It has been somewhat forcibly brought to my attention lately that there are a number of ways of reading the early chapters of the Book of Genesis. One way is to acknowledge the presence of non-literal elements in those chapters and even to flirt with the “m-word” (i.e. “mythological”) but at the end of the exegetical day to insist upon an historical reading of it. On this reading, all of humanity came into being from two individual persons, Adam and Eve, and it was only because of their personal rebellion against God that all sentient creatures experience death. Note: we are not speaking only of the death of human beings as we now define humanity, but of all sentient creatures, including animals. That is because in the world as originally created, there was no violence or strife, and presumably the wolf dwelt with the lamb and the lion literally ate straw like the ox. (Indeed, I had one proponent of this reading inform me that this meant that lions did not become carnivorous until after the Fall. One imagines its claws were originally created simply for scratching up the furniture.) Those insisting upon an historical reading of the text are usually emphatic that they are not also insisting upon a young age for the earth, and are not necessarily opposed to what is often termed “the theory of evolution”. But any reading of the text other than an historical one is deemed unpatristic, unOrthodox, and out of court. My own approach to the early chapters of Genesis has been criticized on just these grounds (for which reason my commentary is now the harder to find).
One can, of course, sell this historical view of Genesis in the pulpit and on the blogosphere, especially if comments are not allowed. But selling it to one’s parishioners in church can present problems, precisely because in the church hall after Liturgy comments over coffee are allowed. As a pastor I am routinely asked by my parishioners (and especially the younger ones) about science, evolution, dinosaurs, Noah’s Flood, the age of those living before that Flood, and of course about Adam and Eve. If I cite the Fathers and begin sentences with the words, “All the Fathers teach” they give me a patient and respectful hearing. But they still insist upon answers to hard questions. And it becomes harder to sell Genesis after one leaves the ambo and the church hall and goes out into the street. The man in the street asks even more questions than does the man in the pew, and does not listen patiently and respectfully if you begin sentences with the words, “All the Fathers teach”. He cares nothing about the Fathers. He should, no doubt, but he doesn’t, and he still needs answers all the same. Selling Genesis on the street is hard.
The man or woman on the street takes evolution for granted, as do all real scientists. (If you doubt this, read the book The Language of God, by Francis Collins.) And after reading Genesis the man on the street will ask a number of questions. Having read the first chapter of Genesis he will ask where all that sea-water came from before the creation of the world. He will ask how come there was daylight before the sun came into being, and if we really believe that the earth had fruit trees before the sun and moon were made. If we describe the original state of the earth as one of peace and harmony devoid of strife and violence, he will ask (with Dorothy) about lions and tigers and bears, for the diet and survival of lions and tigers and bears indeed involved rather a lot of strife and violence, for nature was red in tooth and claw. That of course included the dinosaurs, who were also red in tooth and claw—and who eventually died out—before the coming of man (which, one is tempted to say, explains their absence from the Ark). This means that conflict, strife, and the death of sentient beings pre-dated the Fall of man. If we define death simply as “physical death” our man in the street will know that we are effectively undermining and denying evolution, for physical death is part of the mechanism of evolution. Acceptance of evolution involves acceptance of a harsh and bloody world before we got here.
If the man on the street keeps reading after the first few chapters, he will have more questions. It just here that the issue of a “young earth”—or at least a young mankind—cannot be avoided. If I say that at the age of 30 Rheal begot Lawrence and at the age of 28 Lawrence begot Rhiannon and at the age of 25 Rhiannon begot Theodore, then one can determine the length of time between the creation of Rheal and the creation of Theodore by simply adding up the numbers and concluding that Rheal was born 83 years before Theodore was. This is not fundamentalist theology, but simple arithmetic. It does not require exegetical acumen, but simply the ability to add. The point is that this is precisely the pattern we find present in Genesis 5. There it says that when Adam was 130 he beget Seth and that when Seth was 105 he beget Enosh and that when Enosh was 90 he begot Kenan. And so on. It is true that Hebrew genealogies often skip generations. It is also true that no such skipping of generations is possible here, because here we have not simply a list of names but each father’s age when his first child was born. That is why scholars such as Archbishop Ussher concluded that the world was created around 6000 B.C., and that even our own Byzantine calendar (used in Russia until 1700) concluded that the world was created in 5509 B.C. There is nothing for it: a literal historical reading of the early chapters in Genesis cannot avoid a recent date for the creation of mankind, if not the world.
Reading subsequent chapters in Genesis does not much improve our credibility with the man in the street. Genesis 6 begins the story of the Flood, and he will ask where enough water came from to flood the entire world to a height above the mountains, and also where all that water went so quickly after it stopped raining. He will also ask if we really trace the multiplicity of the world’s languages to a miracle that took place during the building of a tower. Replying that these things must be believed and accepted historically because everyone in Christendom believed them up that way until the French Revolution will not help very much. That is because the man in the street will know that we are actually asking him to dismiss almost all scientific advance in geology, biology, and archaeology in the last two hundred years or so—that is, pretty much the entire time that science has been scientific.
But does reading and believing the Book of Genesis and accepting the Christian Faith really demand that we accept a literal and historical reading of Genesis 1-11? I suggest that it does not, and that the truth of Genesis consists not of what it says about history, but about our relationship with God. If we read it as mythological truth and not historical truth, the objections offered by the man in the street simply do not arise. (If the word “mythological” is deemed offensive, perhaps try “meta-historical” or some other invented neologism.) It is much easier to sell Genesis—and the Christian Faith—if we are allowed to read our first divinely-inspired text in the cultural context of its time. Is Genesis true? Yes, of course. But it gives us the truths we need to live, not facts of history or cosmology. And as the days grow darker, we need those truths more than ever.