Reading Genesis like the Ancients

GeocentrismIt’s always good to try to understand the worldview and culture of the original audience of scripture. It is an important and valuable tool in interpreting the Bible. It can be of great value in developing an appropriate  and plausible interpretation of the Bible. Notice,  I didn’t say correct interpretation -that is much harder to achieve, and  we always need to be humble about what we claim about God.

Sometimes it seems fairly easy. We know that in ancient world  multiple wives were the norm and thus not the scandal ( for most Westerners) that would be today.   Or to understandthat pseudonymuswriting was acceptable in the ancient world. It was not a problem to write something as Paul’s disciple and to put Paul’s name on it. It’s  also important to understand that just because something occurred in ancient times doesn’t make it right. As one of my professors used to say, ” It may not be right but it’s true.”

Other times we can know something about beliefs in the ancient world but have a hard time with the concept. For example:

In the ancient world the sky was a dome that supported the home of the gods and also was the place where water was stored. When it rained, the shutters in the dome opened up and rain fell. ( Gen 1:6-8 and Gen 7:11) See this article at BioLogos for a drawing that shows how ancient people viewed the world.

This is a very different way of imagining the cosmos than most of us have. I have looked for the dome, and I can’t see it.  I’ve stared up at the sky on a summer day and tried to see a dome. I’ve gazed into the heavens at night and tried to see a dome. I thought it would be like that picture where you either see a vase or two faces.  I thought if looked long enough and I would see it.  But I can’t. I am a product of my times and our scientific world view. I can’t view the heavens like the ancient Jews.

So try as I might I simply don’t see the world as the ancients did. The best I can hope for is some level of understanding and recognition that my interpretive framework is different than theirs. Now this doesn’t mean that the texts are uninterpretable.  It does mean I need to be careful and try not – as best I can -to superimpose my quite different worldview on the orginal audience.  stars nasa

That’s what makes reading Genesis so difficult. As modern people, even if we are not scientists, our worldview is so shaped by science that we have great difficulty adopting, even temporarily another world view. It is almost impossible for us to imagine another way of reading Genesis. For many of us it is either science or fairytale. We cannot conceive another way of interpreting. But for the original audience, this other way was their way.  Modern science didn’t exist. The methods and world view of modernity didn’t exist. Our questions about how, in the language of science, everything came to be were not their questions.

My Biblical literalist friends might claim that Genesis offers a worldview that stands over against scientific materialism.  To say that  Genesis offers a worldview that is at odds with the conventional worldview is correct.  But the other worldview is not science. The other worldview is paganism.  The other worldview is that  multiple gods creating humanity for selfish reasons.  Gods who wanted someone to bring them their food, gods who created slaves. It is a bleak view of the world, where humanity is at the mercy of capricious and selfish gods. 

For most of us,  Paganism isn’t the dominate worldview today. This makes reading Genesis difficult for us. We have difficulty imagining living among people  who have such a different view of humanity. While there are worldview differences between faiths today those differences are not as foreign to us as the  pagan ancient near east worldview was.

So we struggle as we read the text to remember that Genesis isn’t an argument against science. It’s an argument against a pagan worldview.  And ancient people really believed it, it was not a casual albeit entertaining fairytale.  We have to be willing to  acknowledge a third, and for us quite difficult way of reading Genesis. Unless we are willing to try, we will misread the text.   We will in all likelihood misread in spite of our best efforts because of our distance in time and culture but we can lessen the error. But we need to try. So I encourage you, if you have mostly or only read Genesis1-3 as an argument against modern science or as a statement about what physically happened, to try to read it though ancient eyes as a majestic affirmation about the God of Israel. A statement of faith for the people of God, reminding them and the rest of the world who God is, powerful yes, but also caring and involved, holy and loving, trustworthy and dependable.


Just for clarity’s sake, the professor who said this was a pharmacology professor and not a theology prof.

Just for your information, next week at Deep Church  Ben DeVries from Not One Sparrow is organizing some posts about animals and Christianity. Ben kindly asked me to contribute to the effort. (Thanks again Ben) I’ll put a notice and link here at Conversation in Faith when the posts are available.

4 thoughts on “Reading Genesis like the Ancients

  1. Oh what a great post. In some ways I think this is a key to the whole Bible. It took me years to understand this–and accept the Genesis account as totally true! Not a detailed scientific account (but perhaps true in ways we do not understand yet–“day” can be translated “age”)but true because to reveals the heart of God.

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