The Book of Genesis

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Thursday, January 14, 2016 3 comments

by Steve Risner

“The book of Genesis, although a story that gives us meaning and some basic theology, is a myth not to be taken as an historical account. While the events never actually happened, they do convey deep spiritual truths about God, man, and the world around us.”—generic statement on the way Genesis was meant to be read by those who believe in deep time, primarily of the theistic evolution variety.

Today we will be discussing the book of Genesis and its literary style. We’ll look at poetry and whether or not Genesis meets any of the parameters of Hebrew poetry (and if this would even alter the historical account if it were). We will also discuss what a myth is as well as if that term is applicable to Genesis or any other portion of Scripture. I feel this is a very important discussion because it seems the tendency for many is to treat the topic as a side issue of little importance. They then will simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Yeah, it’s probably just a story with a point that gives us some spiritual truth but isn’t meant to be taken literally,” or something like that, when in reality the foundation of nearly every major Christian doctrine is found in the opening chapters of Genesis. This leads to very fragile faith that is easily toppled, I believe.

There are several options for the literary genre of Genesis: authentic history, parables, prophecy, letters, poetry, biography, and autobiography. Parables are generally introduced as such or give some sort of indicator that that’s what we’re dealing with. There are certainly prophecies within the chapters in question, but it’s not the primary intent of the writing. It’s clearly not a letter. I submit that we can put the book of Genesis, including the first 11 chapters, in the category of history including several biographies/autobiographies. Poetry, as I’ll explain in a moment, is not an option at all. However, if you would like to believe Genesis is written poetically, that’s fine with me. It does not change the factual nature of the accounts at all. This is sort of like if I wrote a song about my wedding day that included the facts of the day. It wouldn’t make the facts any less true if I wrote it in the form of a song. But the writing style of Genesis 1-11 is no different than that of the rest of the book. Chapters 12-50 are not considered poetry as far as I know by anyone.

And there seems to be a fairly strong unifying factor for the book as a whole. It reads with continuity from chapter 1 to 50. Hebrew poetry is dissimilar to English poetry in that it doesn’t focus so much on rhyming as it does on parallelism. This means the use of successive verbal constructions in poetry or prose that correspond in grammatical structure, sound, meter, meaning, etc. This is easily demonstrable in the Psalms and in the book of Proverbs as well as other books of the Old Testament. Read Psalm 24:1-4 and you’ll see the same ideas brought out multiple ways. This is Hebrew poetry. More common in the book of Proverbs is emblematic parallelism. This is essentially an ancient object lesson or extended simile. Read Proverbs 25:12 for an idea of how this works. There are other forms of parallelism but you get the idea. We can’t find any parallelism in the book of Genesis. There is none. There are a few phrases that are stated several times, but these are statements of fact and are appropriate for helping us understand the account. They are not for artistic appeal.

So why do I say the book should be read as an historical account rather than a myth? I have several reasons. First, let’s just make it clear that none of the Bible should be considered a myth. Myth, in the general sense, means an idea or story that is believed by many people but that is not true, OR a traditional story of historical events that likely did not happen but helps explain the events, OR a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence. Does this sound like the foundation for our Christian faith? Perhaps to the scoffer it does, but that’s an unsupportable position. To reduce any part of the Bible to a myth reduces the entire Word of God to nothing more than an interesting story.

Secondly, the Bible makes it fairly clear that its writers believed the events were actual and trustworthy as history. Since the Jewish people believe that Genesis chapters 12-50 are the documented history of their people, it follows that because the first 11 chapters are not written any differently, they too are historical. Notable scholars of Hebrew have no doubts that, at the very least, the authors of the books we call the Bible were certain the entire book of Genesis was an historical account. In a letter to Russell Grigg, a writer for CMI, Hebrew scholar Professor James Barr of Oxford wrote: “Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark. Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the ‘days’ of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.”

For this professor at Oxford to suggest anyone claiming the Biblical authors believed they were writing anything other than exactly what Biblical creationists believe “are not taken seriously” makes me wonder what ground there is for a Christian to stand on that suggests otherwise.

As touched on before, the unifying themes of Genesis cause the entire book to fall apart if even one aspect of it is classified as anything but historical. We also can find Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Noah all mentioned throughout the Word of God as though they were real people participating in real historical events. They are found in 15 other books of the Bible. Jesus Himself mentions Adam and Eve as though they were real people as well as their son, Abel, and Noah.

If the first 11 chapters of Genesis are not trustworthy historical accounts, the rest of the Bible is incomplete and makes no sense. The Bible’s theme is one of redemption and many have outlined it this way: Revelation of God’s purpose in redemption found in Genesis 1-11, progression of the story of redemption found in Genesis 12-Jude 25, and the consummation of God’s redemption as found in Revelation 1-22. Take away a portion and the whole is inadequate.

Much of what Paul wrote hangs on an historical reading of Genesis. Romans 5:19 reads, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous.” And 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 and 45 states, “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive … And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.’” The first Adam was Adam and he brought sin and death to the world through his disobedience. Through the second Adam, Jesus, and His obedience we have life and redemption. This is essential to understanding the Gospel. If one of these men is a myth, so is the other, or at least the need for the other.

To quote Russel Grigg: “If we apply the normal principles of biblical exegesis (ignoring pressure to make the text conform to the evolutionary prejudices of our age), it is overwhelmingly obvious that Genesis was meant to be taken in a straightforward, obvious sense as an authentic, literal, historical record of what actually happened.” (emphasis added) What I have bolded in his comment is at the very heart of this entire issue—forcing Genesis to not mean what it clearly states is an attempt to distort the Word of God to fit into a secular/atheist worldview. There is no way around that, period. Why would some suggest Genesis 1-11 are poetic or myth or allegory and not the rest of Genesis? Because after Noah and the Tower of Babel, the secular worldview the theistic evolutionist is trying to force into the Bible doesn’t really have any issues in terms of origins. If the suggestion is simply that Genesis 1 and 2 are mythical, then they allow the Flood, which removes all need for deep time in the geologic column. It also suggests that all mankind came from these 8 people in the ark which causes issues for their story and timeline. The only reason would be that the atheist view of origins is incompatible with Genesis 1-11 but has no problems from there with the accounts as they’re written.

If we start from the point that God is sovereign and trustworthy, we have no doubts as to the message of the Bible from the first verse to the last. If we first accept something other than God’s Word to start with, we erode the message of the Bible and damage the redemptive work of our Lord and Savior.

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Unknown said...

Oh Steve, the way you wrote this and then brought it to your powerful conclusion was just amazing! You accomplished what most don’t do, I actually had the phrase “Glory Hallelujah” hoot through my mind. That rarely happens as I have felt it gets thrown around by many without it having any meaning. It becomes cliché to those who hear it so much. But I must say, you made the words come to my mind and I do truly mean them. Glory and Praise be to Yahweh!!!

Thank you for the services you are providing!

Unknown said...

hoot = shoot, so sorry

Steve said...

Thank you, Nathanael! Praise God!