"A Man's a Man for all that!" - Rabbie Burns

"Religion? No thanks. I prefer not to outsource my brainwashing." - Bunc
Trying to get your average Joe creationist to understand the phrase scientific theory is as hard as getting a fish to enjoy mountaineering. Its an unimagined world for them - it requires a complete reversal of their normal modes of thinking and being. The fact that humans could explain the complexities of this world without a creating God is a world view they cannot grasp. It's like asking a tuna if it appreciates the view from the top of Mount Everest. Bunc

Mar 4, 2008

How to understand the Bible Genesis Account

In a previous post I had commented on the internal inconsistencies of the Biblical account of Genesis and how these are problematic for Biblical Literalists and creationists. I had not highlighted all the inconsistencies, for there are many, but just a few which occur early in the Genesis account.

I had also noted that a more sensible approach to reading the Bible is to see it as a book written in a particular historical and cultural context. I suggested that it was important that the Genesis account be understood in its relationship to the Genesis accounts of other cultures and, in particular, those of nearby Middle Eastern Cultures and I promised more on this topic.

Browsing around the web I was delighted therefore to come across a blog by Mike Beidler - The Creation of an Evolutionist - which is his personal story of developing his thinking from a belief in Biblically Literal Young Earth Creationism to an acceptance of Evolutionary science and a more sophisticated understanding of the Biblical text in it's cultural and historical context.

Now don't get me wrong - Mike and I ultimately won't see eye to eye on the issue of the existence of God. Although Mike has made the journey to a more sophisticated understanding of the Bible, he still essentially sees it as the word of God - in the sense that 1) he believes in God and 2) he sees the Bible as communicating Gods will to people.

Mike has, I suspect, travelled far down the path of reconciling his Christian beliefs with the real scientific evidence of evolution and the age of the Earth, but is unlikely to ever take what I personally see as the next logical step. This is a position though that I can respect albeit not one that I personally hold. For me the wider scientific explanations of the way the world works leave no need for God type explanations. But then that is the ultimate difference in our positions - Mike believes that God is ultimately the root of all things and I don't. Fair enough.

There's a lot of discussion on Mike's blog about his journey in terms of the development of his understanding and the reconciliation of his faith and scientific understanding and it's worth a read by Christians and Atheists. In particular he rehearses the evidence for a more sophisticated understanding of the Bible in a cultural and historical context.

He was kind enough to send me a link to a talk by a Dr John H Walton who is a Christian, and interestingly, not himself an evolutionist.

Dr Walton outlines briefly in his talk how Christians have failed to understand the real meaning of the Genesis account because their interpretation is done through the eyes of our modern cultural understanding and not through the eyes of the people who actually owned this account. He shows how translations of some of the words in the Genesis account result in us interpreting Genesis as a story about the act of physical creation rather than what he describes as the act of "assigning functions".

It is worth listening to his lecture. You can access the Lecture by Dr John H Walton on Genesis interpretation here. (There are lectures by three other academics on faith and science related issues which I haven't yet listened to so this is a good link) - thank you Mike.

Mike Beidler suggests that Dr Waltons work;

"is sure to assist biblical literalists in understanding Genesis from an ancient Near Eastern perspective, which is how Genesis should be read ... his writings are a must-read for anyone still reading Genesis in a strictly literal manner. This goes for Young-Earth Creationists and atheists alike, both groups of which (generally speaking) tend to read Genesis through a 21st-century lens."

Dr. Walton is an Old Testament professor from Wheaton College and has two major works published;
(1) Genesis (NIV Application Commentary series)
(2) Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible/


Ian the Atheist said...

A really interesting post - I agree that Genesis doesn't stand up to a literal interpretation, however, the truth is that it's not unique in that regards - none of the christian bible stands up to any degree of scrutiny, whether as a moral source or even as a particularly accurate historical record.

I don't believe that this study is without merit though - I concur with Isaac Asimov, who said "properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived".

It's with that in mind that we are kicking off http://readyourgoddamnbible.com challenging christians and atheists alike to read along with us, over the course of a year as we read the bible cover to cover.

it promises to be nothing if not entertaining.

Mike Beidler said...


I like your challenge! Most Christians know next to nothing about their scripture. The same can be said for many atheists.

However, I have a question about one of your rules: "simply read the verses at face value, just as we find them." How do you determine "face value"?

What I consider to be a "face value" reading of Genesis can be completely different than someone else's "face value" reading. It all depends on my level of education. In my opinion, someone reading Genesis from a 21st-century perspective isn't going to understand the message of Genesis properly.

Trying to read the Bible—an ancient document written in three different languages by approximately 40 authors spanning a variety of cultures—without understanding its literary, linguistic, and cultural background will not result in a proper understanding of the text. So, I guess my second question is this: What do you intend to accomplish with your challenge?

Looney said...

I actually reviewed Walton's book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament in a number of post starting here. His techniques are quite interesting, although not having a great impact on the final interpretation. The other point is that these methods are only minimally connected to the question of historicity.

In some cases, however, he has clearly discredit early anti-Biblical scholars. The main area was with regard to Genesis. Scholars had insisted for a century that Genesis was pieced together from various traditions based on scientific "higher criticism" and that stories such as the creation and the flood were composites. Walton's comparisons, however, showed similarities and differences between other complete stories of extreme antiquity. The new scholars will now argue that the Bible's complete stories evolved from these other complete stories, but the old "scientific" scholars had their composite scholarship (a century + of work) blown into little tiny bits.

Fortunately, science can always evolve!

Mike Beidler said...


His techniques are quite interesting, although not having a great impact on the final interpretation.

Not a great impact? Did you and I read the same book? ;-)

Seriously, I highly recommend you pick up Walton's Genesis commentary, in which he makes a solid case for a non-historical approach to Genesis 1, at the very least.

As for the historicity of Genesis 2-12, most Evolutionary Creationists adopt a semi-historical approach that acknowledges much of the mythological background underlying the narrative and, at the same time, admits that the theological truths conveyed in the text are rooted (in varying degrees) to historical events, the details of which may or may not be reflected in the text to the same level of historiography that we moderns have come to expect.

(That has to be one of the longest run-on sentences I've written in a long time. ;-)

Bunc said...

Hi Mike, Looney left a link to his own post on Dr Waltons book and said that he "had read this book" -but I note that in his post that he says he only read the introduction !

Looney - I am still interested in your comments on the substantive issue of how the Bible Genesis account should be read in the light of the arguments on Mikes own Blog ( I assume you have checked that out?)and the arguments in Dr Waltons presentation.

On what basis can a literal reading of the Genesis account as an actual account of material creation be sustained?

Looney said...

Bunc, Mike's argument is that because Genesis has meanings independent of historicity, then historicity couldn't have happened. It is tantamount to saying that because we can learn moral lessons from the battle of Waterloo, we can deduce that Napoleon and Wellington were mythological characters. Not much logic there.

Walton's methods only provide limited guidance to questions of historicity. Certainly it is a challenge to some simpleton fundamentalists who believe that the Bible is self explaining without any context. The other side of the coin, however, is that a century plus of peer reviewed, scientific "higher criticism" beginning in the late 18th century and lasting well into the 20th was shown to be garbage. I believe Walton made a comment regarding that, but I would need to dig back through the book to find the exact quote.

Let me try to gather up all of the reviews ... 1,

Hmmm, I thought there were more. The Alzheimer's must be getting worse.

Mike Beidler said...


You wrote: Mike's argument is that because Genesis has meanings independent of historicity, then historicity couldn't have happened. It is tantamount to saying that because we can learn moral lessons from the battle of Waterloo, we can deduce that Napoleon and Wellington were mythological characters.

Not quite, my friend. Modern expectations of historicity are fundamentally different than those of ANE cultures. We know Napoleon and Wellington are real, historical characters because modern historians have provided us with an abundance of eye-witness accounts, recorded them for us on pieces of paper, and passed them on to others to read. ANE cultures did not create their "histories" with moderns in mind. Their histories and mythologies had other purposes than to provide you, Looney, with accounts that could stand up as an historically reliable account in a modern court of law.

Allow me to quote a good friend of mine, who has written an outstanding series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics:

... we must remember that the ideal of unbiased, objective, empirical historiography was only in its infancy at the time of Christ, and not fully formulated and utilized until the Renaissance; this way of recording history was not a concern in the ANE until after Hellenistic influence. It is safe to say there is absolutely none of our type of historical account in the OT, although Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah seem to come closest. Please note: that is not to say that most of the events recorded in the OT were not actual historical events. Doubtless, there is little reason to doubt that the events recorded in the so-called “historical books” of the OT as well as in most of the prophetic books ended up being accurate historically, but not because the writers had the same ideals that originated in Greece centuries later and were not even developed there for centuries more. Ancient peoples simply did not see the need for writing mechanically objective, dispassionate, empirical history as we think of it. For instance, the writers of Chronicles and Kings apparently saw no problem with approximating or estimating numerical figures, or creating figures that gave an accurate impression (”maybe not quite 50,000 but it might as well have been”), much like our “rounding off” taken liberally. It was culturally the norm and good form, and not perceived as “lying” by any means. ...

The New Testament’s genres include the epistle and apocalypse. In regard to the Gospels, I want to make it clear that my emphasis on the fact that wording variations in the Gospels show that they do not reflect reality down to the jot and tittle was not intended to problematize the Gospels as largely historical. Rather, I want to emphasize the opposite: it is easy to get something like genealogies wrong, or to present variants in the exact wording of a parable being translated, or to have inaccurate notions of the human anatomy that leak into their presentations of the events they are testifying to. But that is about the extent of it: Jesus actually said the parables recorded in the Gospels, regardless of the fact that the wording slightly varies from account to account. Due to the spread of Hellenism throughout the Roman Empire by the time of the New Testament, historiographic techniques were being seen as the only truthful way of presenting facts, and so one must have very good reasons to doubt the historicity of the actions and people acting in the New Testament, even when the genre that records those events and people is not strictly historiography. It is not up for discussion that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, was buried, and rose again in three days, since those were contemporaneous events and were thus subject to contemporary historiographic values in their recounting. One must have good reasons for discounting historicity. ... But we can say that the Gospel writers as members of a Hellenistic world were trying to present the events as historically accurately as possible, because that type of historiography had (Providentially) become the norm at that time.

I highly recommend this series to all, and I'd be extremely interested to know what Bunc thinks of it. The last of this series of posts can be found here (http://undeception.com/index.php/2008/02/15/the-fallout/) and has links to the other 7 parts. Although it's dense material, you really should give it a read from beginning to end. (Don't cheat and skip to the end.)

Bunc said...

Hi Mike - thanks for the reference - I certainly will read that material and give some cmment on it. There is a lot of it so bear with me.

I find Ian the Atheists challenge an interesting one but ,and Ihesitate to tweak the tail of a fellow Atheist here, the problem with the challenge is that it sets out by trying to read the Bible in modern terms.

That is exactly the problem I have with Bible readers. It's like reading Charles Dickens and assuming he is writing directly about modern society and with a modern sensibility ( Dickens may not be the best example here because with his social concerns he could be argued to be a modern writer !)

The Bible for me is a historical document - it was written and collated together over a long period and reflects the cultural and historical setting in which it was written. In those terms I would not expect it to be any more internally consistent than the Norse Sagas.

This is where Bible Literalists get on sticky gground because the insinsistencies are so apparentt as are the episodes which illustrate a God far removed from New Testament sensibilities (Did he suddenly have a personality makeover?).

However the approach yo seem to take, and that illustrated by a quick scan o the articles you reference is that the Bible must be read not only in its context but , as far as its spiuritual message goes , more broadly as being inspired by and carrying teh message of God. Not in its every detailed word buut in the messages it carries.

Noww as an Atheist I still don't relate to this but the issue between us becomes a very different one indeed. We no longer arue about literal interpretations , which are often patently false, but about intent and spiritual meaning.

Now I dont relate to this because I have no belief in God and so it remains to me a text abut a people and their beliefs.

For you it will be more than that because you believe.

The debate about this difference is of course a very different one than the debate I have with Looney because he tries ultimately to suggest that the Bible and science are contrary and that in that opposition science must retreat as regards the Genesis account.

More on this in due course once I have digested those references.

Bunc said...

Apologies for the spelling in that comment - I didnt check it properly before posting !

Ian the Atheist said...

Thanks for the kind words - clearly, we are not doing this because we want to see an army of christians baying for blood.

I think it's more that we are reading the bible through modern eyes - and with a modern western morality.

It's my own view that pretty much any person living in the modern world has a more robust morality than that ascribed to God through the bible, and outside of the fluffy bits, most christians have simply not been exposed to the sheer cruelty and arbitrary behaviour of the god that they ascribe such greatness to.

The historical setting and cultural sidenotes of howw and why things are the way they are is interesting to place the book in context - as the holy book of a faith. However, the role that christians claim for the bible is as a moral guidebook, a means to know god, as somehting to be venerated.

We hope that the challenge (which is likely to start on 1st June this year) will cause people to see that it simply cannot be used in that way.

Bunc said...


Nice to hear from you again. I take the point about how your challenge is approaching this issue. I also agree with you that Christians tend to take the cuddly bits and forget all the evidence that the God of the Bible is a capricious, twisted so and so who just NEEDS to be adored.

Like some celebrity Prima Donna! Mind you,there are some Christians I have met in the past who seem to model themselves on that sort of exapmle.

Your challenge is interesting and I will keep my eye on it and consider taking part.

Ian the Atheist said...

Actually, to answer Mike's question more directly - what do I mean by "face value".

well, that's clearly down tot he individual - and that's what we are asking people to do for themselves.

The team who are running the challenge (all participating as well, naturally) will be putting our own thoughts together in a regular udpate, but the thing we will be encouraging readers to do is share their thoughts.

hopefully we will get some well considered thoughts as people read through the book.

rich said...

My paper on Genesis was published in the Occidental Quarterly Summer 2007. I believe it will come to be the definitive reading of Genesis.
For a copy, write:

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