Are Genesis 1 and 2 literal? What’s up with the differing timelines in those chapters? Where are the dinosaurs in the Bible? How do you know what ancient Hebrew words really meant? In this episode, Tim and Jon tackle your questions from the Ancient Cosmology series. Thanks to our audience for all your incredible questions!
By the word “literal,” we mean what the author has designed this text to accomplish and communicate. Paul and the apostles designed their narratives very clearly to make a claim that this man, who was the God of Israel become human, was murdered and buried, and hundreds of people encountered him alive from the dead. … So what was Genesis 1 designed to do? It’s literally talking about the construction of the cosmos in a seven-day Sabbath cycle. The next narrative literally talks about the creation of the cosmos as a garden being grown out of the land, and the chronologies are not the same. So then you have to say, “What’s the literal meaning of Genesis 1 and the garden of Eden narrative next to each other? What did the author intend to communicate?” If what they intended to communicate was something about the physical, material processes and timelines through which reality came into existence, you’ve got some problems. The author was more concerned about some other things, and that’s the literal meaning.
Josh from Arkansas (5:52 - 12:06)
I’ve been studying biblical Hebrew for about a year now, and I was wondering how you tease out the nuances and appropriate meanings for some of the words that appear in Genesis 1, like “reshit,” “bara,” “tahom,” and “tohu vavohu.” It seems like a lot of traditional English translations have chosen to fit these concepts into a modern framework, rather than allowing them to say what the original authors meant.
When you’re studying a “living” language (a language still spoken today) like Spanish or French, the best way to understand the cultural meaning of certain expressions is to consult someone who grew up speaking the language. However, modern Hebrew (what is spoken today in Israel) differs in significant ways from biblical Hebrew.
Translators of biblical Hebrew look for words that are the closest modern equivalent to the ancient words. But because language is an expression of culture and worldview—meaning different people groups apply different cultural values to the same words—translation of ancient languages demands careful study of ancient culture.
Check out Classroom for an upcoming course on the art of studying biblical words.
Dan from Connecticut (12:06 - 21:04)
On a recent podcast, you mentioned that if someone had a Hebrew Bible and a Hebrew dictionary, they could probably understand the text. So what is the purpose of studying history in textual interpretation? How can the common person reconcile seemingly different hermeneutical ideas of people like John Sailhamer or John Walton?
Hypothetically, you could read the Hebrew Bible in the original Hebrew language with only a Hebrew dictionary and you could understand much of it. However, as mentioned in Part One, we inevitably—and unknowingly—import our modern understandings of the world into ancient texts. Studying history and ancient culture is a necessary part of interpreting the ancient text of the Bible in the way its original authors intended.
John Sailhamer emphasized the literary progression of the Bible, while John Walton emphasizes careful study of ancient Near Eastern culture.
To understand the broader context in which the Hebrew Bible was written, we need the contributions of scholars like John Walton. To more fully grasp what the Hebrew Bible authors did that was unique within that ancient cultural context, we look to the work of scholars like John Sailhamer. Ultimately, we hold the views of both men (and others like them) in tension when we interpret Scripture.
Christian from Spain (21:04 - 28:45)
What I am learning through this series is that the ancient Israelite creation narrative is much more about the “why” than the “how.” It's the purpose of creation being told through the lens of an already established ancient cosmology. How could that ancient Isrealite “why,” that ancient purpose of creation, be translated or retold now through our current and modern understanding of the cosmos?
Genesis 1-2 describes both the “how” and the “why” of the ordering of the cosmos. It’s just a different “how” than modern cosmology proposes—God speaks and separates and calls things out of the land. Modern cosmology only tells us the scientific “how,” while Genesis 1-2 introduces a Personal Being behind the origins of the cosmos. Yahweh the Creator gives humans a “why”: to bear his image on the earth.
For help translating biblical cosmology into a modern context, see John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve, as well as The Biblical Cosmos by Robin Parry.
Kayla from Florida (28:45 - 42:14)
I’ve really enjoyed this series on ancient cosmology, but it does bring up a certain level of tension for me as someone who grew up in a tradition where Genesis 1-3 was taught from a more literal perspective. Hearing about the Bible’s influence from other cosmologies causes me to pause and wonder how much of it is true. So how should this new understanding readjust my approach to these chapters?
Tim suggests two other questions we must first answer in order to answer Kayla’s question. First, what does it mean for the Bible to be literal? And second, are we truly talking about a new perspective?
The perspective that comes from understanding ancient cosmology is not new. Rather, how we have synthesized Genesis 1 and 2 into our modern framework is new. With the advent of modern sciences (e.g., geology, paleontology, physics, biology) in the last several hundred years, research seemed to suggest a much older earth and a much longer period of creation than seems to be suggested by the seven days of Genesis 1. To harmonize this discrepancy, many Christians fused the scientific data with the timeline Genesis 1-2 seemed to describe. In the process, we lost the real meaning of a literal interpretation.
To interpret Genesis 1-2 literally, we have to ask ourselves what the biblical authors meant—not just what the words themselves say. The literal meaning of any text is what the author intended to say. The timeline of Genesis 1 is different from that of Genesis 2. However, the purpose of the two stories was not to communicate something about the physical makeup of reality, but about God’s purpose for his creation.
Genesis 1-2 really doesn't address any modern cosmological questions, which does not make those chapters untrue. The biblical authors saw the cosmos as having three tiers: waters below and above with dry land in between. We know the world is not literally composed this way, but does that make the Bible’s creation account untrue? It is no less true than a cookbook is less true than a newspaper article–-they simply serve different purposes.
Leonardo from Ohio (42:14 - 49:24)
I'm taking the Heaven and Earth class [with Classroom] while you’re having a series talking about this topic. My question––and I hope I'm not getting this out of context––is, in the pre-creation story you guys talk about the different cosmologies and how they all have similarities. In what part of the creation process does the Jurassic or Prehistoric Era take place? When and where can we see the mention of dinosaurs, if it is before the “wild and waste” state or part of the creation known in the Hebrew Bible?
Modern scientists and historians classify human history into eras, but the Bible has no such concept. In the Bible’s account of creation, Yahweh’s command transforms the cosmos from “wild and waste” (Genesis 1:2) to ordered and able to support animal and human habitation.
The lack of a reference to dinosaurs in the Bible has nothing to do with the reality of their existence—just like the creation of light on day one has nothing to do with proving or disproving the existence of photons. However, it is inappropriate for any of us to approach the biblical text expecting it to address the same things our modern researchers try to study. The biblical authors have much to say about our greater philosophical questions. But when we import our own expectations of what they should discuss, we make the Bible say and mean things the biblical authors had no intention of addressing.
Jesse from New Mexico (49:24 - 55:30)
Is there any indication that later biblical authors are aware of the discontinuities between Genesis 1 and 2? Do they see them as a unified whole? What about ancient rabbis or early Christians?
Genesis 1:1-2:3 are a separate narrative from the rest of Genesis 2, with distinct differences. For instance in the first narrative, humans are created last, while in the second narrative, humans are created first. If the purpose of the opening texts of Genesis is to provide a linear timeline, these differences do feel like discrepancies. But Genesis 1 and 2 have a different aim.
It can be helpful to think of two images side by side: one an image of the night sky from the Hubble telescope and the other Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Both depict the same reality but present the information very differently. The stories of Genesis 1 and 2 present creation differently. However, the information we’re given in each story is meant to go together to create a fuller picture. Later biblical authors aren’t troubled by the different timelines in Genesis 1 and 2. They quote and interact with them as if they’re complementary.
Show produced by Dan Gummel, Zach McKinley, and Cooper Peltz. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder. Audience questions collected by Christopher Maier.
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