Interpretative challenges

Peter Enns (The Evolution of Adam) summarises the kinds of interpretative challenges that any ‘reasonably alert reader’ might identify in the early chapters of Genesis:-

  1. In Genesis 1, how can there be days 1, 2, and 3 (1:3–13) before a sun and moon are created on day 4 (1:14–19)?
  2. Why doesn’t Genesis 1 mention the creation of angels, since they are part of God’s creation and play such prominent roles later in the Old Testament?
  3. Why does God say, “Let us make humankind” (Gen 1:26; 3:22)?
  4. What does it mean to be made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26)?
  5. How does the formation of one man (Adam, in Gen 2:7) and one woman (Eve, in Gen 2:21–25) relate to the creation of humanity as a whole, male and female (Gen 1:26–27)?
  6. Are Adam and Eve created perfect and immortal?
  7. Why does God not want Adam to have the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:15–17)? What does it mean to be like God (Gen 3:22) if Adam does acquire that knowledge?
  8. What drives Adam and Eve to disobey God and Cain to kill Abel?
  9. Is Adam’s sinfulness hereditary in some way?
  10. Who is really to blame, Adam or Eve?
  11. Why are Adam and Eve only banished for eating the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:22–24) when God said they would die on the very day they eat of it (Gen 2:17)?
  12. If Adam and Eve are the first humans, and Cain their only surviving offspring, how can Cain be afraid of retaliation for murdering his brother (Gen 4:13–16)? Where did he get his wife (Gen 4:17)?
  13. Who/what is the serpent in the garden, and what is it doing there in the first place (Gen 3:1–7)?
  14. Why does God need to ask where Adam and Eve are in the garden (Gen 3:9)?

Further questions (says Enns) have captured the attention of scholars:-

  1. Why are there two such clearly different creation stories at the very beginning of the Bible? (Gen 1:1–2:3 and Gen 2:4–25)
  2. Why is proper sacrifice mentioned so suddenly at the dawn of time? Why does it play such a big role with Cain and Abel? (Gen. 4)
  3. Why is the flood story so choppy, repetitive, and internally inconsistent? (Gen. 6–9)
  4. Why are there two stories of the nations being dispersed? (Gen. 10 and Gen 11:1–9)
  5. Who is Melchizedek? How can he be a priest of “God Most High” way back in Abraham’s day? (Gen 14:18)
  6. Why are there two covenant-making stories with Abraham? (Gen. 15 and Gen 17)
  7. How can Abraham be described as a law keeper long before the law was given? (Gen 26:5)
  8. How can the concept of Israelite kingship be mentioned long before Israel existed as a nation? (Gen 36:31)

Scholarly consideration of these kinds of challenges and questions have led to the following near-consensus regarding the Pentateuch:-

1. The entire Pentateuch is written in the third person and in the past tense.
2. There is no claim in the Pentateuch that Moses is its author.
3. The Pentateuch contains numerous explanatory comments that reflect a time well beyond that of Moses.  See, for example, Gen 36:31.
4. The Pentateuch assumes that conditions present at the time of writing were in existence in ancient times.  (Gen 14:14, for example, refers to the city of Dan; yet according to Josh 19:47, the place was not given that name until the conquest of Canaan.)
5. There are a number of “doublets” in the Pentateuch (e.g., two creation accounts in Gen. 1 and 2; two genealogies in Gen 10 and 11; two stories of the Abrahamic covenant in Gen. 15 and 17; two incidents of Abraham’s passing Sarah off as his sister in Gen. 12 and 20; two calls of Moses in Exod. 3 and 6; two incidents of Moses and water from the rock in Exod. 17 and Num. 20).  These doublets often present contrasting points of view, and the conclusion is that they arise from different and independent traditions.
6. Linguists judge that the Hebrew which the characters of the Pentateuch speak comes from the 1st millennium, rather than the 2nd millennium, BC.

Comment:- My suspicion is that more conservative scholars tend either to ignore such questions, or sometimes propose implausible explanations and harmonisations.  My own view is that we must face these issues honestly.  However, I find Enns’ approach, while stimulating, to be deeply unsatisfactory.  While espousing belief in Scripture as both human and divine, he emphasises the former, while finding little positive to say about the latter.

Genesis and modern science

‘In the case of the opening chapters of Genesis, it is not plausible that the human authors knew what we are taught by astronomers, geologists and other scientists.  Therefore we must curb the desire to make the scientific view play a part in the actual interpretation; the interpretation must cling solely to the text and its context.  The inescapable comparison with the sciences of cosmic, biological and human origins will not come in until after; this will no doubt have repercussions on the work of interpretation which is never completed, but they will be of a merely external nature.  The sciences will stimulate the interpreter from without, driving him the verify his exegesis and test the evidence, or encouraging him by favourable convergences which bear witness to the common origin of the two books of God.  In order to submit ourselves to God in his sovereign declarations and in the condescension of his inspiration of men, we conclude that the place of the sciences in the reading of the Bible is this: they have neither authority, nor even a substantial ministerial role within the actual interpretation; they act as warnings and confirmations at a later stage.’  (Blocher, In the Beginning, 26f)

The God of Genesis

‘The God of Genesis is the Creator, bringing order out of chaos, calling life into being by his word, making Adam from earth’s dust and Eve from Adam’s rib (chaps. 1-2). And he is Lord of all that he has made. He curses the ground and subjects mankind to physical death, thus changing his original perfect world order (Gen 3:17-24); he floods the earth in judgment, destroying all life except that in the ark (chaps. 6-8); he confounds human language and scatters the builders of Babel (Gen 11:7-9); he overthrows Sodom and Gomorrah by (apparently) a volcanic eruption (Gen 19:24-25). Abraham truly calls him “the Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25), and rightly adopts Melchizedek’s name for him, “God Most High, maker of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:19-22 RSV). He is present everywhere, and he observes everything: Cain’s murder (Gen 4:9), mankind’s corruption (Gen 6:5), Hagar’s destitution (Gen 16:7). Well did Hagar name him El Roi, “the God who sees me,” and call her son Ishmael, “God hears,” for God does in truth both hear and see, and nothing escapes him.’ (Packer, Knowing God)