Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has assisted my understanding of genre and authorial intent in the so-called “first creation story” (Genesis 1:1-2:4a). I will distill his treatment from An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Work slowly through each point until it builds to the crescendo at the end.
- Genesis 1-11 “frame the more concrete ‘historical’ materials of the Old Testament in a cosmic perspective and, in sum, they constitute a brief theological ‘history of the world.’”
- The narrative materials in Genesis 1-11 were “appropriated by Israel from older, well-developed cultures. In some cases, we have available parallel texts that are older and which evidence the antecedents to the biblical texts. These texts, moreover, have been formed, used, and transmitted in the great cultic centers of major political powers. They functioned in those contexts, surely liturgically, as founding statements for society, authorizing, legitimating, and ordering certain modes of social relationships and certain forms of social power.”
- The narrative materials are “myths,” the usage of which “does not imply ‘falsehood’ as the term might be taken popularly. Rather…. the term refers to founding poetic narratives that provide the basic self-understanding of a society and its raison d’être, a foundational formulations of elemental reality that are to be regularly reiterated in liturgical form in order to reinforce claims of legitimacy for the ordering of society. The poetic narratives characteristically portray great founding events in which ‘the gods’ are the key actors and the actions undertaken are primordial in that they precede any concrete historical data. The Old Testament clearly emerged in a cultural world where founding myths were commonly shared from one society to another. It is evident that Israel readily participated in that common cultural heritage and made use of the same narrative materials as were used in other parts of that common culture. . . . Biblical literature did not exit in a cultural vacuum, but in lively conversation with its context.”
- “Primary accent in theological interpretation has been placed especially upon the creation texts of Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4b-25 with its related narrative in 3:24, the narrative of Cain and Abel (4:1-16), the great flood narrative (6:5-9:17), and the account of the Tower of Babel (11:1-9). Each of these narratives reflects older Near Eastern traditions, so that it is impossible to ask questions about ‘historicity.’ Rather, these materials may better be understood as complex, artistic attempts to articulate the most elemental presuppositions of life and faith in Israel, attempts that understood the world in a Yahwistic way. The end result of the interpretative process is a text that provided an imaginative context for the emergence of Israel in the midst of older cultural claims, visions, and affirmations.“
- “The key issue in reading these texts according to the central traditions of church interpretation is to see the canonizing process of editing and traditioning has taken old materials and transposed them by their arrangement into something of a theological coherence that is able to state theological affirmations and claims that were not intrinsic to the antecedent materials themselves.”
- “The two creation narratives, in very different modes, articulate that the (“heaven and earth”) belongs to God, is formed and willed by God, is blessed by God with abundance, is to be cared for by the human creatures who are deeply empowered by God, but who are seriously restrained by God. The creation narratives are an affirmation of the goodness of the world intended by God.“
- “While Genesis 1-2 draw a lot of interpretative attention because they stand first in the biblical text, in fact they need to be understood in terms of an older, already extant liturgical tradition on creation. The primary and proper context in which Israel articulated its creation faith is in doxology, the public, liturgical practice of lyrical, poetic utterance whereby Israel sings its awe and wonder about the glory and goodness of God’s creation. Our term “creation stories” is to be understood in the context of that exuberant liturgical tradition. “
- Genesis 1:1-2:4a: “This text is a solemn, stately, ordered symmetrical text that is more like a liturgical antiphon that it is a narrative. It has close affinities to the well-known Enuma Elish, an older Mesopotamian account of creation. As indicated, however, the creation text with which the Bible begins has been shaped and reshaped as a vehicle for Israel’s faith.”
- “The sustained affirmation of this liturgy of creation is that the world (all of heaven, all of earth) is willed and seen by God to be ‘good,’ that is, lovely, beautiful, pleasing (1:10, 12, 18, 21). This reiterated affirmation that we imagine to be a congregational response to a priestly litany, culminates in verse 31 with the intensified phrase ‘very good.’ This affirmation of the goodness of creation has been decisive for the Jewish and Christian traditions as a foundation for a life-affirming, world-affirming horizon with a determined appreciation of the good of the material world in all its dimensions . . . including sexuality and economics. This tradition will have nothing to do with world-denying, world-denigrating, or world-escaping religious impulses that characterize too much popular faith in U.S. culture.”
- “The creation narratives appeal to a common stock of cultural myths and liturgies, with particular reference to Babylonian materials. The use of these materials, however, is an act of powerful subversion whereby the narratives of dominant culture are utilized to voice a claim alternative to the claims of dominant cultural materials.“
- “It is a widely held assumption of scholarship that this text––along with the Pentateuch––reached its final form during the sixth-century exile. In that context, the claim that the world belongs to the God of Israel is a mighty and daring alternative to the dominant, easily visible claim that the world is governed by Babylonian gods. Thus the liturgy of YHWH’s goodness connects the character of the world to a particularly Jewish vision of God, articulated through the various interpreted points noted above. The text makes these large theological claims to be sure, but it functions in and through these cosmic claims to sustain the specific community that relies on this imaginative tradition. That is, its purpose is concretely existential. Given that canonical reality about the final form of the text, it is self-evident that the text is not about ‘the origin of the world’ as that phrase is usually employed, and thus it has no particular connection to the ‘creation versus evolution’ debate or, more broadly, to the issue of ‘science and religion.’ Such expectations of the text, in my judgment, completely miss the point and function of the text in its original setting or in its durable canonical articulation.”
DISCLAIMER #1: I acknowledge there are other scholarly readings of the creation story that should be weighed. Like all readings, this one has its strengths and shortcomings. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by Bruggemann’s reading because if the Book of Genesis was finalized during the sixth-century exile, a historic or scientific account about the origin of the universe would not bring solidarity to the exiled people of Israel like a liturgical poem (or hymn) that proclaims the supremacy and creativity of Yahweh in the pagan pantheon.
DISCLAIMER #2: The conversation on Evangel has motivated me to do further research. I think a Christian layperson should have a few references in their personal library for precisely this kind of inquiry. I turned to the entry on Genesis in the highly acclaimed Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Kevin Vanhoozer. This entry is written by OT scholar Gordon Wenham (King’s College London). Here are the two most important things I learned:
- AUTHORSHIP: Scholars do not know who wrote Genesis. Tradition assumes it was Moses. The “documentary hypothesis” emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and came to be widely accepted by biblical scholars until the last quarter of the twentieth century when there were multiple assaults “so that it is now widely agreed that a better explanation of the growth of the Pentateuch ought to be found” (see R. N. Whybray, Making of the Pentateuch). The main figure behind the documentary hypothesis was Julius Wellhausen, author of Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1878). “This appraoch distributes Genesis into three main sources, J (Yahwist, 950 BCE), E (Elohist, 850 BCE), and P (Priestly, 500 BCE). These three sources were combined successfully, so that Genesis reached its final form in the fifth century BCE, abut 800 years after Moses.”
- INTERPRETATION: “Symbolism was important in early Christian interpretation of Genesis, but that is not to say that they took the stories allegorically. They accepted as literal accounts of the origin of the cosmos, just the the patriarchal narratives that followed them were understood historically. The problems posed by modern science did not trouble Christian interpreters till the nineteenth century. The Reformers and their immediate successors continued the same essentially literal approach to Genesis, with less emphasis on the symbolic dimensions of the book.”
Based on the above, I realize that Walter Brueggemann is probably sympathetic to the documentary hypothesis because an adequate alternative has not been developed yet.
I also realize that tradition provides a compelling reason to adopt a literal interpretation of Genesis. That said, tradition alone should not guide the hermeneutics of the church. Reason and experience also have significant roles. We simply cannot read our Bibles like Christians did before the modern scientific revolution because, as Herbert Butterfield says in The Origins of Modern Science, “that revolution overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world—since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics—it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.”
I propose that we greet the challenge of reading our Bibles after the scientific revolution with faith, hope and love: faith that no discovery will undermine our belief, hope that the tensions will be adequately resolved, and love for the majesty and artistry of the Creator. Science is not the enemy – it never has been and never will be. God is sovereign over an enterprise that studies the natural world. All the glory to God alone!