Five Responses to Reading Genesis 1-2 (ed. J. Daryl Charles) #2

Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2
Further to my recent post responding to Chapter One: A Literary-Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2, by Richard E. Averbeck, here are my responses to the next chapter:
Chapter Two: Reading Genesis 1–2: A Literal Approach, by Todd S. Beall.

Beall is the head OT prof at Capital Bible Seminary, which appears to fall under the aegis of Lancaster Bible College headquartered at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA. He is the lone young-earth creationist voice in this book and seems to represent what I would call a ‘standard’ version of that position.

My response to Beall’s essay is generally that I sympathize with some of his fears about the risks of a less literal view of Genesis 1 for our view of the Bible, but that I don’t think his arguments are very strong at times, and find his thinking at times too simplistic. He lives in a more black-and-white world than I do, though I think it’s vital to believe in ‘true truth’ and not drift into relativism. Let’s pick out a few specifics:

Beall believes that the four main voices in the book that represent his opposition, that is, Richard Averbeck, C. John Collins, Tremper Longman III and John Walton, all err on the same point, which is to treat Genesis 1–11 and/or Genesis 1:1–2:3 as an interpretive special case, a genre to itself, when to Beall’s mind these parts of Genesis manifest a plain, narrative form and cry out to be interpreted as simple, historical narrative (pp. 45–49). He is clearly nervous about what he calls ‘figurative interpretation’ and openly warns of a ‘slippery slope’ of figurative reading that risks cutting the ground out from under biblical truth (57). He stoutly denies that Genesis 1 is poetry (48), and is right to do so, but none of his conversation partners are claiming this. To him, the abundance of waw-consecutive Hebrew verb forms lead to the “the inescapable conclusion that Gen[esis] 1 is narrative prose.”

Well, it’s hard to disagree with that. It is narrative prose. But I think Beall is assuming throughout that narrative prose=historical reporting. This is not a safe assumption, either within the Bible or without. Prose narrative has plenty of sub-genres, as John Walton points out in his response, adding, “Narrative…does not automatically require that the literature be considered historical” (69–70), a statement I would endorse so long as we are talking about historical in its intention. Tremper Longman agrees:

The bottom line is that it is wrong to equate narrative automatically with history….Poetry can be historical…and narrative, using normal prose syntax, can be fictional (66).

If an example would help, here’s a fable told by King Jehoash of Israel to Amaziah king of Judah early in the 8th century BC:

King Jehoash of Israel sent this message back to King Amaziah of Judah, “A thornbush in Lebanon sent this message to a cedar in Lebanon, ‘Give your daughter to my son as a wife.’ Then a wild animal of Lebanon came by and trampled down the thorn. (2 Kings 14:9 NET Bible)

Right in the middle of this short fable, the word ‘then’ represents a waw-consecutive Hebrew verb, the form that Beall understands as the giveaway for historical narrative. It clearly is not a form limited to historical reporting.

C. John Collins makes a good point in his response: “The proper contrast is not between literal-historical and figurative but instead between historically referential and nonreferential.” Is the text intending to report history? is the key question. We could suggest a range of criteria in the text that might lead us towards or away from such a conclusion, but prose form alone is a poor candidate for such a criterion.

For my part, I would note that there are some things that set Genesis 1–11 apart from subsequent, more historical narrative in Genesis, including the global scope that seeks to account for the beginnings of the world, of humanity,  of human civilization and technology, and of human experience of God and worship of God, in universal terms, but on the basis of non-universal resources: witness the global sensibility of the Table of Nations in Genesis 10, yet also the fact that it can and does only report on tribes that occupy Israel’s own region.

Genesis 1:1–2:3 is all the more unique: it describes events that no human could have witnessed, which to my mind makes it quite unique as far as history-telling goes. It certainly is not an ordinary case of history-writing! Someone might answer that God told Adam, Adam told Shem, and Shem told Abraham, etc., but that person did not discover this explanation of the origin of our creation narrative from the Bible! It is a construct, a just-so story. But I do agree with Longman that “Gen 1–11 does have a historical impulse,” and would see the genealogies as a case in point.

I think an underlying concern of Beall’s is what is known in Protestant doctrinal discussion as the ‘perspicuity of Scripture’ which, ironically, since it is by this time a very obscure phrase, means how clear the Bible should be to the ordinary Christian punter. I would share this value of Beall’s, and when he protests that “the language of Genesis is not coded” and thus impenetrable unless one is an expert in ancient Near Eastern writing forms (56), he sounds a valid note of caution.

Avoiding the temptation to delve too deeply into the part of the debate about whether Genesis 1 should be understood as an ancient Near Eastern document (it is inevitably so, I think, but that doesn’t mean it’s nothing but another ANE story!), I make one last comment. As young-earth creationists often have (in my reading experience), Beall calls in the old statement by James Barr’s Fundamentalism (1977) saying that non-literal interpretations of Genesis only arose where evangelical Christians under pressure from the seemingly unarguable outcomes of science were forced to defend the inerrancy of the Genesis accounts by interpreting them non-literally, when their obvious sense is the literal one (57, quoting from p. 42 of Barr).

Barr's Fundamentalism This strikes me as an instance of, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Barr is of course saying that the natural, literal sense, speaking of the creation of the world in a week, and that, by implication of chronologically limited genealogical links, relatively quite recently, is blatantly untrue! From Beall’s point of view and that of his fellow YEC’ers, this is a mephistophelian contract, a deal with the devil, so to speak.

Finally, looking at Barr’s original argument is interesting in itself. Barr makes a historical error on the page Beall quotes, saying, “A hundred years ago, probably less, most fundamentalists would have insisted on a literal interpretation.” That refers to about 1877, and around 1877, a lot of even quite conservative Christians, not stopping at their nearly universal acceptance of a great age for the earth, had conceded the truth of some version of biological evolution! That trend would later reverse. And for all Barr’s (sceptical) literalism in this part of his book, he goes on to say that the author of the early chapters of Genesis

…was deeply interested in chronology and calendar, and he depicted the story of creation in a carefully and deliberately arranged scheme of one week.”

Well, if that isn’t what Beall’s opponents have been trying to say — that the creation week is a schema or a way of portraying God’s creative work, and that a very anthropomorphic way, since God doesn’t actually require 144 hours to get work done, no matter how challenging (unless it involves steering human wills toward his ends). Quoting Averbeck again, “The anthropomorphic nature of the pattern as a whole stands out clearly in Exod 31:17,” where God catches his breath after creating.

One final point: Beall’s bibliography shows a shockingly insular and in parts, barely scholarly reading list, and I think a lot of other OT instructors would say the same. I would mark down a student essay for an essay bibliography that looked like that.


2 thoughts on “Five Responses to Reading Genesis 1-2 (ed. J. Daryl Charles) #2

  1. Exod 31:17 God rested. Does that mean God needs rest, that He is made of flesh that gets weary? Is His energy supply limited, either in any one time or in total over all times?

    The ancient Hebrew is not a language designed to carry all such special concepts by way of special terms. You should know this. In fact, ‘shaw-bath’ ever implies an actor’s need for rest only in context. And God is not the sort of actor that provides that particular context.

    If all that I say above is true, then the same principle applies for what it means for God to have been ‘refreshed’, ‘naw-fash’.

    As for the seven days during which God created, this would **likely** be in the *anthropomorphic direction* of the _relation_ ONLY if there is nothing particularly natural about the cycle of seven in nature.

    But, nature involves many profound cycles of seven. Therefore, there is MUCH REASON to suspect that the seven days of Creation Week are somehow inextricably involved in WHAT God created.

    For the prime example is the IRREDUCUBLE COMPLEXITY (ID) of Earth’s life-support system. ONLY if there logically CAN BE NO SUCH THING AS ID are we right to presume that the seven days of Creation Week are a man-to-God literary typology, and thus of no natural import to the fact that God created.

    And, unlike average space-age ‘scientific’ thinker, the average ancient Hebrew did not learn his counting from any kind of wholesale childhood-age academic ‘book learning! So, such a Hebrew person would already have been plenty exposed to natural fact of the many cycles of seven in nature. In other words, Ex 31:17 is not the substance, but the summary!

  2. Pingback: re: A. J. Brown’s Five Responses to D. J. Charles’s book, ‘Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation’ | 22wordsblog

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