Creation and Evolution (Part 11)July 01, 2013 Time: 00:32:52
We have been talking about the Hebrew Myth Interpretation of Genesis 1. I shared with you that this is a view that has recently been defended by Miller and Soden in their book In the Beginning … We Misunderstood.1 You may be wondering who these authors are. Well, they are professors at Columbia Bible College and at Lancaster Bible College, both with doctorates from Dallas Theological Seminary. So they have conservative bona fides which are impeccable.
We saw last time that they think that Israel, having been in bondage in Egypt for some four hundred years and indeed worshipping Egyptian deities, developed their own creation story in reaction to these Egyptian creation myths. The important thing about a creation story was not its literal truth – its scientific truth – but rather the theological truths that it embodies. In the Hebrew creation story we see both similarities to the Egyptian creation myths but also very sharp and striking differences whereby the people of Israel reject the polytheistic pagan myths and substitute for it, as it were, a Hebrew monotheistic myth of the creator God of Israel.
Having shared with you last time a brief summary of the Egyptian creation story insofar as that story can be reconstructed from diverse texts spanning a couple of millennia, let me give you their summary of what they think is the Hebrew creation theology which is then opposed to the creation theology of Egypt. This is found on pages 176-177 of their book and I will simply read this summary:
On day 1, God separates light from darkness and puts day and night into motion. This is the necessary starting point for all that is to follow, bringing light and order to the infinite disordered mass of water. He shows himself to be the source and controller of day and night. Light is not divine (sun or moon), and darkness is not a threat. Out of the chaos of the watery mass, God first produces order, teaching that darkness is not to be feared and light is not to be revered. God himself is the creator of light, both spiritual and physical. . . . On day 2, God orders the firmament into place to hold back the threatening waters above and below. He is the one who keeps the world in place and prepares the stage where mankind will act out the history of God’s kingdom. God holds back the waters and then releases them according to his will. On day 3, God orders the waters into one place and commands dry land to appear. On the land he calls into being living plants, which will nourish mankind. He founds the earth upon the waters, establishing his authority over both land and water. He provides food for the creatures he will soon create. The stage is fully set. All that was formerly tohu (desolate) is now arranged and in order. Everything wet and everything dry belongs to God. He can do with it what he wants. On day 4, God begins to decorate the cosmos, putting the heavenly lights into place. The lights, deliberately left unnamed, serve as impersonal markers of time. They are not deified as controllers of history as in other cultures. They do not control the affairs of mankind or the movements of history because only God can do that. On day 5, God orders into life the living creatures that fill the heretofore empty sky and waters. Every niche of creation has its purpose and its inhabitants.2 None of it just happened. What is more, none rivals God’s power or authority. Even the great sea creatures – the feared “monsters” – are simply creatures under the authority of God. On day 6, God fills the last empty niche of his creation – earth. First, he makes the animals, “all creatures great and small.” Then he fashions the unique creature, made in the image of God himself – mankind. This is the climax of the creative process: human beings made in God’s image to serve as his regents on the earth. All creatures made before humans are under humanity’s delegated authority. All that was bohu (empty) now teems with life. On day 7, the divine workweek is complete, never to be repeated. God has finished ordering and filling his cosmos, and he has put on the earth one to look after his interests and to bring him proper worship and glory. It is time for God to put away his workman’s garb, don his royal robes, and take his throne to rest. And it is time for this new creation to join him in that repose and to enjoy the marvels and beauty of creation in a family relationship with the Creator. It is an endless day that is, the seventh day, with the offer of unlimited fellowship to all who desire it.3
So that would be the theological content of this Hebrew creation myth as they understand it. They agree with Blocher’s view4 that the days are not meant to be chronologically ordered. You will remember that according to Blocher the first three days create the sphere or the realm for something and then the second three days create the inhabitants of that realm – the animals, the sea creatures, the birds, and finally man himself. So they don’t think that these seven days are meant to represent necessarily a chronological order. Rather, this is a literary device of creating spheres, or places, and then filling them with various creatures. They also agree with Walton’s view5 (which we discussed last time) that creation actually begins with verse 2 of Genesis 1, not with verse 1. Verse 1 is just a summary title; creation actually begins in verse 2 with the primeval waters in place.
Question: How do they know that this is the Egyptian’s version? What is the possibility that the Hebrews brought this version into Egypt?
Answer: They don’t address that question but I think that they would stand within the consensus of Old Testament scholarship that the Hebrew creation narrative is not as old. Of course, you could say it is based upon prior oral traditions that were passed down for endless generations. They don’t address that. They simply look at the parallels and then, as I said, they surmise that because Israel was in Egypt and they were worshipping Egyptians gods that Genesis 1 comes later and is written as a kind of reaction to this earlier religion that had been drummed into them. The traditional view of the authorship of the Pentateuch is that it is Moses who wrote it. If that is the case, then this would reflect something later than those stories that they heard in Egypt.
Question: So the first six days are not chronological and so then God asks mankind to enter into the seventh day with him. So before you are in the seventh day resting in heaven with God, you are still in one of those other days, like the sixth day?6
Answer: I don’t see how that follows. They are not denying that God did this work of creation and that he is no longer doing it. He is in the seventh day right now. He is no longer in this creative mode. But they don’t think that the sequence in which he did this creation is necessarily the same sequence that is narrated over the seven days.
Followup: I understand what you are saying but I’m trying to ask where that puts mankind before they are born again and in rest with Christ?
Answer: Oh, they don’t even address that sort of theological question. That does not come into view.
What might we say by way of assessment of this view? I think it is important, first, to say something about the nature of myth. What are myths? Myths are sacred narratives that serve to ground a culture and its institutions. By telling the story, a culture will show its origin and its foundation particularly of its significant cultural practices. This is important because the word “myth” in popular culture is not used in this way. When people throw around the word “myth” they often mean something like fiction or even a lie, not a sort of foundational narrative for a culture. So it is important to understand that when one talks about creation myths, one isn’t using this word in a popular sense of a false story or a fabrication. Rather, it is a sacred narrative that seeks to found a culture and its institution in some sort of creation account.
Genesis 1 clearly does serve this function, I think. It clearly does serve this mythical role. It is a creation story which grounds everything in God and his power and also serves especially to ground Israel’s Sabbath practice. Clearly, the practice of keeping the Sabbath, which is so central to Israel’s identity, is founded – or based in – this creation story of the six days of God’s work and then the seventh day of his rest. Genesis 1 clearly does serve a sort of mythic function in grounding Israel and the world and especially its Sabbatarian practices.
But, as Miller and Soden also note, Genesis 1 is also sharply demythologizing in many ways. When you compare it to the pagan myths of Israel’s neighbors, what is striking is the absence of any sorts of gods and goddesses of warring monsters or forces that stand opposed to God that God must wrestle with and overcome. In particular, there are no astral deities in Genesis 1. As they note, the sun and the moon are just the big light and the little light – they are just lights in the sky that God made. The stars are not gods. These are just creatures that are under the control of God. Also, this is especially evident if we adopt the view that verse 1 does teach creatio ex nihilo, as I’ve argued. I’ve already given a critique of the view that creation doesn’t begin with verse 1 so I am not going to repeat that here but insofar as Miller and Soden reject the view that creation begins in verse 1, I think they fail to understand properly the function of the narrative in grounding everything in God’s absolute power and authority. He is the one who brings the world into being out of nothing in verse 1 so that there aren’t any opposing forces to God which he must overcome and vanquish in order to create the world. So Genesis 1 is very much a demythologizing creation narrative as well as serving a kind of mythical function.
Now with respect to Miller and Soden’s attempt to see Genesis 1 as significantly shaped by Egyptian creation myths, I have to say that I am still rather skeptical about the attempt to see this creation account in Genesis 1 as significantly shaped by Egyptian creation myths.7 One of the difficulties in assessing this is simply that we don’t have a coherent creation myth in Egypt. You will remember this is cobbled together from a diversity of texts and snippets and inscriptions over a couple of millennia so it is very difficult to speak about a coherent creation myth in Egypt at all.
But my skepticism goes deeper than that. I am not an Old Testament scholar, but in New Testament studies one has encountered this same sort of attempt to explain New Testament motifs by finding parallels in either pagan mythology or in Jewish Old Testament texts. This has led to a widespread rejection of this technique in historical Jesus studies. Parallels can be found for almost anything. If you look hard enough, you can find parallels to a story in other stories to which there is no genetic relationship whatsoever. For example, in historical Jesus studies, I know that many scholars have noted the significant similarities between the empty tomb story of Jesus and the story of Daniel in the lion’s den.8 Or the story of Joshua and the five kings sealed in the cave with stones.9 Or even Jacob’s removing the heavy stone off of the well in order to water the animals.10 And yet, this empty tomb story cannot be derived from all of these, even though you could find parallels to it like the heavy stone, the cave, and things of that sort. So we have to beware of what’s been called “parallel-o-mania” on the part of certain scholars because it is easy to cherry pick stories in order to pull out similarities without there being any kind of genetic relationship between them.
I find it very significant that, like these so-called mythicists who try to explain the historical Jesus based upon parallels to ancient myths, Miller and Soden also fail to cite the original sources that they claim contain these parallels. You will find that people who say that certain Christian motifs or beliefs are derived from mythology almost never cite the original sources. They never cite the original myths. Why? Because when you read them in the context you can see that, although they may pick out a parallel or point here or there, the whole thing is so utterly different and so utterly dissimilar that the parallels become trifling and insignificant. So this isn’t really a work of significant scholarship I think we have to say. As interesting as it is, we need to have them lay out for us the Egyptian texts – to actually cite them – and then show us the parallels if we are to believe that these parallels are significant indications of a genetic relationship between Genesis 1 and the Egyptian stories.
Indeed, the parallels that they do claim really aren’t that impressive when you look at them. The best parallel, I think, – the one that is clearest and most striking – would be the presence of the primeval ocean at the beginning. Both in the Egyptian myths and in Genesis 1 you have creation out of a sort of primeval dark watery mass. That seems to be a significant similarity. But this motif is common in mythical stories – the idea of a primeval ocean or waters out of which the world emerges, even stories that have no genetic connection at all with Israel. So while that is an interesting parallel, it is hard to assess how important it is. Miller and Soden make a great deal out of the fact that in these Egyptian myths, light existed before the sun. They say this is a parallel to this otherwise very puzzling feature of the Genesis account where you have light already on day 1 but the sun isn’t created until day 4.11 They claim that this reflects these Egyptian creation myths. But, again, unfortunately, they don’t cite the Egyptian texts for us to examine. It appears to be simply an inference that they make. That is to say, because the sun god emerges out of the waters before the sun is created, they infer that there must have been light before the existence of the sun. But that is an inference. That isn’t clear at all unless they cite us the text that actually says “there was light before the sun was created” rather than just saying there was a deity who was the sun god and then the sun came later. So, as I say, it is difficult to assess how significant these parallels really are.
The critical question, I think though, in assessing their interpretation is how were these ancient creation myths understood? How did ancient people look at these creation stories? During the 19th century, literary scholars tended to regard these ancient creation myths as a kind of proto-science; that is to say, a sort of crude pre-scientific attempt to explain how the world and the things in it came about. Accounts that are now rendered obsolete in light of modern science. So the 19th century had a rather unsympathetic view toward these ancient creation myths. They were regarded as basically obsolete and crude science. But during the 20th century, scholars of mythology do not see them as a kind of crude proto-science. Rather, they tend to be seen as symbolic or figurative accounts of the creation of the world or of various things in it. So they weren’t intended to be taken literally. These were symbolic accounts. These were figurative or metaphorical accounts that shouldn’t be understood as pre-scientific attempts to explain the way the world is.
How do Miller and Soden understand these ancient creation myths, including the creation story in Genesis 1? Are they saying that these ancient myths were believed by people literally and that Genesis uses this obsolete worldview of the ancients while correcting their theology? Is that what Genesis 1 is doing? Genesis 1 is using the language of this obsolete, literally interpreted, proto-scientific account of the world and then revising its theology – is that what Genesis 1 is about? Or are Miller and Soden saying that the ancient people didn’t really believe these myths literally, but they took them figuratively and Genesis similarly presents a figurative story of creation in order to teach a new theology? So, the question is – how did the ancients regard these creation myths? Did they take them literally or figuratively? Miller and Soden don’t speak with a single voice on this question so it is unclear to me exactly what their view is. On page 155, they state the following – listen carefully to this quotation:
If the original author intended the account to be understood figuratively or symbolically, then we would be in error to ascribe a literal meaning to it. If the original author used his audience’s incorrect descriptions in order to make theological points, we would be wrong to expect his writing to correct their vocabulary or perceptions.12
These two back-to-back sentences are self-contradictory!13 The first sentence expresses the view that these myths were taken symbolically or figuratively. But the second sentence expresses the view that the ancient people took these myths to be accurate descriptions of the world even though they were inaccurate and the Genesis narrative picks up and uses these inaccurate descriptions of the world simply to correct the theology. Those are the two opposite points of view that we are trying to discuss and yet here they seem to be affirming both of them in juxtaposed sentences. But which one is it? Were these narratives understood symbolically and figuratively or were they understood literally and Israel or Moses simply uses these incorrect, inaccurate descriptions of the world in order to make theological points?
On the one hand, Miller and Soden seem to say that the ancients really believed that the world is as these myths portray it. Throughout the book, they provide artist renderings of the world as it is described in these ancient creation myths. For example, on page 44 is supposedly a picture of the cosmos as it was conceived in the Old Testament. These pictures are quite fantastic and bizarre paintings of the way the world was supposedly conceived by the ancient Israelites. They comment,
Almost everyone agrees that many figures of speech and many commonly accepted observations are used to describe God’s creation. For instance, the Bible says that the earth is established on a foundation and that it has pillars (Pss. 104:5; 75:3). This reflects the way the writer or readers conceived of the world; they seemed to think of the land as a disk, not as a globe. The mountains were at the edges of the disk, holding up the sky. . . . It would have made sense to them that this disk, with the waters lapping at its edges, was held up by pillars, set on a solid foundation.14
So they have in this artist painting a picture of the world as a sort of disk floating on the sea supported by these pillars that the ancient Israelite’s supposedly thought were underneath the land holding it up on its foundations.
Again, in another place, they say,
There was a literal truth behind what we perceive as figurative or observational speech; in fact, the ancient people may have understood such statements as literal reality because of their observations. On the other hand, they may have realized that it was not exactly accurate but was a commonly accepted way of speaking of the world.15
So they were sort of quasi-literal. Again, in another place, they say,
As we process what we have just observed about Genesis 1 and the ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, we see that God does correct wrong theology, but his instruction does not depend upon accurate scientific observations and descriptions of the material world. This reality fits well with the concept of progressive revelation – the idea that God slowly revealed himself within the cultural framework his people knew.16
On this view, God took this obsolete scientific view of the world and simply adopted it as a means of teaching them correct theology but didn’t bother to revise this obsolete worldview.17 Again they write,
If God had tried to correct Israel’s observation and perception of the material world, would it have made sense to the people in their historical context? . . . In other words, God corrected their spiritual worldview, not their physical picture of the world, by teaching them who Yahweh their God was (Exod. 6:6-7). He began with the way they thought and talked about creation, in order to teach them what they could not otherwise recognize or understand.18
Again, God simply adopts the inaccurate language of the ancient world in order to teach them these theological truths without endorsing that inaccurate picture of the world.19
Finally, they considered the objection by some hypothetical person, “If you claim that Genesis 1 uses erroneous ancient views to challenge Israel’s belief in God, don’t you undermine the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy?”20 This is a hypothetical objector saying, “You are claiming that Genesis 1 uses erroneous ancient views in order to challenge their belief in God.” They respond, “This question about inspiration and inerrancy incorrectly assumes that using the inaccurate views of people . . . is the same as affirming those views.”21
I am not here assessing the adequacy of that reply but just trying to understand their view. It seems to me that what they are saying here is that people really believed these ancient myths described the way the world is. They actually thought that it was like a disk resting on pillars and the firmament was a hard dome that sat on top of the mountains and God, as it were, condescends to use this inaccurate view of the world to teach them important theological truths. That would be a view of the narrative that would see it as trying to communicate literal proto-scientific truths about the world.
As I say, many of the statements of the book suggest that this is the view that Miller and Soden are embracing. However, as we will see next time, there are other paragraphs in the book which I’ll also quote in which they seem to be affirming precisely the opposite view that these narratives were not understood literally but simply figuratively or symbolically and therefore were not inaccurate because they weren’t trying to represent the world as it is.22
1 Johnny V. Miller, John M. Soden, In the Beginning… We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012).
3 Ibid., pp. 176-77.
4 See Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (InterVarsity Press, 1984)
5 See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009)
8 cf. Daniel 6:16-23
9 cf. Joshua 10:16-18
10 cf. Genesis 29:10
12 Miller and Soden, In the Beginning… We Misunderstood, p. 155.
14 Ibid., pp. 43-44.
15 Ibid., p. 45.
16 Ibid., p. TODO: where is this??.
17 As an example, Miller and Soden say later in the book: “For example, if Genesis 1 intends to begin with the common ancient Near Eastern viewpoint – particularly the Egyptian view – of the precreation watery dark chaos, then the narrative does not accord with any modern science. If Genesis leaves intact the ancient conclusion of endless waters above the sky and below the earth, without correcting that inference from observation with the reality of a space that is billions of light-years of emptiness, then it is not concerned to present a correct version of what science might later validate. It simply does not speak to the scientific questions of today or any day. Instead, Genesis presents theological truth: Yahweh is Creator, transcendent and absolute sovereign over all. He is not part of creation but completely separate from it.” (Ibid., pp. 150-51.)
18 Ibid., p. 151.
20 Ibid., p. 153.
22 Total Running Time: 32:51 (Copyright © William Lane Craig)