Section 3: The Book of Genesis and Human Origins

This is a short extract from Am I My Keeper’s Brother? 

Baggage and Barriers in Interpreting Genesis

God’s truth, according to Francis Bacon, is contained in two books:

•   God’s Book of Words – the Bible

•   God’s Book of Works – Nature

Theology is the human attempt to discover the truth about God’s words and his person. Science is the human attempt to discover the truth about God’s works and his creation. God’s Books do not spell out  two  different realities,  but  two  complementary  realities  –  one God, and one world. All truth is God’s truth. On the surface, however, the book of Genesis and science appear to tell different stories of the origin of the universe, life and humankind. We trust Genesis and its connection to the redemption story, but we worry when science appears to be undermining it. We trust science because its technological achievements – from rockets to roller blades, from heart surgery to iPhones – have been so successful, but we worry about its impact on our faith. We have seen in the previous section, however, that careful interpretation of Bible texts in the context in which they were written is necessary to avoid making the foolish mistakes that the church has so often made in the past, and avoid an apparent contradiction between Scripture and science.

In Chapter 2 we discussed how theologians interpret the Bible. Figure 9.1 is a broad outline with some of the key steps highlighted.

It is vital that we give prominence to the primary meaning and relevance of the passage for its intended audience at the time of writing. In his recent book Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose? prominent British biologist and biochemist Denis Alexander says:

If we come to the Biblical text with our twenty-first century mindsets firmly in place, without any willingness to educate ourselves in the culture and world of the biblical writers, then we are likely to miss much of what the inspired Word of God has to say to us.

Our baggage

It is important, before proceeding, to discuss the baggage we may carry into the interpretation of Genesis. You may be suspicious that my agenda is not to understand Scripture but to twist it to fit my scientific beliefs. I can confess to desperately wanting Genesis and science not to contradict each other because I believe the one God is at the heart of both, but that has been true regardless of which way my interpretation of human origins has swung. And I do want to honestly appraise the book of Genesis in the light of biblical scholarship. If at the end of this section you feel I have done an injustice to the book I would be pleased to hear your criticism.

You may fear that a critical approach to the text will undermine our belief in the inspiration or authority or relevance of Scripture. Quite the opposite. I believe that Genesis is a vitally important book of the Bible and fully deserving of the best scholarship we can give it. And that means studying the way texts were written and have come to us, and to whom they were addressed. The interpretation of a Biblical text can be based on a sound, scholarly understanding of the text and context, or on a superficial understanding of the surface meaning. I, for one, would prefer the former.

This means that we have to discover whether the main message of a narrative text, like the first chapters of Genesis, arises because it is historically true, or because it illustrates or conveys important messages. A strictly literalist view of passages in the Bible would be appropriate if it was all written as history, like the journeys of Paul described in Acts. But this is not true of all passages or all books. Some books have been treated as literal histories or literal predictions in ways that assume a 20th century understanding of the universe and completely ignore the type of writing, the original context and authorship of the text, and how it would have been understood by its first intended audience.

For example, the book of Revelation has often been understood in a literalist fashion as a book about the future, the ‘end times’. Many Christians of the twentieth century believed those end times were just about to take place around the year 2000 (just as Christians of previous centuries thought the end times would be in their eras). But if that is the case, why does Revelation not mention the great changes in communication and mobility that have occurred in the last 100 years: cars, trains and planes, the telephone, the computer and the internet? Why does it not mention the political struggles in African nations, or the many denominations of the church that exist today? Understanding Revelation as a prophecy about the end times fails to account for the local context in which the apostle John was writing, and the style or genre of his book.

The style (‘apocalyptic’) is very characteristic of Jewish writings in the period after the exile in Babylon, and it is not historical narrative. It was not written primarily to enlighten 20th or 21st century evangelicals about what would be broadcast on CNN news next year. Instead it carried a message to the followers of Jesus under the heel of Roman persecution. It came as a message of encouragement, of knowing that suffering for one’s faith was not a futile thing to do, of knowing that God had the final word over all oppressive authorities, a message of hope and a call to perseverance and endurance. This is the relevant aspect of the message for Christians today who are suffering in many ways under different types of oppression, rather than a secret code we must decipher to determine whether Osama or Obama is the next Antichrist.

I believe we have tended to come to the early chapters of Genesis in the same way, ignoring the context and the first audience, and mistaking the literary style. Hence we miss the principal message of the text to its first audience. That first hearing should focus our understanding of the Scriptures before we go on to applying it in our context and culture.

Am I My Keeper’s Brother? pp 101-104. Order your copy of the book here.

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