How do we understand Genesis?

By: Chip Hardy

What Does Genre Have to Do with It?

A Short Review of Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters

Charles Halton, editor                                                                                                  

Zondervan, 2015 (ISBN: 978-0-310-51494-7)

The first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis provoke some of the most difficult interpretive questions in the entire Bible. What language did humans speak before Babel? How could the Nephilim have survived the flood (Numbers 13:33)? Who was Cain’s wife (Genesis 4:17)?

Answering these questions is not easy. Sunday school teachers and scholars, rabbis and pastors (even within similar traditions) provide differing solutions. Why is this? Is it simply because some don’t take the Bible seriously enough? Or do some know something others don’t? Will learning Hebrew or quoting passages from elsewhere in the Bible solve the problems and provide answers?

One popular solution is to say that we should read the Bible literally. Then we could agree on its meaning. But here’s the rub: by a literal reading, we cannot mean that we understand a passage in whatever way we think is the most obvious, that is to say, as if it was written directly to me. Such a reading technique is both egocentric—ignoring that believers for more than two thousand years have read the Bible as meaningful—and imprudent, after all most read a translation of the Scriptures. So what does reading literally entail?

On the face of it, literally means as it was meant to be understood. This designation differentiates literal from figurative (or allegorical) meaning. Already we find ourselves in a potential predicament: what if the intended meaning was actually figurative, for example, in reading the Parable of the Sowers (Matthew 13) or the Fable of the Bramble Tree (Judges 9:7-15)? To interpret each of these stories literally would be to understand them figuratively, that is the actual intended meaning. We have stumbled upon a red herring—using the term literally can simply be misleading.

The better approach does not assume a literal verses non-literal binary but attempts to locate the literary nature of the text. How we determine the type of literature and one’s expectations when reading that literature inform what a text means. This is where genre enters into the conversation. The term genre describes a communication type. And genre criticism is the study of how these types create expectations of that communication.

If we hear a story that starts with “Once upon a time” and includes a lost princess, we intuitively designate the genre a fairy tale. We don’t file a missing persons report for the heroine because we understand the tale does not correspond to actual events taking place in the present. This does not mean the storyteller is being deceptive—only that she is using a well-known story-type that is intended to communicate more than raw data about a damsel in distress.

So, how does all of this play a role in our understanding of Genesis?

A new volume in Zondervan’s Counterpoints Series, edited by Charles Halton, seeks to contribute to the conversation by discussing the genre(s) of Genesis 1-11 and the implications of those genres for our understanding of these chapters. Three qualified scholars (James Hoffmeier, Gordon Wenham, and Kenton Sparks) contributed their answers to four basic questions:

  • What is the genre of Genesis 1-11?
  • Why is this the genre of Genesis 1-11?
  • What are the implications of this genre designation for biblical interpretation?
  • How does this approach help to interpret specific texts (Genesis 6:1-4; 6:9-9:26; and 11:1-9)?

A helpful introductory essay and concluding remarks are provided by Halton.

Each of the essayists is a self-described evangelical and believes that the intent of the stories of Genesis is to portray actual events in the past. However, their understandings of the genre of Genesis lead to very different meanings. Hoffmeier designates the chapters as history authenticating but, at times, correcting the ancients’ stories about the flood or the meaning of ziggurats. Wenham finds theological meaning derived from comparing the Genesis accounts to other Ancient Near Eastern sources. Sparks distinguishes several ancient historiographic voices and finds theological diversity in the origin of the texts. Following each essay, the other authors respond and provide helpful correctives and apt criticism of each viewpoint.

The volume is constructive and well-organized. The essays provide excellent interaction with the text of Genesis and even a seasoned Bible student will be challenged to think more clearly about the place of genre study in interpretation. One could have hoped for more of an effort to connect particular implications of the ancient’s genre designations with the modern audience, but that alas would require another volume. As with many of the volumes of the Counterpoint series, Zondervan provides an excellent forum for readers to peer into an important discussion amongst scholars and in so doing allow each voice to be heard (and criticized!) leading to greater understanding of these difficult questions.

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