I put up a post Tuesday on Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III’s new book Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins. (A short review of the book by Christopher Benson can also be found in the web only edition of Books and Culture.) The last two chapters of this book discuss the genre of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 and the impact that has or should have on interpretation of these passages.
Concerning Genesis 1 and 2, Longman and Carlson find that these passages use different approaches to deliver different but related messages. They contain different facts, and different ordering of those facts. The fact that they are distinct is a significant observation, and helps to inform us of the genre and intent. Genesis 1 and 2 are not two different views of the same historical event to be harmonized, but presentations of a theological message in a non-literal genre. The ancient view of cosmology is incidental to the message. Even the mode of creation of the first man – from clay of the earth – is a common motif in Ancient Near East writings, and is incidental to the message.
The important and complex theological truths being presented to the ancient Hebrews are most effectively cast in terms of the familiar – in this case in terms of creation concepts that were well known throughout the ancient Semitic Near East. (p. 123)
Summarizing the discussion of the creation accounts in Genesis …
In short, we propose that Genesis 1 and 2 are nonliteral accounts, housed in an ancient cosmology and a story of humankind’s beginnings, whose purpose is to teach important theological truths.
If we are on the right track, the next step is to determine the theological concepts that the Genesis 1 and 2 author was proclaiming to his hearers and to us. (p. 126)
Given these observations on Genesis and the previous discussion of other OT creation accounts Longman and Carlson propose as their central thesis that Genesis 1 and 2 constitute a worldview statement of the ancient Hebrew people. As such these accounts of creation belong prominently at the beginning of scripture.
This proposal contrasts with Denis Lamoureux’s view that Genesis 1-3 was an ancient origins account of the Hebrew people and that it was intended as such (here), but it complements his view that the ancient science and history are incidental to the message of scripture. Both Lamoureux and Longman take an incarnational approach in thinking about scripture along the lines of that proposed by Pete Enns in Inspiration and Incarnation, but where they take this approach is a bit different. The proposal by Longman and Carlson also contrasts and complements John Walton’s view that Gen 1 describes creation of function rather than the material universe. In all three books there is agreement that the incidental context in the ancient Near East including cosmology and ‘science’ should be separated from the message, but some difference in the understanding of the message. I will elaborate on the proposal by Carlson and Longman, but the question of message and intent is an important one to consider.
What is the theological message of Genesis 1 and 2? How is this identified?
The genre of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 is story. According to Longman and Carlson the ancient understanding of cosmology and biology, the ancient origin and creation myths of the people, were used as the framework of a story intended to convey an important message in a familiar form. The message is not in the incidental details of the story, but in the way those pieces are put together. Any good story, Moby Dick, A Christmas Carol, Parker’s Back, Huckleberry Finn, uses the familiar to convey a meaning, and the truth is in the meaning independent of the historicity or scientific truth of the incidental details.
The genre of the surface level of each Genesis creation account is story, related to observations and experiences of the ancient Hebrews. But there is a second level, a story beneath the story, that teaches the theology of the ancient Hebrews. … Part of the thesis of this book is that the purpose of the two Genesis creation passages is best understood as proclaiming theological truth, but this truth is not in blow-by-blow historical or scientific accounts of creation. … Instead, these are creation accounts that work together below the surface to articulate something much more important and, because of this importance, were placed at the beginning of our Bible. (p. 133)
The intent of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 is a worldview statement that sets the foundation for primary worldview questions, questions that provide a general outlook on life and proper focus on life for God’s people. The kinds of questions addressed are not scientific or historical, but metaphysical, philosophical, and theological.
How is it that things exist? Things exist because God planned and prepared the universe, the world, and the living creatures of the world. God is responsible for the good creation in which we live.
Why do we exist? We exist as a specific decision of God and we exist for a purpose in creation.
Who are we? We are God’s creation given dominion over the earth to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, to rule over the living creatures. The man was formed to cultivate the ground, to live in relationship with his wife as a suitable partner, to live in relationship with God.
What does God think of creation? This world is God’s good creation and God has a high regard for and purpose for humankind as his creatures.
What are we to do? We are to develop, serve, care for, preserve the world we’ve been given and we are to do so in relationship to each other and in relationship with God.
Genesis 1 and 2 dispute other theologies and worldviews. In this video (one of many available on YouTube featuring Tremper Longman III) Longman describes something of his view of the creation accounts as responding to the ancient Near Eastern context and proclaiming a new worldview, a new outlook on life and purpose.
(0:50) But you see this is an imposition of a modern reading on the scriptural text. The biblical text is not disputing Darwin. It is actually disputing ancient near eastern ideas about creation, and it is picking up a lot of their descriptions and applying it to God. So, just a quick example, when Genesis 2 talks about Adam being created from the dust of the ground and the breath of God, that is clearly not a literal description of the way God did it because God doesn’t have lungs to breathe breath in. It is not the word for the Holy Spirit there. It is the word for breath. It is to be contrasted with Babylonian depiction of creation where the god Marduk takes the dust of the ground and mixes it with the blood of a demon god. So its not giving a literal description. It is saying something about who we are as human beings.
Longman elaborated a bit in his post on BioLogos:
Second, we must remember that a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation is to read a text in the light of its original context. The first audience simply was not interested in how the creation came into existence, but who brought it into existence and why. Again, Genesis 1-2 was not written against Darwin, but against rival ancient Near Eastern claims. The Enuma Elish of Babylon attributed creation to Marduk and the Canaanite version pointed to Baal. Both of these ancient creation myths saw creation as a result of divine conflict between creator gods and deities that represented the chaotic waters which they defeated and controlled. In contrast, the Bible identifies Yahweh as the creator and since there are no rival gods there is no conflict either. God created the “earth as a formless void,” a watery mass and created the habitable world from it. The watery mass was not there from the beginning.
In a word, Genesis 1 proclaims that God ordered creation. It is not concerned with how God did it. To use Genesis 1 to reconstruct the process of creation is a misuse of the text.
Genesis 1 and 2 are for us today. In answering the worldview questions Genesis 1 and 2 speak to us today as they spoke to the original audience. They do not speak against evolution, or modern cosmology. They are not contra Darwin. But they do speak against the view of scientific naturalism that there is nothing beyond the world we see. They speak against the absence of purpose and direction axiomatic to many who take science as the foundation of all knowledge. They speak against those today who will value humankind no more than the other plants and animals of creation. Genesis 2 speaks against those who degrade or devalue the partnership between husband and wife. In fact, the worldview answers given to the original audience are the answers we need today. These are foundational answers for the people of God throughout all time.
What do you think – does the understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 as worldview statement make sense?
What are the drawbacks of this view? What do we gain or lose?
How does it compare with the proposals by Walton or Lamoureux?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net