If you are even remotely familiar with the debate over Genesis, creation, evolution, and history, you are probably familiar with the various ways and people interpret Genesis as to how it does or does not fit within the prevailing Neo-Darwinism’s theory of evolution. While I hope to give more food for thought on the topic as it pertains the purpose of Genesis 2,1 my hope here is not the recapitulate all the different interpretive theories and options from the past. Firstly, it would make this blog post too long. Secondly, it has been a while since I have read on the topic, so it would take too long to research this for what is simply a blog post. But, my hope instead is to shed light on a specific exploration I have regarding the intersection of hermeneutics, literature, theology, epistemology, and Biblical studies. For those who are strongly committed to certain interpretations, especially Genesis is literal history, or Genesis is a spiritual
So, should we understand Genesis 2 as historical?
In exploring the question, I would like to point out to a very common observation and explore its
While certainly, narratives need to have some degree of consistency to even be coherent to others, there is
[A]n essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology… Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision—both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing-again—continual suspension of judgment, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided.2
While I would not draw all the conclusions that Alter may about Biblical narratives, I do think it is important to recognize that whereas we as modern thinkers who value clarity and consistency, to make the process of transmitting knowledge easier, quicker, and more reliable, inconsistency in a narrative is a permissible discursive technique in many other cultures. Inconsistency can transmit meaning by challenging people to read closer and deeper, to pay more attention, and to be engaging in thoughtful reflection on what is being said
Consider, for instance, the story of the Golden Calf: God’s first response to the idolatry is to destroy Israel, but through the intercession of Moses, God’s anger relents, eventually culminating in a confession about God’s nature that includes God being slow to anger. This seems to be the opposite of the case if you were paying attention to the narrative, but the dissonance at the surface level of reading can encourage people to pay closer attention. I think it encourages people to recognize that what Israel did was somehow a very, deep, deep blow to the relationship
But if this is the case then it means that the Genesis 2
Another consideration to make when we are engaging in interpretation over the course of time. What we read first impacts how we interpret what occurs later. In other words, if I am interpreting a passage of text, I will naturally assign meaning to what I first read in sequential order and then the meaning I assign to that will impact what meaning I assign to what follows. Therefore, if there is a conflict between what we first read and what follows that necessitates a changing of our interpretation there is an unconscious bias to treat our interpretations of what we read at the beginning to be right and to instead change our interpretation of what follows, all other things being equal.3 If that is the case, then we should consider how Genesis 1 is intended to mean and then recognize that Genesis does NOT convey meaning the same way Genesis 1 does.
So let’s take a step back and consider what attitude the original compilers who brought Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 together and the audience would have had.4 While we can not be sure when that happened, as we simply do not have the historical data to draw confident conclusions, there is one probable data point that is significant. Genesis 1 is such a dramatically different creation narrative from many of the other creation narratives during the time period it would have been written and/or appropriated; rather than musing on the conflicts within the realm of God/the gods, the center of action takes place on the earth and only with the creation of humanity is there any real discussion of what is happening in the heavenly realms in the 1st person plural speech in “Let us make…”
So, if we can understanding Genesis 1 in light, it is an intentional attempt to relate how God and His power relates to the work that we as humans works and operate within: God made things with a specific order, with certain functions that relate to God’s purposes as being God’s image bearers. By contrast, Genesis 2
Allow me to suggest from these data point what the inconsistency is trying to do: it invites people to consider the nature5 of humanity as it relates to the created order, but it is not suggesting that the story of creating Adam is simply continuing the same story of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 looks as the functions God assigns to creation as a whole, whereas Genesis 2 looks more at humanity’s relationship within the created order as God initially assigned them
It is more like the relationship between chemistry and the inner physics of the atom: the two ways of understanding the physical world are obviously related in our minds, but they can only be expressed with different logics as the relationship between specific atoms
Now, allow me to make a point that I think can be inferred from the
So allow me to draw this conclusion: Genesis 2 relates to history, but how it speaks to what we call history is not as readily clear. But allow me to make a suggestion that I will not try to prove here beyond brief considerations: Genesis 2 is a narrative that expresses God’s purposes for humanity. As such, it is more typological in expressing God’s ideal purposes for humanity; this then contrasts with Genesis 2, which is a compression of human activity, encoding in the story of Adam and Eve the all-too-repetitive human cycles that alienate us from God and each other. Genesis 2, along with Genesis 1 and Genesis 3
This is to be contrasted with an allegorical reading, which has a tendency to try to find some hidden, symbolic significance in some other domain of knowledge (such as spirituality, psychology, etc.) than what is expressed in the surface level of the narrative. I am not proposing
But allow me to clarify the nature of this: in saying that Genesis 2 is typological history, and then Genesis 3 as compressed history, it is not intended to be a universal statement about ALL humanity through all periods of time in history. It is intended to be chronological, suggesting there was some point in the past where God’s purposes
So, my conclusion is this: if we are careful to be attuned to the surface-level dissonances between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, we don’t try to create a flat narrative that treat Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 the same, while also recognizing the narratives are to be related together in their discussion of the world in which we live and operate as God formed it to be. So, Genesis 2 is intended to address what we consider to be history. But we need not think this as of the history of the momentous, singular events that change the course of history all by themselves, but rather a history of God’s purposeful action that sets up the succeeding narrative that outlines human resistance to this purpose.
To give a modern analogy, it could be closer to sociological history, where we recover the history of specific people’s and the way their life operated, but with three distinctions: 1) Whereas
Genesis 2 is history, but I would contend we need to readjust our expectations of what type of history it is talking about and how it conveys meaning about that history.
- Technically, the narrative starts in Genesis 2:4, but for the sake of brevity, I will simply label the narrative as Genesis 2.
- Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative (p. 12). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
- There are obviously other factors during the process of intepretation that will determine what understandings stays fixed and what is change; this is not a rule of hermeneutics but a principle that may be subverted when there are other considerations, such as a latter passage having more clear wording, being better remembered, having more emotional significance, etc.
- I am not stating we must understand Genesis solely based upon the purposes it was originally formed to have, but I do consider the question to provide potentially useful observations.
- Nature in terms of the general patterns, not nature as it is construed in Western philosophy/metaphysics