Genesis: Backgrounds (B)

October 27, 2009 — 2 Comments

[This post is part of the Genesis series]

Hopefully we won’t need a (C) to unpack the context of Genesis 1. As I remember, point (C) can tend to stir up controversy.

The fundamental point from the last post to keep in mind as we go on is that for something to exist in the ancient world, it had to have a name, function, and a purpose within an ordered system. An interesting side note to this is that laws in the ANE were aimed at maintaining order, not necessarily conforming to an abstract sense of right and wrong. That is, not until the giving of the law on Sinai, but that is a discussion for another post.

Alongside the idea of having a function based ontology (as opposed to our own material based ontology) in the ANE there was no such thing as a distinction between natural and supernatural.

With just a moment of pondering you can see how this changes the picture somewhat. In the ANE, no one doubted the existence of deity. The mere existence of the universe functioning like an ordered system pointed to either a deity that ran the cosmos or was inherent within in it. The latter was the view in Egypt, the gods were not so much the elements in nature, but were what the elements did (see the functional emphasis?) as manifested in nature. For instance, with Nut, the sky goddess depicted in reliefs as arching her star dotted body over the ground god; she was not so much the sky, but what the sky did (see Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt for more discussion). The gods did not “intervene” within an otherwise natural world, that idea would have been nonsensical to the average person in the ANE. Were the gods to simply start the world up and step back, unplugging themselves from it in some way; it would cause the whole universe to collapse.

As a consequence of this, there were no laws of nature (in the sense we use them), there were ways that deity rule the cosmos; there was absolutely nothing natural about their world. Nor really should there be within ours. The distinction we tend to make between natural and supernatural is a rather recent artificial sort of distinction that is not in any way shared by the authors of the Bible or the cultures the Bible was written to. God does not interevene, God is always there, always working, the difference is in our perception of His hand at work. The line between deism and atheism really isn’t much of a line at all.

Now what is more interesting is when we apply this function mentality to the structure of the cosmos itself. In addition to discussing the meaning of existence, one also needs to investigate the cosmic geography of the cultures in the ANE. In light of existence between tied to function and not substance characterized by material properties, the physical aspects of the cosmos did not define its existence or importance; they were merely the tools the gods used for carrying out their purposes, and the latter was the main interest of the ancients (Walton, 167).

This is where the flat earth idea mentioned comes back into play. Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Canaanites, Hittites, and Israelites all thought of the cosmos in terms of tiers: the earth was in the middle with the heavens above and the netherworld beneath (Walton, 166). Even to the point of the 1st century world, this idea still persisted, and Jesus himself never sat the disciples down and offered to correct them (think of the Ascension, is heaven really up? They certain thought so.)

Now we will get into this further as we look at the text in detail, but please realize, just like us, the ancients had their own understanding of how the universe was structured, but it was vastly different than ours. Not necessarily less scientific (in the sense of scientific knowledge being the product of “reading” nature) but was not as advanced in the sciences as our understanding is. Ideas like a round earth, the sky not being an ocean, the stars being suns, the earth rotating the sun rather than the other way around are all relatively new on the scene.

This is a very important point to realize, especially if you are keen on the young earth creationist views that seek to find concord in the Biblical text and the views of modern science. Think Answers in Genesis, and the History of Life class at Liberty University. There are great men of God who work for former and teach at the latter, but that does not mean they are necessarily making the best sense of the text of Genesis as it stands in context. This is not a slam on any of them personally, but it is an argument against their view.

The effort itself is doomed for failure and strips one of credibility to answer the questions that a lost world is asking. After just finishing Richard Dawkins’ latest offering, The Greatest Show on Earth, most of his diatribes against creationists are for this very reason. They are trying to find scientific truth in the Bible instead within an advanced study of nature itself. Now what to make of the evidence within nature is a different point and your philosophical presuppositions will drive your interpretations, but we’ll get to that later on. But just a caveat before moving on. I am in no way vindicating Dawkins’ evolutionary views, however, he is making a point that we should heed.

Stop trying to use/read Genesis 1 scientifically.

From his perspective it is bad science (and he is right) And from a Hebrew scholar’s perspective (Walton, and Johnston my own prof) it is not an accurate reading of the Hebrew text itself in its ancient context.

So in a sense, a scientific reading (in light of our science) of Genesis 1 fails in two arenas. We’ll look more into why this is so, and why this does not actually in any way give the evolutionist a foothold (like I said, I just read Dawkins’ book and did not find his own evidence very convincing of his point, but again more on that later).

Just to drive the point home a bit further in closing, here are some thoughts from Walton’s book (The Lost World of Genesis One) on why you should not read in Genesis 1 in light of modern science:

“If God were intent on making his revelation correspond to science, we have to ask which science. We are all well aware that science is dynamic rather than static. By its very nature science is in a constant state of flux. If we were to say that God’s revelation corresponds to “true science” we adopt an idea contrary to the very nature of science.” (pg 17)

He goes on to point out that is God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people prior to the time of that science and obsolete to those that came after. Rather, we should look at the descriptions of the universe throughout the Bible (and specifically in Genesis 1) as culturally relative notions, not transcendentally true “science.” Throughout the Bible, there is not a single instance of God revealing to Israel a science beyond their culture (pg. 19). As such, it does mean they are false statements, they are simply statements that the individuals receiving them would have immediately understood as “speaking their language.” The cosmic geography of modern science would have been unintelligible to the ANE and was obsolete for God to make his point.

And it is the point we will see, that over-rides both the evolutionary claims of modern science and the religious claims of the rest of the ancient world. Some of what has been said here will need to be vindicated within the text itself, so if the preceding dialogue was a blow to your view of Genesis, just be patient and see if the text itself can clarify matters.


Posts Twitter Facebook

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!

2 responses to Genesis: Backgrounds (B)

  1. Willie Nelson (the non-contry singer) October 28, 2009 at 1:36 am

    Looking forward to it.

    • As a high school student I used to think that a lot of Big Bang snd evolutionary science weren’t precluded by Genesis with the simple caveat of God made it happen. My reading of European myths added to that because they rarely reproduced actual history literally/accurately in the sense that we would expect history to be ‘true’ in modern times, more what we might read as a poetic interpretation of reality. For example there was a Troy and possibly a Helen, but a demi-god Achilles with drlicate ankles…no. Similarly the liberty with truth that we see in later aristocrats adding their names to Jason’s argonauts lends credibility to the idea that Genesis along with other ancient texts might not be literally and clinically true scientific historical documents in the way we want them to be so that they may apologetically answer critics of Christianity.

      Now I read through your series and lately spend more time trying to read the New Testament in its literary/cultural/historical context, and the view and interpretation of Genesis you’re writing about make perfect sense!

Want To Add Your Thoughts?