Wisdom of the Ancients: Mining the Riches of Genesis 1-11
Did God create the world in seven literal days? Where was the Garden of Eden? Were Adam and Eve really the first man and woman? Where did Cain get his wife? Did people really live to be hundreds of years old back then? Did God really destroy the world with a flood?
These are the kinds of questions that surface when people read the great narratives found in Genesis 1—11. They are questions that probe the historical character of the stories. Each is asking, “Were these stories actual historical events?”
Some Christians find these questions offensive. For them, the Bible is totally reliable, without question. If it’s what the Bible says, it’s true. End of story.
But, for others, these questions persist, waiting for an answer. They are honest questions that grow out of how we have been trained to think.
Our thinking is shaped by two cultural influences: science and reason. Science is the attempt to understand and explain our natural world using observation, study, testing, and logic. It seeks to identify verifiable facts that we can believe as true. Reason is the companion of science. It is the kind of thinking we use to determine what is true. Our reliance upon reason is the product of the Enlightenment. Both of these influences lie outside our awareness. They are simply the way we naturally think. They are how we in the modern world have been trained to think.
Naturally, these two influences impact how we read the Bible. We read, looking for facts to believe. We read, using reason to question what we read. So the questions that arise as we read these early chapters of Genesis—and the rest of the Bible, as well—are Western, scientifically oriented questions. They are questions that grow out of our ability to reason. They are questions about the facts of the stories. Are the stories accurate? Can we believe them as true?
The problem with our questions—if there is one—is that we are asking Western, scientifically-oriented questions of ancient material which came from Near East cultures. These ancient texts were written from a prescientific perspective. Each of these traits—ancient, Near Eastern, prescientific—is an important factor in our effort to understand these stories.
The ancient Hebrews, rather than using science to explain those aspects of life they did not understand, explained them in theological or spiritual terms. They viewed them as the work of gods or spirits, particularly evil spirits.
The primary way they communicated their understandings was by telling stories. They used stories to communicate from one generation to the next the spiritual truths they knew. Their stories were the vehicles they used to transmit their spiritual understanding. Thus, storytelling was a key component of their culture.
So we face a major challenge when we read the Bible. Everything we find in the Bible is ancient, Near Eastern, and prescientific in its orientation while our orientation is Western, scientific, and reason-based.
We, the readers The biblical authors
Western Near Eastern
Scientifically-oriented, reason-based thinking Prescientific, theologically oriented thinking
Modern and Post-modern Ancient
This contrast leads us to ask the wrong kind of questions. We ask Western questions of Near Eastern stories. We ask questions the authors never anticipated. We ask questions the Bible does not answer.
The questions we ask determine the answers we find and the conclusions we reach. Asking a question the text does not answer leads us into speculation and to pointless arguments that do nothing to nurture our spiritual lives. More significantly, asking a question the text does not answer leads us away from what the author was intending to say. We miss the truth the story teaches—truth intended to nurture our spiritual lives.
Our Western, scientifically-oriented thinking leads us to focus on the details of the story—the vehicle that carries the deeper understanding. While we would like to have answers to our Western, scientifically-oriented questions, it is more important for us to understand what the author was communicating. Our objective is to understand the spiritual truth the authors wanted us to know. This objective calls us to set aside our questions about the details of the story in order to ask a different question: what spiritual truth was the biblical writer attempting to communicate? What theological truth does this story contain? What does this story tell us about life, about ourselves, about God? These questions position us to let the text say what it was intended to say. While answering our Western, scientifically-oriented questions may satisfy our curiosity, learning the spiritual truth the biblical text contains has the potential to shape our lives.
This book approaches these ancient texts as stories originally told to communicate spiritual understanding rather than to relate historical events. It views these narratives as great theological statements reflecting the early Hebrews’ understanding of God, creation, us humans—particularly their nation, life, and the relationship that ties them together. These stories and the spiritual truths they communicate are foundational to the identity of the people of Israel. This book seeks to probe their understanding, reclaiming the insights the stories offer. It moves beyond the questions we commonly ask of these stories—Western, scientifically-oriented, reason-based questions—in order to probe the wisdom these ancient narratives offer.