Institute Report: Genesis Week 5 (corrected)

(We’re a few weeks behind here on the blog. I hope to catch up. Most important for my students: We WILL have Institute this week, contrary to what I said last Thursday.) Tonight we finished off Genesis 1 and introduced the second creation account in Gen 2. Had a few more people, so I started by recapping Walton’s theory of functional creation (references in previous post.)

Seven days

It’s long been noticed that days 1-3 parallel days 4-6. Walton argues that days 1-3 create three primary and basic functions, while 4-6 create functionaries that either carry out those functions, or carry out their own within the parallel sphere.

Day 1 creates the basis of Time, the cycle of night/day. This is simply the function; the functionaries who carry it out are designated on day 4.

Day 2 creates the basis of Weather, which mostly means precipitation. That is, Israelite cosmology held as per Genesis that there were waters below which were connected to the sea, and waters above, with the waters above held back by a solid dome, the firmament or raqiya. Rivers, springs, and flooding (the regular inundations of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates) came from the waters below, and the raqiya was the control sluice of the waters above. If too little water was allowed through, drought and destruction. Too much, and you get Noah’s flood (which specifically mentions the cosmic waters above and below and the raqiya). Just enough, and plants grow.  As an aside, God is probably seen here as equivalent to the Sumerian>Akkadian>Aramaic gugallu/gogal, the canal-inspector or sluice-master of the heavens.

Day 3 creates the basis of Agriculture. The dry land emerges from the waters, and specific mention is made that plants have the basis to reproduce, that their seed is in them.

Day 4 provides the functionaries who carry out the function of Day 1, namely the sun, moon and stars. These establish “the calendar with particular reference to the determination of the dates of the sacred festivals.”(Whybray, Oxford Bible Commentary, among others.)

Day 5 creates the inhabitants of the functional area of day 2, birds that fly upon the face of the raqiya, and  aquatic animals for the waters below. (Nothing was observed or thought to inhabit the waters above.) Their function is to multiply and fill the earth. Of particular note are the “great whales” of the KJV. These are tannin (Dictionary of Deities and Demons article), semi-mythical sea monsters like Rahab and Leviathan, “the Dragon” of Isaiah 51:9-10. This is the only place Genesis repeats the verb bara’ “to create” “to assign a function within a system” emphasizing that these things are not independent deities but creations of God, who has put them into their set place. Tannin is translated as Dragon elsewhere, such as in Isaiah 27:1 and 51:9 (see post here.)

Day 6 creates the inhabitants of the functional area of day 3, land animals including humans. While humans are also told to multiply and fill the earth, they are given another function which overlaps with being in God’s image; humans are to “have dominion.”

Day 7 is the most important day of creation, even though nothing gets “created.”  On that day, following the functional interpretation, all the employees have been trained, the schedule set up, and  God takes up his position in the cosmic temple, the control center, the CEO’s office, and the doors open for business. The functionaries can start carrying out their functions. What did God do the 8th day and the 9th day and so on? Same thing he did on the 7th, ensure stability of the functions and functionaries. What would happen if God abandoned the temple? Order begins to break down. (See Ezekiel 10, for God leaving the temple in Israel and the concordant destruction.)

Or, to borrow another of Walton’s metaphors, functional creation is a bit like a computer. We don’t care so much about the hardware it’s running on, who built it, or where it came from. Hardware without software is worthless.  The first six days are basically getting the software installed, the routines and subroutines and programs to run. Day 7 is when the computer is turned on and begins to be used.

If not Moses, who?

We spent some time in week 2 talking about relationships between the accounts of Moses, Abraham, and Genesis, and left it by saying it was clear the current text dated long after Moses. But if such is the case, who gave Gen 1 its current form? The general consensus is, Israelite priests, sometime around the Babylonian exile. General readings about source criticism are applicable here, but more particularly, Genesis 1 reflects priestly interests, priestly vocabulary, and priestly structure. (very quick summary below)

Priestly vocabulary– Priests did not just carry out temple rituals (we’ll talk about creation and temples in a later session), but were also responsible for teaching the law; Ezekiel, an exilic priest, lays the blame for the exile on priests ceasing to do so, particularly ceasing to distinguish between holy and unholy (Eze 22:26). That Hebrew term for distinguish is the same word translated as “divide” in Genesis 1, and tends to be used in priestly contexts, since they were interested in separating and dividing the holy from the unholy and maintaining distinctions.

Priestly interests and structure– Genesis 1, as noted before is a temple text, in which God’s cosmic temple is constructed and where he takes up residence on the seventh day. The tabernacle and later temple have strong ties to Genesis 1. The 7-day structure in it may come from the temple (i.e. priestly) context, in that temples were often built, dedicated, or otherwise connected to periods of 7 days or 7 years. ( For example, Solomon’s temple was built in seven years, dedicated in the seventh month, and the ceremony lasted seven days, and was followed by a seven day feast. Baal’s temple was built in seven days. The temple in Gudea cylinder B was dedicated in seven days.) The 7-day structure may come from the Sabbath context (as I discussed briefly here). Either way, the introduction of the day structure is a priestly innovation and characteristic. Priests were the ones with particular interest in holy vs. unholy, blessings, Sabbaths, holy days and holidays (or more generally, the calendar). No other creation text in or out of Israel structures creation per se according to days.

This is the best accounting for the 7-day structure. The popular “day-age theory” (option 3 in the Institute manual) is based on 2 assumptions:

1) The creation described in Gen 1 is primarily or exclusively material.

2) The nature of the creation account described is historical/scientific in nature, i.e. a concordist assumption.

Together, these two assumptions say, “whatever we know about the material creation of the universe *must* be what Genesis 1 is describing. Therefore, the days in Gen 1 must represent extremely long periods of time.” Neither of these assumptions can be fully justified. Walton presents strong arguments against assumption 1 (and I have not really represented his arguments), and assumption 2 finds counter-arguments even in the Ensign, though only weakly (it still makes some general historical assumptions).

“Genesis does not give a detailed history of the Creation. Instead, it teaches basic principles…. When discussing the Genesis creation story, what teacher has not been pressed with these questions: How was the earth created? How long did it take? Were there dinosaurs before Adam? How was Adam created? And numerous others. Is it possible that most of these questions completely miss the mark? As Elder James E. Talmage said, “The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a textbook of geology, archaeology, earth-science, or man-science.” (“The Earth and Man,” p. 3, address delivered 9 Aug. 1931 in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Copy in the Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Instead of trying to squeeze out information that doesn’t seem to have been in the Genesis account in the first place and may not have been revealed yet (see D&C 101:32–34), let’s look at a few of the most important things that we can learn from Genesis…”

George A. Horton Jr., “A Prophet Looks at Genesis,” Ensign, Jan. 1986, 40

Theological diversity

I wrote “42” on the board, with sparkly beams coming out of it. “This is the answer to life, the universe and everything. Many of us think this is how revelation works. A prophet is granted a vision, God takes him into God’s Ultimate Reference Library, and shows him The Answer and then the prophet comes down and says, ’42, everyone.’ And then 300 years later, another prophet gets shown ’42’ and comes down and says ’42, everyone!’  We expect that scripture is a revealed record of God’s view on something. Therefore, all scripture should be harmonious. Does God change? Does God harbor multiple opinions or change his mind? So goes the apparent reasoning, or, more likely, unconscious assumption.”

Except that this is not always what happens. The problem is, sometimes prophets say 40, sometimes 43, sometimes 4.2. And in fact, revelation rarely seems to work this way, revealing the ultimate answer, even when that revelation consists of how to act, or legal material (“do this” “don’t do that” “never eat pork” “you can totally eat pork”) or propositional material (“2+2=4” “there are 4 lights” “the afterlife is bisected into heaven and hell.” “the afterlife is made up of 3 heavens and one hell, and one heaven might be further subdivided.”)

This leads to inconsistency, or in more friendly terms, what Peter Enns calls “theological diversity” and we Mormons really really don’t like that. The first thing we run to is our over-used safety net called “not translated correctly.” We assume that any major or minor differences or contradictions (and contradiction is often within the eye of the beholder) within scripture, or between scripture and modern practice/doctrine/tradition means that whatever it is (baptism, temple marriage, word of wisdom), obviously had to be there in the past and was removed by a shifty-eyed scribe, or happened to drop out of the text. And there may well be occasions where that is the case, but I think they’re rare.

We can account for theological diversity in other ways that are less defensive, more productive, and ultimately more conducive to faith. The lines between these are a bit blurry and overlapping, depending on what example one wishes to take.

Line-upon-line – God works from where we are and gives us the next step or two, like successive models of physics. While we tend to think the modern Church sprang fully formed from the head of Joseph Smith in 1830, studying history shows that often, even with clear revelation, there are progressive steps of understanding and implementation, as well as clarifying revelation. For a short intro, this 1979 Ensign article by James Allen is excellent. Otherwise, the history of the Church from 1890-1930 (I’m told an updated edition is in the works)  shows the transition well.

Accommodation– God speaks in ways we can understand, using our language and cultural framework. He also gives us commandments that are within our reach, though it may be a stretch. Brigham Young and lots of others inside and outside the Church have talked about this.

Enculturation– Whether God encultures a message and then gives it to the prophet, or the prophet receives revelation that filters through him and his culture, the end result is the same; scripture is tied to a time, place, language and culture. To really understand it, we need those things as well. A similar message revealed in a different time, place, language, or culture is going to be at least slightly different. For God to achieve his ends in one place or time may require different commandments than another place or time.

Human perspective/assumptions/error/historiography– While it may be inspired, ultimately scripture filters through human perspective. There is a purpose for writing something down or passing down an account a particular way. Sometimes we get multiple accounts of the same thing, but for different purposes or with different emphasis. We need to couple this understanding with another: even those parts of scripture of a historical nature follow ancient historiographical methods, which differ sharply from modern assumptions about history and history writing. We tend to assume that a written history has little purpose beyond mechanically recording what *really* happened, what was *actually* said.  Anciently, people had much looser expectations, and history wasn’t history unless it had meaning. That meaning was often shaped by the author/editor.

Think of the Four Gospels, which bring differing and occasionally contradictory perspectives (what day was Jesus crucified?) Or better yet but less familiar, think of Samuel vs. Chronicles, which tell the exact same stories, but from two very different perspectives. The stories of the establishment of Israel, David, and Solomon in Samuel were written BEFORE the destruction of the temple and virtual destruction of Israel as a nation-state and people; Chronicles was written afterwards, under very different circumstances. This is a useful summary. (part 1, part 2) Mormon does this on one occasion as well, telling the same story twice from two different perspectives. (See here for some early Grant Hardy looking at it.)

Misunderstanding of the nature of revelation, i.e. it’s MEANT to be there– This gets me back into the “42” idea. Take Proverbs 26:4 “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” Clear unambiguous direction, right? Easy enough to internalize and follow? Fair enough, let’s keep reading. Proverbs 26:5, the very next verse, says “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” Huwuh? So, which one should we do?   Flanders also had a problem with diversity, assuming that revelation would ONLY provide one perspective. “I’ve done everything the Bible says, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”
Sometimes there is not a “right and wrong to every question” as the hymn goes, but God gives general and even contrasting principles and leaves it to us to apply them to our circumstances. Though he had very harmonistic views opposed to the idea of theological diversity, Elder McConkie ran with this principle of using best judgment,  saying that even prophets “are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 547.)

[haiku url=”″ title=”Bible Says”]

Early Rabbis who noticed diversity and contradiction viewed it as God’s hint to the close reader that something important was hidden there in the text, a bit of a textual easter egg. (See James Kugel’s intro in How to Read the Bible). While I don’t go that far, I do think it’s useful to note differing perspectives and inquire as to their source and purpose. Noticing things like that and asking questions is an important aspect of scripture study and note-taking.

Peter Enns has a good chapter on theological diversity here, in his Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.

As we get into Gen 2-4 next week, we’re going to see some theological diversity and some different views and emphases.


8 comments for “Institute Report: Genesis Week 5 (corrected)

  1. Thanks Julie! I note that I left out some sentence endings here and there, now corrected.

  2. This was great, Ben. Are there any non-specialist commentaries for Genesis that you recommend? (I realize I may have missed this in an earlier post.)

  3. Robert, I’ve been asked to put together a short annotated bibliography for my class. Once that’s done (next 2-3 weeks), I’ll post it.

  4. This stuff is gold. Thanks for all the work you put into the class/these posts. I only wish you had a larger audience.

  5. Thank you for all the great effort and hard work you put on preparing each class… as well these posts, I do enjoy learning from you… my testimony is getting stronger as I learn… Thankx again

  6. Ben, with respect to these Institute Reports, please, please, please keep going. I love them, and anxiously await them.

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