Saturday, November 7, 2009

Genesis 2-3 ... Literally?

Was Adam an historical person? Is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden intended to be understood literally, or allegorically? (see this earlier post on Adam in which I explore various possibilities.)

When a 21st Century Christian reads early Genesis, it is difficult to do so without bringing along baggage, preconceptions. Christians who accept the evolutionary framework will generally conclude that the story as written is allegory. Anti-evolutionists, perhaps in fear of giving space to evolution, will generally conclude that the story is literal.

Many fundamentalists cite their tried and tested principle of hermeneutics which says we ought always assume a literal meaning unless there is overriding evidence within the text itself compelling us to do otherwise. Despite the obvious logical flaw in that principle, someone please explain why we are not so compelled by the text to understand Genesis 2-3 allegorically. When I read a story that includes talking snakes, magic trees, a human being formed from the rib of another human being, I see many not-so-subtle hints that we are reading an allegory. Yet, what seems patently obvious to me is vehemently denied by anti-evolutionists and fundamentalists, who are utterly convinced this is a literal bit of history and that there is no reason to read it otherwise. Perhaps we are all guilty of superimposing our preconceptions upon the text.

It may be impossible for any of us to approach this story with an open mind, uncluttered by personal bias. I am coming to believe that genuine, unbiased exegesis is actually impossible for human beings to do. In the case of the story in Genesis 2-3, wouldn’t it be great if we could erase from our minds all the contemporary squabbles over the science of origins, and simply let the story speak for itself?

Ah! but we needn’t do that. It has already been done. We can journey back to an earlier time when evolution did not color a reader’s response. In a recent comment here, frequent contributor Isaac offered the following quote from Origen. When Origen, the respected 3rd Century church father, read Genesis, he did so without the baggage we moderns carry; and he asks ...

"Who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it." (Origen de Principiis, Volume 4)

It is true, not all early theologians shared Origen’s view (although Augustine, at the very least, maintained a quite flexible view regarding the literalness of the Garden of Eden story [see this comment by Rich]). There have always been some perceived theological reasons to favor a literal reading of this story — a discussion for another time. But my point here is simply this: the great early theologian and Bible student, Origen, unencumbered by issues of science that haunt our minds, when he read Genesis 2-3 in his Hebrew Bible came away unequivocally asserting that the text is patently allegorical.


Isaac Gouy said...

> when he [Origen] read Genesis 2-3 in his Hebrew Bible...

And centuries earlier how did Israel read Genesis? And now?

"I wrote How to Read the Bible because I think its subject, modern biblical scholarship, is simply too important to be ignored. In the past, of course, it has been ignored; many people, especially Orthodox Jews, have dismissed this body of scholarship as unprovable theorizing. But such a position is becoming more and more difficult to maintain. Magazine articles and television specials regularly appear nowadays with details of the latest findings of archaeologists and other biblical scholars. I know well the sinking feeling that such material can produce in someone who cares about Torah." James Kugel

"The Creation of the World - and of Adam and Eve, Genesis 1-3"

RBH said...

I'm going to ask this on an old thread in hopes that it will pop up in your email. Are you folks OK?


Cliff Martin said...

Hi Richard,

Yes, we are looking forward to our fourth "post-diagnosis" Christmas, and Ginger is doing very well. Last June, traditional systemic chemotherapies stop being effective, so we turned to a relatively new procedure. All her cancer appears to be confined to the liver, where it is difficult to treat systemically. But there is now a "bead therapy", which is introduced directly into the liver via the vascular system. Ginger just completed Y-90 radiation bead therapy earlier this month. The treatment has good promise of eradicating the cancer in the liver, at least for a year or two, maybe longer. Some people have survival rates of 5 and 10 years ... and that is about as long as the treatment has been around, I think. So we remain hopeful. Thanks for asking!

RBH said...

That's good news, Cliff, and I'm very glad to hear it. Best to Ginger, and you folks have a very good Christmas and New Year.