A Different Approach to Genesis 1

This article is taken from the Introduction of Tyler Vela's paper  Flipping the Script:A Historical-Grammatical andPolemical Reading of Genesis 1

This article is taken from the Introduction of Tyler Vela's paper Flipping the Script:A Historical-Grammatical andPolemical Reading of Genesis 1

This article is composed of the Introduction section of Mentionable Tyler Vela's paper on the Creation account of Genesis one. Expect more articles from this paper to come.


I am often asked my views on Genesis 1 on how we should interpret and understand the creation narrative. Much ink is spilt over whether or not Genesis 1 supports a Young Earth Creationism (YEC) or Old Earth Creationism (OEC), and if it should be read and understood as “literal” history or as allegory.

Due to my work in apologetics, and considering that the creationism debates are one of the most contentious issues in the field of apologetics, it is not surprising that I get these questions rather frequently. However, for the most part I find the questions posed by both YEC and OEC advocates to be somewhat puzzling, because both positions appear, to me at least, to be asking thoroughly modern questions of a completely ancient text. I simply cannot understand how anyone believes that the author of Genesis had the hydrologic cycle of the early earth in mind when writing about the separation of the waters above and the waters below in the 2nd millennia BCE.

It seems that they fail before they even exegete a single word - a falsis principiis proficisci. A rather striking irony occurs at this point that I, and several others,have noticed. Here, the literalists find unlikely allies in the hyper-literalism of critics like the New Atheists and other Infidel.org-style atheistic fundamentalists. The two polar opposites stand shoulder to shoulder in defending a hermeneutical view that has most of the academic world baffled and shaking their heads in disbelief.

However, even though the discussion of this paperclearly has entanglements with a broader audience interested in those questions, and deeper apologetical implications as well, I will be focusing this paper solely as a part of an on-going in-house discussion concerning the proper exegesis of the text alone, and will leave interactions with I am not going to engage here with the problematic use of these terms except in passing. I would like to note, however,that I have major conceptual problems with such a sharp dichotomy between “literal” and “allegorical,” or the notion that if something is not rigidly literal in all of its parts then it is therefore not historical or is labeled as “allegorical.”

I have similar qualms about the term “myth” being cast as equivalent with “false/untrue/non-historical,” and find sympathies with C.S. Lewis, who describes the story of Jesus as true mythology. He writes, “Just as God is nonetheless God by being Man, so the Myth remains Myth even when it becomes Fact.” Lewis, C.S. Miracles. (New York, New York: HarperOne, 1996) 218. See also, Lewis, C.S. “Myth Became Fact.” C.S. Lewis Essay Collection: Faith,Christianity and the Church. Ed. Lesley Walmsley. (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 138-42.

Here I also understand that many will want to protest that God is the author. While this is often an idiom used,historic Christian orthodoxy has not help to God as dictating the content to the author but rather inspiring them by the direction of the Spirit. It is simply lop-sided to pretend as though God was writing content into the narrative that would have been wholly unintelligible to the author. Not to mention that we should expect the 1st generation audience of Genesis to be able to readily understand the import of the texts presented to them. What redemptive purpose would a presentation of the hydrologic cycle have been for any reader of the early chapters of Genesis until just the past couple of centuries?

Having attended Moody Bible Institute where the “Literal Hermeneutic” of Dispensationalism is endorsed and taught, I have found that even they would hardly recognize the kind of hyper-literalism espoused by fundamentalists on either side of the issue.

New Atheists and anti-Biblicist critics to the side. I will argue in this paper that the best understanding of Genesis 1 is not as a scientific account of creation (a la YEC or OEC), nor is it a kind of demythologized and wholly non-historical plagiarism of other Ancient Near Eastern(ANE) creation myths (a la Delitzsche, Gunkel, or Enns); but rather, it is a purposeful, literary,and polemical taunting of the religious and cultural foes of the early Israelites as they were about to enter the land of Canaan in order to steer them toward religious fidelity to YHWH alone.As a first step to arriving at the proper interpretation of Genesis 1, we are required to set the passage within its broader Historical-Grammatical context. If one holds, even broadly, to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (which I do) 5, then the use of polemics 6 in other areas of the Pentateuch can inform us as to the kind of literature that we find in Genesis 1. However, one does not need to hold to Mosaic authorship, or even to a possible single author view, in order to accept the overall thesis of this current article. I do think, though, that such a view, even if one accepts some redactive activity, is helpful for understanding some of the inter-contextual polemical links between Genesis 1 and Exodus that we will observe. Let me here give a brief example of how Mosaic authorship, or at least a single author around the time leading up to the conquest of Canaan,helps us understand the polemical links between various passages in the Pentateuch. That is, we can observe ways in which the author of the Pentateuch would have been theologically interpreting historical events to act as a polemic within their current context in and around the time of the conquest. For example, if we accept this view, then historically the text would have been composed largely while Israel was camped in the plains of Moab or while they were still early on into the conquest under Joshua. During this time, the spies would have gone into the land and come back with a negative report: “And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Num. 4 I will also largely leave to the side the normal interactions with the meaning of the days, the existence of days before the sun and moon, the appearance of a false history on the mature earth, and so forth. Those questions, while interesting and important in some contexts, have little bearing on plausibility of the interpretation argued for here. For more on why I think that the Pentateuch is a second millennium work and not a 9th-8th or even a 6th-5th century work, you can see my series here. 

Polemics is a kind of rhetoric that uses the thought forms and motifs of opposing views in a way that undermines ortaunts those opposing views. This is usually done by imbuing them with a new meaning or embodying them in a more theologically effective way. We will see numerous examples of this throughout this article and will define this term more robustly further on.

 In Num. 13, the Nephilim were related to the Sons of Anak, a purely human tribe.And the spies, driven by fear, exaggerated their size while Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand,rebuked them for their fear. This later historical event may be useful in understanding the tellingof the flood narrative in Genesis 6. In Gen. 6:1-4 we read,When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born tothem, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.

Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. (ESV)Here, it is plausible that the author was showing that there were Nephilim in the land during the days of Noah, and in the same way that YHWH had handled them easily when he judged the ungodly seed, and spared the godly seed from out of the waters, he would still be able to vanquish the Nephilim in the land as he brought Israel into her inheritance. While there are other the maticinter-contextual elements taking place in Gen. 6, we can see that the telling of the flood account would not only renew the promise that YHWH could cleanse an evil people from a land, a hopeful reminder for the Israelites about the purge the land of the wicked Canaanites, but also more specifically, that the mighty Nephilim have never stopped YHWH before and so there is nothing for Israel to fear in taking the land. There were mighty warriors during the days of Noah just as there were in Canaan, but YHWH was able to sweep them away then and he will do so for them now, if only Israel remains obedient.

At this point I will leave to the side the questions of the strange origin of the Nephilim and the theories that surround them. For more on this, see this article.

The prohibition for Israel against intermarriage with the Canaanites is also epitomized in the improper union of the godly seed with the ungodly seed throughout the Primeval History of Gen. 1-11, especially in the marriage of the sons of God and daughters of men in 6:1-4 that marked the depravity of the time and left the people of the land ripe for judgement.

This theme of God being the true warrior for Israel to trust in, has major ripples down through history and is especially prominent in Exodus-Kings.