Genesis is not a science book. The opening chapters of Genesis have nothing to do with the creation of the world. I know that sounds like a wild claim. After all, Genesis opens, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but I have a good reason for saying it.
The Bible in History
Up until the mid-19th Century, historians believed the Bible was the oldest book in human history with entirely original narratives. The broad assumption was that Genesis offered a reliable history of the world. This made Genesis a base level science book. However, just like we discovered that Jesus’ titles were not unique, when Western anthropologists and archeologists excavated and explored ancient lands, the earth offered an entirely different story. This is true even though the researchers often set out to prove the accuracy of the Bible.
One of the most faith-shaking (for some), is the Babylonian account of the Enuma Elish. This story, chiseled out in cuneiform on seven clay tablets, tells a creation story. For the ancient Babylonians, it shaped their viewed the world and their role in it. On the surface, this is not particularly faith-shaking. However research concludes it is not only older than Genesis 1 but appears to be source material for Genesis 1. In other words, whoever wrote Genesis, wrote it while thinking about the Enuma Elish.
The most likely scenario is the people of Israel wrote Genesis 1 during the Babylonian Exile (6th Century BCE). They wrote it as a counter-narrative to the Enuma Elish. This make Genesis 1 very similar to Jesus’ usage of Son of God. Jesus’ claim challenged Caesar’s use of the phrase. Genesis 1 offers Israel challenge to the ancient Babylons’ view of the world.
The Problem of Genesis as a Science Book
Now if you, as is popular in broken Christianity, embrace biblicism, then this is a serious problem. As an example, one organizational about page claims:
The Bible—the “history book of the universe”—provides a reliable, eyewitness account of the beginning of all things and can be trusted to tell the truth in all areas it touches on.
While I do not understand how the author of Genesis eye-witnessed the creation before the creation of anybody, I will not belabor that point. Instead, I want to explore what makes the Enuma Elish as source material for Genesis 1 so troubling.
If the Bible is a history book and evidence reveals its opening chapters as something other than history, then the whole Bible is questionable. If Genesis 1 reacts to a foreign text written a thousand years earlier than Genesis 1, is not questionable it is patently unreliable. The only option is for faith to crumble.
Thankfully, Christian faith does not follow the path of broken Christianity. Christian faith can recognize the opening chapters of the Bible as a counter-narrative. The Babylonians offer one way of understanding the world and your place in it and Genesis invites a different understanding. Genesis is not a story about the creation of the world. It is a story about how Israel’s faith is fundamentally different from those living in ancient Babylon. Jesus carries on this faith tradition.
A Modern Example
As a more modern example, let’s talk about the American Dream. Most Americans believe the American Dream is the promise that hard work, grit, and determination can take you from rags to riches. But history tells a different story.
It was not until post-WWII that homeownership became part of the dream. Consumerism took center stage in the 1980’s. In other words, when James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in his 1931, The Epic of America, nobody would link americandream.com to a shopping mall (and not just because they didn’t have malls or the internet).
Rather, Adams’ work critiqued the country’s obsession with material wealth at the expense of higher ideals and aspirations. According to Adams, this obsession led the country into the Great Depression. For Adams, the American Dream, at its core, meant everyone had the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is not the same as the opportunity to engage in your pursuit at the expense of others. In other words, it is a societal dream, not an individual one. To quote Adams:
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
This means there is a direct connection between Adams’ term the American Dream and FDR’s New Deal (or at least a version of the New Deal with racial and gender equity). At the same time, Adams’ vision is foreign to Reaganism. Just like broken Christianity with Genesis 1, the original intent is often lost. Instead, the text is given a radically different and even oppositional meaning.
There is plenty of room to debate Adams’ vision of America. Just like there is room to debate the validity of Israel’s vision of life in this world. What holds little room for debate is each author’s original intent.
So what’s the point?
Broken Christianity claims that the early chapters of Genesis are about how the world came into existence. This makes Genesis a science book. It leads to people of faith contorting evidence in attempt to prove the Bible historically accurate. In the process, they miss out on the wisdom offered.
Christian faith on the other hand understands Genesis in its original context. These are stories designed to help us make sense of the world and our place in it. That is what we will focus on for the next few weeks.
Article: Creationists Talking About Creation (Or, On Mass Theological Re-Education) by Pete Enns
Are you worried that rejecting the Bible as a science book is just caving in to liberalism and will cause the rest of faith to crumble? In this post Pete Enns explores how doing so is not abandoning faith, but stepping into a faith that is richer and more vibrant.
Article: Enuma Elish
Do you want to dive into the Enuma Elish? Here’s a post including a video with a reading of the full text. Do you hear the overlaps with Genesis 1?
Book: Primal Myths by Barbara C. Sproul (affiliate)
Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish are not the only ancient creation narratives. Instead, there are well over one hundred of these stories from ancient civilizations across the globe. All of them aim to teach people how to live well.
Book: Behold, America by Sarah Churchwell (affiliate)
Want to know more about the history of the American Dream? This book explores source material on the usage of Adams’ phrase and the line, America First.
When you read the first three chapters of Genesis, what are some of the top questions that come to mind? Share them by replying to this post (comments or in an email) or in the community on Discord. While I have a number of posts already in mind, your ideas will help me flesh out the list.
What story does the Enuma Elish tell and what are some of the key differences from the Bible?
This post is part of our ongoing weekly email series that delves further into the topics covered in our five-part series on rescuing Christian faith from Christianity. To receive these emails in your inbox, and our introductory five-part series, sign up for our weekly email for spiritual misfits who realize that Christianity is broken but Christian faith doesn’t have to be.
All Bible quotes come from Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.