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Biblical Scholars and Genesis One

23rd November 2005

Some of my students are quite intrigued to learn that the reasons I question young earth creationism are not scientific, but are actually biblical.

Along a similar vein Mark Zvi Brettler has a well-written op/ed piece dealing with understanding Genesis one: “Don’t Create Science from Bible Stories.” This article has been picked up by some other papers and is well worth a read, even if you disagree with his conclusions. Brettler’s main point is that when approaching the biblical creation stories (or any other part of the Bible for that matter), one has to take into consideration genre.

Here are some excerpts:

You might imagine that as a biblical scholar, I would support creationism and intelligent design, two notions in which my Bible trumps scientific theories. In fact, the opposite is true — I do not believe the Bible bolsters either of these theories.

We must ask of every biblical passage: What is this, and what is its purpose? Genre determines how we understand any literary work. For example, newspapers contain news stories, advertisements and comics. Each has a different purpose: We expect news to contain unbiased information, ads to be highly biased and comics to entertain. The genre and purpose of these texts are not explicitly marked; most advertisements are not introduced with the word “ad” and a disclaimer: “This is meant to persuade and maybe (slightly) exaggerate.”

The Bible does not contain genre labels either. The first chapters of Genesis, for example, do not begin: “This is a scientific account of the creation of the world, telling you literally how the world was created.” Thus, we must ask what genre a biblical text is and what it is trying to tell us.

We should not characterize the beginning of Genesis as natural history or science. Just as we look at clues to distinguish news stories from ads, we must find pointers to understand what biblical accounts are trying to convey.

….

I believe the ancients would have seen the contradictions and taken these stories as something other than science or natural history. Unfortunately, ancient Israelites did not affix genre labels (“science,” “enlightening tale,” “legend”) to their works, so we can’t be sure how they should be read. Still, nothing about the way these stories present themselves suggests “science” and “history” are the best labels to use. This does not make the Bible less important than science; it makes it different.

I am not trying not to diminish the Bible’s authority. Just the opposite: I am trying to read it correctly, to understand it as it was understood in the ancient period and interpret it within its proper genres. Just as it is wrong to read comics as news, it is wrong to read creation stories in Genesis as science. Doing so creates confusion in our religious institutions, our schools and society.

Christopher Heard has also recently posted an excellent discussion of the interpretation of Genesis one titled “Why I am Not a Creationist.” It is also well worth a gander (and it even has pictures!) You may also want to read Duane Smith’s comments on Christopher’s post here.

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