Bible and History, Biblical Scholarship, Close Reading, Genesis, Genesis 1, Old Testament, Pentateuch, Studying the Bible

Genesis 1 as a Theological Litmus Test

In a recent interview I was asked where I stood on the issue of the interpretation of the days in Genesis 1. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that this question came up. I suppose I had assumed that, this being an accredited institute of higher biblical and theological learning, either the standard opinion among those in power would be that Genesis 1 was not to be read as literal history, or else that there was room for differing opinions on the matter. Clearly I misread the situation, because when I expressed my belief that Genesis 1 should not be read as literal history, the ancient knight in the corner of room commented sardonically, “He chose … poorly.” The interview didn’t end immediately, but the interview was over.

Not that I would have answered any differently had I known ahead of time that the question was coming. The literal interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3 runs into serious problems on more than one level. On a strictly biblical-theological level, the Old Testament’s view of the beginning of the world is not really unified unless you make not inconsiderable efforts to reconcile apparently conflicting details, not just those between the two creation stories in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4 ff, but also between Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the various hints of creation imagery found in Wisdom literature, the Psalms, and the Prophets. But if people feel compelled to reconcile these conflicting details, they may be making the task of the reading the Bible harder on themselves, but at least they are offering up interpretative alternatives to what appears to be the easiest way to read Genesis 1:1-2:3. Competition in the interpretation market is always a good thing.

But conflicts within the Bible itself are the least of the problems facing one trying to read the Genesis 1 creation story as literal history. Clearly, there are problems with reconciling what we know from the scientific study of the earth and the cosmos with a literal six-day creation and an extremely young earth. These problems are well-known. Scientific evidence from many different fields of study using many different unrelated methods have all come to the conclusion that the earth is much older than young-earth creationism allows for. Evidence of human civilization (let alone human remains and activity) can be reliably dated back well before 4,000 BCE.

There are some sub-varieties of young-earth creationism that allow for the earth to be 10,000 years old or more, but this necessarily involves sacrificing the literal historicity of the chronology of Genesis 1-11, at least. The way the chronology is given, there is no room for suggesting that there are gaps between the individuals mentioned in the genealogical lists of Genesis 5 and 11 (a suggestion I have heard more than once). Yes, the Hebrew word for “father” might mean grandfather or great-grandfather or some more distant ancestor, but there is no getting around the fact that Genesis 5:25-27 says that Methuselah was 187 years old when he fathered his son Lamech, that he lived 782 years after that, and died at age of 969. To insert generations between Methuselah and Lamech is to give up the literal historicity of these verses, even if one nevertheless maintains that a historical Methuselah did, in fact, live 969 years. You don’t get to insist that the only way to interpret Genesis 1 faithfully is literalistically while at the same time allowing yourself the luxury of cherry-picking literalism elsewhere. That’s exceedingly dishonest.

But this cherry-picking is actually even more of a problem for Genesis 1 literalism. I find it remarkable that most (not all) six-day young-earth creationists insist on a literalistic interpretation of the days of Genesis 1 but not a literalistic interpretation of the whole cosmogony of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 clearly depicts a cosmos where the dry land of the earth exists in a bubble between two primordial oceans of chaos, the waters above and the waters below. A firmament holds up the waters above and creates this bubble. In that firmament (not above it) are placed the sun, moon, and stars. This is a view of the universe that is not at all uncommon in the ancient Near East but which bears little resemblance to what all but the most conservative of Christian fundamentalists think about the shape of the universe. Nor has the Genesis 1 cosmogony been the typical view among Greco-Roman and European people for the last 2,000 years. Whether they’ve subscribed to a Ptolemaic earth-centrism or a Copernican helio-centrism, neither model is easily reconciled with a firmament-holding-up-the-waters-above model.

Noah’s flood doesn’t help with this, either, as if the reason there are no waters above anymore is because they are what flooded the earth when the firmament opened up. No, because this once again misunderstands what the firmament is. Young earth creationists along with some Bible translations treat the Hebrew word raqiaʿ like it’s synonymous with the English word “sky,” or more or less synonymous with Hebrew šemayim. But this is a dramatic misreading of the word and the concept. To try and reconcile the “firmament” of Genesis 1 with anything we know to exist over our heads is folly. It isn’t the sky (not as we mean the word “sky” at least, which is essentially whatever we see when we look up), nor is it the atmosphere (thought that would probably be the closest thing), since the sun, moon, and stars do not exist within the earth’s atmosphere, but far above it. Nor is “firmament” equivalent to outer space. Outer space does not hold up some ocean even more vast and chaotic than itself. In short, there is no way to reconcile the firmament of Genesis 1 with modern scientific knowledge that isn’t simply intellectually dishonest. The closest thing to Genesis 1 is, in fact, the Egyptian cosmology involving the goddess Nut and the god Geb.

A thoroughgoing commitment to a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 necessarily involves a commitment to a belief in the existence of a firmament, which is like a gigantic transparent umbrella, and to the belief that the sun, moon, and stars are located in that firmament, not above it. None but the most extreme of Christian fundamentalists holds to anything like this view of the universe. Yet many, including Christian Evangelicals who are not particularly extreme, insist that the days of Genesis 1 must be interpreted as literal history if we are to be faithful to a fully biblical faith and not fall victim to a much-feared slippery slope that supposedly leads to a symbolic interpretation of everything in the Bible and an anti-supernaturalist worldview known as “the Enlightenment.” This is just one of many examples showing that extreme literalism as a hermeneutical commitment simply falls apart under its own weight, regardless of how nice such a commitment might sound to those of us who have a high view of the Bible as in some way deriving from God and reliably communicating God’s character and will for the universe. On the other hand, a commitment to studying the Bible in its entirety, not just those parts we want to privilege because they support our already existing views on matters, necessarily involves giving a little on the issue of historicity.

I find it unspeakably frustrating that this issue acts as a kind of theological litmus test in academic jobs, but it is becoming increasingly clear to me that I cannot pursue the knowledge of God through the study of the Bible with all of my being and have a place among those parts of the American church dominated by the fundamentalist element. Regardless of my affirmation of supernaturalism, of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, of God’s thorough if elusive role in the formation of the Bible, regardless of all of that, I am precisely the person they feel they need to protect their students against, which would be laughable if it weren’t so depressing. I was raised among some of the most conservative Christians in the world, and our metanarrative of ourselves involved a belief that we were a persecuted people. The challenge to my faith, I was led to believe, would come from angry atheist college professors who threatened to flunk me if I didn’t deny Christ (the main storyline of the recent movie God’s Not Dead is a good example of that narrative). There may be some angry atheist college professors who do just that, but my own experience in academia, which is far more extensive than the vast majority of those conservative Christians among whom I was raised, has shown that persecution against those who seek to live their lives before God honestly comes at least as much from Christians as it does from non-Christians. Many atheist college professors are perfectly happy to let you believe as you wish so long as you aren’t obnoxious about it in class.

Part of the point of a job interview is, I suppose, to determine whether or not the potential employee/employer relationship would work, but why should the issue of the literalism of the days in Genesis 1 be the primary determiner of the answer to that question? One way or another, I cannot compromise my conscience and tell these people that I believe in the literal historicity of Genesis 1 just to get a job. At least I am learning where not to look for employment in the future.

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Genesis 1 as a Theological Litmus Test
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Genesis 1 as a Theological Litmus Test
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The literal interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3 runs into serious problems on more than one level, not the least of which is how to understand the "firmament."
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Bite-Sized Exegesis
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