With God in Mind
Today we can read many interpretations of the book of Genesis, and even more interpretations focused on Genesis 1–3 or part of it. The interpretations do not agree. Should we be surprised? Not really. Genesis 1–3 does not contain enough information to answer completely all the questions that we may address to it. When we press into some questions in detail, we run into uncertainties. People may understandably disagree about matters that are intrinsically uncertain in our present state of knowledge.
In addition, interpretations do not take place in a vacuum. People already have commitments due to past training, as well as heart commitments. A person without a rich and complex past is like an infant, who has no ability to interpret any text. So, yes, interpreters come with a past. They are not necessarily slaves to their past, but they do have a past.
What is in this past for each potential interpreter of Genesis 1–3? Much is involved. Among those things in the past is the challenge of religious commitment. Does the interpreter believe in the God who is described in the Bible or not? If he does not, he has to have some substitute. After all, he has to depend on regularities that he did not invent, regularities in history, society, language, the natural world, and his own mental apparatus and memory. Without those things, he can do nothing; he cannot begin. So he does rely on those things. Does he hold to them as manifestations of the faithfulness of God and his sovereign sustaining power? Does he thank God for them? Or are they just there, as impersonal rules independent of God? And from whom has he learned? From all sorts of sources. But what commitments do those sources have to God or to counterfeit gods, that is, lying substitutes?
The issue of who God is will not go away, even if some biblical interpreters choose not to attend to it.
What Do You Think about God?
Many interpreters undertake to interpret without dwelling for long on the question of interpretive principles. That might seem to be a convenient strategy, because we have a natural eagerness to get on with discussing the text itself, Genesis 1–3. Moreover, the interpreters who bring to Genesis 1–3 different religious commitments may still offer positive insights by common grace. The impulse to proceed quickly is understandable. But if we go that way, we run the danger of not understanding why the interpretations sometimes differ widely. Some differences are minor ones concerning some detail. We may find that in our existing state of knowledge we cannot confidently draw conclusions concerning a minor difference. But, of course, with Genesis 1–3, the differences are sometimes major. Some interpreters, for example, think that Genesis 1–3 is not about events that actually happened long ago, in time and space, but only about a poetic or theological interpretation of the Israelites and their situation. So it pays to ask our interpreters, if we may, “What do you think about God?”
If you claim to believe in the God described in the Bible, have you thought through how radically different that belief is from the typical religious assumptions among the elite groups in our civilization? Have you thought through how that belief is going to recast every hermeneutical principle that you hold and carry into practice? Have you thought through the implications for how we view the ancient Near East, language, and modern scientific claims?
If you do not believe in the God described in the Bible, you have some substitute, and that affects your interpretation. There can be ten thousand substitutes, varying in their details. That means there can be ten thousand interpretations of Genesis 1–3. But in the end, it means nothing. Of course, if a person goes astray about such a fundamental reality as the meaning of the presence of God, his results down the line will show the influence of that fateful move. As usual, insights still arise by common grace in spite of bad religious commitments. Conversely, failures in insight can arise in spite of good religious commitments. We live in a world of mental struggle.
Some modern interpretations, including ones that discount any reference to actual events of long ago, claim to be “Christian” interpretations. It sounds nice to say that, but by itself it does not mean much, because the word Christian can be used very loosely. It is better to ask, “Do you believe in the God about whom Jesus Christ taught while he was on earth and about which he commissioned his apostles to speak?” On the fundamental issue of who God is, Jesus Christ claimed to know: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). The Father about whom Jesus speaks is recognizably the same God who is described in the Old Testament. He works miracles; he cares for the tiniest things, like sparrows and hairs on the head (Mtt. 10:29–30); he determined beforehand the events of the crucifixion and the resurrection (Luke 22:22).
Teaching and Showing Sovereignty
The issue of who God is will not go away, even if some biblical interpreters choose not to attend to it. It is crucial. There are not many alternatives for how we deal with the issue. If a person thinks that Jesus is teaching us accurately, he must accept that God is the God that we have been describing, based on Scripture. And that leads to reconfiguring everything that he has inherited from modern Western culture. He can no longer interpret Genesis in the same way.
- If a person thinks Jesus was mistaken in his view of God, his authority as a religious teacher is broken, and historic Christianity is destroyed.
- A person could think that the Gospels give a mistaken impression as to what Jesus taught. But if the Gospels were mistaken on such a fundamental point, they would be essentially worthless in giving us access to the core of Jesus’s religious teaching. So no one could really know what he thought about God, and his importance would be undermined.
- Finally, if a person thinks that the whole Bible is just one more religious document, why bother with it, since it is so unacceptable to modern people, not merely at some peripheral point, but at the heart, in its teaching about God?
The way in which an interpreter responds to the question of God makes a particular difference in interpreting Genesis 1. This chapter is about the question in dispute. It shows the sovereignty of God over the world that he made. It does so not so much by directly teaching the doctrine of the sovereignty and presence of God, but by showing his sovereignty through its description of the particular events that took place by the command of God and according to his plan.1
- On the difference between “showing” and “telling” in Hebrew narrative, see C. John Col- lins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 11–12, citing other sources, including V. Philips Long, The Reign and Rejection of King Saul: A Case for Literary and Theological Coherence (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 31–34. See also C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 60–64, 164–165; C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 36. We will address this issue again in chap. 6.
This article is adapted from Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3 by Vern S. Poythress.
Human persons have deep significance. We alone among the earthly creatures are made in the image of God.
The foundation stories of Genesis set the stage of the drama of Scripture in many ways.
What do we do if we find an apparent discrepancy between Genesis 1-3 and what modern scientists claim about the origin of the world?