How do we understand Genesis?

By: Chip Hardy

What Does Genre Have to Do with It?

A Short Review of Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters

Charles Halton, editor                                                                                                  

Zondervan, 2015 (ISBN: 978-0-310-51494-7)

The first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis provoke some of the most difficult interpretive questions in the entire Bible. What language did humans speak before Babel? How could the Nephilim have survived the flood (Numbers 13:33)? Who was Cain’s wife (Genesis 4:17)?

Answering these questions is not easy. Sunday school teachers and scholars, rabbis and pastors (even within similar traditions) provide differing solutions. Why is this? Is it simply because some don’t take the Bible seriously enough? Or do some know something others don’t? Will learning Hebrew or quoting passages from elsewhere in the Bible solve the problems and provide answers?

One popular solution is to say that we should read the Bible literally. Then we could agree on its meaning. But here’s the rub: by a literal reading, we cannot mean that we understand a passage in whatever way we think is the most obvious, that is to say, as if it was written directly to me. Such a reading technique is both egocentric—ignoring that believers for more than two thousand years have read the Bible as meaningful—and imprudent, after all most read a translation of the Scriptures. So what does reading literally entail?

On the face of it, literally means as it was meant to be understood. This designation differentiates literal from figurative (or allegorical) meaning. Already we find ourselves in a potential predicament: what if the intended meaning was actually figurative, for example, in reading the Parable of the Sowers (Matthew 13) or the Fable of the Bramble Tree (Judges 9:7-15)? To interpret each of these stories literally would be to understand them figuratively, that is the actual intended meaning. We have stumbled upon a red herring—using the term literally can simply be misleading.

The better approach does not assume a literal verses non-literal binary but attempts to locate the literary nature of the text. How we determine the type of literature and one’s expectations when reading that literature inform what a text means. This is where genre enters into the conversation. The term genre describes a communication type. And genre criticism is the study of how these types create expectations of that communication.

If we hear a story that starts with “Once upon a time” and includes a lost princess, we intuitively designate the genre a fairy tale. We don’t file a missing persons report for the heroine because we understand the tale does not correspond to actual events taking place in the present. This does not mean the storyteller is being deceptive—only that she is using a well-known story-type that is intended to communicate more than raw data about a damsel in distress.

So, how does all of this play a role in our understanding of Genesis?

A new volume in Zondervan’s Counterpoints Series, edited by Charles Halton, seeks to contribute to the conversation by discussing the genre(s) of Genesis 1-11 and the implications of those genres for our understanding of these chapters. Three qualified scholars (James Hoffmeier, Gordon Wenham, and Kenton Sparks) contributed their answers to four basic questions:

  • What is the genre of Genesis 1-11?
  • Why is this the genre of Genesis 1-11?
  • What are the implications of this genre designation for biblical interpretation?
  • How does this approach help to interpret specific texts (Genesis 6:1-4; 6:9-9:26; and 11:1-9)?

A helpful introductory essay and concluding remarks are provided by Halton.

Each of the essayists is a self-described evangelical and believes that the intent of the stories of Genesis is to portray actual events in the past. However, their understandings of the genre of Genesis lead to very different meanings. Hoffmeier designates the chapters as history authenticating but, at times, correcting the ancients’ stories about the flood or the meaning of ziggurats. Wenham finds theological meaning derived from comparing the Genesis accounts to other Ancient Near Eastern sources. Sparks distinguishes several ancient historiographic voices and finds theological diversity in the origin of the texts. Following each essay, the other authors respond and provide helpful correctives and apt criticism of each viewpoint.

The volume is constructive and well-organized. The essays provide excellent interaction with the text of Genesis and even a seasoned Bible student will be challenged to think more clearly about the place of genre study in interpretation. One could have hoped for more of an effort to connect particular implications of the ancient’s genre designations with the modern audience, but that alas would require another volume. As with many of the volumes of the Counterpoint series, Zondervan provides an excellent forum for readers to peer into an important discussion amongst scholars and in so doing allow each voice to be heard (and criticized!) leading to greater understanding of these difficult questions.

Book Notice: “40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper” by John S. Hammett

Hammett picSome theological topics remain on the front burner of discussion and debate in theological education. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two of those topics. To address some of the most pressing theological and practical questions on these ordinances (or are they sacraments?), John Hammett, J. L. Dagg Chair and Senior Professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern, has written 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Kregel, 2015). The 40 Questions series is edited Ben Merkle, professor of New Testament at Southeastern.

Following a helpful introduction in which he sketches the historical and recent interest in these marks of the church, Hammett organizes the book according to four main sections: general questions about baptism and the Lord’s Supper (part 1); questions about baptism (part 2); questions about the Lord’s Supper (part 3); and concluding questions about the importance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper for theology and the Christian life (part 4).

In part 1, Hammett explores the terminology for these sacraments/ordinances, who can administer them, and whether they can be practiced outside the church. In parts 2 and 3, after exploring introductory questions such as the origin of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the ordinances (this is a Baptist blog after all) are considered from the perspective of denominational views, theological issues, and practical issues. Hammett considers the views of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, and other traditions before asking theological questions like, “Should Infants Be Baptized?” (chs. 16–17) and practical questions like, “How Often Should the Lord’s Supper Be Observed?” (ch. 36). Finally, in part 4, he reflects on the theological and practical significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Though deeply theological, then, the book has a practical feel, as is the design of the 40 Questions series. Each chapter, which answers one key question, contains reflection questions that prompt the reader to retain and integrate what they have just read. For instance, on the much-debated topic of infant baptism, Hammett offers historical and biblical arguments for infant baptism before providing his (Baptist) rejoinders (ch. 16). Yet, instead of leaving his points as the final word, Hammett asks the reader searching questions such as, “How might churches reflect the welcoming and positive attitude of Jesus toward children (as seen in Matt. 19:13–15; Mark 10:13–16; Luke 18:15–17) in their practices? If not by infant baptism, what would be appropriate ways?” (p. 137). This approach allows the reader to come to informed, not biased, judgments.

40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is also fairly and expertly balanced. After discussing the covenantal case for infant baptism (ch. 17), Hammett concludes, “Baptists think that their positive case for believer’s baptism from the teaching and example of the New Testament is sufficient to support their limitation to believers, and thus to rule infant baptism non-biblical. Nevertheless, the Baptist position is the minority position, historically and contemporarily. Thus, a consideration of the arguments offered in support of infant baptism seemed warranted” (p. 144). The balanced approach encourages readers to defend (charitably) their view while presenting other views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in a fair-minded way. This feature, among many others, makes Hammett’s new book a sound and clear resource for pastors, teachers, students, and interested laymen in various denominations.

What if the Superstitious Peasant Is only Half Wrong?

For a generation, C. S. Lewis’ Miracles: A Preliminary Study was, at a popular level, the best book on the subject of miracles. Last fall Eric Metaxas published Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life. His work probably will be the new standard. Here’s just a brief excerpt:Miracles Metaxas

“What if we could accept that our childhood love of Santa Claus was indeed fantasy but not merely fantasy? What if we could accept that although Santa Claus didn’t really exist as Socrates existed, our desire for him to exist pointed to something that did exist, pointed to something that Socrates himself had longed for? What if those who simply believed in anything were only half- wrong, because their desire to believe pointed to something that was true, not just in the world itself but inside them?

 

And what if those who knew Santa Claus didn’t really exist were themselves only half-wrong, because their rejection of that kind of sloppy, childish belief pointed to a desire to only believe in what was real, what was really real and not just a myth or a childhood story, a desire to believe in things that are as true as the facts in history books and as real as the atoms and molecules we learned about in science books? What if the half-truth of the desire for something beyond us could meet up with the half-truth of the desire for only what is really real and true, which we can know and see and touch in this world too? What if those two halves could touch and become the one true truth we were both looking for?”

What if the superstitious peasant is only half wrong? Yes, those who will believe anything are mistaken. But so are those who believe nothing. Metaxas demonstrates that the Bible teaches that there is a discerning, seeking, middle ground. Miracles is thoughtful, provocative, and very fun to read. I recommend it highly.