Collected Stories?

I’ve been busy the last week or so and didn’t get as involved in comments as I often do. But Scot put up a couple of interesting posts last Thursday, one on Evangelicalism’s Radical Diversity 4 with a discussion on inerrancy and the other on Evolution: A Remarkable History (not by me) discussing the history and development of evolutionary theories. These posts were somewhat related because of course the interpretation of Genesis and other parts of scripture are impacted by our view of cosmology, geology, and biology. This impacts some views of inerrancy.

I would like to focus here on one specific part of the comments on the first post. This was, for the most part, an excellent conversation with views put forth clearly and commenters treating other viewpoints fairly. One of the commenters, however, put this in the middle of a comment:

If you’re going to see Gen. 1-11 and so on as just collected stories (as RJS) then you might as well employ the same hermeneutics as the Jesus Seminar… and while you’re not going that far in your conclusions as the Jesus Seminar might, you’re using the same reasoning that they are to interpret the historical validity of a text… that seems pretty dangerous. (comment 106)

The first part of this paragraph surprised me a bit, shows something of a misunderstanding, -and brings up a question I would like to ask here.

What is Genesis 1-11? What is the purpose and genre? Is it collected stories, historical account, or something else?

This comment surprised me because I do not see Genesis 1-11 as “collected stories.” Rather I see the text as an edited whole communicating a coherent and important truth. We do well to pour pore over these chapters, understand them, study them – even memorize them. We need to bring questions to the text and let it teach us. What does this text tell us about God and his interaction with his people?

The Jesus Seminar searched the synoptic gospels to identify “authentic sayings of Jesus, dismissing or discarding the rest as later interpretation of the church. The historical Jesus enterprise searched for the “real” Jesus behind the text. This hermeneutic is foreign to the way I approach any of scripture – from Genesis to Revelation.

I would suggest that having accepted the text as the word of God we have to let the text tell us what this entails. Our attempts at harmonizing and putting together the puzzle to match a preconceived idea of what is proper for the word of God is a misreading and misinterpretation of the text. When we look at Genesis 1-11 there is no sifting and searching for bits and pieces of truth amidst “error,” interpretation, or myth – we take the whole as given.  But reading the text literally with literary intelligence sees forms of truth-telling that are different in genre, form, and purpose. We misunderstand scripture when we look for correspondence between modern science and the cosmology of the Ancient Near East. We misunderstand the nature of scripture when we equate ANE cosmology with error. We also misread Genesis if we don’t recognize that the form of historical truth-telling in Genesis 1-11 is different from the historical truth-telling in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The historical truth-telling in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles is, in turn, different from the form of historical truth-telling we expect in historical monograph today.

So consider Genesis 1-2.

Genesis 1 has God creating vegetation on the third day (before the sun!); water creatures and birds on the fifth day; beasts of the earth on the sixth day – culminating with the creation of man, male and female, “and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Genesis 2 has no shrub or plant “for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground.“… then God creates man, then he plants the Garden, then he creates animals as “companions” then he creates woman as the perfect companion. The culmination is in the institution of marriage as a sacred gift from God … “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.

We can try to rationalize and harmonize these texts to match our sensibilities for history, or  we can take what is given to us and look for God’s truth in the literary form set before us. I think that we distort the text when we try to harmonize – and we may, in fact, harmonize away the truth. The so-called discrepancies aren’t problems to be solved, but clues as to the form and purpose of the text.  The fact that the order of creation is different in these accounts tells us that the purpose and form of the text is not historically accurate chronologies, and this is just fine. Realizing this we can relax and look at the text as it is, not worrying about concordance with science or history, and not worrying about internal consistency at this level.

If we start on the road of harmony we will be patching over and over and over again as we read through scripture, in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Kings and Chronicles, Mark and John. Why would we view scripture as the word of God on one hand – and seriously distorted in transmission on the other?

The Bible is a coherent whole – but we have to let scripture itself tell us what this means as we read and study. We need to take the text we have and let it teach us as we immerse ourselves in the story, in the word, with the guidance of the Spirit.

What do you think?

At what level should we look for truth and harmony within scripture and between science and scripture?

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