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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. Net.bible.org 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 net.bible.org:

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?

Children, graduate school, and teaching are keeping me from blogging, but not from Netflix. One needs one’s down time, after all. Now that I’ve finished Battlestar Galactica, my new sci-fi kick is Firefly. Yesterday’s viewing produced the following excellent scene (just watch the first minute and a half):

I totally get you, River. I’ve been trying to integrate evolution and Genesis for years, and I’m not quite sure what to do with the rest of the Bible. I’m trying to understand what it is and how I should be reading it. An inerrant understanding has become unconvincing, and an inspired-and-yet-still-human view has taken its place.

But Shepherd Book’s explanation is lame and unhelpful. “It’s not about making sense,” he says. “It’s about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t ‘fix’ faith, River. It fixes you.” This is the Hollywood understanding of faith. It’s just something we believe that brings us comfort and peace. It helps us make sense of our world, even though it is divorced from actual truth. This I cannot accept. I have to have truth. It’s reality that matters. If Christianity is not really true, then it has lost its value. Now, I’m not saying that the Bible has to be inerrant or that Genesis has to be a literal account of origins. But the central claims of and about Jesus need to be true. Otherwise, it can’t really fix anything.

Our pastor preached his first of a series of sermons on 1 Peter today, and thankfully, he just launched into the material without going through a long explanation about who wrote it, what the scholars say, and what his response was. Such a conversation probably would have distracted from the text, but it brought up questions for me. What if it’s not Peter? I haven’t looked too extensively into this particular issue, but my impression is that the majority of Biblical critics think that 2 Peter, at least, is pseudepigraphic (if there is such an adjective), i.e., it’s author purports to be someone famous but is not. In my denomination, heated protests would immediately flare up at this point. At issue, ultimately, is the authority of this letter, which the label pseudepigraph ipso facto causes to crumble. But does it have to? I would love it if someone who knows would explain to me the following:

1.  If the author was not Peter, what were his intentions in using the apostle’s name? Was he an impostor, pretending to be someone he was not in order to deceitfully lend lend authority to his writing? Could he have been given authorityto speak on Peter’s behalf? Was he writing in the office of Peter?

2.  What did the author’s audience know? Did they think they were getting a letter from the apostle himself? Or did they know the identity of the author and had some sort of understanding about why he was writing under Peter’s name? 1 Peter seems to have a very specific audience–various congregations in Asia Minor. If the letter were written sometime after the death of Peter, then surely they were under no misapprehensions about who was writing to them. 2 Peter, on the other hand, is addressed more generally “to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours” (NIV). If this letter was meant to be circulated generally, were the recipients intended to think it was from the apostle himself?

Central to all the questions above is the issue of deception, which I think is what makes everyone in my denomination so uncomfortable. But if, however, the author is writing in some sort of accepted tradition, then perhaps this wouldn’t be such a big deal. So, is there any enlightenment out there?

The Descent of the Dove

A lot of online hubbub about hell is going on of late, thanks to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I have not read the book, which has sparked accusations of universalism, but I have recently started reading and enjoying Charles Williams Descent of the Dove. Below are his comments on the universalism posited by Origen:

The imaginations of the Alexandrian Fathers were courteous; their visions were humane. Origen extended that vision so far as to teach the final restitution of all things, including the devils themselves. It is impossible that some such dream should not linger in any courteous mind, but to teach it as a doctrine almost always ends in the denial of free-will. If God has character, if man has choice, an everlasting rejection of God by man must be admitted as a possibility; that is, hell must remain. The situation of the devils (if any) is not man’s business. The charity of Origen schematized then too far; he declared as a doctrine what can only remain as a desire. It was one of the reasons why he was denounced…  (p. 40)

Charles Williams makes some interesting points about universalism and hell.

1. Universalism stems from a charitable disposition. Who does not want everyone to be saved? Scripture indicates that God himself prefers to show mercy to everyone, when it says “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekial 33:11). Since God does in fact judge the wicked with an irreversible condemnation, the charity of universalism reveals itself to be misguided and dangerous. Misguided because our charity cannot surpass God’s; there must be something universalists are not taking into account. Dangerous because it preaches peace when there is judgment.

Questions emerge, though. Why wouldn’t God grant universal pardon, if this is indeed what he would rather do? Williams says that it is because

2. Universalism destroys free will. If man is free to choose God, then he is also free to reject him. According to Williams, God will not save a person against his will, and universalism “almost always” demands that this be so in the end. The Calvinist disputes the idea of God’s unwillingness to act against man’s will. He replies that if God waited for anyone to willingly choose him, no one would be saved. God’s Spirit must first give life and sight to the believer, and then the believer will always freely choose God. The Universalist could say the same thing in reply to Williams regarding God’s action toward the souls of unbelievers. He could illumine them and save them, too. But, I ask, if that’s what God is going to do, why wait until after death?

The third point I want to draw attention to is Williams’s view of what hell is.

3. Hell is the rejection of God. Williams and C. S. Lewis are of the same mind here. Hell is passive, they say, not active. Man chooses hell, and man is his own inflicter there. If God is life, joy, goodness,etc., then to reject him is to embrace death, misery, evil, and the rest. Rejection of God is hell. Furthermore, man willingly remains in hell, clinging to his sin and so rejecting heaven. (1)

I must confess, if this view were correct, then I would have a lot more peace about hell. I much prefer this view. I want this view to be correct. Unfortunately, I am not persuaded. I have the impression that scripture speaks more actively about hell. I have always thought of it in terms of God actively pouring out his wratch against sin. Perhaps I am wrong. What do you think?

(1) I am pretty sure this is true of Lewis, and I would bet that Williams would concur, though I am not certain.

 

Now that there’s only a week until Halloween, I find myself reflecting again on All Saints’ Day, a church holiday I started observing only last year. I also find myself wondering why some in the Reformed tradition are apparently trying to redeem October 31st by celebrating Reformation Day instead of All Hallows Eve. The festivity looks much the same—there are costumes, treats, and games (including Pin the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Door at at least one congregation’s festivities)—but what is being celebrated is different. Perhaps we are recoiling from the ghoulishness of Halloween and are trying to redeem what many perceive as a celebration of evil. But perhaps we, in typical Protestant fashion, are recoiling unnecessarily from a Catholic holiday.

I don’t deny that for the Protestant, the nailing of the 95 Theses to the church doors is something to remember and celebrate, but isn’t it of greater significance to celebrate the souls of our brothers and sisters who have passed into victory? They have gone on ahead of us—through temptations, doubts, despair, persecution, abandonement, rejection, loss, torture, and death—and by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, the Lord Jesus’s intercession, and God the Father’s eternal proclamation, they have entered into rest, joy, sight, life, and peace. In celebrating All Saint’s Day, we thank God for the work he did in the martyrs of old and in the lives of believing parents, pastors, and friends.

Why will most Protestant churches not mention this next Sunday? Perhaps it’s because All Saint’s Day technically celebrates only the canonized saints. Here, I agree with my fellow Protestants and protest the distinction made by All Saint’s and All Souls’ Day. For me, All Saint’s is All Souls’, a day of celebrating the sactification of all believers, who are all alike saved by the grace of Christ and are therefore all alike holy (Latin:  sanctus). If we want to redeem something, perhaps we can make some modifications in just who we are celebrating on November 1st, but there is no need to turn away from something so significantly hopeful to something else.

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.

I love my church. She has a real heart for building God’s kingdom across racial and social lines. There is good teaching, encouragement, fellowship, and ministry opportunities. The gospel is going out through her.

Often, though, I find myself complaining. I know that the Church is not perfect and will alway fail in many ways, but I want to give voice to three recurring thoughts I have when I go to worship on Sundays. Maybe you can offer some insight. I wish that we:

1.  observed communion every Sunday. I find myself needing and longing for the simple physical symbols of Christ’s blood and body. He is preached from our pulpit for forty minutes every Lord’s Day, but he is presented in the elements only once a month. Is there a reason why we shouldn’t be feasting every time we meet together?

2.  we drank wine instead of grape juice during communion. I understand the objections, but I find them wanting. At least offer the wine. I want to feel the burn of the alcohol down my throat as I reflect on the cleansing power of Jesus’s blood.

3.  our tithe was enough to cover missions. Every year our congregation is asked to commit to giving beyond the ten percent offering so that we can support missionaries at home and abroad. Every year I have a violent internal reaction. I’m a teacher, I think. Tithe is already a sacrifice. Why isn’t the tithe covering missions at my church? Shouldn’t we be trying to operate on the congregation’s ten percent? Let me see that budget! What if I want to make an offering to something else of my choosing? This is hard for me. On the one hand, I understand that the building has to be paid for, the employees paid, the bills handled. My church is not irresponsible. We are not a super spending mega-church. God is doing a lot of good through us. On the other hand, I hate that my money is not going into something that feels like it has more of a direct impact on the church. I want my money to go to the poor and to sending out missionaries. My church is not the only Presbyterian church that handles missions in this way. How does yours handle the budget?

In ancient news,

1. The Vatican says it has literally uncovered the oldest images of the apostles John and Andrew in the tomb of a wealthy Christian woman of the third century. The earliest image of the apostle Paul was uncovered in the same location last year.

2. Archaeologists are unsure why there is a mass grave of babies next to a Roman villa in Britain. Perhaps, they speculate, it was being used as a brothel.

3. Minorities are angry that Angelina Jolie has been tapped to play Cleopatra in a remake of the eponymous movie, claiming that the role should have been played by an African actress. As many have pointed out, they are overlooking the fact that Cleopatra was not Egyptian; she was the last of the Ptolemies and was therefore Greek.

In movie news,

1. The first trailer for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (one of my favorites of the Narnia books) has come out. Changes have been made (Disney is no longer producing, nor is Andrew Adamson directing), but the quality of filming still looks good. Watch it on youtube.

2.  N. D. Wilson, son of pastor Douglass Wilson, is quite the rising star among Christian writers. His popular children series The 100 Cupboards is being made into a movie. He has also been hired as the screenwriter for the movie adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

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