Creation and Evolution (Part 12)July 08, 2013 Time: 00:33:19
Today we come to the end of our consideration of various interpretations of Genesis chapter 1. We have been looking most recently at what I call the Hebrew (or Jewish) Myth Interpretation of Genesis 1 as propounded by Johnny Miller and John Soden in their book In the Beginning … We Misunderstood.1 You will remember that I explained that there is a fundamental ambiguity in this interpretation as they present it. It is not clear if they think that these ancient myths were understood literally by the people who believed in them so that what God did in Genesis 1 was to adopt a sort of obsolete, outmoded worldview, not as a way of endorsing that worldview, but simply as using it as a vehicle to communicate important theological truths about the nature of God and the nature of the world around us. Is that what is happening in Genesis 1? Or is it, on the other hand, that these ancient peoples, in propounding these myths about the creation of the world and its inhabitants, didn’t really take them literally and so it would be unfair to indict them as having a primitive, scientifically obsolete view of the world? Rather, these were figurative stories meant to be taken symbolically to represent metaphysical and spiritual realities. In that case, Genesis 1 is not adopting some sort of outmoded and obsolete scientific worldview to communicate theological truths; rather it is itself a figurative story or account of the world’s origins that has, at its center, the teaching of certain theological truths about God which we summarized in our previous lesson.
As I say, Miller and Soden are not clear as to which interpretation they endorse. Last week, we looked at a number of passages from the book that suggests that they adopt the first interpretation – that these ancient peoples actually believed these myths literally and that Genesis adopts this way of speaking without necessarily endorsing it. For my part, I am very dubious that these ancient peoples actually believed these myths literally. I don’t think that they thought the world was really as these myths describe it. For example, consider the Egyptian myths about the creation of the world out of the primeval ocean. According to Miller and Soden,
For Egypt, the creation event was reenacted in their experience every day. The time between evening and morning was a struggle as the sun battled darkness and chaos, but ultimately “the sun-god emerge[d] every morning from the primeval ocean Nun and by his daily journey ensure[d] order in the cosmos.”2
Now, are we to seriously think that these ancient Egyptians actually believed that when they went to sleep at night, they and everything else returned to the primeval ocean and that when they woke up in the morning it was all created anew? I cannot think that that is what these ancient Egyptians really believed. Surely, some of them at least must have on occasion stayed up all night to see what really happened. Certainly soldiers on watch at the palace would have known that the palace and the Pharaoh and they themselves didn’t all return to the primeval ocean every night and reemerge. Rather, I think it is clear this is just a symbolic account or a figurative account of creation and they didn’t think that this was reenacted in a literal way every single night when they went to bed.
Similarly, with respect to Israel, I don’t think ancient Israelis took these stories and metaphors necessarily literally. For example, consider the Psalm quoted by Miller and Soden about how God has established the earth on the pillars of the earth.3 Surely, ancient Israelites did not think that the world was literally resting on pillars.4 Miller and Soden say, “the ancient people may have understood such statements as literal reality because of their observations.”5 But that is obviously wrong. No one had observed the so-called pillars of the earth. No where had anyone gone and seen that the earth was sitting on literal pillars. This seems very evidently, to me at least, a metaphor for the way in which the world has been founded and established by God. But certainly no one had observed such things. Or, again, what about the firmament? The Israelites had been to the top of Mount Carmel or Mount Hermon and they must have seen that there wasn’t a sort of solid canopy or dome which was resting on the top of Mount Carmel when you went up there. They would have seen that the sky continued to be an expanse above them in which clouds sailed along and birds flew. There is no reason at all to think that they believed that the mountains were supporting this solid dome that was resting on top of them. In fact, I am persuaded that if you had showed an ancient Israelite one of these artistic drawings in Miller and Soden’s book of what the world supposedly looked like according to these ancient descriptions in the Old Testament and said to an ancient Israelite “What is this?” I don’t think he would have recognized that at all as being a picture of the way the universe is or a recognizable picture of the world. This is to ascribe to them a very wooden, literalistic interpretation that is surely implausible. So I am just very skeptical. I would like to see some solid evidence that would suggest that ancient peoples in general and ancient Israelites in particular interpreted these mythological stories in a literal way rather than in a figurative way.
On the other hand, there are passages in Miller and Soden’s book where they do seem to endorse the figurative or the symbolic interpretation. They do not think, it seems, that the ancients construed these myths literally. For example, on pages 48-49 they say the following:
We believe that understanding Genesis 1 in its original language and setting leads us to conclude that it is a broadly figurative presentation of literal truths . . . the text itself leads us to a more figurative approach.6
Again, later in the book, on page 148 they write:
We have already suggested that a number of exegetical details allow for and even point to a broadly figurative approach to Genesis 1 rather than a “literal” chronological approach.7
They say this primarily with respect to the seven days of creation; that these are not chronologically ordered. But I think that their point could be more generally applied to the story as a whole, that it is figurative in nature. Again, they state:
Neither cosmogony (how the universe came to be) nor cosmology (how one understands the universe, including the relationship of the gods) in the ancient world was understood in scientific or historical terms but as symbolic, metaphysical explanations or as a means to “articulate the incomprehensible and the marvelous, while attempting to express such phenomena in a rational manner.”8
They go on to say,
We are not saying that Genesis 1 is untrue. We are suggesting that by borrowing the events of Egyptian cosmogony and placing them in a seven-day framework, the author was emphasizing the theological significance for the nation of Israel. He was not making a statement about what he considered to be (or what God considered to be) a historical timeline, particularly one based on the precision our modern minds require. With its context in ancient Egypt, Israel would not have required or expected a strict (modern) historical correlation. The seven days of creation clearly devastate the theology of the Egyptian “first time” or single day of creation that is reenacted every day.9
On this view, Genesis 1 is not adopting a proto-scientific, outmoded, scientifically inaccurate cosmogony.10 Rather, it is, like the ancient Egyptian myths themselves, a sort of figurative or symbolic account of creation that is designed to communicate theological truths that are sharply contradictory to the pagan Egyptian myths with which Israel was familiar. You will recall again what those theological truths were from the previous lesson about God being the sole and sovereign creator of all things in the universe and everything else is simply a creature created by God. They are not deities themselves and therefore not to be worshipped or served nor do they control our destiny.
So this puts a very different perspective, I think, on the Miller and Soden Hebrew Myth Interpretation. It is not entirely clear to me which one of these interpretations they really endorse. I think it is probably the latter. I think that interpretation is a good deal more plausible than the first interpretation which seems to be a kind of 19th century approach to mythology where you read it in a very wooden manner as a proto-scientific attempt to describe the world rather than as a figurative or symbolic attempt to explain the nature of the universe and of God.
Question: I have to wonder, given how Miller and Soden created their Egyptian creation account by going through and picking details from a couple thousand years worth of material, how much they cherry-picked their data to get an Egyptian creation story with superficial similarities and if another scholar would come up with a very different creation account?
Answer: Yeah, that is a concern I have as well. I can’t answer the question because I am not an Egyptologist. As I say, they don’t quote the original sources in the book so that we can make these sorts of comparisons. It does lead you to the suspicion that the data could well be cherry picked. And we have seen how that kind of methodology can be abused in historical Jesus studies and it could be abused here as well. So I do think we need more evidence, basically. I am not closing the door on it but I think we need some more evidence if we are to be convinced.
Question: We don’t believe that the Egyptians actually believed the myths and somehow are we imputing that the fact that the Egyptian story of creation was a myth that somehow the Israeli story of the creation is a myth or to be taken non-literally?
Answer: That would be their interpretation. Yes. They would say the creation account in Genesis 1 belongs to the same genre of literature as these other ancient creation myths. Remember I emphasized that to say something is a myth doesn’t mean in this context it is a lie or a falsehood or a fiction. It is a narrative that attempts to provide a kind of ultimate explanation of one’s own society and culture and so forth, such as the Sabbath that you have in Genesis 1. So in that sense I think that Genesis 1 does have a kind of mythic function. What they would say is that when you read it against the background of these Egyptian myths, they are so similar in different ways (and I just said that that needs to be demonstrated further) that this suggests that they should be interpreted similarly. That is the view.
Followup: I think the underlying premise that they have is that the Egyptian myths and other ancient creation myths were written before Genesis because their hypothesis was that we didn’t have writings before 1000 BC. I think that is false.11 If the Genesis account were written before these then that would explain a lot of this.
Answer: Here I think we have to have a more nuanced position if you are going to defend that. Because these texts that are in our Old Testament are written in Hebrew. So we can get a pretty good idea of the origins of the Hebrew language and the type of Hebrew that is used that would provide a date earlier than which this text couldn’t have originated. But what you could say is that this Hebrew text embodies traditions and so forth that were handed down, perhaps not even in Hebrew, but then were eventually written up and thereby provide a kind of common source that would lie behind both and maybe more of these stories. I think you could say that. The question would be whether or not that is a defensible position. I am not qualified to say.
[The next question is simply a long comment from a person espousing her own theory of Genesis from God’s perspective.]
Summary and Implications
Now we come to summary and implications. I think that you can see from this survey of various biblical interpretations of Genesis 1 that there is quite a wide range of interpretations of Genesis 1 that have been defended by Bible believing evangelical scholars. It is not the case that we are boxed into just one interpretation that is valid and sound for anyone who is a Bible believing Christian. There is quite a wide range of interpretations of Genesis 1. You might say, “Well, then which of these interpretations is the best, if any? Which would you endorse?” Here I have to give my candid view – I don’t know! I have been studying and reading on this subject for a long time and I am still uncertain as to what is the best view. So I don’t have a sort of hard and fast opinion on this. But I think that is alright. I think that the Christian can be open-minded with respect to various interpretations of biblical passages and doesn’t need to pigeon hole everybody into just one acceptable interpretation. I hope that as a result of this survey it has given you an appreciation for the rich diversity of views that Bible believing scholars have taken on this passage. I hope you have enjoyed going through some of these interpretations as much as I have. It has been good for me to review these and to read some of the more recent books like Miller and Soden’s in doing so. I hope you found this stimulating as well. But as far as being able to give a definitive judgment on these interpretations, I am not there yet. So, I simply have to remain open about it.
Question: When you are in discussions with non-believers or agnostics, this is one of the things that they often point to as to the validity of God and religion. When you are in those discussions, how do you take that on?12
Answer: Thank you so much for raising this question because you are absolutely correct. As a result of the influence of people like Richard Dawkins and certain other evolutionary biologists, I think one of the main reasons for unbelief, even atheism on the part of many people today, is because they are convinced that Genesis 1 teaches that the world was created in six consecutive 24-hour days about ten to twenty thousand years ago and that a Bible believing Christian has to accept that and therefore has to reject what modern science says about the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and the origin of biological complexity. I hope that this survey that we have just gone through shows how completely wrong headed that sort of objection is. What I do in dealing with unbelievers when this is raised is just share with them some of these alternative perspectives and interpretations and point out that there are Bible believing Christians who hold to all of these. I don’t need to propound any particular one – I don’t even need to deny that the literal interpretation is correct. All you have to do is to show that you can be a Bible believing Christian without being thereby committed to the world being 6,000 years old and created in six 24-hour days. And this just completely pulls the rug out from under this objection. I think this is really, really important material in that sense in that it pulls the rug out from under what is, I think, perhaps the main reason for atheism or agnosticism on the part of popular culture today.
Followup: It certainly is an answer but I don’t know that, in my dealings with some of my son’s friends when we start talking about this, they would just kind of shrug this off and say “tell me something definitive.” How can you, as a Christian, believe that on the backdrop of all the geologic evidence that there was some sort of finite limited creation story?
Answer: If you are listening to what I just said, if somebody says to me “How can you as a Christian believe that the world was created in six literal 24-hour days about 10,000 years ago” I would say to them, “I don’t believe that and you don’t have to believe that in order to be a Christian.” I remember when I was speaking at the University of Northern Ireland once and a student after my talk came up to speak with me and he said to me, “My friends have been sharing with me about Christ. In order to become a Christian, do I have to believe that the world was created in six 24-hour days?” And I said, “No, you don’t have to believe that to be a Christian.” And this kid threw up his hands in the air and said “Halleluiah! That has been the one thing that has been keeping me from giving my life to Christ.” So just explaining to him that there is a range of options was all he needed to hear. If your son’s friends are open-minded rather than just using this as an excuse for unbelief, they should be satisfied in knowing that as a Christian you don’t have to be committed to these views that they find objectionable. If you hold to Miller and Soden’s view, or you hold to a Gap Theory view, or a Day Gap View, there is no problem. So, say, what’s the problem and ask them to explain what it is. I think just being aware of these options is very powerful apologetics.
Question: It seems to me that we focus on this part in apologetics on these questions and these objections that they have but isn’t their objection really as to whether they are materialists or whether they can believe in supernaturalism? Because it seems you move one step up the food chain and really many, many times it is their total denial in supernaturalism in general which would negate all of these various theories whether it was six literal days or six thousand or six million.13
Answer: Well, we spent, as you know, months in this class talking about cosmological arguments for God’s existence, fine-tuning arguments, moral arguments, and ontological arguments. So this is set against the backdrop of a robust natural theology for the existence of a beginningless, timeless, spaceless, uncaused, immaterial, intelligent, enormously powerful, maximally great personal creator of the universe who is the source of objective moral value and worth. So, remember, don’t forget our natural theology. But I do say, in all candor, at least in my talking with high school kids and college students, a lot of times it is not as deep or sophisticated as what you just said. It is just that they think that if you are a Christian, you have got to believe that the world was created 6,000 years ago in six consecutive 24-hour days and they can’t believe that. Even good willed kids, like my friend in Northern Ireland, they just can’t believe that. For them, it is like committing intellectual suicide in light of what they’ve been taught in high school, biology, and earth science and so forth. It really is a lot less sophisticated, I think, then the kind of anti-supernaturalism that you are expressing. Now, if it is that, then obviously, you have got to go deeper than what I just said.
Followup: What if, hypothetically, based upon not having accepted that as the explanation for creation, say “I am a Christian now because I don’t have to believe that” and over time science or experimentation/observation seems to prove maybe it really was six days? Is that going to negate their Christian witness?
Answer: That is an interesting question. I don’t think so. Because remember I think that the literal interpretation is one option that could be right. I think there are reasons to think it is not right but these aren’t definitive. So, I am honestly – and I mean this in all sincerity brothers and sisters! – I am really open to a range of alternative views. So it wouldn’t be of any concern to me if science were turned upside down and suddenly demonstrated the world was 6,000 years old. I would be delighted; it wouldn’t bother me a bit. I really am open to a diversity of views here. As I will say next time, I think therefore we can let go of this issue theologically and let science tell us whether or not the world is 6,000 years old or 13.7 billion years old.
Question: I wanted to make a comment. What we are dealing with is secular fundamentalism. They only see their things one way also.
Answer: If I understand you, what you are saying is that the secularist only sees Christianity as having one view – a view that they regard as absurd. That is right. This objection has sprung from ignorance. They haven’t ever read books on this subject. They’ve never studied Genesis 1. It is pure pop culture that is based on ignorance. So if you can come to them with a more informed and charitable range of options and say, “Gee, you don’t need to be committed to that in order to be believe in Christ” I hope that if the person is a sincere seeker they will welcome that news and therefore be more open to Christ.
Question: One of the concerns about this whole topic is this: you say science can tell us and should be able to inform us about these questions because theologically we are safe regardless of what the answer might be. But is that true with Adam? Because it seems to me that Adam is a historical figure. Even in Luke, Jesus’ genealogy goes right back to Adam and it traces through all of these historical figures. Can you speak to the theological implications there and why that might be a concern?
Answer: Yes, here you are raising a very good question about the historicity of Adam and Eve. Are they to be regarded as purely symbolic figures the way some people claim or are they actually historical persons that really lived? When we get to the section on Doctrine of Man in this class we will take up this subject again – what does anthropology teach about human origins and what does theological anthropology teach.14 We will discuss that question in more detail. I think that the New Testament, as well as the Old Testament, does seem to commit us to an historical Adam and Eve. So we are going to have to deal with how that is defensible in light of modern anthropology. So hang on to that question until later.
Question: I am just thinking about the witnessing to the non-believer and it seems to me from what I hear is, whether you take what is written as literally or as symbolism, it is really in the mind of the believer. The big thought is that the world was created in the seven days but then the idea is that it is pointing to the fact that God is the creator. The important thing that you believe is that God is the creator of everything – not how many days it was created in.
Answer: I certainly agree with you and that is the point that Walton and Miller and Soden and Blocher and others are all making. That does seem to me to be central and to be foundational. What we have here in Genesis is a monotheistic account of creation that attributes everything to God. And that is especially true, as we’ve argued, in verse 1 where creation properly begins – not verse 2. Verse 1 says everything in the beginning was made by God. So I think theologically you are right. But I do want to issue a corrective or an admonition with respect to what you said right at the beginning. It is not just in the mind of the individual believer whether he takes this symbolically or literally. That leads immediately to subjectivism and relativism. What does the text mean to you and then each person shares his subjective perspective and all holds are off – it leads immediately to a sort of subjectivist view. Rather, what we are asking here is “How did the author intend this text to be interpreted and how would its original audience have understood it when they heard it?” Those are objective questions that literary scholars struggle with and explore and debate. These are not just a matter of sitting in a Bible study and asking “what does this verse mean to you?” which can be very subjective and relativistic. We have been struggling here to answer an objective question but I think that your theological point about what is fundamental and foundational here is certainly correct. It is not the seven days; it is God as the creator of all.15
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).
2 Ibid., p. 107.
3 “When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm” (Psalm 75:3).
5 Ibid., p. 45.
6 Ibid., pp. 48-49.
7 Ibid., p. 148.
8 Ibid., p. 16.
9 Ibid., p. 156.
15 Total Running Time: 33:19 (Copyright © William Lane Craig 2013)