The preparation I received in graduate school gave me a solid footing for ministry, and for further research and reflection, once I had completed my program. I defended my dissertation, which was on Jonathan Edwards’ theology of history, in June of 1992. The next month I accepted a call to the First Baptist Church of Williamstown, Massachusetts, a college town in the Berkshire Hills.
Adult Sunday School teaching was among the responsibilities I eagerly took on in my new parish. At the beginning of my fourth year in Williamstown, in response to numerous requests that we “really dig into” a book of the Bible, I led an inductive literary study of the early accounts in Genesis. I studied in Hebrew each passage we would consider and made a class worksheet with translation notes and investigation questions for each week. This research eliminated the last vestiges of my literal, historical reading of the book.
I entitled my course “Genesis and the Human Condition,” convinced by now that the purpose of the book, and especially of these early accounts, was to explain the brokenness of human existence as the cumulative result of alienation from God. My class, however, wanted to talk about “Genesis and Human Origins,” since they were equally convinced that the purpose of the book was to tell us where we came from and how we got here. The only way I could push past my introduction into the course material was finally to say, “If you want a class on ‘Genesis and Human Origins,’ you’ll have to start your own in the next room.” Nobody left, so we spent the rest of the quarter talking about Genesis and the human condition.
My first lesson was on the “days of creation.” I presented the interpretation I’d found so satisfying when I learned it from Meredith Kline, which I’d also taught my students in the Ontario Bible College extension program. Calling the account the “Song of the Seven Days,” I established its “lyrical,” poetical character. I showed how God’s creative activity, as described, solved a twofold problem (“the earth was without form, and void”) by making a place for everything and then putting everything in its place. The point of the passage, I stressed, was for us to recognize our paradoxical status within creation, our simultaneous exaltation and subordination. We are God’s stewards and vice-regents, meant to superintend creation, but we are specifically meant to do this in service to God, in whose sabbath enthronement we must participate.
The class discussion turned immediately to the question of human origins. Even if what I’d said was the point of the story, people wanted to know, this didn’t preclude its being a valid description of how we got here, did it? I sketched briefly the textual difficulties inherent in a literal reading and the literary failings of the “gap theory” and the “day-age view.” But my main response was that if they really wanted to know why this account could not be understood as descriptive of actual events, even in a poetic way, they should return the next week.
The second class was to consider the first episode of the immediately following section of Genesis, which in the book is entitled “The Generations of the Heavens and the Earth.” This first episode of the section corresponds to the portion of Genesis we identify as 2:5-25 by our modern chapter and verse divisions. Many English translations treat Gen. 2:4b as part of this specific episode’s narrative opening, but my linguistic and literary inquiries convinced me that all of what we consider verse 4 belongs together. It follows the conventions of Hebrew poetry by forming a united couplet that says the same thing twice, in different words:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth
when they were fashioned,
In the day that Yahweh Elohim
made earth and heaven.
This is a poetic introduction, in other words, to the whole “Generations of the Heavens and the Earth” section.
I saw, furthermore, that the episode I was considering, like the Song of the Seven Days immediately before it, describes how a twofold problem was solved. The problem is described at the outset:
Now no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herbage of the field had yet sprung up
Because Yahweh Elohim had not caused it to rain upon the earth
And there was no man to work the ground.
The first problem, that of a water supply, is solved first:
And a stream arose from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.
Then, a groundskeeper is found:
And Yahweh Elohim formed the man from the dust of the ground
And breathed into his nostrils the breath of life
And the man became a living soul.
With both problems solved, the earth’s vegetation could be watered and tended, and so God planted a garden in Eden, where it was irrigated by a fourfold stream. He placed his groundskeeper in the garden. Problem solved.
But God immediately recognized another problem. It was not good for the man to be alone. So God made many different kinds of birds and beasts that could be appropriate helpers for the man, but none of them was found suitable. Then God made a woman from part of the man himself; she proved to be the perfect companion. The episode ends by celebrating this complementarity and partnership as the foundation of the marriage relationship, which, it specifies, is to be considered supreme even over patriarchal ties.
The narrative development is splendid, I explained to my class, and the vision of connubial bliss positively charming. But the story is told with blithe disregard for any chronological harmonization with the immediately preceding song. Man is made before the animals in Genesis 2 (this is practically the whole plot), but after the animals in Genesis 1. The inescapable conclusion is that the early chapters of Genesis are not necessarily intended as “history,” that is, they are not always attempting to portray, even in stylized form, actual events as they took place in the past. The point of these stories is primarily a moral one instead: in Genesis 1, the need to defer to God’s supremacy; in Genesis 2, the priority of marriage ties over kinship.
My pilgrimage in understanding had brought me a long way from the confident creationist days of my youth. I now felt that I had to be somewhat more tentative and allow for more unanswered questions when I spoke about human origins. But I also recognized much more clearly the moral imperative the Genesis narrative was communicating, and felt much more strongly the urgency of complying with it. This was more a matter of obedience than of knowledge, and was a worthy goal for a lifetime of personal and spiritual growth.