How do we read Genesis 1-3?

Peter Enns, a professor of Old Testament and New Testament Studies at Eastern University, has written a book that is getting a lot of press time in the Christian blogosphere. The book, entitled The Evolution of Adam, attempts to reconcile the Genesis record with modern scientific thought, as well as explain the apostle Paul’s use of Adam in explaining Jesus’ work.

Let me begin by saying that I haven’t read Enns’ book, so this post is not a critique of his work. Instead, I want to plant some seed ideas on the subject and perhaps broaden our perspective on the question of how we read the creation stories in Genesis 1-3. Here is a brief video of Enns speaking on the subject, and then I will make some comments.

This might get me in trouble with my fundamentalist brethren, but I am ambivalent on whether the Genesis 1-3 record is historical fact or not. Officially, my position is “It could be.” My limited studies into the literature of ancient peoples leads me to believe that the authors of the Genesis record were focused on their own place in the world system and not on creating a science textbook. They wrote in a very poetic, measured way that seems to be more related with an understanding of the way the world is as opposed to the way that it came to be.  In other words, it was not as important to them that Adam be the historical, biological father of all mankind. What was important is that we can all see Adam and Eve’s sin in ourselves.

That being said, I have no real reason to doubt that there wasn’t a historical person. You can’t prove a negative. That’s why my position is “It could be.” I don’t think people who believe Adam is a historical person are ignorant or foolish or unscientific; and I don’t think people like Enns are heretics or apostates.

As always, the truth is in the tension. I avoid eliminating possibilities, even those that make me uncomfortable (and to be frank, dismissing Adam makes me uncomfortable). We find the greatest richness of the Scriptures when we study them in light of multiple possibilities rather than in ironclad dogmatism.

But that’s just me. I am comfortable with the tension of not really being able to be certain. What do you think?

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10 thoughts on “How do we read Genesis 1-3?

  1. I agree completely. Having read extensively about creation/evolution, until I’ve gotten a little tired of it all, the only real conclusion that I have come to is that there are several possibilities regarding the beginning of the world and man. It doesn’t really matter whether Adam and Eve were two literal people or just represent the first humans who fell away from God into sin. The implications are the same. It also doesn’t really matter if God created the world literally in seven days (unlikely, but possible – but Genesis is clearly not meant to, as you said, be taken as a science textbook) or if the process took millions of years. What is important is that Christians agree that God created. I think there is an inconsistency, for example, if Christians believe in Darwinism (or the modern formulation thereof) because, by definition, that process does not involve any sort of direction or guidance. In my view, a Christian can believe that God created through an evolutionary process, but I’m not sure that blind, purposeless evolution (with humans essentially being accidents) fits well with the narrative of Christianity. There is an interesting, though very technical, book called Mere Creation, in which all sorts of Christians contributed essays representing different views of creation and evolution, but all agree that God created.

    • I have a friend who says he is an agnostic on the subject of creation. I would not go quite that far (more because I don’t like the irreligious connotations of the word than anything else).

      I think there is room for flexibility because of uncertainty. We simply don’t know with absolute certainty how people would have received this message in the days it was written. It certainly has had a variety of understandings over the millennia, and any conclusions we might come to must, by default, be filtered through those various interpretational schema.

  2. A few thoughts.
    1. I think that it is a good thing to read and consider the ANE texts. I have a long range plan for interacting with them, and hope to take a week off sometime this year so that I can dig much in them.
    2. I hold that Genesis is a historical narrative and that there was a literal Adam. It’s interesting to me that the ANE texts present to us a picture of an initial human/ god who fell.
    3. I think it is unhelpful to the discussion to refer to anyone viewing Genesis as a scientific text. One can apply the historical narrative to a scientific discussion. On the other hand, it’s obviously not a scientific text. Are there actually people who believe that? I would think that to be an extreme view.

    • I think that anyone who holds to a 6-day creation believes that Genesis 1-2 is a scientific text of some kind, otherwise they would accept it as poetic and leave it at that. I went to a Christian school where this was taught as science – absolute and concrete – so I would say most fundamental literalists consider it a scientific text.

      Anyone would be hard-pressed to show that historical and scientific do not mean essentially the same thing in hyper literalism.

  3. Please, would someone answer a few questions for me:

    1. Why do we submerge the notion that God has inspired and superintended His Word beneath the idea that the ancients were seeking to grapple with the question of origins via myth or literary devices? Why do we seek to squeeze divine inspiration out of the Genesis account?

    2. What meaning is there in the genealogy of Jesus recorded in the Book of Luke, if Adam was not a literal, historical man? And if he was not, then what connection does the man Jesus have with you and me?

    • I think these are valid questions to be asked of people like Enns. In a sense, he is creating a new anti-fundamentalism – that we must naturally assume that given scientific evidence, the ancient authors meant this or that.

  4. I’ve gotta completely disagree. While my own reading has been limited, my conviction is that we cannot pick and choose which parts of the Bible are literal and which are not. I am currently reading John MacArthur’s book “Thinking Biblically” and in the chapter regarding Creation/Evolution, the nutshell version is, that if Adam wasn’t a literal man, and Creation didn’t happen literally as Gen. 1-3 says, then there is no assurance that the Cross was A) a literal event, or B) necessary. And without that assurance, there is no Hope.
    I think Greg’s question in #6 above gets to that point exactly. Why is there a Genealogy from Adam to Christ?

    • I don’t think it is about picking and choosing. In order to read the Scriptures correctly, we need to read them as the original audience read them. In some situations, there is some lack of clarity on how the books were received.

      Since none of the Scriptures were written with modern sensibilities, we need to be cautious in applying our modernist absolutism to them. I think we need to be equally cautious in applying postmodern deconstructionism as well.

      As I said before, I believe truth is always held in tension. I am not willing to eliminate the possibility of a historic personage, but I choose not to be absolute because I don’t know that I can be absolute.

      As to the Luke genealogy, I can’t say that was intended to be absolutely historical. For one thing, it is missing generations. For another, it is not the same as Matthew’s. Again, I think we need to be cautious about applying modern sensibilities to an ancient text.

      I think it becomes abundantly obvious that I don’t have a very high opinion of modernism/rationalism and its various approaches to Scripture. The difference between me and many fundamentalists and evangelicals is that I see much of our own concepts as offshoots of modernity and inadequate explanations because they assume the supremacy of the modern mind. I prefer to submit my own modernity to the original audience/matrix as much as possible.

      Of course, that means I often get lumped as a ”liberal” when in fact, I feel that I am being far more literal than many literalists.

      But enough about me.

    • To suggest that if Genesis 1-3 isn’t literal, then the cross may not have been a literal event strains the bounds of credulity. None of us think that every scripture should be interpreted in exactly the same way, no matter the genre or original audience.

      I don’t think the second point (the necessity of the cross) really applies either as scripture makes painfully clear the sinful nature of man time and time again, whether all were originally physically descended from Adam or not.. But I understand why some ask the question.

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