Evolving–Interpreting Genesis 1-11

This is a continuation of my previous blog concerning science and faith in light of reading the book Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. This has been a stimulating book by two scholars in their respective fields of Genetics and New Testament, and they both take an in-depth look at evolution and the Bible, working to see what sort of synthesis might come from the two. Both Venema and McKnight are connected with Biologos, an organization which promotes biblical Christianity and evolutionary creation. In this blog, I want to focus on some aspects of biblical interpretation that often come up in this conversation. What better place to begin than Genesis?


Genesis 1-3 are some of the most important chapters of the Bible. By anyone’s estimation, if you were given the exercise of compiling the 50 most important chapters of Scripture, I’m sure these chapters would make just about everyone’s list. They tell us much about God and how he creates, human beings, gender and marriage, the created world, what’s wrong with the world, and God’s response to sin. The question is, how are we to interpret these passages, especially in light of the findings of science?

For any close reading of the Bible, we need to work to understand the genre of a particular text and the background out of which that text arose in order to best interpret it. First, genre. Let’s look at Psalm 22:12-13, which says “Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.” Knowing that the genre of the Psalms is poetry makes me think that the psalmist isn’t giving a literal, historical account about an unfortunate instance where he was surrounded by bulls that gnashed their teeth at him, although I’m sure that’d be a great story to share at the town watering hole. Rather, he is using metaphor to tap into our emotions and carry us along with him, conveying a sense of fear, danger, and overwhelming odds against him. Genre makes a difference in whether I read this as a historical narrative or a poetic expression. A good question we should ask of any text of Scripture is what genre it is. Knowing the genre helps us know how best to interpret.

Second, background. A good example of background informing our understanding of a text would be women’s head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11, a passage that strikes many readers today as odd. In Craig Keener’s The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, he writes “Women’s hair was a common object of lust in antiquity, and in much of the eastern Mediterranean women were expected to cover their hair. To fail to cover their hair was thought to provoke male lust as a bathing suit is thought to provoke it in some cultures today” (p. 475). There also were tensions between women of different socio-economic statuses in regard to head coverings and hair styles. Knowing the background might help us understand a bit better what Paul was dealing with and the reasoning behind his arguments. It also can help us ask the interpretive question of whether women wearing head coverings is a transcultural command for all times and places or something Paul was dealing with in his context from which we can pull helpful principles to apply in conversations about propriety today, though we wouldn’t implement it in exactly the same way.

With genre and background in mind, let’s look at Genesis. 

The ancient Israelite concept of the cosmos was that there was a dome above the sky and pillars that were holding up the earth below. The earth is kind of like a flat disc, surrounded by water with some stuff above it. Whenever it rained, they thought God opened the floodgates (see Genesis 7:11; 2 Kings 7:2; Isaiah 24:18) and then shut them. Sheol was the holding place of the dead, not quite as developed in theology as what we think of as paradise or hell. The earth is held up by “pillars” or “foundations” (Psalm 18:7; 82:5). A good picture of how they viewed the world is in this image from Bible scholar John Walton:  

With this background in mind, it behooves us to ask: Would God deliver a 21st century science lesson about a big bang, the evolution of life over billions of years, bacteria and cellular development, common descent, a round earth, etc. to people who didn’t have the foggiest idea about electricity, atoms, germs, or the sun being the center of our solar system? It’d be gibberish to them.

As to genre, Genesis 1-11 seems to be in the same mold with other Ancient Near Eastern creation narratives that were around at the time. In chapter 6 of Adam and the Genome, McKnight shows that Genesis has similarities with other early works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and Enuma Elish, but it is different from them in some crucial aspects. This goes to show that God speaks to his people in ways they can understand, accommodating us in order to communicate critical truths to us, but also standing against some popular ideas in the air. So Genesis may not be a modern scientific account, but based on the worldview people had at the time, Genesis 1-3 articulates some of the most important things we can know about God, humanity, and the rest of the world. Let a brief summary of some key points suffice here:

God–God alone is the one supreme God and he is creator of all that exists. God creates by speaking and creates out of peace, not out of violence, unlike the other creation narratives. God wants to be in relationship with human beings and cares for his creation, unlike the gods of other creation narratives. God creates human beings with a purpose and is patient with a disobedient humanity, disciplining them for their mistakes but also tenderly caring for them.

People–People are God’s special creation, and both males and females made in his “image.” In the context of the time, idols were images that represented the presence of the divine, and kings would put up images of themselves throughout their empires to remind people of their rule. For human beings to be in the “image of God” probably means they are representations of God’s divine nature in some way and are meant “to rule over creation and to represent God to creation” (Venema & McKnight, 129). Humans are called to work the created world for it to develop and blossom; they bring out some of the latent potential within creation and are co-creators with God in this way. People are gendered, husband and wife are designed for a “one-flesh” union, are created with the potential for procreation, and are called to mutuality with each other (Ibid., 133). Humans are endowed with a measure of freedom and have the capacity to choose something other than God’s desires–we can step outside of our God-given boundaries, which is known as sin. Choosing contrary to God’s will ends up leading to shame, fear, blame, the damaging of relationships, and loving discipline from God in order to limit the spread of the consequences of sin.

Creation–The created world, plants, and animals are good. Human beings are supposed to rule over them like God does, with loving care, and to develop them. Human disobedience has led to damage and frustration in the rest of creation.

Do all of these points require a literal, historical interpretation of Genesis? I don’t think so. I prefer an allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3, that it is not a historical, factual, scientific account, but something that is still profoundly true. It is true in the same way that the psalmist saying he’s surrounded by bulls of Bashan in Psalm 22 isn’t a statement of historical fact, but a poetic way of engaging us with a feeling of being surrounded, in danger, and weak. It’s true in the same way that Jesus’ parables aren’t accounts of events that really happened, but are made-up stories that illustrate very important truths about God, human beings, and the created world. 

McKnight goes on to point out that one way of understanding Adam and Eve is that they are archetypes, or representatives, of all of humanity. Each of us was created for a purpose of spreading God’s reign in the world. All of us sin and go beyond our God-given boundaries. All of us need redemption from God in Jesus Christ. He further points out that Adam and Eve are also archetypes of the story of Israel. Let Israel be A.) and Adam and Eve be B.) in the following sentences. A.) The nation of Israel was specially chosen and created by God and given a purpose in Abraham to multiply and be a blessing to all peoples on earth. B.) Adam and Eve were specially created to be God’s image bearers and spread God’s reign. A.) Israel failed at their calling and broke their covenant with God. B.) Adam and Eve broke their covenant with God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A.) Israel enters into exile by the Assyrians and Babylonians as a result of their disobedience B.) Adam and Eve enter into exile and are expelled from the Garden of Eden due to their disobedience. Finally, all humanity as well as the nation of Israel stand in need of redemption to fulfill their original calling. This paves the way for Jesus Christ to fulfill what it means to be truly human and live into the image of God, as well as to fulfill God’s covenant calling for Israel. Jesus Christ is the perfect human being and the perfect Israelite, and he makes a way for all humanity to be restored back into God’s original purpose and to fulfill God’s covenant with Israel through the New Israel, the church.

I know treating parts of the Bible as myth or allegory can be very dangerous and can even lead to denying the substance of the Christian faith if we’re not careful. An essential aspect of Christianity is that God has been active in history, that he did and still does stuff in the real world. It isn’t all psychologizing, or that we should live as though Christianity is true, even though we know it really isn’t. If Jesus’ death and resurrection is just a myth and didn’t happen in real time and space, then Paul says we are to be pitied more than all people, we are still in our sins, and our faith is useless (1 Cor. 15:12-19). God is the God of history and a God who acts in history. I’ve even experienced that up close and personal in my own life and have heard it time and again in other people’s stories–God is alive and active and working in our world. Still, I think we have good reasons to treat Genesis 1-11 as being mythological (in the best sense of that word)–the findings of evolutionary science are showing us that Genesis 1-11 is not history. There are some biblical scholars who start interpreting Genesis as a historical account once chapter 12 starts and we get to Abram. For a take on Noah and the flood narrative, see this article. I fully acknowledge I could be wrong, and I welcome feedback and further instruction if you think otherwise. But I’d rather be wrong in a genuine pursuit of truth than being too afraid to explore real questions.

Further, if we want to interpret Genesis 1-3 as a strictly historical, scientific account for how everything came to be, we bump into problems. In Genesis 1-3, we have two creation narratives set side by side; Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the first narrative, and the second narrative starts at 2:4. In Genesis 1, God creates the trees (1:11-13), then later sea creatures and birds (1:20-23), then the animals (1:24-25), and lastly he creates humans (1:26-31). In our second creation narrative in Genesis 2:4, however, God creates the man first (2:7), then he creates the trees (2:8-9), and then in 2:19 he creates the animals and brings them before the man to name them. The Hebrew word yatsar in 2:19 is past tense (formed), not pluperfect (had formed) like some translations make it in an attempt to smooth over the differences between the accounts (Ibid., 102). If God meant for us to read Genesis 1-3 literally, then couldn’t God at least get the chronological order right between the two narratives? Further, where on earth did Cain’s and Seth’s wives (4:17, 26) come from if Adam and Eve are the only humans? Add to that the findings of science telling us that all forms of life in the universe did not come into existence in 6 days and that biological death was not suddenly introduced when human beings came around and made an unfortunate choice. If the universe was made in six days and humans are only a few thousand years old, wouldn’t you expect that honest inquiry into our world would confirm, not contradict, such assertions if that’s how it really happened? Or are the overwhelming majority of scientists deceived? Perhaps trying to make this text a science lesson or a history lesson is missing the point. I don't think we have to interpret Genesis 1-11 historically, and I don't think we have to make science and Christian faith fight each other on this one.

So, were Adam and Eve real people? I’m open to that possibility, but if they were, it seems likely they weren’t the first human beings, since multiple independent lines of research are telling us we descended from a pool of 10,000 hominins. McKnight argues that the allegorical, moral Adam and Eve get treated as a historical Adam and Eve in the Bible whenever you see genealogies in Scripture (like Genesis 5; 1 Chronicles 1; Luke 3:23-38). It seems likely that other biblical authors did view them as historical people, yet once we reach a certain point in the genealogy, we should perhaps view it as dipping back into the clouds of myth or allegory. If I’m reading him correctly, this seems to be what McKnight is advocating. This could be a way of harmonizing Genesis 1-11 and the findings of evolutionary science, and doing so in a way that seeks to take the Bible seriously.

What do you think?

Next up, interpreting Romans 5:12-21 and some final questions concerning death...


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