Review by David Cook, contributor to Historical Jesus Studies. Content herein is not necessarily the view of the blog founder, James Bishop.
The debate over how to understand and interpret the creation account in Genesis is one of the most polarizing subjects in the entire Bible. Very few subjects spark as much passion and emotion in the hearts of Christians as the issue of whether or not Genesis must be read as six chronological 24-hour days, or if there is room for other interpretations. The issue boils down to this: The findings and observations of science seem to suggest that the earth and universe are both billions of years old, whereas in Genesis, the passage seems to indicate a rather recent creation (6,000 to 10,000 years ago). As the first sentence on the back cover of the book reads: are science and scripture innately incompatible…or have we simply misunderstood?
Dr. Miller (ThM, ThD, Dallas Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Columbia International University) and Dr. Soden (ThM, PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary and professor at Lancaster Bible College & graduate school) are two of the many individuals who have experienced this tension. They’ve seen arguments from both sides; those that believe earth is young (young earth creationists, which will from here on out be referred to as YEC) and those who believe the earth is very old (old earth creationists, which will from here on out be referred to as OEC). However, they realized that both camps were sort of “missing the point”, if you will. The most important question that people rarely ask, much less start with, is what did Genesis mean to the original author and original reader?
The question of how the ancient Israelites would have understood the text was what drew me to this book in the first place. I’m an OEC for many, various reasons but this was one perspective that I really hadn’t considered before. I believe Miller and Soden hit the nail on the head when they say “Both (YEC and OEC), however, read the biblical text through the worldview of a modern person, not through the worldview of an ancient Israelite. In the end, one or the other may end up being correct, but that is not the point. To understand the original intent and meaning of a biblical passage, we need to place ourselves in the position of the original readers as much as possible.” (p. 37, parenthesis added). We read the passage through the lens of OUR worldview which is tainted (for good or bad) by our culture, beliefs, values, scientific understanding, etc. The important thing is that we understand it as the ancient Israelites would have understood it, through THEIR worldview.
The authors also take time to remind us of another time the church was seemingly at odds with the discoveries of science (chapter 2). “But history has proven that unless we are open to having our interpretations challenged, we will likely be captive to our own assumptions, bound by our culture. Unless we allow outside data and other interpretations to challenge us and cause us to reevaluate our interpretation, we will be locked into our own world and possibly miss God’s meaning and intent for the original audience.” (p. 26). They tell the story of Galileo (1564-1642) and his conflict with the church. To summarize, the church during Galileo’s life believed that the earth was the center of the universe and did not move. Galileo, through his observations of the heavens with his telescope, confirmed the teachings of Copernicus and Kepler, who said that the earth actually revolved around the sun. After publishing his findings in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632, the church summoned him to stand trial for teaching heresy. He was threatened with excommunication and imprisonment unless he recanted. Because the church and his spirituality were so important to him, Galileo recanted under the pressure. So what can we learn from this bit of history? The church, obviously, has since abandoned the view of the earth being the center of the universe, but was it because they chose science over God? Not at all; the scientific discoveries confirmed by Galileo eventually caused them to re-interpret the biblical passages that seemed to indicate a fixed earth. Upon this reexamination, they discovered that there could be more than one meaning to the text. Thus, biblical inerrancy was not altered.
What about the text itself? This is the subject of chapter 4: “Finding Meaning in Genesis 1 (part 2); should Genesis be read literally?” In this chapter, the authors give several examples that seem to indicate the text is not meant to be taken literally and leads to a more figurative approach. I will not delve into each of them here, but for me the most fascinating example is that in the Hebrew text, there is no definite article attached to days 1-5. The text in its original state would have more closely said “One day, A second day, A third day…” instead of “THE first day, THE second day…”. It is only on days 6 and 7 that you see “the” attached to the word day. The point is that it negates the necessity for chronology in the first 5 days, and that the climax of creation is God’s creating man in His image (The sixth day) and then resting from his acts of creation (The seventh day). Based on this finding, along with the other clues in the text, we find that the Israelites may not have understood as plainly, or as straightforward as we may think. As the authors say, “When we come to recognize some of these clues that the original audience would have intuitively noticed, we realize that our naively “plain” meaning was not plain in the same way to the original audience.” (p. 57)
The next couple of chapters introduce us to the history of the Israelites, culminating with their exodus out of Egypt after a 400 year stay in Egypt, with much of that time spent in captivity. I feel that this is one of the most important pieces of information for the reader to grasp. Just imagine; 400 years spent immersed with a foreign culture! To put that into perspective, 400 years ago from today was 1615. The U.S. did not even exist! Think of how much has changed since then, it’s quite mind-boggling. This helps set the stage for the next several chapters.
Moving forward, the authors get to the main purpose of their book, which is that they believe the Genesis account is largely a polemic against the Egyptian and Canaanite pagan religions of that day. This is where, understanding the context of the Israelite history becomes so important. Do you think that maybe after 400 years of being immersed in the Egyptian culture and religion that perhaps Israel was starting to lose its identity? Perhaps they were forgetting who God really was? Think for a moment about the Native Americans today. Most of them are very immersed in our modern worldview and culture. Most dress, eat, and act like any other non-Native American. Many of them probably have traditions and stories about their ancestors and religious beliefs from centuries ago, but do they actively engage in those practices anymore? Probably not. Remember, 400 years ago from today would be 1615. I believe this is very like what happened to the Israelites. Yes, they may remember stories about their God, but It isn’t really practical in their lives anymore. Isn’t it reasonable that after God brought them out of captivity and back to their promised land, that he would want to correct their theology? I think so.
The authors spend the bulk of these chapters examining the similarities and dissimilarities between the Canaanite and Egyptian accounts in relation to the Genesis account. It is very interesting that while very similar in structure, the overall tone is very different. In the Genesis account, it is God and God alone who brings things into being. This is the main difference; in Genesis the emphasis seems to be that God is sovereign and God is ruler over everything. Everything that exists exists because of Him. Also, Man is revealed in Genesis to be a special creation of God, the climax of creation. Man is not an afterthought, or someone created to be a servant to God. As regards to why our scientific observation doesn’t always seem to match up with what is said in Genesis, the point is that it doesn’t matter at all. That question completely misses the point. God wasn’t concerned with writing a scientific account of creation. The point of Genesis is that God alone is behind creation; the how and when aren’t important. He wanted his people to understand the proper theology which is why God wasn’t concerned with correcting scientifically ambiguous statements in the account.
Really, the only main issue I have with this book is the vagueness surrounding the pagan creation accounts of Egypt and Canaan. To be fair, the authors readily admit this. “There is no single Egyptian account known to date that describes the complete Egyptian perspective on creation. Instead, we have to put together a mosaic of bits and pieces recorded in various documents. These documents represent a mixture of times and theologies (covering more than two millennia), many of them in tension with one another…” (p.77-78). So we do not have one clear account, or even one clear theology, but rather we need to try to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Thus, it does lead one to consider the possibility that maybe the similarities between the accounts were simply cherry-picked to make a point. Not to mention, since the creation documents were from a period of time covering more than two millennia, are we certain that these accounts were not in fact borrowed from the Genesis account, instead of the other way around? The book does not say.
Despite the two misgivings I mentioned above, I believe Dr. Miller and Dr. Soden present a convincing case that allows for a seamless harmony between what we observe in science, and what we read in Genesis. I really respect these two authors for being fair and balanced when discussing the YEC position and OEC position. There is no note of animosity anywhere. If you are a YEC, trust me, this isn’t your typical book which argues against the YEC position and then goes on to quote the works of Hugh Ross, or the work of the Biologos organization. No, this book was also fair in admitting that even People like Ross do not start with the proper context. I loved the fact that they included the story of Galileo and how scientific discoveries forced the church to reexamine passages that were once thought to have only one clear meaning. This book makes sense to me most of all based on the history of the ancient Israelites. It’s hard for us to comprehend how long 400 years is. Once we start to understand that part of the story and we consider how flawed and sloppy Israel’s theology must have gotten after all that time, the proposal that perhaps Genesis isn’t even concerned with explaining the material origins of the earth in a scientific way makes all the more sense. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to be challenged in their beliefs regarding Genesis. It will give you plenty to think about!