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The two-year-old speech “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” by Al Mohler has been thoroughly praised and criticized point by point since it was first given at the 2010 Ligonier Conference, and I have no intention of arguing against the particulars here. But having read and listened to it for the first time today, I was struck by how much of a misnomer it is and nauseated by what this mismatch between speech title and speech content reveals about the viewpoint Mohler is espousing.

In a conference about difficult questions that Christians face, Mohler was assigned to answer the query “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” (You can read it abridged here or listen to it here.) Astonishingly, his sixty-six minute speech spent only the final four minutes truly addressing his topic, offering the standard two woefully inadequate answers of appearance of age and catastrophism. The first sixty-two minutes addressed an entirely different issue, namely why belief in an ancient universe and evolution wrecks the doctrine of biblical authority and demolishes essential theological issues like Adam’s role in the fall of mankind. This topic has its place, and many people have disagreed strenuously with every point Mohler made, but to me, the very approach of answering the question in this way is startling. Imagine a Q & A at your church and someone asking the preacher the question given to Mohler. Now picture your pastor beginning his response with, “Well, first off, we cannot believe in an old earth because too much is at stake to essential Christian beliefs.” This is essentially Mohler’s approach.

It Messes Up Our System and Therefore Can’t Be True

At one point, he states, “[…] the exegetical cost…is just too high. […] The theological cost is actually far higher.” In other words, it cannot be true because if it were, it would wreck everything we believe to be true about God. It cannot be true because the Bible says it is not true. This answer shows a surprising disregard for objective truth. Mohler is effectively (albeit, unconsciously) saying, we cannot consider the idea of an ancient earth to be true because it would mean that what I believe is not true. It would complicate things too much. “Galileo, your theory cannot be true because it would mess up our whole system that we have labored so hard to build.” No one will be convinced by a faith that says this; no Christian struggling to reconcile faith and science will remain in a faith that says this. In order for there to be rational dialogue on the veracity of any position, there must be an understanding that it is possible for that position to be untrue. I am sure that Mohler would concede this, but the answer he gave does not.

There Are Two Books of Revelation, But One of Them Is Illegible

Mohler acknowledges that truth comes from nature as well as from scripture. However, he lowers the volume on nature’s voice so much that not much can be heard from her. “There is a book of nature. We do learn much from it. […] God has revealed nature to be intelligible.” But, as he ponts out, Paul teaches that “given the cloudiness of our vision and the corruption of our sight, we can no longer see what is clearly there.” I would need a lot more convincing before I accepted the notion that Paul really taught such a skeptical view of the comprehensibility of nature. About our knowledge of God from nature, yes, but not about our knowledge of nature from nature. Make as many qualifications as you like about the instrusion of Ptolemaic thinking into Christian dogma, the fact still remains that it was nature’s witness, not the Bible’s, that showed us clearly that the earth revolves around the sun. The fact also remains that if the descriptions of the Bible receive nary a one “Amen” from Mother Earth, that if she responds with nothing but dissent to Mohler’s understanding of Genesis 1, then the future congregations of this earth will not believe the claims of Christianity. “Disaster ensues when the book of […] general revelation is used […] to trump scripture.” Disaster also ensues when we are told to believe only the book of books and to stop up our ears to resounding calls of general revelation, as if nature were a brood of Sirens enticing us to the rocks of shipwreck.

“We would not be having this discussion today,” said Mohler, “[…] if these questions were not being posed to us by those who assume that general revelation […] is presenting to us something in terms of compelling evidence […] so forceful and credible that we are going to have to reconstruct and reenvision our understanding of the biblical text.” This is a statement of the obvious, and I am not sure what Mohler is driving at, since the fact is that people are posing these questions as well as assuming that the evidence is compelling. The operational word in this statement, I suppose, is “assume,” and I imagine that the implication is that there IS no “compelling evidence.” But to say this is to bury one’s head in the sand.

Don’t Look Too Closely, or It Might Be Compelling After All

The mountains of compelling evidence are out there, if one will only be humble enough to survey their heights. I do not think Mohler has given much more than a cursory glance in their direction, judging from the final minutes of his speech, in which he finally turns his attention to why the earth appears so old:  “In the limitations of time, it is impossible that we walk through every alternative and answer every sub-question,” but the two basic principles for understanding the illusion, he says, are that God makes things whole (i.e., they have an appearance of old age) and that creation has suffered from the consequences of sin (the flood, e.g.). These two answers can only be satisfying from a great distance, but the moment that you begin to look more closely, the moment that you do consider a sub-question or two, the more you see just how unsatsifying and inept these responses are. It’s one thing, for instance, to say that God created light to appear as if it had traveled millions of light years to get here, but quite another when you consider that those rays that were supposedly created en route tell stories of stars that exploded a billion years ago. This is just one of many “sub-questions” that have to be considered instead of being brushed aside in the concluding minutes of a speech. Most infuriating of all, Mohler says that really, the ultimate answer we have to why the universe is so old is that it is telling the story of the glory of God. “Any more elaborate answer, is known only to the Ancient of Days, and that is where we are left. And it is safe.” No, it is not safe. Mr. Mohler is effectively saying that if data pointing to an ancient earth cannot be explained by the appearance of age or the catastrophism arguments, then we should just trust that the earth is young regardless and that the answer lies with God. We should just not worry about it.

With all due respect to Mr. Mohler whom I consider a sincere Christian brother, I urge him to consider that we cannot reject the veracity of the belief in an ancient earth based on what is at stake. It does complicate our theological systems. It does cause us to reconsider how we read scripture. But what ultimately matters is whether or not it is true. It does no good to ignore the mounds of reasons why scientists believe that age to be 4.5 billion years (or why all life shares a common descent). Nor do we get off the hook by saying that our judgment is clouded by sin. We have to acknowledge the evidence and engage it. Please, Mr. Mohler, take some time to hear a scientist out on what that evidence is before you answer this question again.

I have often heard the claim that a plain reading of Genesis clearly points to a young earth and special creation. What I have found, though, is that such readings are not internally consistent. I have already pointed to the firmament in Genesis 1 as an example of something that is not taken literally by literalists (with the “waters above” it and the placement of the luminaries beneath it.” In this post, I hope to look at Genesis 2-3 and show that literalists are not reading it literally enough either.

1.  Skipping the potentially problematic “in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” the first point I want to make centers around the four rivers that spring from the river flowing out of Eden.

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tirgris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (2:10-14, New Revised Standard Version)

Notice the present tense. At the risk of insulting your intelligence, the present tense indicates a reality that is still true at the time of the telling of the story. These four rivers were flowing at the beginning of the world, and they are still flowing in the post-deluvian world of Moses or whoever is penning these words. How is this possible after a world-wide flood? A catastrophe powerful enough to create the grand canyon would surely completely rearrange the river beds, right? And notice verse 10, which seems to indicate that Eden still exists. How could it not have been destroyed by the deluge? The only explanation I can come up with is that this story stood on its own in its original form and did not presuppose a flood. That, or it was written by someone living before the flood.

The NIV and many other versions translates verse 10 as “A river…flowed from Eden.” So I asked myself why the discrepancy between the NRSV and NIV and others. offers this footnote:

The Hebrew active participle may be translated here as indicating past durative action, “was flowing,” or as a present durative, “flows.” Since this river was the source of the rivers mentioned in vv. 11-14, which appear to describe a situation contemporary with the narrator, it is preferable to translate the participle in v. 10 with the present tense. This suggests that Eden and its orchard still existed in the narrator’s time. According to ancient Jewish tradition, Enoch was taken to the Garden of Eden, where his presence insulated the garden from the destructive waters of Noah’s flood. See Jub. 4:23-24.

Even if one argues for a past tense in verse 10, the NIV, KJV, NKJV, and ASV (which use the past tense in verse 10) translate the tenses of verses 11-14 as present . (The ESV still uses a past tense.) I do not know how to read Hebrew, so I cannot speak definitively on the subject, but my impression is that the rivers are contemporary to the speaker, which is problematic.

2.  My second point concerns the naming of the animals in verse 18. Saying that it is not good for the man to be alone, God resolves, “I will make him a helper as his partner.” The next verse is controversial or not so controversial, depending on which translation you use. Mine, the NRSV, reads, “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them” (2:19). This translation creates a definite conflict with the creation order of Genesis 1, in which animals precede humans. Now, I do understand that many translations render the verb as “had formed,” but I find it difficult to believe that this choice was influenced by anything other than to maintain proper order of creation. Again, I have no knowledge of Hebrew, but the preceding verse seems to support the NRSV. God says that he will make the man a helper, and so he makes animals and birds to bring before him. None of them are suitable, and therefore God makes woman. Again, from

To harmonize the order of events with the chronology of chapter one, some translate the prefixed verb form with vav (ו) consecutive as a past perfect (“had formed,” cf. NIV) here. (In chapter one the creation of the animals preceded the creation of man; here the animals are created after the man.) However, it is unlikely that the Hebrew construction can be translated in this way in the middle of this pericope, for the criteria for unmarked temporal overlay are not present here.

3.  The third problem I see with the so-called plain reading of Genesis 2-3 involves the serpent. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made” (3:1) The serpent will be identified with Satan later in the Bible, but nowhere in these chapters is any sort of connection like that made, and indeed, it seems like this chapter is identifying him solely as a creature. Chapter 3:1 makes it explicit that he is an animal, albeit a clever one, and the curse placed on the serpent to crawl on its belly and eat dust all its life seems to indicate that the animal bears culpability. This does not seem fair if the serpent was just a poor animal who happened to be possessed by Satan. Instead, this story emphasizes the craftiness of the animal (3:1) by way of explanation of its ability to deceive. Ironically, a literal reading of Genesis 3 seems to bring about a contradiction with later scripture identifying him with Satan; seeing the chapter figuratively or allegorically allows for an interpretation of the snake as the devil.

4.  A final problem to point out has more to do with the traditional literalist idea that man would have lived forever had he not fallen. After the man and the woman eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God says, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever–” (3:22). God then expels Adam and Eve from the garden and places a guard of cherubim before the tree of life. Note that they are not expelled as a punishment of disobedience but to keep them from living forever. I can only conclude that eternal life was not inherent in the original pair; rather, it was dependent on eating from the tree of life. In other words, death seems to have been the default destination of the human composition and had to be reversed by a special intervention.

Genesis 2-3 is one of the most important sections of the Bible, full of truth and meaning. But a stiff, literal reading creates problems of consistency and distracts from the primary message. What do you think? Can one maintain a consistent literal reading of Genesis 2-3? Can one maintain a figurative reading and still have an orthodox faith?

I have come to realize that the Achilles heel of the literal approach to Genesis 1 resides in Day 2, when God creates the firmament by separating the waters below from the waters above. I had always been puzzled by this passage in my YEC days, concluding that the firmament was just the sky and that the waters above were the clouds or water vapor. Ironically, this approach fails (in my mind) because it is not a literal reading of the chapter. Consider the following two points:

  1. God creates the firmament as a separation between the waters below from the waters above. It is not the water vapor above, nor is there any indication that the water changes into vapor. It is the waters above. In the original state of creation, there was only one body of water, and now there are two. I am told that the ancients of the Middle East believed that this is just what there was above the dome of the sky–a body of water that accounted for the heavens’ blue color. (Recall also that in the Revelation, God sits with an ocean at his feet.) How is it possible that the waters can be separated into two? Why, you need a separator, of course! Which is why the firmament must be interpreted as something solid, not mere air, for how could air lift up the waters and hold them back?
  2. In Day 4 (verse 14-15), God creates the luminaries and places them in the firmament. Now if the waters above are read as the water vapor of our atmosphere and if the firmament is simply the sky or the air, then it follows that the sun, moon, and stars are located in our atmosphere.

I just finished reading the Enuma Elish for the first time. As has been said before, the main point of contact between it and Genesis 1 is the primordial ocean, represented by the goddess Tiamat. (Tiamat and the Hebrew word tehom are etymologically related, coming from a common source word.) When the Babylonian god Marduk defeats her in battle, he splits her body into two and builds the sky from one half and the earth from the other. Likewise, Genesis 1 presents God moving over the surface of the waters and in Day 2, separating the waters below from the waters above, thus creating the firmament. What I found particularly interesting is the following passage from the fourth tablet of the Enuma Elish:

137  [Marduk] split her open like a mussel (?) into two (parts);

138  Half of her he set in place and formed the sky (therewith) as a roof.

139  He fixed the crossbar (and) posted guards;

140  He commanded them not to let her waters escape. (emphasis mine, translation from Alexander Heidel’s The Babylonian Genesis)

It is pretty clear here that the Babylonian conception of the sky consists of something solid holding back the waters above. Half of Tiamat’s corpse has been made into the sky, but Marduk has to make sure to keep the waters of her body in place, and therefore, he creates some sort of crossbar and posts guards. The passage presents us with one example of this early conception of the universe.

Many Christians will find it troubling that this is reflected in the first chapter of the Bible, but for me, it gives the Genesis account a much richer meaning. Seeing it as an interaction with the surrounding myths, even as a counter to them, gives a much more powerful message of truth than a literal step-by-step account of the process of creation. (Gordon J. Glover’s book Beyond the Firmament does a good job reflecting on just what that message is.) It also makes much better sense of Day 2.


Francis and Ken haven’t seen each other in quite some time and have decided to catch up over some drinks at a coffee shop. After asking about each other’s families, Ken queries Francis about where the kids are going to school.

Francis:  They’re both at Ridgeland Public School, doing very well, I might add.

Ken:  But aren’t you worried about sending your children to public school?

Francis:  What do you mean?

K:  I mean aren’t you worried about what they’re being taught there?

F:  Not at all. The school system is one of the best in the country.

K:  That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, aren’t you worried about the kinds of things that they are being taught there? Like science, for instance.

F:  What’s wrong with what they are being taught in science?

K:  Oh, come on. You know what I’m talking about. They teach kids evolution in public school.

F:  Yes, I thought that’s what you meant. I don’t really have a problem with that, though, Ken.

K:  Because you’re teaching them how to respond to it at home?

F:  No, because I believe in it.

K:  Are you kidding me?

F:  No, I’m serious.

K:  Are you not a Christian anymore, then?

F:  No, no. I’m still a Christian. Why would you think otherwise?

K:  Forgive me, Francis, but this is all coming as quite a shock to me. You have always been such a strong Christian.

F:  I hope that hasn’t changed.

K:  But how can you call yourself a Christian and still believe in evolution?

F;  Come now, Ken. I call myself a Christian because I still believe in and follow Christ. What you believe about the age of the universe and the particular method that God used to create life are perepheral issues.

K:  I don’t think that they are perepheral issues at all, but I grant that you can still  be a Christian. You can’t be a very faithful Christian, though, if you don’t believe what the Bible says.

F:  And what does the Bible say?

K:  That God created the world in six days and that he made man out of the dust of the ground.

F:  I guess I no longer interpret the Genesis creation account as literally as I once did.

K:  And why is that, Francis?

F:  Well, I have always been uneasy about the conflict between biology and the Bible, so I finally started reading for myself about why scientists think what they do concerning the age of the earth and evolution.

K:  That’s where you went wrong.

F:  What do you mean?

K:  You tried to understand issues of origin based on what man says rather than what God says. There’s nothing wrong with science, per se, but whenever there’s a conflict with what fallable man discovers (or thinks he has discovered) and what God says is true, then you know that man has made a mistake in his understanding.

F:  But, Ken, don’t you believe that God has spoken in two ways:  through the scriptures and through nature? Both must be interpreted by fallible man, and a conflict between the two could indicate a mistake in understanding the Bible.

K:  The Bible is crystal clear on this issue, Francis. It says six times,  “And there was evening and there was morning.” A plain reading of Genesis 1 rules out the possiblitiy of an old earth and evolution. How could you interpret it any differently?

F:  I think it’s far from plain that Genesis 1 must be taken literally.

K:  Okay, but why do you think that? I bet you anything that you didn’t come to that realization by just studying the Bible.

F:  Well, no, although I am sure that some people have. Like I said, I looked into the scientific evidence and found it very compelling. That’s when I decided to take a second look at Genesis 1.

K:  And you think that’s okay?

F:  I don’t understand you.

K:  What I mean is that it is not legitimate to interpret the Bible based on what fallible science says is true. You should interpret science based on what the infallible word of God says is true.

F:  I disagree. Even you, Ken, allow science to inform the way you read the Bible.

K:  I do not, but go on and tell me what you mean.

F:  Well, the most obvious example is Galileo. Everyone thought the Bible taught that the earth was at the center of the universe. Then Galileo’s observations showed otherwise. Now no Christian thinks the Bible teaches that.

K:  That doesn’t prove your point. The Bible never taught that the earth was the center of the universe. Ptolemy taught that and the Catholiic church embraced it.

F:  What about the passages that talk about the sun stopping in the sky and the foundations of the earth being forever fixed?

K:  Even today we talk about the sun rising and setting. God stopped the earth, not the sun. And as for the earth being forever fixed in place and never being moved, that’s just a poetic way of saying that the earth is securely in its orbit or that the laws of nature are fixed.

F:  Even if I grant that those passages were intended to be figurative, how did you know to interpret the Bible in that way? Isn’t your understanding of the way the universe works informed by science? And isn’t it that understanding which tells you not to read the passages I mentioned literally?

K:  I think that it is the mistaken opinions of man about the universe that have been imposed on the Bible.

F:  What do you mean?

K:  I mean that the writers of the Bible knew the truth about the universe, and people have read it through the ages through the lens of their own mistaken view of how the universe works.

F:  Come on, Ken. You don’t really believe that, do you?

K:  I do.

F:  So what you are telling me is that Moses, David, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all understood that the earth was round, that it revolved around the sun, and that it had a molten center?

K:  Well, maybe they didn’t know about the molten center of the earth, but I think they knew the other two things.

F:  Then tell me, Ken, why I never read indications of these things in the Bible.

K:  You do. Let me get my Bible out. I downloaded it on my phone recently, and it’s very easy to search. I know that the passage is in Job somewhere. Ah. Here it is.  Job 26:7:  “He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.”**

F:  I’m not sure that verse means what you think it means.

K:  Francis, it’s as clear as day. It shows that the earth is an orb in space.

F:  I didn’t hear anything about an orb there. How do you know that it’s not talking about a flat disc suspended over nothing? I have the Bible on my reader here. Let me take a look at that chapter. Hmm. Notice that verse 5 reads, “The dead are in deep anguish, those beneath the waters and all that live in them.” Do you believe the spirits of the dead go to a place underneath the waters?

K:  Who knows where the dead go?

F:  So you’re telling me that when someone dies, his soul goes under the waters?

K:  Not the souls of Christians.

F:  Fine. The souls of unbelievers, then. These souls go under-not the earth, mind you-but the waters?

K:  I am not sure what is being referred to there. The passage may be poetic, Francis. It is in verse, after all.

F:  So the passage is poetic in verse 5 in its description of the earth, but not in verse 7? What about verse 11, where it says, “The pillars of the heavens quake,
aghast at his rebuke”? Do you believe that pillars hold up the heavens?

K:  The passage is clearly being poetic at this point. I’m not so sure about verse 5, but it has to be poetic expression in verse 11.

F:  I wonder how you are able to understand what is should be understood poetically and what literally. Isn’t this a clear example where your understanding of science is informing your understanding of scripture? See, Ken, I think the passage makes a lot more sense when read in the light of other ancient views of the cosmos. If I recall correctly, many of the ancients believed that the primeival substance was a chaotic water, from which God made the universe. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that the lands rest on the water. Perhaps, then, the souls were believed to descend under the earth and then under the waters. In fact, I think that verses 12-13 refer to God subduing the waters, like Marduk does when he kills Tiamat.

K:  Who are Marduk and Tiamat?

F:  Babylonian deities. Tiamat symbolized the sea. Marduk killed her and built the world from her body. I think the story sheds light on verses 12-13: “By his power he churned up the sea; by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces. By his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent.”

K:  I’m not sure I follow you, Francis, but it sounds like what you are doing is dangerous. In any case, we’re getting a little off topic. I have another verse for you. Isaiah 40:22:  “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.” A clear indication that scripture teaches the earth is round.

F:  Round, but not necessarily spherical. Again, I think you’re reading modern science into the text. If you look at the surrounding mythologies, I would be willing to bet that you would find a belief about the earth being a flat disc surrounded by water.

K:  There you go again, Francis, talking about mythologies of surrounding cultures. What has that to do with the Israelites?

F:  It has everything to do with them. The Israelites did not live in a vacuum. They lived in a cultural landscape with its own accepted traditions and even cosmologies. If everyone around Israel believed in a particular model of the universe, then I think it pretty likely that Israel did, too. They certainly did not have a modern understanding of the universe, from what I can tell. Keeping that in mind can bring light to all kinds of scriptures.

K:  So you are saying that scripture teaches a false view of the world?

F:  No, I’m saying that scripture speaks in terms of the ancient world’s perception of the universe.

K:  What’s the difference?

F:  It’s like this. If God wanted to speak his truth to the Israelites, would he feel the need to first correct all their scientific errors? Or would he speak spiritual truth using their current scientific understanding?

K:  I think that’s a false dichotomy. God might not need to explain the minutiae of science, but he would never say something that was false.

F:  (smiling) You mean like a parable?

K:  That’s different. Jesus’ audience knew that he was telling a story.  Your scenario has the audience not understanding that the details of science are in fact erroneous.

F:  Well, I grant you that, but I don’t have the same problem accepting the possibility of God speaking in terms of an ancient cosmology.

K:  Why don’t we go about this in an orderly way, Francis? Let’s look at Genesis together systematically and see which view is more faithful?

F:  Great idea. Next time?

K:  Next time.

* Image from wikipedia.

** NIV translation.

The following is Part 4 in a series reviewing the book Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1C: Genesis 3-4

It is a bit artificial to divide Sarna’s first chapter, which focuses on Genesis 1-4, into sections as I have done in these past four blog posts. Doing so makes it seem like the author is examining these chapters individually, but he does not. Genesis 3, then, is part of his ongoing discussion on Genesis 2.

Having focused on the garden of Eden and the two trees at its center, Sarna next looks briefly at the serpent. He notes that the creature is a common feature of Near Eastern religion, symbolizing both deity and fertility, but, as so often happens in the opening chapters of Genesis, the writer/editor of chapter 3 reduces him to a mere creature of God, devoid of magical properties. Unlike Adam and Eve, the serpent is not dignified with an interrogation by God after the act of disobedience, nor does he say anything in God’s presence. This seems to be an intentional attack against and negation of the pagan cultures surrounding Israel. Sarna, however, does not address the possibility that this episode is alluding to the lure of nearby religions for Israel’s devotion. Instead, he interprets the snake’s role as tempter in light of the cosmic conflict between God and Leviathan, since this creature of chaos who opposes God is commonly described as a serpent (cf. Isaiah 27:1 and Job 26:13).

Sarna concludes chapter 3 by noting the difference of emphasis in Genesis 2-3 from other Near East cultures. They are focused on gaining immortaility as seen from the prominent usage of the tree of life symbol, but the Hebrews are focused on godliness. The serpent’s temptation to become like God is a distortion of the need to emulate his character into the desire to be like him in power. Adam and Eve’s disobedience shows that we are indeed free to obey or disobey, and their punishment teaches that evil comes from our own decision to rebel and is not inherent in creation. This principle of human freedom and the consequences of disobedience is illustrated nicely in Genesis 4 with the story of Cain and Abel.

First, though, Sarna rejects the interpretation that this episode reflects a preference in Israel for the nomadic lifestyle rather than the agricultural one, as some have commonly posited based on the rejection of farmer Cain’s offering and the acceptance of the shepherd Abel’s. He notes that the evidence for a nomadic ideal in Israel is very flimsy and that the opening chapters of Genesis itself argue against it. It is, after all, Adam’s occupation both in the garden and after his expulsion, and the sons of Cain after him are not given their father’s punishment. Instead, they the inventors of herding cattle, playing music, and working metal, all of which are “the three pillars of semi-nomadic culture.” Cain and Abel are treated as individuals, not types, and interpretating the story in that way departs from the intentions of the author.

Next, Sarna argues that the Cain and Abel story’s incompletion is an indication that it existed elsewhere as an independent and complete story. He notes that there is no explanation given for why Cain’s offering is rejected; how God communicated his opinion of the two offerings; who Cain, one of only a few humans alive, was afraid might kill him; where the “land of Nod” is; who inhabited it; and how he got a wife there. Such questions are often answered by literalists in terms of Adam’s descendents multiplying and Cain marrying one of his sisters or relatives, but this explanation seems to me to do injustice to the story. It seems more likely that this episode was pulled from tradition by the writer/editor and used for his own purposes in compiling Genesis. Questions about where Cain got his wife were not that important to him.

Sarna’s commentary on the story begins with the idea of worship. Cain and Abel both make an offering to God without any indication from the text that they were commanded to do so. To make a sacrifice to God, then, is an innate desire, but even this can be corrupted, as the story tells us. There is not an explicit reason given for why God accepts or rejects the offerings, but we do read that “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground” while Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions” (Gen. 4:3-4). Worship, then, is a matter of the heart, not of form.

The story also continues the idea of man’s ability to choose between good and evil. God’s warning to Cain that sin’s “disire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7) indicates the presence of a conflict within us between good and evil and the necessity of mastering the latter. Of course, Cain’s failure indicates our need for God’s power in overcoming the evil within.

Sarna also points out that even though the reader knows that Cain and Abel are brothers, the chapter indicates this fact seven separate times. The point of this emphasis is brought out in verse 9: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers, and furthermore, “that all homicide is at the same time fratricide.”

Sarna draws out a few other points, as well. He addresses the fact that there was an unspoken moral law forbidding murder and that it is a sin against society and against God; the question of why God did not carry out the penalty against Cain for murder; and the principle that acts of injustice cry out to God.

I appreciate looking at Genesis 3 and 4 through Sarna’s lens. His commentary on Cain and Able especially shows me how much meaning and richness is packed into Genesis and how much we can gain from understanding something about the nature of ANE culture. When the distraction of wondering how Cain found a wife is removed, the story has a lot more to tell us. To me, the historicity of this story does not negate God’s inspiration. He is free to use this medium as he is free to use others.

The following is Part 3 in a series outlining and reviewing the book Understanding Genesis:  The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1B: Genesis 2

Turning his attention to the creation of mankind in Genesis 2, Sarna uses the same technique for interpretation as he did for Genesis 1: he draws attention to its similarities to other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) myths and then notes how the author/editor of Genesis uses contrast to make a bold statement about the God of the Hebrews.

Sarna begins by pointing out that the word which many translations render as “dust” in Gen. 2:7 is commonly used in Hebrew as a synonym for “clay.” (Cf. Gen. 11:3, Lev. 14:41, Job 10:9, and 27:16.) Also, the verb which is translated as “formed” in Gen. 2:7-8 is the same word that the Hebrew word for “potter” comes from. The image, according to Sarna, is one of God shaping man out of clay like a potter molds a vessel, a common motif in the ancient Near East. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, one of the characters, Enkidu, is formed from clay by the goddess Aruru; another Babylonian myth relates how the first men were made from clay; and in an Egyptian painting, the god Khnum is shown at a potter’s wheel forming men.

Again, warns Sarna, the important thing is not the similarities with other myths but the differences, and again, what makes the Hebrew myth unique is the high view of man. (Keep in mind that in the Enuma Elish, man was made from the blood of a demon in order to be the gods’ slaves.) Here, in Genesis 2, after all the divine commands of Genesis 1, God gets down on his hands and knees and gives special attention to this final work of creation. Man alone gets the divine breathe. He is not subjected to slavery, but is given every tree, except one, to eat from. And of course, he is given the divine image and placed over all of creation. He is still subject to God, though, for he was fashioned from him. “Through the ingenious employment of a common mythological motif,” Sarna concludes, “the Hebrew writer has subtly and effectively succeeded, not just in combating mythological notions, but also in conveying, all at once, both a sense of man’s glory and freedom and the feeling of his inescapable dependence upon God.”

Sarna next considers the Garden of Eden. First, he says that there must have already existed “a popular Hebrew story about a ‘Garden of God.’” He cites two passages in Ezekiel which seem to refer to other stories about Eden. In the first—chapter 28:11-19—the king of Tyre is said to have lived in the garden as a glorious, bejeweled being who walked among the “stones of fire” with a cherub guarding him, but because of his violence and pride, God cast him from his mountain and a cherub drove him out “from among the stones of fire.” In the second story—chapter 31:8-9 and 16-18—God reminds Egypt that Assyria was once a mighty cedar whom all the trees of Eden envied, but he cut it down because of its pride and sent it to Sheol, where the trees of Eden also reside, to their great comfort. Sarna says that hints of this original story are also contained in Genesis 2 itself.

“The language and style contain several classical features of rhythm, phraseology and parallelistic structure characteristic of Hebrew poetry. The use of the definite article with the first mention of ‘the tree of life,’ ‘the tree of knowledge’ (2:9), ‘the cherubim and the fiery, ever-turning sword’ (3:24), indicates an allusion already well-known to the reader.”

Sarna notes that the motif of the “garden of God” runs in other Near Eastern cultures, and he points to the Sumerian legend of the island of Dilmun. Here, all the animals live in harmony, and all sickness and death are absent. Of particular interest is the fact that because the island had no natural source of fresh water, the sun god Utu brought up a stream out of the earth in order to cause the garden to grow. This of course calls to mind Genesis 2:5-6:

…the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground, but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground… (The New Oxford Annotated Bible. All subsequent quotes are also from this source.)

Sarna notes that the writer of Genesis 2 sought to de-mythologize the stories in and outside of Hebrew culture about the garden of God. He never refers to it by the mythological sounding appellation “garden of God,” as it is called in other portions of scripture. Also, the writer of Genesis 2 makes no mention of any jewels or “stones of fire.” One may recall that the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:13 was covered with

“every precious stone […], carnelian, chrysolite, and moonstone, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, turquoise, and emerald; and worked in gold were [his] settings and [his] engravings.”

The writer of Genesis 2, however, does mention in verse 11 that one of the branches of Eden’s river flows “around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.” It is interesting to note, too, that the Epic of Gilgamesh speaks of a garden where jewels grow on trees. Understanding verse 11 as the writer’s attempt at naturalizing the mythological versions of the garden of God makes sense of a rather random reference to Havilah.

Central to the description of the Garden of Eden are the trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil. The former is a common motif in the surrounding Near Eastern cultures and ritual, one which occurs in Babylonian mythology in conjunction with “the water of life” that irrigates the “plant of life.” Perhaps the writer of Genesis 2 had this in mind when he described the river of verse 10 that branches into four directions. Again, the author seems intent on de-mythologizing the stories by identifying two of these rivers as the Tigris and the Euphrates, which are placed firmly in the minds of the inhabitants of the Near East. Furthermore, the writer removes all magic or independence from the two trees: he writes in verse 9 that it was God who caused them to grow, and the two humans do not gain any special powers over God but must still subject themselves to his authority.

Sarna says that the most startling break with the other stories is the lack of interest in the tree of life, which is mentioned only twice in chapters two and three. The entire focus is on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which has no other parallel in ANE mythology. When all the other cultures were focusing on the quest for eternal life (cf. Gilgamesh’s quest for the vine of life), Genesis 2 was focusing on “the actual relationships between man and God, the tension between the plans of God and the free-will of man.”

The ideas of this section of Understanding Genesis fascinate me to no end. I am drawn to the variety of stories being told in the ANE and the commonality of their motifs and images. I had never noticed the descriptions in Ezekiel or made the connection that they might be one of several stories about the garden of God. Sarna’s strategy of interpretation—emphasizing the differences of Genesis 1-3 from the surrounding ANE stories and understanding what the writer is trying to tell us about God—seems to me to bring the most meaning to the Bible’s first chapters. I know that many people are uncomfortable and often hostile to labeling the first stories of the scriptures as mythology, but this comes from the faulty tendency to understand myth as synonymous to lies or fairy tales rather than vehicles for communicating some of the most basic truths of life. After all, if God can communicate through parables, why can he not also communicate through myth, especially through mythology the original audience would have been very familiar with?

One of my critiques of Sarna’s coverage of Genesis 2 is his poor explanation of the significance of demythologizing the stories of the garden of God. His entire organization depends on this explanation, but he leaves to his readers what the writer of Genesis 2 is trying to accomplish by it. Perhaps, like in Genesis 1, he is denying the existence and power of the pagan gods, but this explanation seems to be lacking. Just why is it so important that the garden exist in the real world? Could it be to emphasize that man’s struggle between his own will and God’s is ever-present in this life? Sarna would have done well to give his own take on this question.

My last critique is a disappointment in Sarna’s lack of comment on the naming of the animals and the creation of Eve. I understand that to do so would break the continuity of his thought, but the effect is that there is a gaping hole in our understanding of Genesis 2. Many pages could have been written and many themes could have been drawn out by a great scholar and teacher like Nahum Sarna.

The following is Part 2 in a series reviewing the book Understanding Genesis:  The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1A:  Creation (Genesis 1-4)

Sarna begins this first chapter by noting that there are several versions of creation in the Bible, most of them in abbreviated form. The two most famous accounts, and the longest, are found in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In this post, I am going to focus on his comments on Genesis 1.

The key to understanding Genesis 1 lies in another creation story, the Enuma Elish of the Babylonians. Sarna gives the following summary. Before the creation of heaven and earth, all that existed was primeval water, represented by the male god Apsu of the sweet waters and his wife, the monstrous Tiamat of the salt waters. From them arose several generations of gods, the youngest of which so disturbed the peace of their first parents that Apsu tried unsuccessfully to destroy them, but Ea, god of the earth and sea, thwarted his attack.

Tiamat then amassed an army to destroy these young gods, who themselves turned to Marduk for help. After he first made them promise to make him their king, he killed Tiamat, cut her into two pieces, and used one of them to build the heavens and the other to build the earth’s foundation. Marduk next fixed the stars in their place, an activity whose details are lost due to the fragmentary nature of the fifth tablet. The other gods, who had now been given fixed assignments, complained about the continual work that was sure to await them. To solve this problem, Marduk made man out of the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s second husband and captain of her army. Finally, the gods built Marduk a temple in Babylon and sang a hymn of praise for his victory.

Before explaining the meaning of the Enuma Elish, Sarna defines myth itself. The Greeks viewed it not as a fairy tale or a lie but as a story of the gods and their interactions with nature and man. They “have as their subjects the eternal problems of mankind communicated through the medium of highly imaginative language.” These myths were re-enacted in festival and ritual so that the creative processes they described would continue and the community be blessed.

The Enuma Elish was central to the Babylonian Spring New Year, when it was read aloud and presented in their festivals. “It was, in effect, the myth that sustained Babylonian civilization, that buttressed its societal norms and its organizations structure.” The myth explained the origin of the gods and of the world, a natural theme for the new year. It also mirrored and justified their societal structure:  man’s place in the Enuma Elish was the same as the slave in the Babylonian Empire, whereas the place of Marduk as king, which he had won by his display of power, mirrored the rule of Babylonian royalty. It explained Marduk’s ascension from the obscurity of god of Babylon to head of the Babylonian pantheon, as well as Babylon’s own ascendancy to the supreme place at the head of the world. Finally, the myth of Marduk’s victory over Tiamat meant the imposition of order over chaos. The re-enactment of the myth through the yearly festival during the vernal equinox (when the forces of night were equal to the forces of day) guaranteed the continuation of order winning out over chaos. In an environment that was no stranger to the unpredictable whims of nature, this ritual was of utmost importance.

Next, Sarna compares and contrasts the Enuma Elish with the Genesis 1:1-2:4 account of creation. The first difference he highlights is that the creation of the cosmos is not central to the Hebrew account; instead, it is introductory to the exodus of Israel. Genesis, he writes, “proclaims […] the absolute subordination of all creation to the supreme Creator who thus can make use of the forces of nature to fulfill His mighty deeds in history. It asserts[…] that the world is under the undivided and inescapable sovereignty of God.”

Secondly, the Genesis account does not justify or explain Hebrew political structure or institutions, and it was not acted out ritualistically to harness and continue the creative power of the story. It is, in fact, non-mythological in that it does not include an account of the birth of God or include any stories about him growing up, marrying, or having children. He is assumed to exist beforehand.

Because the Genesis story is not theogonic (i.e., having to do with the birth of a divinity), God is not part of or subject to nature, nor is he able to be manipulated by magic. In the Enuma Elish, by contrast, the gods arise from the pre-existing forcesTiamat and Apsu, and the universe itself is formed from Tiamat’s body. The gods and man were of the same origin and lived in the same realm. The gods were not omnipotent, nor was theirs the only power. In fact, man could learn to manipulate this other power by magic and ritual. Not so with the God of Genesis 1, who retains complete control over the chaotic forces and who creates by merely speaking the word.

Sarna points out that this creative act by means of the spoken word is wholly different from other stories where the divinity utters a spell to do his will. The Hebrew God is not harnessing the powers of creation by finding the right word; he is commanding matter, which has no choice but to do his will.

Creation by divine fiat is in itself another stark contrast between Genesis and other myths of the Middle East, in which all creative processes are the result of sexual intercourse. The first act of creation in the Enuma Elish, for instance, is the mingling of the waters between the male Apsu and the female Tiamat. In Genesis 1, on the other hand, the writer seems to go out of his way to say that “male and female he created them,” emphasizing that God actually created the differences between the sexes.

The primeval waters of the Enuma Elish seem to be present in the Genesis 1 story also. They exist before God begins to create, and like Tiamat, they are divided into two parts, the waters above and the waters below. However, unlike the unruly Tiamat, the waters in Genesis 1 are completely subject to God’s command. His spirit hovers over them before he divides them into two. He commands, and they separate from the land. He commands again, and they produce swarms of fish.

The Genesis 1 story, then, is truly illuminated by the Enuma Elish. It is the Hebrew answer to the Babylonians, a presentation of who Yahweh is by contrasting him with the gods of the ancient Middle East.

The next installment will deal with how Sarna reads Genesis 2-3. 

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.

When I first started to read about how faith and evolution relate to one another, I found a book by Darrell R. Falk called Coming To Peace With Science:  Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Science. This was one of the most readable books I discovered when it came to presenting the laymen with evidence for evolution, and it was there that I came across one of the most convincing proofs for evolution that helped me embrace common descent.

The unique mammals of Australia are almost exclusively marsupial, i.e., they give birth to their offspring early and incubate them in pouches. At the time that Australia broke away from Antarctica and South America, the small mammals that existed were marsupials, according to the fossil record from that time, which is admittedly pretty scarce. The fossil record from South America indicates that most animals were placental, and today all species there, with the exception of possums, are placental.

What is interesting is that in Australia, there is an animal called Mymecobius uniquely fit for finding and eating ants. It has a long snout, strong paws for digging through mounds, and flat teeth suited to chewing ants. South America has the anteater, of course, with similar features but no pouch.


Australia has the marsupial wombat; South America the placental groundhog. Australia has marsupial squirrel-like animals, some that fly. Australia has been home to the Tasmanian wolf (now exstinct), a marsupial; rabbit-like marsupials; marsupial mice and moles; and at one time, it even had a marsupial cat. The rest of the world has these animals, of course, but they are placental.


(Wombat)                                                                                                      (Hedgehog)

Common descent explains this situation. As the original marsupial mammals met a specific environment, they changed to adapt, but they remained marsupial. Conversely, as the original placentals of South America or North America met similar environments, they also changed to adapt, many of them turning out to have very similar bodies to their counterparts in Australia, but they remained placental.

Now, if not evolution, then what? Am I to honestly believe that God made one wolf in North America with a placenta and another wolf in Australia with a pouch? Or that god made the wolf “kind” capable of developing pouches? Does anyone have more patience than I to search Answers In Genesis to get a reply?

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