Monday, 31 March 2014

How to really read Genesis 1 literally, and not as the fundamentalists do.

One of the main themes of this blog is pointing out how destructive YEC, fundamentalism, and Biblical literalism are to the future of the Christadelphian community. Such a perversion of biblical exegesis immediately sets up our community in conflict with modern science, as this form of literalism results in Christadelphians who in all seriousness believe the Earth was young, all animals were initially created vegetarians, and humans coexisted with dinosaurs. That this places us in collision with reality hardly needs stressing.

The irony is that those who claim to be reading the Bible literally are in fact doing nothing of the sort. What they are doing is reading an English language translation of the text as if it was a modern historical narrative. There is nothing wrong with literalism per se, provided one does not ignore the genre and context of the narrative. In other words, one needs to read the text as the ancient Hebrews would have done, not as a 21st century person thoroughly inculcated in modern standards of historiography and science.

Even without a comprehensive understanding of the ancient Near Eastern background of Genesis, careful reading of the text does yield clues which show tensions that arise when one consistently applies the modern approach to literalism to the texts. John Calvin noted that the reference to 'waters above' is frankly incredible:
Moses describes the special use of this expanse, “to divide the waters from the waters,” from which words arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. [1]
Calvin to his credit avoided the temptation to allegorise the problem away and stated that this was an example of Divine accommodation of an ancient worldview:
Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. [2]
Calvin's remark that Genesis is the 'book of the unlearned' is not pejorative, but simply a recognition of the fact that the ancient view of the world differed considerably from ours, and that God had better things to do than try to teach modern science to a pre-scientific world. Once again, Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology, not modern science.

This, as I have noted many times, is clearly demonstrated by the fact that Genesis 1 describes a world not only with waters above, but with a solid firmament separating these waters above from the water below. When we really read Genesis 1 literally, we get a view of the world which would have been intelligible to anyone from an ancient Near Eastern perspective, but alien to us.

None of this is controversial outside of the fundamentalist extremes in the evangelical Christian world, and regrettably our own community. Paul Seely, in his well-regarded monograph makes a compelling case both for the solidity of the firmament, and this view being normative for the ancient Hebrews:
Only by taking Genesis l out of its historical context could one say that raqia' means merely "an atmospheric expanse" or, as the more sophisticated conservatives say, "just phenomenal language." In the ancient world the sky was not just phenomenal. The ancients did not just refer to the appearance of the sky as being solid. They concluded from the appearance that the sky really was solid, and they then employed this conclusion in their thinking about astronomy, geography, and natural science. The raqia' was for them a literal physical part of the universe, just as solid as the earth itself. Solidity is an integral part of its historical meaning. 
When the original readers of Genesis 1 read the word raqia' they thought of a solid sky. And so did virtually everyone else up to the time of the Renaissance! After the time of Christ there were occasional dissenters, but by and large Jews and Christians, Greeks and barbarians all believed the firmament was solid. [3]
John Walton, professor of OT at Wheaton College notes in Genesis volume of the NIV Application Commentary series positively cites Seely's paper, calling it a "comprehensive and persuasive demonstration demonstration of this point." [4] Robin Parry, an editor at the theological publishing company Wipf and Stock likewise states that Seely "demonstrates convincingly that the biblical authors presupposed an ancient cosmology and not a modern one." [5] Support for Seely's position extends well out of the evangelical domain even into the scholarly reaches of Judaism, with Natan Slifkin observing that:
The etymology of rakia reveals that it clearly refers to a flattened, solid surface. The pesukim in Iyov 37:18 and Yeshayah 40:22 are likewise unequivocal. The Rishonim who defined the etymology of the word rakia, such as Radak and Ibn Janach, also explain it in this way. Finally, I strongly recommend that people read the definite study on this topic which can be freely downloaded, Paul Seely: "The Firmament and the Water Above Part I: The Meaning of raqia' in Gen 1:6-8," from the Westminster Theological Journal 53 (Fall 1991) 227-240. [6]
OT scholar Peter Enns is not overstating his case when he says:
The solid nature of the raqia is well established. It is not the result of an anti-Christian conspiracy to find errors in the Bible, but the “solid” result of scholars doing their job. This does not mean that there can be no discussion or debate. But, to introduce a novel interpretation of raqia would require new evidence or at least a reconsideration of the evidence we have that would be compelling to those who do not have a vested religious interest in maintaining one view or another. [7]
This is what a literal reading of Genesis 1 done in its ancient Near Eastern context reveals.

The point of revisiting the subject of the firmament is to try to reclaim literalism from the fundamentalists. A literal reading of an English language translation of the creation narratives through the assumption that it is a scientifically accurate account of origins results in delusional nonsense such as young earth creationism. A literal reading of the creation narratives through ancient Hebrew eyes, recognising that Genesis is ancient cosmology teaches something else altogether:
  • Genesis is an account not primarily not of material origins, but of functional origins
  • Genesis reflects the pre-scientific cosmology of the ancient Near East and tells us nothing at all about how God created the universe.
  • Genesis is not an account of how God made the world, but a polemic against competing cosmologies.
This brings us somewhat belatedly to the main point of this post, introducing an excellent blog post by Susan Pigott, professor of OT and Hebrew at Logsdon School of Theology, one that I wish every fundamentalist in our community would read, if only to see how to properly interpret the creation narratives, and to realise what literalism really means:
Most people who claim they read Genesis 1 “literally” don’t. They believe that what they believe about Genesis 1 is literal. But they aren’t reading Genesis 1 literally.
If we read Genesis 1 literally, we come out with a very different picture than most literalists imagine. Indeed, we find ourselves firmly planted in the Hebrew worldview—an ancient worldview. And, if we know our history, we know that the Hebrews had no concept of a round earth that coursed around the sun. They believed the earth was flat, the sky was a dome, and the sun revolved around the earth. [8]
The rest of Pigott's post provides a pictorial summary of Genesis 1 read literally. If we read the narrative literally, this is the view of creation that it reflects:

YECs who claim to be faithful to a literal reading of Genesis but reject this view of the world are not being consistent. As Pigott notes:
But if we’re going to be realistic and consistent, we have to acknowledge that the writer’s worldview is not our worldview. Most of us do not believe that the earth is flat and the sky is a dome. Most of us know that the earth is round and rotates around the sun. If that’s the case, then we have to acknowledge that Genesis 1 is not a scientific description of the earth. It is a theological one. We don’t have to become flat-earth creationists to accept the theology the writer is communicating—that God created the earth and everything in it. 
This is why biblical literalism (in the sense stated at the beginning) fails. It fails to read Genesis 1 literally. It fails to acknowledge the ancient writer’s worldview. It tries to cram modern rationalism and modern pseudo-science into an ancient text, and in so doing, it completely ignores the sacredness of the text—its poetic beauty, its structure, its focus on the sacred week, its emphasis on God as creator and on humanity as God’s representatives, and its acknowledgment of the goodness of all creation. All of these things are communicated through a flat earth, dome sky worldview, but they transcend it.

I read Genesis 1 literally, but what I mean by that is I read Genesis 1 recognizing that the writer’s worldview is pre-scientific but his theology is transcendent. [9]
For me, the most frustrating thing about seeing YEC and fundamentalism infecting our community (the recent comments by Bernard Burt and Mark Taunton on this blog are reflective of just how bad things have become in our community with respect to its attitude towards scholarship and intellectually rigorous Bible study) is that Pigott's closing words were pre-empted over a century ago by CC Walker, who in his comprehensive rebuttal of a flat-earth Christadelphian recognised that
Moses’ testimony is not so “plain” that it cannot be misinterpreted or misunderstood. He speaks of “the heaven and the earth” as being in existence “in the beginning;” and therefore it does not seem to be inadmissible to suppose that “the host of heaven” was likewise then in existence. Moses’ testimony was given to Israel in what might be called the infancy of the world, when men did not know the extent of the earth, let alone that of the sun, moon, and stars. [10]
and reminded us that
it was given (by God through Moses), not so much to instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail, as to impress upon them the idea that The Most High God is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth (Gen. 14:22). And this against the claims of the gods of the nations, as was abundantly proved in Israel’s history. [11]
That far more informed commentary on Genesis comes from writings over a century old than from what is routinely dished up in the main magazines is nothing about which we should be proud.

When we really read Genesis literally, we realise that the view of the universe described is ancient cosmology, not modern science. Obsessing about reading Genesis as a science text as the fundamentalists in our community do misses the point completely. Genesis has far more important things to tell us than how God created the world. Who created, and why are of far more enduring value.


1. John Calvin and John King, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (vol. 1; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 79–80.2. ibid
3. Seely P.H. "The Firmament and the Water Above. Part 1: The Meaning of raqia' in Gen 1:6-8" Westminster Theological Seminary (1991) 53:227-240
4. Walton J The NIV Application Commentary (Genesis) (2001: Zondervan) p 111
5. Parry R "Old Testament Cosmology - Paul Seely" Theological Scribbles 29 December 2010
6. Slifkin N "What the Firmament Really Is" Rationalist Judaism Jan 26 2011
7. Enns P "The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid But That's Not the Point" Science and the Sacred Jan 14 2010
8. Pigott S "Reading Genesis 1 'Literally' " Scribalishess Jan 3 2014
9. ibid
10. Walker CC "Is it 'Wrong' to Believe that the Earth is a Sphere?" The Christadelphian (1913) 50:346-348
11. ibid, p 348