Genesis reflects Hebrew way of telling stories

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When we read Genesis in English, it appears that there are two accounts of creation. Does this seem strange?

We have to be careful to look beneath the surface when we study something written 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Genesis was written in an ancient language, coming from a vastly different time and culture than ours.

Umberto Cassuto was a great Jewish scholar who taught about ancient Hebraic literary devices, specifically, the way the ancient Israelites commonly told important stories.

In the first place, they told stories in a form that could be easily memorized and passed on to a new generation. They were not interested in discussing what we today consider a scientific description of the world.

To think so is to make a category mistake. Science didn’t exist then.

Rather, they presented great truths about our world, such as that it owes its existence to our Creator God; that humans were originally meant to have fellowship with God; and that things have gone very wrong and need to be put right.

All of this is packed into the first four chapters of Genesis. These theological truths were very important and were communicated through these stories.

But the ancient Hebrews told stories differently than we do today. They used duplication and repetition as a teaching device.

They liked to tell the important stories twice, to emphasize the point being taught.

The first time round, the overall picture was presented. The second time, the main feature was highlighted by expanding its details.

In Genesis 1, we are given a sublime overview of creation, moving from the existence of light to life on Earth so that the totality of it all is presented. This first overview appeals to the mind; the second overview appeals to human emotions.

In Genesis 2 the Creator, who is high above all things, enters into direct contact with human beings and communicates that they have a unique purpose.

Genesis 1 tells of the creation of the world, whereas Genesis 2 highlights the most important part from an ethical standpoint: the creation of our human family.

Although this was mentioned in the first account, it becomes the main feature that is amplified in the second account.

This was done to indicate the most important part that we need to consider — our own existence and purpose.

What if there were two different accounts of the genesis of humans that had been passed on by word-of-mouth, from grandfather to grandchildren?

If the author of Genesis used both of them, he clearly took the kernel from each and threw away the husks. He took what was good and true and wove it all into his own book, in order to communicate theological truth.

Differences in description or order would only be problematic to the ancient mind if they clashed as theological statements.

But are there not contradictions in the details? Doesn’t Chapter 1 speak of everything being created in six days, while Chapter 2 says it was all done in one day?

Cassuto says that it is stated in Genesis 2:4 “IN THE DAY that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens; this indicates that the earth and the heavens were created in one day ... Anyone who is not insensitive to Hebrew usage realizes at once that the expression ‘in the day that the Lord God made’ means simply ‘At the time that He made,’ and does not refer to a ‘day’ of 12 or 24 hours.

“It is written, for example, IN THE DAY when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai (Numbers 3:1), although the colloquy lasted forty days and forty nights.”

Cassuto’s point is that we misread the author’s intention if we demand that the word “day” in Genesis 1 or 2 has to mean a literal 24-hour day. Clearly, the author meant it in a metaphorical way in both places, which means there is no contradiction. Ancient Jewish readers understood that.

As a side note, it was only during the Protestant Reformation that Christian interpreters began to read Genesis 1 and 2 in a woodenly literal way and interpret the days of creation as literal 24-hour time periods. St. Augustine and other ancient Christian teachers did not read it that way.

The ancient Jews used metaphor and literary devices to communicate deep truth, and it was the theology and ethics they wanted to teach above all else.

Other questions may be asked here, but I’ll have to deal with them in a future article.

The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Email him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should call Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or email her at catherinehicks@wwub.com.

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