A recent lectionary reading in my church from Hebrews contained a phrase that never struck me before as very important. The letter opens with, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways…”
In various ways! The same afternoon, I read a pertinent quote by Duke theologian Ellen Davis in Makoto Fujimura’s excellent book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making:
It [the Bible] may mean more than one thing at any given time. Further, it can speak to different audiences in varying ways through the centuries. In that sense, all of Scripture is poetry, and surely its inexhaustible potential to say something new and stunningly apt is a large part of what we mean when we call the Bible the word of the living God. (p. 37)
Davis recognizes, Fujimura writes, that Biblical poetry reveals the Bible’s multiple layers in (again, her words) a “surplus of meaning.”
I have always loved the sentence in St. Jack Lewis’s book, Reflections on the Psalms, where he opens the chapter on Scripture with, “If even pagan utterances can carry a second meaning, not quite accidentally but because, in the sense I have suggested, they have a sort of right to it, we shall expect Scriptures to do this more momentously and more often” (p. 109),
A “surplus of meaning” surely applies to Genesis 1-3, the Judeo-Christian epic of creation. Yet, contemporary discussions on the meaning of this epic tend to end up in rather dualistic, and sometimes acrimonious, arguments pitting scripture vs. science or history vs., well, just story.
I am familiar with no less than seven “multiple views” books on the creation account in Genesis published since 1986, wherein Bible scholars and Christians with scientific credentials wrestle with each other over “their views” of what it all means. Add to that scores of books by single authors presenting “their view.” Many of these books are helpful in clarifying positions and bringing new ideas to our understanding of the Genesis account. But, let’s not forget what the author of Hebrews reminds us, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways…”
Gregg Davidson and Kenneth Turner must have been thinking about that when they conceived the idea for their new book, The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One: A Multi-Layered Approach. Gregg is a geology professor at Old Miss. He has long been involved in faith-science dialogue in both professional scientific and theological venues, such as the Geological Society of America and the Evangelical Theological Society. He contributed to the multi-authored book, The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth and more recently, Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.
Ken is a professor of Old Testament at Toccoa Falls College (with an undergraduate double major in physics and math). They met several years ago at a faith-science workshop as they were pursuing different projects intended to help Christians navigate the perceived Bible vs. Science culture war.
Davidson and Turner thoroughly and beautifully describe seven unique layers of meaning from the Genesis creation account. The emphasis is on Genesis 1, but the next two chapters are not ignored in their explorations. Nor is the whole of scripture, which is a remarkable treasure in the book. They illuminate how all of the seven perspectives relate Genesis 1 to the whole epic of scripture, from creation and the Garden of Eden to the holy mountain of the new creation. The Scripture Index fills six pages of three columns!
The layers are NOT examples of different means of relating science and scripture, such as literal day (young Earth creation), day-age (progressive creation), gap, or nonconcordist readings (evolutionary creation). They leave that for all the other books. Layers here do not compete for theological primacy. The layers convey complementary truths based upon different perspectives drawn from the texts and knowledge about how the ancient people who first read the scriptures might have understood them. The perspectives are not original with Davidson and Turner, but reflect their careful reading of scholars and theologians from the early church to the present day. Objections are anticipated and thoroughly addressed. Ultimately, Davidson and Turner show how Christ is the fulfilment of promises and practices revealed in each layer.
You may recognize the contributions of particular contemporary scholars in the brief descriptions that follow, but I will refrain from mentioning them here, as I am not seeking to provide here a proper book review!
Layer 1: Song. Here the authors cast Genesis 1 as song-like literature with the parallel structure of creation days addressing the problematic initial formless and empty conditions described in verse 2. The problem of formlessness (tohu) is solved by the creations of spaces during days 1-3. The problem of emptiness (bohu) is solved as the spaces are filled during corresponding days 4-6. This so-called framework view is probably the most familiar approach to most readers.
Layer 2: Analogy. Genesis 1 can be related by analogy to the essential and even mundane tasks of the human workweek. God’s work, creativity, and rest in seven days provide a mandate for how humans are to live in His creation.
Layer 3: Polemic. Genesis 1 recasts pagan (Egyptian, Babylonian, Canaanite) notions of origins with the strong argument that everything that is in the world was created by the God of Israel.
Layer 4: Covenant. Genesis 1 uses elements known in ancient near eastern treaties and prefigures future covenants between God and his people. This chapter includes an illuminating discussion of the impact of sin and “the curse” on nature, along with practical implications for creation care.
Layer 5: Temple. Recent scholarship on ancient near eastern temple documents and cosmology has provided valuable insights on how to read Genesis with the perspective of the community where and when it was first read. God assigns functions to elements in his cosmic temple in the course of six days and takes up his rest to dwell there on the seventh day. The authors also explore implications for the New Creation.
Layer 6: Calendar. Noting that the sun, moon and stars introduced on day four are to “serve as signs to mark sacred times (festivals), and days and years,” the authors consider the calendar elements of Genesis 1 and relate them to the work week, agricultural year, and chronologies of the Genesis flood and exodus. This is the most complicated of layers, but fascinating in what it reveals about the law and literature of the Pentateuch (that are also complicated, at least to this reader).
Layer 7: Land. The Hebrew ‘erets in Genesis 1 is translated as earth or land. The land being created is ultimately Eden, where humans are placed to fill, subdue, and rule. Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience and exile from Eden won’t be the last in Israel’s story. God gives the gift of land with conditions. Disobedience (human failure) has consequences. But God also provides the hope of restoration.
I have been looking forward to this book since first learning about their work on it. Now for the disclosures: I was also at the workshop seven years ago when Gregg and Ken met each other. Additionally, I have written with Gregg, who has an uncanny ability to communicate complex scientific material in ways that almost anyone can understand. Ken’s own original scholarship in the Old Testament results in his ability to perceive connections between biblical instruction and story that enrich the contents of this book. I am eager to share the benefits I believe to be inherent in the reading of this text, and hope you will take the opportunity to engage their contribution when it becomes available tomorrow.