Questions about the creation of man and woman in Genesis

Q.  My last set of questions after reading your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage is about what to do with Genesis chapter 2.  It is quite clear to me from your book that reading Genesis chapter 1 the way Young Earth Creationists do is unfair to the text and hermeneutically irresponsible. It is obviously written in a very poetic literary style and immediately conflicts with chapter two in terms of the alleged order of creation and so on. On coming to chapter two, though, it isn’t written in such a poetic literary style and does assume a natural order in its account of creation, which leads to a couple questions.

First off, would you say that Genesis 2:4 is something of a header introducing the section as Genesis 1:1 does following Hebrew writing conventions?

This statement is a header not just to the story of the creation of the man and the woman, but also to the stories of the fall and of Cain and Abel.  It’s one of eleven instances in Genesis of the same formula, translated “This is the account of” in the NIV.  These formulas divide Genesis into twelve parts that each discuss what came from the figure named in the formula, e.g. Adam, Noah, Noah’s sons, etc.  The first one is the most elaborately stated.  It’s actually a chiasm:
A  This is the account of the heavens and the earth
B  when they were created
B  when the Lord God made
A  the earth and the heavens.
This formula introduces what “came from” the heavens and the earth, what they “brought forth.”  In the account that follows, God “forms from the ground” all the wild animals and birds, and God also forms the man from the “dust of the ground.”

Secondly, since Genesis 2 isn’t written in a poetic style, would you say that it is trying to be more of a literal description of how and in what order creation occurred?

The account of the creation of the man and the woman belongs to a particular literary genre known as an “etiology,” which tells the story of how some contemporary phenomenon first originated.  Most of the stories early in Genesis belong to this genre.  They explain, for example, why there is a rainbow in the sky after it rains, or why people speak different languages.  The story of the man and the woman flows into the story of the fall and together these stories explain why weeds come up when you only plant good seeds, why women have pain in childbirth, and why the snake crawls on its belly.  So we need to take these stories for what they are and understand the meaning and message behind them, without regarding them as a literal, journalistic description of exactly what happened at the beginning of the human race.

Thirdly, in verses 8 and 19 it says, “Now the Lord God (had) formed…”. Depending on the translation, the word “had” isn’t always there, which kind of messes with the order of creation. If it is there, evolution is pretty easily accounted for within the text.  But if it isn’t, then the text more or less says that man came before plants and animals, which contradicts the claims of the scientific theory of evolution.

Hebrew verbs are not marked for tense, indicating time.  They are only marked for aspect, indicating either continuing or completed action.  The verbs in this account all indicate completed action.  So they could be translated either “formed,” “made,” “took,” etc. or “had planted,” “had formed,” etc.  I personally see no reason, linguistically or grammatically within the account, why any of them need to be translated with “had.”  I think we have a simple progressing narrative without review statements referring to earlier actions.  I think “had” is only introduced in some translations as a means of harmonizing the chronology with the earlier account.  I don’t think we need to do this.  The original author of Genesis was comfortable with the two accounts side-by-side even though their chronology doesn’t seem to line up, and we need to work out how we can be, too.

Finally, if evolution does account for the rise of all animals and eventually people, it seems strange that God would have had to make Eve because there was no suitable helper for Adam. If during the evolutionary process God granted consciousness, etc. upon early humans, there should have already been women present who would have been suitable for Adam. Of course, all these questions may simply arise from me trying to fit the story of Genesis 2 to actual history and not taking it from the observational perspective and so on. However, since Genesis 2 isn’t written in a literary style like Genesis 1, how exactly should it be taken?

I think you’ve identified where the problem comes from when we ask why a helper was needed for Adam if people had been around for so long.  It comes from trying to line up the details in these stories one-to-one with the events of natural history.  I don’t think we can or should do that.  As I say in response to your second question above, this account of the creation of the man and the woman should be taken as an “etiology.”  It answers the question of how some contemporary phenomena came to be by relating a story from the past that ultimately has a moral message.

Thanks very much for your thoughtful questions after reading our book.  I hope it continues to be helpful to you in your reflections! (The entire text of the book is now available free online.)

Another question from Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Was Noah’s flood local or global?

Q. Another question I have after reading your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage is what to do with the story of Noah’s flood. Creationists claim that many cultures across the world in isolated regions have “flood legends” in which one of their ancient ancestors is said to have survived a world-wide flood. This ancestor was named something similar to “Noah” like “Nehu.” I don’t know how to interpret such claims if Noah’s flood was just a small scale or local flood. I also don’t know what to do with the Bible’s claims that God essentially wiped out all life except sea life if it wasn’t a global flood. Of course, the section in your book in which Dr. Godfrey discusses trace fossils is pretty much the scientific nail in the coffin of there having been a global flood, but I don’t know how to reconcile these other details with the Bible’s description of the flood.

I think the most important thing to realize when considering your question is this: whether Genesis is envisioning a local flood or a global flood, it’s not picturing it happening in the world as we know it today.  Rather, it’s describing the flood within an observational ancient cosmology, so that the very word “global” is misleading.

Genesis doesn’t envision the earth as a globe, but rather as a flat stretch of land surrounded by heaped-up waters on all sides.  As I say in response to a comment on the previous post (which was also written in response to one of your questions about our book), any attempt to “establish a one-to-one correspondence between details in the biblical text and events in natural history” is doomed, precisely because of this difference in cosmology.  “You can’t get there from here.”

In the flood episode, God is basically wiping out the wicked human race by destroying the place of its abode.  In the creation account, God makes “a place for everything” and then puts “everything in its place”:  birds in the sky, fish in the sea, humans and animals on the land.  The flood is an un-creation scene:  the dry land disappears beneath the waters, just as it originally appeared from under them, and the whole race of wicked people disappear with it.

That’s the theological message of the account from within its ancient cosmology. We really can’t extrapolate from that to try to determine what actually happened in natural history.  Comparative anthropology, as you note, may shed some light, and geology can as well, but we’re not getting natural historical details about the world as we know it today from the flood story in the Bible, precisely because of its ancient observational cosmology.  This is a case like the many others we discuss in the book in which the Bible answers questions of “who” and “why,” but not (at least to our satisfaction) questions of “what,” “how,” or “when.”

(I earlier shared some additional thoughts about the question of a local versus worldwide flow in this post.)

Did the other biblical authors understand the Genesis creation account literally?

A reader of this blog recently submitted several questions after re-reading my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, which I co-authored with Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland.  The book argues that the Genesis creation account should be understood as literally intended and accurate from an observational perspective, meaning that there is no inherent conflict between believing this account and believing that more complex life forms have developed from simpler ones in a process that has extended over a long period of time.  I will answer this reader’s questions in a series of posts, starting with this one.  The full text of the book is available online at this link.

Q. I recently reread your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage and I can safely say that it is by far the best book I have read on the Creation/Evolution controversy. (And that’s saying a lot, because I’ve probably read upwards of thirty.) I’ve come to the conclusion that the position you advocate is the most reasonable and cogent and makes the most sense in light of the big picture.

I still have some questions, however.  First, what are we to make of how other biblical authors understood Genesis? Creationists often argue that they viewed Genesis as literal truth, which would make these supposedly inspired authors wrong if evolution were a valid theory, unless they were affirming Genesis from a purely observational perspective. In the case of Jesus in particular, what’s important for me to resolve is to what degree he gave up his omniscience while he was a man. If he was still fully omniscient, then in affirming the Genesis account of origins he would have been affirming something he knew was empirically wrong.

Thanks very much for your kind words about our book.  I’m glad it has been helpful to you.

In answer to your first question, as we show in the book, the other biblical authors express the same observational cosmology that’s in the Genesis creation account.  For example, just as Genesis depicts God as creating the sky as a “vault” (literally a “spread-out” object), so Psalm 104 speaks of God “stretching out the heavens like a tent” and Isaiah says that God “stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent.”  And just as Genesis says that God made the seas by saying “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place,” so Psalm 33 says, in speaking of creation, “He gathers the waters of the sea into a heap; he puts the deep into storehouses.”

Perhaps it is not too surprising or unsettling to hear other biblical authors speak like this, if we accept that the Bible is written from an observational perspective.  Its human authors are simply describing how things appear to them.  But we might expect that Jesus would have spoken from a different, objective perspective (that is, not that of an earth-bound observer) if he really was God and so was omniscient.

However, what we find is that Jesus also describes the created world from the same observational perspective as the other biblical authors.  He says in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This is the same perspective expressed by Job when he says that God “speaks to the sun and it does not shine,” explaining days when the sun does not appear in the sky not just from an observational perspective but also from the standpoint that God actively commands weather phenomenon.  (Jesus is not speaking in poetry or metaphor here.)  And Jesus also appealed to the way things were “from the beginning,” quoting directly from the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman, when he answered a question about divorce.

So it seems reasonable to conclude that Jesus had the same earth-bound perspective as the other biblical authors.  If that was indeed the case, then he couldn’t have been omniscient in his incarnation.  Is that a problem?

Not really.  As I explained in response to a recent comment on this post, “Christians believe that when Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, he ’emptied’ himself of certain divine attributes, the ones known as ‘non-communicable’ (in other words, the ones that humans cannot share), which include omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Jesus fulfilled his mission on earth by complete obedience to God, rather than by drawing on powers not available to other humans.”  It may take us a while to wrap our minds around the idea that we today might understand natural phenomena and natural history better than Jesus did when he was on earth, but those seem to be the implications of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.

Does doing science make a person less likely to believe in God?

Q. It would be difficult to expect scientists to employ anything other than “methodological naturalism” (a commitment to work only from empirical data) in their work. If they didn’t, for every attempt to explain natural phenomena, they would have to add the possibility of supernatural causation or involvement, which would definitely be unproductive. But do you think that methodical naturalism in any sense encourages “metaphysical naturalism” (the presupposition that there is no supernatural, and that natural causation can explain everything)?

This is the second part of a detailed question that I’ve posted in its full form here.  (The terms “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” come from a book by Brian Alters.)

In response to this part of the question, I’d have to say no, I don’t believe that the discipline of working only from observable, measurable data and seeking the most reasonable explanation for one’s observations necessarily encourages disbelief in the supernatural.  I can imagine a scientist who was also a person of faith saying, “Let’s see how much we can account for this way,” but still expecting that in the end there would be many things that could only be regarded with reverent wonder.

The lives of scientists throughout the centuries who have also been people of deep faith provide abundant anecdotal evidence that methodological naturalism does not inevitably lead to metaphysical naturalism.  Such scientists include Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton, Linnaeus, Faraday, Mendel, Pasteur, and, more recently, Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project.  Numerous further examples could be given.  Many of these scientists have written about the compatibility of faith with scientific endeavor.  (See, for example, Collins’ book The Language of God.)

Along those lines, in my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage, co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey (himself a widely published scientific researcher), I cite the example of King Solomon, who was noted for his natural-scientific investigations, and paraphrase one of his proverbs this way:  “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.”  I go on to say that “when we do, we bring him pleasure by fulfilling his purposes.  So all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm.”

In other words, we can adopt the discipline of “methodological naturalism” for the purposes of science without worrying that it will lead to “metaphysical naturalism.”

(The entire text of Paradigms on Pilgrimage is now available free online.)

Sir Isaac Newton, scientist and believer (portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1689, courtesy Wikipedia)

A question about science and religion

The following question about science and religion was recently submitted to this blog. Even though the writer invites me to “edit the length . . . for space considerations,” I find the whole question so thoughtful and articulate that I’d like to run it in its entirety here, and address its three points in a series of posts.

Q.  In your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage you state that “science, in seeking to explain origins, answers questions of what, when, and how, but responsibly remains silent on questions of who and why, which are instead the purview of religion and philosophy”. When you discuss Brian Alters’ book Defending Evolution, you speak sympathetically of his view that in its pursuit of knowledge science is properly “methodically naturalistic,” limiting itself to what can be observed and measured, as opposed to being “metaphysically naturalistic” and denying the existence of God or the supernatural.

These views seem to be held by many modern intellectuals including S. J. Gould who wrote that the “net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work that way (theory)…[while the] net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”

In light of the above, I have a few questions that you might be able to answer through a couple of posts.

First, although it seems intellectually satisfying to isolate religion and science into separate domains with a shared border, it doesn’t seem to fully fit the picture. Though religion typically answers questions of who and why, it would seem to transgress into the realm of science in many areas. Considering that science looks at the empirical realm, any time the Bible maintains that miracles occurred, it steps into the realm of science. Jesus either had a human father or he didn’t. He also either physically died and rotted somewhere or he was brought to heaven. Either way though, those are measurable phenomena in the empirical realm that the Bible answers supernaturally. Of course, miracles are merely a suspension of the way the world normally operates but that is the point, if the spiritual world is real there should be empirical consequences and “facts” that science can never explain. Is it accurate to maintain that the two domains of science and religion really are so separate or is it more of an ideological goal to strive for to achieve clarity in thinking?

This part of the question is answered here.

Secondly, I would agree that it would be difficult to expect scientists to employ anything other than methodological naturalism in their work. If they didn’t, for every attempt to explain natural phenomena they would have to add the possibility of supernatural causation or involvement which would definitely be unproductive. However, isn’t it possible that in being methodically naturalistic scientists might be blinding themselves to certain physical facts that don’t fit their paradigm which would in turn lead to wrong conclusions and theories about the physical world? For example, in the case of origins, in one direction, I don’t think that scientists would rightly ever conclude that God exists because they were unable to explain the origin of the universe or of life. Appealing to the supernatural is off limits in science and is usually viewed as lazy investigation. In the other direction though, assuming that God did create the universe and life, there will come a time when scientists, because they are methodologically naturalistic will be looking for something that isn’t there. They will be trying to explain in physical terms something that can only be explained supernaturally. Beyond just origins though, isn’t it possible that scientists have already constructed theories that aren’t getting the full picture because they are methodically naturalistic? Do you think that methodical naturalism in any sense encourages metaphysical naturalism or is that only a “straw man” constructed by modern creationists?

I respond to this part of the question in this post.

Finally, this is more of a question that is posed along the border of religion and science, “from the middle of the lake” (assuming there is a middle). If God did use evolution and at some point along the line injected a soul into prehistoric humans as the Catholic Church maintains, wouldn’t that mean that there would have potentially existed simultaneously on the earth a mixture of “soul-possessing” hominids and “soulless” hominids separated by some small evolutionary difference (or maybe just geography)?

I answer this last part of the question here.

Feel free to edit the length or format of my questions for space considerations.

Thank you!