Somewhere Between History and Fantasy: Read(ing) Genesis 1–11 Theologically

greg-rakozy-38802Few places in Scripture are more important, more debated, or more theologically-rich than Genesis 1–11. As to their importance, they introduce the Bible to God and his purposes in the world; as to debate, they were polemical from the start, as Moses wrote these chapters to combat other creation stories in the ancient Near East; and as to theology, these eleven chapters introduce nearly every doctrine found in the rest of Scripture.

It is to this last point, the theological message of Genesis 1–11, that I want to address. Affirming the historicity of God’s direct creation of mankind on the sixth day, it seems the best way to read these chapters is as a poetical—dare I say, fantastical—introduction of Israel to the God of Creation, who happens to be their covenant Lord.

Thus, as Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen rightly assess, citing the earlier observation of Gerhard von Rad (Genesis: A Commentary, 46): “The creation story is so rich in meaning that ‘it cannot be easily over-interpreted theologically'” (The Drama of Scripture28). Indeed, from the creation of the world to its subsequent recreation after the Flood, the first eleven chapters of Genesis are seminal ground for all that will grow up in the rest of Scripture. For the careful biblical theologian, these chapters are worth a life-long study, and what follows are simply seed-thoughts that can and should be traced back to the beginning. 

Seed Thoughts in Genesis 1–11

In Genesis 1–11 we are introduced to all the major loci of systematic theology. And only with the truths found in Genesis 1–11 can we answer basic theological questions. For instance, here’s a smattering of questions that can only be answered with the revelation given in these chapters.

Theology Proper

  1. Who is God? Where does he come from?
  2. What is God’s relationship to creation? What is his relationship to humanity?
  3. How does God work in the world? What do we learn about God that he is a speaking God?
  4. With the light of later revelation (e.g., John 1:1–3), we can also ask: What role does the Father, Son, and Spirit play in creation?

Creation

  1. Why is there something instead of nothing?
  2. Where did the world come from? What is its purpose?
  3. Can the world be made again? (Consider how the pattern of judgment, salvation, and new creation is found in the Flood story).

Theological Method

  1. How do we know what we know? What do we learn from God speaking and revealing himself to us through written words?
  2. What is the significance of God waiting thousands of years to inscripturate the events of Genesis 1–11 until after redemption of Israel from Egypt? What does this teach us about the pattern of redemption and revelation?
  3. What is right and wrong? Who decides what is right or wrong?

Humanity

  1. What does it mean to be made in God’s image?
  2. How is mankind similar to and distinct from animals?
  3. What does it mean to be male or female?
  4. What is marriage? How does it relate to the larger purpose of having dominion over the earth?

Sin

  1. What went wrong with the world? Where did evil come from? Why is their death?
  2. Who is Satan? How does he operate?
  3. What will resolve the problem of sin?
  4. Is death inevitable? Or might there be hope of life after death? What does Enoch’s death-less entrance into heaven tell us?

Salvation

  1. Is there any hope for this world? Where will this hope come from?
  2. What is the relationship of salvation and judgment?
  3. Is there a pattern of salvation?
  4. What is common grace?
  5. What does it mean to believe?

Ecclesiology

  1. Where does the passage of God’s people through water begin? What is baptism?
  2. Who are the people of God?
  3. What’s the difference between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent?

Eschatology

  1. Where is this world going?
  2. What is the solution to sin?
  3. What are the wages of sin? What is judgment?
  4. What is our hope for the future?

This list is hardly complete, but it gives a sense of the importance of Genesis 1–11 for theological studies. The range of questions here arise from within Genesis 1–11 and from later Scripture or experiences in life. The common thread to all of them, though, is how God’s first words in Scripture answer them, thus proving again the need to read Genesis 1–11 theologically and for theologians to spend ample time in this doctrinal seedbed.

Read(ing) Genesis 1–11 Theologically

The first eleven chapters are replete with theological seed-thoughts. None of them are complete in themselves, but neither is any doctrine of Scripture begun without them. Rather, these chapters teach us what God thinks is important in his revelation and what to keep an eye on throughout the rest of Scripture. Accordingly, a theological reading of Genesis 1–11 is a needful corrective to other approaches which reduce Genesis to pure history or Hebrew poetry agnostic unto its historicity.

Importantly, a theological reading of Genesis 1–11 affirms the historicity of Adam, Seth, Noah, and Abraham. It is not some after-the-fact myth story; it is God’s retelling of creation, recorded and reported by God’s servant Moses. Like all Scripture, it is a Spirit-inspired revelation testifying to God and the world he has made, and this in words and imagery God deems important for understanding the rest of his (hi)story.

At the same time, a theological reading of Genesis 1–11 is also concerned with the literary structure and symbolic imagery (i.e., the Garden of Eden is filled with symbolism) that some historical readings miss. To be sure, Moses who patterned the tabernacle after his vision of heaven (Exod. 25:40), writes Genesis 1–11 with equal attention to symbolism. In fact, we should learn from Genesis 1–11 how God filled his universe with symbolism—what else does it mean that the Sun and Moon rule over the day and the night? (1:18).

The poetic elements of Genesis 1–11 are not to be missed but explored in harmony with the rest of Scripture. These symbols, rooted in historical fact, are what retain the mystery of creation—that God who stands outside of time has created a world to inhabit with his image-bearers. Can historical speech alone capture this reality? No, not alone; that’s why the Bible is a multi-genre book, and one that often speaks of creation with poetic praise (see Proverbs 8 and Psalms 8, 19, 29, 104).

A God dwelling with his creatures? This is the stuff of science fiction—only it is gloriously real. But such reality, as the best novelists teach us, requires non-historical language. It requires poetry. Hence it should not surprise us that Moses employed poetic language and imagery to remind us that this world is enchanted. Indeed fantastical sagas only imitate what God first created. That God created the world with his words and destroyed it is tragically historical, but in Scripture it is reported in fantastical ways—a kind of fantastical history! Thus such history requires and leads to poetry—see how Moses song follows Moses description of event (Exod. 14–15).

Ultimately, the only way to account for the fantastical-historical nature of Genesis 1–11 is to see it as a poetic-narrative theology. Moses does not write the creation story as an ancient etiology (think: Aesop’s Fables). To reduce Genesis 1–11 to its propositions is a reading that retains its historicity but misses its main point. Genesis 1–11 is written to evoke trust and worship in the God of Israel who made all things. And therefore, we should read it as genuine history with the wonder we expect from fantasy, which is to say plainly: We should read Genesis 1–11 theologically, on the look out for the God who endowed his creation with glory so that it would lead to his greater praise.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

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