A Pickle for the Literalists

The bulk of this post is an discussion of a chronological disagreement in Genesis, which may or may not interest you. You're welcome to go directly to the last paragraph if you wish - it's the part I really care about.

An interesting point was raised today in my Intro to World Religions class. We were looking at the two Creation accounts in Genesis (1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25) and my prof mentioned that the there are chronological differences between them. In the first version, animals are created after plants, then humans (male and female together) after animals. In the second version Adam seems to be created before at least some plants, then animals are created, then Eve. The disagreement seems most clear on the matter of whether the animals were created before or after Adam. The NIV tries to reconcile the two accounts by inserting a "had" into Gen 2:19 ("Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air") whereas most translations simply say "formed". The NIV's interpretation is not impossible - the original Hebrew verbs apparently didn't have tense - but consider the context:

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."

Now [or "so", "then", "and"] the LORD God [had?] formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
- Gen 2:18-22

To paraphrase, God notes that it isn't good for the man to be alone. The solution is to make for him a suitable partner. So either God now creates a variety of potential helpers for man and brings them before him, or God decides that before he creates Adam's helper, He'll task him with naming the thousands of birds and animals he's created so far. Which makes more sense to you?

Similarly, it is possible to understand Gen 2:5 to say that only those plants that require rain or human cultivation had not yet been created, or that they had been created as seeds but had not yet sprouted. But then it would seem that either Adam, who was in a garden full of fruit trees, spent a fair amount of time cultivating and watering crops, or after the fall, undaunted by thorns and toil, he decided to grow every kind of crop he could. Neither seems likely to me. Nor does it seem likely that God, after creating Adam, decided that he wanted him to live in a garden, and that the garden should be in a very specific location where no trees had been created, and accordingly hastened to make there a variety of trees that already existed in other areas. (The creation of a new garden at this point when the constituent trees existed elsewhere seems particularly unlikely if God is on a tight schedule, as I'll discuss in a moment.) More likely God created a garden out of new sorts of fruitful trees and crops now that man (and later animals) existed to nurture and consume them. Or more likely still, Gen 2:5-9 refers to the creation of all plants, which the other creation account places before the creation of man.

One further difficulty in harmonizing the two accounts occurs to me. Assuming that most who wish to do so will also affirm a literal 6 days of creation (which I find problematic for more reasons than I'll list here) it seems that the sixth day of creation in particular was a whirlwind of activity. God creates all land animals (1:24-25), forms Adam from dust (2:7), plants a garden and puts Adam in it (2:8-9), gives him instructions (2:15-17), notes that Adam is alone and needs a helper (2:18), and parades every living bird and beast before Adam to be named (2:19-20. A biologist might be able to guess at how many animals were named and how long it might take, but I can't see even a rush job - quite unlikely for an awestruck man seeing each creature for the first time and assessing it as a companion - taking less than a few hours). Then God puts Adam to sleep, removes a rib, forms a woman out of it, and presents her to Adam (Do you think Adam slept for only a few minutes?) who expresses his approval (2:21-23). Finally, God gives blessings and instructions to the pair (1:28-30). I don't know if it would be possible to do all of this in one day, but supposing it is, why would God be in such a hurry? Apparently because the whole of creation absolutely must be wrapped up before the seventh day in order to set an example for the Hebrews, and everything that wasn't done by the fifth must be crammed into the sixth. It seems to me that God would have planned that better.

My point in all of this is that we ought to recognize that the Bible is a very, very old document from a radically different culture. This is not to say that either or both of the creation accounts - or anything else in the Bible - is untrue (at least in the ways it was intended to be true) but such stories can hardly be expected to conform to our modern cultural and literary conventions. This means that things that might seem like distortions or tall tales to us likely didn't seem that way to the original readers. How else can you explain their acceptance of chronological disagreements both here and in the Gospels, Jude's allusions to myths, or sketchy fulfillments of prophecies in the Gospels, among other issues? Many Christians deal with all such "problem passages" by denying that they are out of tune with our modern expectations - a position which I believe to be not only indefensible but implausible and unnecessary. It seems clear to me that we should seek not to make the Bible conform to our modern expectations, but to understand it as it was meant to be understood. It is critical that we ask the question "how would the original readers have understood this text?" before we claim to understand it ourselves. And if we cannot say with certainty how the ancient Hebrew authors meant it to be understood (which happens far more often than we want it to), it is, frankly, foolish and dangerous to be dogmatic about our own understandings.


Michigan little said...

interesting stuff there Jacob.

Personally, I don't care if the 7 days were literal or not. I don't think it holds much importance for my life or faith really. I mean, it's important to me that I believe that God created it all. But I comprehend that the technicalities are beyond my reach and my mortal mind.

I agree with you though... (or with what I understand you to be saying)... that it's unwise and maybe even prideful of someone to take the bible and assume that it must be literal or that it must be exactly as they see it or wish it to be. It is foolish to believe that it is straight-forward or easily understandable.

Here's a question. Do you think that the Christian faith could/can exist without the presence of the Bible? Like, say, not that the Bible is not held to be valid, simply that it did not exist.

Hmm, maybe that's just a random irrelevant question... it just came out of the blue... it'd be interesting to imagine Christian faith without the Bible...

Jacob said...

An interesting question. I suppose you could look at the medieval church as an example of the Christianity without the Bible. (Not that there were no Bibles at all then, but I don't think they were widely used. ) Since the Bible is generally regarded as the authority, or at least the primary guide by all Christians, if you removed it altogether, we'd either have to establish some other authority (like a Pope) or each go our own way.

I think conservatives recognize this - that our choices basically boil down to trusting the Bible, trusting some person, or trusting ourselves. While I agree that the Bible is a better guide than a Pope or personal feelings, I don't believe that it is necessary for our guide to be trusted unquestioningly or crowned with infallibility. And I certainly don't believe (and this is my main point) that the Bible is infallible and unquestionable as understood through a cursory and unscholarly reading by a 21st century Canadian. Too often such a reading will merely reinforce our preconceptions and prejudices.

I believe there has to be a tension between trusting the Bible (as we understand it), trusting scholars and spiritual authorities, and trusting our own intuitions and reason. To throw all our trust on any one of the three certainly makes things easier, but it’s dangerous. Sorry, I’m rambling.

You ask whether the Christian faith could survive without the Bible. If by Christian faith you mean a collection of doctrines, then I doubt it. But if “Christian faith” means faithfulness to the teachings and example of Jesus (which I’m told is a far more Biblical understanding of the word faith) then I think it might. Something would probably have to be written down at some point for the sake of future generations, but it would be something - or more likely somethings - written by mere mortals and hopefully recognized as fallible. Something that bore little resemblance to a creed, but was more like a collection of stories - something (I realized as I wrote this) very much like the Gospels and Acts. So maybe something like the Bible is necessary. But an infallible, God-penned list of dogmas? No.

Jens said...

Can't say I read the whole genesis thing, but...

I wonder how much doctrinal accuracy matters to God, how much he cares how our beliefs align with the true truth. There are certainly Biblical passages that seem to suggest this is important (not the least of which the suggestion that the "name of Jesus" is the only way we can be saved)... but since even Christians disagree, a lot, and God doesn't seem to step in and sort out all this presumably incorrect dogma...

I dunno, just found it an interesting thought.

Jacob said...

Personally, I believe God cares very little for doctrinal accuracy. I think it's very telling that neither Jesus nor any of the New Testament writers bothered to create any sort of detailed creed (something that every modern church or ministry apparently feels obligated to do). These came centuries later. Certainly the Bible contains doctrine, in fact many of the epistles were written primarily to refute one or more heresies, but it seems that heresies are condemned not for being unorthodox or wrong, but for their detrimental effects on those who believe them. Biblically, it seems right belief is valuable only to the extent that it genuinely, positively effects our lives (James 2:14-25).

Many believe that any deviation from their long and detailed list of correct doctrine - including the trinity, six day creation, and women keeping silent in church - will be damaging to one's faith and Christian life, but I see little support for this view scripturally or experientially.

Michigan little said...

hmm... interesting thoughts Jake... I'm thinking..