How I Understand Genesis
Now, it's not unusual for creationists to accuse me of 'rejecting' or 'not believing' the early chapters of the book of Genesis. Naturally, I don't agree. So this is a look at Genesis, and what I believe the book is saying, and, most importantly, why the charge that I 'reject' or 'don't believe' it is false.
The 'Yom' Red Herring
A look first at a favourite diversion - whether the term 'Yom' refers to a 24 hour period. This term is the one used for 'Day' in Genesis 1, and much debate about how this narrative should be viewed revolves around whether it has to mean a 24 hour period or not.
I think that this is a collosal red herring, and will not be revisiting that debate here.
Why? Firstly, because if Yom means a literal 24 hours it makes not the slightest bit of difference to how I view this narrative. The days may well be literal (and I strongly suspect they are) within the mythology of the narrative, just as the Ring is a literal Ring within Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. To put it another way, it is the narrative that is figurative, not the elements within it.
Secondly, because it doesn't actually make the narrative any more scientifically credible to say the days are millions of years long. The order is all wrong; there were flying things long before there were fishes, for example.
So that just wraps it up for 'Yom'.
"If you read it without pre-suppositions..."
It's often claimed that if one reads the Creation accounts in Genesis without any 'evolutionist presupposition', then the narrativess clearly read as historical accounts. It is only after Darwin, claim the critics, that people started to treat them as anything else. Were this true, it might be a serious charge. However, it is not. Consider the following quotation:
In the beginning were created only germs or causes of the forms of life which were afterwards to be developed in gradual course.
Who said this? Richard Dawkins? Kenneth Miller? Aldous Huxley? No. It was Saint Augustine. Does this sound like something he would say if he thought the Genesis accounts were literally true? I rather think not. In fact, as Russell Stannard points out in Science and the Renewal of Belief (SCM Press, London, 1982), it was the 'more Biblical than thou' bickering between the Reformers and the Catholic church during the sixteenth century that gave rise to literalism.
But why, without any geologists or biologists to contend with, did Christians not take Genesis literally at this time? The clues are in the very story itself.
Two Creation Stories
This is the first clue that we are not dealing with literal narratives here. When the book of Genesis was put together, the compiler had a number of sources, and, clearly, at least two Creation stories. And it didn't matter too much to him that they were contradictory. Clearly, therefore, the truth he was concerned about communicating was not the simple factual description of how the universe came into being. He had other fish to fry. If both accounts are true, then they are not true in a literal sense.
I want to say a few words about another Red Herring here. This Red Herring is the tense of the verb 'make' in Genesis 2 v 19. Here God makes the animals - after man, in direct contradiction of the first Creation story, which says man was made last. Claiming that the verb can be pluperfect 'had (already) made' (as indeed the NIV translates it) does not answer the criticism. The motivation for the making of the animals is clearly stated in verse 18 - God wants to make a suitable companion for the Man He has made. This is a classic case of literalism suffering the death of a thousand qualifications. The clear obvious reading of the second Creation story is that God makes the earth, then Man, then the animals to be his companions, then finally the Woman because none of the animals are suitable. There is no escaping the fact that this contradicts the first Six Day story, except by doggedly insisting that both have to be literally true and tying ourselves in knots twisting the text to fit that supposition. By contrast, a figurative interpretation of the text requires no twisting, no qualification and frees us to understand what the text is realy saying.
Now, it's often said that the presence of two creation stories is a mere invention by us dodgy types to 'discredit' the historicity of the Genesis narratives. Only when we were seduced by evolutionists did we start to see this supposed contradiction, notwithstanding the obvious differences. Well, this is simply not the case. If it were so, then how was it that the German minister H B Witter first proposed the idea that the two stories had different authors as far back as 1711? How was it that Jean d'Astruc picked up on this work in 1753, identifying four sources in the book of Genesis? Earlier still the obvious discrepancies had been noted, and usually put down to the real meaning of the accounts not being the literal one. (See Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorised Version, Viking, 1991).
Another clue is the elements of the stories in Genesis 1-3. We have a deity wandering round visible (in spite of Scriptural insistence that no-one has ever seen God). We have a talking snake. We have trees bearing symbolic fruit. We have more than a sniff of an ancient reworked 'Just So' story about How the Snake Lost its Legs. We have a poetic structure in Genesis 1, where what is made on the first three days is populated on the second three:
|Day 1 - Light is created and Day and Night are decreed.||Day 4 - The sun and moon are created to rule over the Day and Night. The stars are also made.|
|Day 2 - The sea and the sky are made.||Day 5 - The sea and sky are filled with animals - fish and birds.|
|Day 3 - The land is made, replete with plants.||Day 6 - Land animals are made to fill the land and eat the plants|
This is the language of myth. Now, let's be careful here. Myth, in this sense, does not mean 'something that isn't true'. I will here quote Stannard (Ibid.)
Whilst there is no denying that the biblical myths describe events that did not occur in any historical sense, that is not the point; they never professed to be accounts of that nature. The symbolic language in which they are couched is but a vehicle - a means of transmitting what really matters: their deep underlying truths.
And this is what we have here. Myths, not 'mere' myths, but Divinely inspired myths. The truths contained are important, not the vehicle. Thomas Thompson (The Bible in History - how Writers Create a Past, Jonathan Cape, London 1999) says
It has been most unbecoming for theologians to bicker so long about whether it was a man or a woman who was made fitst, and which brought sin into the world. Both theses distort Genesis' story
How true this is also of this whole literal/symbolic debate. Therefore, let us move on to the most important question, one it is 'becoming' to address:
What's it really mean then?
So if the book of Genesis doesn't mean the world was made in six days a few thousand years ago, what does it mean?
A caveat. I'm going to lean pretty heavily on quotations here. This is because this stuff, despite the protestations of some creationists, is well established theology throughout mainstream Christianity. It is not something I'm making up because I 'reject the Bible'.
Stannard identifies a few core theological points made by the Genesis authors:
He goes on to add:
Surely a baby at birth must by its very nature be pure, innocent and free from all tendancies towards evil. When it subsequently develops into the teenage hooligan on the football terraces, it can only be due to the way it has become corrupted by bad external influences - a broken home, say, or violence shown on television. If only such influences could be eliminated, so it is argued, would not all be well? The answer of Genesis is: no.
Continuing Thompson's quote above, we read:
...which includes us all each of the garden's couple: in Adam as the 'earthly' source of our 'humanity' (Adamah/adam) and in Eve as the 'mother of all living (hevah). The story sketches vividly the alienations that are so fundamental to our being human: women from the men they love and all of us from the earth we were born from... We must think of this perspective on people with the full impact of Genesis 1:26's tragic irony. God would have the world good as he saw it. Then he made people just like him
And that's the heart of it. Genesis 1-3 is not about the past, it is about the present. It's not about what two people may or may not have done in a garden in the middle East - it's about what we do, what we are, and how that looks to God. Thompson again:
...the story does not end. That isn't at all the way the real world is. We all know that. It is, after all, rather a very harsh world in which we and the story's audience live. The garden story is an aetiology. It is a fictional tale that evokes a perspective of reality that helps us understand the truth of things, and here, the truth about being human... its story's goal is the real world we live in, where hunger, pain and death are commonplace, and where each, unfortunately, does a thorough job of defining us as human. The story does not talk about history. It talks about the realities of human life.
Stannard says, referring to evolutionary imperatives towards behaviour that morally would be considered sinful:
The originator of the Adam and Eve story... had no way of telling why we behave the way we do. And yet he identified with remarkable insight the root of the problem. He knew that the real source of our sinful tendancies lay within us and not in external influences. Regardless of how the environment and social conditions might be improved, important and helpful though these could be, he knew that such remedies only scratch the surface; man lives in the grip of an irresistible influence which dooms to failure all his attempts to live selflessly as God's representative on earth. Whether one chooses to ascribe that influence to the actions of someone in the past called Adam, or to the actions of ancestral ape-like creatures, seems to me immaterial. The message is the same: the source of sin lies within each one of us. (Emphasis mine)
The fact is, we are all Adam. That the Genesis narrative is talking about all of us, not just two ancestors, when it talks about Adam is indicated in Genesis 5 verse 1-2 (AV):
In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; Male and Female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name 'Adam', in the day when they were created
I doubt that the conclusions about the meaning of the book of Genesis in the previous section differ significantly from the conclusions that more literalist understandings of the book would draw. This in itself indicates the mythological status of the stories - the importance is in the message, not the historicity of the vehicle.
I hope I have shown that a non-literalist position is tenable, and is not merely the product of syncretism with evolutionary science, but rather is in agreement with the understanding of the importance of Genesis that has informed the church from the beginning. The aim of this web page is not to convince the reader that this is the correct way to read Genesis, but rather that it is a valid way, and that the charges brought by Young Earth Creationists against both evolutionist Christians and others, that we reject or don't believe Genesis, are false.
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