Scholars Explore Non-concordism

This page follows closely on the heels of the prior one (The Ancient Science of the Bible and Three Interpretive Options), in which we introduced a three-tiered taxonomy of interpretative approaches to the ancient Near Eastern pre-scientific assumptions shared by the biblical authors. This page will quote a variety of contemporary biblical scholars to clarify Scripture's perspective on things we now describe scientifically and to unpack the interpretive approaches of Option 2 and Option 3.
 
For a wonderful walk through the early Genesis creation accounts, see the links at the bottom of this page to Pete Enns' 2010 blog postings at BioLogos.
One quote from Professor Enns: "As we saw with Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish, Genesis 2-9 and Atrahasis breathe the same air. They share ancient Mesopotamian ways of talking about origins. This is a clear indication that the second creation story does not speak to contemporary science. Hence, (1) it cannot and should not be harmonized with contemporary science, (2) it should not control what can be concluded from scientific investigation." 
 
What Scholars Say about the Bible's Ancient Pre-scientific Assumptions
 

John Walton

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 165-167, footnotes removed.  Biosketch

Cosmic Geography

Cosmic geography concerns how people envision the shape and structure of the world around them. According to our modern cosmic geography, we live on a sphere of continents surrounded by oceans. We believe that this sphere is part of a solar system of planets that revolve around the sun, which is a star. Our planet rotates as well, and the moon revolves around our planet. Our solar system is part of a galaxy, which along with many other galaxies make up the universe. What we perceive as stars are far away, and some are other galaxies while many others are suns. That this seems so elementary and basic shows how deeply rooted it is in our understanding of ourselves. Everyone has a cosmic geography and knows what it is--it is second nature.

The point is that a culture's cosmic geography plays a significant role in shaping its worldview and offers explanations for the things we observe and experience. For example, notice a few of the implications of the cosmic geography just described:

It suggests our relative insignificance in the vastness of the universe.

It is the basis for understanding weather and time.

It works on the premise that cosmic geography is physical and material.

It operates with consistency and predictability based on physical properties and laws of motion.
This cosmic geography has been deduced over centuries through a process of observation, experimentation, and deduction. We are fully convinced that it is "true," though minor adjustments take place all the time. It is the result of what we call "science."

In the ancient world they also had a cosmic geography that was just as intrinsic to their thinking, just as fundamental to their worldview, just as influential in every aspect of their lives, and just as true in their minds. And it differs from ours at every point. If we aspire to understand the culture and literature of the ancient world, whether Canaanite, Babylonian, Egyptian, or Israelite, it is therefore essential that we understand their cosmic geography. Despite variations from one ancient Near Eastern culture to another, there are certain elements that characterize all of them.

What kept the sky suspended above the earth and held back the heavenly waters? What kept the sea from overwhelming the land? What prevented the earth from sinking into the cosmic waters? These were the questions people asked in the ancient world, and the answers they arrived at are em­bodied in the cosmic geography. Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Canaanites, Hittites, and Israelites all thought of the cosmos in terms of tiers: the earth was in the middle with the heavens above and the netherworld beneath. In general people believed that there was a single continent that was disk­-shaped. This continent had high mountains at the edges that held up the sky, which they thought was somewhat solid (whether it was envisioned as a tent or as a more substantial dome). The heavens where deity dwelt were above the sky, and the netherworld was beneath the earth. In some of the Mesopotamian literature the heavens were understood to be made up of three superimposed disks with pavements of various materials. What they observed led them to conclude that the sun and the moon moved in roughly the same spheres and in similar ways. The sun moved through the sky [that is, the firmament] during the day and then moved during the night into the netherworld, where it traversed under the earth to its place of rising for the next day. The stars were engraved on the sky and moved in tracks through their ordained stations. Flowing all around this cosmos were the cosmic waters, which were held back by the sky, and on which the earth floated, though they conceived of the earth as supported on pillars. Precipitation originated from waters held back by the sky and fell to the earth through openings in the sky. Similar views of the structure of the cosmos were common throughout the ancient world and persisted in popular perception until the Copernican revolution and the Enlightenment. These were not mathematically deduced realities, but the reality of how things looked to them. The language of the Old Testament reflects this view, and no texts in the Bible seek to correct or refute it.

 

Stanley L. Jaki
 
Genesis 1 through the Ages, second, revised edition (Royal Oak, Michigan: Real View Books, 1998), 282. Biosketch  
If asked about his physical surroundings or about the physical world at large, the typical Israelite would have given a reply very irritating to the modern mind. It is irritating to say the least to hear that the earth is a flat disc, the sky an inverted hard bowl, and that the two form a vast tent-like structure. Of course, other inhabitants of the ancient Near-East would have given similar answers. But if our Israelite would have been pressed a little further about the stability of such a structure, as if bent on irritating modern man, would have ascribed it to some supernatural force. To be sure, much the same would have been done by a typical ancient Egyptian or Babylonian. They were no less religious that the Israelites insofar as religion means what its etymology conveys: the action of re-tying (re-ligare) the things of earth and heaven, and of tying man’s affairs and destiny to religious powers, usually called deities.

But the Israelite would have outdone them in dispensing his irritants. For he would have been adamant in tying the things of earth and heaven, and himself, not to a plethora of gods, but to a single God who is immensely superior to all forces of nature…

It is with reference to such a God that our Israelite would have stated that the earth, or the cosmic tent, was stable because, though floating on water, it was fixed there by God himself…

Bible and Science (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 2004), 19-20.

To be sure, all parts of that tent were real for the author of Genesis 1 as well as for any of its erstwhile readers. They did not doubt for a moment that the earth was flat, that the sky was a concave bowl, with the sun, moon, and stars fixed on it. They would have been utterly shocked by some latter-day claims that, for instance, those openings being operated by God were purely “religious” notions for them.
 

Roger N. Whybray

“Genesis,” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 42. Biosketch

In its cosmology—that is, its understanding of the structure and different parts of the universe—this account of the creation conforms to that generally current in the ancient Near East. (In some OT passages this cosmology is described in more detail.) The pre-existent watery waste (1:1-2) was divided into two by the creation of a solid dome or vault (the sky, 1:6-8), so that there was water both above and below it. The lower mass of water was then confined to a limited area, the sea, revealing the dry land, which God called 'the earth' (1:9-10). (According to Gen 7:11 the sky had 'windows' which when opened allowed the rain to fall.) The heavenly bodies, sun, moon, and stars, moved across the vault of the sky, giving light and following a prescribed programme (1:14-18). 

Option 2 (concordism) compared with Option 3 (non-concordism) 

A. Broad Scientific Concordism: An Anachronistic Solution

It's hard to resist the temptation to read what we know of contemporary science back into the ancient creation account of Genesis 1, either inadvertantly or purposefully, in an attempt to harmonize our modern science with our biblical faith. Concordists are to be commended for wanting to integrate current scientific theory with the sacred text of Scripture.

The "Day-Age Theory," where each 24-hour day of the Genesis 1 narrative is seen to represent a vast epoch of time, is perhaps the most common example of broad concordism. This way of reading the text brings the billion-year scientific account of cosmology into "concord" with the seven-day biblical narrative. Though popular, such an interpretive procedure has been faulted for being anachronistic, that is, for imposing foreign views from a much later time onto an earlier pre-scientific text, where such modern concepts are "out of time" and hence "out of place." Would the ancient Hebrews have thought in terms of hundreds of millions of years when they heard of each day of creation, closing as it did with evening and morning? Not only are broad concordist theories criticized for disrespecting the ancient historical context of Genesis' original author and audience, but they are thought to undermine the integrity of divine communication (see comments from Walton and Enns below).

In what follows, Lamoureux and Seely employ the ancient science-of-the-day in an engagement with broad concordist interpretations. Then, we present comments from a number of non-concordist Old Testament scholars who prefer to read Genesis 1 "at face value," that is, more in keeping with how the ancient Hebrews were likely to have understood it. The authors below respect the ancient "science" as fitting for the ancient Near East, but do not enshrine the science- of-that-day as transcultural "timeless truths" for us today.  
 
 
B. Non-Concordist Approaches to Genesis 1

Denis Lamoureux

"Lessons from the Heavens: On Scripture, Science and Inerrancy"  Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 60 (2008) 4-15. Biosketch

Most evangelical Christians assume that the Holy Spirit revealed scientific facts in the Bible well before their discovery by modern science. As a result, they believe that statements regarding the physical world in Scripture are inerrant like those assertions revealing the nature of God and his will. Today this hermeneutical [interpretive] approach characterizes the origins debate within evangelical circles.

The father of modern young earth creationism, Henry Morris, declares:

The Bible is a book of science! It contains all the basic principles upon which true science is built. (My italics)

Similarly, leading progressive creationist Hugh Ross argues:

Obviously, no author writing more than 3400 years ago, as Moses did, could have so accurately described and sequenced these events [in Genesis 1], plus the initial conditions, without divine assistance. And if God could guide the words of Moses to scientific and historical precision in this most complex report of divine activity, we have reason to believe we can trust him to communicate with perfection through all the other Bible writers as well.

The interpretive approach embraced by Morris and Ross is known as “concordism.” I prefer to qualify this term as “scientific concordism” in order to include a wide variety of concordist views—from the strict literalism of creation science, to general harmonization of the days of Genesis 1 with cosmological and geological epochs of hundreds of millions of years, to the minimalist approaches which simply align Gen. 1:1 or 1:3 to the Big Bang and no more. It must be underlined that scientific concordism is a perfectly reasonable hermeneutic. God is the Creator of the world and the Author of the Bible, and an alignment or accord between his works and words is a legitimate expectation. But the question must be asked: Is scientific concordism truly a feature of an inerrant Holy Scripture?

For the remainder of this article, see the full-text pdf on the American Scientific Afflilation website.
 
And What of Ancient Biology?
 
For a discussion of some of the ancient biology employed in Scripture, see this helpful excerpt from Lamoureux's recent Evolutionary Creation: An Evangelical Approach to Evolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008): Lamoureux. Ancient Biology in the Bible.pdf
 
 

Paul H. Seely

"The First Four Days of Genesis in Concordist Theory and in Biblical Context" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (1997) 85-95.

According to current concordistic theory (Moderate Concordism) each day in Genesis 1 sequentially initiates a geological epoch, with some epochs overlapping. The purpose of the theory is to maintain the belief that Genesis 1 portrays a reliable history of creation in basic agreement or concord with modern science. This theory has been accepted by a number of conservative theologians; but, it is primarily promoted by devout geologists and astrophysicists.

The abiding value of the works of these Christian geologists and astrophysicists is that they preserve intellectual integrity with regard to the data of geology, anthropology, and astrophysics; and this is in accord with the command of God that we worship him with all of our mind. Further, they often witness to God's wisdom by showing the intricacies and fine balance of the various parts of the universe, especially in the creation of the earth's size, distance from the sun, atmosphere, etc.

The problem with their work, however, is that it lifts Genesis 1 out of its ancient Near Eastern context, sets it down in the context of modern science, and then reinterprets Genesis 1 so that it agrees with modern science. I do not fault such interpreters personally for reading modern science into Genesis 1 because they were forced by an unbiblical definition of biblical inerrancy to become inventive exegetes. It is my task, however, first to expose the arbitrary nature of their interpretations of Genesis 1 and then point to a more biblical approach.

Full-text ->>

Seely has a more technical article on this topic: “The Geographical Meaning of ‘Earth’ and ‘Seas’ in Genesis 1:10." Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997) 231-55.

Why Did God Create the Sun on the Fourth Day?” Presented at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation and the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon; August 2008

Full-text courtesy of the author: Seely. Why Create the Sun on Day 4. Aug 2008.pdf

“The Firmament and the Waters Above. Part 1” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 227–240.

Full-text pdf through iTanakh here.

The Firmament and the Waters Above. Part 2” Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992) 31-46.

Full-text pdf used with permission of WTJ: Seely. Firmament Part 2

“Noah's Flood: Its Date, Extent, and Divine Accommodation” Westminster Theological Journal 66 (2004) 291-311.

Full-text pdf used with permission of WTJ: Seely. Noah's Flood 

Concordism and a Biblical Alternative: An Examination of Hugh Ross’s Perspective” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 59 (2007) 37-45.

Unlike the bulk of concordist writings which deal primarily with Genesis 1, Hugh Ross’s book The Genesis Question deals with all of Genesis 1–11 and hence presents a rare opportunity to see how a leading concordist deals with the conflicts which these chapters have with modern science. The attempts to harmonize these chapters with modern science are examined and found wanting. After seeing how Ross’s explanations, which are typical of the concordist approach, fail to harmonize Creation, Adam, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel with the findings of modern science, an alternative yet fully biblical approach is presented.
Seely's section "A Biblical Approach to Science and Scripture" on pp. 42-44 is most helpful.

Full-text ->> 

Terence E. Fretheim

“The Book of Genesis” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 337-338. Biosketch

GENESIS 1-11 AND MODERN SCIENCE

To claim that God created the world and all that exists is a matter of faith, grounded fundamentally in God's self-revelation (see Heb 11:3). At this level the opening chapters of Genesis are a confession of faith. At the same time, in witnessing to God's creative activity the biblical writers made use of the available knowledge of the natural world. Israel had no little interest in what we today would call "scientific" issues (see 1 Kgs 4:33). These chapters are prescientific in the sense that they predate modern science, but not in the sense of having no interest in those types of questions. "Pre-scientific" knowledge is evident in God's use of the earth and the waters in mediating creation (1: 11, 20, 24), the classification of plants into certain kinds and a comparable interest in animals, as well as the ordering of each day's creation. Despite claims to the contrary (often in the interest of combating fundamentalism), such texts indicate that Israel's thinkers were very interested in questions of the “how” of creation, and not just questions of "who" and "why."

Israel's theologians used this kind of "scientific" knowledge to speak of creation. They recognized that the truth about creation is not generated simply by theological reflection; we must finally draw from various fields of inquiry in order to speak the full truth about the world. The key task, finally, becomes that of integrating materials from various fields into one coherent statement about the created order. In effect, Genesis invites every generation to engage in this same process.

Difficulties arise when it becomes evident that not everything in these chapters can be made congruent with modern knowledge about the world (recognizing that no field of endeavor has arrived at the point of full understanding). If our view of the Bible insists that all information in it, of whatever sort, must correspond to scientific reality, then we will have to engage in all sorts of exegetical antics to make it work [as exemplified by the concordist interpreters]. But if we recognize that those authors did not know everything about the world (e.g., a source for light independent of the luminaries; the age of the world), then we just recognize that and move on. We have to take all the additional knowledge we have gained or will gain about the world (e.g., some form of evolution) and integrate it with our confession about God the Creator.

We are not called to separate the theological material from the “scientific” material and rewrite the chapter from our own scientific perspectives (however much that task must be accomplished for other purposes). The Genesis text remains both an indispensible theological resources and an important paradigm on the way in which to integrate theological and scientific realities in a common search for the truth about the world.
 

John Walton

Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 82-84, 87-89. Biosketch

How should we approach the text?

As discussed in the introduction, if we are to interpret the text correctly, we must understand what the author would have communicated to his audience when he used the words he chose. Communication assumes a purpose as well as a common ground of familiarity as the arena in which it takes place. Thus the parameters of language and culture provide an essential setting for understanding the nature of the communication. If we read levels of meaning into the text on our own that neither the audience nor the author would have understood or been concerned with, we set ourselves up as the channel for the text's authority. Since God's process of inspiration utilized the author, I believe the author's intention is our most important authority link. We must be willing to accept that it may not have been his concern to defend the ideas that our culture asks us to defend. For instance, the top question on our minds cannot be, "Can I use Genesis 1 to defend the New Testament teaching of Creation out of nothing?" Instead it must be, "What points was the author trying to communicate?" I will refer to this as taking the text at face value.

Interpreters of the twentieth century have been obsessed with trying to solve "the problem" of Genesis 1—the problem being identified as how to retain the integrity of the text in light of what is known or declared by the world of science. While some attempt (1) to construct an alternate science, others address the problem by contending (2) that the text is theological, not scientific, or (3) that it is poetic/figurative, not literal.

But if we take the text at face value, none of these approaches works. Regarding (1), the science that is reconstructed represents today's sophisticated scientific principles and concepts. It has nothing to do with the face value that Israel would have understood, because it is simply reading our science between the lines. We will return to this in more detail below. Regarding (2), most interpreters acknowledge that Israel saw no distinction between theological and scientific. These were integrated into a worldview that saw most of what we call scientific as fully contained within the theological realm. Regarding (3), we must likewise admit that to Israel the ideas expressed in Genesis 1 are not just poetic expressions standing in for more sophisticated realities. The fact that they display poetic qualities does not demonstrate that they are figurative. In contrast to all of these, I intend to argue that if we want to understand the face value of Genesis 1, we must clarify the distinction between a functional and structural approach.

We live in a world far different from the world of the Old Testament. We must recognize the elements that distinguish these two worlds and make appropriate adjustments to our expectations. In our world, we believe reality is described most accurately in scientific terms. Mythology in the ancient world played the role that science plays in our modern world—it contained the explanation of how the world came into being and how it worked

We must, of course, be careful how we use the comparative material from the ancient Near East. Many parallels can be identified between ancient Near Eastern mythology and Old Testament passages and concepts, and these will be discussed as we proceed through the commentary. This is not to suggest, however, that the Old Testament is to be considered simply as another example of ancient mythology or as dependent on that literature. As discussed in the introduction, mythology is a window to ancient culture just as science is a window to modern culture

The conclusion, then, is that we can often identify the questions the text addresses by familiarizing ourselves with ancient literature rather than by letting our culture dictate what questions the text addresses or how it answers questions. Once we stop pressuring the text to address our issues, we may find that it is easier to identify the text's issues. As an example, we cannot feel free to try to transform "in the beginning" into either a scientific statement or a theological treatise. It is not a covert reference to the Big Bang any more than it is proof of creatio ex nihilo. If interpreters are free to transform text, text is stripped of its ability to transform lives. Consequently, we are motivated to explore the face value of the text.

Function, not structure, as the face value.

The face value of Genesis 1:3­5 does not offer a description of the piece of our material cosmos that physicists know as light with all of its physical properties and functional operation. What carries much more importance for the biblical author and in the ancient world in general is the affirmation that God created time. I have referred to this as a contrast between function (or purpose) and structure. As the comments in the Original Meaning section show, this focus is evident through the early verses of Genesis 1 as the author moves us from a chaotic (non­functional) condition through the setting up of the functions that will establish an ordered, operational cosmos…

Does Genesis 1 tell us anything about structure?

If the focus of Genesis 1 is functional, is there anything that can be inferred from the text about structural origins, material creation, or formational history? There are only two possibilities regarding the incidental structural details in the text. On the one hand would be the idea that they reflect the "old-world science" the Israelites shared with their neighbors. This would have included a flat disk­-shaped earth with mountains holding up the several levels of sky, each with solid elements such as floors and ceilings. The sun, moon, and stars moved across the sky in determined patterns, and there was water in heaven's chambers that came down as rain as well as waters surrounding and running under the earth that made up the cosmic seas. There was a second level of earth that constituted the netherworld, the abode of the dead, through which the sun passed during the night.

On the other hand, if Israelites did not believe something like this, it could only be because God had revealed a different reality that transcended this old-world science. If God did not reveal realities such as the earth's being spherical or the earth's rotation and revolution around the sun, the Israelites could have had no means to arrive at those conclusions.

For some readers, the first option might seem theologically treacherous and likely to undermine the authority of text, but let us examine the options and their implications carefully. With regard to the second option, the evidence is strikingly clear. There is not a single example of God revealing scientifically transcendent information to the Israelites. In fact, the evidence, is to the contrary. Consider the following four examples:

1. In Genesis 1:9 the "water" is gathered "to one place" so that "dry ground" appears. The ancient, classical, and medieval worlds all agreed that there was only one major landmass on earth. The Israelites understood this as a description of the world as they knew it, not of a scientific Pangea that preceded the onset of continental drift.

2. When the elders of Israel have their encounter with the God of Israel in Exodus 24, he is portrayed as standing in heaven on a pavement of sapphire (v. 10), exactly like that portrayed in Mesopotamian cosmology.

3. The movements of the celestial bodies and the understanding of weather all are described in terms similar to that in the rest of the ancient Near East. Windows of heaven are not replaced with low pressure systems and the movement of the jet stream.

4. When God wants to talk about the human intellect, he does not take time to inform his inspired authors that the true organ of thought was the brain. There is no Hebrew word for brain, and neither the Israelites nor any of the other ancient peoples knew what the brain was for. The Egyptian priests who mummified bodies carefully preserved all of the important internal organs in canopic jars, but they pulled the brain out with a hook through the nostrils and discarded it as so much trash. For the ancients, the representation of the heart as the seat of intellect and emotions was not simply figurative speech, as it is for us. They knew of no other reality.

Does God relinquish the authority or credibility of the text when he speaks of the heart as the seat of the intellect? Of course not—he is simply communicating in terms that his audience understands, as any effective communicator does. He is not misleading them about physiology, for he is not discussing physiology and is offering no revelation on that subject. In the creation narratives I contend that he likewise does not discuss material structure and therefore offers no revelation on that subject. One may as well try to reconstruct human anatomy, or our ideas about it, from a Picasso abstract painting.

One could perhaps claim that the Israelites had only a primitive knowledge of science but that the ambiguity of the language left room for scientific sophistication (as is assumed by those who construct a new science based on the text). This does not help us. The authors were using words that their audiences understood. The view that God inspired the use of words to be construed in certain ways by the audience even though he meant something else does not save his reputation. If the authority of the Bible means anything to us, we must assume a level of integrity to the communication. It had authority for the original Israelites, so it could not mislead.

Science's structural focus is not the only way to express truth. The very fact that the Bible's ability to use Israelite modes of thinking poses such a problem for us demonstrates how significantly we have been influenced by certain aspects of our culture. We have been persuaded to believe that truth about origins can only be packaged in scientific terms; that the only cosmological reality is a scientifically informed reality; that if a cosmological text operates outside of the scientific realm, it ceases to be truth. We too easily accept the dictum that the only absolute is science. This presupposition causes us to think that the Bible's authority would be jeopardized if its revelation fails to address origins in terms that reflect our worldview. This modern arrogance that insists that revelation must be packaged in our terms to be true betrays us, because even scientific thinking is in constant flux. Del Ratzsch describes the situation this way:

Science is a complicated, historically shifting interplay among nature, theories, data and a host of often-unstated nonempirical principles that shape our thinking, evaluating, theorizing and even perceiving. Since the parts are so interwoven, changes in one part frequently have consequences for the content and contours of other parts. Parts do change over time—theories are replaced, shaping principles alter, and so forth. And sometimes entire systems involving all three components are overturned and replaced by others. The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side Is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996), 128.

As a result, if God were going to ensure that his revelation was culturally and scientifically accurate and modern in its communication, he would have to issue periodic revelation updates. So, for instance, if his revelation took the form of eighteenth-century understanding, it would have to have been totally revised by the mid-1900s. Then in the post-Darwinian era, it would certainly be obsolete. By our day, very little would be able to stand up to scrutiny. The solution to this problem must be for us to realize the validity of a reality other than a scientific, structurally oriented one for the communication of truth…

See also John Walton, "Creation," in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, editors T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 155-168.
 

Gordon Wenham

“Genesis,” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, eds. James D. G. Dunn and John Rogerson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 36-37. Biosketch

To appreciate the impact that Genesis 1-11 made on its earliest readers, it is necessary to understand the ideas about world origins and mankind's earliest history that were current in the era in which Genesis was written. The creation and the flood are mentioned in many texts from the ancient world, for example, from Egypt, Ugarit, and Greece, but the accounts which seem closest to the biblical story come from Mesopotamia in the early second millennium BC

The parallels between Genesis and [these ancient creation accounts] are not so close so as to lead to the conclusion that either text knows the other. Rather, they both reflect beliefs about earliest times that were widespread in the ancient orient

Modern readers encountering the Mesopotamian stories for the first time are most often struck by the similarities between them and Genesis. However, if we are to appreciate the impact of Genesis on its first readers, we need to read them as background to Genesis and not as the reverse. These Mesopotamian texts come from the Old Babylonian period (1900-1600 BC), which on any view is earlier than Genesis. These Mesopotamian texts reflect the typical beliefs about origins current throughout the ancient world in the second millennium BC and probably later. They would not have been seen as unusual then, whereas Genesis 1-11 stands out as distinctive. Its first readers then would not have noted the similarities between Genesis and other accounts so much as the differences.

These first readers would have been struck that Genesis mentions only one God and no goddesses. There is no theogony whereby a whole tribe of gods came into being through sexual relations between the gods and goddesses, or even through divine masturbation. This one God, unlike other oriental deities, is sovereign in power and omniscient. He speaks and light, dry land, plants, and animals appear at once. Even the sun, moon, and stars, often regarded as powerful gods in their own right in the ancient orient, and just creatures, according to Genesis…

It is not just that Genesis has only one God, who is both sovereign and omnipotent, but his relationship with mankind is quite different. Other cultures recognized that humans were both physical (from the clay or dust) and spiritual (containing the blood of a dead god, or breathed into by God), and believed that kings at least were the image of the god representing and ruling for him on earth. But Genesis affirms that every human being, male and female, is created in God's image to represent him and exercise dominion on his behalf. What is more, far from mankind being a mere afterthought or even a stopgap in the divine plan, Genesis portrays the creation of man as the climax of creation. The works of the preceding five days all prepare the environment for man, and then when the human race itself is created all the angels are invited to participate in this master stroke of creation, as the Creator announces, "Let us make humankind in our image." And whereas according to the Atrahasis epic man was created to provide the gods with food, Genesis notes that God supplied man with food: “See, I have given you every plant ... for food" (1:29). This theme of God's concern for human welfare is reemphasized in ch. 2, where God provides a garden full of fruit trees, animals as companions, and finally a wife for Adam. In this way Genesis portrays God's care for man.

If this positive divine stance toward humanity was unusual in ancient theologies, so too was the stern moralism that comes through the Genesis accounts. Whereas according to Mesopotamian tradition the flood was prompted by the noise of the human race according to Genesis it was man’s sin: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth…and it grieved him to the heart” (6:5-6). Whereas the Babylonians ascribed the flood to divine caprice, the Hebrews put it down to God’s anger as human violence

Running through these opening chapters of Genesis is a persistent critique of the Mesopotamian theology of world origins. While Genesis shares a similar view of the sequence of primeval history to that of neighboring peoples, it may read as a definite polemic against the religious interpretation of them found in their myths. By affirming monotheism Genesis denies polytheism and its concomitant beliefs, such as theogony, divine ignorance, weakness, and caprice. Whereas the Babylonians looked on the creation of man as an afterthought for the gods' benefit, Genesis affirms the centrality of man in the divine purpose and God's concern for human welfare. But whereas other cultures were relatively sanguine about the likely progress of humanity both materially and spiritually, Genesis is emphatic that man's natural tendency toward waywardness and depravity, which invite divine retribution… The ridiculing of Babylonian pretensions is even more apparent in the tower of Babel story (11:1-9). Far from its vaunted temple tower touching heaven and the name Babel (Babylon) meaning “gate of the god," the LORD had to come down from heaven to see the skyscraper –so far short of his dwelling did it reach; and its name means "confusion" or "folly."

In recasting these ancient tales Genesis is doing more than dismissing the misunderstandings of its ancient contemporaries; it is setting forth a vision of God which is fundamental to biblical theology throughout the Bible. There is one omnipotent, omniscient creator God responsible for all that exists. He is profoundly concerned for the welfare of his supreme creation man, but at the same time, he cannot overlook human sin and folly. This prompts him to intervene, first as judge and then as savior, offering the human race new starts after sin has ruined the Creator's plans.
 

Peter Enns

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 50, 52-56, emphases original. Biosketch from blog  

Myth is an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?...

So how is it that Genesis can look so much like other ancient Near Eastern texts? I propose a simple scenario that begins with Abraham. Here we have a story, beginning at the end of Genesis 11, about a resident of Babylon whose family left there and moved up along the Euphrates River to Haran (in modem-day Turkey). According to Genesis 12, God called Abraham out of his homeland. This is the biblical portrait of Israel's rise in history; it begins in Babylon. Relevant here, too, is Joshua 24:2:

Joshua said to all the people, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods.'''  

It is important to remember where Abraham came from and where he was headed. He was not an Israelite. There were no such people yet. He came from "Ur of the Chaldeans" (Gen. 15:7). Ur is actually a city of Sumerian origin, a culture even older than the Assyrian and Babylo­nian cultures we have looked at. The Mesopotamian world from which Abraham came was one whose own stories of origins had been expressed in mythic categories for a considerable length of time. Moreover, the land Abraham was going to enter, the land of the Canaanites, was likewise rich in its own myths.

Keeping in the forefront of our minds the biblical portrait of Israel's first father as an ancient Mesopotamian man may be a helpful starting point from which to understand the origin of Israel's creation story. As God entered into a relationship with Abraham, he "met" him where he was—an ancient Mesopotamian man who breathed the air of the ancient Near East. We must surely assume that Abraham, as such a man, shared the worldview of those whose world he shared and not a modern, scientific one. The reason the opening chapters of Genesis look so much like the literature of ancient Mesopotamia is that the worldview categories of the ancient Near East were ubiquitous and normative at the time. Of course, different cultures had different myths, but the point is that they all had them.

The reason the biblical account is different from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts is not that it is history in the modern sense of the word and therefore divorced from any similarity to ancient Near East­ern myth. What makes Genesis different from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts is that it begins to make the point to Abraham and his seed that the God they are bound to, the God who called them into existence, is different from the gods around them.

We might think that such a scenario is unsatisfying because it gives too much ground to pagan myths. But we must bear in mind how very radical this notion would have been in the ancient world. For a second-­millennium Semitic people, as Israel's earliest ancestors were, to say that the gods of Babylon were not worth worshiping but that the true god was the god of a nomad like Abraham—this was risky, ridiculous, and counterintuitive. And this would have been no less true when these stories were later recorded in Hebrew. Ancient Near Eastern religions were hierarchical and polytheistic. The biblical claim that Israel's God, Yahweh, alone is God might be analogous to someone claiming in our world today that the gods of ancient Greece really exist and that they sit on Mount Olympus ruling the world.

To put it differently, God adopted Abraham as the forefather of a new people, and in doing so he also adopted the mythic categories within which Abraham—and everyone else—thought. But God did not simply leave Abraham in his mythic world. Rather, God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel's story would come to focus on its God, the real one.

Genesis—as other stories of the ancient world—thus portrays the world as a flat disk with a dome above. Below the earth were the waters threatening to gush up, and above the dome are the waters threaten­ing to drop down (see Gen. 7:11). The biblical worldview described in Genesis is an ancient Near Eastern one. But the ordering of the world (e.g., the separation of water from land) did not result from a morbid conflict within a dysfunctional divine family, as we read in Enuma Elish [the Babylonian creation story]. It was simply this amazing God who spoke.

I am assiduously avoiding any suggestion that Genesis borrows from the Babylonian stories in any direct way. As I mentioned earlier, the degree to which Genesis might have been dependent on the Babylonian material has always been a matter of debate, and there is no need to commit ourselves to one view or another. Some scholars argue, quite persuasively in fact, that the differences between Genesis and Enuma Elish are so great that one cannot speak of any direct relationship. I feel this is essentially correct (although the stronger similarities regarding the flood story may suggest some level of dependence). But again, the point here is not one of textual dependence but of conceptual similarity. The differences notwithstanding, the opening chapters of Genesis participate in a worldview that the earliest Israelites shared with their Mesopotamian neighbors. To put it this way is not to concede ground to liberalism or unbelief, but to understand the simple fact that the stories in Genesis had a context within which they were first understood. And that context was not a modern scientific one but an ancient mythic one.

The biblical account, along with its ancient Near Eastern counterparts, assumes the factual nature of what it reports. They did not think, "We know this is all 'myth' but it will have to do until science is invented to give us better answers." We do not protect the Bible or render it more believable to modem people by trying to demonstrate that it is consistent with modern science. In the ancient context, which existed thousands of years before modern science came on the scene, the Bible needed no such defense. And, in its original setting, the Bible was already a radical challenge to the status quo.    

Therefore, the question is not the degree to which Genesis conforms to what we would think is a proper description of origins. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modem worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modem science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship. And that point is made not by allowing ancient Israelites to catch a glimpse of a spherical earth or a heliocentric universe. It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to Westerners several thousand years later. To do so borders on modern, Western arrogance. Rather, Genesis makes its case in a way that ancient men and women would have readily understood—indeed, the only way.

To argue, as I am doing here, that such biblical stories as creation and the flood must be understood first and foremost in the ancient contexts, is nothing new. The point I would like to emphasize, however, is that such a firm grounding in ancient myth does not make Genesis less inspired; it is not a concession that we must put up with or an embarrassment to a sound doctrine of Scripture. Quite to the contrary, rootedness in the culture of the time is precisely what it means for God to speak to his people.

This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place—he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people—he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are. The phrase word of God does not imply disconnectedness to its environment. In fact, if we can learn a lesson from the incarnation of God in Christ, it demands the exact opposite. And if God was willing and ready to adopt an ancient way of thinking, we truly hold a very low view of Scripture indeed if we make that into a point of embarrassment. We will not understand the Bible if we push aside or explain away its cultural setting, even if that setting disturbs us. We should, rather, learn to be thankful that God came to them just as he did more fully in Bethlehem many, many centuries later. We must resist the notion that for God to enculturate himself is somehow beneath him. This is precisely how he shows his love to the world he made.
Pete Enns Blogs through Early Genesis (2010)
  
 

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