When it comes to interpreting Genesis 1 within the last few hundred years, much of the debate for Christians has centered on the interpret the days of creation. Are they literal 24 hour periods of time as we experience them now? Are they undefined long periods of time? Or, are they a literary device used to communicate a theological message? Everyone rightly proclaims that context is the key and yet there are varied interpretations based on each person’s understanding of what exactly the context is. Herein lies the problem – what is the context of the creation account in Genesis 1? Is it just the exegesis of the Hebrew text or is it to include the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) background as well? How far do we extend the immediate context?
As the debate carries on currently the center of discussion has moved to focus on the ANE cultural background. ANE studies have been on a rise for the last several decades and their findings have caused numerous Christians from the scholar to the layman to question some of the long standing and popular interpretations of Genesis 1. The view that has been questioned the most in light of these ANE findings is the literal 24 hour view which sees the days of creation as 24 hour periods of time as we experience them today. This view is held by those described as Young Earth Creationists (YEC).
One of the most recent books to hit the shelves seeking to question this view is In the Beginning…We Misunderstood: Interpreting genesis 1 in Its Original Context by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. Both are graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary and have been or are pastors and teachers.
The Goal of the Book
The title of the book clearly communicates to the reader that the church by in large has misunderstood Genesis 1 and therefore misinterpreted it. After briefly explaining both of their journeys in their understanding of Genesis 1 and creation, Miller and Soden state their purpose in writing the book clearly as their effort to challenge
The belief that the six days of creation were literal twenty-four-hour days and that believing the Bible requires holding this interpretation. It also includes questioning the assumption that Genesis 1 is primarily about the physical origins of an ancient universe. The assumption that a scientific reading of Genesis 1 is the only way, or even a necessary way, of reading the Bible has to be challenged. And the assumption that the people who read it any other way don’t believe the Bible has to be challenged. (p. 31-32)
For Miller and Soden (and no doubt others like them), the problem they have with what they would term a ‘literalistic’ interpretation of Genesis 1 is that it is seen through the eyes of a modern person and not that of the original readers (p. 21 & 37). This is where we begin to discuss the context of Genesis 1. Did the original readers think in terms of material creation like we do today? If not, then how did they think about creation and how does their thinking of creation effect our interpretation of the creation account in Genesis 1?
The Exegetical/Hermeneutical Considerations
With context in mind Miller and Soden make the following statements that guide their interpretation:
To understand it fully, one must read it first in its original language and try to understand it in relation to its original author (Moses), in relation to its original readers (Israel recently released from slavery in Egypt), and in relation to the culture, worldview, and literary genre of the text.
We believe that understanding Genesis 1 in its original language and setting leads us to conclude that it is a broadly figurative presentation of literal truths; it is highly stylized and highly selective. It does not report history as a journalist might do. (p. 48)
With the aforementioned statements as a foundation, the authors then show from their perspective how the text of Genesis 1 does not exegetically support what the YEC interpretation purports it does (p. 49-57). Amidst a number of exegetical considerations there are two that would garner the most attention. First, the authors point out that while in most English translations of the Hebrew text the word “the” is placed before each day (“on the first day”, etc.) this is to add what is not there and take away from the importance of the sixth and seventh days which does have the article “the”. Adding it in English distracts the reader from what is happening on the sixth and seventh day (p. 49-50). To Miller and Soden this indicates exegetically that the view is not on a sequence of creation but the object of creation on those given days. Second, while their perspective is not necessarily new, Miller & Soden see the phrase “evening and morning” not as referring to literal days since they appear at day one which is three days before the sun is created (p. 52). Further, the Egyptian texts indicate that they believed a battle occurred between gods for the rising of the sun, and thus, the beginning of a new day. To Miller & Soden this sheds light on the significance of the phrase “evening and morning” as showing a lack of struggle between gods since there is only one God who has all creation under control. They state,
The transition between days shows no struggle, but instead exhibits a sequential building of order, effortlessly moving from day to day, from one to seven, without any reference to a time lapse. (p. 108)
Another question that provides some hermeneutical guidance is, what is the purpose of Genesis? Why did Moses write it? The authors rightly point out that the literary phrase “the generations of….” provide us with the structure of Genesis through which we are to see its purpose. The eleven toledoths show us that the purpose of Genesis is to provide Israel with their identity as the people of God. This in turn leads them conclude that Genesis
Was written for the people of God after their exodus from Egypt to (re) acquaint them with the God of their fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and with His calling on their national life, giving them a purpose (to bring blessing to the nations) and a future in a land (the physical platform from which to show the nations the source of blessing; Gen. 12:1-3). (p. 64)
ANE Background as Context for Genesis 1
The second part of the book deals with the ANE creations accounts as the historical and cultural context of Genesis 1. This is the real meat of the book. The authors cover the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Canaanite creation accounts. The authors walk through each ANE account of creation by both comparing and contrasting them with the Genesis account. They deal with topics such as how they account for the beginning of everything, the initial conditions of creation, the means of creation, the sequence of the events and the purpose of creation.
If these three ANE creations accounts form the background into which Moses wrote Genesis 1 then we see each having a purpose for which it is responded too: (1) Canaan because it was the home of Israel’s fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, (2) Egypt because it was where Israel had just been freed from and (3) Mesopotamia because it was where Israel was going to. No doubt, God and Moses knew these other creation accounts would have influenced Israel’s understanding of God and His creation. Given the three ANE cultural influences upon Israel, the authors rightly contend that the Egyptian cultural context is the one which would have had the most influence on Moses as he wrote Genesis and on Israel as they grappled with their identity as God’s people. After all, they had just come out of Egypt.
By comparing and contrasting the three ANE creations with Genesis the authors are trying to help contemporary readers of Genesis appreciate the historical and cultural context of Genesis 1. Thus, they are arguing that a true exegesis of the text will take into account the ANE cultural and historical context in which Genesis 1 was written and to which it was written against. In regards to the parallels between the biblical and ANE accounts the authors are not suggesting that Moses was simply borrowing from them. Rather, he was using similar language, concepts and motifs that the Israelites would have been familiar with and recast the events of creation in order to correct Israel’s theology of creation and its God. They are a reference point rather than the foundation.
Since it is the Egyptian context that would be the greatest target for Moses there is naturally the most comparisons and contrasts. It is here that YEC’ers will have to grapple with the most. The authors provide very compelling cases for how Israel would have understood the days, evening and morning and sequence of events in creation. The comparisons and contrasts are both striking and revealing as to how the original audience of Israel would have read Genesis 1. The authors are not trying to argue against God having created all material existence. They heartily agree that He did. Rather, they are trying to properly interpret Genesis 1 in context, allowing it to say what God and Moses intended – no less but also no more.
I have always interpreted Genesis 1 as describing creation in material terms. I am not ignorant of some of the difficulties of this interpretation both exegetically and contextually in regards to the ANE accounts. I am not of the stripe that all of the creation interpretations by Christians are mutually exclusive. There are clear literary patterns in the text and even more clear theological considerations in light of the ANE accounts. They have given me much to think about.
What Miller and Soden have done is give a compelling case for another way of reading the creation account in Genesis 1 that is contextually aware and honest through both exegesis of the Hebrew text and proper consideration of the ANE cultural and historical backgrounds.
I highly recommend In the Beginning….We Misunderstood. It is written at the lay level without sacrificing depth and scholarly analysis of the relevant material. The authors are under no illusion that their book will end the debate but they have certainly given us something to think about. Greg Koukl always says that his goal is not to convert everyone to his position that he meets. Rather, he has a more modest goal of putting a rock in a person’s shoe and giving them something to think about as they go their way. That is what Miller and Soden have done. They have given us something compelling to think about.
NOTE: This book was provided for free from Kregel in exchange for an honest review. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review and the words and thoughts expressed are my own.
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