Monday, January 11, 2010

How do you read Genesis?

The first dozen chapters of Genesis probably spark more controversy in our culture than any other part of the Bible. Creationists bang the drum for God getting it all done in a literal week; evolutionists roll their eyes and dismiss the whole thing as mythology. Advocates of intelligent design try to find a middle road and take the whole thing as some kind of wider parable that assures us there really is a driving force behind the whole business. The average church-goer is stuck somewhere on this spectrum, maybe believing that each day played out like Genesis 1 says, maybe believing it's just intended to assure us in general terms that God created the world and it didn't come about by accident. People on the extremes tend to fight about this creation debate in school board meetings and on talk radio shows, in books and interviews and occasionally in a face-to-face debate.

The whole thing generates a lot more heat than light, which this time of year in Minnesota is maybe okay.

A "literal" reading of Genesis 1-12 brings up a few questions. Having spent seven years in youth ministry and eleven years as a pastor, I've heard most of the questions that go with these chapters. Here are a few of the best:
  • What existed before all this story started?
  • How long ago is "in the beginning"?
  • Do snakes really talk?
  • Of course the classic, Did Adam & Eve have belly buttons?
  • Where did Cain's wife come from?
  • Why did Cain found a city if there were a dozen people on earth?
  • What about cave men? Where do they fit?
  • What about dinosaurs?
  • What about the fossil record?
  • How could the earth really be repopulated from the animals on one boat?
  • How could a wooden boat the size of the ark hold together in heavy seas?
  • Could people really live 900 years or more?
  • And of course there are more.
These questions are all very entertaining. But they totally miss the point. I'm about to give away my bias, so pay attention.

All these questions assume a post-enlightenment view of the Genesis stories. It's a way of understanding that says you get to know something by taking it apart, like a toaster -- you can disassemble your toaster and figure out what connects to what and why it works. (Please unplug it before trying this at home.) On non-living things, this works just fine, though I always had trouble getting things put back together again, and frequently they didn't work quite the same as they did before I took them apart. But this way of "knowing" doesn't work so well on living things, for example your cat. You can't take the cat apart and put it back together again. You have to live with the cat in order to know it, and the more time you spend with it the better you'll understand it. (Reading a little Kipling might help as well: "I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.")

The Enlightenment, that period of time when we believed that pure logic and rationality would solve all our problems and Science held all the answers, has made it very hard for you and me to understand the Bible. I think to "understand" the Bible we have to live in relationship with it, get to know it, treat it like a living thing.

In short, I don't find it helpful to dissect Genesis in order to understand it. It isn't helpful to me to ask questions of truth and falsehood, accuracy or inaccuracy. I find it much more helpful to live with the stories and relate to these stories like a living thing, because I believe that's exactly what they are. And as I do that, I find that these are stories about me. I learn about myself as I read Genesis. Who am I? Where do I come from? Why was I created? What is my relationship to the rest of creation? Why do I do the things I do? Why do the people around me do the things they do?

So in short, Genesis isn't about what happened back then. It's about what happened at my house this afternoon. Reading it for the sake of ancient history might be fun and entertaining in a speculative kind of way, but it totally misses the point.

I know many of you are thinking, "Yeah, but ..." and you're going to tell me it's accurate, you can trust it, or it's mythological, or whatever. I know. Really, I do. But for the moment, let it go and listen to what the story says about you and what you see when you look out your window, or across the dinner table, or on the evening news.


  1. Zoom. You went right over my head on this one. I will take you last sentence to heart for a time and see what happens.....

  2. Hang in there Bruce. Just live with it for a while. On an earlier post about light I mentioned Col 1:13 because it tells us we were rescued from the realm of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son (or the "light" if you want to link it to John). By the same way in Genesis that God's spirit hovered over the water (chaos, darkness, etc.) and He spoke (Who do we also call the Word? Hint: In the beginning was the Word...) into the chaos of creation and brought forth what was good. God spoke into the chaos / God sent his son Jesus into the chaos. Do you see some similarity?

    The stories of the earth's creation are the stories of your creation as a child of light.

    The stories of Israel's exodus into freedom is your story of exodus into freedom.

    See how many more parallels you can find when you look.


  3. Ok, I'm back. Certainly a student of thinking about Genesis in light of today, but at the same time excited to see Genesis from a new perspective. I find at least three "big picture" ways in which Genesis can relate to me today. I'll list them here, but my mind is already considering Jack's response concerning parallels....

    1) God could have created the heavens and the earth instantaneously. Yet He chose to create in a step by step approach AND within the framework of time (which was part of the creation). By doing this God demonstrates, at least to me, that their is value in process. Be it the 10 step process of plagues or the forty years in the wilderness; or the development of the fruits of the Spirit in my life or the process of Spirtual maturity as found in James chapter 1.

    2) God's glory, power, and omnipotence are displayed / revealed by His creation. This is certainly a faith enourager for me.

    3) God setup the foundation for His entire plan for man in Genesis. Man's downfall, need for salvation, the goodness of God, observing the Sabbath.... It is all there! Certainly, God used the process of revealing further revelation in later books and by later prophets over thousands of years, but the basic roots of all theology can be found in Genesis!

    Now, I still believe (by faith) that Genesis is also historically and scientifically accurate, but it enlightening to see that God had additional purposes in revealing Genesis than merely to present history!

    What an eye popping question. I'll get to work on Jack's thoughts now.......