Sunday, March 06, 2005

Reading naturally...

Dory, over at Wittenberg Gate, is in the middle of a series of posts dealing with Death before the Fall. As part of her argument, she addresses the various interpretations of the Genesis 1 creation account with regards, mainly, to whether or not the text indicates 6 24 hour days or 6 long periods of time. She refers to the concept of "natural reading" and states,
First, I would like to make the point that if someone was confronted with the text of the first two chapters of Genesis and had no preconceived notions about it, he or she would come away with the idea that this text asserts that in the space of six days God created time, matter, and space, organized those elements to form the earth, moon, stars, etc., and made the earth's plants and its animal and human life. This is what I will refer to as a natural reading of the text. This is different than a literal reading of the text. If I said it was raining cats and dogs, a literal understanding of that would be absurd. However a natural reading of that statement is to recognize an obvious metaphor, or use of poetic speech, and understand that it is raining heavily. I do not believe that Scripture should always be read literally, however, I would assert that it needs to be read naturally. Determining what is a natural reading of a text can be complicated by cultural differences and translations. This is a common problem with Westerners reading the visionary, and to a lesser extent, the poetic portions of Scripture, as we are not as well exposed to these Eastern literary forms. (We need to improve our education on that, I believe.) Westerners reading the Psalms, for example, generally fail to see the intricate internal structure of these poems unless they are first trained to do so. However, the first chapter of Genesis is not in a poetic or visionary form. The creation is set out as a straightforward history with a chronological structure. There is the beginning, first day, second day, third day, and so on, and then a declaration that the work is complete, followed by rest. To insert a gap into a text that is so focused on a time sequence, seems to be straining the text quite a bit. Anyone asserting that this is necessary ought to bear the burden of proof and show why such a reading is warranted. What could justify a day-by-day rendering of creation events leaving out millions of years?
While I agree with Dory that a natural reading of the text, in the proper context, is essential for understanding the text, I would argue that, within the context of the 21st century West, a natural reading of Genesis 1 and 2 could lead to exegetical error. The reason for this is that our "natural reading" of the text is bounded within a 21st century mindset. The very notion of asking "how long did Creation take?" betrays our tainted viewpoint. The ancients would not have asked that question because that was not the point of the text. In other words, although the text describes successive time periods for the Creation, the point of the narrative was altogether different. Consider the narrative describing the Ten Plagues that God brought upon Egypt through Moses. I've written before that the point of the account was to demonstrate God's supremacy over specific deities within Egypt's animistic religious system. The Nile was worshipped; Heqet was a goddess of childbirth and depicted as a frog; Ra was the Sun god. These, and other deities, were systematically defiled by God - who was demonstrating to the Egyptians and to the Israelites that He was sovreign over His creation. A 21st century reader needs to have the specifics of that narrative explained to them - but an Israelite (or an Egyptian) of the period would have clearly understood what was happening. In this case, our natural reading of the text deprives us of the deeper truths intended there for us. In virtually every discussion I've had with a young-earth proponent, the major hurdle I see them approach is the apparent fact that the "plain reading" of the text tells them that the Creation occurred over the space of 6 24 hour days. Perhaps a bit more attention should be given not towards a plain or natural reading, but for the most in depth reading of the text?


LotharBot said...

There's another problem with the "natural reading". It presumes the original readers would have only gotten correct ideas out of reading the text. But sometimes you communicate something in a way that you *know* will give people some incorrect ideas simply because they don't have enough understanding for you to be able to give them only correct ideas. This is especially true when you're teaching -- sometimes you give a simple, but not entirely correct, idea of whatever you're trying to teach because your student isn't equipped to understand the whole idea. Consider teaching a first grader subtraction, and telling them to always take the smaller number away from the bigger number. You're teaching them only part of the system, because they don't know negative numbers so they're not equipped to compute 3 - 7 yet. This sort of teaching is common even in the Bible -- the Law, for example, was a simple but not entirely correct picture of righteousness, given to the people in order to lead them to the more correct New Testament picture of righteousness (which, itself, is likely overshadowed by the righteousness we'll find in heaven.)

What we're trying to do when we read the Bible is we're trying to figure out what truth God intended to communicate to the people. With the Law, He communicated a number of truths about purity and sacrifice and righteousness and compassion. He embedded those truths within a particular legal system in order to teach those truths, even though it was easy for people to misunderstand and think the legal system itself was extremely important. In this case, the "natural reading" of the Law would give you the idea that the Law itself was important, but a more correct and in-depth reading would show that the Law was just a framework for teaching deeper truths until Jesus came. God's intent was to communicate the deeper truths, and the Law was just the bus driver that took us there. There were important truths God was trying to get across, and there were incidental details that just helped in communicating those truths.

I've been very intentional about using the word "intent" multiple times in this post, because that's key to understanding the text. Whenever you read a passage, and you want to consider various details, you have to consider how closely they relate to the intended point of the passage. If a passage is intended to communicate a fundamental truth about God's nature, details that relate to that are likely to be important and accurate, while details relating to other things may be incomplete or extraneous. What we want, then, is not the "natural reading", but rather, the fundamental truth communicated in the passage.

Where I differ from the young earth crowd is in what I consider the fundamental truth of Genesis 1. It seems quite clear to me that the fundamental truth of Genesis 1 is that God is different from the gods the Israelites would have known before in some key ways (as we've discussed before) -- He's sovereign over everything from plants to animals to water to space; He created everything intentionally; He holds power over everything; He's the only God. Those are the key details that would have stood out to the earliest readers of the passage, and those are important things for God to be communicating. Other details -- such as the order of creation or the number of hours it took -- *might* be true, or they might simply be "fluff" in order to make the fundamental truths clear to ancient Israel. We see those truths affirmed a number of times throughout the Bible, for their own sake (one such example is in the plagues you cited above.) God clearly thinks it's really important that we know He is the only God, and that He is sovereign over all. Yet He doesn't appear to think it very important that we know how many hours it took to create the universe, because He doesn't repeat the point elsewhere, especially not to ancient Israel. To me, that says we can be confident in those important truths like His sovereignty, but that the details about days and order might be "fluff" or figurative or just plain unclear.


From reading the above, you might think I'm pretty theologically liberal, but I'm actually pretty conservative and I take the Bible very seriously as the inspired and infallible word of God. You might have gotten an incorrect idea about me from the text above, because my intent was not to communicate about how seriously I take the Bible, but instead, to communicate that you have to look at the author's intent. The point I intended comes across pretty clearly, but the details of how theologically liberal or conservative I am weren't really clear from what I wrote above. It's interesting that this post illustrates the exact principle I was talking about in it ;)

Matt Powell said...

The problem I have with this line of thinking is that it does not appear to be driven purely by a desire to understand the text. If the world were created billions of years ago, God could have told the Israelites that. You emphasize how different God is from the other nations, but this reading actually makes Him appear to be a liar, just like them.

This same line of thinking could be and has been used to destroy the account of Christ's resurrection and death.

When God communicates His actions to us in such a way as to make a particular point about himself- His sovereignty, power, etc, they're not just mythology- false stories meant to communicate a point. The message of the stories fundamentally depends on God having actually done what He said He did. If He claims to be sovereign because He brought the ten plagues on Egypt, the value of the story depends completely on the factuality of the story. If he didn't do it, the point falls apart. Likewise with creation- if He didn't actually do what He said He did, then it doesn't make the point it's supposed to make.

Let God be true, and every man a liar. Don't be motivated by accommodation to the people who hate God and us, and will destroy us if they can. Be motivated by faithfulness to the word, and nothing else.

LotharBot said...

My own line of thinking is entirely driven by a desire to understand the text. Please, reread my post -- notice that everything I say is all about trying to get at what God was trying to communicate. What is the fundamental message He is giving? What method is He using to communicate that message? I know that whatever God intended to communicate must be true, so I also have to compare my interpretation to reality, and if it doesn't seem to match up that suggests my interpretation may be wrong. I know I haven't properly understood the text if it tells me something blatantly false! So, because it seems God's primary purpose is to demonstrate how different He is from other gods, and because the evidence overwhelmingly points toward the earth being much older than 6000 years old, it seems very unlikely that God intended to communicate creation took 168 hours. Again, because other passages continually reinforce how different God is from other gods, but no others reinforce creation taking 168 hours, it seems that's what we're supposed to take out of the text.

Please, don't insult me by saying my view is not motivated by desire to understand the text. I think both views are motivated by desire to understand the text, we just place different emphasis on "natural reading" vs. "literal reading" vs. "author's intent", we value certain external considerations (like repetition of concepts elsewhere in the Bible, and scientific theories) differently, and we have differing external knowledge. But we need not treat each other as insincere or dishonest because of it. In particular, don't insult me by accusing me of being motivated to be accomodating to those who "hate God and us". I'm motivated to seek the truth of what scipture says and what is real, and I will not accomodate anybody (from God-hating naturalists to young-earth creationists who don't know science.)

Some individual points I wanted to address:

1) You say God "could have told the Israelites" the earth was billions of years old. I don't think He really could have -- remember, these were shepherds who probably had no concept of numbers larger than the size of their flocks. Perhaps He could have told them the earth was "very old" and framed the entire narrative differently, but I think that would have made the central message less clear. So the little bit He could have done, I don't think He *would have* done.

2) You say God would have been a liar if He spoke of creation in 6 days and really meant billions of years. I completely disagree -- God is not a liar when He tells of creation in terms of "days" that may not be real days. Remember, when you're teaching, especially complicated or new concepts, you have to frame them in a way people will be able to understand. This is why Jesus so often taught in parables -- He wanted to frame the concepts in a way that people would understand. Would it make Him a liar if the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son never existed? Of course not! When I give my fourth graders a story problem about the class going on a field trip and buying sandwiches, am I a liar because there really isn't a field trip? Again, of course not! Because the purpose is to explain a concept, rather than to tell a story, it doesn't matter that the story has fictional elements -- it's the truth or falsehood of the CONCEPT that matters. Now, when God wants to teach the people about who He is by telling about how He interacted with creation, it doesn't matter whether or not that story had fictional elements -- all that matters is whether or not the concept He intended to teach was true.

I'm not saying Genesis 1 is mythology, as in, a false story to communicate a point (but I wouldn't call God a liar even if it was.) Rather, I'm saying it's parable -- it's a story that faithfully reproduces the important characteristics of creation in a way that people can understand. That's the way parables work -- you explain the important aspects of an experience within such a framework that your listeners can get at the important aspects of the experience. You're right that the message relies on God actually doing what He said -- it relies on Him *actually* creating the heavens and the earth, and *actually* having power over them, and *actually* being intentional about creation. But it does not rely on creation actually being in the order specified, or taking the amount of time specified, or requiring God to say "let there be light" in Hebrew.

3) You claim this method could (and has) been used to destroy the account of Jesus' death and resurrection. I disagree -- it certainly isn't *this* method people use, though they might use one that appears similar in some superficial ways. If you use *this* method on that story, you'd notice the following:

- the point of Jesus' death is that the Law required a blood sacrifice for sins, and Jesus provided that. The blood sacrifice is, therefore, critical to the story. If there's no real blood sacrifice, the story is worthless.

- the point of Jesus' resurrection is that death no longer holds power over us, because it has been overcome. If there's no real resurrection, the story is worthless.

- both of these points are repeated time and time again throughout scripture (including in prophecies in the OT). They're clearly the important parts of the story.

If you apply this method to Jesus' death and resurrection -- which I do, because I apply it to everything I read (Biblical or otherwise) you find that the resurrection story is clearly what was intended to be communicated. There is no room for metaphor, analogy, or parable there.

4) The point God makes with the plagues, like the point He makes with creation, clearly depends on the plagues being true. I totally agree. There had to be *real* plagues on the *real* Egypt (and doubly so since the narrative is clearly historical.) Similarly, God had to *really* create and hold authority over the universe (but the details need not be accurate, since the story need not be historical.)

5) With the plagues on Egypt, we obviously have recorded an event that human observers could easily describe to other people, so there's no need for analogy or parable. Similarly, with Jesus' death and resurrection, we have recorded a historical event human observers can easily describe to others. But with the origins of the universe, we've recorded an event that even modern-day physicists dare not try to describe to non-physicists without resorting to analogy. Even just the *size* of the universe is so big that we have to resort to analogy to describe it to people (if you made a scale model of the universe where the earth was an inch in diameter, the moon would be 2 feet away. The sun would be 18 feet across, and about 2000 feet away. Alpha Cenauriy, the next nearest star, would be 95,000 miles away.) It seems silly to expect God to conform to modern scientific standards in explaining creation to a bunch of shepherds 4 or 5 thousand years ago. The universe is so impressive as to be mind-boggling even to those of us with graduate degrees in math or science, so it's perfectly understandable that if God were to describe His creating it, He'd simplify the details.

That's really where I think the "natural reading" of Genesis 1 goes wrong -- it ignores the very real and sensible possibility that God would not have been interested in trying to communicate details about a universe *this* big and *this* amazing to 20th century BC shepherds. Could He have said the universe was older? Yeah, I guess -- but then we'd be here arguing that He didn't tell us when bacteria were created, or some other detail that wouldn't have mattered the slightest bit to the Israelites.

Matt Powell said...

You admitted it in your article- you are driven by the need to make the text fit the so-called evidence. That assumes that we are reading the evidence correctly, and given the many many times that we have failed to do that, I'd prefer to think we have the evidence wrong than to think that we can't trust the Bible to be saying what it's obviously saying. This is what I mean by you not being driven primarily by the text. If you read this text in the absence of any scientific knowledge at all, there's no way you'd come up with the reading you do.

If God wasn't interested in communicating the details, why did he give us so many details? He could have simply been silent, and said that he created it all, without all the attention to detail that one observes in Gen. 1-2. The comparison to parables is not very good- Jesus makes it very clear that he's speaking in parables- "The kingdom of heaven is like..." etc. We see no such clues in Genesis 1. I know what you said, that you're driven by the text, but there's nothing in the text to support what you're saying. YOu're importing all of these readings from external sources, because of external considerations. You said it yourself- you feel the need to make your reading of the text fit what you think you know about science.

Let me ask you something- have you seen any of the evidence of which you speak? Not just in books- have you done the radiometric analyses? Have you measured the distances between stars, and analyzed the time needed for the light to get here? Have you seen it all first-hand? I'm guessing you haven't, because virtually nobody has seen all of the evidence. No, you've chosen to accept someone's authority on the matter.

All I'm saying is, I'd rather accept God's authority, rather than some man's. He said he created it in six days less than ten thousand years ago. Unless you can show me from the text that this is not really what he's saying, then your argument is one external to the text.

"For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that in them is."

"By faith we know that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were made by things which do not appear."

By FAITH we know that. Not by evidence.

LotharBot said...

There's a difference between being driven to understand the text (which is what you said in your first post), and being driven by the text (which is what you said in the second.)

Being driven only by the text is a naive hermeneutic. It requires you to assume the text contains every relevant detail, and leaves out all misleading details, regardless of the culture of the reader. But communication simply doesn't work that way -- complex thoughts and complex information *can't* be transmitted without losing some details, and they're rarely, if ever, transmitted without some sort of cultural or linguistic artifacts that lead to misunderstanding. The Biblical text is not magical; it's communication like anything else, and it's subject to the same problems of interpretation anything in any language is subject to. Being driven only by the text is almost guaranteed to lead to misunderstandings. (After all, you've barely read 2 pages of my text, and you've already misunderstood me more than once!)

I'm driven to understand the text. This means I use everything at my disposal -- from the text itself to prayer to the statements of scientists to posts on message boards. If any one of those can give me extra insight into what God intended to communicate to His people, I'll use it. That, of course, requires discernment and understanding -- it would be foolish to just take whatever everyone says at face value. But it's the only way to really understand the text. I can't honestly read the text and ignore outside information just because I'd prefer a simple reading; I have to pay attention to all of the evidence that reflects on the text. (It's sad that so many in the church consider this a bad thing. And we wonder why so many outsiders view us as ignorant fools!) I can't honestly ignore the evidence and cite "faith" as my buzzword; faith involves trust, not blind ignorance.

Really, this is the same dichotomy Rusty pointed out at the start -- the difference between simply reading the words on the page and taking them at face value (being driven by the text) and studying the words and all relevant external details in order to understand what the author intended to communicate (being driven to understand the text.) You claim this means I "can't trust the Bible" (which is insulting, to say the least.) But I do trust the Bible very much -- I just don't trust interpretations of the Bible that are formed by 21st century minds with 21st century biases looking for answers to 21st century questions in text that was written to shepherds 4000 years ago to tell them about the nature of God.

You say you'd "rather accept God's authority, rather than some man's" and then continue to give the literal interpretation of Genesis 1. I'd rather accept God's authority than man's, too -- I just want to know that what I'm reading is what God actually meant. That's why I don't go with the surface interpretation of Genesis 1 -- I'm not convinced it's what God actually meant for us to take out of the words on the page. I can see quite plainly why He would want us to take the things I've already mentioned out of the text, and I can see from the rest of the Bible that He thinks those are important points, but I can't see what His purpose would be in telling us creation took 168 hours and He never revisits the subject.


You say "this assumes we are reading the evidence correctly [but often] we have failed to do that". Ironic, then, that you've assumed you've read my post correctly but haven't. I'm actually not assuming anything about the evidence; I'm open to the possibility that it could be wrong. And if the evidence is wrong, my conclusion will have to be revised. That's the way knowledge works -- in theory, anything could be wrong (including, for example, the way we interpreted the Bible when we were children), and all of our conclusions are subject to revision when new evidence is located. I'm perfectly OK with that.

On the other hand, I don't think it's very *likely* that the science in question is wrong, simply because I've looked at an awful lot of it. Yes, granted, it's been on someone else's authority; I'm a mathematical biologist, not an astronomer. But then, the same can be said for the Bible -- I've never seen the actual Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic manuscripts and done the radiometric dating on them or translated them. I'm taking that on someone else's authority. It just so happens that I have good reason to trust that authority, because all of the research I do on my own leads me to believe they've been faithful in searching for truth.

You argue that I "said it [myself]- [I] feel the need to make your reading of the text fit what you think you know about science." But that's not what I said. Rather, I feel the need to analyze everything (including the text and the science and everything else) and understand them as a whole. I didn't start with something I thought I knew of science and wedge the text into that, nor did I start with something I knew of the text and wedge the science into it. Rather, I continually take both and analyze what I know about them and try to form a coherent picture of reality (which may include such statements as "X is totally false", where X might be an interpretation of the science or of the Bible or of something unrelated.) I look at the combined strength of all of the evidence.


You're right that, in some ways, my argument is external to the text. But you're wrong to say there are "no such clues in Genesis 1" and that my argument is entirely external to the text. It's a complete argument -- it's a combination of what's in the text and external considerations. It's a weighing of what the text says and how clearly and certainly it says it, versus what other evidences say and how clearly and certainly they say it. I won't bother discussing the external considerations here, since you've already rejected them out-of-hand.

But there still are internal considerations -- there's the consideration that God put in the "evening and morning" details, and that's a point in favor of the 168-hour interpretation. There's also the consideration that it's something of a poetic construct (that appears nowhere else in scripture) which is a point in favor of the unknown time period interpretation. Another consideration is that if you try to read the text entirely literally, it resists you -- when you read about light, day, and night on day 1 and the sun on day 4, you treat it as poetic (either "day and night" is poetic, or the creation of the sun at that instant is poetic, or some other variation.) When you read about the earth springing forth plants on day 3, you don't think the earth literally made the plants, but rather, somehow God created seeds that then grew (rapidly?) into plants. When you read "God said" you don't imagine Him making vibrations in the ancient atmosphere that made those Hebrew sounds; you read it as though He commanded by His will. The fact that the text itself resists a strongly literal interpretation is, itself, evidence for a less-than-literal reading.

That's where I'm coming from... faith in God, and desire to understand what He really meant, regardless of what other Christians think of me for it.

Dove said...

It is silly to suppose that whenever the Bible doesn't explicitly identify something as a parable, it's literal. There are many figures of speech used in the Bible, and not all of them are immediately pointed out.

Conider, for example, Jesus' statement to the Jews in John 2:19: "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days." Though John immediately points out in verse 20 that Jesus was speaking of his body as a temple, Jesus himself apparently said nothing at the time to indicate that. Not only could he have been mistunderstood, he evidently *was* misunderstood as speaking literally--see Matt 26:61.

What sort of figure of speech is this? I can't recall. It isn't a parable--a long story to make a point. It isn't metaphor or allegory or even simile, I don't think. I think it might be metonomy, substituting one word for another. In any case, it isn't that Jesus' statement is *false* or that even that it's entirely symbolic--the days are real days. But he's speaking in riddles.

Hasn't that been God's habit throughout all of scripture? He speaks clearly--painfully clearly--about what he wants people to do, but he speaks so very cryptically about secrets of the future and past and mysteries of the spiritual realm. When Jesus wasn't saying simply "follow me," he was perpetually speaking in riddles about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. The same is true of the old testament prophets--sometimes they said simply "repent or be destroyed!" but a lot of the time they said things like, "Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain made low." Even the law is filled with both plain and obvious moral requirements ("Honor your father and mother") and strange ceremonies and symbolic requirements that are hard to decipher ("Do not wear clothing woven of two types of material" - Lev. 19:19).

How do you tell when something's plain and when it's a riddle? Partly by poetic language; partly by where it shows up in the Bible. But a lot of times, you tell by whichever interpretation makes the most sense with what you already know. We already know Jesus' body was destroyed and he was raised in three days; we also know that claiming to raise the temple in three days is a nonsense claim--something that didn't happen, that isn't claimed elsewhere, and that he would have had no reason to do. It makes the most sense, therefore, to interpret his statement about the temple as a riddle referring to himself.

I think there are several clues in Genesis 1 that what we're looking at is a riddle (parable? trope? I don't know what you call this...).

The first is the very deliberate repeated pattern: decree, fulfillment, blessing/naming, evening, morning, nth day. This is a very unnatural way to simply report history. Compare the highly structured pattern of Genesis 1 with simple historical accounts of even very structured and ritualistic occurances--such as the plagues in Exodus 7-11, or the ordination of Aaron and his sons in Leviticus 8. The stories are told in simple prose, and even the highly repetetive story of the plagues is not so carefully structured as Genesis 1. Think how foreign it would be to read, "And God said, 'Let us warn the Egyptians of a coming plague of frogs, so they will let my people go.' So Moses warned them, but they did not listen, and there was a plague of frogs, and God remained angry. And there was evening and morning, the first day. And God said, 'Let us warn the Egyptians of a plague of darkness...'" It has the feel of highly simplifying everything and compressing it into a mneumonic form--not simply reporting history. (And indeed, we do know the story in Genesis 1 is compressed--nearly all of Genesis 2 is summed up in a few verses--"God created man in his own image... male and female"--with much of the action omitted.)

The existence of structure doesn't automatically make the story non-literal, but it does lend support to the idea that it isn't meant as a simple narrative--perhaps the genre is something else.

But there is an even stronger clue in the text: parts of the passage are so naturally interpreted as speaking symbolically that everybody reads them that way, without even trying.

For example, consider the repeated command, "God said..." God isn't specifically said to be speaking -to- anyone, be it angels in the heavens or an earthly audience or even himself. He seems to be speaking, not even to creation itself, but in abstract and universal decrees. In other narratives where similar powerful commands are given (i.e., "Jesus called out in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!""), it's clear what's meant. But people have varying understandings of what "God said" means. Did he say it in a heavenly tongue to angels? That's possible, though speculative: the text itself doesn't say that. Did he make the ancient atmosphere echo with the sound of those particular words? That's possible too, although by no means a foregone conclusion. The most common interpretation seems to be, "God, by his sheer will and power over nature, decreed." Since the text isn't concerned with where or to who "God said," it seems to be most naturally understood as a symbolic expression of God's decision and power. It's *so* naturally understood that almost everyone reads it that way without even thinking--even those trying to be very literal.

Or consider the statement on day one: "God separated the light from the darkness." What does it mean, literally, to separate light from darkness? And since he goes on to name them day and night, what does it mean--literally--to separate day from night? One might imagine a whimsical tale in which God decrees by divine fiat that day shall be 12 hours and night shall be 12, rather than the world existing in perpetual twilight. But given what we know about the real world--where light and darkness are naturally separated by any object that makes a shadow, and where day and night are simple consequences of having a planet by a star, what can we make of this statement? The most sense we can make of it is to read, "God created the universe in such a way that light and dark would be separated, creating day and night." That is, we read "God separated the light from the darkness" as a symbolic description of a more complicated and deep process. It has no plain, simple, everyday meaning--as we would expect it to, if this were a simple narrative.

The chapter is full of things like this. Consider seriously phrases like, "the earth brought forth vegetation," or "God placed [the lights] in the expanse of the heavens" or "Let the earth bring forth living creatures" or "Let us make man in our image." These descriptions are--at the very least--cryptic, requiring speculation about what they actually mean. Some of them suggest symbolism or riddling, and some of them are so *naturally* symbolic that we read them that way without even noticing.

That the story is so full of cryptic and naturally symbolic statements suggests that the whole thing is a riddle, not a narrative. Nowhere is it so plain-spoken as the narratives of the rest of scripture. Very little interpretation and guesswork is required to figure out what is meant by (for example), "she conceived and gave birth to Cain." But Genesis 1 is full of statements like, "the earth was formless and void," which require a lot of head-scratching to interpret. Cryptic and evidently symbolic statements are everywhere.

To me, this is a huge clue. Whenever we find that a passage is leaping up into riddle and symbol when we aren't wrestling it to the literal ground, that is evidence that it is most naturally read as a riddle or symbol. Genesis 1 must be explained, expanded, and riddled out if we try to truly take it literally; read as a parable expressing truths of God's power, supremacy, and sovereignty as creator, the passage is clear and sensible. Which of those makes more sense as a natural reading of the passage is an easy decision for me!

Rusty said...


How would you, then, approach the scripture which declares that the Earth does not move? It was used as justification for the idea that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

Lotharbot & Dove,

What if the cultural aspects and the rules of translation indicated that the Genesis 1 text really was indicating 24 hour days? How would that impact your interpretation of the scientific data which indicates billions of years?

LotharBot said...

What if the cultural aspects and the rules of translation indicated that the Genesis 1 text really was indicating 24 hour days? How would that impact your interpretation of the scientific data which indicates billions of years?

It would make me re-evaluate both sides of the equation -- what does the data say? What does the text say? Is the data trustworthy? Is the text trustworthy?

Of course, I'm *always* re-evaluating everything whenever I get new data to look at. That would be nothing new, and it certainly wouldn't be the first time I'd have to change my mind.

I can't say much more than that. We're in a realm of hypotheticals, but I need to do the real re-evaluation before I can actually say what would come out of it. Would I decide that the data was bogus? That depends very much on what comes out of the evaluation! Would I decide scripture was flawed? Again, that depends very much on exactly where my evaluation leads. Both are possibilities.

Dove said...

I would respond similarly.

Neither interpretations nor scientific conclusions are ever completely infallible. I'd have to know what exactly the text said, and what the cultural influences were that led me to think that interpretation was right.

But, for the sake of answering the hypothetical, I would investigate both. I would investigate how strong the interpretation is, and I would investigate how strong the science is. If one of them proved untrustworthy or outright wrong, I'd go with the other.

If I exhausted my resources and I still couldn't resolve the conflict, I'd be left with a dilemma. The Bible says one thing--soundly and reliably and I can't escape the conclusion--and science says another--soundly and reliably and I can't escape the conclusion. If those evidences were strong enough to overwhelm other evidences I have that the Bible is true, it's possible I'd lose my faith over it. But more likely, I'd mentally file it away with "things I don't understand," and move on with my life. I'd simply not know the age of the earth (which is fine... there are a lot of things I don't know), and I'd hope someday something would shed light on the puzzle.

Interestingly, my take on Genesis 1 came out of just such a cycle. I knew there was a conflict, so I investigated. I looked at the various interpretations of Genesis 1, and wasn't really impressed by any of them (some made more sense than others, but none made total sense of the passage). I looked at the science, and was impressed--the evidence was consistent, coherent, and conclusive. I came back to the passage and still couldn't understand it. Judging the scientific evidence to be strong and the interpretational evidence to be weak, I concluded that the earth was old and shelved Genesis 1 as "something I don't understand." And then one day I was writing a post to describe all the alternative interpretations of Genesis 1 that I knew of, giving arguments for and against them, and the most natural reading of the chapter jumped out at me.