Fundamental mistakes in reading Genesis 1-2

God creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars, Jan Brueghel the Younger
God creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars, Jan Brueghel the Younger

Many of the debates people have about Genesis 1-2 and creation stay on a rhetorical level: “literal” vs. “metaphorical,” “historical” vs. “mythic,” concordant with modern science or representing Ancient Near East cosmology, and so on. Today I’d like to bypass all of that and look at a few interpretive issues in the text itself that have come to my attention over the years and have shaped my own perspectives on the Bible’s first creation accounts.

In what follows, I will list seven observations from the text in Genesis 1-2 for your consideration, giving brief explanatory comments after each one. It is hoped that this will help all of us as we approach these passages. You might want to have a Bible open in front of you. I recommend a good, more literal translation such as the NASB, NRSV, ESV, or KJV/NKJV.

• • •

A few fundamental mistakes we make in reading Genesis 1-2 . . .

Paradise, Jan Brueghel the Younger
Paradise, Jan Brueghel the Younger

1. Thinking the 7 days of creation describe when God created the universe.

The translation of Genesis 1:1 and its relationship to the rest of the chapter has always been an issue in interpretation. There are two basic options:

  • Gen 1:1 is a complete sentence — “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
  • Gen 1:1 is a dependent clause linked to the main sentence in v. 2 — “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and empty . . .”

If Genesis 1:1 is a complete sentence there are two options:

  • It is a summary of what is to follow.
  • It records God’s original creation of everything sometime before the 7 days.

Either way, the point to note is that in Genesis 1:2, before the 7 days, “the earth” and the raw material of the universe is already present. That means the “7 days” that follow are not describing when God “created” the universe but when he brought order to the already existing world so that it became “good.”

If Genesis 1:1 is a dependent clause, not a complete sentence, you have the same result. The world is already present and waiting to be put in order before the 7 days.

The 7 days of creation (Gen 1:2ff) do not describe God bringing the universe into existence, but portray God bringing order to an already existing world that is without form and empty.

2. Failing to recognize the highly stylized prose of Genesis 1:1-2:3.

We miss some of this in English, but even in our language, the prose of Genesis 1 reads like poetry or liturgy or some other form of embellished speech rather than simple historical narrative. For example, it follows a clear parallel structure. There is an exquisite balance between the first 3 days and the second 3 days. Verse 2 describes the earth as “without form and empty” (tohu wabohu). God brings “form” on days 1-3, God “fills” the earth on days 4-6. And he pronounces it all “good” (tov).

Each day also follows a highly structured pattern. And there is an intricate numerology here. The number “seven” is woven throughout the account and everything fits within patterns of seven, beginning with 1:1 which in Hebrew is 7 words. All this and more impacts our understanding of Genesis 1’s literary type (genre).

Whatever we might call it, the literary style of Genesis 1 goes far beyond the bounds of historical narrative and presents itself to the reader as literary material for meditation and contemplation rather than a bare historical report of information.

3. Missing connections to the rest of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible in these chapters.

These chapters introduce not only Genesis 1-11 and the book of Genesis, but also the entire Torah, indeed the whole Hebrew Bible. So many elements of later stories and laws are found herein. For example, the phrase “without form and empty” is used elsewhere to describe the wilderness. God forms the good land by separating the waters. The “lights” in the sky are “lamps,” the same word used for the lamps in the tabernacle. The “signs and seasons” they are for are not nature’s seasons in the Torah, but the seasons when Israel was to celebrate the feasts. Israel’s faithful adherence to the Torah will enable them to be fruitful, multiply and extend God’s blessing throughout the world. God’s own sabbath reflects Israel’s own observance. In chapter 2, Adam is created from clay by the same Potter who formed Israel. The Lord had not sent rain upon the earth, i.e. the flood. The geographical description of the Garden fits the later boundaries of the Promised Land. “Nakedness” and “shame” will be the exiles’ experience. The whole story of Adam and Eve tells Israel’s story. Created by God and placed in a good land, they are given God’s commands and encouraged to choose life. However, they lean on their own understanding and are exiled from the land.

The language and patterns of Genesis 1-2 suggest that a main purpose of these chapters is to foreshadow the story of Israel, and not just to give information about the creation of the world.

4. Conflating Genesis 1 and 2.

Even the most literal reading of these chapters reveals something that many people miss: Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are NOT telling the same story. This is clear from the way chapter 2 begins. The text actually starts at 2:4 — These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. This is the first of ten such statements in Genesis that use the Hebrew word toledot and serve as headings for each new section in Genesis. Each one introduces a new development in the story that came before and describes events (or lines of relatives) that came after the previous material. In Genesis 2:4, we might colloquially translate this phrase: “This is what became of the heavens and the earth.” In the logic of the narrative, the story of the Garden is subsequent to the story of creation.

Many read Genesis 2 as if it is Genesis 1 remix. But it’s not. It tells what came to pass in the world God created in chapter 1.

Creation of Adam, Jan Brueghel the Younger
Creation of Adam, Jan Brueghel the Younger

5. Confusing the adam in chapter 1 with the adam in chapter 2.

This grows out of the last point. The Hebrew word adam is used in different ways in chapter 1 and chapter 2. In 1:26-27, it describes “humankind” (as in the NRSV translation) in both its male and female aspects. In 2:7, it describes an individual male human being. Later in the text it appears to be used as that male’s name. Two different stories, two different “adams.” This lends credence to the interpretation that the adam in chapter 2 is one particular individual human out of the whole group of adam that God had already created in chapter 1, and not the actual first human being. His story is subsequent to that of creation (point 4).

God created humankind, male and female, in Genesis 1. God created a particular male in Genesis 2.

6. Conflating the Garden with the whole earth.

Here is yet another mistake that comes from conflating Genesis 1 with Genesis 2. People think that the Bible says the whole world was like the Garden in Eden — a paradise, perfect. But nowhere do these chapters equate the world at large with the Garden in particular. The whole world is called “good,” even “very good.” But it is not suggested that the whole world was “Edenic.” (In fact, a close reading raises questions about whether the Garden itself was as “Edenic” as we suppose — after all, the serpent was there!) The Garden was a special place, set apart. The text says that God himself planted it and put the adam there. The Garden is described in the text in terms that are later used of the tabernacle and Temple. These were designed to be God’s special dwelling place in the midst of the broader world around. The Garden likewise was holy space, set apart from the rest of the world.

If there is a “paradise” in these chapters, it is not the world as a whole, but God’s Garden, which he himself planted in Eden.

7. Missing the evidence that all was not right with the world.

Genesis 1 says God made world to be “very good.” Genesis 2 portrays a divine Garden in that world where humans lived “naked” and “unashamed.” But look more closely and you’ll see some shadows. The original state of the earth was a wilderness of darkness and raging waters. This suggests that there were elements in the world that God had to tame to bring order to creation. Other scriptures do not hesitate to name and describe these forces of chaos. When God creates humankind in 1:26-27, his commission to them includes “subduing” the earth. This militaristic word describes bringing one’s enemies to subjection, trampling them down. Certainly that strikes a minor note amid all the positive melody in Genesis 1. Humankind is portrayed as mortal from the beginning; immortality was only to be gained by eating from the Tree of Life. Humankind somehow has the capacity to disobey God. And then there’s that pesky serpent.

According to Genesis 1-2, the world God made was once fresh and new, but from the beginning there were also elements of darkness in the midst of the light.

• • •

These are some of the observations, taken directly from the text, that have shaped my view of the early chapters of Genesis. I have not delved into the relationship of these chapters to Ancient Near Eastern creation myths, the background, composition, and editing of the texts, or other questions that I think do indeed shed light on what these chapters are about. Today I simply wanted to show some of the insights that can come from a close reading of the text itself. Perhaps it will help you see why I can no longer take seriously so-called “literal” readings of Genesis (like the young earth creationists) or concordist readings (that seek to harmonize Genesis with modern science).

115 thoughts on “Fundamental mistakes in reading Genesis 1-2

  1. I wish, but it just isn’t so. And too many Americans who fall all over the Israeli govetment and Jewish people are only doing do because they want to see the trmple rebuilt, thus setting things up for Jesus to come back. Few of these people know anything about Judaism, and probably don’t actually like being around Jewish people.

    Anti-Semitic Zionism. Supporting Israel 1000% because they fulfill End Time Prophecy and only because of End Time Prophecy. Other than that, they’re just another piece on the Armageddon gameboard and the Revelation checklist.


  2. On Point 1: It always amazes me that those who claim the strongest adherence to a literal translation, literally miss this.
    On the relationship of verse one to what follows: ‘Gen 1:1 is not a preface, it is an absolute statement. G. Ch. Aalders: “this is the rendition that is found in every ancient translation, without exception”’

    On verse two, in NICOT, Victor P. Hamlton states, “Verse 2 then, describes the situation prior to the detailed creation that is spelled out in vv 3ff”


  3. I shouldn’t get in the middle of this but…

    I think numo is right in saying that anti-semitism is alive in Europe and elsewhere.

    To some extent, it exists here in the US, but I’ll agree with Patrick that it has been less of a problem than elsewhere. From my Jewish friends, from the novels of Chaim Potok (always a great resource) and studies of history, it does seem to be an “over there” problem, relatively speaking.

    However, and not to start a new subject…

    In the US, anti-semitism has been displaced by fear and hatred of blacks, of communists, and now of Muslims. I don’t give any free passes to people of the US or to churches here.


  4. The important thing to note about the anti-semitism, like many other anti-isms, is that it is not always overt, but rather is baked into the categories and narratives we use–it can be hard to purge or even recognize. It has been noted that Christian tendencies not to hear a Jewish voice in their scripture can, at least, offer quarter to anti-semitism.

    To this I’ll add that the problem is not merely catholicism or traditional Christian readings; it includes the sharper-tongued architects of modern criticism.

    I recently enjoyed an genteel yet saucy essay in which the author, Marilynn Robinson, observed that skeptical interpreters of religion have a track record of heaping much of what they find odious about religion (Christianity included) on the Old Testament. Of course the New Testament delivers one from all this violence and tribalism, one hears. To this judgement there is, of course, a confounding detail: Christians have engaged in wanton bloodshed. But no matter; some would have us believe that this is merely the fault of Christianity being based too much on the Old Testament.

    Robinson also makes a second delightful point out of the relatively small scale, and even possible fictionality (?), of the tribal conflict of semitic tribes that so bother commentators, compared to the rather larger wars of the pagan empires; yet according to a common convention in the writing of critically-minded religious history, monotheism, proceeding out of Judaism, is the root cause of all intolerance throughout the West.

    Somehow, R. presses, it has not figured particular important to these same interpreters that Judaism has within its writings an unexpected amount of reflection on the rights of outsiders and the charity of God, or that Judaism is notably interior and self-reflective. It even blames itself for being conquered by larger, pugnacious neighbors.

    If these narratives fit uncannily well with antisemitism. (The necessary footnote to this point is that the critical tradition under discussion took shape in Europe, especially Germany, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.) Yet, Robinson complains, we’re still repeating the narrative; it lives unscathed in the commentary taken up by such self-styled progressives as Bishop Spong. The conventions of the old criticism are tempting, if you are looking for good foil for contemporary heroics.


  5. Thanks, Sean. Nothing replaces a good teacher, but I still intend to nerd out on your fine list.

    Your trip sounds grand.


  6. Patrick, i think you are missing the points i was attempting to make.

    And why would i necessarily view one religion as inferior to the other? That id your idea, but it is not mine.

    I think it best to bow out of this partivular discussion, as it seems to be turning adversarial and i don’t know that further participation on my part will do anything to alter thst.


  7. Robert F.

    Week after week churches full of Christians beseech our Lord for the forgiveness of sins. We have put away the sin of anti-semitism (at least in the churches which I am associated with) and advocate for justice and the rights of the victims of hatred and oppression. What more can we do? If the communion of saints is true,then we have been pardoned of the past iniquity of the Church If the Lord Himself has put those sins as far as the east is from the West, and cast them into a sea of forgetfullness, who are you to hold our feet to the fire and demand that we atone for these sins by altering our interpretation of the Scriptures? Do we need to constantly bear the load of guilt and responsibility for these sins in perpetuity, as though this will expiate those sins? Is it not enough that we are vigilant and on guard against these things.?


    you said “Patrick, i do not consider Judaism to be inferior to xtianity. Full.stop.” Why then do you not convert to Judaism? If it is equal to or superior to Christianity why not? From the outside at least it seems to be a less complicated faith. My friend in college after examining these things left Christianity and converted to Judaism.

    As to my past relationship, it is relevant to our discussion because given the time I invested and all the Jewish people I met, I think it gives me some small ‘real life’ insight to the Jewish faith and culture. Am I an expert, hell no. But have I had some real and quality engagement with Jewish people and culture, yes. So when I discuss these things it is not from a position complete ignorance or inexperience.


  8. Patrick, i do not consider Judaism to be inferior to xtianity. Full.stop.

    You’ve raised the thing about dating someone before and i am honestly not sure how thst is relevant. I grew up going to Passover Seders at my next-door neighbors’ house, but that doesn’t make me an expert on Judaism, or even an expert on my former neighbors’ beliefs. As with many things, opinion about noth Jesus and Paul vary; there is no single dictum about either.


  9. Robert, you’re mixing the sacred with the profane, almost as bad as mixing metaphors.

    And “Kansas” ain’t no Joni Mitchell…


  10. Patrick Kyle,
    If the Communion of Saints is true, then it means that, if I’m a Christian today, I share in the deeds, both good and bad, of my ancestors in the faith. “No man is an island.” In this context, that means that I cannot simply disavow responsibility for the unlovely acts of my Christians forbears since I wasn’t personally involved in them. We are all one body, past, present and future, for good and ill, and to the degree that real Christians were really involved in historical crimes against the Jews, or anyone else, we are morally responsible to address those matters and do what we can to make sure that they either stop in the present, or that they do not occur again. You are thinking of us as existing in discrete autonomous isolation, with clear demarcation between our own actions and the actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ; but if the Communion of Saints is real, that cannot be the way it is for us. Theologically, we are contemporaries of every generation of the Body of Christ. We bear a spiritual as well as moral responsibility to address past sins of our community.


  11. Antii- Semitism is alive and well in the world. And getting worse. However Robert’s particular concern was AS in the church and our need to curtail our interpretation because of it. I disagree in this specific instance. I have not heard any anti semitism from any main,line Churches in the US, and Evangelicals by and large do not strike me as anti-semitic. Maybe it’s more a problem with the ethnic Orthodox churches in Europe and Russia,

    As to the American churches that are friends of the State of Israel, many of the dispensationalist churches teach that the Jews are saved through the Old Covenant, and they seem sincere in their backing of the Jewish State and Jews in general. I’m sure there are fringe groups out there preaching all kinds of prejudice, but the ‘exceptions don’t make the rule.’

    Your last comment was interesting:”practicing a religion that is considered innately inferior and corrupt by far too many so-called xtians.” You yourself must consider Judaism ‘innately inferior’ in some way or else you would convert, like my best friend in college did. We choose to follow the religion we do because we think it is better or more true than the competing religions. I seriously dated a Jewish woman for a while and I can tell you that many Jews flat out think Jesus and Paul were blasphemers and corruptors of Judaism.. It goes with the territory of choosing one religion over another. Does believing that Judaism is incomplete and that their tradition has been ‘corrupted’ call into question someone’s salvation? Again, honest men disagree honestly.


  12. Patrick, by no means has the church “left it in the padt,” as you will discover with even a cursory investigation.

    I wish, but it just isn’t so. And too many Americans who fall all over the Israeli govetment and Jewish people are only doing do because they want to see the trmple rebuilt, thus setting things up for Jesus to come back. Few of these people know anything about Judaism, and probably don’t actually like being around Jewish people. They are a means to an end, practicing a religion that is considered innately inferior and corrupt by far too many so-called xtians.


  13. Patrick, unfortunately, anti-semitism is very much on the rise in many former Soviet Bloc countries as well as in Greece and Russia. There are serious problems in some of these countries regarding a virulent mixture of religion with anti-semitism. In some countries, like Greece, neo-Nazi political parties are gaining ground.

    Western Europe is experiencing severe problem with anti-semitidm as well.

    Not sure how you can consign it to the past; it is a present reality in far too many places, and Jewish people are an easy target/scapegoat.

    It even goes right through educational systems – as in Getmany, where public schools do NOT have any history curriculum that discusses either WWII or the Holocaust. Don’t know if you’ve ever seen the German movie “The Nasty Girl” (based on real life experiences of a young woman who began uncoveting her town’s Nazi associations for a school project), but you might find it eye-opening. Her home was firebombed (IRL, as in the film), and so on. Very painful stuff.


  14. Robert F,

    I am not so sure the two things are related. In addition, while there may have been anti-semitism in the past, I think it remains largely in the past.

    ” Given the history of Christian antisemitism, how can we do any less? Isn’t it a moral obligation?”

    No. Having not participated personally in anti-semitism, and given that the church has left it in the past, I do not buy into the idea that I or those who have not participated in this sin are somehow responsible or bear the guilt for it. Furthermore, we cannot and should not ‘modify or chasten ‘our own interpretations as atonement for past sins or in deference to an offended party.


  15. A really stimulating post, Chaplain Mike. Your point #3 on the connection of Genesis 1-2 to the rest of the Tanakh is new for me. Something I’ll want to pursue. Thanks for this.


  16. StuartB,

    If you don’t already have that freedom where you are, come join us in the Episcopal Church; then you’ll have that freedom aplenty. In fact, you will have so much of that freedom that sometimes it will make you sick with vertigo, like floating in zero gravity.


  17. Robert – yes. It’s a bit of a high-wire act, requiring a very finely developed sense of balance. And imposdible to approach without making some mistakes, but we need to learn from those and keep trying.


  18. Dana, I’ve always been very fond of that subject! (I think that might well be true even if i wrrent xtian.) It really is amazing and beautiful (and sometimes a bit humorous, re. facial expressions) imagery.

    Btw, i really fo get what you were saying just a bit upthread, and don’t think we are talking past each other at all. I’ve recently discussed some of these tpics w/a convert to the EO faith on another blog, and that has bern a bit difficult due to the way tjis person reads bavkwards into Judaism itself. But i digress! (And i like the person as well as enjoying the discussion; text-only communication can be difficult when dealing with sensitive subjects, though!)


  19. Yes, many Christian traditions, perhaps all Christian traditions,do read back into the OT, and antisemitism historically has been found in many corners of Christendom. Very few, if any, traditions have escaped it.

    It’s not a matter of not finding Christ in the OT, but of balancing that with an emphasis on and acknowledgement of the Jewish character and voice of the Hebrew scriptures in their own right, and learning from that character and voice in an intentional way, even at times letting it modify and chasten our own interpretations. Given the history of Christian antisemitism, how can we do any less? Isn’t it a moral obligation?


  20. I have read some interpretations which also present the garden as a temple – or type of temple. The two trees were part of the holy of holies. The presence of the serpent in that “temple” complicates this interpretation. It’s a fascinating premise.


  21. But there is this underlying presupposition (stemming from highly suspect epistemology, which is an whole other subject) that there is only one right way to understand the text.

    Contrary to what I’ve said before, I’m ok with this. I’m ok with there not being one right way to understand the text.


    But I want the freedom to then say others interpretation is wrong. And not be beholden to it. To not accept it. To critique it. To be free of it’s rhetorical influence. I want to be able to come up with my own interpretation, that may or may not align with others. I want it to be a conversation between me, God, and other believers…and not the truth handed to me from other believers allegedly through God that “you know to be true and you are self-deceived otherwise”.


  22. I don’t think the Genesis story really means to say that Adam and Eve never ate from the fruit of the tree of life. I think the implied idea is that they had unrestricted access to it in Eden, of which they availed themselves, and this tree, symbolic of their unbroken communion with their creator, sustained their existence. However, it was mutually exclusive with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and so I think it’s not as if eating one fruit from the tree of life would have granted them instant immortality (like a fountain of youth), but rather, continued access to it kept them alive, and being cut off from it ensured that they would die, as it shattered their fellowship with God, who can have no part in evil.


  23. Christian tradition has generally numbered Adam and Eve among the saints, even though their claim to fame is royally screwing it up for the rest of us. Still, the believed in the promise of the seed of the woman, and this faith is credited to them as righteousness.

    The credal line “he descended to the dead” referring to Jesus has, according to R. C. Sproul, some 14 or 17 different interpretations in Christian tradition. The one I typically go to is the idea that being sent to the place of the dead was the final step in Christ’s humiliation, after which He is glorified as he takes his own life up again. So the point was to show that Christ alone, unlike any other, can go to that place and successfully will to leave, thereby trampling down the gates of death for all. This also shows a powerful link between the deific power of Christ and the Gospel of his saving work for us.


  24. numo (and RobertF),

    I totally understand what you’re saying. It’s very clear that the OT is at least Jews writing their history and commenting on it, including the history of their interactions with God, and it’s very necessary that those writings “speak in their own voice.” I am not at all saying that it has to be either “historical” or “typological”, or advocating “imposing” anything, but rather that both ways of reading can be done at the same time, side by side (especially because these are writings that are *revelation*). The one does not cancel out the other, and does not have to. I think that my deep reading of NT Wright, who approaches things in a very historical/contextual manner, was instrumental in my being able to understand typology at all. I have kind of a “tin ear” for most poetry – I count this as a deficit in my education – and typology is like poetry for me – took me until I was in my ’50s to be able to “hear.”

    I do hear many, many echoes of the Jewish understanding in Orthodox interpretation and Liturgy, esp after having read some of M. Barker. It is indeed unfortunate and tragic that the Jewish echoes were ignored or drowned out or otherwise obscured through Church history. Anti-Semitism is a sin; it is dishonoring to the Lord, his Mother, all his earthly forbears and the prophets (who are saints in the Orthodox Church) and all the earliest Christians, who were Jews, many of whom were martyred. I agree with you about the weird typologies that “developed from late antiquity through the High Middle Ages in the West.” In the East, it’s okay to have and express theological opinions; there were lots of opinions floating around, but the core interpretations to which the Church held made it into and are expressed in the Liturgy and Services. If it’s not in the Liturgy and the Services, no matter who uttered or wrote it, it is *only opinion*.

    I hope we’re not talking past each other; I value your experience and knowledge. I hope you see that I’m not gainsaying you.



  25. Dana, thanks for your input. I am vaguely familiar with Christian legend that the physical cross Jesus was crucified on was the actual physical remnant of the Tree of Life from Eden, but I understand that isn’t what you are saying. I understand what you are saying in its figurative sense, but in that I think it most likely Adam was a historical figure, I think the Tree of Life would have also have had some tangible reality in his life, not necessarily a physical one.

    This may just be one of those things that are unanswerable on this side. I don’t see that it makes any difference in my walk attempting to love God and neighbor as best I can with the Help I have, but I’m curious. Maybe not curious enough to make a research project to learn how Jewish interpreters have seen it, which I would think would be a good starting point. Might be easier just to wait and see if Adam was indeed a real guy and would be willing to sit down with me and explain just what was what.

    My sense is that somehow authority over Earth and the afterlife was given in a legal sense to that personage we call Satan when the “apple” was eaten, and lasted until the moment of Jesus’ final breath in his Earthly body, at which point the authority was legally transferred to Jesus as Messiah. This would fit with the prohibition and prevention of eating from the Tree of Life after the expulsion. This would also fit with the tradition and hints that Jesus went to the place of the dead and rescued all those people “resting in the bosom of Abraham”, perhaps others . Would their number have included Adam and Eve? I’m guessing yes. Fun to speculate on this side.


  26. numo, Robert F,

    Not only do the Orthodox read Christ back into the OT, as Dana correctly points out, but other traditions do as well. Both the Catholics and the old school Lutherans do too. We are in good company. Jesus said that Moses wrote of Him and that all of the Law and Prophets testified of Him. He said that Abraham longed to see His (Jesus’) day. Paul ,Peter and the writer of Hebrews see Jesus in the OT. Without the eyes of faith, enlightened by the Holy Spirit a ‘veil’ remains over the Law (Paul) so that, according to Jesus, ‘seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not hear lest they turn and repent and be forgiven.’ (Mark 4:12)

    One thing that I found shocking when I read the Bible cover to cover (twice) was that the OT is on every single page of the NT, especially the Gospels and the Revelation. And the authors of the NT use the OT in every way imaginable to point to Jesus.


  27. Robert – absolutely! Looked at from a non-xtian, and/or non-religious perspective, we have co-opted the scriptures of another religion.

    Looked at via Paul’s comment late in Romans, we are branches from wild olive trees that have been grafted into another, cultivated tree that is far oldrr and has considerable roots.

    I’ve gotten to the point where i feel repelled by 99% of the typology developed from late antiquity through the High Middle Ages in the West. That kind of reading through the wrong end of the telescop 1st resulted in some REALLY crazy stuff – and, inevitably, greater and greater anti-semitism was one of the results. Though i think a lot of it is innocent enough, in that allegory and typological symbolism enjoyed a vogue in the arts during the High Middle Ages, and thelogy/biblical interpretation were as much caught up in it as were poets and many artists, regardless of whether their subjects were secular or religious. In the process, the entire early church was stripped of its Jewishness. Which is, overall, a vety bad thing.


  28. I get concerned about reading from Christ backwards into the Old Testament, without at the same time letting the Jewish scriptures speak with their own voice. I think some manifestations of Christian antisemitism must have been reinforced by this way of interpreting the Bible from a Christian perspective, while abrogating its Jewish character.


  29. Patrick, i have to admit to being startled by what you say. It is something i have never heard or read before now, and I’m in my late 50s. Am thinking that differing denominational backgrounds have a lot to do with it.


  30. Dana, again, i get it, but the entire Hebrew Bible was written by Jewish people, within the history, context and development of Judaism and Jewish civilization. History isn’t the same thing as typology, which is both literary and a product of another religion – xtianity. I hope you can understand what i am trying to say. It isn’t meant to be a contradiction of your beliefs, or anyone else’s. But i think we very much miss the point if we *only* impose these kinds of typological things on OT texts without looking – or attempting to look at/for – the *other* things these texts are about.

    Does that make sense? I mean, i grew up in a mixed Jewish-gentile ‘hood, so knew from fairly early on that there are some major, ongoing differences in each religion regarding understanding as well as interpretive traditions. I have much respect for both.


  31. “Christians direct their faith not to the historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus. Yes, they assert continuity that Jesus and this. But their faith is confirmed, not by the establishment of facts about the past, but by the realty of Christ’s power in the present.”

    I’ve read Johnson, and have a lot of respect for the way he exposes the methodological inadequacies of the Jesus Seminar, Elaine Pagel, Marcus Borg. But he doesn’t convince me so much when talks about what actually does constitute Christian faith for we who have entered the post-critical wilderness.

    I’d like to ask him what he thinks manifests Jesus Christ’s unique power in the present, what manifests Jesus’ power in all its particularity as the same power that existed in and with the first century historical figure. It’s establishing this identity that is a problem. I don’t think Johnson succeeds in making this link, or showing what is distinctively of Jesus in the present manifestation of that power.

    It’s not enough to just name the name; tell me what this transformative power is and does, what makes this transformative power uniquely Jesus’ power, and show me how you link this transformative power only to the first century historical person we refer to as Jesus Christ. Otherwise it’s just another generalized religious phenomenon with nothing uniquely Christian about it.


  32. numo,
    Jesus’ and the Apostle’s could be accused of the exact same thing as Dana. I have heard preachers and theologians (good ones) say that the reason Adam and Eve did not eat from the tree of life was that it was a bloody dead tree, and was not ‘pleasing to the eye.’


  33. Scott, glad that you’re not among the young earth creationists or concordists. After all, the earth is approximately 250,000 years old.


  34. numo,

    The Orthodox Church interprets all of scripture through the lens of the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection of Christ. Historical context, etc. are good helps, and insofar as the early Church interpreters of scripture knew about such things, they did not discount them at all – and typology doesn’t negate or preclude understanding of historical context, etc. Of course the Christian reading would not have been intended to be conveyed by/to the original writers/hearers, but if the bare contextual interpretation alone could have conveyed the meaning as it truly relates to who God is and what he was up to vis-a-vis Jesus and his work, Jesus would not have had to explain what was in Moses and the Prophets to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t “get it” from the bare text alone, even after having witnessed Jesus’ death and the empty tomb.

    Richard Hays has a new book out, “Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness” that sounds very intriguing to me, as it sounds like it echoes the Orthodox understanding of scriptural interpretation. Hays is not Orthodox, and can hardly be accused of not paying attention to historical context and all that goes along with it.

    Fr Stephen Freeman writes about this issue here:

    Along with Noel Stookey, I say, “If you get the message, you might refuse it, but if you get the meaning, hey, don’t ever lose it… if you get the meaning, oh, of it all…” It’s the meaning, the Truth of it, that I’m after – **all** of it.



  35. grberry,

    I have just received my copy of the Eastern Orthodox Bible New Testament (OT is still in progress). It is POD from Lulu, so took a couple of weeks to get it from the plant in New England. I like the translation very much, and the text is single-column, set off in paragraphs – much easier to read. It has the kind of helps that I like – discussion of the text and theological points related to the text, discussion/comparison of Masoretic vs LXX, Orthodox point of view on some doctrinal issues, but not excessively heavy, etc. and not a lot of extraneous stuff one can look up on the Internet now 🙂 You can download a read-only .pdf text file, without the appendices, at the site, which I did. I like having the actual book in my hands, but I needed to check some of my “pet passages” to get the flavor of it before I spent the money, and I was impressed. The editor is an Orthodox priest who lives in a small California town, but who is from Belgium and was educated on the Continent, quite familiar with the Greek, has his own academic creds and is working collaboratively with very reputable people in the Orthodox academic world.

    The Orthodox Church uses the LXX for the OT, which is actually an older textual tradition than the Masoretic, with a surprising amount of agreement in word usage with Qumran/DSS – so just surrounding and contemporary with the time of Jesus’ “sojourn on earth.” As someone who has learned a modern language to fluency, I think that is very important point in terms of apprehending the meaning of what was written from out of an oral transmission tradition. Although Fr Tom Hopko has pointed out that in some particular passages the MT makes better sense when compared with the LXX, my understanding is that all the OT quotes in the NT are from the LXX. The dissimilarities are sometimes quite striking; here’s one, Jer 17.9:

    “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” NRSV
    “The heart is deep above all else, and so is man – and who shall understand him?” NETS (Oxford 2007)

    I like the NETS all right – it’s a great improvement on Brenton’s out-of-date English – but I’m not fond of the 2-column layout and small font. EOB is using Brenton and NETS alongside the Greek liturgical text for a pretty extensive scholarly approach. I’m really looking forward to the EOB OT; hope it is ready before too long.



  36. Danie(l),

    Good article. in your second-to-last paragraph, you said,

    Why does St. Paul take pains to say that love alone outlasts everything (I Corinthians 13:13)? Because love is the only thing we do that transcends creation itself. Love is not part of creation. Creation is simply love taking on physical form.

    I like that, and I think Dante would too. You’ve qualified it by denouncing dualism and pantheism, so it can’t be misunderstood, but it does resemble something on a weekly nature spot on a local radio station, something like “The natural world is the body of God; God is the mind of nature.” (He’s a UCC pastor, but that’s probably irrelevant)

    But yeah, love in physical form is cool. Something like Jesus in Philippians 2, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”


  37. This is like asking whether Superman really is the last survivor of Krypton, and if so what about Supergirl, Zod etc. Some continuity glitches are inevitable.


  38. Ted: “Arguing with God can be considered a form of prayer. ”

    I love this aspect of the Old Testament.


  39. “I like what is being said about doubt. I think many arguments happen with other persons because we are attempting to overcome our own doubt.”

    David, yes. This dynamic can also be what makes doubt so difficult to discuss in community. One has to acknowledge and confess what they feel, and others may think, is a vulnerability. Beyond that, the doubter invites rushed attempts to fix the problem – because if the problem doesn’t easily resolve, it seems threatening. If that attempt fails, one runs the risk of distressing other people, and one’s goal isn’t to pull others into distress with them.

    The great trouble with all of this is that isolation and concealment is rarely healing, but figuring out how to give voice to a feeling and weave it into faith may well be.


  40. I think they very likely were two different creation stories originally. However, between them now is the toledot statement, which always introduces a subsequent narrative in Genesis. It’s not just two different emphases in that case, but the next story in the development of Genesis.


  41. What David said, final paragraph, about arguing with God. Go for it. Arguing with God can be considered a form of prayer.

    Speaking of Jewish beliefs, a prof in an Old Testament class invited a rabbi friend of his to speak to us. The one memorable thing that has stuck with me (after 30+ years) goes something like this: “God doesn’t mind that you disagree with him. You can argue with him, you can love him, you can even hate him. But what really breaks his heart is if you simply don’t care.”


  42. And btw, my avatar is a pic of me muggin next to a camel in Petra. I got over to Jordan & Israel this past summer. I totally nerded out.


  43. I don’t have a lot of through-and-through favorites… more of a compilation of various perspectives and nuances that I’ve picked up from different writers. I honestly learned the most from two of my professors, who I consider to be geniuses. One is older and makes trips to Israel every year to teach and lead tours. He’s a diplomatically recognized friend of Israel, and spends lots of time with his Bedouin friends in the desert. He has an uncanny knowledge of ancient desert culture. The other is younger and just got his Phd from Jewish Theological Seminary. I was his teaching assistant for two years, and he has helped me bridge the gap between critical biblical scholarship and practical Christian ministry better than anyone alive, save possibly for Chaplain Mike (seriously). So, it’s been a life journey more than anything.

    But to give an answer that might actually be helpful, I’ve gained lots from John Walton, Peter Enns, Michael Kugel, Walter Bruggeman, Jon Levenson, Mark Smith, Marc Brettler. Sarna’s “Genesis” is one of my faves.

    Also, lots of good articles from the ATLA database.


  44. yeah, I’m not of the opinion that the two creation stories are mutually exclusive. They seem to come from different parts o oral tradition and to be communicating very different things, but still… the 2nd one is about what appear to be the very 1st man and woman. And a talking reptile that loses its leg and feet. And a god who has hands and feet and walks.

    It seems closer to some of the other ancient Near Eastern creation stories, whereas the 1st creation story in Genesis is like a symphonic poem, soaring high over and above the earthiness/earthliness of creation story no. 2. I think they are intended to address different things.


  45. and I think any serious examination of the OT (and NT) texts has to start with historical context, etc. It just doesn’t work without that (imo).


  46. Dana, I understand what you are saying but that certainly would not have been in the minds of the Jewish writers and readers of Genesis. The interpretation that you suggest is a Christian one and even though you and many others see it in the text, it is a backwards, typological reading that is simply not in the original text nor would have been intended to be conveyed to its original readers.


  47. It can be a freeing experience. It’s unlikely that lightning will strike or a great pit open up under your feet.

    Read Jeremiah and boy, does it become clear that nothing bad comes of his *extreme* controversies with God. The guy was living out an admittedly difficult life in a *very* hard time, and was forced into some really awful situations. But he is an eloquent voice for God wanting and even welcoming what lots of us would perceive as “backtalk.” (Very much on a fine line between complete renunciation of belief in God as good or at all concerned with the suffering of both Jeremiah and the rest of the people.)


  48. HUG, I have problems with Shmuley Boteach being the go-to rabbi for some many xtians – he has his share of indiscretions (mostly financial). There is a very good piece of investigative journalism on this on the Tablet Magazine site. Just Google “Shmuley Boteach Tablet Magazine” and you should get a direct link.

    I don’t agree with what he says about xtianity and Islam, in that there are *many* forms of Islam, just as there are many forms of xtianity, and right few of them are “fundamentalist,” historically and now. The modern Islamist movements are exactly that – very, very modern, and *not* reflective of the many centuries of Islamic theology, philosophy, mysticism, various schools of jurisprudence and more, including the many different forms of both Sunni and Shia Islam + the smaller groups, like the Ismailis and Ibadis.


  49. The seminary I attended is big on “inductive Bible study.” However the objection I have with this method is the implication that if we dig far enough, and are serious enough, the one true meaning will reveal itself. This method has its strengths, especially at the beginning of a study, but also major weaknesses. One of the weaknesses is that a study of one passage could conceivably go on forever.


  50. I like what is being said about doubt. I think many arguments happen with other persons because we are attempting to overcome our own doubt. To have a discussion with others without becoming heated isn’t always possible, but this is what we should aim at. We may as well be honest. Many passages have been interpreted many different ways.

    Like Suzanne says, and others imply, we practice our faith in spite of our doubt. At times in my lfe doubt has been like a great darkness, but in the end I keep on worshipping God and fellowshipping with other believers.

    And– go ahead and argue with God. It can be a freeing experience. It’s unlikely that lightning will strike or a great pit open up under your feet.


  51. Regarding the Genesis story, I know that for me it was concern over “taking the Bible seriously,” as if I didn’t do that, I believed, the intellectual framework of my religion would fall apart (e.g., if there wasn’t a real Adam, then sin didn’t enter the world that way, which calls St. Paul into question, etc… Basically like playing Jenga with only one block on the bottom). It was a lot of fear, honestly.

    Regarding disbelief and doubt, I think it might be worthwhile to distinguish the two, as doubt implies holding a position though being uncertain of the same, while disbelief implies rejecting a position due to the uncertainty. Doubt is something Christians, particularly Evangelicals, are uncomfortable with, and about which Michael Spencer wrote quite eloquently. We would all do well to be more gracious toward doubt; and maybe even to have a little more ourselves… the life unexamined is not worth living, after all.

    Disbelief, however, is a bigger problem, as at the end of the day, belief is all Christianity has. Judaism has the 613 mitzvot, but Christianity just has “believe in this, and the rest will follow,” all truly good works being a consequence of the childlike trust that is faith, and how has a man ever trusted in something he did not believe in? On the other hand (so much Tevye in this thread), what better way to get faith than continual exposure to God’s means of grace which create it?


  52. God said that it was not good for man to be alone. He said he would make a helper. That helper was named woman in verse 23.


  53. “Argument is an intellectual process; contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.”
    “No, it isn’t.”
    “Yes, it is!”


  54. I think it is the same as an expression of action in the immediate future that we use here in my little portion of the northern South…..”fixin’ to’.

    As in, “I’m fixin’ to go to the Krogers~ya’ll need anything?”


  55. Sean, you did Hebrew Bible. This means you have, somewhere, a list of books I need to read before I die…

    Any favorites?


  56. It is enlightening to do a multi-translation comparison of various Bible translations on that one. The NRSV has a take that gave me a double take at first. I don’t believe theirs is the most accurate, but I think it brings out a subtle nuance of the text many translators pass over. The more translations, the better, especially if they come from differing denominational/religious backgrounds.


  57. I’m partway through “Eat This Book,” in the same series. Good stuff.

    Perhaps I should read this title next.


  58. And I like Joni Mitchell’s theology:

    We are stardust,
    We are golden,
    We are caught in the devil’s bargain,
    And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

    (Oh, it’s a tad works-oriented, but the desire for God’s kingdom is a good start.)


  59. I believe the Anchor Bible (Yale) renders it something like “When God set about to create…”.

    The verb is a tough one. But the emphasis seems to point on God being the initiator of it all, rather than the way it specifically unfolded.


  60. hmm… I flubbed a couple of keys and the thing posted by itself above.

    The course I took was through Gordon-Conwell, with professor Scott Hafemann. I remember very little, but one of the textbooks was written by one of Hafe’s fellow GCTS profs, Greg Beale. (G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission).

    Beale mentions some of the same things you do, the jewels, the cherubim, etc. Also, that Adam was the first priest and Eden the first sanctuary. The later Temple(s) also imitated God’s cosmos, and more specifically Eden. Even the temples of other Ancient Near Eastern nations were adorned with artwork and carvings of nature, looking back to a primeval garden.

    Ezekiel makes a lot out of this in Ezek chapter 47. Water flows out of the eschatological temple, same as “a river flowed out of Eden” (Gen 2:10). This also shows up in Revelation 21and especially Rev 22:1.

    About the only other thing I got out of the course was the discovery of the nice Mary Poppins word, supralapsarianism and the challenges inherent with it. Is God the author of sin? Was sin in the plan all along for Adam and Eve? What is the true purpose of the Cross? —is it merely a “patch” on sin and evil, or is it the focal point of all creation—God in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19)? If it’s the focal point (and I love that idea) then all else revolves around that, and Adam and Eve’s sin at least has meaning—perhaps it was even fore-ordained, as a Calvinist might suspect. But that’s another rabbit-hole.


  61. I see it in almost the exact opposite light. If there were no human females, why would there be “no helper suitable” found? That’s such a Homer Simpson “Duh” statement that it really only makes sense to me if there were other females who were not fit for Adam.


  62. What some evangelicals don’t seem to realize is that there are – objectively – multiple interpretations of the text. Just head to your local Christian book store. But there is this underlying presupposition (stemming from highly suspect epistemology, which is an whole other subject) that there is only one right way to understand the text. This is what Christian Smith was getting at in his (highly recommended) The Bible Made Impossible. But this odd philosophical presupposition is actually very strongly at odds with the majority of Christian history. Heck, it took us 500 years to agree on the Trinity, and even then the only reason we had that discussion was because it had to do with who Jesus is, which is kind of important. And yes, there was a very bleak time when those in power killed those who disagreed with them, but when you read the writings of the various monks and scholars and pastors you will find huge discrepancies in every period of church history. I have come to greatly appreciate and learn from these differences.


  63. Rick Ro.: Thanks for the encouragement. Nothing has changed in my walk with God except for the sense that my view of God and the Bible makes more sense now. I have four millennial children, all following God, so our discussions are very lively and faith affirming. Because we have a national and international ministry in our niche of the conservative evangelical marketplace as published authors and speakers, I have to navigate the journey cautiously. I wish someone would write on how to make that kind of transition without disenfranchising the ones that have followed you for so long (20+ years). It’s a challenge because it’s not part of our primary ministry message, but it would be perceived as going “liberal.” Fun times in EvangelicaLand.

    CM: Thanks. I’ll take at look at that post.


  64. I’ve long admired Judiasm’s ability to embrace doubt & unbelief. So you doubt the existence of G-d? Practice the faith anyway! The story of Job really doesn’t fit well with modern evangelicalism but seems perfectly at home with what I know of Judiasm.
    I’m not sure why modern Christianity is so ill at ease with disbelief and doubt. Is it the fear of hell? The need to be right? The reaction to the Genesis story seems to mirror this among many Christians-it MUST be either true as written or completely false. Couldn’t it be both true and not true? It seems like such a tenuous hill on which the Christian wants to stake a claim and yet so many do.


  65. I just quite simply want to say I found this to be an excellent thought-provoking post. Thank you!


  66. Interestingly enough I am actually reading one of John Walton’s books right now for one of my classes. It is Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.


  67. I have, due to my path in my time as a seeker before I became a Christian, a copy of the Tanakh in English, published by the Jewish Publication Society. It is a useful comparison translation for Old Testament texts. My wife and I turn to it whenever we are seriously studying an Old Testament text.

    One thing I respect about the translation are the occasional footnotes where the translators explicitly state the fact that the meaning of the Hebrew is unknown. One can be picked up from a Jewish bookstore if you live in a big city, or online from distributors such as CBD or Amazon. Due to economies of scale, the price is a little higher than the price of picking up most other bible translations, but paperbacks cost less than hardbacks of most translations.

    I haven’t yet acted on it, but it has occasionally sparked an interest in picking up a good Roman Catholic translation and a good eastern Orthodox translation. Now if I knew which translations from those theological commitments were good, I would be more likely to act.


  68. Charles,

    the Tree of Life is the Cross – in place from the foundation of the world – if we can see it.



  69. “Jesus rose from the dead.”
    “No, he didn’t.”
    “Yes, he did. There are accounts of it in the Bible.”

    Indeed, the proof needs to come from the Spirit. I’m pretty sure none of us, while living as non-Christians, believed Jesus rose from the dead.


  70. “I have not delved into the relationship of these chapters to Ancient Near Eastern creation myths”

    If you want a thought-provoking look at exactly this relationship, I strongly recommend The Lost World of Genesis One, by John H. Walton.


  71. A key thing to remember, Wis, is that your love for God and Jesus isn’t dependent upon whether you have a YEC view or not, nor is their love for you dependent upon that, either. Freeing, it is!!! Enjoy the journey. Really, if you approach it with joy, you’ll come away richer in faith. Prayer going up for you!


  72. >More and more, i find myself aligning with the Jewish tradition of very open discussion and plurality of opinion and interpretstion in eervice of bringing out the multifaceted nature of any given text.

    I’m drifting that way too… thanks in no small part to my recent pull toward Anglicanism. The problem comes when people disagree with me in person, as ever. But God’s brought me this far; I have every confidence that he will finish it too.


  73. I just posted this to my Facebook page:

    “God keeps telling me, ‘You’re wrong about me. Oh, you’re right, too, but…you’re wrong.’
    He continues to refuse to let me put Him into the boxes I continue to try to force Him into.”

    So what does that have to do with this article? Chap Mike, I continue to appreciate you trying to show that God can’t be put in a box. Literalist takes on certain aspects of the Bible are just attempts to shove Him into boxes that are too small for Him. Thank you for continuing to illuminate the mystery of Almighty God and show that the love of Christ surpasses knowledge.


  74. >The transformative power of the Resurrection cannot be explained to the satisfaction of those who do not believe.

    That’s where I’ve come up lately, too. Apologetics is a wonderful and necessary thing, but it can only go so far, as it’s only meant to clear away misinformation and misunderstandings that serve as obstacles to the faith; it can’t create it. Ultimately, that’s still all God’s business, after all, and good thing too, because he’s much better at it.

    The best “proof” we can get, I think, may be exactly that transformation. While it’s not going down to the Holy Sepulchre and being approached by the risen Christ apparently doing the gardening, you can still sense its effects, like the idea that parallel universes might affect or interact with our own through gravitation–you can never go to the parallel universe, but you can see the effects of its existence.


  75. Again I’m not emphasizing interpretation today, but I would say that one purpose of the Torah is to explain how the world came to be filled with “nations,” especially those who were Israel’s neighbors and enemies. Babel sets up the story of how Israel became a nation in the midst of the other nations around them.


  76. David this post is meant to give observations and not interpretations, but I woud say that, IMO Adam and Eve are presented as the first covenant couple, portrayed here as specially created and chosen by God just as Israel was specially created and chosen to be God’s covenant people in the midst of the nations.


  77. “It can be taken that way” – yes indeed. I do not believe in the “chaos monsters” that some evangelical commentators are on about in recent books.

    Not sure what you mean of “chaos monsters & evangelical commentators”; these days when I hear “chaos monster” I think of John DeLancie’s voice.

    More and more, i find myself aligning with the Jewish tradition of very open discussion and plurality of opinion and interpretstion in eervice of bringing out the multifaceted nature of any given text. I am awfully weary of the “my way or the highway” approach taken by most xtians, because it invariably leads to schisms and bitter opposition and worse.

    Islam is the most “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” of the three Abrahamic Monotheisms, and Christianity often tries to give Islam a run for its money in that department.

    There’s an online essay by Rabbi Boteach that Islam and Christianity teach passive submission to whatever God Says or Wills, while Judaism is full of examples of Jews arguing with God over pretty much anything. Abraham haggling down the Angels outside Sodom, Jacob’s all-night wrestling match, Psalmists talking back “HOW LONG?”


  78. If other people were around why did Eve need to be created ? It appears a similar helper could have been found in the world outside of Eden.I realize that the Tower discussed above came after the flood but for those of whom believe it is myth what needed dispersing ?


  79. Helpful insights for this 63yo transitional creationist. I am in the process of moving from a literal to a literary view of creation. I secretly questioned YEC for many years as a conservative evangelical, but conformed to cultural expectations because we minister to so many who would consider “creation science” a fundamental of the faith. My evolving views, even just my questions, would disqualify me from several large venues where our books are sold, so at this point it’s a personal journey. I’m not sure when it will become a public one, but you and the IM community allow me the freedom to test and refine my thoughts for my eventual coming out as a literarialist.

    With all that as background, how do you reconcile your point #5 with Romans 5:12-21? I get that Genesis 1-2 is in the form of story, but Paul seems to take that story literally for his views on imputed sin. How have your views of Genesis affected your understanding of imputation?


  80. What then was the purpose of the tower of Babel ? ” and from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of the earth.. This comes in Genesis 11.


  81. The Resurrection is the cornerstone of my faith. I believe in it for many reasons, and dismiss Christian thinkers who claim otherwise. At the same time, I’ve stopped trying to prove it to myself or others. It is a matter of faith. The transformative power of the Resurrection cannot be explained to the satisfaction of those who do not believe.

    When we get into the subject of trying to prove or disprove “historical fact” we can move toward error in more than one direction, but both based on rationalistic thinking. One such error is the Jesus Seminar movement led by Bishop Spong and others. In the other direction is the constant search for “proofs” that Jesus actually did come out of the grave.

    Luke Timothy Johnson makes this point: “Christians direct their faith not to the historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus. Yes, they assert continuity that Jesus and this. But their faith is confirmed, not by the establishment of facts about the past, but by the realty of Christ’s power in the present.”

    Everything else is a sidetrack. And the same kind of error can apply to the Bible as a whole. Constantly looking for historic proof of this or that can take almost any form.


  82. “It can be taken that way” – yes indeed. I do not believe in the “chaos monsters” that some evangelical commentators are on about in recent books. It seems clear from Job and other wisdom litersture that thry are metaphorical, litrrary beadts, not real ones. That there is an ancient tradition – or traditions – of such things isn’t in doubt. Z (See the Enuma Elish, for example.) That such things are anything more powerful or resl than fables when contrasted with the One God is another thing altogether.

    More and more, i find myself aligning with the Jewish tradition of very open discussion and plurality of opinion and interpretstion in eervice of bringing out the multifaceted nature of any given text. I am awfully weary of the “my way or the highway” approach taken by most xtians, because it invariably leads to schisms and bitter opposition and worse. While i believe what is written in the ecumenical creeds, i have no desire to anathematize anyone else.


  83. What was the Tree of Life? There was no restriction against eating of it. Did they? If not, why not? If they did, what difference did it make? If not, what would have happened if they had eaten of it after eating of the Tree of Knowledge and why did God not want this to happen? Not necessarily looking for answers here to those questions, but they seem more important to me than trying to fit the account into a materialistic framework.


  84. Mike, you have become one of my favorite commentators on the OT, and Genesis in particular. Having concentrated on the Hebrew Bible for my M.Div, I have a fair lay of the land as far as writers and perspectives, and in my book you’re among the best.

    Have you read Nahum Sarna’s book on Genesis? He’s a Jewish professor who taught at Brandeis. You would resonate well with it.


  85. Mike, thanks for pointing these things out again. I know for me that the NEC viewpoint so dominated my thinking that it took a long time to see these things right in the text itself.

    Regarding your first point: this is the thing that really got me thinking. Because if verse 2 and following describe the way God created the universe, then we simply have to jettison the idea of creation ex nihilo, which I regard as central to any right understanding of God.

    My thoughts on this here:


  86. So you’re saying that there already was an outside world, full of people, violence and chaos, and by creating Eden God made an oasis in the wilderness, a calm in the middle of the storm.

    Or it can be taken that way. Reminds me of something I heard about Judaism — that the Tanakh contains some deliberate ambiguity and multiple interpretations, so the interpretation and applications can be argued out for each generation as the world goes on and changes. “Same Tanakh, Two Jews, Three Opinions” instead of word-for-word “It Is Written! Fact! Fact! Fact!”

    Like that lyric from Fiddler on the Roof‘s “If I Were a Rich Man”:
    “And I’ll discuss the Holy Books with the Elders….”


  87. And my writing partner talls me of coming across an English copy of the Tanakh in a hospital chapel where the first sentence of Genesis 1 was translated “In the beginning, when God began creating the sky and the land…”


  88. There is a lot of Temple imagery in Genesis 1-2. If you’ve read any of John Walton’s books, he brings out the idea that Genesis 1 is built on the metaphor of a King building a temple and then taking his throne. In this case it would be God’s “cosmic temple.” The world and the whole universe is his temple, and people made “in his image” (a reference probably to statues of kings that were placed outside their temples to show who the ruler was) are the “priests” or representatives of God in the temple.

    Genesis 2 also uses much imagery from the tabernacle and temple, for example the jewels described in the Garden. I was thinking this morning that perhaps Eden is more specifically like the Holy of Holies than the entire temple, and this would fit with God putting the cherubim at the entrance just as he did over the ark of the covenant.


  89. So you’re saying that there already was an outside world, full of people, violence and chaos, and by creating Eden God made an oasis in the wilderness, a calm in the middle of the storm. Telling Adam and Eve to be fruitful, multiply and “subdue” the earth (as in, subdue outside enemies) is new to me. I had assumed that “subdue” was more in line with “cultivate” and that “the earth” meant the soil, not the surrounding culture.

    But at least that would explain where Cain got his wife. 🙂

    Mike, have you thought about the parallel of the Temple being a re-creation of Eden? I seem to remember that from some course I took. I’ll try to find something.


  90. ” they’re valuable–even 100 percent true–whether he gave them as history according to modern scientific rigor, mythical history like the Iliad, or even fiction.”
    Very prescient point! 100% true, regardless. 100% true. It is the language of spirit and must be read in spirit. It doesn’t pander to ego considerations. It is a collection of words which always and at all times point to a reality that cannot be put into words, a silent, expansive, unquantifiable reality. Thanks for you thoughts.


  91. I suppose one way could be to find a part that is verifiable and say “definitively here, but maybe before as well.” The only thing that needs to be fact about our religion is the Resurrection (and by necessity the Incarnation), though, so trying to decide where the myth ends and the history begins (and from what I understand, ancient literature always mixed those two together) may be beside the point.

    Perhaps one might ask of any given Bible story, “Does this strengthen my faith by being historical fact? Does it weaken my faith by being a parable or allegory?” God gave us these stories to point us to himself; they’re valuable–even 100 percent true–whether he gave them as history according to modern scientific rigor, mythical history like the Iliad, or even fiction.

    My two cents; is it out of line?


  92. I find the order of creation’s progress as noted in Genesis to be so closely aligned to the scientific evidence that it only makes my faith stronger (NOT that my Christian faith is based on the chronology noted in Genesis, or even in the First Covenant with Israel….Christ Incarnate and Risen are the linchpin!) Even if each ‘day’ was an eon or so, it makes sense that God willed Creation into its present form, and that at some point our first parents were given the soul and mind that allowed them free will.

    As to the meaning of “Adam” and “adam”……that is fascinating. I will have to do some more reading on this…..after I get through the stack of books (physical and electronic) that I already ordered!!!


  93. These are great points, and goes to show that one doesn’t even need to have heard of Darwin, to question whether Genesis is really trying to explain origins in a scientific or historic way. If we truly read and try to understand the text, we come away with a very rich understanding of scripture.


  94. Check out Eugene Petersen’s take on the first chapters of Genesis in his book ‘Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.’

    He tracks the usage of a number of words that are repeated in rythmic patterns like music throughout the text. Truly fascinating.


  95. Thanks for continuing the great work you are presenting about Genesis. I no longer wrestle with the myth vs history issue. I find the more demands placed on Genesis to be factual, the less true it becomes.


  96. I’ve been off the “literalist” bandwagon for quite some time when it comes to the creation story in Genesis, even though some of my highly educated friends still hold to that view.

    But after taking the first two chapters to be something less than a blow by blow account where do we put the stops on and say “OK, now THIS really happened!” Was there really a Cain and Able, or is this a myth as well. How about the tower of Babel, or even Abraham? You know that there is no external evidence for his existence. Is the story of Isaac being taken to the mountain to be sacrificed ALSO an allegory?

    Once taking this road there is no chance to backtrack.


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