Thursday, March 11, 2010

How do you read the Genesis Creation Account?

There are a number of different ways of reading the Genesis creation account (e.g. historical, mythological, theological, polemical etc.). Briefly survey at least three of these. Which approach do you favour and why?

The Genesis creation account (GCA) is one of the most familiar passages of scripture for both Christians and the general populace. The character of God, the nature of the world, the meaning of human existence, and the fall of humanity are themes it expounds (Drane, 1987, p. 240). Regardless of the attention given it, its interpretation has been broad, contentious and held close to heart. ‘Here the stakes are high and tempers rise: even mild-mannered scholars have been known to damn opposing interpreters of these chapters angrily’ (Wenham, 2003, p. 9). This emotion stirs from the assumption that how you interpret these passages shapes your world view and how you interpret the remainder of scripture.

The central issue to GCA is that of genre (Wenham, 2003, p. 9). Genre as a grouping of similar literary works provides a framework of interpretive presuppositions on how a text should be read. Just as the meaning of a comic, an instruction manual or a play cannot be expounded if their different genres are confused so it is with biblical texts of such as narrative, poetry, or apocalyptic. ‘Genre functions as a valuable link between the text and the readers’ (Osborne, 2006, p. 182) . The GCA is often thought of as: myth, polemic, science/history, or theology (Waltke & Fredriucs, 2001, p. 74). Which category you assign the GCA shapes your interpretation (Mckeown, 2008, p. 307).

Approaching the text as mythology contains several problems, the first being the lack of scholarly consensus on a definition (Hamilton, 1995, p. 57). Definitions of mythology include stories of Gods, parts of rituals, truth not explained by science, analogy, and embellished truths (such as King Arthur) (Drane, 1987, p. 244; Sarna, 1966, p. 6; Wenham, 2003, p. 13). Commonly myth is held to be fantastic and fictitious – similar to children stories. It is with this definition that the New Testament warns Christians to avoid mythology (Hamilton, 1995, p. 56, 1 Timothy 4:7, 2 Timothy 4:4, 2 Peter 1:16).

Varying definitions may explain varying opinions of Genesis as mythology (Hamilton, 1995, p. 58). The GCA can be understood as the actions of deity in primeval history to establish the ‘contemporary world order’ (Hamilton, 1995, p. 58). This allows a non-scientific approach that can still teach of the present day. In contrast it would be fallacy to claim that the GCA is fanciful (in league with Goldilocks & the Three Bears) (Waltke & Fredriucs, 2001, p. 74) thus robbing it of its value.

A polemic approach to reading the text was developed after George Smith noticed the parallel between the biblical GCA and the Gilgamesh Epic (Wenham, 2003, pp. 9-10). The text was formed in the historical context of the Ancient Near East (Walton, 2009, p. 13). The polemic approach states that the similarities between the biblical account and those of other Ancient Near Eastern creation stories (including the Babylonian Creaton myth the Enuma Elish) is more than co-incidence and in fact the biblical account was written to override and argue against the other stories.

This approach gains momentum as when the accounts are most similar the GCA ‘deliberately undermines the assumptions of the Babylonian story’ (Drane, 1987, p. 248). A pertinent difference is God’s relationship with man. In the Enuma Elish man is an afterthought, almost incidental (Sarna, 1966, p. 15; Wenham, 2003, p. 16), whereas in the biblical account people are central to God’s purpose (Drane, 1987, p. 249). However, some are uncomfortable with this approach as it is a response to other material rather than a totally original revelation from God predating all else (Drane, 1987, p. 247).

Holding the text as scientific and historical appeals to the desire to hold scripture in high esteem by accepting its teachings a literal (Proverbs 1:7, John 6:60). This approach is popular amongst modern day creationists (Mckeown, 2008, pp. 295, 301). However, the value of the text (2 Timothy 3:16-17) does not require it to be a scientific account. Additionally, this view is destined to conflict with science (Drane, 1987, p. 242). Calvin was clear that Genesis was never intended to be a book of science (Drane, 1987, p. 242). Sarna states that, ‘it is naive and futile to exercise to attempt to reconcile the biblical accounts of creation with the findings of modern science’ (Sarna, 1966, p. 3).

Genesis was written by people with a pre-scientific worldview to describe an event at which initially no human was present (Sarna, 1966, pp. 2-3; Hamilton, 1995, p. 56). Although it integrates secular knowledge and theology (Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim, & Petersen, 2005, p. 30) it gives no indication that it seeks to be a scientific text. The text is more concerned with God and how God relates to man than the relationship of natural forces (Waltke & Fredriucs, 2001, p. 74; Sarna, 1966, p. 9). The moon appears as the ‘lesser light’ (Genesis 1:16) but does not in fact produce light (Mckeown, 2008, p. 295; Hamilton, 1995, p. 54). By genealogy Babel was 200 years prior to Abraham – not long enough for the spread and division of ethnic groups (Mckeown, 2008, p. 297). The risk of this literalistic approach is that attention is focused on details (time and place) with a loss of focus on the enduring theological message of the text (Sarna, 1966, p. 3).

After reflection of the GCA I believe it is first and foremost theological and kerygmatic – its message is about God (Drane, 1987, p. 242). It is fitting that the first chapters establish a biblical worldview and declare divine truths (Waltke & Fredriucs, 2001, p. 78). Genesis shows God as creator, God as ordered, God as loving, creation as good, God’s covenant with man and man’s rejection of God. The GCA is ‘an artistic, literary representation of creation intended to fortify God’s covenant with creation’ (Waltke & Fredriucs, 2001, p. 78).

The text’s polemic is used to teach theological truths. ‘Genesis retells familiar oriental stories about the origins of the world, [and] dramatically transforms them theologically’ (Wenham, 2003, p. 16). For example; theogomy (creation of god) and comsogomy (creation of the universe) are concepts which distinguish the GCA theologically. Unique to the GCA is that God predates creation (Genesis 1:1). If God were part of creation, there must be forces greater or outside God. This is the basis of pagan ritual appealing to these forces in order to control or influence god. The GCA proclaims ‘loudly and unambiguously, the absolute subordination of all creation to the supreme Creator.... it asserts unequivocally that the basic truth of all history is that the world is under the undivided and inescapable sovereignty of God’ (Sarna, 1966, p. 9).


Birch, B. C., Brueggemann, W., Fretheim, T. E., & Petersen, D. L. (2005). A Theological Introduction To the Old Testament (2nd Edition ed.). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Drane, J. (1987). Thinking about the World. In Introducing the Old Testament (pp. 240-49). Oxford: Lion.

Hamilton, V. (1995). Problems in Interpretation. In Genesis 1-11 (pp. 53-59). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Mckeown, J. (2008). Genesis and Theology Today. In Genesis (pp. 294-317). Grand Rapids: Eerdman's Publishing.

Osborne, G. R. (2006). The Hermeneutical Spiral: a comprehensive introduction to biblical interpretation (2nd ed.). Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Sarna, N. (1966). Creation. In Understanding Genesis (pp. 1-23). New York: Schocken Books.

Waltke, R., & Fredriucs, C. (2001). In Genesis: A Commentary (pp. 74-78). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Walton, J. (2009). Introduction. In The Lost World of Genesis One (pp. 9-15). Downers Grove: Intervasity Press.

Wenham, G. (2003). Genesis 1-11. In Exploring the Old Testament (Vol. Vol. 1: The Pentateuch, pp. 9-19). London: SPCK.

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