Just wondering: literal language and referent in Genesis 1-3?

I’m currently reading Stephen G. Dempster’s fantastic book Dominion and Dynasty: A theology of the Hebrew Bible, which is part of D.A. Carson’s “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series. (InterVarsity Press, 2003).

Dempster is trying to look at the Jewish Old Testament (the Tanakh, which is essentially just a different ordering of the same books) with a “wide-angle lens”—moving past the diverse genres of the OT to find its thematic unity. In other words, D and D observes how each individual text (e.g. Malachi) fits into the literary structure of the Text (the whole Tanakh).

He emphasizes the function of the Creation narrative as (a) the establishment of mankind’s rule over the land as Yahweh’s vicegerents (dominion), and (b) the promise of a line (or ‘seed’) of descendants to inhabit that land (dynasty), and alludes in passing to his view on the historicity of the story:

“If the text is written in realistic narrative, there is also a pervasive symbolism. The river of life, stressing God’s presence, flowing from the ‘temple,’ is echoed later in the Text … The command not to eat of the tree of knowledge—the one ‘thou shalt not’—can be seen in some ways as an encapsulation of the commandments given later at Sinai, which would be kept in the sanctuary. While having many and various interpretations, the tree of knowledge of good and evil probably signifies the violation of commandment, represented in a quest for moral and epistemological autonomy” (p. 63).

And later:

“A serpent … suddenly appears, urging the woman to reject the imposition of any limits and flatly contradicts God. Literalistic commentators who describe this text as belonging to an age when people still believed in talking animals fail to see its theological depth” (p. 68-69).

So it got me thinking: is the Creation story historically true?

Now, I mean this in two senses. The first is comprehensive—are Adam and Eve historical persons, and was there a literal garden? Essentially, is the narrative fundamentally a historical event? As admittedly conservative, I lean very strongly toward the affirmative.

The second sense is more particular—was there literally a talking snake, was the tree of knowledge of good and evil actually a tree, and was Adam and Eve’s sin eating a physical fruit? Or are these simply metaphors for spiritual realities—the presence of evil in the garden, Adam and Eve’s sinful longing to be like God, and their partaking in forbidden desires?

In other words, there seems to be three options: (1) The Historical Approach: Both the narrative and its language are to be read literally; (2) The Ahistorical Approach: The Creation story is an entirely metaphorical event deeply embedded in Jewish literary form and Ancient Near East (specifically Egyptian) historical context, and intended to flesh out spiritual truth(s) about God; (3) The Literal-Metaphorical Approach: The narrative actually occurred in space-time history, but the language describing the event is often metaphorical—the author uses poetic style and and symbolism to point toward a spiritual reality (e.g, the snake symbolizes the presence of evil, the tree represents Adam and Eve’s rebellion, etc).

I don’t have a strong opinion on this one. I’m only beginning to work through these issues.

So I’m just wondering: How should we read Genesis 1-3? Strictly literally, strictly metaphorically, or some mixture of the two? Offer your opinion in the comments. If there are more than three options, by all means suggest them.


Marriage and Decision-Making

I don’t normally insert anecdotal stories about myself into these posts, but I think this one is important for general Christian life-thinking and it just happens to relate to a couple different horizons of my immediate future, so you’ll just have to deal. This weekend I had the joy of attending the wedding of a close friend and former college roommate.

It was a wonderful ceremony, steeped in rich religious symbolism as Christian weddings typically are. One of the things they decided to do (and is becoming increasingly common) was to write their own vows. Normally this is the kind of thing that hits me wrong — an unnecessary departure from extensive tradition for the sake of trite novelty.

I think there were several reasons I thought this way of reciting vows was uniquely profound for this wedding, not least of which was that they were well-written and decidedly not trite. Additionally, it was a good friend this time and not someone I’m likely to critique too obnoxiously, as is my wont.

But deeper than that, there was a measurable and dare-I-say theological significance to the vows this time. These vows were rooted in the character of the God who promises and upholds those promises. These vows sought marital fidelity by means of the reconciling blood of Jesus. These vows said: I’m committing to you alone and I promise to uphold this covenant.

This, of course, was hardly unique to this wedding. This is common wedding symbolism. But I suppose the explicitly personal diction of the vows, worded so deftly by both bride and groom, solidified this in my mind for the first time. God makes covenants with his people and remains faithful despite their faithlessness, shown most supremely in the death and resurrection of his Christ. The decision to love in marriage reflects God’s decision to love us through Jesus (cf. Eph. 5:25). This is radical stuff.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote in Mere Christianity that there are two different kinds of marriage love — there’s the spark of attraction that ignites the love flame, followed by the long slow-burn of covenant continuity. The former rises ferociously and unexpectedly but fluctuates over time. There is little choice in the matter. And it is no way to build a marriage.

The latter has everything to do with choice. The fickle flashes of attraction and sensuality don’t withstand the ever-present and ruthless storms of potential divorce.* The covenant, however — that lasts. That’s the basis of very best things that endure.

Marriage vows are in a sense impotent. They don’t matter if you decide you don’t want them to anymore. But they’re made strong by the tight bonds of years together and mutual, determined, sometimes stubborn commitment. The marriage covenant is solidified by a steadfast fidelity to it.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I thought deeply about these things for the first time during this particular wedding. I’m in a season of life where I’m making the sorts of choices that in one way or another will determine who I will become, setting me on a lifelong trajectory which will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to reverse. And I’m petrified.

The marriage decision is really every life decision writ large. Choosing to love and cherish a person for life is similar to deciding to go to a particular school or becoming part of a particular community or working in a particular state. Sometimes we commit to things rashly; that does not necessarily make them bad choices. Part of God’s will in our lives is to remain faithful to the paths he’s set for us, paths that are quite often illuminated by our decision to take them.

A recent conversation with a wise mentor about my looming decision touched on this concept. I paraphrase:

“My wife might not like to hear this, but there are plenty of quality women I could have married. But I didn’t; I married her. As such it is God’s desire for me to honor that and love her wholeheartedly. Sometimes God’s will is revealed by our sanctified decision to take the first step. And he expects us to be faithful to that choice.”

Amen. May it be said of my two married friends, and may it be said of us.


*This is a minor point for this post, but I still really want to include it so here’s a footnote. There’s a very short but alarming piece in the most recent Best American Essays anthology that powerfully illustrates the imminent reality of divorce in every marriage. I feel bad posting the last paragraph here because that’s akin to giving away the punchline to a great joke before posing the leading question, but I’ll risk it anyway. Just promise me you’ll pay the eight bucks to buy the anthology (you should anyway) and read the whole thing for yourself:

“Every marriage is pregnant with divorce, every day, every hour, every minute. The second you finish reading this essay, your spouse could close the refrigerator, after miraculously finding a way to wedge the juice carton behind the milk jug, and call it quits, and the odd truth of the matter is that because she might end your marriage in a moment, and you might end hers, you’re still married. The instant there is no chance of death is the moment of death.” (Brian Doyle, “Irreconcilable Dissonance,” The Best American Essays: 2010, ed. Robert Atwan and Christopher Hitchens)

Monday Morning Press 8.8.11

Robert Sagers, filling in for Justin Taylor at Between Two Worlds, reflects on baseball park community at San Francisco Giants games, and what the church can learn. I’ve had similar thoughts and experiences about which I’ll comment someday.

Jared Wilson considers the problems with graceless Calvinism. A hearty “amen” from these parts.

Dane Ortlund, via Sidney Greidanus, observes six ways to see Christ in the OT.

Tim Gombis lays out the communicative backdrop of the book of Romans.

Doug Wilson’s sermon outline on the blind man healed in John 9.

Did you know the SF Giants have a serious seagull problem, and are considering releasing falcons to chase them off? It’s true.

Gabe from Motivated Grammar offers excellent thoughts for journalists, arguing (persuasively) that they must be arbiters of truth and not merely stenographers or opinion-gatherers.