Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tempter Longman

Over at Diabologos, Tempter…uh…Tremper Longman has posted two pieces on Gen 1-2. Let’s run through his basic arguments:

First think of the days of Genesis. “Day” typically means a twenty-four hour period. When it means something like “period of time,” it occurs in a formula like “day of the Lord.” In addition, each of the six creation days are described as having an “evening and a morning.” Those who want to read the creation days as literally 24 hour days will often point to these facts as indicating that we are dealing with a real day, not a period of time. That seems very reasonable until we note that the sun, moon, and stars aren’t created until the fourth day. But to have a literal “day” there has to be a sun, moon, and stars! These heavenly bodies define what a literal day is. Attempts to argue that God manipulated the light and the darkness of day one in a 24 hour period are a far-fetched and strange.

i) That’s a stock objection to the calendar day interpretation. And among exegetical objections, that’s probably the best objection to the calendar day interpretation.

ii) However, he overlooks another explanation. In light of cosmic temple imagery, as well as intertextual parallels with the flood account, it may be the case that 1:14-18 is using an architectural metaphor. On the one hand, the word for “lights” foreshadows the Menorah. On the other hand, Day 4 may be analogous to the ark, with its roof and windows/clerestory (6:16; 8:6). So you could still have six solar days to account for the diurnal cycle, even though the luminaries weren’t visible until the “windows” or skylights were installed.

Second, we must remember that a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation is to read a text in the light of its original context. The first audience simply was not interested in how the creation came into existence, but who brought it into existence and why.

Unfortunately, that’s just raw assertion. Why should we assume the first audience dichotomized reality in this fashion, taking interest in “who” and “why” questions, but not in “how” and “what” questions?

For instance, when God promised a child to Abraham and Sarah, they were certainly curious about the “how” question–even though they knew the answers to the “who” and “why” questions.

These are not literal days, but a figurative way to present the fact that God ordered creation. The first three days are realms that are filled by the second three days, so the light/darkness realm of day one are inhabited by the sun, moon, and stars of day four. The sky/sea realm of day two are filled by the birds and fish of day five, and the land of day three is filled by the animals and humans of day six.

That’s an allusion to the framework hypothesis. Unfortunately, Longman simply disregards objections to the framework hypothesis.

In my previous comment, I indicated that there is a lot of figurative language in Genesis 1. The same may be said for Genesis 2, the second creation account in which there is a focus on Adam and Eve. Also, as we saw in Genesis 1, there is an implicit polemic against ancient Near Eastern mythological ideas. Listen to the description of human beings in the Babylonian Atrahasis. The background to this passage is a strike on the part of the lesser gods who are tired of doing heavy labor on behalf of the major gods. They insist that they be replaced. Belet-ili, the mother god, takes clay and mixes it with the blood of the instigator of the strike, then the text says:

After she had mixed the clay,
She summoned the Anunna, the great gods,
The Igigi, the great gods, spat upon the clay.

From this mixture of clay from the earth and the spit of the gods Belit-ili creates human beings in order to do the heavy labor of the gods.

We should read the description of the creation of Adam with this as a background because the original audience certainly did. Adam too is created from the ground (dust) and a divine component (God’s breath).

Several problems with this analysis:

i) The two “divine components” in the Babylonian Atrahasis are spittle and clay, while the two components in Gen 2 are breath and dust. Yet these are not equivalent.

a) ”Breath” is not equivalent to spittle. And the “breath” motif may allude to the creative Spirit of God in Gen 1:2.

b) As commentators like Hamilton and Walton point out, “clay” is not synonymous with “dust.” If so, then 2:7 doesn’t evoke a potter/clay metaphor.

Walton thinks “dust” was chosen to accentuate the antithetical parallel between life and death (3:19).

Hamilton thinks “dust” was chosen to show that God elevated man to be the ruler of the garden (the “exaltation from dust” motif).

On the face of it, Longman is disregarding the specific connotations and intertextual allusions to force a parallel with the Babylonian Atrahasis.

ii) But perhaps his point is that such differences are part of the “implicit polemic against ANE mythological ideas.” Indeed, as he says a little further down:

Second, it is, in contrast to the Atrahasis, presenting a picture of humanity’s creation which indicates that we are creatures with great dignity (created from God’s breath, not the spit of the gods).

i) But, of course, the two accounts could be so different because Gen 2 is not reflecting on ANE mythological ideas. Normally, if one account stands in contrast to another, an obvious explanation is that we’re dealing with two independent accounts. They have so little in common because one wasn’t written with a view to the other.

ii) Is spittle undignified? When Jesus uses spittle (Mk 7:32-35; 8:22-25), iss that undignified? Does spittle have transcultural connotations? Of does it vary from one culture to another?

Perhaps Longman has seen one too many Westerns, with tobacky-chewin', spittoon-spewin' gamblers in raucous saloons.

Is this a literal description of how God actually created the first human being? Hardly. Even without recourse to knowledge of ancient Near Eastern literature, this description is clearly not literal. God does not have a body with lungs so that he would literally breathe into dust. God is a spiritual being. The description has other purposes than telling us how God created human beings.

But there are some basic problems with this claim:

i) When Longman says God is a spiritual being, is he speaking from the viewpoint of the narrator, or his own viewpoint? After all, if Gen 1-2 are as indebted to ANE conceptual resources as he’d have us believe, then what prevents the narrator of Gen 2 from having a crude, materialistic view of God? Why couldn’t an ANE deity have a body and lungs?

ii) Gen 2:7 doesn’t actually describe God in those terms. The language is merely suggestive, for the verse doesn’t press that latent image into an actual description of God as an embodied agent. So there’s a danger of getting reading more into the verse than the verse chooses to spell out.

iii) An obvious comparison is the vision of dry bones in Ezk 37, which alludes to the creation account. There the Spirit of God is the recreative agent, portrayed as a divine wind or breath which animates the reconstituted bodies. And that’s effected without having God physically breathe into the bodies. So it’s quite possible for a Bible writer to view this type of transaction without recourse to the anthropomorphic image that Longman is imputing to 2:7. It doesn’t require the services of an embodied agent to mediate the transaction–as if you need direct, physical contact.

iv) But another oddity in Longman’s interpretation is his failure to reckon with the possibility (indeed, probability) that 2:7 is alluding to an angelophany. Theophanic angelophanies are common in the Pentateuch generally, as well as Genesis in particular. The Angel of the Lord assumes a humanoid form. Moreover, angels assume physical properties (e.g. Gen 18:8; 19:10). Given the operating assumptions of the narrator, there’s no obvious reason why we should avoid a literal interpretation of 2:7. It could certainly refer to the Angel of the Lord making man.

The description of how Adam was created is certainly figurative. The question is open as to whether there was an actual person named Adam who was the first human being or not. Perhaps there was a first man, Adam, and a first woman, Eve, designated as such by God at the right time in his development of human beings. Or perhaps Adam, whose name after all means “Human,” is himself figurative of humanity in general. I have not resolved this issue in my own mind except to say that there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage so filled with obvious figurative description. The New Testament’s use of Adam (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) does not resolve the issue as some suggest because it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one.

i) To say that’s a natural analogy requires a supporting argument.

ii) And it piggybacks on his negligent exegesis of 2:7.

iii) Moreover, his coblogger, Peter Enns, does thinks that’s a natural way to construe Paul’s analogy.

This issue is an important one. It is wrong to challenge people to choose between the Bible and the science of evolution as if you can only believe that one or the other is true. They are not in conflict. It is particularly damaging to insist that our young people make this kind of false choice as they are studying biology in secondary school or college. If we do so, we will force some to choose against the Bible and others to check their intelligence at the classroom door. This is a false dilemma created by a misuse of the biblical text.

Among other problems, that takes macroevolution for granted.


  1. Tempter Longman

    In the service of the Lord of Darkness.

    Charitably speaking, he may be doing it without knowing or believing he's doing it.

  2. This is a shame. I have Longman's book "Immanuel in our Place", on tabernacle worship and it's pre-figuring of Christ. He can engage in good exegesis when he wants to. I don't get why otherwise well-heeled scholars like him, A. McGrath, et al. feel the need to support evolution. Why? What's the need? Why, as the Church, is it necessary for us to agree that the earth is as old as some nebulous scientific "consensus" says it is? What does the church gain by doing this? Nothing. But it stands to lose a lot.

    Even the framework hypothesis makes no assertions regarding the age of the earth. One can hold to that idea and still hold to a young earth. And even if the earth really is very old, so what?

    More troubling is his dismissal of Adam as a historical person, which pretty much guts the entire doctrine of Federal headship and original sin. Hard to believe he can't see the implications of his position.

  3. "ii) However, he overlooks another explanation. In light of cosmic temple imagery, as well as intertextual parallels with the flood account, it may be the case that 1:14-18 is using an architectural metaphor. On the one hand, the word for “lights” foreshadows the Menorah. On the other hand, Day 4 may be analogous to the ark, with its roof and windows/clerestory (6:16; 8:6). So you could still have six solar days to account for the diurnal cycle, even though the luminaries weren’t visible until the “windows” or skylights were installed."

    Is this analysis taken from the Walton and Hamilton commentaries you refer to?

  4. It develops some connections made by scholars like Alexander, Beale, Kline, Walton, and Wenham.