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In the various blogs that I read on how Christianity and science interact, one title that I have not seen referenced is Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna. I have found it so helpful in my understanding of the early chapters of Genesis that I want to share it with others by blogging through it, at least through the chapters dealing with Genesis 1-11. Today, I will start with the introduction.

“It is nothing short of miraculous that [the Hebrew Bible], the product of a small people in a tiny segment of the ancient world […] should not only have survived, but should have conquered, too.” After all, Sarna says, it was not the only Hebrew literature. The books of the Old Testament reference over twenty other works that did not survive (e.g., the “Book of Jashar”), and there are no doubt many more. When one considers all the circumstances that had to be overcome for a work’s survival, one can understand why none of those other Hebrew works survived—books were not bought and sold as they are today because there was not really a market for them; copying books by hand was meticulous work; materials were hard to come by and easily perishable. Israel’s location made its literature even more vulnerable, as one nation after another passed through, wreaking destruction. Its climate was not suitable for the production of clay tablets, as it was in Sumeria, nor for the preservation of papyrus or skins, as in Egypt. Finally, there was no interest in the local history and religion of such a small people that would make it likely that copies would be found elsewhere, like the epic of Gilgamesh or the works of Homer.

Sarna says that the simple explanation for the survival and influence of the Hebrew scriptures is that “men firmly and fervently believed them to be the inspired word of God.” This belief continued until recent history in the West, where the influence of the Bible has reached an all-time low after its authority was brought into question by a new cosmology, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and most importantly, textual criticism.

The response of fundamentalists, Sarna writes, was hostile and self-defeating.

“They mistakenly regarded all critical biblical studies as a challenge to faith. There remained no room for the play of individual conscience; the validity of genuine intellectual doubt was refused recognition. By insisting dogmatically upon interpretations and doctrines that flagrantly contradicted the facts, the fundamentalist did not realize the self-exposure of an obvious insecurity that was more a reflection upon his own religious position than a judgment upon biblical scholarship. For it declared, in effect, that spiritual relevance can be maintained only at the expense of the intellect and the stifling of conscience.”

Far from taking this attitude, Understanding Genesis values modern science and especially biblical criticism, and through the insight they offer, finds a deeper understanding and of the message of the Old Testament. “Far from presenting a threat to faith, a challenge to the intellect may reinforce faith and purify it.” To read the opening chapters of Genesis is actually to do violence to its meaning.

“Literalism involves a fundamental misconception of the mental processes of biblical man and ignorance of his modes of self-expression. It thus misrepresents the purpose of the narrative, obscures the meaningful and enduring in it and destroys its relevancy.”

Before concluding, Sarna addresses two other concerns of literalists—the documentary hypothesis (i.e., Genesis was not written by an individual but assembled from previous sources into a single document) and the influece of other ancient neareastern cultures. While not minimizing the academic pursuit of determining what part of Genesis comes from what source, Sarna says that it is more important to study the arrangment as we have it and the purpose behind how the editor assembled it. As for the influece of surrounding peoples, Sarna points out that no nation or religion operates in a vacuum and therefore influence from others should be expected. What is more interesting and important is how the editor used already extant material in a unique way to convey his own message.

This gem of a book brings so much clarity to Genesis for me, even in the introduction. Sarna brings calm and good sense to the debate over Genesis while still treating it with great respect.


From Understanding Genesis by Nahum M. Sarna:

“Fundamentalists frequently take refuge from modern scholarship by appealing to ‘tradition,’ by which they mean medieval authority. The illegitimacy of this position as an argument of faith is, however, easily demonstrable. The medieval scholars made the most of all the limited tools at their disposal. But they did not have access, naturally, to the modern sciences of literary and textual criticism and to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, linguistics and comparative religion. We simply do not know how they would have reacted had all this material been available to them. To assume a blind disregard of evidence on their part is as unwarranted as it is unfair.”

This quote makes a good point. I have heard many times this appeal to tradition when it comes to understanding Genesis 1-2 in a non-literal way. There was no reason for them to read it in any other light (although some certainly did) since they did not have the scientific discoveries and advancements that we have today. It is the disconnect between science and Genesis 1-2 that first forced us Christians to take a second look at our interpretations. I, for one, see nothing wrong with that.

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