Suppose that you had never heard of the Book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, would your faith as a Christian be affected in any way?
John Young thinks Genesis 1-3 is very important as the source of doctrines which the Church teaches authoritatively ("Genesis on creation and fall: what does the Church teach?" August AD2000). He gives a list of Church teachings which, he says, have been adopted because they are in Genesis.
In doing so, he states an important principle of interpretation. Referring to a traditional interpretation, he writes: "Today Scripture scholars in general dismiss that interpretation, for there is now a better understanding of the genres used in ancient writings." So let us look at the genre (kind of writing) in Genesis.
The main story begins in chapter 12, the story of Abraham and the election of his descendants as the chosen people. Chapters 1-11 are a prologue, ancient Hebrew stories explaining how the cosmos and some other familiar things came to be. Ancient peoples liked to push back into history their own beliefs and practices. They composed stories to explain these things.
Such explanatory stories are called "etiological" by scholars. How did the galaxy, the Milky Way, get up in the sky? An Australian aboriginal legend answers: Two aborigines beside a campfire began to fight. The loser plucked a stick from the fire and swirled sparks into the sky. He raced up a ladder of sparks to the big cluster of sparks and hid. That, my friends, is how the Milky Way came to be in the sky.
We find such stories in Genesis. Why do men have to wrest a living from the soil? Why do women suffer in childbirth? Why do humans die? These are punishments imposed by God on the first man and woman. We rest on the Sabbath because then God rested. What explains the appearance of rainbows? God put the rainbow there as a sign of his covenant with Noah and his descendants. Why are there many languages? A punishment for human arrogance (Tower of Babel).
Writing was not invented until millennia after the origin of humans, and Hebrew much later. As for dating the writing of Genesis, we do not know when it was written. A more common 'guestimate', is that it was written about 500BC. The author(s) were not in a position to know what happened at the beginning of the cosmos. There are no records and no witnesses to pass on information. So it is not history.
What doctrines rest on Genesis, according to John Young?
1. God created the cosmos from nothing.
But we know that without the aid of Genesis.
2. Adam and Eve were real individuals.
The Genesis text leaves open the question of whether they are mythical figures representing the collective, humanity. The Hebrew word for the first man, "the man" ( adam), in Genesis 1-3, is not a proper name. Later Church teachings asserting Adam and Eve's existence as individuals cannot be derived straightforwardly from Genesis because it is not history.
3. Satan tempted Adam and Eve.
Satan is not mentioned in Genesis. A snake is mentioned but he is not called Satan.
4. Humans have both to labour and also suffer death as punishment for the sin of Adam and Eve.
An explanatory story.
5. Sanctifying grace was lost by the sin of the first humans, as were "real supernatural and preternatural gifts from God."
There is no notion of grace or of these gifts in Genesis, except freedom from death.
6. The Genesis account of the creation of Adam and Eve is compatible with the evolution of humans from primitive ancestors (the theory of evolution).
It is not compatible. Genesis asserts that the couple had no antecedents of any kind. If human evolution is true, then Genesis is false.
7. God promised to send a Redeemer, a promise fulfilled in the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus.
The text (3:15) contains no reference to any sort of Redeemer.
The stories in the opening chapters of Genesis are imperishable but they can not always carry the weight of theology they are asked to bear.
FRANK MOBBS (DR)