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Genesis and Beyond: Sunday Summary—Part 1

On Sunday morning, following a delicious breakfast buffet with inspiring views of Lake Michigan, we reconvened for a presentation by Brian Bull and Fritz Guy discussing their new book, God, Sky & Land: Genesis 1 as the Ancient Hebrews Heard It (available for purchase from Spectrum). The multimedia presentation was complete with photographs of their time studying at Tyndale House at the University of Cambridge. 

They first presented the problem of which we are all aware: the perceived conflict between faith in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and the scientific theory of origins.  Then, they expressed their ambitious goal of bridging the gulf between the two poles by listening to the text of Genesis through the ears of the original hearers.

In their book, Bull and Guy provide what they termed a ‘retro-translation’ with the goal of transporting us back into the ancient text rather than bringing the ancient text into modern terms. They attempted to help us do this at the conference by shifting our concepts of the created world from the post-Hubble ‘universe’ to the ancient perspective of a domed ‘sky’ and from our picture of a blue and green marble-like ‘earth’ spinning in space to their understanding of a fixed flat ‘land’. 

Raqia (רָקִ֫יעַ) posed the greatest challenge in connecting contemporary readers to an original meaing. They suggest this term is best translated as ‘dome’ or ‘vault.’ The traditional translation is firmament, or rather that is the traditional interpretation as every translation is an interpretation. Firmament is essentially meaningless and therefore easily ignored. On the other hand, the concept of a dome is challenging for us to imagine since we struggle to picture something we know is not there.

The process of inspiration is key in returning to the meaning of the original text and Bull and Guy suggested a communal process of inspiration. First, inspiration originates with an inspired author situated in a certain community. Transmission then occurs as the inspired concept is transferred to other communities. The inspired text is then canonized by still larger communities. Finally the text is translated for ever larger and more diverse communities. Importantly they note, inspiration is not totally controlled by God and human factors are always involved. They quoted Ellen White,

“It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.” (Selected Messages, book 1, pages 19-22)

The present function of scripture, Bull and Guy said, must be shaped by its original function.  They distilled the original function into four theological points:  

  1. God is the reason why anything and everything exists.
  2. God did not have to battle against evil powers to create (as in other accounts).
  3. God as worshipped by the Hebrews is greater than other Gods.
  4. God’s rest on the 7th day is an example and reason for our rest on the Sabbath.

In explaining the differences between our perspective and that of the Genesis hearers, Bull and Guy coined the phrase ‘explanacepts’ to describe the concepts we use to explain phenomena. They maintained that the ancient Hebrews were operating with only two explanacepts, God and Humans. Therefore, any humanly unexplainable phenomenon was by default attributed to God. 

On the other hand, we have at least four explanacepts: nature, chance, humans, and God. When we added two new explanacepts, our default explanation for mysterious phenomenon shifted to nature and/or chance with God offered as an explanation only after ruling out all other possibilities. 

We must not, the presenters contended, put modern scientific demands on the text of Genesis 1 when its authors had no such thing in mind. For example, the attempt to fit 13.7 billion years into Genesis 1:1-3 imposes inappropriate scientific demands. Equally problematic is attempting to read the text in light of the natural and supernatural realm. Indeed, the original hearers could not have conceived of a word like supernatural since this would require a robust and separate understanding of a natural realm which the presenters contended was lacking.

In a discussion on the Hebrew term yom or ‘day,’ the presenters suggested that the order of evening to morning and darkness to light is reminiscent of the overall movement from disorder to order and chaos to cosmos in the text. Bull and Guy found that the author intended these days of divine activity to act as exemplars of weekdays as illustrated by Exodus 20:8-11. One purpose of the seventh-day Sabbath is to allow us to share in the joy of a work well done.

Is Genesis science to be read literally, or prose to be read as poetry, or myth to be read figuratively?  For the original hearers, Bull and Guy suggested that Genesis 1 is a description of God’s activity in bringing about sky and land. It is science as close as ancient concepts would allow. It is theology also as close as their conceptual realm would allow. In short, the creation account at the beginning of Genesis explained the origin of everything the ancient Hebrews knew but does not provide facile answers to questions of modern science. 

Bull and Guy mentioned that one of the most common questions they receive has to do with Ellen White. Can an Adventist really believe what they are proposing when Ellen G. White said Genesis reveals that the world is explicitly 6,000 years old?  heir answer was that indeed, she did insist that the universe was about 6,000 years old. They then offered another quote from Ellen White.

“There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair” (Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 35) 

They maintained that one is being faithful to that insight in finding alternative interpretations of Genesis.

John Walton then offered a response, beginning with an illustration from the Truman Show.  He observed that because Bull and Guy built the case in their book on the Biblical text, the book is less threatening than if they had brought in other outside ancient texts. He found the book an easy though challenging read and appreciated their emphasis on function. He also found the concept of ‘explanacepts’ helpful and thought their idea of a two agent reality was a good way of understanding the Ancient Hebrew approach.

He also expressed some questions.  He asked whether Raqia is more correctly translated as referring to the space within a vault rather than the dome over the space. He was not convinced that the counting method they used to determine significance of certain words is valid. He also suggested that one cannot derive the meaning of a noun from a related verb as they had done in their book. 

In Herold Wiess’s response, he mentioned that it is easy to like a book that seeks to provide a bridge between God and science. He agreed that Genesis 1 was written as a process with community involvement, Genesis 1 should not be read as science since it contains different language than 21st century science, and that there are a diversity of human minds and perspectives in the Bible. 

The dilemma he saw in writing this book is whether it is more important to engage all readers or avoid saying anything too controversial at the very beginning of the book which will cause some to close the book immediately. Weiss seemed to think that in writing the book with some readers in mind, Bull and Guy were stifled so that their book was not as effective as it might have been and therefore may fail to accomplish its mission through no other fault of the authors.

Weiss challenged the generic antiquated Hebrew perspective which the authors were attempting to bring us back into without discussing specific dates, author(s), or historical/sociological context. Since the original hearers were undoubtedly familiar with other ancient creation accounts, Weiss suggested that Genesis 1 should be read as didactic and polemical, arguing against the pantheistic, anthropomorphic, and violent nature of other ancient creation myths. He said Genesis 1 must be heard in its cultural cross currents which will lead to a different understanding. Because Bull and Guy avoided this, Weiss contended they did not convincingly transport us back to the original hearer’s perspective, prefacing this opinion with the fact that he is not a young earth creationist but a historian.

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