conditioned, human-conditioned, experience-based historical analogy and hence can be described only by symbol. The same problem arises at the end time: the biblical author there, in the book of Revelation, adopts the esoteric imagery and involved literary artifice of apocalyptic" (p. 74).

c. If it is true that one language was spoken in Genesis 1-10 (cf. Samuel Noah Kramer, The Babel of Tongues: A Sumerian Version, "Journal of the American Oriental Society" 88:108-11), then it needs to be clearly stated that it was not Hebrew.  Therefore, all of the Hebrew word plays are from Moses' day.  This verifies the literary nature of Genesis 1-11.

4. I would like to make a personal comment.  I love and appreciate those who love and appreciate the Bible. I am so grateful for people who take its message as an inspired, authoritative message from the One true God.  All of us who study the Scriptures are attempting to worship and glorify God with our minds (cf. Matt. 22:37).  The fact that we as individual believers approach the Bible differently is not an aspect of unbelief or rebellion, but an act of sincere devotion and an attempt to understand so as to incorporate God's truth into our lives.  The more I study Genesis 1-11 and for that matter, much of the book of Revelation, I perceive it is true but literary, not literal.  The key in interpreting the Bible is not my applying a personal philosophical or hermeneutical grid over the text, but allowing the intent of the inspired original authors to fully express themselves.  To take a literary passage and demand it to be literal when the text itself gives clues to its symbolic and figurative nature imposes my biases on a divine message.  Genre (type of literature) is the key in a theological understanding of "how it all began" and "how it will all end."  I appreciate the sincerity and commitment of those who, for whatever reason, usually personality type or professional training, interpret the Bible in modern, literal, western categories, when in fact it is an ancient eastern book.  I say all this to say that I am grateful to God for those who approach Genesis 1-11 with presuppositions that I personally do not share, for I know they will help, encourage and reach people of like personalities and perspectives to love, trust and apply God's Book to their lives!  However, I do not agree that Genesis 1-11 or the book of Revelation should be approached literally, whether it is Creation Research Society (i.e., young earth) or Hugh Ross's Reasons to Believe (i.e., old earth).  For me this section of the Bible emphasizes the "Who" and "why" not the "how" and "when" of creation.  I accept the modern science's sincerity in studying the physical aspects of creation. I reject "naturalism" (i.e., all life is a chance development of natural processes), but surely see process as a valid and demonstrable aspect of our world and universe.  I think God directed and used process.  But natural processes do not explain the diversity and complexity of life, current and past.  To truly understand current reality I need both the theoretical models of modern science and the theological models of Genesis 1-11.  Genesis 1-11 is a theological necessity for understanding the rest of the Bible, but it is an ancient, literary, succinct, artistic, eastern presentation, not a literal, modern, western presentation.

Parts of the Bible are surely historical narrative. There is a place for the literal interpretation of Scripture: there was a call of Abraham, an Exodus, a virgin birth, a Calvary, a resurrection; there will be a second coming and an eternal kingdom.  The question is one of genre, not reality, of authorial intent, not personal preferences in interpretation.  Let all men be liars—and God be true (cf. Rom. 3:4)!!!

 

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