Digging Deep into the Movie, “Is Genesis History?” (Part 2): What is the Text of Genesis 1-11 Really About?

In my previous post, I began to critique the recent YECist movie, Is Genesis History? As I stated in that post, I felt the movie was fundamentally dishonest in how it even addressed the issue. First, its real focus was whether or not Genesis 1-11 was historical. Second, the as soon as the movie got going, the question in the title was already answered and assumed, and the rest of the movie basically said, “Yes, it is history, so let’s see if we can interpret all modern scientific findings and fit everything into a 4,000-6,000-year period.” Third, the only scientists it interviewed were YECists. And fourth, the very framework the movie was based on, that of “two paradigms” was taken from the interview of Paul Nelson, who made it clear as soon as the movie came out that the movie misrepresented what he had said.

That being said, even though I maintain that those who made the movie were dishonest in how they put the movie together, I don’t want to give the impression that the individual scientists in the movie were being intentionally dishonest. For that matter, I think they were simply wrong. In this post, I am going to focus on the third segment of the movie entitled, “What does the text say”? where Del Tackett interviewed Dr. Steven Boyd about the biblical text of Genesis 1-11.

So…What Does the Text Say, Dr. Boyd?
Almost immediately into Del Tackett’s interview with him, Dr. Boyd said, point blank, “The first thing is that it [i.e. Genesis 1] is an accurate historical account.” The reasoning he gave was that although some people try to say Genesis 1 is poetry, it is clearly narrative—and therefore it is historical. Now, on one level, Boyd is right—even though Genesis 1 is laid out in a parallel, poetic-like structure, it is still clearly written as a narrative. And Genesis 1-11 as a whole clearly is not poetry. Psalms is poetry, and clearly Genesis 1-11 isn’t written like the Psalms.

But where Dr. Boyd is wrong is that mere narrative does not automatically indicate it is historical. There are plenty of narrative sections in the Bible that are telling stories, but are not to be considered historical. Jonah, for example is narrative, but I would argue it is a parable. The opening of Job is narrative, but the book itself is wisdom literature. Simply put, not all narrative is historical narrative. When it comes to Genesis 1 specifically, and Genesis 1-11 as a whole, I believe the best way to characterize it is mythological narrative.

I Can’t Believe Joel Just Called Genesis 1-11 a Myth!
Now the problem with using that term, “myth,” is that it immediately makes some people think that means I am saying Genesis 1-11 “is not true” or “is a fairytale.” But properly understood, “myth” is nothing more than the genre of literature that scholars use to designate the stories of the ancient world that talked about their gods, and their relationship to mankind. Case in point, the Epic of Gilgamesh contains a flood story that is really similar to the Noah story in Genesis 6-9. Therefore, since everyone labels Gilgamesh as an ancient Near Eastern myth, and since the Noah story is a lot like that, I believe it is proper to say that the Noah story fits into the same genre as Gilgamesh.

This book by Ottmar Keel opened up for me the ANE symbolism that is found in the Old Testament.

Having said that, Genesis 1-11 is very different in a number of ways than the ANE mythological literature. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that it is of the same genre. In fact, I would argue that Genesis 1-11 uses the ANE genre of myth in order to blow apart the very worldview of the pagan ANE. To the point, if you were an ancient Israelite living in the ANE, familiar with the ANE myths, and then you were presented with Genesis 1–you wouldn’t be thinking, “Gee, I wonder if it was a literal six days or not? How long ago was that? etc. etc.” What would jump out to you immediately would be (A) there is ONE God, not many; (B) this world is called VERY GOOD, and it’s not created out of the rotting carcass of a defeated god; and (C) human beings are made in THAT GOD’S IMAGE, and not out of the blood and excrement of more loser gods.

Simply put, Genesis 1-11 is certainly narrative, but it’s not giving historical details. It’s addressing and subverting the ANE myths of that time by using that genre to teach the truth about God, creation, and mankind.

That being said, I’ll admit that it probably is somewhat simplistic to just say (as I have in the past), that Genesis 1-11 is “mythological literature.” I think it is, but it is important to realize that it is also doing something drastically different than other ANE creation myths. The ANE myths were decidedly non-historical; they were about the realms of the gods who existed outside of history. In the ANE, human existence was not seen worthy enough to tell of its history. There was no real purpose to it. At most, the ANE myths were told to solidify and justify the rule of an empire or ruler. Thus, the myths were used by those in power to maintain their power and continue to oppress the majority of what they deemed to be worthless humanity.

An illustration from Keel’s book that depicts the ANE cosmological understanding of the universe: heaven above, the earth disk resting upon subterranean pillars that go into the Sea of Chaos, ruled by Leviathan.

Simply put, the ANE myths weren’t about history; they described the ways of the non-historical gods. And the rulers of the ANE were charged with maintaining that very cosmic order. If you understand that, you’ll see that Genesis 1-11 starts with the same mythological genre the people of the ANE would be familiar with, but uses that genre to tell a radically different view reality (i.e. one God, good creation, humanity made in God’s image). And that “humanity is made in God’s image” thing is really, really important, for Genesis 1:26-27 is asserting something that simply was foreign to the ancient world: humanity has worth. Because of that assertion, that led to the next bombshell that paves the way for the rest of the Bible: because mankind is made in God’s image, and therefore has inherent worth, the history of humanity has purpose and deserves to be told.

And so, because of that, what we see happening in Genesis 1-11 is this: it starts by looking a lot like other ANE mythological literature, in that it uses that literary convention. But it nevertheless reveals a radically different vision of God, creation, and mankind. And then, very subtly, in the course of those eleven chapters, it takes the reader from that world of myth (that it has just subverted by teaching something radically different about God, creation, and mankind), and ushers him into human history, namely the life of Abraham and his descendants.

And from that point on, the Bible bears witness to the fact that the one Creator God has entered into a covenant with humanity within history. Or to put it another way, Genesis 1-11 uses the mythological genre of the ANE to subvert the ANE worldview and to “set the stage” for history so to speak, and then it links up with the actual history that begins with Abraham. It is with Abraham that God enters into history via the covenant, and that history is played out on the stage that Genesis 1-11 has constructed regarding the nature of God, creation, and humanity itself. But we must realize that the stage is not the same thing as the play.

This is why the assertion that Genesis 1-11 is “history” doesn’t really make sense: in the ancient world, there really was no such thing as “history writing.” There were myths about the gods and recorded annals of kings—but the concept of writing “history” about normal people like nomads, shepherds, prostitutes, and slaves was just nonexistent. In order to get to the writing of history (which really is something new that the Old Testament introduces to the world), there has to be some sort of segway or bridge from the writing of myth to the writing of history. It is my contention that Genesis 1-11 serves that very purpose. It begins with mythological imagery and stories that would have been generally familiar, but then reveals a very different picture of reality than ANE mythology. And then, because of the dignity and worth is reveals about mankind, it ushers in the history of the Old Testament story.

No Hebrew Word for “Universe”
There are a few more observations I want share regarding Dr. Boyd’s other comments. First, after correctly pointing out that Hebrew doesn’t have a word for “universe” in the sense that we understand it (i.e. outer space, etc.), he then immediately makes what I feel is a strange comment: that Genesis 1 indicates that at the beginning of God’s creation, there was “a water ball in space.”

I’m sorry, but I do not see that mentioned anywhere in Genesis 1. In fact, how could it be mentioned? For just as Dr. Boyd said, there is no Hebrew word for “universe” (i.e. outer space) to begin with. In other words, if there was no Hebrew word for “universe” (presumably because they had no concept of it in the way we do today), how can he claim that the text is saying there was originally a huge water ball…in outer space?

Yom and a Day (Why Concordists and Young Earth Creationists are Both Wrong)
The next thing Dr. Boyd touches upon is the standard argument regarding the Hebrew word for “day” in Genesis 1—yom. And yes, he is correct: “day” means “day.” The various attempts to define yom as long periods of time are simply trying to impose an alien concept to the text. This is why I have a problem with concordism. I do not believe Genesis 1 is attempting to give scientific or historical details in the first place, therefore, to try to “fit” modern science into Genesis 1 is wrong-headed from the start.

And so, when Dr. Boyd says, “The biblical text is not compatible with the conventional (i.e. millions of years/evolution) paradigm,” he is correct. But he is not correct in the way he thinks he’s correct, for young earth creationism isn’t compatible with what young earth creationists call “the Genesis paradigm.” Why? Because “the Genesis paradigm” is the YECist assumption that Genesis 1 is giving literal, scientific/historical information. I’m sorry, it isn’t.

Or to put it another way, the problem with concordism isn’t that it is trying to “fit millions of years” into a plain, scientific/historical text; it is that it is trying to “fit millions of years” into a text that isn’t attempting to do science and history in the first place. And in the same way, the problem with YECism is that it too is trying to fit their own “scientific explanation” into a text that is not attempting to do science and history in the first place.

What does this have to do with yom? Yes, yom means day, and not millions of years. But the literary context of Genesis 1 is a decidedly poetic structure within the narrative that is intended to set up a new way of understanding time by giving justification for the Sabbath, and to give the reason why the Israelites were to different from their pagan neighbors, who didn’t rest at any point during the week—heck, they didn’t even have weeks. Life was just seen as an endless cycle of seasons, with no purpose, at the mercy of the gods and fate. The very structure of Genesis 1 speaks to the purpose of God’s created order, and the Israelites were called to display their faith in that one God by taking a break once every seven days, and thus declaring to the pagan world that they could take a break because their God was the one who upheld the entire created order (Deuteronomy 5:12-14).

Thus, ancient Israel would have seen in Genesis 1 a revolutionary way to observe and live out time itself, as a faithful testimony to the true God. They would not have gone around saying, “Wow, God created the universe in six literal 24-hour days, despite what those godless evolutionists say!”

Simply put, the scientific question regarding the historical origins of the universe simply would not have entered their minds in the first place. That is why I think the endless wrangling over what yom means misses the point. Yes it means “day,” but no, Genesis 1 simply is not addressing science and history.

Genesis 1 in Hebrew

Conclusion
I wanted to devote an entire post on this segment of the movie because I feel if we can understand Genesis 1-11 properly, most of the contentious “creation/evolution debate” should evaporate. Call me a dreamer. But if we realize that Genesis 1-11 is God’s revelation about who He is, His purposes for creation, and the dignity of mankind, we should be able to not only realize that the mere description of the natural processes of creation we find in evolutionary theory simply does not negate the truth of Genesis 1-11, but we should also be able to appreciate how Genesis 1-11 sets the stage for biblical history to play out.

8 Comments

  1. I think if the evangelical in the USA could get a decent grip on Genesis 1, especially, then the newfound freedom to really think about things would spill over into other areas. We might be able to get past other sacred cows, Christian cliches, and really think Christianly about any number of issues, in all spheres of life. It is this wooden literalism, aversion to any kind of nuance, and fear that we will “be liberal”, that has us in a straight-jacket.

  2. This is such a richer, more meaningful view of Genesis than the literalistic reading! I think a source of the extreme literalism is that, the more fundamentalist-like a church is, the more it will resist trying to understand how a scripture passage would have been understood by the original readers. This boils down to a problem of authority – the more radical Protestants mostly reject the early Church Fathers and to these more radical groups, many questions about how Christians have traditionally understood a passage are seen as appealing to “the vain traditions of men” and most inquiries like that would be rejected. The only authority becomes me reading my Bible (usually in translation) and the safest and most “conservative” way to read it is to read everything as literally as possible. At the extreme, some even would discourage you from studying the original languages, the history, etc. as studying these things could somehow corrupt you.

    There is also the perception that because we are later in history we are somehow more advanced in how we understand the Bible. The thinking seems to be that the Bible was mainly written for those of us in the “end times” and therefore we have seen more end times events that we can read into Revelation and other books and we also have more scientific knowledge that we can read into Genesis. So once again, we can ignore the Church Fathers (anyone after the Apostles) and we can ignore church traditions because we are further along in history and thus we know more. This is modernism on steroids.

    1. Well said. I couldn’t have said it better myself! “Modernism on steroids”–YECism, the Jose Canseco of biblical interpretation!

  3. Although I am critical of fundamentalists and their extreme literalism, I appreciate that they keep solid on some traditional beliefs, such as, Christ’s sinless life, his death, and his resurrection. They have well-resisted the attempts of some to make Christ into little more than a social reformer. But a literalistic approach to the Bible also paints the fundamentalists into a corner. Thus, we get strange claims such as, the Gospel stands or falls on whether dinosaurs and humans co-existed. This also leads to the idea that there are no secondary issues. Any little detail anywhere in the Bible could be read wrong and thus undermine the Gospel. Such churches might claim that, “Our only creed is the whole Bible!” But this can lead people down the rabbit trail, arguing over minor details and seeking after esoteric things and creating more divisions.

    1. Yes, the thing about ultra-Fundamentalists is that they essentially are just as extreme as those on the opposite end of the spectrum. For some reason I’ll never understand, they think that if you (for example) say that Genesis 1 isn’t meant to be read as a scientific/historical explanation of exactly how God created everything a mere 6,000 years ago, then that is the same as denying Jesus ever existed, and the embrace of nihilism, atheism, and subjective morality. It is such an over-reaction, that it is frightening.

  4. There is kind of a dynamic where an atheist or agnostic will deliberately read a Bible passage in a very literalistic way to try and trap Christians in a “gotcha” type of explanation. And then the response from some Christians is unfortunately to double-down on a literalistic reading, usually overlooking anything that would be helpful.

  5. Wow! this could have written by me. Almost exactly my current understanding of the opening chapters of Genesis. I have not seen the movie though and I don’t think I plan to. I am a geologist by training and I’ve had no shortage of discussions on YEC on internet forums. But since the literal reading of Genesis is often tied to scriptural authority it is almost impossible for some to hear the concepts laid out here.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: