Genesis 1 has been studied, debated, and expounded as much as any text in world history. Scholars and amateurs alike have poured over this text for twenty-five hundred years, and it continues to demand our attention because of its arresting content and architectonic style. (p. 29)
So begins Bill Arnold’s discussion of Genesis 1 (actually 1:1-2:3) in his commentary Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). There are two different issues we must consider with Genesis 1 – Form and Intent, and neither of these suggest a literal six-day creation.
What do you think is the “correct” interpretation of Genesis 1? Is “myth” an appropriate description of Genesis 1?
Genesis 1 is a powerful, well crafted, beautiful text. It has often been considered poetic – certainly I have always thought of it as a poem of sorts. Arnold is somewhat more cautious – considering it elegant prose, perhaps based on a poem originally. He believes that Genesis 1 was written by a member of Israel’s priestly caste during the pre-exilic period, composed intentionally as a prologue to what follows – likely by the Holiness editor who assembled the text as a whole.
The text has several purposes:
- It serves to repudiate ANE cosmogonies – myths of origin. It establishes God above all else. But Arnold feels that the common view that it is a polemic against other views is an overstatement. The purpose of Genesis 1 proactive more than reactive.
- It places humanity as unique and exalted in the image of God.
- It establishes the Sabbath and the reason for the Sabbath.
The form of the text is shaped by its intent.
On the first day God creates light, separates day and night and names them. Light is foundational, but not until day four are sun, moon, and stars created.
Days two and three and four are shaped by ANE cosmology – the worldview or science of the author. The ANE view of the world has a flat disk shaped earth with mountains at its ends supporting a multilayered sky – a dome with chambers through which water above comes down as rain. There is also water under and around the earth. The sun, moon, and stars cross the dome. So on day two the dome is created separating waters above from waters below; on day three the earth within the dome is formed and planted with vegetation of every kind; on day four the sun, moon and stars are put in place. God created the world – as our author saw it, not as we see it.
The objectification of sun, moon, and stars, is important and goes beyond the cosmology:
In religious thought of the ancient world, the sun and moon were leading deities, often the most important gods of the pantheons of the ancient near east. The use of “greater light” and “lesser light” avoids the Hebrew words for sun and moon (šemeš and yārēah respectively) which could have been taken for the ordinary names for the deities, Shemesh and Yarikh. These great objects, worshiped in the ancient world have instead become physical objects of God’s creative work. p.41
Days five and six bring living creatures, birds and fish on day five to be fruitful and multiply, land animals and man on day six also to be fruitful and multiply. The creation of man, male and female, is the peak of the process. Humans are created in the image of God to have dominion, to fill the earth (not just a “garden”), to work and create or build (subdue). Arnold suggests that the term “the image of God” also has roots in the culture of the day.
On the basis of numerous parallels from both Egypt and Mesopotamia, it has become clear that the phrase is related to royal language, in which a king or pharaoh is the “image of (a) god.” Thus humans are created to function in the divine image through the exercise of “dominion” and “rule,” … The image of God is about the exercise of rulership in the world. p. 45
What does this mean?
In the language and science of the day we have a text that teaches God as ultimate creator, first and foremost, above all else. We do not have a text that teaches that the ANE cosmology was correct. We do not have a text that describes how God created, but that he created and that it was good. That creation was finite in time, a process, not instantaneous as Augustine thought, nor gradual as we see reflected in the scientific data, is also a function of the culture of our author, consistent with the general view of the day.
With creation completed and very good, God institutes a day of rest, he institutes “blessing” and “holiness” for the created order. p. 49. He institutes the Sabbath. The Sabbath and the seven day cycle were very important in Israel – and one of the practices that set them apart. Seven day cycles are so ingrained in our culture that it is hard to imagine any thing else. Yet cycles tied to sun, moon and recurring movement of planets were common in the ANE. The seven day week was not.
The seven-day week ending in a sanctified Sabbath is unique to Israel among the ancient Near Eastern philosophies. By definition this institution of the Sabbath presents an alternative view of reality. p.49
Well, Arnold has me thinking here. In retrospect it is not surprising that God spoke through the author of Genesis 1 in the science and culture of the day – in his days, in his ways – perhaps we should be surprised we would ever have thought otherwise. To class Genesis 1:1-2:3 as “myth” misses the point, by a mile – this is an inspired description of God as the ultimate creator as he establishes and guides his chosen people. To class Genesis 1:1-2:3 as a treatise on history and science – and expect more than vague concordance with either – is also off base.
So here’s our question for the day:
Do inspiration and inerrancy require the text to transcend time and place in all particulars? Is the proposal that God spoke in the language and forms, the science and understanding, of the day tantamount to calling God a liar, as many seem to suggest?
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