Reading Genesis (Chapters 1 and 2) After the Scientific Revolution

by John Ellis

During his time as the Poet Laureate of the United States (2001-2003), Billy Collins created Poetry 180, a program designed to encourage high schoolers to engage poetry both meaningfully and enjoyably. In the introduction to the poetry anthology Collins compiled as a companion piece for the program, he offers a warning to teachers that I love and have referenced often since I first encountered it in the early 2000s. The distinguished poet writes, “Too often … literary devices form a field of barbed wire that students must crawl under to get to ‘what the poet is trying to say,’ a regrettable phrase which implies that every poem is a failed act of communication. Explication may dominate the teaching of poetry, but there are other ways to increase a reader’s intimacy with a poem. … Ideally, interpretation should be one of the pleasures poetry offers. Unfortunately, too often it overshadows the other pleasures of meter, sound, metaphor, and imaginative travel, to name a few.”[1]

It’s clear from the quote, and the surrounding context of his larger introduction, that Billy Collins believes (guided) interpretation is an important part of a student’s interaction with poetry. Leaving students floundering in the swamp of their own internalized responses to a highly artistic genre that contains some well-delineated rules and expectations is not part of Collins’ motives. But he’s not only an educator; he’s also a poet – an artist. Billy Collins is a storyteller. 

Like all good storytellers, he realizes that the poking, prodding, pulling apart, dissecting, diagramming, and overall technical approach to stories (poems, in this instance) often gets in between the story and the person receiving the story. Sometimes – if not often – professional interpreters need to step aside and allow people to experience the story. There is great unrealized power and unexperienced beauty in good stories that fails to reveal itself when readers/listeners are forced to constantly crawl under that “field of barbed wire” Collins warns about.

As true as Collins’ warning is about poetry, and all other forms of storytelling, it’s even more (tragically) true of the greatest, most beautiful Story ever told – God’s Story, the Bible.

I often said that one of the greatest problems with theology is that it’s almost always, and exclusively, done by theologians and not storytellers. Those who have been friends with me for any length of time, or those who have been reading my articles for any length of time – especially going back to my old blog A Day In His Court, know that I believe with every ounce of my being that the Bible is one book – one Story. The Bible is God’s Story of how He redeems His people from their sin and back to Himself. It is a magnificent Story filled with brilliant parallelism, beautiful poetry, unwasted words, hard to believe yet true subplots in service to the main Plot, fascinating yet ultimately tragic minor characters, and a plot twist that out plot twists all other plot twists in the history of plot twists. I don’t write this to heap guilt on anyone, but for the life of me, I cannot fathom why anyone finds the Bible boring. It’s the least boring Story ever told and/or written. What’s more, it’s true. At least, I wouldn’t be able to fathom that anyone would find it boring except that I, too, have been exposed to the barbed wire of theologians. By God’s grace, in large part because of my training in theatre, I only crawled under that barbed wire for a little bit before saying to myself, “This is not only stupid, but it’s ruining this incredible Story.”

I stopped crawling under that barbed wire years ago, and with this article I hope to encourage others to stop their unnecessary, tortured crawling, too, and embrace God’s Story for all the wonder, beauty, and Truth it holds. And that Story starts in Genesis.

First, though, what is a story?

If asked, my kids will answer that question with this[2]: A story is, somebody wants something. This person is the protagonist. Somebody, or something, is standing in the way of the protagonist getting what he or she wants. This person, or thing, is the antagonist. The story is what the protagonist does to overcome the obstacle or obstacles put up by the antagonist in order to accomplish his or her objective. If he or she is able to overcome the antagonist and accomplish the objective, the story is a comedy (in the classical sense). If not, the story is a tragedy.

That’s a story. That’s it. It’s not complicated.

The first question regarding the Bible is, and the easiest question to answer, who is the protagonist? God. The answer is, God. I’m going to leave that unargued, although I suspect that most people reading this will nod in agreement while reading my answer.

I’m also going to leave my answer to the second question unargued, although I’ll be more than happy to engage anyone who would like me to flesh it out some more or with those who disagree with me on some level. It’s an important question, and while for the sake of this article’s word count I’m going to assume the answer’s validity and truthfulness, I want to make sure that I remain open to dialoguing with anyone and everyone who may have questions and/or concerns.[3] And that question is, what does God want?

The answer: God wants to save His people back to Himself.

In theatre terms, that’s called the super-objective. It’s the “want” of the protagonist that frames and guides all the other wants – the literary beats. So, for example, if it’s true that God’s super-objective is to save His people back to Himself, then every other objective/want in the smaller beats (books, chapter, paragraphs, and occasionally down to sentences and even phrases at times[4]) will serve the purpose of the super-objective. Drilling down as further example, God’s objective with the tabernacle/Temple system serves to reveal partially who God is and how who He is plays into how He is going to save His people back to Himself. Same with the Exodus and the Exodus’ events. Same with the Davidic throne. Same with Song of Solomon. Same with Elijah and Elisha. Every plot movement forward, every plot twist, every rising and falling action of subplots, everything in the Bible serves to either further God’s super-objective or, importantly and in contrast, it serves to reveal how the antagonist fights back – the obstacles.

All of that is my basic “barbed wire” for you to crawl under. And it’s “barbed wire” that I’ll be more than happy to explain further if you so desire – just let me know.

Turning our gaze back to Genesis, though, an important question is, where does God first reveal His super-objective? I believe – believe quite forcefully, in fact – that the first statement of God’s super-objective is found in Genesis 3:15.

Context is king in literary analysis, and Genesis is no different. God’s people – His vice-regents – fail Him in the first verses of Genesis 3. Siding with Serpent-Satan in an open coup on God’s throne, they realize too late their error. The promised death is upon them. But, in the middle of pronouncing the just (righteous) Curse on them because of their rebellion, God gives the promise that a Seed will come that will undo Serpent-Satan’s rebellion. That Seed will defeat Serpent-Satan. That’s the hope Genesis first offers to the problem of sin and sin’s Curse. It’s the first revelation of how God is going to save His people back to Himself.

But that happens in Genesis 3. What about the first two chapters? What’s their role in the Story?

Sadly, our contemporary interpretations of Genesis 1-2 owe a greater debt to the scientific revolution than to proper literary analysis. Like the rest of the Bible, Genesis 1-2 is a Story, not a dry, listless scientific journal detailing the data and drawing scientific conclusions. However, as products of the scientific revolution and its awful progeny logical positivism, we are conditioned to an a priori reading and interpretation of Genesis 1-2 (and the rest of the Bible) as if we were observing and analyzing the reproductive cycle of frogs in a pond. We are conditioned to ask “how” questions as we pull apart the data instead of “why” questions that reveal God’s objectives/wants. And asking “how” questions is mostly a boring way to read a story!

The original readers of Genesis were not burdened by Comte and his 20th century descendant Ayers much less his 21 century descendant Dawkins. Questions of “how?” were not part of their rubric. For them, God was intimately involved in all of creation, including their day to day lives. And this was no different than their near-Eastern neighbors. The difference – a difference of eternal importance – came in how they viewed their God and their God’s relationship with creation, including themselves. And their view was informed by Genesis 1-2.

Unlike every other creation story, the Genesis account reveals something interesting about God: He is a benevolent Deity. Creation was intended to aid in human flourishing; it wasn’t an obstacle that demanded constant sacrifice to appease the gods in order to keep them from sending destructive floods, devastating wildfires, or barren crop yields. The first two chapters of Genesis reveals that God desires to have a certain type of relationship with His image bearers – a relationship that fosters deeper communion and flourishing; a relationship of Father and heir. Adam and Eve were tasked with serving God as His vice-regents and, in so doing, enjoyed intimate friendship with Him while enjoying unfettered blessings given by His hand. It was literally Paradise.

That Paradise was undone by sin, though. Undone by rebellion. Thankfully, that Paradise will be (was) regained by the Incarnation of God – God become flesh. The final Adam – Jesus Christ – is busy finishing the job tasked to the first Adam. And the Bible ends where it begins – in a Garden. Except, like all good stories, the Story’s ending contains a parallel that deepens and interprets the beginning.

I believe – with every ounce of my being – that Adam and Eve were tasked by God to build a city. When asked what my proof for that is, I point to the end of the Book. The final Adam – Jesus Christ – builds a City around a Garden. And Jesus populates – “be fruitful and multiply – that City via the new birth (see John 3). The Bible ends where it begins.[5] Jesus fulfills the creation mandate because Adam and Eve (and their descendants, including me and you) cannot and did not.

But, again, what about the Bible’s beginning?

Owing to the inheritance left us by the scientific revolution, we tend to read Genesis 1-2 as a science textbook. We want to know how God did it. How did God create the world? How long did it take Him? Except those aren’t questions that interested Moses, nor his original audience, because those aren’t questions that would’ve entered their minds to even ask. Why God did it, was the question the original readers pondered. What was His teleology with and for His creation?

It’s important to note that nowhere does God correct the ancient’s cosmology. For example, the separating of the waters in Genesis 1:7 reflects the ancient cosmology that the sky was material; the sky held up the waters (and the sky was the foundation for the gods dwelling). Observing how material ground holds back (mostly) the bubbling springs of water below, the ancients believe the same was true above them. Revealing the “how” of the waters and sky, modern science reveals the ancient cosmology as wrong. Does this mean that Genesis 1:7 is in error? No, of course not! The Bible is God’s Story of how He saves His people back to Himself, not a science textbook. If the Bible corrected the science of all people groups in all times and places it would be a much longer book, not to mention that those of living in the 21st century would be confused by parts of it – unless, of course, you believe that we have reached absolute truth where science is concerned. Our understanding of what stars are is irrelevant to our understanding of God’s plan of salvation, which, again, is why the Bible was written and preserved for us as well as for our far greater scientifically sophisticated descendants one thousand years from now (assuming Jesus doesn’t return before then). The Bible isn’t interested in teaching pre-telescope and pre-scientific revolution people groups what stars are (or even those pre-Thales[6]); the Bible’s objective is in revealing how God created stars for His glory, as part of His revelation of Himself to His image bearers, and for the enjoyment and flourishing of His children. As soon as we force Genesis 1-2 to submit to the scientific revolution and questions of “how” (How did God create the stars? What are they made of? Ect.), we lose the Story. In that instance, we turn the Story into anthropocentric monuments to our big brains – “Look at how smart we are! Look at how we’ve digested the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Unfortunately, the answers that reveal how smart we are generally have little, if anything, to do with the actual Story.

Instead, and wonderfully and beautifully (artistically) true, the narrative arc of Genesis 1-2 uses the ancient’s “unscientific” cosmology to reveal who God is and what He wants. For starters, He’s sovereign over all creation, and His creation reveals His love for the pinnacle of His creation – His image bearers. As I’ve already stated, creation – the cosmos – was given to reveal who God is and to provide for His image bearers so that they can flourish as they bring Him glory.

The first two chapters of Genesis are a prologue to God’s super-objective first revealed in Genesis 3:15. Those two chapters tell us much about God’s love and care for His people as well as revealing much about His intended endgame of a relationship of flourishing with His people. Sadly, the first few verses of Genesis 3 upend all of that, requiring the protoevangelium gloriously revealed in Genesis 3:15.

So, and here’s my conclusion, is John Ellis a young earth creationist? Or is he a godless Marxist who bows before Charles Darwin?

How about neither? Because I don’t care. And I don’t care because the Bible doesn’t care.

The age of the earth, how many days God took or didn’t take, whether or not rain happened pre- or post-diluvian, and other post-scientific revolution questions are all outside the narrative scope and purpose of God’s Word – His divinely inspired Word, to be clear. How old the cosmos is has zero bearing on God’s plan to save His people back to Himself. Good authors (and God is the best Author) operate under the maxim “there’s no such thing as nothing.” In other words, everything – every word and phrasing and metaphor and character etc. – is written into stories in order to serve the story.  

I am not a young earth creationist nor am I a theistic evolutionist. I believe that God is the creator of all things. I believe, because the Story is dependent on it, that the Garden of Eden was a real place, and that Adam and Eve were real people whom God tasked with turning that garden into a city. I also believe that Serpent-Satan recruited Adam and Eve into his coup on God’s throne, a coup that resulted in the fracturing of God’s intended relationship between Himself and His creation and between His creation and His creation (if that makes sense). I also believe that God in His gracious love provides a way for His children to have that broken relationship restored to a right relationship with Him (a relationship of love instead of the relationship of wrath all humans are born into because of sin). And that’s what’s important coming out of the beginning of God’s Story.

Spending time and energy on debating the age of the earth undermines the beautiful Story. Debating the “correct interpretation” of “day” in Genesis 1 distracts from God’s revealed purpose. Insisting that one’s belief on the age of the universe is a test of orthodoxy not only takes our interpretative gaze away from God’s purpose(s) in giving us Genesis 1 and 2 but it also adds requirements to the gospel that the Bible doesn’t allow for.

By God’s grace, read the first few chapters of Genesis as if you’re reading a novel for the very first time. Don’t ask “how” questions while reading; ask “why” questions. And don’t stop after the first few chapters. Allow yourself to be awed by the Story as you continue to be confronted by God’s revelation of Himself, His super-objective, and His gracious actions as He overcomes Serpent-Satan’s obstacles. Read the Bible until the end.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Billy Collins, “Poetry 180: An Introduction” Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry ed. Billy Collins (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003), xix.

[2] I just checked my claim by stopping my daughter and asking, “What’s a story.” For a brief moment, I thought I would have to rewrite my claim, but she was just being a teenager annoyed by her silly old man who for no apparent reason stopped her from doing what she wanted to ask her a stupid question. In the end, with a little pouting and whining on my part, she answered correctly. I feel vindicated.

[3] If this is you and you don’t know me personally, leave a comment and I’ll get you my email so that we can have a conversation.

[4] On a related note, one of my pet peeves is the fascination with verse by verse exegesis of the Bible. On one hand, I get it. I get it, that is, if it’s for a seminary class, but I don’t get it when we’re talking about sermons, Sunday school classes, and Bible studies. There’s little good literary reason to dissect the text smaller than the smallest beat. Preach, teach, and study from beat to beat. Doing more than that not only is mostly useless but – worse – it ruins the rhythm of the text.

[5] In another important parallel, Serpent-Satan appropriates God’s City via Babylon. It’s not coincidental to the Story that Babylon – cast as the opposite of Jerusalem – was and is famed for its hanging gardens – a city built around a garden. Serpent-Satan deceives by offering a false mirror image of what God intended.

[6] Interestingly – to me, at least – since I believe that Genesis, along with the other four books of the Pentateuch were largely written by Moses, I believe that the first five books of the Bible pre-date Thales and the rest of the pre-Socratics by around 700-800 years. If you believe Genesis was written during the exile, it’s going to be a little harder for you to make the argument I’m making. While still far removed from Francis Bacon and company, Thales and the other pre-Socratics opened up “how” questions in ways previously unexperienced and unasked by the people groups that preceded them – as in, for the sake of my purpose, Moses and the ancient Israelites.  

2 thoughts on “Reading Genesis (Chapters 1 and 2) After the Scientific Revolution

  1. Hi
    I don’t usually comment on your articles, but this was a very good one. This part was a true blessing:
    The final Adam – Jesus Christ – builds a City around a Garden. And Jesus populates – “be fruitful and multiply – that City via the new birth (see John 3). The Bible ends where it begins.[5] Jesus fulfills the creation mandate because Adam and Eve (and their descendants, including me and you) cannot and did not.

    I think this needs to be said many more times and in many ways. Also, your view reminds me of Tom Wright’s views. And Andrew Peterson’s artistic expressions. Some day you should post reviews of their material.
    Steve

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. Interesting that you would say that about N.T. Wright. I’m currently working on an article about justification and have been rereading several of his books as prep work. Spoiler: While I appreciate much of what he writes and find myself in agreement with him in important ways, I part ways with him on double imputation. I do wish more from my “circle” would read and appreciate him. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of straw manning of his views. As far as Andrew Peterson, I’ve been a fan of his for years.

      Like

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