Genesis 1: Introduction

October 28, 2009 — Leave a comment

[This post is part of the Genesis series]

John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One and the commentary I will cite below are the main sources I am relying on for discussion, as well as an unpublished paper by my Hebrew professor, Gordon Johnston on the Egyptian influence on Genesis 1. Dr. Johnston first introduced me to viewing Genesis 1 differently over this summer in Hebrew 3 class. Previously I had been part of the young earth creationist tradition as influenced by teaching at Word of Life Bible Institute and Liberty University. For matters related to the Hebrew text itself and the background of the ANE, I no longer find that interpretation viable. But we’ll get to that below and in forthcoming posts.

Before we dig into Genesis line by line (or in reality we’ll go day by day) there are a couple of hermeneutical issues to further square away. This is typically were a particular group’s interpretation gets off on the wrong foot and then most of what is said beyond that is either unfaithful to the text in terms of either saying too much or not saying enough.

Both Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism make the text say too much, because both of them are attempting make Genesis concord with modern science. It should amuse you in some way that two very opposing groups of interpretation make basically the same hermeneutical error. It also illustrates the point that when you are trying to make the Bible mesh with science, the real question is “Who’s science?”

The framework hypothesis doesn’t quite say enough with the text, but for this reason, it just needs to be filled out more rather than actually overhauled like the previous two groups. This approach may be unfamiliar to most readers. It is represented well in a commentary I would recommend and am actually going to relying on here called Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary by C. John Collins.

The other option is to mishandle the text completely, either linguistically or literarily. The ruin-reconstruction theory  or “gap theory” is an example of this and fails on both accounts to interpret the Hebrew accurately (we’ll get to this in the next post).

Now as far as interpreting the Hebrew goes, this brings up an interesting point, and one that tends to make people a bit uncomfortable. In order for someone who does not know Hebrew to interpret the Old Testament, they have to rely on some Hebrew scholar to facilitate their understanding in some way. There is no qualitative difference between  me and you in this respect, rather it is one of degree. For those who might protest the validity of needing a Hebrew scholar, simply pick up your Bible and look at the list of translators inside the front cover and those are the particular scholars that are facilitating you. Like I said, it’s a question of degree not quality. The less knowledge of Hebrew you have, the more dependent you are on someone else to interpret the Hebrew for you, whether that is in a commentary and you have some knowledge of Hebrew, or whether that is in your own pages of the Bible and you have no knowledge of the Hebrew at all.

The reason this discussion is even probable though is that I am in some sense an intermediary. I am no Hebrew scholar by any means, but I know enough to read the Hebrew itself with just a few lexical aids and I have first hand contact with the scholarly world and can access information and make it available (and hopefully understandable) to those who do not know much, if anything of Hebrew language and grammar. In a sense, this all I am really doing in this blog series.

Now that in mind, we need to look briefly at a hermeneutical task that  most people fail at in interpreting the Bible, especially the Old Testament. This is mainly the case if they are studying it on their own, or at least without studying it a little more in depth and accessing background sources to aid their understanding of writing from a culture that is almost totally foreign to them.

The concept itself actually comes from cognitive linguistics and particularly speech act theory. I will try to simplify this as much as possible without losing the vital content. If you want a more in depth treatment, you can check out a book by John Searle called Speech Acts, or something a little newer like Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought.

Basically, whenever you are looking at a text, there are three things in play:

  • Locution = the surface content of a statement
  • Illocution = the performative function of the the statement
  • Perlocution = the intended effect of the statement

The easiest way to break this out is to see it in action in the following scenario:

Suppose Ali tells me as we crawl into bed that she is cold (a locution). Her purpose in telling me is not to keep informed of her relative body temperature, but to get me to do something about it (the illocution of her statement), which I then actually do by getting up and turning off the fan (the perlocution she had in mind). We see this also in the Bible in the book of Ruth. When Ruth asks Boaz to spread the corner of his blanket over her, she is asking for a bit more than just to stay warm. The force of her question is one of consummation of marriage right then and there. But that is for another discussion.

We do this kind of thing all the time in what would technically be termed as indirect speech. If you are a single male in college and the girls there are nice, this is the way they will generally turn down your advances. If you ask a girl out and she gives a flat excuse without offering another option, the intended perlocution she has in mind if for you to leave her alone, not to keep asking for other options. She’s not that in to you, but she’s at least being nice about it (until you keep badgering).

Now to bring this back to bear on reading Genesis. If this is indeed how people communicate (and it is) then we should expect to untangle these different aspects of communication in Moses’ writing. The surface content of Genesis needs to be interpreted, but all that gives us in the locutionary force of the text. We additionally need to ask what the illocutionary force of the text was (and there can be more than one). That is to say, we need to inquire what Moses was getting at by what he was saying. Lastly, we need to discern the perlocution Moses had in mind by his description of creation in Genesis 1 (and 2 for that matter). What does Moses want us to do in light of what he wrote? Did he intend for us to use his locutions as a scientific treatise to combat evolutionists?

Probably not. Again, the questions we are trying to answer with Genesis are not even on the radar screen of the ancient world. The main problem with a scientific reading of Genesis is that it is missing the illocutionary force of the text and making a wrong inference from the surface content.

Let me repeat that in a more concise way: a reading of Genesis 1 that seeks to reconcile it with modern science is missing the point of the text.

Generally speaking as well, it is not even making proper sense of the locutions before misconstruing the illocutionary force into something Moses could not possibly have intended. This of course does not undermine inspiration or inerrancy, but removes completely a criticism that is frequently lodged against the Bible. We’ll get into that more as we explore Genesis, but on this reading our ability to defend inerrancy to an unbelieving world is stronger rather than weaker. And additionally, our ability to defend creation in the face of evolution is stronger as well as we are moving the argument into a different arena entirely, one that not even Dawkins with all his “evidence” can compete in, and to which he frankly admits he has no answers.

Removing science from Genesis 1 does not give ground to evolution. Genesis 1:1 still stands, no matter how you read the rest of the chapter, and to that we will turn tomorrow.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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