Reading Genesis: Beyond fact and fiction

Over the past few months I have made several statements about how to interpret parts of the creation story in Genesis. While I have written that I don’t think a literal interpretation is sufficient and have written some posts about certain passages, perhaps it is time for me to be somewhat more organized about this subject.

If you are a firmly convinced biblical literalist, whether Christian or atheist, you may want to stop reading right here. What follows will probably just annoy you.  So save yourself the aggravation and stop reading. If you have a way of reading Scripture, particularly in this case Genesis, that you love- good for you. I’m not interested in arguing about whose exegetical method is best, and whose interpretation is correct. You’re not interested in changing your interpretation, and I, quite frankly, am not interested in changing mine either. Let’s just agree to disagree. There are always more than one way to interpret Scripture. Please note, I am not saying any and all interpretations are valid, but simply that there can be multiple valid readings of a particular text.

Some of you might be surprised when I referred to atheists (some atheists) as biblical literalists. But really that’s what their argument supposes. Wander into any atheist web site and the argument is nearly always based on pointing out how the Bible cannot literally be true in everything it claims happened. So for example,  if Noah did not spend 40 days in an ark with two (or seven) of every kind of animal, the all of the Bible is untrue. It’s the same argument Christian Biblical literalists make. An all or none reading that ignores historical and cultural context. It’s a reading that assumes that if something doesn’t make sense to us 21st century western readers with no interpretive effort on our part, it never made sense to anyone. And if it never made sense, literal sense, it must be false.

These posts are for people who are interested in a reading of Genesis that does not require literalism and that does not require calling the whole thing a fairy tale. I remain convinced that there are a large number of Christians whose hearts tell them there is a  faithful, non literal way to read Genesis. And I am interested in what your response to my proposal is.

We need to begin by considering how we have the text of Genesis that we have. It didn’t drop out of the sky a complete text. The book of Genesis we have is the result of generations of faithful people reflecting on the sacred stories of their tradition. Before there was the written text, there was the oral tradition. Uncountable generations of people telling and retelling their most important stories. These stories are told and retold, understood and re understood as Israel lives its history. These stories begin to be collected at roughly the time of the United Monarchy ( about 1000 BCE) until the exile or just afterwards ( about 587-538 BCE).  So we have stories from a variety of sources, carefully preserved and shaped over very long periods of time; gradually brought together.

Sometimes people find the idea that the contents of the Bible were told and retold, worked and reworked, shaped and reshaped unsettling. Please don’t let that disturb you. It certainly doesn’t mean that God wasn’t present through the whole process. One of the main ideas of the Bible is that God chooses to work with and through human beings. And that- just consider your own life- is not a neat, tidy, linear process.

With this introduction in place, we will begin to think next week about both creation stories (yes, there are two of them).

I would like to leave you today with this:

“If “history” means a detached report of events, the biblical story is not history. If “story” means a tale spun out of the imagination, the biblical history is not story. We are dealing with a history-like story, or a story-like history, and there is no razor sharp enough to separate these dimensions of the biblical narrative.”           Bernhard W. Anderson, in Understanding the Old Testament, Abridged Fourth Edition, assisted by Katheryn Phisterer Darr, Prentiss Hall,Inc. 1998, page 19.

And also with this: A wise person once told me, “The truth is not the same thing as the facts.”


If you want to read more about it: Bernhard Anderson’s Understanding the Old Testament is a good place to start. Two other always reliable resources are The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes,  published by Abingdon Press and edited by Leander E. Keck and the Interpretation Commentary series, published in several volumes by Westminster/John Knox Press and edited by James L. Mays, et al.

One thought on “Reading Genesis: Beyond fact and fiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s