Burke, D, Interpretive Models for the Genesis Creation

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Interpretive Models for the Genesis Creation

A Comparative Assessment

The first two chapters of Genesis present an intriguing dilemma: two individual creation accounts with strikingly different features, which appear to contradict each other (Bosman 2004, p.43). A survey of three interpretative models — historical, polemical, and theological — will demonstrate the importance of contextualising Genesis. When returned to its original socio-historical setting, the creation narrative develops new meaning and a clearer purpose emerges.


Genesis 1-3 reads as a historical drama (Utley 2001, p.3) reflecting the pre-scientific worldview of its author, which we are not required to share. Cosmological features are described in the phenomenal language[1] of the period ('Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters... God called the dome Sky', Genesis 1:6, 8). Time is recorded in the simplest way, by reference to natural cycles ('And there was evening and there was morning, the third day', Genesis 1:13). Historically most Christians have assumed that the Iron Age II audience of this creation account understood it as a strictly literal record of historical events, and that we must follow suit.

The strict literalist/historical interpretative model still prevails in contemporary Christian exegesis, which habitually combines a presumption of absolute historicity with a rigidly literal hermeneutic.[2] Christian apologist Dan Story speaks for many when he asserts 'Christians are logically justified and philosophically consistent to accept biblical creation without investigating scientific evidence.'[3] But the historical model can take milder forms. Popular alternatives involve interpreting the 7 days of the Genesis creation as vast time periods (e.g. millions of years), or proposing a chronological 'gap' between Genesis 1 and 2 [4] to account for the plethora of 'pre-Adamic' life found within the fossil record.[5]



Under the polemical interpretative model, Genesis 1-3 can be read as a refutation of competing creation accounts. Since this function takes precedence over others, the narrative is not required to be historically, scientifically, or even chronologically accurate by modern standards.[6] Instead it is a story, corresponding to the literary form of the period. Alexander & Baker (2003, pp.156-166) list common features of ANE creation accounts (e.g. chaotic beginning, separation of waters, breath of life, imago dei, rest, cosmos as temple) and show how Genesis infuses them with greater significance. Pagan mythology was largely aimless, with creation a mere side-effect of other activities. Pagan gods were capricious and arbitrary, with little regard for anyone but themselves. By contrast, the Hebrew God brings true nobility to His role as divine monarch. The Genesis narrative emphasises His unique characteristics in superlative terms: He moves through the cosmos unchallenged (Genesis 1:2); He speaks and creation occurs ex nihilo (Genesis 1:3); He communes peaceably with His heavenly court (Genesis 1:26[7]); He provides for the needs of all living things without demanding a price in return (Genesis 1:30 cf. 2:8-9, 15-18); He places humanity at the pinnacle of creation (Genesis 1:26, 28 cf. 2:19-20). In stark opposition to pagan deities, Yahweh creates all things through an effortless yet meaningful process, and remains intimately involved with His creation.[8]



The theological interpretative model complements the polemical and functions in a similar way, for 'Even in the history books, the main emphasis is on theological explanation rather than historical analysis.[9]' Read in this way, almost every verse of the Genesis narrative is pregnant with meaning. God is alone (monotheism, Genesis 1:2 cf. Exodus 20:3[10]); He is sole creator (omnipotence, Genesis 1:3 cf. 2 Kings 19:15); He creates with purpose (teleo-eschatological framework, Genesis 1:26 cf. Numbers 14:21 & Matthew 5:14-16); He sustains all life (literal & spiritual food, Genesis 1:29 cf. Exodus 16:4 & John 6:27); He forms legal contracts, passes judgement and covers sin (covenant relationship, sin, atonement, Genesis 2:15-17 & 3:14-19[11], 21 cf. Genesis 17:1-8, Revelation 13:8).[12]

Thus we have the distinctive spiritual elements of ontology, teleology, hamartiology, soteriology and eschatology which comprise the foundation of Judeo-Christian doctrine. Interpreted theologically, the Genesis creation reveals a microcosm of the complete Christian message: the only true, omnipotent God created us to reflect His glory, providing all our needs.[13] When we turn from Him in sin, He offers to redeem us through an eternal covenant made possible by the sacrifice of His Son, so that our original relationship might be restored. Theology is therefore an inherent feature of the Genesis creation account,[14] as illustrated in specific statements about the nature and identity of God, His mode of creation, His interaction with creation, and His dealings with humanity. Both here and elsewhere in Genesis, statements of this type have a creedal function, defining key aspects of the Hebrew faith.



From this review of the models examined, it is apparent that a combination of the polemical and theological interpretations of the Genesis creation offers the best exegetical framework for an accurate understanding of the text. All forms of strictly historical interpretation are rife with scientific contradictions and anachronistic contrivances.

Genesis 1-3 is not a historical narrative in the modern sense,[15] and cannot be compelled to surrender a message it does not contain. Instead it is written in the style of a typical ANE primeval protohistory, telling a story about creation and God's purpose with it. The author was concerned with the spiritual rationale behind creation and employed a degree of literary license.[16] This was expected and accommodated by his original audience, who found it compatible with their unscientific worldview.[17] What they saw in Genesis 1-3 was a traditional narrative reflecting certain concrete realities with historical elements for a polemical and theological purpose.

21st Century Christians too often forget that Genesis was not originally written for us. As latecomers to the creation account we must strive to understand how its first audience understood it. This approach informs our understanding of the details, offering a legitimate basis for alternative interpretation while preserving the essential meaning.[18] The net result is greater insight into the original purpose of Genesis 1-3 and a coherent exegesis which is valid for all ages.[19]

Debates over historical and scientific accuracy have no relevance to documents which make no claim to possess these features. When we read the ancient texts in a way that is sympathetic to their language and period, we share the eternal truths first revealed to the primeval believers.[20] Provided the original context is properly recognised, their core message remains the same regardless of when they are read, or by whom.

— D. J. Burke, 2011


Alexander, T. & Baker, D. 2003, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, IVP
  Academic: Downers Grove, Illinois

Bosman, L. 2004, The Book of Genesis Unveiled,
  Kessinger Publishing: Whitefish, Montana

Carson, D. A. 1994. New Bible Commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Genesis 1:1–2:3).
  Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Illinois, USA

Drane, J. W. 2000. Introducing the Old Testament,
  Lion Publishing plc: Oxford

Myers, A. C. 1987. The Eerdmans Bible dictionary,
  Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Sanford LaSor, W., Hubbard, D. A., & Bush, F. 1996. Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament,
  Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Story, D. 1997, Defending Your Faith,
  Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Utley, R. J. D. 2001, How it All Began: Genesis 1-11. Study Guide Commentary Series.Vol. Vol. 1A (6).
  Bible Lessons International: Marshall, Texas

Waltke, B. K. & Yu, C. 2007. An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach,
  Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Young, M. & Strode, P. K. 2009. Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails),
  Rutgers University Press: Piscataway, New Jersey


  1. Phenomenal language describes the world as Biblical writers perceived it (Waltke & Yu 2007, p.195).
  2. Belief in a literal 24-hour, 7-day creation period is commonly known as 'Young Earth Creationism' (Young & Strode 2009, pp.54-55).
  3. Story, D. 1997. Defending Your Faith (139). Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, MI.
  4. (Perhaps a typo for "Genesis 1:1 and 1:2", thus referring to The "Gap Theory"? — Bruce)
  5. These fall under a broader paradigm known as 'Old Earth Creationism' (Young & Strode 2009, pp.55-57).
  6. The question of 'literal or non-literal?' becomes irrelevant because the essential message is not predicated upon a strictly literal interpretation.
  7. The invitation 'Let us create man...' is addressed to God's angels (Waltke & Yu 2007, p.213); see footnotes in the NET Bible at Genesis 1:26 cf. 3:22.
  8. 'Genesis is implicitly rejecting other views of the gods and their relationship with the world. Here we have no story of how gods fought, married and bore children; there is but one God, beyond time and sex, who was there in the beginning. He created all things, even the sun, moon and stars, which other peoples often held to be gods in their own right. He required no magic to do this; his word was sufficient by itself.' Carson, D. A. 1994. New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Genesis 1:1 to 2:3). Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA.
  9. Drane, J. W. 2000. Introducing the Old Testament (Completely rev. and updated.) (257). Lion Publishing plc: Oxford.
  10. Notice that even the heavenly bodies are referred to as objects rather than spiritual beings.
  11. Between these two links, the verses cited are in this wiki.
  12. The Genesis creation account probably began as an oral tradition, with formal recitation involving some explication of the theological themes. The written version does not do this, possibly reflecting a certain amount of assumed knowledge.
  13. 'According to the Genesis account, there is one God, the sovereign Creator, to whom all the universe owes its being and whom it is expected to obey. Within that created universe, men and women have a place of honour, having been made in the divine image. We reflect God’s nature and represent him on earth.' Carson, D. A. 1994. New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Genesis 1:1 to 2:3). Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA.
  14. 'The book of Genesis introduces primary theological themes that form the core of both the Old and New Testaments. The opening words of the book establish creation, of which mankind is the highest accomplishment, as the unique prerogative of God, a purposeful process that by its very nature is affirmed as good (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Sin is introduced as willful disobedience (ch. 3), permeating the human condition (4:1–16; 11:1–9) and leading to divine judgment (3:14–24; 6:5–8:22).' Myers, A. C. 1987 The Eerdmans Bible dictionary (409). Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Mich.
  15. 'Recognizing the literary technique and form and noting the literary background of chs. 1–11 does not constitute a challenge to the reality, the “eventness,” of the facts portrayed. One need not regard this account as myth; however, it is not “history” in the modern sense of eyewitness, objective reporting. Rather, it conveys theological truths about events, portrayed in a largely symbolic, pictorial literary genre. This is not to say that Gen. 1–11 conveys historical falsehood. That conclusion would follow only if it purported to contain objective descriptions. The clear evidence already reviewed shows that such was not the intent.' Sanford LaSor, W., Hubbard, D. A., Bush, F. 1996. Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. (74). Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.
  16. 'Genesis 1–3 (and for that matter, much of the book of Revelation), is not intended by its original inspired author to be taken literally. “How it all began” and “How it will all end” is veiled (and must be for fallen mankind) in literary genre.' Utley, R. J. D. 2001. How it All Began: Genesis 1-11. Study Guide Commentary Series. Vol. Vol. 1A (19). Bible Lessons International: Marshall, Texas.
  17. 'Genesis 1–11 is not a scientific document, but in some ways modern science parallels its presentation (order of creation and geological levels). It is not anti-scientific but pre-scientific. It presents truth: 1. from an earth perspective (a human observer on this planet); 2. from a phenomenological perspective (i.e. the five senses; the way things appear to the human observer). It has functioned as a revealer of truth for many cultures over many years. It presents truth to a modern scientific culture but without specific explanation of events.' Ibid. (13).
  18. 'To take a literary passage and demand it to be literal when the text itself gives clues to its symbolic and figurative nature imposes my biases on a divine message. Genre (type of literature) is the key in a theological understanding of “how it all began” and “how it will all end.” I appreciate the sincerity and commitment of those who, for whatever reason, usually personality type or professional training, interpret the Bible in modern, literal, western categories, when in fact it is an ancient eastern book.' Utley, R. J. D. 2001. How it All Began: Genesis 1-11. Study Guide Commentary Series. Vol. Vol. 1A (16). Bible Lessons International: Marshall, Texas.
  19. 'Genesis 1–11 is a theological necessity for understanding the rest of the Bible but it is an ancient, literary, succinct, artistic, eastern presentation, not a literal, modern, western presentation.' Ibid.
  20. 'Genesis reflects true knowledge but not exhaustive knowledge. It is given to us in ancient (Mesopotamian) thought forms, but it is infallible theological truth. It is related to its day, but it is totally unique. It speaks of the inexpressible, yet it speaks truly. Basically it is a world-view (who and why), not a world-picture (how and when).' Ibid. (14).