Over the next three months, People of the Book (the River Road Presbyterian Church Bible reading group) will be reading Genesis. I imagine that some stories, like the story of creation and Noah’s ark, will be familiar. Other stories, like the story of Tamar, may be unfamiliar. But a lot of Genesis, even the familiar stories we think we know, when read without the filter of well-meaning Children’s editors, will be startling!

I am hearing that groups of people around the country are reading the Bible with us. With this in mind, I invite you to share this series on your Facebook page and through Social Media. As we progress, we hope to include live video interaction and other ways for us to explore the Bible together. Please feel free to ask questions and share insights in the comments section.

Introduction to Genesis

In Hebrew the title for this book is, bereshith. It is taken from the first word of the text and means, literally, “in the beginning.” (There are other ways to translate this passage and the Hebrew does not have a definite article, “the.”) 3 Centuries before Christ, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. This translation was called the “Septuagint.” At that time the first book of the Hebrew Bible was given the Greek title, “Genesis,” which comes from the root gene and means “to beget,” “origin,” or “creation.” The title (and the word itself) has come through Latin into English.

Genesis is really, really old. We don’t know a lot about the prehistory of Genesis, that is, how it came it be. There are a couple of things worth noting. First, most scholars believe that before Genesis was put to text, significant parts of it were transmitted orally as part of tribal lore.

Also, parts of Genesis are similar to other ancient Near Eastern texts. Important and suggestive as the similarities are, the differences are more illuminating because they give us insight into the author(s?) purpose for telling the story.

It is also important to note that Genesis is part of the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible. Famous Old Testament Theologian (my Old Testament professor), Walter Bruggemann, says that the Pentateuch served as “the disclosure of binding.”  This part of the Bible codified the community’s faith. Other parts of the Bible served other purposes. For example: Wisdom literature explored creation’s order in light of experience. The Prophets criticize consensus interpretations that subverted justice. The Psalms tuned the heart for obedience.  (See Walter Bruggemann, The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education.)

Genesis and Science

Genesis is a book about the origins. Because of this, some believers – particularly since the publication of Darwin’s, Origin of the Species – have seen conflicts between science and religion. Given how much attention this debate received, we should make a couple of observations. First, theologians have long thought that God used secondary causes (God working through one thing to do another) without thinking God’s agency was put in doubt. For example, Augustine (4th Century) talked about how God endowed creation with “seed-principles” for further development.  The idea that God could use evolution to create fits this thought.

Second, when Darwin’s Origin of the Species was first published, some of Darwin’s earliest defenders were churchmen who were on the forefront of scientific investigation (I’ll return to this later.) Believers, such as Asa Gray at Harvard, promoted old earth theories well before Darwin. Some leading theologians and heroes of “conservative Protestantism” (I use quotes because the binary “conservative” and “liberal” is slippery and often misleading.). Some years ago I visited Westminster Seminary and saw posters for a debate on whether J. Gresham Machen, the founder of the Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, could be ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church today (which has become creationist). Dogmatic young earth creationism is a recent development driven by a number of factors that are beyond the scope of this essay.

Third, John Calvin, articulated a very important principle for interpretation when it comes to science.

“…in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.  (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.ii.15)

Fourth, while it is tempting for enlightened Christians to scorn folks who have resisted evolution, we should acknowledge that some did so out of fear that Darwinism (which expands evolution beyond the study of the development of life to making it a metaphysical principle) poses challenges to Christian morality. William Jennings Bryan, the Presbyterian who unsuccessfully argued the Scopes Monkey Trial, was afraid that “the survival of the fittest” would foster racism, eugenics, and an elitist ethic that would undermine a central pillar of democracy – “that all people are created equal.” To understand Bryan’s concern one can read his chief critic H. L. Mencken. Mencken’s distain for the blacks, Jews, and other stupid people he deemed beneath him is rooted in a sense of his own superiority and a Nietzschean distain for Christian love ethic, which he dismissed as a “herd instinct” that subverted natural competition and holds great people back. One does not have to agree with Bryan’s science to find Mencken repulsive. (Mencken is entertaining for readers who fancy themselves equally superior to the hoi polloi.) We see similar self-satisfied knowingness among some of the so-called “Neo-Darwinists” who take evolution is a religious myth and flatter their followers as “the Brights.”

I am leading to two points. The first is that, with Calvin, we ought to view faith and science as compatible. That some don’t is ironic. Particularly since students of the history of ideas believe science arose in the Christian West due to a number of factors, including beliefs about the nature of reality: creation is ordered, creation is not God (so experiments and dissection are okay), the human capacity to reason about the moral law outlined in Romans 2:14 extends to reasoning about the laws of nature. The Puritans spurred on the rise of science, believing that studying the Book of Nature glorified the Creator and the findings could serve others. This is why so many clergy were the first to read Darwin. (See Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science, and Robert Merton, The Puritan Spur to Science.)

Second, we ought to read Genesis in a certain way. Leon Kass helpfully sums it up: “Adam and Eve are not just the first, but the paradigmatic man and woman, Cain and Abel are paradigmatic brothers. Babel is the quintessential city. By means of such paradigmatic stores, the beginning of Genesis shows us not so much what happened as what always happens.” (Emphasis mine.) Genesis contains stories that invite us to consider God’s relationship with world, human nature, and its predicament. Thoughtful reflection on the Bible provides a type of practical wisdom. (See Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis.)

Plan for Reading:

February: Genesis 1-11

March: Genesis 12-36

April: Genesis 36-50