Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

One year of blogging—now what?

Just over one year ago, I decided to cast my own thoughts into the clamor of the controversy that stems from Young-Earth Creationism (YEC). Since that time, this site has received some 15,000 page views. Granted, many of those views are by accident—people searching Google image databases—or from repeat visitors. But even in a best-case scenario, I've spoken only as loudly in one year as Answers in Genesis can in one day. I am neither surprised nor disappointed, but rather quite grateful for the dialogues and friendships this blog has produced. Furthermore, this blog began as a personal, academic endeavor, best captured by Joan Didion's famous sentiment that "I don't know what I think until I write it down." If nothing else, then, I've been able to articulate my own thoughts so as to critique them self reflectively (to your benefit, I pray).

Before I began writing, I was plenty familiar with the material published by Answers in Genesis, ICR, and others. Every so often, I would skim through their pages out of sheer curiosity, looking to discover what kind of fantastic arguments they had since produced. Over time, I became more and more bothered by two things: 1) the blatant disregard for scientific accuracy and honesty, and 2) that such a task was performed in the name of the gospel.

With regard to the first objection, I already knew that dozens of sites and authors had offered to 'debunk' young-Earth claims. Some were done by capable and compassionate researchers—others by scornful satirists. In either case, I came to recognize that no amount of scientific rebuttal would persuade adherents of YEC so long as they perceived the dispute as a debate. In a debate, each side commits to defend their own position at all costs. And since the YEC begins with "I read the Bible correctly, and you don't take it seriously," the arguments are remarkably devoid of dialectical and dialogical development.

Therein ties the second objection. It is no secret that many young-Earth ministries stand on a theologically shallow understanding of the gospel. Their preference for a 'plain, literal' heremeneutic disallows the reader from scratching anything but the surface of the biblical text. I was not surprised, therefore, to learn from Ken Ham's book that among Christian colleges, a much larger percentage of YEC's belong to the science department—not biblical studies.

So why write about it?

I have chosen to voice my opinions on YEC publicly for personal and professional reasons. As an aspiring educator, I feel that recurring statistics on the prevalence of YEC in the U.S. (~40%) should not be swept away as "religious dogma" and "scientific ignorance". For one, tenants of all faiths and academic disciplines are equally susceptible to both, whether or not they admit it (of course, the terms 'dogma' and 'ignorance' imply that one is unaware of the nature of their position). Secondly, identifying someone as 'ignorant' and 'dogmatic', even when it may be true, does nothing to remedy the situation. It only bolsters that person's opinion of their accuser as an 'academic elitist'. Whenever we are willing to belittle a person for their beliefs, ridiculous as they may seem to us, it should come as no surprise when that person rejects our position and confides in someone else that would treat them as a peer. Irrational or not, this reaction is psychologically intelligible.

Effective education (especially in the scientific disciplines) requires a great deal of compassion and humility on the part of teachers. Without both, we only inhibit critical thinking.

In case you do not share my opinion on the philosophy of teaching, you may at least consider that 40% constitutes an impressive political base. Ultimately, adherents of YEC cast a heavy vote on how our society funds scientific research and public education—not to mention how each should be conducted. Doesn't this warrant a more involved response than name calling?

As an aspiring geologist, I am fascinated by our ability to investigate natural phenomena. What's not to love? As my friends and family will testify, I cannot help but to share that enthusiasm. It follows logically, therefore, that I should express my opposition to YEC for its misguided constraint on scientific exploration. Although I empathize with the YEC's outward allegiance to the biblical text, YEC's uncompromising stance on the connection between the Bible and science is ultimately rooted in the reader's predetermination of what the Bible is meant to reveal. In other words, it has no exegetical foundation.

In my experience, few YEC's believe that one can take the biblical text seriously while accepting the modern conventions of natural science. Inasmuch as we can argue this point ad infinitum, I would prefer to take a practical note from Jonathan Edwards: the gospel, like honey, is sweet; the only way to prove to someone that honey is sweet is to let them taste it. Perhaps the best I can do is show others how science, faithfully applied, reveals the beauty of God's portrait, even when it challenges our most basic expectations.

A year in review

Just over one year ago, I embarked on my mission by responding to an article by Dr. Andrew Snelling regarding dinosaur footprints in the Soreq Formation. In "Dinosaurs in the Holy Land: Examining preserved footprints in Cretaceous dolomite from the Judea Group, Israel", I attempted to show that Dr. Snelling's argumentation disregarded valuable evidence, which undermined his position that dinosaur footprints should not be found in dolomite. Following this, I revised a response I had written on the young-Earth interpretation of radiocarbon dating. Now that I have had more experience with radiocarbon results and methodology, I feel this article could be expanded to several volumes. Radiocarbon data, especially in conjunction with results from U-Th disequilibrium and cosmogenic methods, offer one of the more compelling and tangible cases against YEC.

In a handful of broad overviews, I addressed the fossil recordgeologic column, and the scientific method. At the risk of confusing general readers, I explored more specific topics like gemstones, oil and gas, isochrons, and beach dunes. Of course, no blog is complete without commentary on more 'political' topics like GSA field trips led by YEC's, Ken Ham's conflict with the homeschool convention, ecumenism, and the historical Adam debate.

At some point along my steep learning curve, I realized the importance of dealing directly with the biblical text that supposedly underlies YEC. Although I am neither a biblical scholar nor a theologian, I drew from my personal study of both fields to challenge myself and others to enter the narrative world of Genesis. My goal was to critically evaluate how that world corresponds to our own by recognizing the powerful critique that Genesis offers on culture and paradigm. Genesis explains the identity and vocation of Israel by placing their story in the backdrop of mankind as a whole. Consequently, Genesis explains our identity and vocation when the narrative is redirected toward humanity in Christ.

At the suggestion of one reader—and considering the obvious relationship to geology—I tackled the story of Noah's flood in two parts. After some reflection, I look forward to critiquing my own work. Writing down my thoughts allowed me to refine the position I articulated to a great degree. More recently, I attempted to wade through the narrative structure and inner workings of Genesis 1–3, which are deep waters indeed. Asking me whether I managed to stay afloat may be comparable to asking a fish how it feels to be wet. But I'll leave that judgement to you.

What now?

Initially, I underestimated considerably the time it would take to maintain a weekly blog (at least one that required research, cross-reference, etc.), but nearly held to my goal. At this point, however, I cannot afford to renew that commitment for another year. I expect never to lose my fervor for science/faith discussions, and I do enjoy writing, but my academic task (the kind that grants a Ph.D.) has finally caught up to me. In two weeks, moreover, I will be travelling back to Russia and residing there for a month. For now, I hope this blog serves as a helpful reference to those who stumble upon it. If the occasion should arise, I will chime in here and there.

With some hard work and a bit of luck, I'll be on track with a reasonable dose of spare time next year. Should I return to blog here weekly? I am considering my long-term goals toward academia and how to better apply my time for the benefit of all who struggle with science/faith conflicts. Perhaps it would be more prudent to appeal to a wider audience by publishing my thoughts elsewhere—even in a book? I've written enough to fill a menacing paperback, but hopefully spared us all some trouble by not acting too quickly. I know how ineffective a disorganized and verbose book can be. When it came to blogging, I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

I guess we'll see what next year brings.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On reading Genesis as literature: the dialogic of Genesis 1–3

 "An utterance is always a reply." –Mikhail Bakhtin


The act of creatio ex nihilo is one reserved to God alone, for no work of art—including literature—is formed in a vacuum. As much as the reader's own experience plays into the interpretive framework of any text1, so the text's literary framework is governed by the experience of the author2. Following this axiom, it may seem sensible to begin our study of Genesis by positioning ourselves 'behind the text'—that is, to capture to the best of our ability the literary, linguistic, and cultural experience of the author so as to dissect the story analytically. But this method betrays the very function of narrative, its mimesis of reality3, which "according to [Paul] Ricoeur...creates a world...meant to be entered, inhabited, and appropriated by the reader."4 The literary study of Genesis cannot be reduced to an external scientific appraisal, for our primary interest is not whether the narrative represents reality but how:

"As the reader dwells in the created world of the story, new possibilities are opened up for articulating and conveying truth and meaning," so that "narrative...configures a world that has the potential power to refigure the reader's world."5

Ultimately, we want to answer "What truth did the author mean to convey?" Our answer to this holistic question is commonly formed by preliminary observation, however, and so it guides our interpretation of the particulars from which it is supposedly drawn. One may be inclined to describe Genesis 1–2:4 as history, for example, because it recounts a temporal sequence and prefaces the much larger history of Israel. Fair enough; the story does proceed from point A to point B. But how do we ascertain that the narrative flow of the text (e.g., "there was evening and morning...") necessarily describes a chronological sequence of events, rather than a logical sequence of thought?6 We immediately appeal to our predetermination of the story's intended truth, wherein the unknown parts are made familiar in light of the whole. This Platonic circle is self-reinforcing by nature, and without conscious self-critique cannot improve our understanding of the author's truth. On the other hand, if we appeal instead to linguistic data (e.g., the semantic domain of terms like 'day', 'create'), cultural data (e.g., comparative literature studies), or scientific data (cosmology and history), do we 'widen the circle' or have we already abandoned the narrative world in which that truth is articulated?

I begin this way that we might contemplate how to decipher the narrative of Genesis 1–3 exegetically (operating within the text itself) while maintaing a sort of critical realism7—whether overtly or not, the histories of the text and its author do inform our interpretation. These goals are seemingly at odds with one another, because critical inquiry presumes that we are not necessarily bound to the rules of the story. Leo Strauss describes the tension thusly:

"We are confronted with the incompatible claims of Jerusalem and Athens to our allegiance. We are open to both and willing to listen to each. We ourselves are not wise but we wish to become wise...By saying that we wish to hear first and then to act to decide, we have already decided in favor of Athens against Jerusalem."8

Such is the paradox of our task, but we are not immobilized by it. We all depend on critical analysis, if for no other reason than because the ancient story must be translated. Even if we learn Hebrew, for example, the connotative disparity between our language and theirs is not one that can fully be bridged.9 Our understanding of the text is always limited because it results from a continuous interaction between the narrative language and extrabiblical concepts—neither of which we can know exhaustively. Each informs the other within the mind of the reader. Perhaps the best way to proceed, then, is to vocalize our hermeneutical reliances at every step, so that we are always open to critique, not least from ourselves:

"A recognition that humans are interpreters who have finite interpretative contexts and that understanding, explanation and new understanding are hermeneutical, having the capacity to create suspicion, counter dogmatism, and check reductionism, applies to both science and biblical interpretation. A hermeneutics of finitude and suspicion...begins to make us aware of our own situatedness and offers a critique of any notion of a view from nowhere, while also providing the necessary trajectory towards a robust hermeneutics of trust."10

The importance of humility cannot be overstated when the task also concerns spiritual growth. We have the advantage here in that the biblical text constantly reminds us not only of our fallibility, but our proclivity thereto. Our pursuit of knowledge should be accompanied, therefore, by prayer and study alike. And although we turn to the Spirit and the Word for wisdom, our reliance thereupon should not be used in and of itself to bolster our conclusions—that is, to conflate God's inerrancy with our own.

Genesis is...?

Fill in the blank to expose your bias: history, myth, poetry, allegory? Western thought is thoroughly systematic, often to our demise. Consider, for example, the dialectic pursuit of the species in evolutionary biology. Within that paradigm, the clear delineation between one species and the next is not a predictable phenomenon, unlike in Linnaean taxonomy which was built upon the notion of created kinds. Nonetheless, taxonomists and systematic paleontologists carry on heated debate over where to draw lines in the shifting sand because further analysis presupposes such categories. We think categorically because we perceive things abstractly; everything belongs to a transcendent ideal because that is how we connect the dots.

This tendency to articulate truth abstractly, however, derives not from the Hebrews but from the Greeks. If you were to ask a modern American philosopher to explain the challenge of theodicy, for example, he/she might begin by defining the attributes of God, world, man, sovereignty, evil, and justice. Definitions yield contradictions; contradictions yield dialectic; dialectic becomes treatise. Truth is monological from beginning to end.

How might a priest in ancient Israel respond to the same question? I believe that on the basis of biblical tradition, we can do more than just speculate. The priest does not begin with disambiguation. Instead, he introduces you to the character of Iyyob (Job), whose name is simultaneously a pun for 'persecuted one' and 'repentant one'. Job is described as a righteous man who suffered greatly, and seemingly without cause. The philosophical dilemma of theodicy is explained through narrative as Job matches wits with several interlocutors in search of the source of his suffering. Truth is dialogical and polyphonic; the debate is open-ended and we are not sure whose side to take. At last, God enters the picture to settle it for us. His discourse is sharp, His rhetoric condemning. 'You are wrong to attribute evil to Me, but your friends are wrong to attribute that evil to you.'

In the end, no final answer is given that would justify Job's suffering in plain terms. God's justice is incontrovertible because it is unknowable, and to question God's motives presupposes one's own divine authority (a false premise). God gives and takes for his own reasons, and we are wrong to demand a moralistic framework.11 In fact, a moralistic framework would undermine the righteousness of Job, which finds ultimate expression in the face of adversity—not blessing. The author does not approach the question, however, like a theologian or a philosopher. Abstract concept is explained through concrete story, which appeals to the imagination over logic. Truth remains dialogical, and contradiction serves as a vehicle to explore truth—not to define it.

In Genesis also, narrative is the preferred mode of expression for abstract thought. Whenever we try to apply modern categories to its story, we run the risk of reductionism. Discussions on 'myth' and 'history' in Genesis are potentially misleading, for example, because they assume the Greek categories of mythos and historie12. Nonetheless, we are western thinkers and cannot help but to observe how Genesis is or is not like our own writings. Along these lines, one of the most helpful guides I have found comes from Diepstra and Laugherly (2009):

  Genesis is...
     1. Revelatory, in that it offers a unique perspective of the cosmos—its structure, origin, and eschatology.
     2. Historical, in that it recounts the beginnings of the cosmos, and specifically the origin and place of Israel within that cosmos.
     3. Theological, in that it explicates the covenant god of Israel and his relationship to the cosmos (mankind in particular).
     4. Literature, in that its truth is conveyed through narrative, which is "laced with drama and saturated with symbolic artistry that engages the imagination of the reader."13

I prefer this fourfold approach (which may be expanded) because it holds the many disciplines in healthy tension so as to avoid the reductionism that follows when one is applied to the exclusion of others. We may consider that effect for each category as follows:

     1. Genesis is just a dictation of God's message, or just a polemical response to contemporary cultures.
     2. Genesis is just an account of what really happened before Israel, or just an improved version of conflicting histories of man/civilization.
     3. Genesis is just an explanation of who God is, who man is, and what God requires of man, or just a profession that God created/guides the cosmos, but not how.
     4. Genesis is just ancient historiography/mythology, appealing to fantasy over fact, or just a representation of the contemporary setting of the author.

Our human tendency, especially among academics, is to approach Genesis on the level that feels most comfortable to us. Admittedly, you will see this tendency in my own writings.14 It can be quite easy for a theologian to 'theologize' all historical aspects of Genesis, for example, because he/she feels 'that is the main thrust of the text'. Similarly, the historian may tend to 'historicize' all theological aspects. But we should not dismiss their insight simply because it is exclusive or cursory. Conversely, it can be just as easy for the common reader to opt for a 'plain reading' of Genesis because he/she is yet unfamiliar with contributions from academia. With these constraints in mind, let us enter the narrative world of Genesis.

Trajectory of the creation narrative in Genesis 1–2:3

Heaven and earth are split along two complementary paths in the first creation narrative. From a divine perspective, everything moves in orderly fashion from chaos to order; from 'good' to 'very good'; from work to Sabbath rest. What appears a dark and dismal portrayal of primordial earth—set in darkness and clothed by unbound waters—soon fades from sight as the cosmos are divided into recognizable forms and adorned with majestic inhabitants. Unlike their mythological counterparts, the various forces of nature offer no resistance to the covenant god of Israel. He speaks, and it is done.15 Nonetheless, his actions are described as 'work', conveying a sense of temporary incompleteness but with a clear goal in mind. God may rest from his work when all is harmonious and in working order—when chaos no longer threatens the functional unity of its parts.

From an earthly perspective, the creative works of God are systematically focused toward his most prized work, and what has often been called the 'pinnacle' of God's creation: mankind, who alone bears the divine image. The respective days of creation answer the 'problem statement' of Genesis 1:1, that "the earth was without form (tohu) and without inhabitant (bohu)", in exactly that order. First, the chaotic seas are divided from each other and from the land. Second, each habitat is filled with the appropriate occupants. The stage is set for mankind to "fill the earth and subdue it", that he may share with God in the act of creation and ultimately the Sabbath rest. As the divine representative on earth, he is called to a life of imitatio dei, in which he will work to extend God's glory across the earth until he likewise can rest.

All of the described events look forward to the seventh day. This narrative flow is most explicit in the sixfold refrain "there was evening, and there was morning...", which not only indicates the passing of time but a temporary rest between working days. Yet on the seventh day, the refrain is absent. We need not inquire what God was doing on the 'eighth' day, because within the narrative world of Genesis 1–2:3, the seventh day is without end.

Stylistic and thematic considerations

–= Toda traducción es una traición =–
The principle that 'every translation is a betrayal' is conveniently demonstrated by translating into English this Spanish proverb, whose rhyme and alliteration (tr...ón, tr...ón) are lost in the process. Repetitive elements (including some rhyme and alliteration) abound in the creation narrative, even within the first sentence (br...br, et ha...et ha; see Hebrew in citation below). Some of these elements have already been mentioned, and nearly all are associated with the number seven. Jeff Morrow summarizes thusly:

"The number seven is important for the form and content of Genesis 1 as the number of perfection in the ancient Near East, the number relating to covenant, and of course, the number of the day known as the Sabbath... Genesis 1:1 contains seven words: běrē’šît bārā’ ’elōhîm ’ēt hašāmayim wě’ēt hā’āreṣ. Genesis 1:2 has fourteen words, seven times two. Furthermore, significant words in this passage occur in multiples of seven: God (35 times, i.e., seven times five), earth (21 times, i.e., seven times three), heavens/firmament (21 times), “and it was so” (7 times), and “God saw that it was good” (7 times)."16

Although Genesis 1–2:3 cannot accurately be described as 'poetry',17 its style is perhaps more comparable to the Psalms than to the court history of David. Genesis 1:27 even contains a parallelistic tricolon, which is found in some Hebrew poetry18. Personally, I find the term 'Creation Hymn' most helpful and appropriate. Regardless of how we identify the stylistic genre in modern terms, however, we should not ignore the implications of these 'semi-poetic' elements for us, the reader. Far from reducing Genesis to imaginative fantasy, the author presents the story in such a way that it addresses an ever present reality for endless generations to come19. Marc Vervenne unfolds this line of reasoning (emphasis added):

"In my opinion...[Gen 1,1–2,3] is best expressed with the title 'Cosmic Liturgy of the Seventh Day'. This compositional unit contains a rich theology concerning the creative and sanctifying hand of Elohim viewed from the cosmic perspective. 'Creation' is understood here as a continuous transition from disarray to order, from unrest to rest, from chaos to harmony. While this process is presented as a primeval event it has, in fact, everything to do with history and with the temporal situation of the readers/listeners...The 'seventh day' is a free space in history, one which is not bound to time or place. Within this space, Israel escapes from the natural and social 'primal powers' which can throw her back into chaos. To participate in the rest of the seventh day is to participate in the continuous creative activity of Elohim and to ward off the many-sided menace posed by the powers of chaos."20

The style of Genesis 1–2:3 is such that it can easily be memorized and sung/recited among the congregation. In doing so, we not only celebrate God as unrivaled Creator of all that is, but we pray "Let your will be done on earth as in heaven". The building of God's kingdom (and sanctifying of His people) through the gospel message is no less a work of creation than the acts founds in Genesis 1–2:3.

Is there any external evidence that Genesis 1–2:3 was intended to function liturgically? We gain some insight from comparison to contemporary literature, such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish. This ancient creation hymn—which begins "When on high the heaven had not been named, and earth below had not been called by name" and is recorded on seven tablets—celebrates the victory of Marduk over Tiamat and her husband Apsu; over the powers of chaos. Each year, the text was read publicly at the New Year's Festival, which itself offered divine hope that life would return to the barren (uncreated) land that Spring/Summer. Similarly, Genesis 1–2:3 may have been related to the Feast of Tabernacles in Israel, which took place over a week's time, culminated in a Sabbath rest, and celebrated the coming of the new year through God's creative work.21

Thematically, the Genesis narrative shares much with its mythological counterparts:22 the primordial state is characterized by water (the chaotic sea); God overcomes that chaos by separating and naming each part; all of God's actions are told as part of a story (the base etymology of mythos). More important than such broad similarity, however, are the numerous ways in which the Genesis narrative counterpoints its pagan relatives. The author of Genesis incorporates pagan myth not through accommodation but via metaleptic reorientation so as to create a sharp polemic thereagainst. The 'great deep', called tehom in Hebrew, echoes the name of the Babylonian goddess Tiamat, but she has been robbed of all her vitality, being represented here as inanimate waters that are entirely subject to the will of Elohim. The god of Israel neither fights rival deities nor gives birth to them; he (alone) is simply there in the beginning. The god of Israel thus has no mythos in the technical sense. His 'story' has no beginning and no end, despite the general trajectory of its path.

Even the heavenly hosts are demythologized and their cosmic reputation is laid low. For the Babylonian god Marduk, the stars were placed as trophies unto his outstanding victory. The Sun and Moon were themselves divine offspring of former gods. In Genesis, however, the creation of the heavenly hosts precedes that of earthly inhabitants, not only temporally but in terms of dominance:23 they were made to serve man and all life on earth; "to separate the day from the night, and...for signs and for seasons and for days and years" (Gen. 1:14). The author's polemic is thus subtle and implicit, depending on the order of creation and the fact that sun and moon are each deprived of a proper name. Summarizing, Leo Strauss writes:

"Not only did the biblical God not create any gods; on the basis of the biblical account of creation one could doubt whether He created any beings one would be compelled to call "mythical": heaven and earth and all their hosts are always accessible to man as man. One would have to start from this fact in order to understand why the Bible contains so many sections that, on the basis of the distinction between mythical...and historical, would have to be described as historical."24

Trajectory of the creation narrative in Genesis 2:5–3:24

In the blink of an eye, the land again appears barren (Gen. 2:5). There is no man to cultivate the earth and no rain to water it. Yet in a second blink (Gen. 2:6–8), God forms man from the barren clay and brings life to the land. In this case, God's creative work is described narratively as a series of responses to what is lacking in the primordial situation. Unlike the creation hymn, where God speaks, makes it so, and declares it to be 'good', in the Eden narrative God recognizes that things are 'not good' and then acts to remediate the problem (e.g., Gen. 2:18). Every created thing appears to tend to the needs of man. From the beginning, God is intimately concerned with man and his environment, like an artist who colors the canvas around the centerpiece of his work.

Stepping aside from the immediate context, we should briefly consider the broad trajectory of this story within the narrative unity of the Pentateuch. Harold Bloom writes concerning the author of Genesis 2:5–3:24 (called J by convention):

"The Deuteronomist memorably incorporates J in his chapters 31 and 34, dealing with the death of Moses. I give here...Yahweh's first and last actions: "Yahweh formed man from the dust of the earth," and "Yahweh buried him, Moses, in the valley in the land of Moab, near Bethpeor; and no one knows his burial place to this day." From Adam to Moses is from earth to earth; Yahweh molds us and he buries us, and both actions are done with his own hands."25

God calls us to communion with him and cares for us in life and death. Such is the distinguished attribute of the covenant god of Israel and the grand telos of man. Already, we should recognize that geography offers no guide to the garden in which man was set; the garden is where God is. On this point, the Eden narrative is thoroughly eschatological.

Next, two additional characters are introduced to the story: woman, taken from man, and a serpent, who appears out of nowhere. Man's ability to fulfill his vocation as divine image is now contrasted and challenged by his peccability, through which he desires too much. The author transitions from one to the other by means of wordplay: the man and the woman were naked (arom) and unashamed, but the serpent was more cunning (arum) than other creatures.

"Did God really say...?" The serpent casts doubt on the accuracy and pertinence of God's word and portrays it as self-serving: 'he knows that you will become like him, knowing good from evil'. In response, the woman lusts for the fruit26, seeing that it was good for eating, delightful to the eyes, and able to make one wise. Her husband overlooks God's command and lusts to fulfill his wife's passion, which becomes his own:

"The best interpretation understands the eating of the tree as the assertion of moral autonomy. In other words, by eating the fruit, the human couple is essentially claiming that they know better than God."27

And so they ate, and in eating they attained divine knowledge. But the irony of their action is revealed subtly by the immediate result: their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked. The cunning (arum) serpent has exposed the nakedness (arom) of man, who is now ashamed before God. In the order of their entrance, each character now departs through a curse: the serpent, the woman, and the man.

All hope is lost, it seems, for the idyllic garden of God. The tension between the serpent and the woman will become a perpetual reality. Each blow (to the heel and to the head, respectively) is a crippling death blow to the other—mutually assured destruction28. Even the woman's desire for her husband will cause her to become subservient to him. As for man, he was placed in the garden to bring life thereto, but now he will work outside of it, met only by frustration until death reveals the vanity of his life. Thorns and thistles shall remind him that he is not so similar to God as he presumed.

God banishes the man from the garden, "and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life" (3:24). At this point, the narrative offers a peculiar hope not in what it states explicitly, but in silence. God "drove the man out"—what about the woman? Does she still have access to the tree of life? Surely she does not, for it is guarded by the cherubim. But the silence is telling, even mysterious, and it draws us back to the preceding verses.

Up to this point, we have seen creation in several modes: God formed the man and planted the garden, but the man cultivates the land to bring forth vegetation; God formed the animals, but the man names them; from man (ish) God formed the woman, and so the man names her woman (ishtah). God, man, and land all do their part in creation, which is described in tangible terms normally ascribed to potters and artisans. Yet none of them are given a proper name in this narrative; none except the woman, through whom there is hope for new life: "Now the man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living." (3:20) The name Eve, which actually echoes the Aramaic word for 'serpent', is simultaneously a play on the word for life. Its true etymology is centered around hope, though it hangs by a thread.

With this simple pronouncement, the history of mankind is set in motion. Forward and backward, the story of Eden will cycle back on itself as the 'seed of the serpent' and the 'seed of the woman' clash together under variegated circumstance. Yet all is not in vain, for the creator god has become the redeemer god: "The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them." (3:21) God has not given up on his garden, and neither should we.

Stylistic and thematic considerations

The Eden narrative is deceptively simple, written in plain terms that encompass the common human experience, but sufficiently foreign that it elicits imaginative speculation to explain its symbolism.29 Wordplay, thematic reversal, irony, and drama add levels of meaning which can be sought for a lifetime. Nonetheless, what we find on the surface is sufficiently powerful and accessible to transform the most unsophisticated mind.

On a literary level, the style of the Eden narrative stands in stark contrast to the preceding creation hymn. The story is immanent, and the sentiments of its characters are reflected in the text itself. Regarding the author of Gen. 2:5–3:24, Robert Alter observes that:

"his prose imparts a sense of rapid and perhaps precarious forward movement very different from [Genesis 1's] measured parade from first day to seventh. It is a movement of restless human interaction with the environment, even in Eden: here man works the soil, which cannot realize its full inventory of nourishing plant life until that work has begun..."30

While the imago dei is not expressly assigned to man in the Eden narrative, the author's description of man's actions demand such a role. Man's vocation to cultivate the earth and bring life thereto directly reflects that of his maker. In naming the animals, man does not endeavor to satisfy personal curiosity, but to share in the sanctifying acts of 'dividing' and 'calling' that are so systematically ascribed to God in the creation hymn. In a sense, he thus mimics the creation of living creatures "of all kinds" (Gen. 1:21, 24). Lastly, man is a being in relationship—in blessed communion with his environment, his wife, and his god. Mankind is simultaneously the one and the many, and his own multiplicity parallels that of the majestic and incomprehensible Elohim31 (cf. Gen. 1:26–27).

According to the author of the Eden narrative, the Lord himself walks among the garden (Gen. 2:8) and even posits rhetorical questions which, on the surface, seem to defy his omniscience. Such depictions of Yahweh recur throughout the well known narratives of Genesis, especially the account of Jacob. Rather than consign such accounts to the phenomenon of 'anthropomorphism', I offer a profound reversal of thought in the following comments by Harold Bloom:

'[Yahweh] sensibly avoids walking about in the Near Eastern heat, preferring the cool of the evening, and he likes to sit under the terebinths at Mamre, devouring roast calf and curds. [The author of Genesis] would have laughed at his normative descendants—Christian, Jewish, secular, scholarly—who go on calling his representations of Yahweh "anthropomorphic," when they should be calling his representations of Jacob "theomorphic."'32

In other words, the imaginative depiction of Yahweh in the garden should not cause us to liken God to man, but to see how Adam is portrayed in the divine image. This subtle intermingling of characteristics does not come without a sense of irony, however, as the lustful desire to be too like God results in the cursing and exile of mankind.

Genesis 1–3 as history

The opening statement of Genesis, typically translated as "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth", does not necessarily bind the story to an earthly timeline. It merely states that God alone is the transcendant author of history and the basis of our appeal when chaos threatens our well being (i.e. when things are less than 'very good'). As we have noted previously, the timeline of Genesis 1–2:3 has no end, and God himself has no beginning. From a canonical perspective, the creative work of God is not yet finished, for the creation hymn is recaptured in the subsequent grand narratives of the Bible (including the gospel).

We do a great injustice to the text, therefore, in trying to establish when in earth history these 'six days' took place. There is no need to expand each day to fill great aeons (old-earth perspective) or to confine them to 144 hours at the head of history (young-earth perspective). The creation hymn is written liturgically—not simply to remind us how history began, but to remind us where history is going. The book of beginnings is a book that points forward by pointing back.33

Several parallels to the garden story can be found in Ancient Near Eastern literature, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. I only mention this in passing to highlight the magical and mythological character of those stories. For example, the trees of Dilmun are adorned with precious jewels and metals. Such treasures are not present in Eden (and they certainly don't grow on trees), but there is mention of them in the surrounding lands. Consequently, "through the seemingly irrelevant description of the land of Havilah, [Genesis] has quite clearly sought to naturalize a mythological aspect of the garden."34

On the other hand, the Garden of Eden is sufficiently 'strange' that it would be imprudent to locate it in time and space. To eat from the two trees in the center of the garden is a moral act, without specific regard for nourishment. The serpent is able to speak—eloquently at that. Although the four rivers would be familiar to the Near Eastern reader, as well as the lands of Havilah and Cush, they each flow out of the garden to water the whole earth. The setting is generally Mesopotamian, but the geography has been subverted to the narrative world of the author. The Cambridge Bible Commentary (1973, p. 10) describes a similar didactic in Greek literature:

"[Story myths] may also be the conscious literary creation of a teacher whose concern is to help others to share his insights into the meaning of life. Plato’s myth of the prisoners in the cave in Book VII of the Republic is a good example... When Glaucon, after listening to the story, says to Socrates, ‘You are describing a strange scene and strange prisoners’, Socrates replies ‘They resemble us’.”

From a historico-critical perspective, therefore, the garden is not a 'real' event in time and space. From a literary perspective, however, that is the point. The reality of the garden transcends plain history but is immanent to every inhabitant thereof.35 By historicizing the garden and its narrative inhabitants, the author has universalized the human condition that is so articulated by the history of God's Israel.36 In other words, we should not simply read the biblical history in linear fashion, moving from one event to the next so as to reconstruct all of human history. On the basis of intertextual and thematic links, we should rather read the biblical narratives as a palimpsest,37 in which peeling back the narrative layers serves to elucidate the overlying topography:


So we can say that Genesis is history, but this position is insufficient. What kind of history? Certainly not the documentary and explicative forms we employ in our classrooms today38—we insult the author of Genesis by reducing his work to such. In the terms of Paul Ricoeur, Genesis is poetic historiography in that it "takes the reality of the past, interprets...and then shapes it into a narrative through which a community of readers understands itself in the present."39 I conclude, therefore, with Diepstra and Laughery (2009), who summarize the relationship thusly:

"So, where does Genesis 1–3's credibility lie for both science and Scripture? It lies in the "power of story" where imagination and the revelatory realities of God, and the world He created meet. The biblical story of beginnings brings together the meaningful structure of reality without wedding itself to a static architectural statement about the world."40

Genesis 1–3 as literary diptych

So far, I have split my comments between Genesis 1–2:3 and Genesis 2:5–3:24. What about Genesis 2:4, and what about the unit as a whole? There is plenty that can be said about the contrast between the two units,41 and I don't intend to be exhaustive on this point. Instead, I want to offer some insight from the structural form of the book of Genesis. Thomas L. Brodie42 identifies 26 literary diptychs in Genesis: 6 from the primeval history, 7 dealing with Abraham, 6 concerning Jacob's beginning and his life, and 7 concerning Jacob's sons and his death43. The first is found in Genesis 1–3, for which Genesis 2:4 acts as a hinge point.

In general, a diptych is a picture or story with two panels that are joined by a hinge. Each panel may complement or contrast the other so as to engage the audience in a dialogue that is aimed toward a greater truth. For example, I might fill two conjoined picture frames with contradictory self-portraits: one of me happy and one of me sad. This is my life in dialogical tension, since neither fully explains my personality, but together they communicate a complex, polyphonic reality.

Likewise, the two creation narratives of Genesis paint very different portraits of earth's beginnings, but to dismiss them as contradictory is not only absurd—it misses the point entirely. As previously noted in the case of Job, contradiction is the vehicle by which truth is to be explored—rather than the means to falsify proposition—in the Hebrew bible. The creation hymn proceeds from chaos to order and Sabbath rest. Conversely, the Eden narrative generally proceeds from order and harmonious communion to chaos, exile, and brokenness. We can represent the unit graphically as follows:

Chaos                             Order      [Hinge]      Order                        Chaos
Genesis 1:1–2 ––––––> Genesis 2:3  [Gen. 2:4]  Gen. 2:5–9 ––––––> Gen. 3:24
–––––––––––> Sabbath Rest   //   Communion <–––––––––––

The literary unit of Genesis 1–3 thus functions like an open book, whose pages gravitate toward the center. The hinge point in Genesis 2:4 reads:

"...these are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens..."

Notice the chiasm: heavens, earth, created, Lord God, made, earth, heavens. The structure of the verse turns the page for us so that each narrative is to be read in light of the other. Sabbath rest and communion with God are thus presented as the very telos of the cosmos. When we reach the end of chapter 3, we should find ourselves prompted to read the Eden narrative in reverse by asking the question "How do we get back to the garden?" This question is addressed thoroughly by subsequent biblical narratives in which a 'return to Eden' is the thematic end. For example, Deuteronomy 30:15–16 reads:

"See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it."

The reference to life, good, death, and evil strongly echo the trees of the garden and the associated commandment. Prior to the Mosaic discourse, the new generation of Israelites in the wilderness are described as those who "have no knowledge of good and evil" (Deut. 1:39). Before they enter the land of Canaan, Joshua is met by a 'man' with a drawn sword (Josh. 5:13), reminiscent of the cherubim guarding Eden. His identity is revealed when he commands Joshua "Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy." (Josh. 5:15).

The dialogic of Genesis 1–3

As modern readers, we need to be very cautious in our hermeneutical approach to Genesis, which seems to present truth in dialogue. This concept is foreign to the western mind, but has been rediscovered and articulated primarily through the work of the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. On this point, T.L. Brodie is worth quoting at length, as he applies the dialogical concept of truth to Genesis:

"The perspective of modern rationalism...is essentially single, linear. Reality is weighed and measured. History is the facts. Such an approach is not to be neglected; it can be monumentally useful. But reality is more complex, and so is the mind. Even for physics, reality is elusive, composed ultimately not of waves or particles but of wavicles, whatever these may be... Genesis had no idea of modern physics, but at some level it knew that reality is not solid, that the mind and heart and soul need breathing space. And God is not solid—not a wooden idol—but can be viewed and experienced from diverse perspectives. The twofold picture of creation, for instance, forms, as it were, a sense of space, a place in which the mind, instead of fastening, perhaps idolatrously, on one image is teased to another viewing point. One mirror gives a single image; but two facing mirrors give processions of images, resonating energy and depth. The diptych structure therefore...is one way both of evoking the richness and elusiveness of reality, and also of opening the mind, of giving it breathing space and freeing it from a form of spiritual and psychological fundamentalism."44

Rather than abstracting the creation narratives to pure metaphor, or reducing them to a single event in history, I argue that we can faithfully apply Genesis 1–3 to every sphere of life through a literary-canonical approach that also recognizes the complexity of the narrative's reality. Our quest is never ending, like the dialogue itself, but we continue to live out the experience in our own lives and in worship. God is not one-sided, to be known and analyzed like an experiment, but the Creator God is also the Redeemer God. His truth is presented dialogically. He has made us and called us to communion with him; to bear his image so that the glory of God in Eden would cover the whole earth. But uncreation and exile remain equally imminent realities for the one who presumes to determine good and evil for oneself.


'Ideas, of their nature, are dialogical; they are held in response to others and in anticipation of what others may say. "An utterance is always a reply".'45

1. See my last post, On reading Genesis as literature: breaking the hermeneutical bonds of a modern controversy
2. This concept is elegantly captured by the literary phenomenon of intertextuality (cf. A.S. Byatt's essay here; also Hays, R.B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1989), 254 p.)
3. I merely intend to echo the better articulated and more involved argumentation of Auerbach, E., Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton University Press, 1953), 616 p.
4. Diepstra, G.R., and Laughery, G.J., 2009, Interpreting Science and Scripture: Genesis 1–3: European Journal of Theology, v. 18, p. 5–16.
5. Ibid., p. 12.
6. As argued in Burke, K., The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (University of California Press, 1961), p. 201–207.
7. I am borrowing this term and its usage from Wright, N.T., New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press, 1994), p. 31–46. Though focused on New Testament studies, Wright's methodological insights as a historian-theologian are both pertinent and profound.
8. Strauss, L., The Beginning of the Bible and Its Greek Counterparts, in Genesis: Modern Critical Interpretations (Chelsea House, 1986), p. 25.
9. To demonstrate this disparity, picture the following in your head: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Does that picture look anything like this? If so, you have already read the text very differently from its original audience.
10. Laughery, G.J., and Diepstra, G.R., 2006, Scripture, Science, and Hermeneutics: European Journal of Theology, p. 35–49. Citation from p. 38.
11. By 'moralistic framework', I am referring to a basic reward-punishment system. The book of Job, among other wisdom literature, challenges the idea that good comes to the good and bad comes to the bad; that there is a simple cause-effect relationship between righteousness and reward, evil and suffering. For a more detailed discussion, I recommend Hayes' lecture Responses to Suffering and Evil: Lamentations and Wisdom Literature from Yale University (2011).
12. Strauss (1986).
13. Diepstra and Laughery (2009), p. 9.
14. I am an aspiring geologist by profession, but only an amateur student of theology/history/literary criticism, heavily influenced by the limited selection of works from each discipline that I have read thus far.
15. The Cambridge Bible Commentary, New English Bible, Genesis 1–11 (Cambridge University Press, 1973), eds. P.R. Ackroyd, A.R.C. Leaney, J.W. Packer, 118 p. “Genesis 1 strips creation of this mythological character. The entire conflict theme has disappeared. The God of the Genesis creation story is not one of the forces of nature, not even the supreme fertility god or Nature with a capital N. He stands over against the world as its sovereign creator, the source of everything in it, but not identifiable with it. He is wholly other, the transcendent God.” p. 14
16. Morrow, J., 2009, Creation as Temple-Building and Work as Liturgy in Genesis 1-3: Journal of the Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies, v. 2, p. 1.
17. Kline, M., 1958, Because It Had Not Rained: Westminster Theological Journal, v. 20, p. 146–157.
18. Niskanen, P., 2009, The Poetics of Adam: The creation of אךם in the Image of אלהים: Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 128, p. 417–436.
19. The Cambridge Bible Commentary (1973): “[The tragedy of Gen. 2:15–3:24], for the narrator, is not ancient story but an ever present reality. Religious motifs, from many different circles in the Ancient Near East, are taken by the narrator and transformed in the crucible of his own experience. Faith, like poetry, communicates some of its deepest truths through symbols which, steeped in tradition, are yet capable of being given ever new meaning.” p. 48
20. Vervenne, M., 2001, Genesis 1,1–2,4. The Compositional texture of the Priestly Overture to the Pentateuch, in Wénin, A. (ed.), 2001, Studies in the Book of Genesis: literature, redaction and history: Leuven University Press, p. 53.
21. The Cambridge Bible Commentary (1973), p. 14.
22. For a brief overview, see Lim, J., 2005, Genesis 1–11 and its Ancient Near Eastern Parallels: Asia Journal of Theology, p. 68–78; also Sarna (1966). A more comprehensive study can be found in Walton, J., 2006, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Baker Academic, 368 p.
23. Ibid. "Deliberately [the fourth day account] avoids naming the sun and the moon, both of which were widely worshipped. The stars were likewise often thought to control man's destiny. This entire astrological fatalism is here swept into the religious wastepaper basket." p. 21
24. Strauss (1986), p. 29.
25. Bloom, H., Genesis: Modern Critical Interpretations (Chelsea House, 1986), p. 4.
26. cf. James 1:13–15.
27. Longman III, T., How to read Genesis (InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 111.
28. Burke (1961) writes “And there is to be an eternal enmity between man and the serpent", the latter of which he calls "the image, or narrative personification, of the principle of Temptation...” p. 207.
29. Ricoeur, P., The Symbolism of Evil (Beacon Press, 1967), p. 232–242. See also Stefanovic, Z., 1994, The Great Reversal: thematic links between Genesis 2 and 3: Andrews University Seminary Studies, v. 32, p. 47–56.
30. Alter, R., The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981), p. 144.
31. Niskanen (2009).
32. Bloom (1986), p. 5.
33. For a full exegesis of this concept (so elegantly captured in the book's title), see Fesko, J.V., Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis with the Christ of Eschatology (Mentor, 2007), 208 p.
34. Sarna, N.M., Understanding Genesis: the heritage of biblical Israel (Shocken Books, 1966), p. 25.
35. The Cambridge Bible Commentary (1973), “The characters in this story do not have personal names...This is the story of ‘Everyman’. The trees in the garden are not ordinary trees... The garden has strange creatures in it, a talking serpent and a guard of cherubim. The whole purpose of the narrative is not to describe what once happened but to explain certain puzzling features of life and human experience known to the narrator.” p. 28–29.
36. Ricoeur (1967), "The proto-historical myth [of Adam] thus served not only to generalize the experience of Israel, applying it to all mankind, at all times and in all places, but also to extend to all mankind the great tension between condemnation and mercy that the teaching of the Prophets had revealed in the particular destiny of Israel." p. 242.
37. A palimpsest is an ancient document (paper, leather, etc.) whose text has been scraped off so that another can be written in its place. See this article by Mark Sprinkle at Biologos for an artistic and hermeneutical usage of the term.
38. Diepstra and Laughery (2009), p. 10.
39. Ibid., p. 10.
40. Ibid., p. 14.
41. See Alter, R., Composite Artistry: P and J, in Genesis: Modern Critical Interpretations (Chelsea House, 1986), p. 49–56.
42. Brodie, T.L., Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary (Oxford, 2001), 614 p.
43. Ibid., p. 18.
44. Ibid., p. 27.
45. Brodie, T.L., Genesis as Dialogue, in Studies in the Book of Genesis: Literature, Redaction, and History (Leuven University Press, 2001), ed. A. Wenín, p. 311.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Gasping for oxygen, and an argument: AiG's 'News to Note' and the Permo-Triassic Extinction

As an aside to my current series of posts, I thought it might be worth commenting on a recent news update at Answers in Genesis (News to Note, Oct. 22). Therein, Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell tried unsuccessfully to subvert the work of Dr. Ariel Anbar (Arizona State University) and his research group to corroborate her own view that a recent, catastrophic flood deposited nearly all Phanerozoic strata. According to Mitchell, this includes Permian and Triassic rocks, which are differentiated by an abrupt disappearance of most fossil groups. The Permo-Triassic extinction event is the largest known from geologic history, and was responsible for the loss of some 70% of terrestrial species and more than 90% of marine species (including the iconic trilobite).

Ocean anoxia has long been cited as a major cause of the mass extinction, since there is widespread evidence for the deposition of black shales, a shutdown in marine productivity, and enhanced burial of organic carbon—all of which precede or coincide with the extinction horizon. Black shales are extremely rich in organic material, which can only be preserved in low-oxygen conditions. They also provide evidence of slow burial, since rapid sedimentation tends to 'dilute' the concentration of organic remains from microscopic marine organisms (e.g., algae, phytoplankton, radiolarians). Carbon isotopic signatures and the abundance of trace metals have been used to monitor the recovery of marine microorganisms after the extinction event. Geologists have been eager, however, to refine this hypothesis quantitatively. What caused the ocean anoxia? How long did it last? How much of the ocean became anoxic?

A recent study by Brennecka et al. (2011) employed a rather novel technique in the study of ocean anoxic events. In short, two major isotopes of uranium (238 and 235) are naturally separated (fractionated) to small extent when positively charged uranium (6+) is reduced (i.e. gains electrons) in the absence of oxygen. The latter form (tetravalent uranium, with a charge of 4+) is highly insoluble in water, and so is drawn down into the sediments. Since the heavier isotope (238U) is preferred in the tetravalent form, sediments deposited under anoxic conditions will yield a slightly higher isotopic signature (δ238U). Conversely, the uranium isotopic signature (δ238U) of the ocean should decrease when anoxic conditions are sufficiently prevalent to perturb the uranium cycle.

Uranium is present in low concentrations in the ocean, so the time needed for uranium isotopic signatures to respond to anoxic events is relatively short (compared to isotopes of carbon, for example, which take upward of ~100,000 years to equilibrate). This makes it an ideal proxy for quantifying past changes in ocean chemistry. Only recently have uranium isotopes been employed in the study of paleoceanography, however, since the technology required to precisely measure δ238U was not previously available (Montoya-Pino et al., 2010). Brennecka et al. (2011) analyzed δ238U in a section of carbonate rock (limestone) from southern China that contained the Permo-Triassic boundary. They concluded that anoxic conditions increased by ~6 times normal for the Permian ocean, and further that these conditions prevailed for only ~50,000 years following the mass extinction. Previous hypotheses assumed a more pervasive and long-lasting event.

"Abruptness of ancient oceanic alterations fit the Flood"?

Dr. Mitchell's response to the article was unfortunately ignorant of the geology/chemistry behind the study. When summarizing key assumptions, for example, she states:

"[Brennecka et al., 2011] assumed that there was an “isotopically constant U input from rivers..." as well as “a constant isotope fractionation between seawater” and the various places where precipitated uranium gets deposited. In other words, their interpretation that sudden global depletion of oceanic oxygen caused mass extinction assumes that nothing happened to suddenly change the amount of water flowing into the sea or to stir up the oceans more than usual."

There is a logical disconnect in Dr. Mitchell's reasoning. Changes in the flux of water (and hence dissolved uranium) into the oceans would not affect the uranium isotopic signature of the oceans to any significant degree. The average δ238U value of crustal materials (basalt/granite) is -0.3‰, while the value of dissolved U in modern seawater is -0.4‰ (Montoya-Pino et al., 2010). The difference is almost too small to be measured. One can visualize the effect by analogy of mixing paints at the hardware store. Adding one bucket of yellow paint (U in rivers) to another bucket of yellow paint (U in the oceans) yields one large bucket of yellow paint. Dr. Mitchell has essentially noted that the authors 'assumed that mixing yellow paint with yellow paint would not make the paint green'.

The assumption that uranium input from rivers was "isotopically constant" has nothing to do, therefore, with how much water enters the ocean. Dr. Mitchell does not explain, moreover, why "stir[ring] up the oceans more than usual" would falsify the assumption that isotopic fractionation remained constant between oxic and anoxic environments. Isotopic fractionation depends rather on the geochemistry of the water: temperature, pH, and concentration of dissolved ions. Temperature has little effect on the fractionation of uranium, because the mass difference between 238U and 235U is negligible. Since uranium is deposited in ionic complexes with carbonate anions (CO32-), the latter two factors would only affect isotopic fractionation at very low carbonate concentrations (unrealistic for marine settings). The isotopic exchange of uranium between uranyl species (i.e. the oxidation and reduction of UO22+ in oxic/anoxic environments) is thus favored as the primary cause of isotopic fractionation.

Dr. Mitchell must explain, therefore, how δ238U could suddenly shift negative by 0.28‰ in a carbonate sequence that was supposedly deposited catastrophically during the Flood. Instead, she overlooks the significance of the data and appeals to her starting position (petitio principii):

"The biblical record however tells of a sudden global change in the oceans—the Flood. The global Flood not only sends all the stated assumptions by which the investigators have interpreted their data out the window but actually explains their findings."

We have already seen how this scenario does nothing to falsify the assumptions of Brennecka et al. (2011), so one is left to wonder how Dr. Mitchell got from point A to point B. What changes specifically does she refer to? We are completely justified in asking for a viable, scientific explanation for the observed trends in uranium isotopes according to her views on geologic history. But Dr. Mitchell's silence is telling; she does not understand the data and so she cannot explain them scientifically. She continues:

"The Permian layers are at the top of the Paleozoic rock sequence, a sequence dominated by marine invertebrate fossils. In the upper layers of these Paleozoic rocks, amphibians and land animals do make their appearance."

Paleozoic rocks are no more "dominated by marine invertebrate fossils" than the overlying Mesozoic sequence. It just so happens that terrestrial depositional environments are better preserved in the Mesozoic (a phenomenon predicted by plate tectonic theory). Numerous species of land animals (and plants) are known from the Paleozoic, but they are less familiar to most people outside the field of paleontology. Nonetheless, should we be surprised that terrestrial organisms become more diverse and abundant in time? Is there an argument hidden in these blank, misleading statements? She writes:

"The Paleozoic...layers...are dominated by marine creatures because those would have been the first buried by oceanic upheavals as the earth’s crust cracked as described in Genesis 7:11. The distribution of fossils in the higher layers would have depended in part upon animals’ abilities to flee the rising waters."

Technically, land animals and plants should have been the first to be buried, since they would be the first to be overwhelmed with sediment-saturated waves from the ocean masses. Apparently Dr. Mitchell is unfamiliar with the effect of tsunamis on land inhabitants—how exactly does one's "ability to flee the rising waters" of such catastrophes factor in? At best, we might expect to find fossils organized hydrodynamically—intermingled marine and terrestrial forms—but we find just the opposite. Fossils are not sorted by the forces of flowing water, but divided neatly by ecological habitat. Dr. Mitchell's uninformed musings aside, I can't help but to notice that she has completely evaded any meaningful discussion of uranium isotopes and the Permo-Triassic boundary. Perhaps there is hope in her final paragraph:

"If these abrupt changes in Permian uranium are a snapshot of abrupt global changes at the time those Permian rock layers were laid down, then those changes are a snapshot of the turbulent conditions of a part of the Flood year, perhaps even related volcanic outpourings of lavas and chemical-laden hot waters at the time. The Bible explains these sudden catastrophic changes to the earth’s surface, the resulting massive death toll, and apparently some significant geochemical changes as well."

It pains me to think how many readers will take these words for granted—uncritically and without reservation. Dr. Mitchell's description has no scientific basis and appeals rather to the ignorance of her audience (i.e. she must assume that her audience does not grasp the science behind the study—a very disingenuous move). She implies here that "volcanic outpourings" may have something to do with the results of the study. What is the connection? Please tell us! In fact, there is no connection—these phenomena would have no effect on uranium isotopes in Permo-Triassic carbonate sequences. Dr. Mitchell thus appeals to ignorant conjecture over against the evidence she cites. Yet because of her credentials (which have nothing to do with geology), many a reader will conflate the two. Worst of all, her association of the biblical text with a false interpretation of geological data is counterproductive to the gospel message. It is hardly surprising that so many have deemed the church "antagonistic to science".

The big picture: why study ocean anoxic events in the first place?

To conclude, I want to consider briefly how Dr. Mitchell begins her review:

"While the cause of this extinction event has eluded secular geologists, hypotheses have generally held that millions of years of oceanic oxygen depletion preceded the deaths."

Evidence for severe climatic change at the Permo-Triassic boundary is overwhelming. A more difficult task is assigning the proper causal relationship between these changes and the extinctions that accompanied them. Ocean anoxia is but one among several factors that may have been partially responsible for the sharp reduction in marine taxa at the end of the Permian. The new finding that anoxia may have been more abrupt than previously hypothesized is very helpful, but does not preclude other factors from playing a part. All in all, it is fairly misleading to say that the cause(s) of the extinction has/have "eluded secular geologists".

One of the key words in the study by Brennecka et al. (2011) is 'sensitivity'—that is, sensitivity of the oceans and its life to environmental changes. The relevance of this study to our own time cannot be overstated, and I think our time would be better spent in awe of the fragility of life, and our ultimate responsibility over it. One of the best ways to appreciate our current position (or predicament) in the cosmos, I think, is to study the geologic past in light of the commission found in Genesis 1:26.

References Cited:

Brennecka, G. A., Herrmann, A.D., Algeo, T. J., Anbar, A. D., 2011, Rapid expansion of oceanic anoxia immediately before the end-Permian mass extinction: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Montoya-Pino, C., Weyer, S., Anbar, A.D., Pross, J., Oschmann, W., van de Schootbrugge, B., Arz, H.W., 2010, Global enhancement of ocean anoxia during Oceanic Anoxic Event 2: A quantitative approach using U isotopes: Geology, v. 38, p. 315–318.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On reading Genesis as literature: breaking the hermeneutical bonds of a modern controversy

On the absence of Genesis

Recently, I realized that I could not think of a single instance over the past 10 years in which Genesis was used as the primary text of the sermon. Of course, I limited my thought experiment to congregations that I had personally attended, and though I acknowledge that there are too many exceptions to make a sweeping generalization, I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences. Today, Genesis is a relatively neglected text in the arena of ecclesial exposition. Given its canonical importance in the biblical text, however, and the primacy of the Genesis narratives in biblical theology (or redemptive history), I am eager to witness—if not facilitate—a radical reversal of this trend in the church body. In short, I am of the opinion that Genesis should be read, preached, and studied at least annually within every congregation.

We need not be subtle in answering why pastors commonly consign Genesis to a reference in passing, rather than the point of departure for most sermons. A great deal of controversy in the modern church has centered around the Genesis narratives—a problem noted by the very title of this blog. Drawing from the sentiments of personal acquaintances (including some pastors), I realize that most church leaders have approached Genesis with caution, not wishing to ignite a divisive dialogue among the laity. They realize that when Genesis is read, hands go up, and not a few members ultimately wish to hear their own position fortified and certain others denounced.

Any sophisticated study of Genesis, moreover, necessarily entails some very difficult questions (regardless of one's hermeneutical inclinations). What do we say about the historicity of the patriarchs? Of the flood? The age of the earth? How does the cosmogony given in Genesis 1–2 intersect with modern science—or does it? Unfortunately, we all share an epistemic stumbling block in that we live in a society born out of the European Enlightenment and demand systematic and scientific understanding of nearly every topic we encounter. Could it be that we have inappropriately projected this mentality back onto Genesis? I hope to convince you that we have indeed.

Warrant for caution or resolution?

A common challenge to pastors thus arises out of the fact that diverse opinions are accompanied by a ubiquitous philosophical ambition for singular truth. When preaching through Genesis, one must decide 1) whether or not to take a firm stance on any one view; 2) which views to teach or critique; and 3) whether any view should be bound to the conscience of the believer. Consequently it seems that all too often, sermons on Genesis constitute more a commentary on the demographics of the church than on the biblical message.

I want to submit to you, therefore, that we can move forward by reading Genesis apart from this modern controversy. In other words, let us avoid anachronism by critiquing the reader before the text. Once we recognize the hermeneutical bonds of our own Sitz im leben, we are better prepared to approach Genesis for what it really is: a piece of ancient, divinely inspired literature and historiography that functions both theologically and polemically within its own unique time and place.

When people ask me which 'view' of Genesis I take (the day-age view, the six-day view, the analogical day view, the framework hypothesis, etc.), I typically respond with "none of the above". I do not intend to be cunning with this answer, but critical. In my experience, many of these views begin by taking a firm stance on the modern controversy over science/faith, the age of the earth, etc., and then interpret scripture accordingly (these presuppositions may or may not be vocalized). Even Ken Ham—who would snidely respond with the truistic "I take the biblical view!"—is not free from the influence of his rejection of modern geology and evolutionary theory on reading scripture. Appealing to a 'plain, common-sense reading of the text' adds absolutely nothing to the discussion, not least because no such reading exists. The ideal of 'common sense' is as fluid as society, culture, and even academic disciplines.

I am alluding here in part to the postmodernist challenge to literary criticism. [In case I have raised a flag in your mind at the mere mention of this word, please bare with me.] We need not capitulate to relativism to appreciate postmodernist theory in at least one positive light: it stands a necessary challenge to the reductionism and arrogance of modernism. Any critique of a text must simultaneously be a critique of the reader. Literalistic readings of Genesis are often simplistic and theologically unsophisticated, in part because they aspire to narrowly define meaning so as to avoid any influence from 'modern science' or liberalism. In so doing, however, they separate the text from its own Sitz im leben, treating it as an autonomous entity that functions more like a mirror than a window. Consequently, biblical literalists ultimately tell us more about themselves than the worldview of the biblical authors. In this sense, their readings are more 'postmodern' than they would freely admit, but without any critical force.

Through a glass darkly

Before one accuses me of placing Genesis beyond the reach of any non-expert in literary criticism (this includes myself, by the way), I should clarify that our 'misreadings' are not necessarily fruitless. In no way do we undermine the perspicuity of scripture by highlighting interpretive difficulties. Consider, for example, J.P. Fokkelman's (1975) metaphor of the living text:

"The birth of a text resembles that of man: the umbilical cord which connected the text with its time...is severed once its existence has become a fact; the text is going to lead a life of its own, for whenever a reader grants it an adequate reading it will come alive and become operative and it usually survives its maker. Whereas the creation of a text is finite...its re-creation is infinite. It is a task for each new age, each new generation, each new reader, never to be considered complete."

In other words, all forms of literature function artistically in that two parties are involved—the author and the reader. Both parties contribute to the significance of a text, which—as an explicative symbolism—cannot be reduced to mere words on a page or an object of scientific analysis. Readings can be effectual, therefore, without mimicking authorial intent (the most pertinent examples can be found in the New Testament usage of the Hebrew Bible), since all readings are in fact dialogues between the reader and the text, or between the reader and the author.*

Nearly all literary critics admit that we can never truly read an author's thoughts after him/her. They are divided, however, on whether the very pursuit—futile or not—constitutes a worthy goal. We gain some insight, perhaps, in the writings of E.D. Hirsch, who is best noted for distinguishing between the 'meaning' and 'significance' of a text. 'Meaning' is ultimately rooted in authorial intent, according to Hirsch, who finds himself in the academic minority (albeit, a highly valued one) for positing that authorial intent is theoretically knowable. Although Hirsch writes in response to the New Criticism, embodied to some extent by Fokkelman's metaphor, their insights need not be taken as mutually exclusive. Commenting on the previous citation by Fokkelman, for example, B.W. Anderson (1978) writes:

"Frankly, I must admit to misgivings about some exercises in rhetorical criticism which seem to be purely formal, almost mathematical, and lack a dimension of depth that adds richness to the text. Moreover, some biblical theologians wonder whether this new form of literalism, which disavows interest in historical questions, leads us to a docetic view of revelation...Despite these reservations, one is compelled to agree that the proper starting-point methodologically is with the text as given, not with the reconstruction of the prehistory of the text which, as Fokkelman observes, is usually 'an unattainable ideal.'"

Anderson's use of the term "literalism" here should not necessarily be equated with the hermeneutic of young-Earth creationism (as I've used it above). Instead, he is contrasting two broad schools of thought: those which begin with the text alone (literalism), and those which begin with the 'prehistory' of a text (i.e. compositional history, such as the documentary hypothesis surrounding the Pentateuch, and/or the cultural setting of the author). In the former, readings lack depth and preclude any meaningful historical discussion; in the latter, readings are potentially misguided by the pursuit of an impossible standard. In light of this analytical tension, Anderson exhorts us to consider the "functional unity" of the received text first; the unified message of the text's literary components are to be established at the outset. Then—and only then—are we free to explore the historical function and genesis of each component or literary source.

If we endeavor to treat the biblical text not as a mirror, which can only serve to reorient our own paradigms and experience, but rather as a window to the author's message, then we need to be acutely aware of all presuppositions we bring to the discussion. We should not pretend, moreover, that the spotted window can be polished to perfection with the 'Windex' of modern literary analysis. As in real life, cleaning the 'windows of biblical narrative' may only enhance their reflective quality. The influence of the reader on a text is ultimately inescapable, but a perceptive mind can at least distinguish in general between the reflection and what filters through the glass—given that it knows what to look for. Lastly, we should be conscious that even biblical narrative recounts history 'as through a glass darkly' because it is selective of the facts, and through stained glass because it explains those facts poetically in terms of God's eschatological providence.**

The need for a new (hermeneutical) exodus of Genesis

What I have proposed here is neither novel nor exhaustive (despite my optimistic subheading). At best, I have provided an outline and a point of departure for the discussion to follow. I won't pretend to have all the right answers, but I hope that I have at least asked the right questions. Can we read Genesis apart from modern controversies regarding science and faith? If so, how? Lastly, does this 'fresh perspective' offer any unique value to the church? Does it mitigate or only deepen the outstanding conflict among congregations today? Perhaps, the proof is (or will be) in the pudding.

Inasmuch as literary analysis tends to atomize textual elements, our reading of Genesis should remain conscious of an organic unity in the biblical text. In other words, however we tackle the elusive meaning of Genesis 1, our reading should simultaneously explain how Genesis 1–2:4 functions in the literary unit of Genesis 1–3. To be consistent, and to test the predictive power of our reading, we can apply this principle to the greater literary units of Genesis 1–11, Genesis 1–50, the Pentateuch as a whole, and the Hebrew bible as a whole. In each case, we can ask whether our reading elucidates these later texts—i.e. whether it functions canonically—or causes hermeneutical conflicts. For the Christian, our reading of Genesis 1–2:4 should also elucidate the gospel narratives to be effective or acceptable, I think.

Take the example of Genesis 1:2, which tells us that "the spirit of God was moving over the waters" (NASB). This chaotic prelude to creation is recounted intertextually in a number of subsequent narratives—most notably following the climax of the Flood narrative, where "God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided" (Gen. 8:1; consider that the same word is used for 'wind' and 'spirit'). If we are inclined to remain focused on the meteorological characteristics of the wind, then we will inevitably miss how the author has set the stage for a new creation of heaven and earth around Noah, God's new Adam. Genesis 8 effectively retells the creation narrative of Genesis 1, which begs the question: are the six days of creation merely a past reality? Is God still resting?

In Exodus 14:21, the Lord "swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided," thus retelling the exodus story as a new creation of heaven and earth centered around Israel, God's new Adam. What does this tell us about the vocation of Israel? About the mechanism and significance of God's role as creator? Matthew's gospel (especially the genealogy) is perhaps the most explicit in presenting the incarnation and gospel ministry as a new creation centered around Jesus, God's new Adam. In Matthew 3:16, we are even told that "After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove...". How does Genesis 1:2 function canonically in these texts? Do our previous interpretations of Genesis 1–2:4 deprive it of such a function?

This literary-canonical approach presupposes organic unity to the text (i.e. divine inspiration) without dismissing the literary contributions of individual authors and their cultural (sociological) settings. If done well, we can further proceed to ask historical (and scientific) questions surrounding the text without drawing the false dichotomy between 'story' and 'meaning'. In other words, we need not take upon us the imprudent and impossible task of separating reality from metaphor, myth from history, and modern science from ancient phenomenology. Finally, we can even delve into questions regarding the compositional history of the Bible (including the Pentateuch) without deconstructing the meaning and significance of the biblical message.

When we read Genesis, we enter into dialogue with a very distant conversational partner. Will we let him speak, or simply listen for the echo of our own monologue?


* To offer a more practical example of this concept, consider the love sonnets of Shakespeare. The same sonnet can be read differently by two parties without betraying the message of the author: the first is a 65-year-old widower who was married for 30 years; the second is a 16-year-old girl who is jealous of her older sibling's recent engagement. For the widower, the text serves as nostalgic realism, appealing to his own romantic experience, which now stands distant. For the young girl, the same text serves as fantasy, appealing to an experience hoped for, but not yet realized. We need not conclude, however, that Shakespeare's message is entirely lost to the difficulties of interpretive relativism.

** I cannot take credit for this metaphor, but I found it too insightful not to share. I hope that it serves its purpose.

References Cited:

Anderson, B.W., 1978, From Analysis to Synthesis: the interpretation of Genesis 1–11: Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 97, p. 23–39.

Fokkelman, J.P., 1975, Narrative Art in Genesis: Specimens of Stylistic and Structural Analysis: Amsterdam, 260 p.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A practical appendix to the 'appearance of age' question

Following up on my last post, I wanted to share a link to another article—entitled Apparent Age: Craters on Mars—that appeared last month on the Natural Historian blog. The author eloquently demonstrates how an appeal to 'appearance of age' self-destructs in practice. He does so by addressing the origin of craters on Mars and the moon (as well as a handful of geological features here on earth). He states:

"Today, modern creationists would have us believe that these features really do have real histories and some have even gone as far as trying to make the craters on the moon and Mars the result of real events in time and space after the creation week.  If this is the case and God created something in the space of 6 days, where then is the dividing line between apparent age and real age?  This is a critical part of the creation debate that is rarely acknowledged or talked about but is very important in understanding the differences between some of the views even among modern creationists."

If you have time, take a look. The article is worth reading and is bound to constructively criticize your own thinking, wherever you may stand with respect to 'appearance of age' in the cosmos.


Several days ago, Dr. Peter Enns posted an article on the same topic. He specifically identified two problems with the 'apparent age' perspective offered by Al Mohler (which I linked in the last post). First, he says (emphasis original):

"Mohler needs to account not only for why the cosmos looks old, but why the cosmos–including the earth and life on it–looks like it evolved."

This goes back to my analogy with the portrait and the brush strokes. To the natural scientist, the cosmos appear as more than a beautiful picture to be adored. It is rich with brush strokes that explain how all the pieces formed and came together so as to function as a meaningful whole.

Dr. Enns further addresses whether Dr. Mohler has arbitrarily chosen which "portions of Scripture he reads 'plainly'". To be fair, hermeneutical consistency is a rare find. But Dr. Enns' criticism is concise and straightforward, and he raises questions that need to be answered by any person involved with the origins debate.