Reading Genesis

by Wayne Spencer

Be careful how you read the Bible.  Many Christians are led astray today by people who read the Bible wrongly.  There are many Christian scholars who have problematic views of Genesis, as well as of other parts of the Bible.  But because Genesis is the foundation for a Christian world view in many ways, if you get Genesis wrong, this is a serious problem that can steer you in the wrong direction regarding many other issues.  Is it better for Christian parents to send their children to Christian colleges or to secular colleges?  I don't think there is one answer for all to this question.  It will depend on what the young person's interests and abilities are.  But I would say that going to a Christian college (or to seminary) can challenge a young adult's faith every bit as much as attending a secular university.  Consider that at a secular university, nonchristians may expect Christian students to believe all of the Bible.  Why would nonchristians expect this?  Because it makes what the Christian believes logically self-consistent.   But at many Christian colleges this is somehow forgotten and the professors have been influenced by many liberal nonchristian scholars, often to the point that they don't see various inconsistencies as a problem.  It is to be expected that when you don't know much about issues regarding why we should believe what we believe that you might not have figured out yet how to have a coherent self-consistent world-view.  In fact, none of us are perfect.  Figuring out how to have such a Christian world view is not easy and can take a lifetime.  But college students who are Christians must evaluate what they are taught carefully.  This is no less true at Christian colleges.  This is not so they can pick on everything the professor says but so that they can hold on to their Christian convictions in a world that has an overwhelming tendency to make those convictions erode.  Christian colleges sometimes work very sincerely at helping Christians maintain their Biblical convictions, and sometimes they do not.  

In this article I am going to do some critique of a paper called "After Adam:  Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science" by Daniel C. Harlow (Available from ).  Daniel Harlow is a professor at Calvin College, in Michigan.  I do not know Dr. Harlow personally and I don't mean to attack him personally.  I do have problems with many of his comments in this paper.  First, understand that this paper is published by the American Scientific Affiliation, or ASA.  The ASA is an organization that has been against a literal historical view of Genesis since sometime in the 1960's.  So the ASA allows for evolutionary ideas and does not see this as being "contrary to" the Bible.  They have a Christian statement of faith but do not take a position on many doctrinal issues or issues of Biblical interpretation.  There have been multiple instances of professors from Calvin College writing against a more conservative view of Genesis.  So Dr. Harlow seems to follow other Calvin College colleagues.  He questions a number of things in Genesis and I do not agree with his view for many reasons.  This is really just an example similar to other similar ideas that are being promoted today.  

It is interesting how often when you read writings from scholars who believe some form of Theistic Evolution, how often they start their comments or finish their comments with something about how science has "thoroughly demonstrated evolution."  Harlow begins his paper about evolutionary science.  He says "The ever-growing hominid fossil record unmistakably shows that human beings did not appear suddenly but evolved gradually over the course of six million years."  This statement is grossly incorrect.  The science on the alleged evolution of man (called paleoanthropology) is full of mistakes, sloppy research, unrealistic conclusions, and sometimes outright fraud.  This area of research is one of the worst examples of bad science and dishonest science.  (My own article on this is called "The Non-Evolution of Man.")  Not all paleontologists do such bad work but the alleged evidence for the evolution of man is very misleading.  This has been thoroughly documented by creationists and sometimes by non-creationists.  Young-age creationists have done a lot of valid research over the years and it is just wrong that both the scientific community and many Christian scholars, do not acknowledge it as legitimate.  Still, in spite of this there are thousands of people all around the world who have graduate degrees in the sciences and who believe God created everything in six literal days just several thousand years ago.

Harlow also brings up an issue that is now being used to argue that there was no real Adam or Eve.  Harlow argues that Adam and Eve were only literary figures, not real people.  But before he spells out his view of Adam and Eve, he brings up something from evolutionary science.  He points out that mathematical models from scientific studies of genetics will say that the first fully modern humans came out of an "interbreeding population" of about 10,000 individuals.  So modern evolutionary science is saying that our species, homo sapiens, could not have come from one pair of individuals.  They say this because they don't believe all the characteristics of humans could come about all at once in just one couple.  This line of reasoning is flawed because they don't accept a Biblical view of history.  In a biblical view of history, the genetics does work out.  This is some new research that creationists are still working on but it goes something like this.  First, when Adam and Eve were created they had non-mutated DNA and more genetic variability possible in their DNA that we have lost.  This is what makes 10,000 individuals unnecessary.  Adam and Eve's genetics did not come about by random recombination over millions of years, but it was created in a day.  Adam and Eve were created supernaturally as Genesis describes.  They did not evolve from some lower ape-like creature.  Thus they had no mutations in the beginning.  Then 1656 years after creation, the Global Flood takes place in which Noah's family, a total of 8 people, were saved in the Ark.  The Flood of Noah's day represents a genetic bottleneck that occurred about 4,500 years ago.  The amount of variation in the X and Y sex chromosomes of men and women around the world today is consistent with this.  But it doesn't work unless Adam and Eve had "perfect" genetics in the beginning, followed by a genetic bottleneck of 8 people repopulating the Earth after the Flood.  There is technical peer-reviewed research ongoing on this today from creationsts with Ph.D.'s in biochemistry and genetics related fields.

Before I go into what Dr. Harlow says on Genesis, I must comment on what he says about sin.  Harlow clearly rejects the concept of original sin, that all of us have inherited a sinful nature from Adam and Eve.  He makes a shocking statement on sin, "a range of evidence establishes that virtually all of the acts considered 'sinful' in humans are part of the natural repertoire of behavior among animals . . . ."  He goes on to list sinful behaviors that animals could be said to exhibit, such as theft, deception, rape, murder, infanticide, and others.  I don't dispute that animals do these things at times.  But Harlow doesn't seem to acknowledge that sin changed the world.  In Genesis 3:17, God tells Adam, "Cursed is the ground because of you...."  It goes on to explain the difficulties the man would have to live with because of his sin.  Harlow does not seem to comment on this verse in the paper.  Both the animal world and human experience were changed by Adam and Eve's sin in the beginning.  So the world is not so good as it once was.  In addition, if we did not inherit a sinful nature, then why was the virgin conception of Jesus necessary?  Jesus had to be of human lineage so he could represent us in death and yet not inherit the sin nature we have.  Thus without original sin, the basis of Jesus' work for us is undermined.  

If what Harlow says is true, why couldn't people say "Well, it's not my fault, my animal ancestry made me do it!"  Where does this leave our moral responsibility for sin?  Harlow does seem to acknowledge that humans sin, but he tries to make sin something we somehow got from our evolution from lower animals.  In other words, we essentially inherited our sinful nature from animals, not from Adam and Eve!  Harlow goes on to say "Only over time would they have developed a sufficient spiritual awareness to sense that many selfish behaviors are contrary to God's will, and the moral imperative to transcend those behaviors."  This is wrong.  Harlow does not mean minutes or days when he says "Only over time . . ." in this statement.  He means over a time of more than one hundred thousand years in an evolutionary time scale.  Secular scientists would say this is inconsistent with evolution.  Evolution reduces human behavior to being due to genetics and our environment, where "environment" can include both our physical environment and our "psycho-social" environment.    How could humans, which are moral creatures made in God's image, evolve from amoral creatures (animals) not made in God's image?  How did humans come to be in God's image, if humans evolved?  Harlow does not explain what his view is of the concept of being "made in God's image."  Evolution has long been used to justify sinful behavior.  Harlow comes very close to this.  I hope this is not his intention.  But atheistic and agnostic evolutionists do this frequently.  Harlow's view on human behavior and evolution tends to downplay the significance of our own choices and our own responsibility.

Now, about what Dr. Harlow says about Genesis as a document.  Harlow says that Adam and Eve are strictly literary figures used to tell a story, they are not real people who lived in history.  Then to go along with this Harlow argues that the early chapters of Genesis are based on or are rewritten versions of ancient Near Eastern myths, such as the Babylonian myths about "creation" and a great flood.  Harlow makes a statement that "The Adam and Eve story is not even mentioned in the Old Testament outside Genesis...."  Adam's existence as a real person is affirmed in the rest of the Bible.  Adam is listed in the long geneology in 1 Chronicles 1, which was used as a basis of dividing the land of Canaan among the twelve tribes of Israel.  Hosea 6:7 says, "But, like Adam, they have transgressed the covenant....(NASB95)"  So this references the sin in the beginning and mentions Adam by name.  Job 31:33 in the NASB says "Have I covered my transgressions like Adam...."  In some Bible versions, this verse is translated without use of Adam's name.  Scripture doesn't have to retell the whole creation story to acknowledge it.  Exodus 20:11 refers to the six days of creation.  Many other events described in Genesis are referred to in the rest of the Bible.  

The New Testament has a number of references to Genesis.  Allusions to Genesis do not always use Adam and Eve's names explicitly.  The geneology of Christ refers to Adam in Luke 3:38.  Including Adam in geneologies is a strong argument for him being a real person.  The Apostle Paul also refers to Adam in 1 Corinthians 15:45, "The first man Adam became a living being...."  Though the Old Testament does not mention Eve outside Genesis, the New Testament mentions her in 2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:13.  The verse in 1 Timothy 2:13 says "For Adam was formed first, then Eve."  So this verse by implication affirms that Eve was a real person and that she was the first woman.  It goes on to mention Eve being decieved in the beginning.  It is not possible to take Adam and Eve as merely literary figures, because this contradicts the teaching of Paul.  Jesus made reference to the origin of marriage (Matthew 19:4) and to Noah's Flood, though he did not use the names "Adam" and "Eve" explicitly in the four gospels.  (In Matthew 24:38 Jesus mentions Noah by name and the flood judgment.)  I think there is no question that the Jews hearing Jesus knew he was referring to Genesis.  So if the early chapters of Genesis are just "stories" and not history, how are we to understand Jesus?  Harlow does not answer this question.  He also seems to allow for the possibility that the Apostle Paul was not really correct in his understanding.  Harlow makes the statement, "Paul, like Luke, no doubt regarded Adam as a historical person but in his letters he assumes the historicity of Adam instead of asserting it."  If you combine what Paul said at the Aereopagus in Athens (Acts 17) with 1 Corinthians 15 I think you can say he did assert the historicity of Adam.  I think Harlow's entire concept of Biblical inspiration is incorrect.  I am not prepared to believe that the Apostle Paul was wrong about Adam.  Scientific knowledge is not sufficient justification for rejecting the historicity of Adam and Eve, especially given the problems with evolutionary science.

It is widely believed among many scholars today, both some Christian and nonchristian, that the early chapters of Genesis borrowed or reworked ideas from other ancient Near Eastern myths.  This idea tends to be combined with an incorrect idea about the authorship of Genesis that says it was written not at the time of Moses but during the Israelite exile period in Babylon, hundreds of years later.  It is widely known that there are many mythic stories from ancient peoples from all over the world that have similarities to Genesis 1-11.  Scholars deliberately avoid the view that says that the creation and flood myths are distortions of the original events, though I think this is more plausible.  Scholars avoid the idea that Genesis is the original true authoritative account of a very ancient period of prehistory.  Instead they try to argue that the ancient myths came first and Genesis was a retelling and rewriting of the old pagan myths but done to fit Jewish beliefs.  This idea has deceived many Bible scholars, seminary professors, and many seminary students today.  

Why would this idea of Genesis being based on old myths be so well accepted today?  First, Genesis has supernatural aspects that scholars have difficulty believing.  If someone has trouble believing Genesis I would rather they just say so than to try to twist it to mean something else.  Genesis describes the world as originally different than now and it has God appearing in human form and Satan appearing in the form of a serpent or reptile.  It is understandable in a sense that if someone were unfamiliar with it, this could seem like a myth.  Yet Genesis is treated as history in the rest of the Bible.  Genesis is not written as a myth, nor even as Hebrew poetry, but as a historical narrative.  Genesis has the characteristics of Hebrew narrative, such as in the verb forms used in Hebrew.  Harlow sometimes refers to the literary style of ancient Near Eastern origins stories but he does not deal with the unique aspects of Hebrew.  It's not ancient Near Eastern writing style that matters in Genesis, it's Hebrew usage and style.  Thus Harlow engages in eisegesis, not exegesis.  He forces a foreign context onto the text and thereby distorts what Scripture says.      

Often scholars today will argue that the ancient stories from Babylon called Enuma Elish and Atrahasis are the sources of some of the ideas that were rewritten into the document we call Genesis.  These Babylonian stories are about the various gods believed in ancient Babylon, about the conflicts and exploits of these gods, and how Earth and humans were created.  The story of Gilgamesh is part of this also, including the Babylonian flood story.  These stories are indeed very ancient stories.  They may have their start back in the time of the early years of Assyria, which would be even before Moses' time.  I think it is possible Moses may have even have heard these stories in Egypt as part of his Egyptian education.  I think that Genesis should be understood as THE authoritative written record of ancient prehistory.  I think it was written precisely to refute the other bizarre origins myths, it was not based on them.  Harlow and other authors have written about the similarities between Genesis and the Babylonian myths, but this in itself doesn't mean Genesis used the myths as sources in some way.  It is more plausible that the various myths from different ancient cultures are distortions of the original Genesis account.  Personally I suspect the various segments of Genesis were passed down orally until Moses recorded Genesis under inspiration.  Even if the Babylonian myths (or the stories they came from) are older than Genesis, that does not mean Genesis was based on them.  It is more likely Genesis was intended to counter them.  

Genesis has the characteristics of a selective history, an epic narrative with multiple "main" characters.  Though the Babylonian myths have some superficial similarities to Genesis, the overwhelming differences tend to be glossed over.  The Babylonian stories would not be confused with a narrative of actual events because they are full of nonsensical and fanciful aspects.  But Genesis is a straight-forward account of real events.  It's just that some of those events have supernatural aspects and they tell about the Creator of mankind.  A well known linguist, Charles Taylor wrote that "It is relatively easy to take true history and turn it into false myth, but it is not so easy to extract suspected truth out of any popular myth.  Such an exercise usually becomes one of intense scholarship. It is extremely difficult, and in the end you cannot do it unless you have access to the historical truth in the first place...." (See Taylor's article on this here: )  Taylor also makes the point that narratives of real events are unified in the type of words used in a way that is measurably different than a fictional story.  The differences between a narrative of real events and a fictional account can be observed and measured by linquistic analysis.  Genesis has the marks of a historical narrative, not a work of fiction.  Thus Harlow is clearly wrong when he says that Genesis is of the same literary genre as the Gilgamesh and Atrahasis stories.  Harlow and many other scholars today, get truth and myth, history and fiction, confused, and this is misleading.

There are a number of other problematic things Harlow says in his article.  One of them is to say there are two creation accounts (referring to chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis) that have "many discrepancies."  This is a failure to understand how Genesis is written.  It is a common misconception about Genesis.  Other things that could be mentioned include his understanding of Satan in Genesis and his claim that Genesis 2:18-22 implies God used a process of trial and error to create a suitable mate for Adam.  Harlow also views the geneologies as being "made-up" to somehow make the Hebrew people more respected in the ancient world.  Many ancient writings from ancient kingdoms have a tendancy to exaggerate numbers and deliberately write records that are misleading to promote something about a leader or a kingdom.  So Harlow seems to take the view that says since all ancient records do this, so does the Bible.  This is just dismissing what the Bible says without reason.  Overall, I would say Harlow underestimates the Bible.  


GO TO Mobile Home

February 25, 2016