08 May 2014

Reading Genesis 1–2 with Richard Averbeck

In Reading Genesis 1–2: An Evangelical Conversation, Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages Richard Averbeck wrote that his attempt to present an "honest reading of Gen 1 from a literary, exegetical, historical, and theological point of view" is not "a matter of somehow finding more time in Gen 1 to accommodate the vast ages of evolutionary science." Affirming something like a division of labor, Averbeck noted that as Old Testament scholars "we are not scientists," even if the "discoveries in physical sciences most certainly cast a long shadow over the conversation."

Averbeck picked up that conversation again this past semester at TEDS, first by briefly walking through his current interpretative work on Genesis 1–2, and then by fielding a few questions concerning the ramifications of that work.

At the outset, Averbeck noted that exegetical debates on this topic often produce far more heat than light. It seems that no matter how irenic, how careful, one's interpretation is, it will polarize and offend.

Averbeck then recalled how for many years he had taken a literal day approach to the Genesis 1 creation narrative (and the often-attendant view that creation occurred recently), but the more he came across the various creation accounts throughout scripture (e.g., Psalm 104), the more he realized these other inspired accounts actually can help us to better work through how we should be reading Genesis 1–2.

Beyond the biblical canon, Averbeck brought his knowledge of ancient Near Eastern texts and culture to bear on the discussion. In answer to the anxiety this may cause some evangelicals, Averbeck argued that knowing the world in which this portion of the scriptures were written, including its own pagan versions of creation, helps to shed light on the biblical text in ways that both clarifies its context but also challenges many of the common assumptions of that ancient culture (for example, that Israel's God Yahweh alone is the creator God of the cosmos).

Averbeck likened Genesis 1:1 to a title, a snapshot, a kind-of introductory remark about God's creative activity, while the rest of the narrative (up to Gen. 2:3) unpacks that fact in terms of the observable world, that is, from a human perspective. It's driving home the point, in short, that "Yahweh did this." The days are also better seen as literary constructs, Averbeck said, rather than literal, 24-hour days, in order to bring home the importance of the pattern of 6/7—six days of work and a day of sabbath, both as a reflection of God's creative work and as a witness of faithfulness to the one, true God of Israel in the surrounding pagan culture.

Another particularly interesting point had to do with Averbeck's take on where the "image and likeness" of God is located in humankind. Too often we push the image of God into to the realm of metaphysics, or hyper-spiritualize it, Averbeck said. But it's concrete, rooted in this physical world. To be created in the image of God is to be erected on earth as the creator God's statue, meant to extend his wise dominion.

Also of crucial importance to Averbeck's view is his insistence on a historical Adam and Eve, without which, he argues, significant portions of scripture would make little sense (for example, Rom. 5). He noted that the "historical markers" in Genesis 2, such as the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, point us in the direction of seeing the first pair as historical figures.

Averbeck then wrapped up with what he deemed to be one of scripture's major themes, introduced in Genesis 4:26 (the end of the section beginning at Gen 2:4): It's the only solution given in the midst of the plight we see unfolding in these early chapters of scripture, and it is one that is often highlighted throughout the canon: "Calling upon the name of the LORD." The rest of scripture essentially tells the story of those who do and don't follow that charge, eventually culminating in the one who did so perfectly, even unto the point of death, for the sake of the whole world.


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