Following on the heels of my recent appraisal of Dick Fischer’s “The Days of Creation”, and to stimulate further the sort of dialogue begun by Alex in my previous Genesis post‘s comments section, I would like to present another article on the subject. This one is by Rikk E. Watts, a professor of New Testament at Canada’s Regent College. Dr. Watts argues for an interpretation of Genesis based around the convention of genre, which he claims leads away from a strictly literal understanding of the text. And yes, it is again linked from the American Scientific Affiliation. I haven’t got too many resources, so feel free to share any you think I’d benefit from. Discussion after the jump:
“Making Sense of Genesis 1”
This article is interesting in that it doesn’t not appeal to or even mention science or evolution at all, with the brief exception of discussing some of the more appalling consequences of modern Darwinism (It is unclear to me whether Watts is referring to Darwinism as a theory or Darwinism as a philosophical belief but both could be implied). Thus I am not sure how Watts would come down on the subject of OE / YE. However, it seems to me that his article more readily lends itself to an old-earth view, due to his assertion that Genesis 1 is not meant to be taken uncompromisingly literally.
The idea of genre as a tool by which one can ascertain the intended communicative style of truth in a work is interesting to me, and I hadn’t really considered it for Genesis until I read this article a few weeks ago. Watts ultimately comes to the conclusion that ‘Given its genre—a highly stylized form and unrealistic content—I would suggest that it is not to be taken “literally” in the popular modern Western sense as a blow-by-blow, chronologically accurate, account of creation.’ Some of the points he cites as evidence for this are Genesis 1’s departure from typical biblical narrative style, the stylized “couplets” of days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6 of creation, and some of the questions brought up in analyzing Genesis 1’s content. If Watts’s assessment of the genre in Genesis 1 is correct, the YE view of literal seven-day creation as a history account might be in trouble.
Most fascinating to me in this article is Watts’s discussion of other Near-Eastern cultures and their respective creation stories. Watts points out the similarities between Egypt’s creation stories and that of Israel, noting that Egypt’s myths predate the arrival of the Israelites in that country. He claims that Genesis 1’s creation story could be seen as a response of sorts to Egypt’s stories, setting the record straight and affirming that the God of the Israelites, not Re or Atum or Ptah, is in ultimate control of creation.
This brought to mind a study done by the church I attend a few years ago on Genesis. It also prompted discussion as to the type of truth imparted by Genesis 1, and while it also didn’t comment on YE / OE, it did affirm that Genesis 1 was intended to provide a different sort of creation story than was common in ancient Near-Eastern cultures. Instead of a pantheon of cruel and arbitrary gods, battling with each other for dominion over an earth full of terrified and subservient mortals, Genesis 1 depicts a single loving God interesting not only in subjugating humanity, but in establishing a relationship with it and blessing it.
Watts’s cultural reading of Genesis 1 also brings to my mind Paul’s writing in Ephesians and Galatians and a discussion during a New Testament class one day a few years ago. The topic was Paul’s assertion that all are equal in the body of Christ (cf. Gal 3:26-29), and whether it reconciled with Paul’s decrees in Ephesians for wives to submit to husbands (Eph 5:22-24) and slaves to obey their masters (Eph 6:5-8). The discussion went something like: Is Paul really advocating unity and equality under Christ here? Surely he can’t endorse continued slavery, submission of women, and equality under Christ simultaneously. It seems odd that Paul would stay somewhat mute on this topic in Ephesians – until you stop looking at it through a modern lens and start taking the verses in the cultural context of the era. The verses immediately following these admonitions (Eph 5:25-28, 6:9) advocate a reciprocity of Christ’s caring and love that was radical for the time period in which they were written. I imagine the same sort of cultural lense could be applied to Genesis, as Watts suggests. (Incidentally, if I am way off in my memory of that NT discussion / application of Paul’s writings, would somebody please alert me? I constantly fear that I will accidentally misrepresent some crucial doctrinal thing and mark myself as a heretic for eternity.)
To conclude the analysis, Watts’s argument against a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 does not seem to undermine his theology of the Bible, but instead provides a more holistic approach to understanding God’s plan in creation. Interesting is that he comes to the opposite conclusion as Dick Fischer, in that he decides that the “days” of creation in this case most likely mean 24-hour days, but that the text is not strictly literal overall anyway; this is of course contrary to Mr. Fischer’s literal reading of Genesis 1 as describing vast stretches of time. I suspect that though they apparently disagree on this point, that both Mr. Fischer and Dr. Watts would point to Genesis 1 as not expressly evidencing Young-Earth Creationism.
It’s hard for me to weigh in on these two essays at once, with regards to literalism. Watts’s article appeals more to my sense of how investigations should be completed (gather as much data as possible, analyze evidence and contexts, arrive at conclusions, lather rinse repeat) – which doesn’t necessarily mean anything – and seems a more thorough argument against literalism in Genesis 1 than Mr. Fischer’s article seems for it. Of course, there is always the “slippery slope”, saying that if you can’t take Genesis 1 literally, what’s to stop you from not taking Genesis 2 literally, and so on until the gospel becomes largely mythical or some such eventuality. However, I have a feeling that Dr. Watts’s filter of genre would be helpful here. Although there is something inside me instrinsically suspicious of taking Scripture less than literally, maybe there is a place for both of these – a cultural, non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1 doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, and doesn’t mean that the process described by scientific observation (and by Genesis in Mr. Fischer’s view) didn’t happen.
As always, please feel free to weigh in yourself on the subject, or on any subject, or on how preposterous my analysis is, etc.