Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Genesis Is Not A Poem

This recent offering from the "scientists" made major headlines in the UK's Guardian newspaper. The article goes on to say:

It may not rank as the most compelling reason to curb greenhouse gases, but reducing our emissions might just save humanity from a pre-emptive alien attack, scientists claim. Watching from afar, extraterrestrial beings might view changes in Earth's atmosphere as symptomatic of a civilisation growing out of control – and take drastic action to keep us from becoming a more serious threat, the researchers explain. This highly speculative scenario is one of several described by a Nasa-affiliated scientist and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University that, while considered unlikely, they say could play out were humans and alien life to make contact at some point in the future.

Ian Sample, The Guardian’s science correspondent continued on his article to say that:

"Green" aliens might object to the environmental damage humans have caused on Earth and wipe us out to save the planet. "These scenarios give us reason to limit our growth and reduce our impact on global ecosystems. It would be particularly important for us to limit our emissions of greenhouse gases, since atmospheric composition can be observed from other planets," the researchers write.

Applying the grammatical-historical approach to this article I came up with the following interpretation:

Hi, I’m a scientist. You can tell because I wear a long white coat with a pocket protector. I have the highly trained ability to impress you with big words. I also have a wildly speculative imagination, which is a tremendous asset to scientists who are unable to track down any empirical evidence or factual information. When I use my wildly speculative imagination I prefer to call it “research”. Governments give me money to do this “research” and if I entertain them enough with my research they give me even more money to do even more research.

It would seem that the general public is generally satisfied with the explanation “scientists say”. Furthermore, it would seem that many theologians in the world of academia are not only satisfied with the “scientists say” mantra, they also feel the need to capitulate to their “imposing research”.

In all fairness, there is a such thing as empirical science where tests are made, data is compiled, and conclusions are drawn. The law of gravity is derived from true empirical science hence it is called a law. It is testable, measurable, repeatable, and observable. On the other hand, Darwinian evolutionary theory and Big Bang cosmology are not empirically proven facts. They are not testable, measurable, repeatable, or observable. Yet the majority of “Christian academia” feel enormous pressure to accommodate these theories into the very first chapter of the Bible.

The first chapter of Genesis is a very straightforward read for the average man in the average pew. God gives a chronological account of the six days He took to create the world (and the universe). This literary style or genre is called narrative (the other genres being poetry, parables, prophecy, and epistles). Biblical narrative refers to the portions of Scripture that give an account of historic events. It is the most common genre in the entire Bible comprising more than 40 percent of the Old Testament and nearly 60 percent of the New Testament. Theologians desirous of accommodating the prevailing “scientific” views on origins into Scripture are faced with the options of either rejecting the first eleven chapters of Genesis altogether or changing the genre from narrative to something else.

While the first eleven chapters of Genesis provide no major hermeneutical challenges to any Bible interpreter, they do provide major problems for those who want to wear the “Christian label” without being laughed at by their friends in the long white coats with pocket protectors. The most popular default among “conservative scholars” has been to reclassify the creation account as poetry rather than narrative. These scholars will readily admit their belief that Genesis switches back to the narrative genre later on though they have not been forthcoming with where exactly that is and how they determined that particular line of demarcation.

Tragically, many of these scholars do not realize that their efforts to win over the scientific establishment have come at the cost of losing the gospel. Denying Adam as a literal historical figure, denying the fall and curse as a literal historical event, and allowing for death to occur prior to Adam all do severe violence to the exclusive biblical gospel. A gospel that requires a fall to introduce sin, sin to introduce a curse, a curse to introduce death, and a second Adam to defeat death.

The fact that the entire book of Genesis is a narrative would be a “no brainer” were it not for the external interpretive pressures coming from outside of the Bible itself. Every biblical instance of yom (the Hebrew word for day) with a numerical prefix refers to a literal day – hence six literal days of creation as the first chapter of the Bible clearly states. The common features of Hebrew poetry such as figurative language and parallelisms are also absent from the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Professor John Currid states:

There is no indication of figurative language in Genesis 1. If the narrative is to be considered imagery, one would expect to encounter many of the essentials of figurative language (eg. schema, metaphor, and other tropes), but there are none.

Professor Doug Kelly provides even more compelling evidence concerning the narrative genre of Genesis:

A further confirmation of the non-poetic, historical nature of the Genesis account of creation is found in the way the New Testament uses these early chapters. Certainly for those who take the New Testament seriously, and are committed to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ as truth itself, the New Testament approach to Genesis will be of highest consequence. No amount of exegetical straining can find the slightest poetic view of Genesis 1-11 in the books of the New Testament. One can disagree with the new Testament’s literal, historical usage of Genesis 1-11, but one cannot honestly find in its pages anything less than a straightforward reading of these chapters as literal, relevant facts (Douglas F. Kelly, Creation and Change Page 39).

Although the primary purpose of this lesson is to highlight principles for interpreting biblical narrative, the battle for Genesis highlights the importance of this issue and brings some of these interpretive principles to the surface. Some of the major principles of interpreting biblical narrative include:

1. God alone is the hero of every story – biblical narratives contain stories about people who lived during biblical times, but they are primarily about the God Who works in, through, for, and against these people. Adherence to this principle is a great remedy for the modern propensity of preachers to moralize biblical narratives.

2. Narratives are descriptive and not prescriptive – while it may be tempting to try and interpret a narrative as an example, or advice, for how Christians should live, we need to remember that narratives do not attempt to show us how we should live but merely describe events as they happened.

3. Narrative must be interpreted in the light of its broader literary context – all biblical passages of narrative must be located within their larger theological framework. For example, when reading the books that chronicle the lives of the kings of Israel and Judah, the reader is expected to be familiar with the Pentateuch in order to grasp the laws and customs dealt with in these books.

4. Narrative must be interpreted in the light of the book in which it is found – the interpreter must consider the purpose and themes of the book in which the narrative is located and consider how this narrative contributes to the greater purpose of the book.

5. The interpreter should immerse himself in the historical and cultural setting of the narrative – repeatedly reading the narrative will bring the interpreter more and more into the world of the author and audience.

6. The pinnacle of interpreting biblical narrative is to determine the theological purpose of the passage – narrative may be historical but its purpose is theological. In uncovering the theological purpose the interpreter must pay close attention to four features of the narrative: the selection of material; the use of repetition, the use of editorial comments, and the use of summary statements.

These principles provide an excellent framework for the interpretation of biblical narrative. It is to our peril when our efforts to find something between the lines negate what is clearly written on the lines. When God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses He engraved these words in stone as a perpetual reminder as to why He commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11a). Somehow I doubt God would engrave a poem in stone and call it a commandment!


Kristoffer Haldrup said...

"The fact that the entire book of Genesis is a narrative would be a “no brainer” were it not for the external interpretive pressures coming from outside of the Bible itself."

Yup, there you have it. The pesky, observable thing called "reality" that surrounds us has this infuriating tendency to impose on our views and invalidate fictional claims like, say, Genesis or the Flood of Noah :)

"Somehow I doubt God would engrave a poem in stone and call it a commandment!"

Well, if you read stuff like Exodus 26, you will realize that this God of yours can be surprisingly obsessed about small details of an artistic nature -- reading those passages, I would not be one bit surprised if your God would elevate a bit of poetry to a Commandment writ in stone ;)

Anonymous said...

"There is no indication of figurative language in Genesis 1. If the narrative is to be considered imagery, one would expect to encounter many of the essentials of figurative language (eg. schema, metaphor, and other tropes), but there are none."

Apparently the title "professor" is no guarantee for the ability to read a text. Genesis 1 is loaded with poetic features, and to claim otherwise is ignorant.

You can of course still read the poetry in a literal way, but at least admit the obvious.

Soldier of Kurios said...

I am with anonymous on this one. Genesis 1 alone has a great deal of number symbolism i.e. the opening sentence is 7 words long and the second sentence is 14 words long (in Hebrew). 7 being the number which symbolises perfection and completion, which seems to be what Moses was aiming for here.

Cameron, in regards to the debate over Genesis being written in historical pros vs metaphorical language, didn't Augustine view Genesis 1 and 2 as being poetic? I think he did mate.

Kristoffer, I'm not quite sure what you are trying to say in your comment. Are you claiming that God wrote Genesis down in stone? God didn't write any commandments down in stone in the book of Genesis.

Additionally, I don't understand your logic. Are you telling me that it is irrational for a supreme God who created the universe to actually care about what the his creation does with itself? The Late Christopher Hitchens and Prof Dawkins voiced this in regards to God and human sexuality. Logically, a supreme creator of the Universe would most definitely care about his creation. Especially, if He is a good God. Our God is a God of order. This is most evident in Genesis 1, which stands in complete contrast with other creation stories from the ancient near East. God cares because he created us.

How about I put it to you this way. From your previous arguments, you seem to be passionate about science, correct? I bet that you care about what happens to all the hard work you produce and how it is used, right? What if I took a theory you developed and I misquote and distort what you theorized. You wouldn't mind, would you? Of course you would! Now, you and I are both imperfect; how much more would a perfect creator care about his work? The answer is simple. Of course he would and does. He cares so much that he would become a man, suffer on a cross to pay for our sin and send his Spirit to walk with us through this life.

Finally Kristoffer, may I direct you to an article and video explaining the genre which Genesis fits into. I hope you enjoy:

Kristoffer Haldrup said...

Mostly, Kuros, I was poking fun at Cameron Buettel's "logic" :)

-As you well know from my other writings here, I generally regard the bible as bunch of old myths, no more, no less. These myths contain passages like Exodus 26, which to me as an outsider are quite hilarious, especially as parts of a religuous document that some people tend to put a lot of stock in. To me, a god that would put these kinds of silly things in the Holy Book(tm), might elevate just about anything to a Commandment(tm) :)

-Regarding science, I do find that creationists have quite the tendency to distort and misquote many scientific theories to support their reading of Genesis. From your last comment I may ask: is this some kind of weird religious practice I just don't get? ;)

Cameron Buettel said...

Kristoffer, please keep your religion out of this. It has nothing to do with true science.

Soldier of Kurios said...

Yes Kristoffer, Exodus 26 would seem "hilarious" for an outsider, primarily because you and I are both four thousand years removed from the writing of the text. Before meeting Jesus five years ago, I thought the Bible was ridiculous too. However, through a better understanding of the historical context in which the bible was written, I now have a great appreciation for the Bible, as you will see if you read the article I sent you. I truly believe that the Bible is the Word of God.

Now, to your comment about about science. You have proven my point. We care what people do with our work, don't we? Again, God cares about his creation and the ordering of it. How we worship him is important, which is why the commandment Exodus 26 is given (I'm assuming you are referring to the arrangement of the tabernacle?). Greater understanding of the Bible will help you comprehend what is written in these texts.

God cares about our rejection and rebellion of him. We all see the fingerprint of God in creation, but as Paul suggests in Romans 1, we suppress the truth and worship ourselves rather than the creator. God cares so much about his creation that he came to earth to pay for this rejection, in Jesus.

Kristoffer, the Bible's logic may sound silly to you as an outsider, but honestly, many of the counter arguments just sound outright ridiculous! The Bible is the truth and I lovingly call you to investigate it deeper!

The Soldier

Kristoffer Haldrup said...

Soldier of Kuros, it is very cute and all that you "lovingly call me to investigate the bible deeper"...But, and I hate to disappoint you here, the more I read (and I have read quite a bit of it again, after my first (and only) full reading many years ago) the more stuff I find that simply make me go "By golly, people actually BELIEVE this?!?" -And this is also when I make allowance for the historical context in which the texts were written...However, this shouldn't make you feel in any way special, I have exactly the same feeling when I read muslim, buddhist, hinduist, scientology, you name it, texts -- they all leave me equally flabbergasted (wonderful word!) that you people actually belive in that stuff :)

-By the way, in that last sentence, you can remove my smiley for the cases where the bible or any the other holy texts order or recommend doing something awful to people. Those parts are not fun at all, but speak of a narrator with a deeply sick mindset :(