Living with the Mystery

The biblical creation story . . . teaches something important about God’s character.

Editor’s note: This column presents another perspective on the topic raised by Bernard Van Ee in his article “Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?” (Reformed Matters, August 2012).

Is historical, factual interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis necessary? I believe the short answer is no. Nor is it feasible for many Christians today as they try to balance interpretations of Scripture with worldviews also developed through scientific and literary study.

According to Michel Shermer, a noted thinker on the subject of myth, “Myths are stories that express meaning, morality or motivation. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant. But because we live in an age of science, we have a preoccupation with corroborating our myths.”

Although Shermer is a professed agnostic, his definition requires some unpacking in the biblical context. Trying to unravel the story of creation in its original prose (that is, in the style of a myth) in a scientific age is simply unreasonable.

The biblical creation has some similarities to (and important differences from) Babylonian creation myths. It is written in a way that is culturally relatable. But rather than stating that the creation of the world was a byproduct of a conflict among the gods (as in the Babylonian story Enuma Elish), the Genesis account states that creation was a deliberate act—and it was good! Whether or not the biblical creation story is true in the strict factual sense, it remains a myth (by Shermer’s definition) and teaches something important about God’s character. This mythological writing differs from the firsthand and secondhand accounts of Christ’s resurrection recorded in the New Testament, which can be interpreted in the factual sense and require a different interpretive lens than the writings of the Torah.

It is very important to consider the entire biblical historical narrative when looking at Christian theology, but must we hold a strict factual and historical interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis? Is it possible, perhaps, to glean some truths and also live with some mystery? Let’s consider the plot of Genesis 1-11 in general terms:

  1. God created the world and it was good.
  2. God created humans who willfully chose (and continue to choose) to sin against him.
  3. God promised to send a Redeemer.

Without a literal “Adam,” I don’t have a well-defined idea of how the fall occurred. But for me the main idea is that sin is a choice, and that the world is fallen, and that the promised Redeemer of Genesis 3:15 is Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament. I take this general truth from the mythology without having to invoke a strict factual historical interpretation of the specific events.

Let’s also consider the Westminster Confession of Faith. Chapter 1 describes God’s revelation in three ways: through his creation, through his Word, and through his Spirit. I believe we must interpret revelation of all three in light of the others, and I believe that part of God’s revelation of himself is through our understanding of the physical world. If we consider the best well-accepted biological science of today (more specifically, the science of genetics), it is not possible to consider that all humans were descended from a two-person pair (a literal Adam and Eve). And if we insist on a dogmatic view of Genesis 1-11 as being historically factual, we will inevitably force those who hold a high regard for today’s science to either reject their science or reject Christianity. We need a middle ground.

The discussions surrounding interpretations of Genesis are important and very valuable. But ultimately some Christians will have to accept that they must agree to disagree. The most important thing is to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ . . . [and to] ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37, 39).

Web Questions

  1. How would you answer Brunsting’s opening question: “Is historical, factual interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis really necessary?” Why or why not?
  2. What findings of science do not square well with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11?
  3. Brunsting argues that the creation story in Genesis, whether factually true or not, teaches us important things about God’s character. What would those things be? Would they be true even if the story itself is myth?
  4. Brunsting contends, “This mythological writing differs from the firsthand and secondhand accounts of Christ’s resurrection recorded in the New Testament, which can be interpreted in the factual sense and require a different interpretive lens than the writings of the Torah.” In this way Brunsting wants to allow for a mythological reading of Genesis 1-11 but a literal reading of the Easter accounts. Does that work? Is it indeed the case that some biblical texts can be taken figuratively while others need to be taken literally? Can you give examples of each?
  5. What are some of the truths Brunsting gleans from the Genesis account? Would these still be true even if the account itself is deemed to be mythological?
  6. Is it a sound practice to interpret Scripture in the light of creation revelation and creation revelation in the light of Scripture? Why or why not? What are some examples of how that would work?
  7. Brunsting admits that for now we may have to agree to disagree on such things as the historicity of Genesis 1-11. Can we and should we do that?

About the Author

Joseph Brunsting is a graduate student in engineering at the University of Guelph, Ontario. He is a member of New Life Christian Reformed Church.

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Comments

One could say that Joseph Brunsting believes in a myth.  And that "it is irrelevant whether what he says is true or false".   However, since so many people believe in Joseph's false myth, it is important to reveal the truth.  Joseph says "If we consider the best well-accepted biological science of today (more specifically, the science of genetics), it is not possible to consider that all humans were descended from a two-person pair (a literal Adam and Eve)."  This is a false statement.   It is merely a recent hypothesis, and not the best bio genetic science of today.  This false statement depends on an arbitrary definition of what it is to be human, and also assumes and forgets the potential impact of mutations in broadening the genetic base of the human race. 

The problem with saying that humans could not descend from two people, is finding another origin of all the ancestors of humans.   In other words to suggest that simultaneously we have humans appearing in multiple places and from multiple non-human ancestors, on the one hand being human, and on the other hand descending from non-humans;  on the one hand being similar to each other to be able to mate, and on the other hand not being related genetically by heredity, since they did not come from the same parents....  The twisted logic defies description. 

The problem of people believing Joseph's myth is that it forms their perspective on scripture.   So we have an agnostic Shermer saying that it is irrelevant whether a myth is true or false....   hmm, really?   Is it really irrelevant?  What gives this agnostic the credentials to say so?   I would argue that Shermer's opinion is really irrelevant to the truth.  In other words, it is more important whether the myth is true or false, than whether Shermer thinks it is relevant. 

Think also of this irony, that under the hypothesis of multiple (10,000) ancestors who were unrelated (not from the same parents), yet all being ancestors of the human race, then this supposedly original population of 10,000 ancestors who were supposedly human were more closely related to non-humans than they were to other humans....  what kind of genetic sense or nonsense is this?   Were they human or non-human?  And if they were non-human or human, then why would their parents not be considered to be the original population of ancestors?  It would seem this theory is seriously flawed. 

 

I'm all for a middle ground but let's get on the same playing field. Is the Bible God's inspired word or not? Can we choose which parts are to be considered myth and which are not? Why should we accept the "best well-accepted biological science of today" as the peak of our knowledge?

It is completley unnecessary for a scientist to confess a belief in evolutionism in order to be good at what they do. Neither is it necessary for them to be a confessing Christian. It gets more complicated when a scientist wants their work to be recognized in the scientific community. The incredible saturation of the evolutionary worldview in this community makes it almost impossible for a scientist with a Christian worldview to succeed. So who is really making us reject either our science or Christianity?

Loving God with all my heart, soul and MIND for me, means not being taken in by the myth of evolution. Loving my neighbour as myself means encouraging others not to be taken in. Romans 1:18-22

A few comments on the article and previous responses:

The statement "If we consider the best well-accepted biological science of today (more specifically, the science of genetics), it is not possible to consider that all humans were descended from a two-person pair (a literal Adam and Eve)" is absolutely true.  Notice that Joseph Brunsting used the statment that it is" If we consider the best well-accepted biological science of today".  This is not to say that the science behind this is a finished product or perfect.  By its nature, no scientific model or theory can make such a statement.  However, a scientic theory, statement, or model can gain such overwhelming support by subsequent findings as to become nearly universally accepted.  As is the case with evolutionary biology.  As such, modern biology overwhelmingly supports the prevous quotation.  Recent posts on the issue being addressed have, in my opinion, been very selective on the science being addressed. An evolutionary biological model also supports the theory that the human race cannot have descended from a single pair of individuals.  As such, I would also the support the following quotation that "if we insist on a dogmatic view of Genesis 1-11 as being historically factual, we will inevitably force those who hold a high regard for today’s science to either reject their science or reject Christianity. We need a middle ground."

I would also support the idea that the creation narrative in Genesis requires a "different interpretive lens" than much of the other writings of Scripture, especially the New Testament.  It is fairly well accepted that Moses ultimately put pen to paper for the first 5 books.  Before this, the creation narrative of the God of Israel, for the people of Israel, would have been an oral story and one that had to make sense to a people of thousands of years ago as well as to us.  Thus, "trying to unravel the story of creation in its original prose (that is, in the style of a myth) in a scientific age is simply unreasonable". I would also contend that Genesis is not the only book that requires a different interpretive lens than other writings in Scripture.  Would we reasonably apply a literal interpration to Revelations?

Short note: I would finally remind everyone to read Brunsting's defintion of a "myth" before they come to the conclusion that he is treating Genesis as a "myth" by a Webster's definition.  To re-iterate the author, and the source he drew from: "myths are stories that express meaning, morality or motivation.  Whether they are literally true or not is irrelevant".

 

For more perspective on the topic, Phil Vischer (of Veggie Tale fame) did a very interesting podcast on Genesis: http://www.philvischer.com/phil-news/episode-9/

In continuing my previous post I would also offer the following thoughts:

Dealing with the proper "interpretive lens" for the creation account in Genesis is perhaps the central issue for discourse on the theological issue being addressed here as it can either allow a broad or narrow interpretive view.  In continuing my previous statements, I would contend that non-literal interpretation of a story is central to the culture of ancient Israel, as well as the Israel of Jesus' day.  Jesus himself spoke in parables, a form of communication I believe that is meant to convey "meaning, morality, or motivation".  It's a story meant to teach us something, without having literally occured.  That's not to say that parables and Genesis should be interpreted the same way, but they have in common that they teach us a truth using a narrative that did not literally occur.  As I previously hinted at, non-literal and inexact interpretation is the only useful way in interpreting Revelation, which deals with both the beginning and end times.  In my view, we are then forced to live "with a little mystery" in that case as well.  We are not held hostage to a dogmatic interpretation of the creation account (or the prophetic account of the end times), as translated into the English language.

I will also confess that the account of the fall becomes a little bit mired without a literal Adam and Eve.  I too hold to the truth that we are all fallen and have a choice to obey or disobey our creator, in which we ALL fall short.  The creation was good, and God is good, and we are fallen but have hope in his Son, the Redeemer, who did indeed command us to love our God and love our neighbour.  Amen to that.

Matty, in your statement about parables, that they are narratives of things that did not actually occur, I think you are overstating.   The parables were stories of things that either commonly occurred such as the farmer spreading seed, or could potentially occur, like the Samaritan helping a Jew, or the prodigal son returning.  The parables were not impossible myths, but realistic.   If they were not realistic, they would not have made the point that Jesus was making.  So to compare them to the creation story misses the mark. 

Secondly, your assumption that biology requires a multitude of ancestors for today's population misses answering this question:  what were the ancestors of the supposed 10,000 human ancestors?  Were they human or non-human?  Why?  How?  Under normal assumptions, we would know that this group of 10,000 required to satisfy the genetic diversity that presently exists, must also have had parents, and that under normal growth projections, a larger population comes from a smaller parentage group.  We would surmise that this group of 10,000 must have had parents, and would normally have descended from a smaller group of ancestors.   Let's say it would have descended from 5,000 parents.  Were these 5,000 then not human? 

Are genetic biologists saying that non-humans gave birth to humans?  Are they saying that at one point in time, a number of mutations happened to diversify the human population to create the ancestral base for the present genetic diversity?  The statement as we commonly hear it, is devoid of meaning and even devoid of science.  It is merely a kind of generalization.   It seems to be a statistical conclusion or calculation that looks at present day genetic diversity and acknowledges the lowest number of population that would need to exist to provide that diversity.  But that is a different statement than making the illogical conclusion that there were instantaneously  10,000 human ancestors at one point in time, who never had any parents of their own, or who had non-human ancestors.  Or is the hypothesis that God would have originally needed to create 10,000 people instantaneously? 

I need to clarify my point about the parables being realistic.  Since they were realistic and a literary device, they do not support the contention that if the creation story was a literary device, it is unrealistic.   In fact, it would suggest the opposite, that just as the meaning of a parable depends on its realism, so the creation story only has significant meaning if it is real.   

How is the age of each mtDNA or Y chromosome ancestor determined?

"Scientists assume that random mutations in specific pieces of human DNA occur at a constant rate. A comparative study of mtDNA from people of many different geographical regions reveals the number and order of mutations that have occurred since the most recent common ancestor. Once the rate of mutations is determined, the time at which any given mutation arose can be determined by counting the number of mutations that have occurred since its appearance. Estimates of the mtDNA mutation rate were made by studying the mtDNA of groups of people whose ancestors migrated at known times. New research shows that some regions of mtDNA mutate much faster than others. This discovery makes the mtDNA mutation rate uncertain and gives a broad margin of error for ages determined with mtDNA".  

In the first sentence, the word "assume"  is key.  No proof, just assumption. 

I'll just answer the questions as I think it will show my position regarding the first 11 chapters of Genesisn.

1. Is it necessary? Yes and No. I know many believers who hold to theistic evolution. I do not but many strong brothers and sisters in Christ that I respect do with a good degree of knowledge on the subject. But one thing that remains true and I think ought to stay strong even when we do not think about Genesis 1-11 as absolute literal is that we hold to the fact that there were a literal Adam and Eve. Otherwise we lose the root of inherent sin, as all of the apostles, especially Paul firmly taught and used to show the greatness of Christ's death and resurrection. Also, if there were no literal Adam and Eve, when was the point of accountability for the first called "humans"? When were they bound by moral law? Again, if there were no original Adam and Eve and no original sin - it is very humanistic in thought which means that humans are still born without sin and the ability to live a perfect life but yet society is what corrupts humans, which goes against all of what the Scripture teaches. I could say more but I want to get to the other questions.

2. There are more than enough findings in science to make any literal 6 day creationist cringe. I do believe that a lot of what science finds is true and accurate according to the age of the earth. Should that turn us away from a literal 6 day interpretation. Many would say "If science says so, I guess it should then." But I really don't think science and the bible should need to line up - actually, I don't think they really can line up when it comes to the age of the earth. I believe God created the earth with the appearance of age. When God created the mountains on Day 3, how old were they on Day 4? 1 day old but if a scientist performed experiments on those mountains to see how old they were, they would come back thousands, if not millions of years old because of their maturity in size! How old was Adam on Day 7? One day old but again he could have had the appearance of a 30 year old.

So I really don't understand at why Christians are so suprised when science is bringing back results that don't say the earth is 6,000 years old...Science and the Bible really should not agree in some aspects when it comes to the age of the world. 

3. Sure, they teach a lot about God's character and they remain pretty much the same if literal or figurative. The last part of the question misinterprets what Brunsting is refering to when he uses the word "myth"

4. I don't believe Genesis should be read with a different lens than the rest of the Torah. I have read the first two chapters in Hebrew and some people will argue it is poetic when it really has no poetic structure or scheme and is definitely not poetic. It seems that is should be taken literally and it would be odd that Moses would start poetic and then skip to another style for the rest of his writings. I don't agree with Brunstings thoughts that Moses probably got his idea's of creation from other cultures and it is just culturally relatable. Does it not make sense that other cultures have similar stories about creation because that's actually how the world was created? They all got similar stories because at Babel when they all got seperated, they all tried to keep that creation story intact but it got a little different. Does that not confirm the literal translation? 

Anyways - there are examples where the bible should not be taken literally...like revaltion. 

I'm just going to skip to #7.

7. No, I don't think we should just agree to disagree. Sure there will be different opinions but it really is dangerous to just disagree. That leads to bad theology, apathy, and ideas being deemed true without being truely tested. And especially with science being deemed true and religious being deemed silly by society, I think this is a very important subject to study and be able to defend with some good philosophy and biblical arguments.

Why do we need to use a different lens? Because Science tells us to? Or should we interpret science based on how the bible tells us to? 

Sure it's oral, but it is the written Word of God and if we take a look at Moses' life and all the time he spent with God talking to him face to face like a friend (Exodus 33:11), do you not think the question "How did you make this world?" came up once or twice? To say it's oral gives an excuse for error and fantasy which is dangerous. 

Also, I have read the first chapters of Genesis in Hebrew and there is no poetic structure or figurative language(like Revelation is in Greek), and it would seem weird that Moses would start poetic or figurative just to make cultural sense and then switch to literal language in Genesis 11 (which there really is no structural or language switch) just seems odd. 

And if you read my post below about science and interpretating Genesis in it's original prose, it is very much reasonable. If God created the world with the appearance of Age then science and the bible should NOT line up in many cases. If God created the mountains on Day 3, then how old were they on Day 4? 1 day old but a scientist would do tests and probably deem the mountain to be millions of years old. The same goes with the age of Adam and the age of all of his creation. If God created the trees with the appearance of 40 years old, then they appeared 40 years old when they were only a day old. Make sense? So, science and the bible do not have to agree and Christians have to realize that before they all get freaked out and look for another way to interpret the Bible. 

It really comes down to this, what do you hold in higher value? Science or Scripture. If science says one thing and scripture says another...what has higher authority? Will Science change the way you view scripture or scripture change the way you view science? 

I agree with much (if not most) of what science has to say on the age of the earth yet can comfortably and confidently hold to a 6 day literal creation position. Science can and does bring back absolutely correct findings that the earth is (appears) millions of years old yet the Bible can be 100% accurate when it says it is 6 or 7,000 years old. 

I want to thank Joseph for posting this alternative argument to such a sensitive subject.  I think far too often we equate "fact" with "truth," which can narrow our understanding of the cultural and historical contexts in which the books of the Bible were written.  Story and symbolism played a much larger role in ancient cultures than they do nowadays- the story of Creation was told twice, even, with some of the events appearing in a different order.  Which is "correct?"  Which is "true?"  Perhaps we need to broaden our understanding of what Truth can be.

Jesus said, I am the way, the Truth, and the Life.  So that broadens our understanding a bit.  Truth is the opposite of falsehood.  Annanias and Sapphira died for telling the opposite of truth.  We are commanded not to bear false witness.  The creation story was not told twice differently, but was told in more detail, more elaboration.  So both parts are true.  Be cautious about suggesting to "broaden an understanding of Truth".  How do you know that it is not Satan suggesting to you, "Did God really say?"   Satan also told the truth(half), but it was a falsehood in the deepest sense.  When we "broaden" the truth, as you say, it is most likely in order to separate us from God, and in this case, would lead to us claiming that Satan never did tempt Eve, that Satan never did question God's truth.

Facts must be true, in order to be considered to be a fact.  Truth is larger than facts, since truth is also imbedded in the interpretation of facts.   But when facts are inherently false, interpretation and application of those facts is either false, or irrelevant. 

Joseph's first 3 paragraphs reveal much as to the cause of his confusion and subsequent compromise.  He comes right out & says that we do not need to believe the Bible as clearly written. He goes on to suggest that a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 is just one of several interpretations, whereas worldviews developed through scientific and literary study would be the more feasible choice. He then seeks to corroborate his viewpoint by quoting Michel Shermer, a professed agnostic. Mr. Shermer we are told is an expert in the area of myths, and so we are then led to the next point from Joseph, where he states without any explanation of his idea, that Genesis is written in the style of myth.  I have read various forms of this from time to time, but it really has no foundation or basis in reality.  That Genesis is written in historical narrative is fairly well established, and only is questioned or denied when someone wishes to cast doubt on its historicity because of their predetermined bias.

Joseph then continues to suggest that Genesis 1-11 is on the same level as the Babylonian creation myths, albeit with "important differences." A more reasonable conclusion would be to say that the Babylonian creation myths were derived from the true account of creation as written in Genesis.  Joseph states that "This mythological writing differs from the firsthand and secondhand accounts...."  I would suggest that you can't get a more reliable firsthand account than God Himself!  Read 2 Peter 1: 20-21. 

Joseph's paragraph suggesting that science proves something other than a literal, straight forward interpretation of Genesis, and also that specifically genetic science proves we could not have all descended from Adam & Eve is categorically false. It all goes back to his first paragraph when he speaks of a worldview.  It is Joseph's worldview that forces him to accept man's opinion over God's Word.  Too many are simply not thinking for themselves, but repeating what they have been taught, despite, and not because of the evidence or the logic.

As the article winds down, we are led to believe that any credible scientist could not treat Genesis 1-11 as literal, and if the church were to insist on such, the scientist would need to make a choice between giving up science or their Christianity.  This again is pure elephant hurling and is an insult to the thousands of scientist who believe the Bible to be true, just as it was written.  We do not need a middle ground, we need the truth.  Who are you going to believe, God who was there, or man's opinion? The real myth is that it isn't important.

 "Every word of God is flawless." (Proverbs 30:5)

The Search for Adam and Eve", was a Newsweek article by John Tierney, Lynda Wright and Karen Springen. This article of January 11, 1988 stated: "Trained in molecular biology, they [scientists] looked at an international assortment of genes and picked up a trail of DNA that led to a single woman from whom we are all descended”.

 

Maternal mitochondria DNA is passed relatively unchanged in the female line only. Over time, mutations occur in the DNA of humans. How many mutations have occurred since Eve? How fast do mutations occur? In other words, what is the rate at which the mitochondrial DNA clock runs? If the number of mutations since Eve were known, then one could calculate how long ago mitochondrial Eve lived.

 

"Calibrating the Mitochondrial Clock" Science article by Ann Gibson (2nd January 1998):

“Mitochondrial DNA appears to mutate faster than expected, prompting new DNA forensics procedures..." For example, researchers have calculated that mitochondrial Eve - the woman whose mtDNA was ancestral to that in all living people - ... using the new clock she would have lived a mere 6000 years ago.

 

 

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries." Robert Jastrow

 

I fear I am coming to this discussion late, but it looks like a good place to ask three questions that I've struggled with, that I am genuinely looking for answers to.  In the first 2 I'm looking for a lay-person's literal reading.  My third question has to do with languages and is somewhat in response to Jeremy's comment, but also just something I've wondered for a while.

1) Given a literal 6 day creation, on which of the 6 days is earth created?

2) How can one reconcile (with a straightforward, literal reading) Genesis 1 and Gensis 2. Specifically, how does one reconcile the order of the creation of plant life and man, which in Genesis 1 is plants before man (Genesis 1:11-13 plants on day 3, Genesis 1:26-31 man on day 6) and in Genesis 2 is man before plants (Genesis 2:4-7 "When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens - and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up  .  .  .  .  the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground).

3) I have not studied Hebrew; I have studied the old testament, and I have studied poetry in general and the poetry of the old testament specifically.  A hallmark, perhaps THE hallmark, of Hebrew poetry is parallelism.  Nowhere in scripture, with the possible exception of one psalm, do I find such parallelism as in Genesis 1.  Yet I hear people who have studied the Hebrew language say there is no element of poetry to be found in Genesis 1.  Is there someone who knows Hebrew and Hebrew poetry that can explain to me why Genesis 1 may not be considered to be poetry?

Thank you for any help you can give me in my search for answers to these questions.

Hello, Heidi. I encourage you to visit the website: creation.com and pose your questions there. Here are a few articles you can find:

http://creation.com/how-could-the-days-of-genesis-1-be-literal-if-the-sun-wasnt-created-until-the-fourth-day

http://creation.com/problems-in-methods-of-interpretationgenesis-1-11-part-2

Most of all, I encourage you to trust the Holy Spirit to be your guide!

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