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The Inerrancy and Historicity of Genesis 1-3, Part 2

Editor’s Note: In this four-part series on “The Inerrancy and Historicity of Genesis 1-3,” Dr. John Yeo will examine:

What is the Literary Genre of Genesis 1-3?

Like the other topics chosen for this series, this is a much-debated question. Scholarly opinions about the genre of Genesis 1-3 vary. Here are some of the more popular options:

  1. “epic myth” (i.e., the biblical writer borrowed from the ancient Near Eastern [hereafter ANE] creation myths in order to invent Israel’s account)
  2. “exalted prose” (i.e., prose-like, but more ideological in perspective than strict narrative)
  3. “semi-poetic” (i.e., there are alleged poetic elements contained in the “first creation account” of Genesis 1)
  4. “polemical theology” (i.e., an apology for monotheism with aspects of ANE thought [or the absence of such] in order to disprove the pantheistic cosmogonic myths of Israel’s neighbors)
  5. “historical narrative” (i.e., a non-fictional prose account of creation that is sensitive to the text’s phenomenological-descriptive language)

All of the given categories are not mutually exclusive; some scholars often hold to a combination of them. E.g., one may believe that Genesis 1 is “historical narrative” and “polemical theology.” Additionally, “exalted prose” and “semi-poetic” practically belong to the same category, i.e., both are claiming that the text is not strictly prose.

In his book, Inspiration and Incarnation, 1 Peter Enns maintains that the author of Genesis 1 was influenced b y the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cosmogonic myths of his day. Enns defines “myth” as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins, and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” 2 Accordingly, Enns provocatively asks: “If the ancient Near Eastern stories are myth (defined in this way as prescientific stories of origins), and since the biblical stories are similar enough to these stories to invite comparison, does this indicate that myth is the proper category for understanding Genesis?” 3 Enns affirmatively answers: “the opening chapters of Genesis participate in a worldview that the earliest Israelites shared with their Mesopotamian neighbors.” 4

Consequently, Enns questions the Bible’s uniqueness among the literature of the ANE: “Is the Old Testament really that unique? Does it not just reflect the ancient world in which it was produced? If the Bible is the word of God, why does it fit so nicely in the ancient world?” 5 Enns’ main objective in writing his book is clear. Because the Bible bears the marks of its “humanity” b y participating so thoroughly within the ANE cultures and conventions in which it was written, Enns believes that the Bible should be interpreted like any other book.

B y contrast, the traditional view of the Bible as sui generis (Latin phrase meaning “of its own kind”) is nowhere found in Enns’ understanding of Scripture.

Genesis 1 as ANE Myth

Enns maintains that the Bible is a culturally-conditioned work. While Enns recognizes that the Genesis account of creation is “different” in that it is not written from the perspective of polytheism of the ANE context, 6 his perspective that the Genesis account is merely a mythic one divorced from historical reality is unacceptable and untrue. In fact, Enns draws the similarity between the creation account of Genesis 1 and the ANE myths so tightly that he presupposes that the ANE worldview of the “the world as a flat disk with a [solid] dome above” are the same in both cosmogonies. He states, “Below the earth were the waters threatening to gush up, and above the dome are the waters threatening to drop down (see Gen. 7:11). The biblical worldview described in Genesis is an ancient Near Eastern one.” 7

While it is not debated that at the time Moses wrote the Pentateuch, he was a man of extraordinary learning and knowledge; it is debatable, however, as to the amount of influence the ANE culture had on him during the process of inscripturation. After all, God spoke directly, and at other times through Moses, telling His people to forsake and destroy all idols because He alone was to be worshiped.

  • “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exod. 20:3-6; NASB).
  • “You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds; but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their sacred pillars in pieces” (Exod. 23:24; NASB).
  • “But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:5-6; NASB).
  • “The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, or you will be snared b y it, for it is an abomination to the LORD your God. You shall not bring an abomination into your house, and like it come under the ban; you shall utterly detest it and you shall utterly abhor it, for it is something banned” (Deut. 7:25-26; NASB).
  • “It shall come about if you ever forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you will surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you would not listen to the voice of the LORD your God” (Deut. 8:19-20; NASB).
  • “Beware that your hearts are not deceived, and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them” (Deut. 11:16; NASB).
  • “But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it” (Deut. 30:17-18; NASB).

A relevant question that all these verses demand is: Why would Moses employ the worldview of the ANE if God not only prohibited the gods from being worshiped, but also the very ANE worldview that the gods inhabited and capriciously manipulated for their own evil purposes? In other words, the ANE worldview was inherently faulty because it belonged to the myths in which the gods were worshipped and promulgated throughout their patron nations.

B y contrast, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. levels a devastating critique against the notion that Genesis 1 reflects the ANE mythic worldview:

R. Laird Harris has shown that each step in this allegedly biblical diagram depends more on the ingenuity of the modern scholars than it does on the assertions of the original writers of Scripture. To begin with, nowhere does the Hebrew text state or imply that the raqia’ (often translated “firmament,” but better translated as “expanse”) is solid or firm. It is simply an “extended surface” or an “expanse.” The idea of “firmness” or “solidity” came more from the Latin Vulgate translation of “firmamentum” and the Greek Septuagint translation steroma than it did from any Hebrew conceptualizations. The “expanse” of the heavens did not imply or call for a sort of astrodome-like structure. Raqia’ is used both in Genesis 1 and in Ezekiel 1 and 10. Certainly in Ezekiel it also means an extended platform, or an expanse on which the throne of God is situated. Attempts to translate the Hebrew terms as a “strip of metal” are as fruitless as those that have attempted to like some sort of hardness to raqia’ in order to match this Hebrew concept with the upper half of Tiamat’s body that became the sky in Bab ylonian mythology. On the contrary, if one needs a concrete picture of the heavens, what about the poetic reference to the heavens being rolled up like a scroll (Is. 34:4; 40:22)? … Neither is the case for a flat earth all that convincing—at least no more convincing than when modern newscasters claim that their news bureau has gone to the “four corners of the earth” to gather their news. Rarely do moderns shout at their TV sets, “Copernicus!” These are legitimate literary conventions to designate in most cases the four points of the compass. Other passages speak just as openly of the “circle of the earth” (e.g., Is 40:22). The subterranean features, including the pillars that allegedly support the earth, sheol and the “waters under the earth,” on close examination also fail to uphold the “triple-decked” or “three-storied” concept of the universe. The “waters under the earth” easily qualify as the waters below the shoreline where the fish dwell, for no sinkers exist to send fishing lines down to hell (Deut 4:18). “Sheol” is merely the poetic word for the “grave” in all sixty-five of its appearances. Some passages, it is true, do refer to the “foundations” of the earth as resting on “pillars,” but both terms are used metaphorically as we continue to do to this day. And what shall we say about Job 26:7 that has the earth resting on nothing? The so-called primitive view of cosmology in the Bible turns out to be a contrived view that cannot bear up under examination. 8

What is conspicuous about Genesis 1 in comparison to the Bab ylonian account of creation in Enuma Elish is that there are no “mythic” elements contained in it. In fact, the following differences are readily noted in Genesis 1 that are distinct from Enuma Elish:

  1. monotheistic worldview is presumed in the account
  2. there are no gods that are birthed into existence
  3. there is no pantheon or hierarchy among the gods
  4. there is no sign of struggle or combat (where the older gods war against the younger gods because they could not sleep due to the noise of the younger gods)
  5. there is no reference claiming that humanity was created b y the blood of a slain god
  6. humanity was not compelled to work and toil so that the gods could be freed from the curse of labor

As you read the ANE myths, what becomes very apparent is that these so-called gods are nothing more than humans who have been projected as deities in myths like Enuma Elish. Moreover, central biblical concepts such as monotheism, holiness, and sovereignty are conspicuously foreign to the ANE myths. 9 The differences are so profound that John Oswalt forthrightly avows, “What is striking is not what is similar in the biblical creation account to the other stories of origins found in Israel’s world; rather it is what is different. Thus Wolfram von Soden can write: ‘Direct influences of thee Bab ylonian creation epic on the Biblical account of creation cannot be discerned.’” 10 Jeffrey Niehaus also notes: “A use of the comparative method that places biblical narratives among the mythological or legendary donations of the world is flawed, because it assumes that biblical data are capable of such classifications. It ignores (or rejects the Bible’s claims about its own historicity.” 11

The foremost literary difference between the Bible and Enuma Elish is that Genesis 1 belongs to the genre of “historical narrative.” The mythic world of the ANE is at odds with the historical and literal account of Genesis 1. The notion that Genesis 1 is myth-like and figurative—similar to poetic texts—cannot be substantiated from a literary standpoint. Mark Futato notes the following differences between Genesis 1 consists of the following differences from Psalm 104, a poetic text on creation:

Note that the grammatical and syntactical differences between narrative/prose and poetry are obvious. Genesis 1 has all the features of “historical narrative,” including the “waw-relative imperfect” which serves to express a chain of sequential actions in the past and functions as the “main-action line” of the story; Psalm 104, b y contrast, is clearly the poetic account. 12

Genesis 1 Psalm 104
Waw-relative imperfect: 50 1
Direct object marker: 26 2
Relative pronoun: 9 2
Definite article: 79 27

Additionally, practically everything we encounter in Genesis 1-3 can be found within the present created order (e.g., sun, moon, stars, sea, land, animals, man, etc.) or the eschatological New Earth as presented in Revelation 21-22 (e.g., the supernatural light of God’s presence; the Tree of Life). The flood narrative of Genesis 6-9 (cf. Genesis 6:19-20) also repeats the same created elements of Genesis 1 (cf. Gen. 1:24). But if Genesis 1 is “myth,” are we not forced to identify Genesis 6-9 as “myth” as well? In Mark 10:6-9, Jesus appeals to the reality of creation and to the origin of Adam and Eve in order to defend the divine design of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman. But if Genesis 1 is “myth,” why would Jesus appeal to the historicity of creation and of “Adam and Eve” as found in Genesis 1 in order to establish the marriage covenant? Robert Stein helpfully guides us through this apparent dilemma b y citing the differences between “historical narrative” and “myth”:

The main problem with the mythical approach to biblical narrative is that it confuses historical issues and literary genre. If we leave aside the question of the facticity of the miracle stories in the Bible [including creation], the whole question of whether these stories are myths becomes extremely easy to answer. The biblical narratives are not myths. They do not possess a mythical literary form. The stories in the Bible are best described as “realistic narrative” in that they are straightforward and use the language of ordinary events. The biblical stories take for granted the world as we tend to experience it. …There is no difference between biblical narrative and history with respect to literary genre. 13

In reality, Enns’ view of Genesis 1 is closer to the liberal understanding of biblical narrative as “historicized fiction.” In the final analysis, what is driving Enns’ denial of the historicity and literality of Genesis 1 in favor of a figurative ANE worldview is his agenda to promote “theistic evolution.” (More on this in a later entry.) Enns knows that in order to circumvent the clear teaching of creation, he needs to discount the literality and historicity of these very significant and divinely-inspired texts. But this is something he has not proven nor accomplished, only asserted.


Notes:

  1. Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.
  2. Ibid., 40, 50
  3. Ibid., 41
  4. Ibid., 55
  5. Ibid., 15-16
  6. Ibid., 55
  7. Ibid., 54
  8. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001, 76-77; see also R. Laird Harris, “Bible and Cosmology,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society, 5.1 [March 1962]:11-17.
  9. For a more thorough and comprehensive treatment of the differences between the worldview of Genesis 1 and the ANE myths including Enuma Elish, see John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009], 47-107)
  10. Ibid., 103; cited from W. von Soden, The Ancient Orient [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994], 213)
  11. Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008], 15
  12. Mark Futato, Interpreting the Psalms [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007], 26.
  13. Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible [Second Edition; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011], 86

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John Yeo

Dr. John Yeo serves as assistant professor of Old Testament at Southwestern Seminary. His primary interests lie within Old Testament interpretation and Biblical Theology.

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