One of the most interesting times I had in seminary was in Hebrew class. I had two great teachers, one of whom has his own grammar you should check out; the other proved to be very influential in how I understood Old Testament backgrounds (among other things). One of his research interests was the Egyptian background of Genesis 1, something I had never heard of, much less come in contact with, though I had been very interested in studying the early chapters of Genesis.
This resulted in me being able to sit in on a doctoral seminar on ancient Near East backgrounds that was taught by both of these influential professors (as well as a third). If you want to see my resulting thoughts, you should read my Genesis series (which unfortunately was never finished).
If you’d like an accessible book length treatment, at least as it pertains to Genesis 1, then you should pick up In The Beginning…We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context. This book would have been revolutionary for me had I read it before seminary. Reading it after the fact, it was a good summary of much that I had learned and is presented in an accessible enough format that I would feel comfortable recommending it to a wide range of readers.
Both of the authors (Johnny Miller and John Soden), were originally young earth creationists and are both dual graduates of Dallas. Over time, their understanding of Genesis 1 shifted, but not in favor of embracing an evolutionary paradigm. Rather, it was because of the background context. They are still ardent creationists, but like myself have begun to think Genesis is rather mute on giving a way to estimate the age of the earth.
Additionally, their understanding of Genesis 1 has moved in a literary direction, but still is understood in a classical sense of the word “literal” (which means “according to the intended sense”). They now embrace a view similar to that of Vern Poythress or C. John Collins (though not necessarily identical).
The authors’ journey is recounted in the first chapter of the book. Chapter 2 then provides some historical context for how/when biblical interpretation has been realigned in light of science (which is not exactly what these authors are doing). Chapter 3 then tackles the issues related to Genesis 1’s relationship to modern science, before the following chapter raises the ever present question of whether Genesis 1 should be read literally (and what that even means). Chapter 5 and 6 deal with general background issues, specifically the purpose of Genesis (5), and how to best interpret an ancient document in light of its original readers (6).
The rounds out the first part of the book and provides some good groundwork for the second which takes readers on a tour of the relevant ancient Near East backgrounds. Dealing with backgrounds (plural) instead of background (singular) is what makes this particular book valuable. If you’ve done some digging into the background of Genesis 1, you’re probably aware of similarities in the Mesopotamian context, particularly when it comes to Enuma Elish. If you haven’t, this all probably sounds like nonsense.
The value comes when Miller and Soden open the second part of the book dealing with comparison (chapter 7) and contrasts (chapter 8) with the Egyptian background, something that has only recently entered the discussion. This partly because of the inaccessibility of the ancient Egyptian writings, and partly because background studies in general did not figure prominently until the last couple of hundred years of Old Testament studies. Heck, people didn’t even know what Ugaritic was until about a hundred years ago (and some people still don’t!).
Anyway, they then follow this same format with the Mesopotamian background, noting first the similarities (chapter 9), and then differences (chapter 10). When it comes to the Canaanite background, there is just a single chapter (11). Doing this allows you to see Genesis 1 in continuity and discontinuity with the major culture Israel came from (Egypt), was going into (Canaan), and that exerted the most influence across the fertile crescent (Mesopotamian).
This situates Genesis 1 nicely for the discussion in part 3 which deals with chronological issues (chapter 12), as well as etymological issues related to “day” and “death” (chapter 13). The final two chapters ask where the discussion goes from here and touches on several public square related issues.
For readers ardently entrenched into a position on how to interpret Genesis 1, this book might not be exhaustive enough to be a game changer. For readers aware of some the issues with their current position, this book can shed light on new perspectives. I would say the main value lies in recognizing that Egyptian creation accounts (plural) look awfully similar to Genesis 1 in terms of the progression of how creation is ordered. It is hard to suggest that Moses wasn’t riffing on their order of creation but reinterpreting it in Christian (to use an anachronism) terms. Basically, Moses is pulling a “Paul on Mars Hill” when it comes to what the nation of Israel would have thought about creation after having been in Egypt for so long. He demythologizes it in the best way, i.e. there is no God but Yahweh and he is the one who created all by himself. Looked at from this perspective, Moses seems less concerned with the “how” and more concerned with the “Who.”
This is certainly not conclusive and won’t settle the debate (something the authors recognize). It does however provide more evidence that needs to be reckoned with in order to interpret Genesis 1 faithfully. Regardless of the position one takes, the background issues need to be touched on. An appeal to historical consensus for a position does not absolve the need to deal with this new evidence, and had the historical interpreters had it available to them, they certainly would have brought it into consideration. In wherever you are on your own journey of understanding the early chapters of Genesis, this book is very accessible guide to considering the background context for yourself and I’d highly recommend it to you.
Johnny V. Miller & John M. Soden, In The Beginning…We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context. Grand Rapids: Kregel, August 2012. 224 pp. Paperback, $13.99
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Thanks to Kregel for the review copy!