Genesis vs. Science: Background, Readings, and Discussion

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 9.02.07 PMOne of the problems that crops up with Genesis is its proper context, its genre, what background it should be read against (modern science or ancient Near East?) That is, modern western English readers have a particular (modern) worldview with various questions and issues. When they read Genesis, they naturally place it into that setting, and read it against that (modern) background, which creates conflict. It’s as if we’ve summoned an expert witness to trial, only to surprise her with questions far outside her area of expertise. Although she gives strong indications to that effect, the judge forcefully says, “Just answer the questions please!” The lawyers seize upon any statement, and force it into relevance. Only recently have defense attorneys appeared in the courtroom to object to this treatment, with several lengthy briefs detailed below.

The history of interpretation of Genesis’ early chapters is fascinating, particularly the science/religion debate. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Expanded Edition is a great history of the interpreters and the conflict generated by their interpretations. Alas, Mormons get several mentions. 1  Another good volume on the science side is Saving Darwin, which I found enlightening.

The commonly-held and mistaken view of the history of interpretation goes something like this.

Since the dawn of time, the “literal” reading of Genesis has been the correct and only reading. But then Darwin and Science came along, and now the only reason people reject the traditional “literal” reading is because of scientific conflict. Scholars who propose other readings are really just faithless scoffers. Sometimes this takes on conspiratorial tone, “People are abandoning the Truths of Genesis to become Godless Evolutionists, even though evolution is a lie and scientific conspiracy with no real proof.” If you really believe the scriptures (it continues), you believe a “literal” reading of them, and any deviation from that original, literal reading is due to godless scientific influence or simple lack of faith.

Each of these statements is highly problematic. My own view, very briefly, follows.

Genesis had an original non-scientific context which was largely lost with the surrounding cultures. By the New Testament period, a variety of interpretations of Genesis existed, though of course none were influenced by science that wouldn’t be invented/discovered for 1000+ years. (See this book, this post,  and this post, for example. Judaism had and has various perspectives, from YEC fundamentalists to Nachmanides, who said that nothing in creation is literal.) Science (geology, Darwin, etc.) does eventually plays a role in reevaluating our reading of Genesis, but a relatively minor one. Mostly it creates conflict,  and offers not a rereading as much as a completely different story. That is, while Science can lead to flat rejection of Genesis, can tell us what Genesis isn’t, it doesn’t really offer a new understanding of it. Science can’t tell us what Genesis is.

Rather, the driving force in reinterpretation has been the rediscovery of documents from Israel’s neighbors, beginning in the mid-to-late 1800s. Though most are not religious in nature, we literally have hundreds of thousands of documents from these civilizations. 2

The decipherment of those documents (Egyptian beginning with Champollion, Assyrian and Babylonian in the late 1800s, Ugaritic in the 1930s, others) has allowed the recovery of the background of Genesis. Because of clear and overwhelming similarities between the creation and flood accounts in particular, these documents have driven a reinterpretation of our understanding of Genesis by believing and committed Christians and Jews who are also committed scholars. Placing Genesis in its proper context doesn’t solve all the problems but goes a long way in doing so. Alas, the trickle-down to the laypeople and idiot politicians who make policy has not quite happened yet, but it’s beginning. And once the trickle-down hits the mainstream public, it’ll take another 20 years to make it’s way into the Church. I’m trying to speed that up a bit.

A good general volume introducing cultural and contextual issues is Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. It doesn’t address Genesis directly, but covers a variety of provocative topics, such as wealth, race, language, shame/honor, individuality/collectivism, and others.

The following is essentially some of the Suggested Readings I’ll list in my own Genesis book.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 7.32.14 PMFirst and simplest is In the Beginning… We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context. It’s significant that the authors are both conservative Evangelicals who received their PhDs (and ThM) from a prominent seminary; these are not disbelieving Bible-haters. They assume Moses is the author of Genesis, a mark of their conservatism. One recounts how he preached YEC for years before being exposed to what is clearly a more natural contextual fit for Genesis than as a science textbook. That said, science plays very little role herein. It was not science that convinced them of their misreading, but exposure to ancient Near Eastern context. The authors compare and contrast Genesis 1 with Egyptian and Mesopotamian creation accounts to draw out what it was trying to teach. They also deal with the idea of adaption, and objections to their interpretation.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 7.18.36 PMSecond, more broad, is Peter Enns’ Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible. I’ve been a big fan of Enns. He also is Evangelical, but received his PhD in Hebrew Bible from Harvard, not a Seminary. His previous books address Genesis obliquely (why do Biblical texts like the flood look so much like non-Biblical texts? Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament), and fairly directly (The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.) The last two books recently went up on pre-pub at LogosGenesis for Normal People is a slim volume covering the entire book, and is intended as a read-as-a-group, with study questions kind of thing.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 7.20.12 PM


Third, John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Walton provides the most in-depth Evangelical reading in detail that I have seen. Some of his interpretation is quite innovative and helpful. Walton has been mentioned multiple times here, summarized by me (here and here), discussed at LDS Science Review here, here, and here, and by T&S/DMI Dave at Digital Faith.  Eisenbrauns published an academic version of his book, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. Highly recommended.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 7.21.41 PMLastly comes Mark S. Smith’s book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis I. Smith is Catholic, and teaches at NYU, where I had opportunity to sit in on some of his classes. A real gentleman and a scholar, Smith has written the most detailed, technical, and perhaps least accessible volume for the public. Nevertheless, it is for the public, particularly the footnote-loving public. The title represents the general critical consensus that priestly perspectives are on display in Genesis 1 (which I talk about very briefly here) and what that means. Smith provides background and goes verse by verse, but it’s not exactly a commentary.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 7.23.31 PMAlso worth mention is Greg Moberly’s The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible, which includes a very nice chapter on the chaos monsters lurking in the watery background of Genesis 1 (See #2 and #3 in my post here.) I haven’t read beyond that, but it’s a good chapter. Greg Moberly should not be confused with Walter Moberly, author of The Theology of the Book of Genesis and a very nice chapter, “How Should One Read the Early Chapters of Genesis?” in Reading Genesis after Darwin, another very useful and relevant volume.




To summarize, if you want to learn by study and faith out of the best books, check these out.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. “In 1935 only 36 percent of the students at the Mormons’ Brigham Young University denied that humans had been ‘created in a process of evolution from lower life forms.’ By 1973 the figure had risen sharply to 81 percent. No doubt many factors pushed young Mormons towards fundamentalism and antievolutionism. But the most significant scientificially was the far-reaching influence of George McReady Price.” P. 339. Price was a Seventh-Day Adventist who was largely responsible for Creationism, and many of Joseph Fielding Smith’s arguments were taken directly from Price. They exchanged letters, in fact.
  2. Apparently, many people don’t know this. I was once explaining to a far distant relative what I did in grad school. She had no idea we had ancient Near Eastern texts other than the Bible, and her first wide-eyed question was, “well do they support the Church?” The ignorance and assumptions there are really another post for another time but an Old Assyrian receipt for two donkey-loads of tin or a letter from the governor of Megiddo to Pharoah complaining that the other vassals aren’t working as hard as he hardly have any bearing on LDS doctrine.

22 comments for “Genesis vs. Science: Background, Readings, and Discussion

  1. Thank you! I love what I’ve read from Enns, and look forward to dipping into some of your other recommendations.

  2. Thanks, this is very useful. But shame on you for giving many several new additions for my “to read” list, most of which I’ll probably never get around to.

  3. I like your court room metaphor a lot. One I’ve used (I think I lifted it from an editorial in Christianity Today or somesuch): we are sometimes like Data from Star Trek in our insistence to read literally something (a joke, an idiom, etc.) that was never intended to be interpreted that way.

  4. Absolutely fantastic post. I only have one problem (and it’s not with the post):

    If science is in the truth-business and Genesis is not science, then what business is Genesis in?


    If Genesis is in the truth-business and Genesis is not science, then what business is science in?

    In other words, adjusting our view of Genesis is not good enough by itself. We also have to adjust our understanding of what truth is. This is the mistake I see YECs making: since truth is as science says it is, and since the Bible is true, then the Bible must be read as a science book. If we are going to avoid this conclusion, we must either reject the truth of the Bible or reject the idea that truth is as science says it is.

    Anyways, I apologize for the potential thread jack and look forward to any reviews of these books that might pop up in the ‘nacle.

  5. .

    Re: “Many of Joseph Fielding Smith’s arguments were taken directly from Price.” (footnote 1)

    That’s one view. Another, equally valid, is that his arguments were taken directly from the scriptures and the words of the prophets. And if he found support for his religion in science that you dispute, what does it matter? Most of his religious arguments live on without the help of science. In fact a great many of those very arguments are found in Church published media to this day.

  6. You’re right, R. Gary, it does take time to expunge incorrect notions from church materials and popular belief, as evidenced by the recent addition of the preface to Declaration #2. Just give it time. I’m sure there will be much turning over in graves when we see a woman pray at conference in a couple of weeks.

  7. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Jeff G- Nice to have you back, btw. “If we are going to avoid this conclusion, we must either reject the truth of the Bible or reject the idea that truth is as science says it is.” There’s a good bit of history behind your comment. The Israelite view of the cosmos assumed in Gen 1 was partially scientific (or concordist), in the sense that it was partially based on observation of the world and logical (as it seemed) extrapolations therefrom. In that sense, we can keep the non-scientific aspects and say that science is now capable of observing much more. Without taking the time to unpack all that, I’d simply say that not all truth is scientific in nature, and we should decouple the truths in Genesis 1 from scientific claims.

    R. Gary- I admire your loyalty, but you should read the history. “he found support for his religion in science that you dispute, what does it matter?” It’s not science that *I* dispute. It’s ridiculous claims that didn’t rise anywhere near the term “science” 100 years ago, and still don’t today. Smith went around flogging Price’s flood geology/YEC book to the other Apostles, who were having none of it. In some ways, Smith and Price both started firmly as concordists, and then went hunting for support and anything they could find to undermine any claims against concordist claims.

  8. A note- Most discussion I’ve seen of Walton’s ideas so far has been quite positive. I just received the contents of the new issue of Journal of Semitic Studies, with a negative review. Hendel, who has been writing the new volume(s) on Genesis for the Anchor Bible series, charges that Walton’s view fails on philological grounds. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it’s a book note, not an extended argument.

  9. .

    Re: “the other Apostles, who were having none of it”

    In 1954, Joseph Fielding Smith’s monumental work, Man: His Origin and Destiny was published. For the most part, it was favorably received and sales continued throughout remainder of the author’s life. The book enjoys even wider distribution today as part of Deseret Book’s electronic GospeLink library.

    In 1956, the entire Quorum of the Twelve published a statement of support for Joseph Fielding Smith. Their statement appeared in the Church’s official magazine over the signatures of all of President Smith’s associates in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Click here to see the actual signatures of “the other Apostles.”

    Notice how the other Apostles recognized “his vigorous denunciation” of certain “theories of men” which they said “would negate the truths of the restored gospel.” Notice how the other Apostles acknowledged he had drawn criticism from “some of the exponents of the theories he has assailed,” but notice how they chose to emphasize “his scholarship and the consistency of his course” and praise “his profound gospel writings” as “a rich legacy which will immortalize his name among the faithful.” While some individuals were trying to undermine the integrity of Joseph Fielding Smith, his associates in the Quorum of the Twelve were clearly defending it.

  10. Perhaps a post comparing Prince’s and Joseph Fielding Smith’s teachings is in order. And then compare that with what’s actually in the scriptures. I’m not sure how signing a birthday announcement equates to agreeing with everything that person ever taught.

  11. Gary, nothing in your fulsome praise of JFS (and I have no quibbles with his integrity or prophethood) suggests that other Apostles were embracing Young Earth Creationism, which is what Price wrote and what Smith wanted them to line up with. This is what “having none of it” means.

    “For the most part, it was favorably received” Do you have data on how well it was received?

    Smith held onto his manuscript until those who opposed it (Roberts, Talmage, Widtsoe, etc.) were dead. Parts had been written as early as 1920, and no discussion with other Apostles or GAs who actually knew something of the matters of science dissuaded him. President Clark was apparently not a fan, and President McKay did not think Genesis represented clear and unambiguous (scientific?) revelation on the matter, as Smith did. According to George Boyd, President McKay was very disturbed about the book and said, “We have known what Joseph Fielding Smith has thought on this subject for years. The sad part is, now it’s in print.”

    Smith does not appear to have recognized that his views represented one possible reading. President Clark felt attacked, writing to Smith that “You seem to think I reject the scriptures, or some of them. I do not intend to do so, but obviously I am no more bound by your interpretation of them than you are by mine…. Now, as to what the earlier brethren have said–where they have declared themselves as speaking under inspiration and by the authority of the Lord, I bow to what they say. But where they express views based on their own understanding and interpretation, then none of us are foreclosed from exercising our own reasoning powers, inadequate though they may be; but the earlier views do not foreclose us from thinking. This is particularly true, where we come to interpreting their interpretations.”

    Lastly, do you really think that if a GA says something incorrect, they should be released and their writings struck from the record? Or that there was a unified perspective that agreed with Smith on these issues? You cite these approvals as if they indicate blanket approvals for *all* his positions, and such is simply not the case. But I expect nothing less from you.

  12. Ben,

    “The Israelite view of the cosmos assumed in Gen 1 was partially scientific (or concordist), in the sense that it was partially based on observation of the world and logical (as it seemed) extrapolations therefrom.”

    Could you tell me a little bit more about this? I followed the link, but it made concordism sound like a modern, post-Enlightenment mindset rather than something which a BCE Israelite would have thought. In particular, how closely wedded were observation and logic to the early Israelite concept of truth?

  13. Ben,

    I have read the first half or so of Genesis For Normal People before I had to put it down because I got preoccupied with a novel. What I read of GFNP makes a lot of sense to me. While it in my mind clears up a lot of the conflict you mention, it did raise one big issue in my mind. The modern western English worldview you mention that we readers have creates the conflict when reading Genesis. However, clumped in that broad category of modern western English worldview readers happens to be Joseph Smith, who restored the church and based our thinking and doctrines on this same worldview (literal Adam, literal Fall, literal Noah and Ark, etc). And not just Joseph Smith thought that way; all the prophets and apostles I am aware of have taught similarly.

    So I guess what I am wondering is if there is some way to bridge a contextual reading/understanding of Genesis as put forth by Enns and others with the fact that our core teachings are ingrained in the literalness of so much in Genesis? I guess I am just having a little cognitive dissonance that is looking for some resolution.

    Hope I am making sense.

  14. .

    Ben: It’s true. Every prophet has his critics, and it’s also true that some privately disagreed with Smith and his 1954 book.

    But private comments don’t nullify public statements published by the Church. Actually, the opposite is true. And in 1966, David O. McKay’s First Presidency, in a signed statement published in the Church’s official magazine, spoke about Joseph Fielding Smith’s doctrine:

    “Few, if any, have possessed a broader and deeper knowledge of the Church and its doctrine. He has been a scholar with scarcely a peer, and his writings have strengthened the faith of many throughout the world.”

    Whatever McKay may have said in private, this was his official public opinion. Click here to see the signatures that were published with the statement.

  15. Great. Find me some public statements supporting his Young Earth Creationist/flood geology views.

  16. Ben: It would be helpful to me, and maybe even other readers, if you would explain in a few words what _you_ mean by Young Earth Creationism.

  17. The ship on this “controversy” has long sailed. Science won. Widtsoe and President Eyring’s father understood this. There are undoubtably important lessons to learn from Genesis 1, but they have nothing to do with the creation of the earth and the earth’s history. If we keep pretending to accept Genesis 1 as “fact,” we will continue to lose our young members.

  18. Jeff and Sonny in particular- I’m quite short on time at the moment, and must beg off. I can address these questions in the next few days though.

    Gary, why don’t you summarize JFS views for us on the age of the earth instead?

    Edit: And I will come back, though comments are currently closed due to a serious threadjack.

Comments are closed.