Five Responses (at least) to Reading Genesis 1-2, edited by J. Daryl Charles #1

Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2
This recent book on creation as detailed in Genesis 1-2 has five main contributors from the world of US evangelicalism, and in reality, from a rather narrow conservative evangelical band. I have found that plenty of food for though emerges from each of the five contributors for a blog post each, so I thought I would review the book and talk about biblical creation by engaging one author at a time.

Chapter One: A Literary-Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2, Richard E. Averbeck
The first main contributor is Richard E. Averbeck, Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois.

I responded well to Averbeck’s section, and I felt that by and large he was reading Genesis 1-2 aright. He tries hard to be faithful to the grammar, syntax and discourse features of the Genesis text. (You can think of these three terms as describing the function of the individual words; the phrases, clauses and sentences; and the entire passage in turn, thus representing three levels of grammatical description.) I’m not an expert in discourse analysis, but to the extent that I’ve read up on discourse and read the OT in the Hebrew, I felt that Averbeck largely had it right.

The upshot of this emphasis was the finding that will seem controversial to some but that has become a solid conviction of mine on the basis of the Hebrew text, that Gen 1:1 does not describe an initial act of creation, but is an ‘anticipatory summary’ of the entirety of 1:1-2:3. Gen 1:2 then describes the circumstances under which creation begins (p. 31). As Averbeck says, “This is a common way to start a narrative account in Hebrew,” (p. 10) particularly in reference to presenting initial circumstances prior to the description of the events that unfolded.

As Averbeck goes on to say later, this is very much what Gen 2:4-25 does once again, with a heading in 2:4 and initial conditions described in vv. 5-6. The first act of God in that passage is the creation of the man in v. 7. What follows on from that and I think is a key to understanding both of these creation passages is that “…all the creation days in Gen 1 beginning in v. 3 are designed to eliminate the conditions of v. 2.” (p. 18) The same may be said of 2:4-25: the lack of crops, farming activity, farmers or even rainfall in 2:5-6 is remedied by the creation of the human and the other actions that follow in chapter 2 (p. 28).

Thus far I am in deep agreement with Averbeck. I should note that C. John Collins in his response comes to the opposite conclusion on the basis of discourse-related thinking, holding that Gen 1:1 does describe an initial act of creation (p. 38), a contradiction not lost on young-earther Todd Beall (p. 36); I can only say that my instincts from direct exposure to a good deal of the OT in careful reading of the Hebrew, not to mention discussions with a colleague in OT teaching here in Australia, leads me to side with Averbeck on this. It may be controversial but is only honest of me to say with Averbeck, “I am not disagreeing with the fact that God created original matter ex nihilo but saying that Gen 1:1 is not talking about that.”

I also like his attempt to balance the priority of treating these two passages as “about the actual material creation of the physical cosmos,” retaining their real-world referencing function (p. 31), while at the same time recognizing that the seven-day framework may be a ‘schema’ or a manner of presenting the work of God in creation on the analogy of human enterprises governed by a seven-day week (p. 7). The seven-day week looks to me too like an “analogical or, if you wish, anthropomorphic” representation of God’s working (p. 27). Ask yourself, “What time of day did God prefer to work on each of these days?” “What time did God knock off?” and so forth to understand why I say this. Beall and especially John Walton (p. 42) think that Averbeck has the cart before the horse on this, emphasizing that the human seven-day week comes from God’s work week, not vice versa. Fair enough, but we only need to read that God needed to, and this is pretty much the sense of Exod 31:17, “catch his breath” after the work of creation to realize that anthropomorphisms are at work here.

Important to Averbeck’s reasoning is the fact that units of six-and-seven days are found in various places in ancient Near Eastern writings (p. 26), something I can confirm from my own readings of, for example, some of epics from Ugarit and also the Gilgamesh Epic about a Noah-like figure:

“Genesis 1 divides its description of the creation of the cosmos into six discrete days in order to shape it according to the six/seven pattern that was so common in its literary world, and in order for it to serve the purpose of patterning and reinforcing the Sabbath in ancient Israel.”

I think there is some connection present, though at times Averbeck overdraws it. Similarly, he makes much of the three-tier cosmology of the ancient world, i.e. heavens/sky, earth, and underworld. I question the ubiquity of this understanding in the ancient world, feeling that often the fundamental cosmology in the Bible (e.g. Psalm 148) and in some other examples is basically two-tiered (see Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Ancient World, 26ff.). This means that I’m far from certain that, as Averbeck thinks, “the Gen 1 six-day sequence is intentionally built off this widely distributed ANE three-level structure of the cosmos.”

But I am in agreement with him that some of the references to things like the ‘dome’ of the sky (or the diluvial ‘windows of heaven’ for that matter, Gen 7:11) both within the Bible and without could easily be consciously analogical on the part of ancient writers and readers. This is sometimes not appreciated by those who discuss the nature of the ‘firmament’ as the raqia of Gen 1:6-8 is traditionally described. Yet Averbeck mis-steps, I think, when he resorts to treating the ‘waters above’ as clouds (p. 20), and Walton (p. 43) picks him up for this.

Overall Averbeck’s chapter is careful and judicious, yet courageous enough to “allow the text to say what it intends to say” even when it does not meet the expectations of readers (e.g. (again rightly) when questioning that the pluperfect “had formed” can be justified in Gen. 2:19 re the animals’s creation prior to man’s, p. 30). I would close, though, by admitting, against both Averbeck’s view and my own very similar one, John Walton’s closing critique:

“…it seems to me that Averbeck’s view has some inconsistency as he insists that Gen 1 must be read literally w. regard to material creation but then is willing to jettison the time frame for that material creation as he reads the seven days schematically. It opens the whole question of how one determines what should be read literally and what should not.”


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