Reading the Genesis creation accounts (Part 2)

John Dickson on how the genre of Genesis 1 affects how we should read it.



John Dickson on how the genre of Genesis 1 affects how we should read it.


GREG CLARKE: Ok, so the literary reading is not a novel and modern approach, but if we take that as our understanding of how Genesis should be read, what kinds of purposes might an author have for writing that way about things like the origins of the world?

JOHN DICKSON: Well, we’re really greatly helped by a number of discoveries that occurred in the 19th century, actually, virtually the same year that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. We discovered some tablets in the Middle East that gave us an account of creation very similar to the Genesis account, but it came from Babylonians. It’s called Enuma Elish. An on these tablets was written a story – on seven tablets, actually, it’s a seven-stage story, which is interesting. But the opening lines of Enuma Elish say that before the origins of the world there was a watery chaos – now that’s interesting, because that’s the same thing that you have in Genesis.

GREG CLARKE: It rings bells for those who know of the spirit of God hovering over the waters.

JOHN DICKSON: It does. And so a number of scholars immediately thought, “Aha! Genesis has just borrowed Enuma Elish.” And then as the dust settled, they began to find that actually the differences between Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish are profound, very striking, in fact contrary. And the standard view now is that Genesis is a deliberate critique of other views of the nature of the universe. So, there are all sorts of things you find in Enuma Elish that Genesis contradicts. The form is very similar, but it’s kind of a parody, or a subversion, of ancient views of God and of humanity.

GREG CLARKE: Can you give us a few examples?

JOHN DICKSON: Yeah, well I’ve already said the similarity of coming over seven stages. The order of creation is the same in Enuma Elish and Genesis. And human beings are created in the sixth stage: sixth day in Genesis, sixth tablet in Enuma Elish. However, the basic theme of Enuma Elish in terms of its view of creation, is that creation is the result of multiple gods – I think nine gods are mentioned in the opening lines of Enuma Elish. But you come to Genesis and there’s one God – absolutely solo. And to any ancient reader who comes to Genesis, they know what’s being said here. The creation is not the result of multiple gods, but one God.

I think the other thing is the coherence of creation. In Enuma Elish the creation is sort of this haphazard result of a warfare amongst the gods, but in Genesis 1 God speaks and it is, God speaks and it is – very coherent and ordered. And this is very much the Jewish-Christian view of creation, that it isn’t just this superstitious, capricious, haphazard universe, it’s an ordered work of art.

GREG CLARKE: One of the hottest questions today is the place of human beings in the world, are they special? How does the Genesis 1 account compare with other ancient creation accounts on that question?

JOHN DICKSON: This is probably its most striking point of contrast. In Enuma Elish, for example, human beings are created out of the leftovers of the vanquished gods, and that doesn’t give us a very high view of humanity, and in any case, the only reason human beings are created is because the vanquished gods were in prison having to serve the victorious gods food all day, and they begged, “Oh, you’ve got to create something else to do this, we’re gods after all”, and so they created humans, in other words, to serve the gods. And then Genesis comes along and says, yes, human beings are created in the sixth stage, just like in Enuma Elish, however, they’re not created as an afterthought, they’re created in the “image of God” to rule over creation. And then God says, “I give you all seed-bearing plants.” When you contrast that with the pagan view that humans were created to give the foods to the gods, we have a turning upside down of ancient views of humanity. And this really gave rise to the strong western view that humanity is special, is a high being, that God really cares for and has intentions for.

GREG CLARKE: Does this understanding of Genesis 1 commit you to any particular view of origins?

JOHN DICKSON: Not a scientific view of origins, I mean, reading Genesis this way, as most scholars do, really doesn’t have much to say about how the creation came about. So, I think you could be a committed six-day creationist and still admit that this is the point of the Genesis 1 narrative.

GREG CLARKE: One final question, many people look to Genesis for answers to significant questions about life, but what questions is Genesis 1 answering?

JOHN DICKSON: Well I think the first thing to say is that it isn’t answering the question of the mechanics of creation. It’s so anachronistic to think that a text written thousands of years ago could possibly have been interested in the very modern question of the mechanics of the creation of the world. It’s actually asking the universal questions: What is God actually like? What is this creation like – is it capricious or good? (Genesis says that it’s good). And then I think ultimately, what is our place in the universe and before God and in connection with other creatures? And to all of these profound, universal, timeless questions, Genesis gives an amazing set of answers.