First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa

Suggestions for Interpreting Genesis

by Kent Webber

As we begin our Fall sermon series “Living with Love and Loss — Genesis 1-12,” I want to address an important introductory question of how we interpret this portion of Scripture, especially related to science and scientific inquiry. Genesis means “origins” so it’s a book about beginnings, about the beginning of God’s work in creating the earth and our universe.

Some people assume Genesis intends to provide a scientific account of creation and earth’s origins. It doesn’t. There was science in the ancient world as both Babylonians and Egyptians made advances in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and medicine. However the biblical writers never focus on those areas of interest. It was much later, in about the sixteenth century, when what we know today as “modern science” finally emerged with the use of disciplined inquiry, critical observation, and analytical experimentation. In 2 Timothy 3:15 Paul talks about the nature and overall purpose of Scripture as “the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” This means the grand, overall purpose of the Bible is to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ, to be a guide for what we believe and how best to live out our faith day to day. Scripture does not serve as a scientific guide and no such claim is ever made by the biblical writers.

In the fourth-century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, viewed Scripture not as a scientific textbook or an academic tract, but as the Book of Life. When Felix the Manichean claimed that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Maicheus the orbits of the heavenly bodies, Augustine replied that God desired us to become Christians, not astronomers. Our sixteenth-century Reformed Church leader, John Calvin, taught that to preserve the intentions of the biblical writers we must remember that their purpose was to bring us the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, not information in general, including in the field of science. In the seventeenth-century, one of the Westminster Divines (English and Scottish theologians whom Parliament invited to write a national statement of faith) Samuel Rutherford, said that Scripture intended to mediate salvation in Christ, not communicate information about science, mentioning astronomy specifically.

What this all means is that in our Reformed Tradition we believe Holy Scripture is our authoritative guide “for faith and life” – for what we believe and how we live, as we seek to be “instructed for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”

In the first chapter of Genesis we can see the non-scientific approach taken by the Spirit-inspired writer. For example, while we know that our daylight comes from the sun, a relatively nearby star, Genesis tells us that light was created on day one of creation, while the stars and planets did not come into existence until day four. Further, we know that plants grow via photosynthesis, yet plants came into existence on day two of creation, while the sun is not created until day three. You can see the problem.

If Genesis does not intend or claim to be a scientific account of creation, to provide us with biological, geological, and astronomical information, how should we read the book, especially the first eleven chapters which focus on a “primeval prologue” to the entire biblical narrative? While these eleven chapters are not myths or legends, neither is the material contained in them “history” in the modern sense of eye-witness, objective reporting. What they do teach us are profound theological truths in story form; such as:

  • God is the creator of all things;

  • God personally participated in the creation of our first ancestors; and that we as humans are uniquely made in God’s own image

  • Humankind is a unity and because our original ancestors disobeyed God, sin entered our world and spread universally as a result; thus we find ourselves today as broken and sinful people, alienated from God and other people, in need of a redeemer.

One thing worth noting is that when we read Genesis it is not the earliest creation account we have. Scholars tell us that the Babylonian epic called “Enuma Elish” (“When on high…”) was written prior to Genesis. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna speaks of Genesis as part of the biblical polemic against paganism. Genesis and Enuma Elish do share the same vision of the primeval state as a watery chaos, have the same basic order of creation, and conclude with the divine rest. However, the writer of Genesis is purposefully providing a distinctly different message than Enuma Elish. Without going into detail about that Mesopotamian account, let me simply draw some distinctions between the account of creation we find in Genesis vs. that which is contained in Enuma Elish.

  • In Enuma Elish (EE) there are stories about the origins of the gods; whereas, in Genesis there exists no mythology about God’s origin.

  • In EE the gods are part of the created order themselves; whereas, the God we meet in Genesis stands above and outside of the created realm and is the One to whom all creation is subject.

  • In EE magic plays an important role; whereas the God of the Bible rejects magic and seeks a faith relationship with people.

  • In EE human beings are created simply to serve the needs of the gods as lowly slaves, an afterthought in the whole creation account. By contrast, in Genesis human beings are the crown of God’s creation, created in God’s own image and likeness, and are given responsibility to care for and manage God’s creation!

  • EE reads like a bad “soap opera” with gods frequently misbehaving, committing murder, acting with capriciousness and moral indifference; compared with the goodness, holiness, and faithfulness of the one living and true God in the Genesis account.

  • In EE the universe is purposeless, subject to the whims of various deities with no clear overarching meaning or purpose. In Genesis God is sovereign and directs history, while at the same time allowing human beings authentic freedom.

  • A great cosmic battle between the gods is the underlying motif of EE, while in Genesis we see God wanting a close and harmonious relationship with human beings, yet not forced out of obedience nor a violation of humanity’s own will to achieve the desired goal.

I hope this brief introduction provides a helpful context for your reading of Genesis 1-12 and some interpretative guideline for our Fall sermon series “Living with Love and Loss.”

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Published on September 7, 2021

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