How Not to Read Genesis

The opening chapters of How to Read Genesis by Tremper Longman III are pretty good. So when I got to chapter four, titled “Myth or History? Genesis and the Enuma Elish” I was excited. I had just recently engaged an unbeliever on the question of whether the biblical stories — or at least the supernatural ones — were myth or history, and I have also long been intrigued by the contrasts between Genesis and Enuma Elish. I was looking forward to seeing Longman’s take on it.

I’m sorry to say that I was sorely disappointed. Longman writes:

Today as I read Genesis 1-2 my thoughts go to high school biology and physics. How does the biblical depiction of creation relate to the big bang theory and evolution?

No doubt, Genesis 1-2 has bearing on our evaluation of these modern scientific accounts of cosmic and human origins. But a moment’s thought will jar us into remembering that this comparison would not have occurred to ancient authors and readers. It is certain that the biblical account of creation was not written to counter Charles Darwin or Stephen Hawking, but it was written in the light of rival descriptions of creation. And thanks to the discoveries of archaeologists and language experts over the past couple of centuries, we have in hand at least some of those ideas that would have competed for the hearts and minds of ancient Israelites.

Longman goes on to describe a sampling of the myths, Egyptian and Mesopotamian, that Genesis was undoubtedly written to fight against — and he excels at selecting examples that show the similarities and contrasts. However, in his closing appraisal, he says something truly disappointing (emphasis added):

Did the creation of Adam literally take place the way it is narrated, or is the story of Adam’s creation shaped to teach us things about the nature of humanity? Did God really use the dust of the ground to form Adam’s body and blow his breath into it? If so, then we should probably see the Mesopotamian account as a perversion of a fundamental truth preserved accurately in the biblical tradition.

More likely, however, is the idea that Genesis has taken the Near Eastern tradition and then substituted God’s breath for either divine spit or blood. This communicates both the truth that humans are creatures connected to the earth and beings who have a special relationship with God, for it was God who created humanity.

About that “or” in the first paragraph: why should it be one or the other? And granting the false dilemma, by what mysterious alchemy does the option Longman espouses become more likely? Put more baldly, what makes it less likely that Genesis 1-2 is sober history, told just the way it happened? I’m not really sure how Longman would answer that question, but my best guess is that his answer is in the first two paragraphs I quoted. Genesis wasn’t meant to answer Darwin and Hocking, Longman suggests. It’s not really about that, you see. Which leads us to the question: What is it really about? The answer, for Longman, is that it’s about certain key ideas of human dignity and relationship to God. The details about dust, the breath of God, and so on are dispensible, so long as the ideas are retained. (See James Jordan’s critique of the inherent gnosticism in this sort of thinking.)

In addition to the gnosticism problem Jordan points out, there are two additional problems with this. First, while it’s quite unlikely that Moses was thinking, “Take that, Darwin!” when he set pen to papyrus, it will turn out that by refuting Enuma Elish, Genesis also refutes Darwin, because Darwinism, at bottom, is nothing but Enuma Elish baptized in post-Enlightenment balloon juice. Anyone with Longman’s literary expertise ought to see this very clearly. Enuma Elish says the world as we know it today was born in an orgy of chaos, sex, and death, and these three forces are the engine from which all life springs. Darwin explains that the various species arise from a combination of random mutation (chaos) and natural selection (sex and death). The big difference is that Darwin said it in a way that post-Enlightenment man wouldn’t laugh at. Hawking likewise has nothing to add that Enuma Elish hasn’t already offered to the world, only to have Genesis soundly refute it.

Second, although Longman seems to understand the relationship of literary story to core ideas, he completely misses the even more important relationship between historical story and those same ideas. It’s true: the Genesis story, as told, does express human dignity and purpose, place the responsibility for conflict with man, and so on. What Longman misses, however, is that those ideas, if they’re really true, depend on some story for their truth. Man doesn’t just happen to enjoy a special relationship with God, or just happen to be responsible for sin and death in the world. Those things aren’t “just there”; they are true for a reason. Something happened to make those things true. And if that something is not the Genesis account, in all its details, then it would have to be some other, equally compelling story.

There are two critical questions here. First, why shouldn’t the Genesis account be a historically accurate account of what really happened and as a result also a lesson in certain key truths about God, man, and nature? This is clearly how it presents itself, and how the other biblical authors take it.

Second, Longman wants to make out the Genesis account as an allegory of sorts, a literary vehicle designed to convey certain critical truths without being, itself, literally true. How could he possibly know this? Or at a lesser level of certainty, what is it that seems to make it “more likely”?

Longman gives no satisfying answer to either question. He actually seems to prefer to say that he has no story, and therefore no real basis whatsoever for believing these key truths; he just knows they’re true, and that the Bible teaches them through fully reliable stories that nobody should take literally. Laughable as it sounds when said clearly and out loud, this does actually have advantages. Since he has cut his ideas of human dignity, depravity, and relationship with God off from any sort of concrete claims about the real world, Longman never has to worry that anyone might disprove them.

Of course, in that case, the real question is why anyone should believe them.

9 Responses to How Not to Read Genesis

  1. Jim Kirkpatrick says:

    Thank you. I am getting so tired of evangelical professors/theologians who seem to chafe at saying that the Bible, usually straightforwardly, means what is says. Mr. Longman seems to want to avoid being seen as a low-brow, too-conservative theologian and, in my opinion, goes to great lengths to distance himself from traditional, reliable and historically-valued interpretations of books like Genesis, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. I took back to the bookstore from which I bought it his commentary on SoS. Even is his commentary of Daniel, in which he thankfully judges that the last six chapters are genuine prophecy, he seems to arrive at that conclusion almost apologetically.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    Thank you for your kind words.

    Part of the problem in “Christian” academia is that the academic community is much more vigorous about policing its boundaries than the church is. Accreditation agencies review a school comprehensively every 5-10 years, but churches rarely give a “Christian” school a thorough going-over. They just keep sending their children and their sacrificially-given dollars to the school in naive faith that somehow, as if by magic, the school will resist compromise with the secular academic world. History has been most unkind to that naivete.

    The unfortunate fact is that for a professor at a “Christian” school, his daily life is much more likely to be shaped by what other professors think of him than by what other Christians think of him. Compare this with the life of a pastor, who is far more likely than not to be bounced out on his ear for transgressing the confessional boundaries of his constituency.

    Currying favor with other people is a bad thing, and the temptation is there for all of us. But the church system is set up so that when a person yields to it — which, let’s face it, we all will at times — he stays within the fold, thus minimizing permanent consequences. The “Christian” academic system, on the other hand, is set up so that when a person falls to that temptation, he leaves the fold, often forever.

  3. Christian McGreger says:

    I love your prose. You’re hilarious. I sincerely hope this is a fake website. If it ain’t, then it is the product of a narrow, unenlightened world view, which can only be brought about by a good, sound brain-washin’. Hoo doggies! Keep squirtin’ out them kids and brain washin’ them too with your home schoolin’, so our whole country goes to hell in a number 9 wash tub.

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Christian,
    Glad you enjoy the writing. Was there something specific that made you think this might be a spoof, or was it just a general, “he can’t be serious” moment for you?
    -Tim

  5. Frank Tyler says:

    Brother, I very much enjoyed your review of Longman, but am saddened by the foolishness that underlies Enuma Elish. Our Lord said, “‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” (Gen. 1:3) Even today as I look outside I see light. Truly our Lord is the One who speaks and it is. Thankfully the truth of His Word shines ever more brightly in the midst of darkness. Nice work!

  6. Mairnéalach says:

    Hello Mr. Nichols. You asked, “what makes it less likely that Genesis 1-2 is sober history, told just the way it happened?” Here is the answer, in my opinion.

    Christians have tended to assign “sober history” status to the inspired texts based upon whether they were written in a sober eyewitness mode, or in a vision mode (which could be either a divinely altered conscious state, or an unconscious dream).

    For example, John’s apocalypse seems to have been inspired by a vision, which leads us to interpret much of it in a non-historical fashion.

    Moses’s Genesis seems to be a mix of sober eyewitness and vision. Since there were no real time eyewitnesses to creation, we assume it was communicated to the author in a vision. The text says that Adam was asleep during the creation of Eve, so we also know that her creation must have been communicated in vision as well.

    For whatever reason, God creates visions in men and those visions are hardly ever (any exceptions? can’t think of any at the moment) straightforward sober history. God also inspires straightforward historical writings based on conscious eyewitness and those writings are straightforwardly historical. Both types have authority over us and are useful for training, correction, and reproof.

    I once heard Doug Wilson wax philosophical about God waving a bloody rib around in the air after He extracted it from Adam. I believe he was really just trying to say that creation is messy, and not the clinical process that pagans sometimes paint it to be. However, his figure of speech does highlight a weird error in some bible-believing Christians. Often we don’t really take the text at face value the way we adamantly claim we are, but subtly insert things into it. In the name of demanding it be “straightforward history”, we actually do violence to the text itself.

  7. Tim Nichols says:

    Mairnealach,

    Thanks for the response. Your point that there were no real-time human witnesses to the creation events is well-taken. Obviously, we would only have straightforward history of those events if God provided it to someone. But then, that’s true for other biblical events as well. Take the Deuteronomy 34 account of Moses’ death, for example: how would anybody know what God said to Moses on Mount Nebo? Nobody was there but God and Moses, and Moses died before he could tell anyone. Or in 2Kings 6:8-12, how did Elisha know what the Syrians were going to do, but that God told him (and obviously not in some impossible-to-interpret symbolic form)? So your first problem is that it isn’t just man that can write straightforwardly about events; it would appear that God can do the same.

    But I’m not sure you’ve made the case for Gen.1-3 being visionary to start with, in the sense that you mean it. Read, say, Daniel 7, and read Genesis 1-3. Does Genesis 1-3 strike you as similar to Daniel 7? And this highlights a problem with your statement “Christians have tended to assign “sober history” status to the inspired texts based upon whether they were written in a sober eyewitness mode, or in a vision mode.” I’m not sure that’s true. I can’t think of anybody who took Daniel 7 as straightforward historical reportage, and went out to the coastline looking for a beast to walk up out of the water. It’s obviously visionary, obviously symbolic, and presented in the text as such. Genesis 1-3 is not presented similarly — it’s written like it’s straightforward history (among other evidence, you might like reading Steven Boyd’s linguistic analysis for the RATE project). And then it’s treated that way throughout Scripture.

  8. Trent says:

    Thanks for your review! Genesis is my favorite book, yet it comes under the most scrutiny, I liked a bit of what Longman has to say, but the specific passage you pointed out really rubbed me the wrong way. One thing I do commend him for was saying that the ages of the patriarchs seem to be literal (I have heard so much on how they are not from people like Kitchen, etc.)

    Also I think a new book came out, not sure how new, but it’s called Ancient Near East Themes in Biblical Theology. He takes the Bible at face value and does not waiver like Longman, et. al.

  9. Tim Nichols says:

    Trent,

    Thanks for the book recommendation. My book budget is in pretty desperate straits these days, but I’ll keep an eye out for it next time I’m in a seminary library and take a look if I can.

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