Genesis 1 – Reading in/deductively

Introductory comment to an introductory comment: I am attempting to return to our discussion of the creation narratives of Genesis… (And be sure to follow John Hobbins’ riffs off of my comments. I feel like I am in a jazz duo, it is really very invigorating!) But along the way I have gotten bogged down in more thoughts about how we read the Bible. In this case, how can we read Genesis 1 to learn something about the nature and character of God.

Questions not answered

I have already discussed reading the Bible “literarily” and stated what I think Genesis 1 is not saying. I should also say a few words about what the Bible doesnt tell us. (This, perhaps, plays into the earlier discussion of omniscient narrator. As the comments from Brooke and John indicate, I clearly have more reading to do in that area. Someday.) There are many things that the author(s) of Genesis does not tell us that we would really like to know. The most obvious is perhaps who did Cain marry (followed closely by, “Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?”), but there are many, many more. Perhaps I have more questions about the history of pre-history but I always feel that the first 11 chapters of Genesis leave more questions unanswered than any other section of the Bible. In many instances it may well be that the author simply didn’t know these details, but I think an argument can be made that often we are not told a detail precisely because the author wants the reader to focus their attention elsewhere.

Bloom County
Bloom County by Berkeley Breathed

What this means for our practice of reading the Bible is that we must maintain a careful tension between reading the text carefully to find the subtle messages that the author is revealing to us and not reading too much into the text, particularly where it is silent on a subject. Thus the reference to the sun and the moon as the “greater” and “lesser” lights is both a powerful theological statement about the nature of these objects (they are mere creations, made by God) and a rejection of contemporary belief that shemesh and yareach were deities. But it does not tell us about any sort of divine battle or … I don’t know what it might be. We can only work with what we have in the text and while we can (and must) make certain conjectures it is imperative that the interpreter be honest about their limitations.

Reading between the lines

All of this was intended by way of introduction to discussing what Genesis 1 tells us about the figure and character of God. I felt this preamble was necessary since such an inquiry requires us to the read this particular text inductively, if you will. (And, to a certain extent, deductively as well.) By that I meant that our text never explicitly tells us anything about our central figure, God. We must deduce from other evidence whatever we might want to know about this figure. This is limiting to be sure but can be fruitful nonetheless. Again, John Hobbins provides a very example of this with his recent discussion of creatio ex nihilo. There are certain logical steps that he takes about which I would be more tentative but it is a fine example of how we may work with the limits of our sources.

My next post will examine in earnest the nature and character of God as represented in Genesis 1 but I will conclude this post with a brief foray. It is important to notice that God is never introduced in any way. God is simply there, his existence is assumed and essential. This absence of any sort of theogony is often noticed (and most recently pointed out in the biblioblogosphere by James McGrath, I have not yet gotten round to his review of Walton’s book, given my current topic that is quite an omission, I know) and this silence is itself quite profound. Whether this is an omission, that the authors knew stories of YHWH’s origins an intentionally omitted them, suppressed them as one student argued last week, or that such stories simply were unknown the narrative decision to offer no introductory description whatsoever leaves the audience in the role of detective. What can we determine about God from the fingerprints left behind in creation?

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