Examining a Diversity of Scholarly Perspectives on Reading Genesis 1 and 2

Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation (September 2013) is a new point/counterpoint anthology that presents five major views on how to correctly read the biblical account of creation.  Although other texts addressing this topic have been published over the last decade, I particularly like this one and consider it a valuable contribution to the dialogue. It is succinct and well-organized, making it suitable for a broad audience. In my next several posts, I will briefly outline and comment upon several of the views included in the book.

View #1: A Literary Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1-2

Dr. Richard E. Averbeck, Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School 

Dr. Averbeck argues that it is essential, when reading any portion of Scripture, to properly understand the genre of the passage, the cultural context in which it was written, and the author’s intent when composing the text. This is not a controversial idea by any means; the other authors would wholeheartedly agree. What distinguishes Averbeck’s view is his perception of the literary nature of text and what he believes the author did and did not intend to communicate in the creation account.

Prior to detailing his view, Averbeck is careful to point out that his interpretation “is not a matter of somehow finding more time in Gen 1 to accommodate the vast ages of evolutionary science. The concern is an honest reading of Gen 1 from a literary, exegetical, historical and theological point of view.”  In other words, he is not attempting to harmonize scientific theory about evolution or the age of the earth with Scripture; in fact, he isn’t taking science into consideration at all. Rather, he is examining the text as part of a larger whole (the Bible), while also considering the ancient-near-eastern (ANE) context in which Genesis was written; he carefully analyzes the Genesis creation story in parallel with other creation passages in the Bible and with other ANE creation stories.

According to Averbeck:

The author (whether we have the divine or the human author in mind) shaped the story of creation around what was observable and understandable to the ancient Israelites…The primary purpose of the story was to help them think of their God as the framer of their lives by the way he fabricated and set up their world. It is as much about how the world works and how we fit into it as it is about the material creation of it…God did create the cosmos. [Genesis 1] surely teaches that. But the scheme of the creation account was set up to correspond to what was observable to them and required of them.

Using his expertise in ANE culture and literature, Averbeck explains why it was necessary for Genesis to be written in this particular fashion. First of all, the ancient Israelites lived in a culture permeated by polytheism and its creation accounts–stories which commonly begin with a pre-existing dark, watery abyss and describe the three levels of the cosmos. Consistent with this ANE pattern, the first three days of the Genesis creation account frame out the tri-partate ecological system of light, sky/water cycle, and earth. But rather than viewing these similarities as evidence that the author of Genesis was borrowing from other ANE cosmologies, Averbeck argues that we should realize that the author was simply telling the biblical creation story in a manner that would have resonated with the ancient Israelites while still drawing a very strong distinction between the polytheistic myths and the account of the one true God’s creative activity. In other words, the similarities between Genesis 1 and the ANE myths are striking and arguably a purposeful literary tool.

So, is Averbeck saying that Genesis 1 is not historical, that it is telling a story whose purpose is only theological? Not at all. He sees Genesis 1 as a true account of observational reality of the cosmos: what was created and the arrangement/hierarchy of all that was created. The six/seven structure of Genesis 1 was very common in the literary world of the time, therefore arranging Genesis 1 in this way was a logical way for God to communicate and reinforce the pattern of six work days and the Sabbath, a pattern that would rule day-to-day life in ancient Israel.

Averbeck methodically demonstrates the parallelism between the Genesis 1 and Psalm 104 creation literature in order to support his thesis that the creation account must be studied inter-textually. I won’t rehash his evaluation here, but one point I found particularly interesting was that Psalm 104:20-21 lines up in parallel to the fourth creation day of Genesis 1. These verses from the Psalms read:

You appoint darkness and it becomes night,
In which all the beasts of the forest prowl about.
The young lions roar after their prey
And seek their food from God.

Averbeck comments: “It is worthy of note that…the animals prowling for prey at night are part of the original created order. This hunting is part of God’s gracious provision for his creatures as he is lauded in the psalm.” This would be a major point of contention for young-earth-creationists, who see carnivorous behavior as a result of man’s original sin.

Some very helpful commentary is made about the seventh day, the day of the Lord’s rest from creative activity. Averbeck gives examples of the six/seven pattern seen in other places in Scripture, and discusses the repeated use of the number 7, such as the number of prayerful petitions Solomon made to the Lord upon the dedication of the Temple, the seven years of temple construction, and the seventh-day Sabbath. Genesis 1 is the only seven-day creation account from the ANE or from the Bible, however. Averbeck asks why it would be shaped this way. In answer, he says:

I am suggesting [the Genesis 1 account] is analogical or, if you wish, anthropomorphic…First, God working for six days and resting/stopping on the seventh is an analogical pattern to exemplify and reinforce obedience to the Sabbath in ancient Israel…A second analogy is at work here too. In the ancient Near East temples were places of divine residence and rest. The same was true in Israel. The tabernacle and later the temple were places where God took up residence in the midst of his people…Several passages in the [Old Testament] pick up on this pattern and apply it analogically to God’s creation of the cosmos and his sovereignty over all…Day 7, therefore, draws from the ANE and Israelite pattern of completion of a temple and the rest of the deity in the completed temple.

Next, the essay addresses the creation of human beings, showing how distinctive that act of creation was, and highlighting the necessity of a historical man named Adam. (Yes!) Averbeck points to what he calls “historical markers” in the text of Genesis 2 to argue for Adam and Eve’s literal personhood and their place at the beginning of human history. He affirms: “Yes, there was an original Adam and Eve, who were the progenitors of the human race. I am not sure what else is true about who Adam and Eve were, but at least we should maintain this belief that they were real historical individuals.” Presumably, Averbeck is leaving the question of Adam and Eve’s biological ancestry open, while still affirming that all of humanity subsequently came from this original primal couple. This bears similarity to C. John Collins’ approach in the excellent book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Averbeck gives a footnote mention of said book).

In sum, Averbeck’s view is that Genesis 1 “is schematized, not meant to be read in a literalistic way even by the ancient Israelites, and they would have known that.” The days are, he argues, “literary days.”

My Evaluation of the Literary Days View

With his expertise in ANE culture and literature as well as Old Testament, Averbeck is able to offer much clarity. Indeed, I find his argument for the Literary Day view of Genesis 1 highly compelling. The approach still affirms that Genesis is TRUE and 100% authoritative, but it takes away the western lens and helps us to understand the passage within its appropriate cultural context. Because the ancient Israelites were surrounded by polytheism and all the associated creation mythology, it’s quite logical (ingenious, in fact) that the author of Genesis 1 would approach the creation account in a way familiar to the Israelites on a literary and conceptual level, yet drastically different in its message: There is only one God, he is good, and he created everything, including human beings–his image-bearers.

In a following post, I will outline and comment upon the next view presented in the book: the Literal Approach.

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