Is that what it says?
I absolutely love history! History is something that I always enjoyed as a young kid and is something that I still enjoy today. As a youngster I can remember my grandpa sitting me on his knee and telling me stories of Vietnam and the Korean War. Stories that were filled with mystery, violence, despair, and stories that were filled with hope, courage, and even some romance here and there. This type of storytelling was what I grew up on. Story telling is one of our primary modes of retelling the past. My dad is one of those people who I can sit down for hours and listen to the stories that have shaped him. From the time he was cut from the basketball team his senior year and returned and played each and every member on the team and beat them to prove a point to the basketball coach, to the time where he met my mother and gave up playing college baseball to be with her. Stories shape us, and they form us. But every story has its own unique spin sometimes. Even if the details did not happen exactly as what is being told, that okay; it’s really not the intention of stories. But history is different.
History in our modern usage of the words means the study of past events. History in today’s society and especially in the west is concerned with an accurate retelling of what had taken place. We want every detail to be smoothed out, every number to be in check. That is what we expect when we read a history book or when we ask someone about an event. But one thing we need to take into consideration is that maybe this is a very modern understanding of what history is. What I think we should also take into consideration, is that the authors of the Old Testament did not have this word in mind when they were compiling a retelling of their “history”
Ouch. Many of you may be very concerned for me right now and maybe even are ready to write me off as a heretic, but labor with me and listen to a little more of what I have to say. Just as every story is told by the perspective of the story teller, this is the same with the Old Testament or the Hebrew scriptures. So if we take this into consideration along with the idea they had a different understanding of history, we receive a new insight into what the Old Testament means for us today and meant for Israel in their own context.
Historiography. What? Historiography is a discipline that seeks to explore the past in order to influence the present. This is what we need to keep in mind when we read scripture. This is the main focus of the biblical writers in the Old Testament. They were not concerned with exact detail, and they used different sources to get across a point or a concern to the audience they were wanting to reach. Much of what we read is kerygmatic history or preached history. Their concern was who is God, what is God’s nature and character, and what the purpose of this God for humanity is. When we allow the Bible to be free of our “history” mind set, we allow it to speak volumes and its witness can reach anyone. But this leads us to the Old Testament and some issues that modern readers bring to the table.
In my last blog I mentioned that an inerrancy view of scripture will be upset by what I write. This in is no different. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are not historical accounts. They are a retelling of history in the biblical sense of the word to explain why the world, humanity, and life is the way it currently is. According to the Oxford companion to the Bible the creation accounts, “Are religious statements, designed to show God’s glory and greatness, the result of theological reflection by which the older mythology was radically transformed to express Israel’s distinctive beliefs.”
Some Hebrew Terminology
The Hebrew scribes and writers who wrote the two creation accounts had different emphases and also piggybacked off of other material, more ancient material in the area. Genesis 1-2.4a uses the name of God as Elohim. Genesis 2.4b-25 use the tetra gram Yahweh. Each account seems very unique. The first name of God describes power, a God who by the spoken word brings the watery chaos (Tehom) into order. The second account shows a God who is more anthropomorphic. “The first creation account, with its cultic background, ends with the religious institution of the Sabbath; the second, which is directed to humankind in community, with the social institution of marriage.” Each account has a different directive, but the final editors brought them together because they saw them as holding truth. A God who created all by the spoken word, who overcame the chaos with ease, who ordered creation, who is indeed worthy of worship, and a God who is close and personal who breathes life into creation. Each account was needed and that’s why the editors of scripture brought both into what we know today as Genesis.
The early writers had a worldview, a way how they saw the things around them and we can see this in the creation accounts. They did not have the understanding of a world that orbits the sun that is round; they knew of something much different. The land was flat, there were waters below the land then a separation of visible sky and then there was another separation that kept out the waters above. We see this in the account of Noah as the waters of the deep and waters of the heavens were opened up. Next let’s go over some simple Hebrew terms used in the accounts of Genesis 1. To follow along a dynamic equivalent translation would be preferred, NRSV or ESV. In verse 6 God said let there be a firmament or dome…Hebrew word (raqia) this was to separate the waters of chaos…what was over the formless void before God even began creating. . In verse 8 God calls this dome (raqia) sky or in Hebrew (ha-shamayim). Many also translate it heavens…but either way it is synonymous with raqia. V 9, now the water are being gathered together into one place and dry land appeared… (Ha-yabbashah). V 10 God calls it earth (aretz) in Hebrew. Now 11, (ha-aretz) is called to bring forth vegetation. Ha aretz is ha-yabbashah or the dry land. God also calls the water gathered together inside the dome (raquia), seas (ha-mayim). These seas are different than the darkness covered (tehom) waters of Genesis 1:1. The tehom is outside the barrier (raquia).
Time to break it Down Some
Now, we all know that there is no dome holding out a void or tehom. And we know that the stars, heavenly bodies, and galaxies are not suspended in this dome. The rest of Genesis 1 goes on to say all of these different things are suspended in the sky or this dome. Not above it or below it, but suspended in it. The different terms of dry land are also interplayed and later we see where ha aretz is used for purchase of property, place of birth, a region. And it is also used for ha-adamah. Genesis 7:4 says that in seven days God will send rain on ha-aretz and he will blot everything out from the face of the ha-adamah, ground or earth. When reading this text and looking at what the text is saying, it is impossible to see a modern world; it is showing a mystical understanding of origins that begins with a formless chaos that is held out by the dome, heavenly bodies that are suspended with in the dome. They were looking up and thought that the moon, stars, and sun were in this dome, the sky. Genesis 1 is from a point of view that anyone would have from just looking up.
Trying to force Genesis to say what we know now of the world is not honest to the biblical account. Genesis is first a religious text, a text that is full of mystery and theology. It is full of truth and we should embrace just how much depth there is in its contents. We should not be afraid of what it has to tell us, and reveal to us. Instead, we need to learn to embrace its mystery and let our doubts fuel us to a greater understanding of who God has revealed himself to be. We no longer have to live with a false dichotomy that faith and science are not compatible; they are. When we allow the biblical text to speak, we will find such treasure that will bring us into a great appreciation for those ancient Israelites who said that there was only one God. A God who loves creation, and will labor alongside His people.
Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science by Thomas Oord
Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible
The Historical Books: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series by Richard Nelson
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton
The Oxford Companion to the Bible by Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan