Re: Gen 1-11 as history

George Murphy (
Tue, 17 Aug 1999 20:14:26 -0400

Pattle Pun wrote:
> I thought an excerpt from my article "Progressive Creationism" below may
> help in the current discussion:
> Although Theistic Evolutionists tend to interpret the creation account in
> Genesis figuratively, it is contrary to the context of the text. There
> seem to be eleven historical narratives in the first thirty-seven chapters
> of Genesis, each delimited by the phrase, "These are the names
> [generations, descendants] of . . . " (Gen. 2:4, 5:1 6:9, 10:1, 11:10,
> 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, 36:9, 37:2). The contents are linked together
> to form a roughly chronological account of primeval and patriarchal
> life.(31, 32) While few would doubt the historicity of the patriarchs of
> Israel, it seems unwarranted to assume the creation account to be
> allegorical while the rest of these narratives are historical.

1) The passages you note are (for those who buy some variant of the documentary
hypothesis) part of P, one of the characteristics of which is concern about proper
ordering, times, &c. P's structuring of his account & marking it with this typical
phrase may be one of his (their?) ways of expressing the theological theme of the
connection of Israel (& ultimately its cultic calendar &c) with the original creation of
the world.
2) I think one of the difficulties we have in this area is really having any
sense of what the authors, redactors, & audiences of these accounts thought & pictured
when they were first set out, heard, & read. I would guess that most of them thought
of the creation accounts as descriptions of events which had happened in the first week
of the world, just as they thought of the sky as a solid dome with waters above it. We
need to take those understandings seriously, but also have to ask whether we can
understand them in those ways today - or whether we are to hear them as
theological statements about the relationship of God with the world whose history &
cosmology we understand quite differently.
3) I would agree about the historicity of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob (though there
are certainly scholars who question that), but would be more hesitant about any details
concerning Noah & even more about the ante-diluvian patriarchs. So it's not a matter of
separating off just 1:1-2:4.
4) I certainly would not advocate an _allegorical_ reading of Genesis 1. That
is an approach in which one attempts to find symbolic meanings in the details of the
text, so that plants, animals, light &c could "really" mean some spiritual entities. In
the ancient church it was an approach which enabled people to downplay the mundane
physical character of the account & "spiritualize" it. In a rough way the modern
day-age interpretation is a variant of this.
In contrast, I think we have to understand that the account refers to real
light, water, earth, plants, animals - & sky, even though described as a solid dome. &
then we need to try to understand - 1st in terms of the text itself, 2d from the rest of
Scripture, 3d from the church's tradition of interpretation, & 4th our scientific and
historical knowledge of the world - what the theological content is & what connection it
has with the central christological theme of Scripture.

The New
> Testament also regards certain events mentioned in Genesis 1 as actually
> having transpired (e.g., Mark 10:6, 1 Cor. 11:8-9). Calvin suggests that
> the historical account of the sixday creation shows God's goodness towards
> man in lavishly preparing the world for the habitation of man, the climax
> of God's creation.(33)

& unfortunately much of the Christian tradition has understood creation in an
excessively anthropocentric way, as if all the rest of creation were only for the
benefit of humanity.

> More recently, Blocher(34) has suggested that the creation account in
> Genesis should be interpreted "historico-artistically." That is, as a
> framework of seven days used anthropomorphically by the author of Genesis
> to outline a theology of Sabbath. Blocher traces the anthropomorphic
> usage of the word "days" back to Augustine.(35) Aquinas also recognizes
> the difference between the work of distinction (days 1-3) and the work of
> adornment (days 4-6), although he interprets a day as a 24-hour solar
> day.(36) The difficulties of the creation of the heavenly luminaries after
> the creation of light, and the inconsistencies of the timing sequence of
> the creation of plants as recorded in Genesis 1 and 2, are resolved by the
> anthropomorphic use of "days."
> While Blocher's framework hypothesis is attractive for its resolution of
> some of the apparent conflicts between Genesis 1 and 2, it remains unclear
> at what point one can draw the boundary line between an allegorical
> account, where only the spiritual meaning prevails, and a
> historical-theological account, where both what actually transpired and
> its spiritual meaning are significant.

I haven't read Blocher but from your description I wonder if "allegorical" is
the right term. But it is certainly true that both Gen.1 & Gen.2 should be understood
as referring to the creation of the physical world we inhabit.

The assumption that Genesis I
> represents a "wide-angle" perspective of God's creative activities and
> Genesis 2 gives these activities a "close-up" examination may help in our
> understanding of the creation account. The seemingly conflicting
> chronological sequences of the creation of plants, animals and man may be
> resolved by assuming an overlapping of the creative eras, whereby some of
> the creative activities may have been contemporaneous or overlapping.(37)
> In addition, the New International Version (NIV) translation of Genesis
> 2:4-5, "When, the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, no shrub of the
> field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet
> sprung up ... there was no man to work the ground," seems to suggest that
> the shrub and the plant had, not yet grown in the "field" or "level place"
> partly
> for lack of a farmer. Then God created Adam and put him in the Garden of
> Eden to take care of it. The emphasis seems to be on the caretaker role
> of man instead of on the chronology of creation.

Yes, the 2d account is not concerned with chronology in the way that P is.
But it has an implicit chronology, which is not that of P.

Moreover, verse 19, "I
> Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field
> and all the birds of the air," seems to suggest that these animals were
> created before Adam so that they could be brought to him for naming.

I don't know what NIV's justification was for rendering the imperfect
_yitser_ as "had formed" here. Cf. RSV, "So out of the ground the LORD God formed every
beast of the field ...".

> Therefore, the conflicts in the chronology of creation in Genesis I and 2
> may be more apparent than real.

No, I think if you read both accounts straightforwardly they're there.

The origin of sin and evil and the
> Christ-Adam juxtaposition seem to demand a historical Adam, to which
> conclusion Blocher also subscribes. If the "close up" creation account of
> Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 is theologically and historically significant,
> is it not also applicable to the "wide angle" account of creation in
> Genesis 1?(38)

Why? This is like saying that if Samuel-Kings is historically accurate then the
idealized-eschatologized version in Chronicles must be too.

> In addition, the Hebrew word nephesh, translated as "living soul" (Gen.
> 2:7), of man is also used to describe other living creatures in Genesis
> 1:20-21 and 24. The distinction of man and beasts is that man was created
> in the image of God and other creatures were not. Therefore, in Genesis
> 2:7, man becomes a living being for the first time, just as other
> creatures, This would seem to rule out the interpretation that man is
> genetically derived from some previously existing living forms.(38)

In Gen.2 the distinction is the commission God gives to humanity & the human
ability to hear & obey (or disobey) that call. The concept "image of God" isn't
used in this account.
& of course it would be a mistake to try to read a modern evolutionary account
out of eith Gen.1 or Gen.2. The deeper question is whether or not the pictures of
mediated creation in Genesis provide an entree for such ideas.


George L. Murphy