One of the problems that crops up with Genesis is its proper context, its genre, what background it should be read against (modern science or ancient Near East?) That is, modern western English readers have a particular (modern) worldview with various questions and issues. When they read Genesis, they naturally place it into that setting, and read it against that (modern) background, which creates conflict. It’s as if we’ve summoned an expert witness to trial, only to surprise her with questions far outside her area of expertise. Although she gives strong indications to that effect, the judge forcefully says, “Just answer the questions please!” The lawyers seize upon any statement, and force it into relevance. Only recently have defense attorneys appeared in the courtroom to object to this treatment, with several lengthy briefs detailed below.
The history of interpretation of Genesis’ early chapters is fascinating, particularly the science/religion debate. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Expanded Edition is a great history of the interpreters and the conflict generated by their interpretations. Alas, Mormons get several mentions. 1 Another good volume on the science side is Saving Darwin, which I found enlightening.
The commonly-held and mistaken view of the history of interpretation goes something like this.
Since the dawn of time, the “literal” reading of Genesis has been the correct and only reading. But then Darwin and Science came along, and now the only reason people reject the traditional “literal” reading is because of scientific conflict. Scholars who propose other readings are really just faithless scoffers. Sometimes this takes on conspiratorial tone, “People are abandoning the Truths of Genesis to become Godless Evolutionists, even though evolution is a lie and scientific conspiracy with no real proof.” If you really believe the scriptures (it continues), you believe a “literal” reading of them, and any deviation from that original, literal reading is due to godless scientific influence or simple lack of faith.
Each of these statements is highly problematic. My own view, very briefly, follows.
Genesis had an original non-scientific context which was largely lost with the surrounding cultures. By the New Testament period, a variety of interpretations of Genesis existed, though of course none were influenced by science that wouldn’t be invented/discovered for 1000+ years. (See this book, this post, and this post, for example. Judaism had and has various perspectives, from YEC fundamentalists to Nachmanides, who said that nothing in creation is literal.) Science (geology, Darwin, etc.) does eventually plays a role in reevaluating our reading of Genesis, but a relatively minor one. Mostly it creates conflict, and offers not a rereading as much as a completely different story. That is, while Science can lead to flat rejection of Genesis, can tell us what Genesis isn’t, it doesn’t really offer a new understanding of it. Science can’t tell us what Genesis is.
Rather, the driving force in reinterpretation has been the rediscovery of documents from Israel’s neighbors, beginning in the mid-to-late 1800s. Though most are not religious in nature, we literally have hundreds of thousands of documents from these civilizations. 2
The decipherment of those documents (Egyptian beginning with Champollion, Assyrian and Babylonian in the late 1800s, Ugaritic in the 1930s, others) has allowed the recovery of the background of Genesis. Because of clear and overwhelming similarities between the creation and flood accounts in particular, these documents have driven a reinterpretation of our understanding of Genesis by believing and committed Christians and Jews who are also committed scholars. Placing Genesis in its proper context doesn’t solve all the problems but goes a long way in doing so. Alas, the trickle-down to the laypeople and idiot politicians who make policy has not quite happened yet, but it’s beginning. And once the trickle-down hits the mainstream public, it’ll take another 20 years to make it’s way into the Church. I’m trying to speed that up a bit.
A good general volume introducing cultural and contextual issues is Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. It doesn’t address Genesis directly, but covers a variety of provocative topics, such as wealth, race, language, shame/honor, individuality/collectivism, and others.
The following is essentially some of the Suggested Readings I’ll list in my own Genesis book.
First and simplest is In the Beginning… We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context. It’s significant that the authors are both conservative Evangelicals who received their PhDs (and ThM) from a prominent seminary; these are not disbelieving Bible-haters. They assume Moses is the author of Genesis, a mark of their conservatism. One recounts how he preached YEC for years before being exposed to what is clearly a more natural contextual fit for Genesis than as a science textbook. That said, science plays very little role herein. It was not science that convinced them of their misreading, but exposure to ancient Near Eastern context. The authors compare and contrast Genesis 1 with Egyptian and Mesopotamian creation accounts to draw out what it was trying to teach. They also deal with the idea of adaption, and objections to their interpretation.
Second, more broad, is Peter Enns’ Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible. I’ve been a big fan of Enns. He also is Evangelical, but received his PhD in Hebrew Bible from Harvard, not a Seminary. His previous books address Genesis obliquely (why do Biblical texts like the flood look so much like non-Biblical texts? Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament), and fairly directly (The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.) The last two books recently went up on pre-pub at Logos. Genesis for Normal People is a slim volume covering the entire book, and is intended as a read-as-a-group, with study questions kind of thing.
Third, John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Walton provides the most in-depth Evangelical reading in detail that I have seen. Some of his interpretation is quite innovative and helpful. Walton has been mentioned multiple times here, summarized by me (here and here), discussed at LDS Science Review here, here, and here, and by T&S/DMI Dave at Digital Faith. Eisenbrauns published an academic version of his book, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. Highly recommended.
Lastly comes Mark S. Smith’s book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis I. Smith is Catholic, and teaches at NYU, where I had opportunity to sit in on some of his classes. A real gentleman and a scholar, Smith has written the most detailed, technical, and perhaps least accessible volume for the public. Nevertheless, it is for the public, particularly the footnote-loving public. The title represents the general critical consensus that priestly perspectives are on display in Genesis 1 (which I talk about very briefly here) and what that means. Smith provides background and goes verse by verse, but it’s not exactly a commentary.
Also worth mention is Greg Moberly’s The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible, which includes a very nice chapter on the chaos monsters lurking in the watery background of Genesis 1 (See #2 and #3 in my post here.) I haven’t read beyond that, but it’s a good chapter. Greg Moberly should not be confused with Walter Moberly, author of The Theology of the Book of Genesis and a very nice chapter, “How Should One Read the Early Chapters of Genesis?” in Reading Genesis after Darwin, another very useful and relevant volume.
To summarize, if you want to learn by study and faith out of the best books, check these out.
- “In 1935 only 36 percent of the students at the Mormons’ Brigham Young University denied that humans had been ‘created in a process of evolution from lower life forms.’ By 1973 the figure had risen sharply to 81 percent. No doubt many factors pushed young Mormons towards fundamentalism and antievolutionism. But the most significant scientificially was the far-reaching influence of George McReady Price.” P. 339. Price was a Seventh-Day Adventist who was largely responsible for Creationism, and many of Joseph Fielding Smith’s arguments were taken directly from Price. They exchanged letters, in fact. ↩
- Apparently, many people don’t know this. I was once explaining to a far distant relative what I did in grad school. She had no idea we had ancient Near Eastern texts other than the Bible, and her first wide-eyed question was, “well do they support the Church?” The ignorance and assumptions there are really another post for another time but an Old Assyrian receipt for two donkey-loads of tin or a letter from the governor of Megiddo to Pharoah complaining that the other vassals aren’t working as hard as he hardly have any bearing on LDS doctrine. ↩