Many Christians and non-Christians treat the book of Genesis as if it were written to a modern scientific audience, meant to convey the natural history of how God created and flooded the world. One camp believes it is accurate natural history and another rejects it as utterly useless because it is not accurate natural history.
According to C. John Collins, professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary and the Old Testament editor of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, both of these camps are fundamentally wrong for the same reason. In his new book Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, Collins explains why both camps are wrong and why that does not lessen the value of Genesis as the word of God. (Collins does not take a position on the age of the earth or the issue of evolution, and claims that Genesis does not, either.)
Collins traces the “literal” reading back to Oxford University professor Benjamin Jowett. “Jowett and company, like many literalists today, assume that ‘what I see’ is the same as ‘what is there.’ Contemporary philosophy of science has shown how indefensible this notion is in general, but it is especially hasty when reading an ancient text from a foreign culture.”
Collins calls for a great deal more humility in the way modern people read the ancient Hebrew text of Genesis 1-11. “Many of the critical approaches, for example, suffer from a want of imagination: they assume a way of reading and do not entertain whether one must read that way.”
The Bible is a form of communication with many different aims, and those who insist on reading Genesis 1-11 “literally” are assuming that this passage’s main goal is simply to convey information to a modern audience. In order to truly understand Genesis, however, readers must consider who the “ideal audience” is, and what purpose the author had in composing the book.
If audiences choose to “cooperate” with Genesis, rather than to fight it or to fight against modern science with it, the gems in this book will surprise them. Collins does a great job at arguing for a deeper reading of Genesis that avoids the constant squabbling about the science and delves right to the heart of what Moses — and God — was trying to say.
Collins explains why Genesis 1-11 is not science, what kind of genre it is, what exactly Moses and God attempted to communicate in this text, and the basic approach the Bible takes to natural phenomena and God’s supernatural action.
1. Genesis is not science.
The ESV Old Testament editor attacks both 7-day creationists and evolutionary creationists like Denis Lamoureux for imposing a modern scientific worldview on the Bible. He explicitly rejects Lamoureux’s characterization of Genesis (and that of many atheists) as outdated “ancient science.”
Genesis 1-11 narrates past events that predate written records (“prehistory”) and for which any written records would have been scarce (protohistory”).
“From its style and its function as prehistory and protohistory, we can see that to call its focus ‘ancient science’ takes us away from the text — whether we think that science is now discredited (in which case the text has no historical referentiality), or if we think its science is authoritative,” Collins writes.
He lays out three different types of language that can provide clues as to what genre Genesis 1-11 is, citing the late Oxford scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
“Ordinary language” uses words in a “phenomenological” way, describing how things look, even if those words do not technically describe what is happening. “We may say of the sun that it rises, or of a rain storm that the windows of heaven are opened, or of our children’s shoes that they are getting too small for their feet,” the author notes. If someone were to point out that the earth rotates or that the children’s feet are changing, rather than the shoes, “we rightfully get irritated.”
By contrast, “scientific language aims at a high level of detail with as little ambiguity as possible and seeks to explain the inner workings of what it describes,” Collins explains. “Poetic language aims to allow the reader to imagine what it was like to see what it describes — even if what it describes is not real.”
So, what kind of language does Genesis 1-11 have? It varies, but readers can see the absence of scientific language by comparing this passage to other ancient texts.
Collins argues that the audience of Genesis — ancient Israelite farmers and herders — was more familiar with animals than modern Americans are. “The fact that plants and animals reproduce according to their kinds is not news to the audience, and we should probably look for another function of the text than simply that of supplying information that they already had.”
“As it turns out, we do have an ancient scientific text about the fixity of the kinds, but it comes from Aristotle, not Moses,” Collins points out, contrasting Aristotle’s “scientific-philosophical presentation” from the “simple and evocative one we find in Genesis.”
“We can, and should, call Aristotle ‘ancient science,’ and I think he deserves respect for what he accomplished,” the author concedes. “On the other hand, to call Genesis ‘science,’ whether ancient or modern, is an enormous literary confusion.”
2. If it’s not science, what is it?
If Genesis 1-11 is not science, what is it? Collins describes it as rhetorical history — a narration of past events that reinterprets older pagan stories in order to convey God’s authority as creator and sustainer of the universe and Israel’s unique calling.
“I argue that Genesis offers an alternative front end to the worldview story, and that it intends to offer the ‘true’ story, not simply of Israel, but of the world (for whose sake Israel is said to exist),” the author writes. He notes that the story of Genesis as a whole presents Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as selected by God in order to bless all families of the earth (Genesis 22:18).
“In this light we may read Genesis 1-11 as a kind of preface that provides the universal setting for which the particularizing call of Abraham is the solution. That is, Israel is one of the families of the earth, called for the sake of all the other families to address a universal need,” the author explains.
Collins argues that rhetorical history often involves anachronisms — elements of the story that the “ideal audience” knows could not have been present at the time the story took place, but which are included anyway, in order to drive home the rhetorical purpose.
For instance, in Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar,” a clock strikes. Shakespeare and his audience knew that the Romans did not use clocks, but the play includes this element anyway, to drive home the emotional resonance of the scene.
The ESV editor argues that Genesis 1-11 includes many clear anachronisms. Adam and Eve, for instance, speak Hebrew, as their wordplays show in Genesis 2:23; 4:1, and 4:25. “It is easier to find this to be an anachronism than to spend time wondering whether Hebrew was the original human language!”
He also notes that Cain and Abel offer sacrifices that are recognizable in Israel’s later sacrificial system. “Did the author want us to suppose that Cain and Abel observed the Israelite system? I doubt it.” Similarly, Noah separates “clean” and “unclean” animals for the Ark. The clean animals are fit for sacrifice under the later Israelite system, but Moses and his audience did not necessarily think Noah followed the rules of the Pentateuch.
More controversially, Collins argues that the six days of creation are also an anachronism with a rhetorical purpose. “The first audiences would have known the six-day work week, followed by a Sabbath. God’s observing of this pattern tells Israel that their calling is to recapture the creation order and that the ideal human life consists of imitating God.”
3. What is Genesis trying to say?
If Genesis is rhetorical history, what was Moses’s and God’s rhetorical purpose? According to the ESV editor, Moses and God were trying to convince Israel to believe that there is one Creator God and that they should obey His commands in the Pentateuch.
Moses told stories an ancient Israelite audience would have already known. “Hero stories were widely spread, as were tales of a great and catastrophic flood,” Collins writes. The Israelites leaving Egypt “carried tales of the Mesopotamian origins of their ancestors, which no doubt created special interest in that region.”
Genesis 1-11 echoes many elements of ancient Mesopotamian stories. The Sumerian King List, the Atrahesis Epic, and the Eridu Genesis tell stories of creation, alienation, a devastating flood, and a new start to the world. The earliest humans had long lifespans, but closer to the “modern era,” lifespans begin to look more normal. In an oral culture, it stands to reason that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remembered these stories and passed them on to their children.
None of this is to say Genesis is merely “derivative.” Rather, “the point is that providing this information would not be a likely function of this set of stories; rather, the stories set the audience’s knowledge into a proper context.” Moses was not giving the Israelites new information about the past — he was reshaping what they already knew, emphasizing how God acted in these events.
For instance, the Mesopotamian creation stories involve squabbles among petty gods, who created humans to be slaves. Genesis, by contrast, presents one all-powerful Creator God and humans made in His image. The Mesopotamian gods sent the flood because humans annoyed them. Genesis explains that God had moral outrage at human sin.
“I take the purpose of Genesis to begin with opposing the origin stories of other ancient peoples by telling of one true God who made heaven and earth, who dignified humankind with a special nobility, namely the task of ruling the world wisely and well,” Collins writes. “The purpose of Genesis 1-11 is to set the stage for Genesis 12-50, and it does this by clarifying that the God who called Abraham is in fact the one true god for whom all humankind yearns.”
Genesis is part of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, referred to as “the Law”). Collins quotes Deuteronomy 31:8-13, noting that “the Pentateuch itself presents a reason for its own writing.”
Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests … and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, … you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”
4. How does God relate to natural history?
Although Collins clearly argues that the Bible does not teach science or natural history, he does explain that the biblical view of God’s action in the world is deeply compatible with scientific explanations. He presents the “biblical metaphysic,” the Bible’s philosophical approach to explaining God’s action in the world.
Citing Psalm 104, he writes, “the springs and the grass give water and food to the beasts, that is, they causally contribute to their continued well-being. The poetic song does not present divine supervision or causation as an alternative explanation for the natural; rather it supplements what the eye can see. In other words, divine causation and creaturely causation are not competing in a zero-sum game.”
Traditional Christian philosophy claims that “God’s providence preserves, concurs with, and governs every aspect of his creation.” In this view “God is active in every event, every bit as directly in the natural as in the supernatural.”
In this view, Bible passages will “rarely if ever be concerned to spell out the physics and metaphysics of the events they describe; that is something they will typically leave the audience to infer.”
“After all, in Genesis 30:1-24 we find the characters attributing the children to God’s ‘giving,’ and this is never set over against the normal human activity by which a man and woman make a baby,” Collins writes.
Similarly, the Bible presents the deliverance of Jerusalem from the besieging army of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:35; Isaiah 37:26; 2 Chronicles 32:21) as a miracle cause by an angel of the Lord slaying Assyrian soldiers. In an event some scholars think is the same story, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus describes an “army” of field mice eating up the Assyrian weapons, causing the Assyrians to flee and many to die in the attempt to run away.
These are not “competing alternatives,” as “a ‘supernatural’ event can use the means (the mice), and, if the mice were a ‘natural’ occurrence, it is still, to the eye of faith, God’s act.”
Indeed, there is evidence from Jewish history that the Bible was not taken in a zero-sum, “literal” fashion by believers in Yahweh, even as Greek philosophy presented new views of the world.
“We find little to no serious conflict among Jews over whether the earth was spherical — a position well established by the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle — nor about other geographical matters as the Jews encountered the Hellenistic world,” Collins writes. “That is, these readers likely did not take the biblical materials as making claims about the shape of the world.”
In light of the way the Bible describes history, “Genesis 1 says nothing about any processes by which God shaped the earth and fashioned the animals. The author does not say there were any, nor does he say there were none. Rather, talking about them is not the purpose of the text.”
Many creationists and evolutionists may chafe at this suggestion, but Collins presents a very compelling reading of Genesis 1-11 that puts these passages in their proper context.
“Israel’s God has something to say to the whole world, since he created the whole show and since humankind comes from a common source,” Collins writes. “Their external circumstances may change over time, but the Pentateuch still sets out the constitution for the people, and the creation story still establishes the ideal toward which the members should aim. The laws are there to preserve social civility so that the members are safe and free to pursue the flourishing of their social and private lives.”
As Collins writes, “the biblical material … is highly pictorial; this is not a weakness, it is a strength. It does not prevent the Bible writers from speaking truly; it actually enables them to achieve their rhetorical goals.”
To be clear, Christians can and do take various positions on the age of the earth, the theory of evolution, and the methods God used to bring out creation. This is healthy, and Collins would encourage debate about these issues, with the understanding that there are many ways to approach the issue.
Rather than an ancient science text, Genesis 1-11 is a kind of preamble to the ritual and spiritual constitution of the people of God as they leave Egypt for the promised land. It sets the pagan histories they knew in the right monotheistic context, explains the sin and separation from God that is the common plight of humanity, and lays out God’s solution to this predicament — His choice of a people through which to bless the world.
Genesis achieves this massive rhetorical achievement even now, more than 3,000 years after its composition. Thanks in large part to the Bible, paganism seems utterly ridiculous to modern audiences, despite its near-universal presence across the earliest recorded human cultures.
In Isaiah 55:8-11, God says His word “will achieve that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.