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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.