Genesis 1 – Creating a biblical context

Daniel McClellan has been following and contributing to our discussion of Genesis 1 on his own blog and today posted some thoughts on where he places Genesis 1.

In my mind, contextualization is one of the best interpretive keys in questions like this. The more we know about the context into which the author presents this text the better we should be able to evaluate their intentions, assumptions, and dogmas. I see Gen 1:1–2:3 as a later recasting of Gen 2:4–25. Gen 2 is also included in the final redaction so as not to entirely supplant what was most likely an established and canonical (so to speak) version of creation. Gen 2 is more compact and makes no mention of the creation of the earth, just the development of life from the dust of the earth. The prioritization of water alludes to storm god imagery, which probably ties it firmly to a Syro-Palestinian provenance, where an explicit cosmogony is also lacking. Gen 1 includes a cosmogony based on separation that plays off of Assyro-Babylonian literary devices.

Daniel goes on to elaborate in a similar vein. I will not engage with his thoughts too much at this time, it does take us in a direction that is quite different from where I hoped to go at the moment. I certainly agree that we need to try and understand original contexts and intended audiences of an audience, in so far as we are able. I do not, however, have anything like Daniel’s confidence that we can say with any degree of certainty what was the author’s context.

In this first paragraph alone, for example, Daniel makes a number of assumptions and deftly leaps from one to the other. We have both a Syro-Palestinian provenance with Assyro-Babylonian influence. Later he tells us that the more transcendent image of God found in Genesis 1 “squares with the universalization of God following the collapse of Jerusalem and foreign rule.” And so on in a similar pattern. This leads Daniel to make certain observations about Genesis 1 as a post-exilic text responding to the destruction of the Temple and an assertion that God is good.

While all of these suppositions may be true, none can be proven on the available evidence. Furthermore, to base our interpretations upon hypothetical reconstructions (well, they are real reconstructions, but they are hypothetical) provides us with no certainty of getting closer to understanding the text. Rather we have an understanding of the text as read through the reconstructed context.


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