The MB Herald vs. the book of Genesis – Round 3

So far, I’ve looked at J Janzen’s and Brian Cooper’s articles, interacting with their positions regarding the debate about the origin of the universe and Genesis 1 & 2.  Now, I’m going to tackle the big enchilada, Robert J. V. Hiebert’s article called No dueling deities but a priestly people; Understanding the biblical accounts of creation.  This is a large interaction, so be warned.

As per usual, I’ll provide Hebert’s arguments and citations in regular font and my interactions in italics.

Hiebert opens with a story of how a woman once asked him to attend a meeting where public school teachers would be advised by scientists and university professors on resisting pressures to include creation science in the class.  Hiebert turned the woman down because he didn’t support creation science, and the woman was apparently stunned.  Hiebert then says “When one reads relevant Scripture passages in context, however, one observes that the biblical authors were focused on issues other than those often raised in our debates.”

  • Sure.  I’ll go along with that.  Moses sure doesn’t seem to have been writing to refute Darwin or specifically address the question of the age of the earth.  But, the mentioning of reading relevant Scripture passages in context puts me on “other shoe” alert.  Awaiting the dropping of the other shoe.

Hiebert then explains what he means by “context”, namely the context of all the other creation stories in the Ancient Near East.  He mentions the Mesopotamian and Canaanite stories that involve “bloody combat between certain deities who struggle to establish cosmic order and the primeval gods of the water depths.”  He mentions the battle between Marduk and Tiamat, Baal and his battles with Yamm/Nahar and Mot, and admits that these stories don’t sound anything like the biblical accounts.

  • And there’s the other shoe like clockwork!  So, the context of the Genesis account is the other ancient near eastern creation myths?  Well, Hiebert is assuming that those other stories preceded (or even co-existed with) the Genesis account (not to mention that Genesis isn’t a divinely inspired, reliable account of actual events – i.e. the Bible isn’t God’s word).  If Genesis is true (and it is) and records actual events of history, those accounts came after the actual events of history, they’re not context to Genesis; they’re corruptions of actual history by sinners who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.  Many Old Testament scholars look at the proliferation of creation/flood accounts in the Ancient Near East and deduce that there’s some original oral tradition that was simply disseminated throughout the Ancient Near East and eventually, through extended redaction, ended up as all the various creation/flood accounts (including the Genesis account).  If Genesis is true, and creation simply happened like the Bible says it does, then the proliferation of creation/flood accounts might be due to the actual historic reality of the creation and the flood!  If everyone talks about it, then maybe the commonality of stories is due to actual events in history.  If the stories are different, then maybe the sinful men of the past suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (kind of like they do today) and changed the stories to remove the pesky moral implications that emerge when God, sin and divine judgment come up.

Hiebert moves on, commenting on how “this is not, however, the only place in the Bible that talks about beginnings” and mentions other passages of scripture (Ps. 74:12-17, Ps. 33:6, Prov. 8:1, 27-29) that portray God “as a warrior subduing the forces of watery chaos so that he might establish orderly cosmos (in a manner reminiscent of the gods of the Babylonian and Canaanite stories).

  • Uh, no.
  • Psalm 74:12-17 says “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads ofLeviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You split open springs and brooks; you dried up ever-flowing streams. Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun. You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth; you have made summer and winter.”
  • Psalm 33:6 says “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.”
  • Proverbs 8:1 says “Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?” and 8:27-29 says “When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth”.
  • Hiebert is apparently finding parallels that I definitely don’t.  He mentions the notion of God being a warrior, and only Psalm 74 even mentions struggle at all; Psalm 33 and Proverbs 8 don’t even have any sort of warrior theme/idea in them.  There’s absolutely no parallel to any “warrior” creation account whatsoever in 2 out of his 3 references.  Hiebert searches for one similarity (warrior idea) to establish his case and then proclaims “See!  There’s a similarity!” while ignoring the loads of dissimilarities.  Ps. 33 and Proverbs 8 both go along with a straightforward reading of Genesis (everything was made by God’s sovereign command, but not as the fruit of any struggle, cosmic or otherwise).

Following that, Hiebert talks about how Genesis 1 & 2 portrays creation “as a matter of bringing order out of chaos”, noting that there’s “no explicit reference to conflict”.

  • Which basically steals the lunch money from his previous argument.

Hiebert then says “In 1:1-2:3, the creation of the universe is accomplished by the word of God who establishes a functional cosmos within the span of a typical work week.” Hiebert then points out the correspondence between days 1 & 4, 2 & 5, and 3 & 6 and notes three points from Genesis 1:1-2:3.  First, he notes that “the Creator is not a deified component of the cosmos who battles other such gods, as is the case in the Babylonian and Canaanite myths”.  Second, he notes that “fertility is not a deity like Baal, who must be encouraged through religious ritual to cohabit with his consort so that crops, flocks, and herds will be bountiful.”  Third, he notes that “humans have been created, not as slaves to the gods from whom they have received some aspect of their essence, but as beings in the image and likeness of God, who gives them the mandate to subdue the earth and rule over the fish, birds, and land animals”.  He closes this section noting that the Creator’s rest does not come from human effort, but serves as the theological foundation for the gift of the Sabbath.

  • Again, Hiebert basically takes away from his previous argument.  Noting parallels in other passages and then noting how Gen. 1:1-2:3 doesn’t have those parallels seems to basically seem like he’s arguing against himself.
  • Secondly, we have this reductionist reading of Genesis that seems to be fairly typical of the articles in the MB Herald.  We have three significant points that are pulled from Genesis that seem to be strangely disconnected from what the rest of the prophets and apostles think is important in Genesis.  For example, when Paul addressed the Areopagus, he noted that God made everything (Acts 17:24), God gives live and breath to everything and everyone (Acts 17:25), God made every nation from one man (Acts 17:26), and we are God’s offspring (Acts 17:28-29).  Paul would have got all those truths from Genesis 1 & 2.  Jesus seemed to think that the creation of both men and women by God in Genesis 1:27 was pretty significant (Matt. 19:4).  Peter thought it was important to note that the earth was formed out of water and by water, by the word of God (2 Peter 3: 5). These truths are all truths in Genesis 1 & 2 found by the prophets and apostles, but Hiebert somehow doesn’t find them in Genesis 1 & 2.

In the next section, Hiebert opens with the statement “Genesis 2:4-25 presents a second portrait of creation that is quite different from the one in the preceding chapter.  There is no mention of a period of seven days.  In fact, the only reference to a day occurs in 2:4, where the Hebrew text literally says, ‘In the day that Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens’”.  He then gives the argument that the sequence of events is different than Genesis 1:1-2:3, with man being formed before the vegetation and other living creatures, and the woman being formed out of the side of the man.  He writes “this juxtaposition of two distinct creation stories is evidence that – like the New Testament Gospels with their different plot sequences – the primary purpose of each is to communicate theological truth rather than to provide an absolute chronology of events.”  Hiebert also then notes that the chiasm of 2:4-25 with man at the beginning and woman and the end indicates “their suitability for one another as equal partners in contrast to the other living creatures.”  He also mentions how the idea of covenant comes out in 2:16-17.

  • It is at this point that my face was in my hands.  Genesis 2:4-25 is not giving a second account for several pretty simple reasons:
  • Moses would have to be a complete drooling imbecile to throw a contradictory account beside Genesis 1:1-2:3.  On the whole, people who read religious texts and think that they’re divine in origin don’t have a high level of comfort with discrepancy (i.e. the billion plus Muslims in the world who may punch you in the face for using the word “contradiction” in reference to passages in the Qur’an). Suggesting that Moses put contradictory accounts side by side makes me wonder whether Hiebert thinks people are generally that stupid.
  • Hiebert completely leaves the text of Genesis 2:4-25 untouched, which he must do to make this case.
    • In Genesis 1:11, the vegetation is vegetation (דשא), plants (עשב) bearing seeds and trees (עץ) bearing fruit, but in Genesis 2:5 the vegetation is shrubs (שיח) of the field and plants (עשב) of the field (you don’t have to know Hebrew to see that those squiggles don’t look the same).  The two groups of plants are not the same, and the whole “of the field” part along with the mention of no rain and no man to cultivate the ground in Genesis 2:5 suggests pretty clearly that we’re not talking about vegetation in general, but cultivated plants; agriculture.
    • The usage of “day” in Genesis 2:4 doesn’t have the ordinal number, or the phrase “evening and morning”.  It’s not a stretch to think that the different phraseology may indicate a different usage.  This usage of “day” probably means “era” or period of time .
    • Genesis 2:4 concludes the section of 1:1 to 2:3 with the common “this is the account of” (or “the generations of”) formula that occurs in Genesis.  Genesis 1:1 to 2:4 covers the “generations” of the heavens and the earth; it’s the story of their offspring.  This pattern continues on in Genesis, covering the stories of the descendants of Adam (5:1), Noah (6:9), the sons of Noah (10:1), Terah (11:10), Ishmael (25:12), Isaac (25:19), Esau (36:1) and Jacob (37:2).  Genesis 2:4 closes off a narrative portion, and 2:5 begins a new one, talking about a different aspect of a related story.
  • I don’t know why the woman being formed out of the side of the man is even mentioned.  That’s not a discrepancy since Genesis 1:26-27 doesn’t say how mankind was created at all, but only that it was in the image and likeness of God.
  • Hiebert is not a New Testament scholar, but I know what he’s getting at with the “different plot sequences” line.  He takes a naturalistic reading of a supernatural piece of literature.  There is no juxtaposition of two separate creation stories.  There is Genesis 1, which covers the whole of creation, and there’s Genesis 2, which zooms in on the creation of man.
  • Also, what is “theological truth” as opposed to regular ole’ truth?  How do you have a true “theological” message built on a series of factually untrue statements?  Give me a break.
  • I don’t agree with Sam Harris on much, but I’d definitely agree with him on the idea that either the Bible is true or it’s not true and people who want it half way are either spineless or selling something.  You can try dancing around with half-baked doublespeak like “theological truth” or “personal truth”, but people won’t be fooled for long.  The Bible is either objectively true (meaning it corresponds to God/reality) or it’s not.  Sam Harris says it’s not, and he tosses the whole thing.  I say it is, and I keep the whole thing.  Don’t try to tell me that I’m eating salad when I have steak in my mouth.

Hiebert then shifts gears in his fourth section, talking about how the “description of the cosmos and Eden in Genesis 1-3 also evokes a picture of a sanctuary in which humans function as priestly ministers.  He notes that this is “implied in Genesis” but is made clear in other passages, like Psalm 78:69 and Isaiah 66:1-2a.  Hiebert then states “these passages draw attention to the fact that Genesis 1:1-2:3 brings together the themes of creation, temple-building, and divine rest, which are likewise often combined in Mesopotamian and Canaanite religious texts”.

  • Psalm 78:69 – “He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever.”
  • Isaiah 66:1-2 – “Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?  All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord.”
  • Two things:
    • To suggest that these passages solidify themes that are implied in Genesis is sheer desperation.  Psalm 78 is a simile, comparing his sanctuary to the heavens and the earth, and Isaiah 66 seems to be a simple hyperbole, comparing the colossal vastness of God’s throne & footstool (not to mention his entire kingdom) with the microscopic size of the temple.  If this somehow relates to Genesis, it’s neither explicit nor obvious.
    • As a general exegetical rule of thumb, when someone cannot find an idea or theme in the passage that they’re talking about, it’s actually not there.  Importing concepts or themes from one passage into another is called eisegesis (“reading into”).  Christians should strive to perform exegesis (“reading out of”); unpacking the concepts and themes from within the passage in question.

Hiebert continues, saying “Furthermore, the garden where the LORD God walks in the cool of the day and interacts with his human creatures (3:8) resembles the temple complexes in the ancient Near East that featured treed parklands and sources of abundant water (2:8-15)”.

  • So, the writer of Genesis was either making obvious comparisons to pagan temples?  Not quite.  I’d suggest one of two much more likely options:
  • Pagan temples were modeled after the original garden of Eden, which preceded them in history by a long shot.
  • Pagan temples had gardens and water because all Ancient Near Eastern life was related to agriculture and fertility.  Ba’al and Asherah were thought to be the sources of the rain and life, so it would good advertising to build temples at water sources and make sure that the temples were filled with vegetation (i.e. Ba’al did this, and if you please him, he’ll do the same for you!).

Hiebert write on, trying to further establish his temple idea by commenting how the Hebrew words that are used of working in the garden (“abad” and “shamar”) are also used of working in the temple in Numbers 3:5-10.

  • “Abad” occurs 290 times in the Old Testament and “shamar” occurs 468 times.  They’re slightly common terms for expressing the idea of “working” or “doing”.  This argument is a joke because it’s built on highly common vocabulary.  The same terms are used, together and in the same verse, with regards to “doing” idolatry (Deut. 11:16, 12:30; 1 Kings 9:6; Jer. 16:11), or “doing” God’s commands (Deut. 13:4, Joshua 22:5; Mal. 3:14), or Jacob’s “doing” of shepherding for the purpose of gaining a wife (Hosea 12:12).  Using the “this term appears here and…*gasp*…here, therefore (blank) is the case” argument with words that appear over 275 times is simply exegetical slight-of-hand.  That kind of argumentation is only used to wow lay-people who don’t know their biblical languages, and any scholar worth his salt knows that if the words are common enough, you can manufacture and support dozens of contradictory and bizarre arguments with several supporting biblical texts.

Hiebert continues building his case, writing “Among the tabernacle’s furnishings is the lampstand or menorah, which appears to symbolize the tree of life (Exodus 25:31-36; 37:17-21).   He also notes that the fact that the garden of Eden was guarded by a cherubim (Gen 3:24) is suggestive of comparisons between Genesis and the temple, which had images and depictions of cherubim (Ex. 25:17-22; 26:1; 38:9-20; 1 Kings 6:23-32; Ez. 41:15-26; 43:1-5; 46:1).  He finally notes how “the depiction of the cosmos and humanity’s role in it are consistent with the calling that God’s people have to be a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6; cf. 1 Peter 2:9)”.

  • Exodus makes no explicit connection between the lampstand and the tree of life, so any argument along that line is speculation at best.  The sheer presence of a cherubim at the entrance to the garden isn’t the indicator of a “temple” idea that Hiebert makes it to be, and connection between Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2 is not one that is ever used to argue for a “temple” idea in Genesis either.  These are all speculative connections at best, and fabricated connections at worst.

Hiebert closes off by again restating that Genesis doesn’t address the “how” of creation, but instead focuses on “revealing the Creator, his purposes, and the nature of his relationship with the creation”, and is done so “using the language and imagery that resonated with their contemporaries, but in the process, they challenged many of the prevailing notions of their day regarding origins”.  Hiebert suggests that the message of Genesis is “that God has endowed all humans – not just the political or social elite – with viceregal and priestly dignity, and that he has created them to be in a covenant relationship with himself”.

  • After all is said and done, we’re back to the same old reductionism argument.  Genesis is ambiguous except for a couple of general ideas the Hiebert has figured out, and anyone who makes claims about anything beyond that is not really understanding it in proper context.
  • Well, I would simply submit that, at each point along the way, Hiebert’s case doesn’t survive even halfhearted critical interaction.  He works from an academically respectable naturalism that is utterly antithetical to the concept of divine inspiration (and the claims of scripture regarding its own nature), the scriptures he references don’t support the case he attempts to make, he plays up nonexistent differences in the text of scripture to manufacture discrepancies in the scripture and build his “two distinct creation stories” argument, he builds arguments on themes that he admittedly cannot explicitly find in the text in question, he uses deceitful exegetical slight-of-hand arguments, and he imports context from other Ancient Near Eastern sources that is neither the context of the text of scripture, or the social and historical setting of ancient Israel.  The religious confusion of the Canaanites, Mesopotamians and everyone else was part of what Israel was instructed against, but it wasn’t the historical, social or literary setting of the book of Genesis.
  • On a side note, if the “main ideas” of Genesis are so obvious, I’m curious why Hiebert and Cooper didn’t agree on what any of the important messages of Genesis 1 & 2 are with the exception of “God did it”?

So, in the end, Hiebert failed to bring forth an exegetically firm case on any of his points.  Actually, Hiebert didn’t really even attempt to make an exegetical case at all.  He made many claims about how overturning the wrongful notions from the pagan creation myths was the main thrust of the Genesis account, but he fails to even begin to convince me.  Let me know if Hiebert convinced you.  Next time, we’ll look at the article by Brian Gobbett.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “To the Law and the Prophets!” Unger

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One thought on “The MB Herald vs. the book of Genesis – Round 3

  1. Pingback: The MB Herald vs. The Book of Genesis – 5 Part Series « Menno-lite

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