John Sailhamer Week on Internet Monk (2)
Opening the Door to Genesis
Last week, the most influential professor in my life died. John Sailhamer, my Hebrew and OT prof at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School throughout the 1980’s, succumbed to Parkinson’s and Lewy Body dementia, and went into the care of the God who loved him and called him to the work of understanding and teaching the Scriptures.
I dedicate this week on Internet Monk to him. I will share some of the biggest lessons he taught me about the Bible and studying the Bible, particularly the book of Genesis and the canon of the Hebrew Bible.
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Dr. John Sailhamer opened the doors to the book of Genesis for me. His teaching on Genesis 1-3, in particular, startled me out of my naive fundamentalism with regard to what the Bible teaches about creation. It set me on a path of renewed love for the Scriptures, particularly the Hebrew Bible, and what it says regarding the goodness of our Creator and his redemptive purposes for this world.
As I have continued to study the early chapters of Genesis, I have come to take some different positions than he set forth. It took some other teachers as well, especially Bruce Waltke, John Walton, and Peter Enns, to help me refine my own understanding (which is still developing, by the way). I should also mention a book by Seth D. Postell, called Adam as Israel: Genesis 1-3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanakh. Seth was a PhD student of Dr. Sailhamer’s and credits him as “the single most positive influence on my life as a follower of Yeshua.”
However, what John Sailhamer did was to help me see the creation accounts as an integral part of the Hebrew Bible, and as an introduction to the Torah (the Pentateuch) and the Tanakh (Law/Prophets/Writings) as a whole.
In his reading of Genesis 1-3, he makes observations like these:
- The account of God creating the entire universe is limited to one verse: Genesis 1:1, where the phrase “the sky and the land” is a merism describing all that is.
- The rest of Genesis 1 describes how God prepared a good land for Adam and Eve. The “land” (Heb: eretz) mentioned therein is not the earth as a whole, but the Promised Land. The movement is from the “wilderness” described in Gen. 1:2 (Heb: tohu wabohu) to a “good” land (Heb: tov).
- Even the creation of such things as the heavenly bodies (Day 4: Gen. 1:14-19) is described specifically in terms of their purposes with regard to Jewish worship.
- In the account of human creation in Genesis 1, God’s “blessing” is given and linked with a fruitful posterity. This introduces a central theme in the whole of the Torah.
- Genesis 2 gives specific geographical references that identify the garden in Eden with the Promised Land.
- There are many similarities between the descriptions of the Garden and the later tabernacle.
- In both Genesis 1-2, humans are pictured as God’s priests in the world. Gen. 2:15, for example, should be understood as God placing Adam in the Garden “to worship and obey.”
- Just as these chapters serve as a prototype for God’s good gift of the land to Israel, so chapter 3 sets the template for Israel’s future exile from the land.
- The command given to Adam and Eve uses the same language as the command of Moses to Israel in Deuteronomy 30:15-18.
- Adam and Eve are exiled “eastward” and “out of the garden.” This is the direction toward Babylon, where Israel was exiled.
It was points like these that rocked my world, created a deep hunger within me to meditate on these texts more deeply, and helped me to move away from simplistic, literalistic interpretations that failed to grasp either the text or its relation to the Old Testament canon as a whole.
Here is a brief summary Dr. Sailhamer wrote in his more popular book outlining his teachings on the early chapters of Genesis. He did this because he thought he had found a way through the debate in evangelical circles pitting creationism against evolutionary teaching. I personally don’t think that part stands the test of time and further study, but I think he made a good effort.
His great contribution to me was in re-Judaizing the text for me and helping me to see it as the introduction to the Torah and Tanakh. I’m forever in his debt for opening the door for me to enter this wonderful literary world of Genesis, where I may begin to grasp more fully the goodness of our Creator and his purposes.
I maintain that the narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 are to be understood as both literal and historical. They recount two great acts of God. In the first act, God created the universe we see around us today, consisting of the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the plants and animals that now inhabit (or formerly inhabited) the earth. The biblical record of that act of creation is recounted in Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Since the Hebrew word translated “beginning” refers to an indefinite period of time, we cannot say for certain when God created the world or how long He took to create it. This period could have spanned as much as several billion years, or it could have been much less; the text simply does not tell us how long. It tells us only that God did it during the “beginning” of our universe’s history.
The second act of God recounted in Genesis 1 and 2 deals with a much more limited scope and period of time. Beginning with Genesis 1:2, the biblical narrative recounts God’s preparation of a land for the man and woman He was to create. That “land” was the same land later promised to Abraham and his descendants. It was that land which God gave to Israel after their exodus from Egypt. It was that land to which Joshua led the Israelites after their time of wandering in the wilderness. According to Genesis 1, God prepared that land within a period of a six-day work week. On the sixth day of that week, God created human beings. God then rested on the seventh day.
The second chapter of Genesis provides a closer look at God’s creation of the first human beings. We are told that God created them from the ground and put them in the garden of Eden to worship and obey God (not merely to work the garden and take care of it). The boundaries of that garden are the same as those of the promised land; thus the events of these chapters foreshadow the events of the remainder of the Pentateuch. God creates a people, He puts them into the land He has prepared for them, and He calls on them to worship and obey Him and receive His blessing.
• John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account