Before Nature, Before Books

Jesus did not speak the ‘red letters’ in your Bible. He did not speak English … or even Greek. What we have is translation, interpretation, and paraphrase.The Gospels convey the true story of Jesus, but it does so through the medium of written communication that made sense to the original audience and continues to carry the message to us today. The evangelists pulled together incidents from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, putting them in written form, in books, but they pulled them from an oral culture where variants (e.g., the fig tree was found withered instantly (Mt 21:19) or on the next day (Mk 11:14,20); the number of women at the tomb, 1 (Jn), 2 (Mt) , 3 (Mk), more (Lk)); and the like) were not considered troublesome.

The same is true of the Old Testament, but the distance from our culture and context even greater than it is in the New Testament. The Old Testament describes an era of human history that is both before nature and before books.

How can we dig deeper?

The essence of the message contained in the Old Testament can be understood by the average reader of a good translation. However, much of the nuance and detail is lost when this is as far as we go. The Old Testament is not a text of Western modernity, or even of medieval Europe or ancient Greece. It is an ancient Near Eastern text originally composed or assembled in a specific time and place. It carries with it the nuances of that time and place. John Walton, in his book coauthored with D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture, emphasizes that the ancient Near East was a hearing dominant culture, not a text dominant culture. Texts served a different purpose in that world than they do in ours. One consequence of this is that authority rested with individuals and offices rather than with books. The Old Testament is not a series of books by authors, but for the most part a collection of documents assembled to convey a particular message. The history of Israel is integral to this message but the focus is on God.

How did Israel come to be the people of God, the chosen people?

Why or how did Israel rebel and wind up in exile?

What does God ask of his people?

What is Israel’s hope for the future? What shape will this take?

The answers to these questions, and the way they developed in the intertestamental period (second Temple Judaism) provides a foundation for the Christian message. As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, … born under the law … so that we might receive adoption as children.” (4:4-5) Everything that happened was “according to the scriptures.” (e.g. 1 Cor. 15) At the right time, in the right context, fulfilling God’s purposes in the Old Testament. The scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:15)

The Hebrew scriptures can be trusted to lead us to salvation. They are God-breathed for this purpose. This is an important constraint, but it doesn’t answer most of our questions on inspiration and interpretation. Because of the way the Old Testament took shape and the culture in which it took shape we are probably going off track if we focus on inspired authorship of specific books. Deuteronomy, for example, contains the words of Moses speaking as God’s prophet edited into a narrative, but the book was not written by Moses in its final form.

What about Genesis? As I understand it, the documentary hypothesis with four easily identified and separable sources has fallen out of favor, but the the book of Genesis as composed from different sources or documents is well supported by the evidence. Narratives, most likely orally current in the population, have been woven together to tell the story of the descent of humankind from its original calling and the election of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as the family through whom God would (eventually) put things right. It ends with the people thriving in Egypt. As Christians we believe that the assembly of this text into the form we have it was accomplished under the influence of the Holy Spirit working in the congregation of God’s people. Any role that Moses had in the assembly of Genesis (Walton seems to think he had a role, I’m skeptical) was that of a ‘tradent‘ i.e. “a person who hands down or transmits (especially oral) tradition.” The text never mentions Moses and he is not the authority behind the text or the stories. It is also clear that at least some editorial changes were made far later than the time of Moses.

The story of Genesis begins by making it clear that the YHWH, the one and only creator God, formed the earth for his good purpose. However, the narrative telling this story was composed, told, and written in a culture that did not separate the natural and the supernatural in the fashion that we do today. Francesca Rochberg in Before Nature makes this point with respect to ancient Near Eastern cuneiform culture in general. The same can be said for ancient Egyptian culture. The identification of nature as separate from the action of intelligent agents (human or divine) was unknown in the ancient cultures. This means that Genesis is not a science book and the original audience did not think about science – although they most certainly did think about the world in a fashion that included empirical observations of the heavens and the earth. God could have dictated mysteries incomprehensible to the ancient Israelites, but there is no evidence that he did so. The narrative appears consistent with the general ancient Near Eastern understanding of the world, … except where it relates to the purpose of God in creation, the absence of other deities, and the vocational calling of humankind. As Walton puts it:

The Bible gives us a theological perspective about the material world (God has created it, he sustains it, it is contingent on him, he is sovereign over it, etc.) but it does not give us any naturalistic insight (which is precisely what science does do). Any information about the material world in the Bible is either a result of the most basic observation or represents a typical way of thinking in the ancient world. (p. 50)

Genesis uses the words, sentences, rhetorical structures, genres, and “common knowledge” of the audience to achieve an intent e.g. bless, promise, instruct, assert. Inerrancy and the authority of the text is found in the intent, not in the incidental features of the ancient Near Eastern context. “That is, even though the people in Israel believed there were waters above the earth held back by a solid sky, or that cognitive processes took place in the heart or kidneys, [the text] is not affirming those beliefs as revealed truth.” (p. 45) Walton likes the example of thinking with our heart, kidneys, or entrails and uses it often. This is the literal interpretation of the words in the Old Testament. We, rightly, do not reject the importance of the brain in cognition on the basis of Scripture. The same practice should be followed true for a range of observations in Genesis. Because the intended message of Genesis had nothing to do with science, i.e. the material workings of the so-called ‘natural’ world, it makes no scientific claims. The common understandings of the culture are used to convey and record important (sometimes new) ideas about God and his mission.

We will dig into more ideas presented in The Lost World of Scripture in the coming posts.

What is the intended communication of Genesis 1-3?

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