So far in this series we’ve established that the ‘Two Books’ of science and religion are distinct ways of knowing – tools we use to ask and answer questions about different aspects of the world around us. We made the claim that there is no essential conflict between the two magisterium of science and faith. From there we went on to give an overview of proper scientific explanations for the origins of life on earth – evolution by natural selection – and, what happens when scientific inquiry exceeds its bounds. Today we discuss the other side of the coin – religious perspectives on origins.
** Disclaimer **
This entire series is being written from the Judeo-Christian perspective. As a Christian I am most familiar with this, and it is the most common worldview in much of the Americas. That being said, I think a lot of the principles in these posts hold true for other philosophies. If you have thoughts, or know more about this from other worldviews, I’d love to hear about it in a comment down below.
Ok, we ready? This could be a long one, so strap in and enjoy the ride!!
These are likely among the most well-known Bible verses in history, Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with the first few verses of the Hebrew Bible. At the same time, this passage is highly revered, and highly contentious. For some a holy revelation of how, when, and why God created the universe, and for others nothing more than an ancient myth. But what do these verses really mean? How should we understand them thousands of years later and thousands of miles away? This is an extremely difficult question to even begin to answer – one that a lot of people way smarter and better read than I’ll ever be have spent years thinking about. So if this blog post is meant to do anything, it is not meant to answer all your questions, instead it is meant to get you thinking about things in perhaps a new way.
Regardless of what you think about its ultimate theological meaning, The Bible is an amazing book. Written by dozens of individuals over more than 1,000 years, this compilation of books, letters, and stories is incredibly rich and diverse. When we approach a text, any text really, there are three things every good reader should consider, genre, context, and intent. So, as we take a look at Genesis 1 we will ask:
1) what type of writing is this?
2) where were the original readers or hearers culturally, historically, and geographically?
3) what was the primary message the author wanted to communicate to their original readers?
What Kind of Story is this?
Walk into a bookstore and look around. How are the books arranged? By publisher? Publication date? Author? Nope, just about every bookstore organizes their books by genre. History, science, cookbooks, poetry, drama, and philosophy all have their own section of the store. Now imagine you grab a book off the history shelf that was misplaced from the fiction wing. If you begin reading with the assumption that it is history, you will completely misunderstand the text! Genre matters!
The Bible is a big book with a lot of different genres and sub-genres, but in general, the Bible can be broken into three main types of literature narrative, poetry, and prose / discourse. Each of these types of literature has its own tricks and techniques, and is used to communicate different things in different ways. There are several places in the Bible where we get a story told in narrative form, and then again later in poetry, Israel crossing the Red Sea in Exodus for example, each version communicating different important perspectives of the story to the reader. Below is a great introduction to these literary styles from a really helpful resource, The Bible Project.
The structure, content, and language of Genesis 1, tells us that this passage is a type of ancient Hebrew poetry. Poetry that uses lyrical language and metaphor to communicate complex topics and ideas. The text isn’t a narrative, or an ancient instruction manual for the Earth’s formation, it is a rich poetic representation of God’s creation of the universe steeped in the culture and history of those to whom it was written.
Now that we've gotten an idea of the type of writing this is, let's now work through who it was written to - the context.
What is the cultural and historical context of the story?
Have you ever overheard someone in the middle of a conversation at a restaurant or coffee shop and been totally confused by what you heard? That’s because you were dropping in without any context. Now imagine you’re watching a telenovela with subtitles in English. Even though you’ve been watching from the beginning, you still might be lost because you have never experienced the culture the telenovela portrays. Culture and context matter! Uncovering the cultural and historical context of Genesis 1 is a bit tougher than identifying its genre. To do this we need to consider who the original readers were, where they lived, and how they lived.
The original readers of Genesis 1 were members of an ancient near-eastern Semitic people group who were uniquely distinct from their neighbors in the region. According to tradition, Genesis was written by Moses as the Israelites entered the Promised Land after having wandered in the desert for 40 years. The books of the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) are then thought to have been compiled as the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, hoping to return home to Israel. In either case, some of the first readers of Genesis 1 were a people without home that were seeking an identity – Genesis 1 gave them that identity.
What did the author want you to learn?
The last thing to consider here is what the original author’s intent was in writing this passage. By thinking through the genre and the context like we’ve done we are well on our way there. Whoever it was that wrote and compiled Genesis (traditionally Moses), was very careful about what they included, what they left out, and how they structured their work – all to best communicate their message to the reader or hearer. The author chose the genre of poetry to communicate the grandeur and magnificence of creation in a way that would have been impossible otherwise. Poetry gets our minds thinking outside the box, and often does a better job of engaging both our cognitive and emotional sides. The choice to write in this genre was a conscious decision based on the author’s intent.
Genesis 1 was also written to directly mirror the creation accounts of Israel’s neighbors. Genesis is traditionally thought to have been written as Israel entered the Promised Land, and then compiled into the Torah as Israel was in captivity in Babylonian Exile. In both cases they were a people without a home or identity, living among peoples who did not worship their God. By mirroring on the surface the religious stories of their neighbors, but changing key aspects of the story Genesis 1 demonstrates how the God of Israel is unique among the neighboring gods, and how his people Israel are specially created priestly representatives of that God. In other words, Genesis 1 helped to give Israel an identity in God, rather than in the home, culture, or community they no longer had. As Christians today, Genesis 1 is remarkable not because it tells how God created the heavens and earth, but why. And, it places us, as his holy and regal representatives within that creation. Genesis 1 gives humanity as a whole an identity.
So, did the writer of Genesis expect you to read his account literally? Well, yes! They expected you to read the literature as it was written, in the appropriate genre, and in the cultural and historical context. When we try to impose our modern cosmologic context on a text that was not written with this in mind we are bound to misinterpret the text, and we are doing a disservice to the author, and ultimately ourselves.
That was a long one, and if you've made it through to this point then I am impressed! The next post following this series will look at what happens when Scriptures are used to answer scientific questions.