***There would seem to be as many interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis as there are people reading it. This essay seeks to understand what genre of literature form Genesis 1 and 2 and what the implications are regarding the historicity of Adam and Eve and the historicity of the creation accounts in general. In other words, is a literal/historical reading of the text the only faithful interpretation or are there other ways to interpret it that might be more faithful to the text?
Peter Enns states, “The most faithful, Christian reading of sacred Scripture is one that recognizes Scripture as a product of the times in which it was written and/or the events took place.”1 Just as Jesus is both divine and a completely human man of first-century Palestine, the Bible is also of divine origin and yet also a product of its time.2 The question remains, can the Bible make meaningful historical statements? Is the Bible, particularly Genesis 1-2, history, mythic story, or both?
One might label the genre of the opening chapters of Genesis as myth, folktale, legend, story, metaphor, poem, symbolism, archetypal, historical narrative, etc. E. D. Hirsch said, "Every disagreement about interpretation is usually a disagreement about genre."3 Sparks says “Genre” should not be limited to the terms of literature or art, because “it is better understood as an epistemic function of human interpretation in which we make sense of things by comparing them with other things.”4 Neither should genres be thought of as fixed categories. For Sparks, genres are flexible categories which help us make sense of the world.
According to Longman III, in literature, a genre is "a group of texts that bear one or more traits in common with each other.”5 Genre “directs authors as they compose the text. It shapes or coerces writers so that their compositions can be grasped and communicated to the reader.”6 Reading correctly then includes reading according to the text's genre. Knowledge of the genre guides the reader towards the meaning of the text.
Difficulties with understanding the genre of Genesis 1-2 are not only a modern day problem. Origen addressed this in the third century:
“For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.”7Augustine wrote in 401 A.D., “It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.”8 It was important to Augustine that the interpretation of Scripture did not dispute facts of public knowledge. Aquinas also warned that Christians “should adhere to a particular explanation [of Scripture] only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.”9
These words were written in the context of interpreting the book of Genesis. For even in their day, there was growing tension between a literal reading of Genesis and the scientific discoveries that continued to change our understanding of the universe. Historically, the church has not had a good relationship with science. It banned the works of Galileo at first and it took one hundred years before they reversed their decision.
The writers of the Bible assumed the earth was flat and that it was created by God no more than roughly 4000 years before Jesus came to earth. They believed the earth was a fixed point and that the sun actually rises and sets. Most Christians today do not have a problem reconciling the Bible’s view of these things with modern science. Lamoureux points out that the science and history in Genesis 1-11 were considered true at the time the chapters were originally orally transmitted and written down.10 Enns argues, “It is clear from a scientific point of view, the Bible does not always describe physical reality accurately; it simply speaks in an ancient idiom, as one might expect ancient people to do. It is God’s Word, but it has an ancient view of the natural world, not a modern one.”11
1 Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), xi.
2 Denis O. Lamoureux also talks about the idea of God accommodating the level of ancient writers and what they knew of science and history (Evolutionary Creation, 166).
3 E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University, 1967), 98.
4 Kenton L Sparks, Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 111.
5 Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 76
6 Longman III, 77.
7 De Principiis 4.1.16. The translation is Frederick Crombie’s in The Writings of Origin, vol 1, Ante-Nicene Christian Library 10 (Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 1869), 315-17.
8 Augustine , The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book 1, Ch 19, 39.
9 Aquinas, Summa Theologica , 1, q. 68.
10 Denis O. Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 270.
11 Peter Enns, xiv.