Evangelicals often read the creation account in Genesis 1 as straightforward history but I’ve been suggesting that we need to pay attention to the literary features of the text and its ancient Near Eastern background. The text is historical narrative, I affirm, but also literary and figurative. This raises three questions that we need to address.
Question 1: How Can the Text be Both Historical and Literary?
Very much engrained in our thinking is the idea that there is an impassable divide between historiography (history writing) and literature (novels, poetry, etc.). History is about what happened and literature is…well—not!
With history, there’s a very tightly controlled relationship between what is written and what actually happened. Authors of history spend lots of time in libraries checking their facts and poring over primary sources like personal diaries, medical records, or first hand battlefield accounts. Every detail they include in their text has to be as close as possible to reality. Who shot the first shot? What color was his hair? Not all details have to be included, but if a detail is included, it better be true. If it’s not, the author has made a mistake and we begin to wonder what else he or she didn’t get quite right.
It’s very different with literature. The fact that there is no such thing as a hobbit doesn’t do anything to lessen the value of J. R. R. Tolkien’s books. In fact, it makes them better. What a genius! He made up a whole history of Middle-earth!
In my posts on Genesis 1 I say that the creation account is history and that it is literature. Is it possible to cross the impassable divide? At first, it seems the obvious answer is no. Historical fiction, after all, even though it’s cast in a real historical setting, is still fiction.
So how then, can history and literature be mixed? Doesn’t the literary nature of the text make the whole thing fiction? Or suppose in some way it is both literature and history—how can you tell when the text behaves like history and talks about what actually happened and when the text behaves like literature and “steps away” from reality?
This is the challenge we’re facing in the next article in this series. I will try to show that from Sumeria to Egypt and from 2300 BC to 300 BC (and later) ancient historiography was cast in literary form. The same is true of the Bible from Genesis to Chronicles (and beyond). Fortunately, the poetics, or the literary conventions the author uses to put the text together, tell us when he communicates truth about reality, when he communicates figuratively, and how the two go together.
Question 2: Is This a Completely New Way to Read the Text?
Another problem that my reading of the creation account raises is that it seems to be in conflict with how the church has read the text for thousands of years. If we actually believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the church in truth (John 16:12–15) then where was the Holy Spirit for the first 2000 years of the church?
This is a serious issue and while it is not true that the church has, from its beginning, taught creation in six literal days, nor is it true that the kind of reading I suggest is novel, it is true that until fairly recently the church never doubted that the earth was created just 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.
Question 3: Would any Ordinary Person Read the Text Like This?
The reason question two is so serious is that it strikes at the heart of a foundational doctrine of Scripture, namely, the clarity of Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith gives us a good definition of the clarity of Scripture:
…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.From chapter one, paragraph seven of the the Westminster Confession of Faith (emphasis mine)
Question two seems to contradict the clarity of Scripture because if Scripture is clear then the church should not have misinterpreted it for 2000 years.
Question three is also about the clarity of Scripture. Doesn’t the reading I suggest require the believer to be learned (see the confession of faith above)? Doesn’t he or she have to know Hebrew, understand ancient Near Eastern culture and be adept at decrypting hidden literary structures? This seems all too complicated for the unlearned to attain a sufficient understanding of Scripture.
I’m going to come at this question from both ends. First I’m going to suggest that we expect too much from the doctrine. In fact, there’s a certain paradox involved so that by making Scripture clear to the original readers, it must be somewhat removed from readers who come from a different time and place. Still clear, but also somewhat removed.
Second, the reading I suggest for Genesis 1 is not so difficult as it seems. Even though Christians have not always read the text in exactly the same way, we have never gotten the basic meaning of the text wrong.
In the end, my reading of Genesis 1 is perfectly in line with the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture when the doctrine is rightly understood.
- The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum: Navigating the Scylla and the Charybdis
- Designed for Order: The ANE Wisdom Worldview
- The Fear of Yahweh is the Beginning of Wisdom: The Israelite Wisdom Worldview
- Consilience: The Unity of Science and Scripture in the Matrix of Wisdom
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, How I Wonder When You Are
- The Structural Symmetry of the Six Days of Creation
- Creation is a Temple: Reading Creation through the Proper Interpretive Lens
- Creation is a Temple: The Temple as a Meme in the Ancient Near East and Genesis 1
- Creation is a Temple: Moses’ Brilliant Literary and Theological Move in Genesis 1
- When a Day Might not be a Day
- Reading Genesis 1 as Literature and the Three Problems it Creates for Evangelicals
- How Can a Text like Genesis 1 be Both History and Literature?
- Did the Church Really Get This Text Wrong for Two Thousand Years?
- The Paradox of Perspicuity: How Would a Regular Person Ever Understand Genesis 1 This Way?