Reading the Genesis creation accounts (Part 2)
John Dickson on how the genre of Genesis 1 affects how we should read it.
GREG CLARKE: The beginning of the book of Genesis has become one of the most talked about parts of the Bible, even amongst some scientists. But how should we understand this account of the beginnings of the universe? What part do literature and history have in a proper understanding of the text? I put these questions to John Dickson who is a biblical historian, a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, and my co-director here at the Centre for Public Christianity.
There’s a lot of really heated discussion around this question of the origins of life, creation, and especially the question of how we should interpret Genesis Chapter 1. Why, John, is this such an emotional issue for people?
JOHN DICKSON: Well, on the one hand, for many people, it’s a case of commitment to the Bible. If you take the Bible seriously, the Bible says the world was created in six days, and that’s it, so you’re either faithful or you’re not faithful to it. On the other hand, you’ve got sceptics like Richard Dawkins who think the whole thing is proof that the whole of Christianity is ridiculous, because the scientific evidence is overwhelming, they say, that the earth is very old and that it certainly wasn’t made in six days. So biblical faithfulness on the one hand, scientific integrity on the other, and they appear to be clashing.
GREG CLARKE: Some people would say that things like the very existence of dinosaurs, the age of the earth (that scientists know it’s a very old earth now) – these things just write the Bible out of the equation, it has nothing to say to us on the origins of life?
JOHN DICKSON: That’s exactly what someone like Richard Dawkins says in his latest book. But I think it misunderstands the basic genre of the text of Genesis, and it seems to me both six-day creationists and the sceptics are reading Genesis 1 the same way – they’re reading literalistically. And I actually draw a distinction between literalistic and literal. A literal interpretation (which is my own interpretation) says, “What was the author actually trying to convey through the literary methods available to him?” and a literalistic approach to Genesis says, “Well, I’m not so interested in what the author intended to say, what is actually said? What do the words actually say?” and they don’t worry about whether there’s any metaphor or whatever. So it’s a genre question for me.
GREG CLARKE: Ok, so genre seems to emphasise the purposes for which this literature might be written?
JOHN DICKSON: It does. It’s like a parable, you know, when you come across a parable in the New Testament you know what its intention is. It may or may not be a true story – say, the Parable of the Good Samaritan – it may or may not have actually happened, but that’s not the point of the story. Or when you come to the book of Revelation, there’s plenty of different images of beasts coming up out of the water and so-on, Jesus returning to earth riding a white horse. The point isn’t that these things will happen in that concrete way – they’re describing something using that metaphor. And I think, to read Revelation and the parable literally is sensitive to the original intention; to read it literalistically would say the Parable of the Good Samaritan actually happened, or, Jesus will actually come riding on a horse. And I think when you turn to Genesis 1, it’s clear we’re not dealing with historical prose. Most scholars are comfortable saying what we have in Genesis 1 isn’t like what you have in Genesis 13, for instance, where it’s more historical prose.
GREG CLARKE: What kinds of literary elements do you find in Genesis 1 that make you think that?
JOHN DICKSON: Well, the things that convince most scholars that we’re dealing with a highly literary, artistic form, are things like parallelism, rhythm, and number symbolism. Number symbolism especially, for instance, the opening sentence of Genesis 1 is seven words. The second sentence is 14 words. Immediately we’re sort of in the space of seven. Anyone who knows the Bible knows that the number 7 is the number symbolising perfection, and when you spot that you notice all sorts of things like the word “heaven”, the one half of the created order, appears 21 times in Genesis 1; the word “earth” 21 times. So multiples of seven. Phrases like “and God saw that it was good” occur seven times, and of course the whole thing is created around seven days, seven stages. So, it should be quite clear to an ancient reader, that the author of Genesis, whatever his actual views of physical origins, is trying to convey something through the artistry of literature.
GREG CLARKE: Now some people say that that literary understanding of Genesis is just a result of Christians having to rethink their reading of it, and that surely Christians in the past, the Church fathers and so-forth, didn’t think this way.
JOHN DICKSON: Yeah, well, Richard Dawkins says that, and it’s an easy target for him to say, “No, no, no, the only true interpretation of Genesis 1 is this literalistic one, and you shouldn’t fudge it by picking and choosing how you interpret it.” But actually, that misses a pretty significant movement of Biblical interpretation going right back to the first century. So, the Jewish scholar of the first century, Philo of Alexandria, interpreted Genesis 1 in a non-concrete way, in a metaphorical way. And a number of the early church fathers did, so Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, St Ambrose of Milan, and then right to the Venerable Bede and Thomas Aquinas all interpreted Genesis 1 not in a literalistic way, but in a sort of more symbolic, theological way. And this is long before the rise of science, before science was a “problem” for a literalistic interpretation of Genesis.