Question: How does Fussing Over Details in Genesis 1 Misunderstand the Pentateuch?

Many Christians spend a lot of time arguing over the days of Genesis 1. Some see them as literal 24-hour periods (young-earth creationists), others view them as long epochs (old-earth creationists) and a third group thinks God accommodated his message and spoke through ancient cosmology (evolutionary creationists).  A similar split occurs when talking about the biblical deluge. Young-earth creationists tend to view the Genesis flood as truly global, old-earth creationists as localized and even many evolutionary creationists find a historical core in the story. Exactly how large that core is changes from exegete to exegete. The third group in this triad is often the most "liberal" of the bunch but there are many Christians with high views of scripture espousing theistic evolution. How to read, interpret and understand Genesis (and the Bible as a whole) is a major area of concern for all Christians. 

I have come to learn that Christians fussing over the details of creation are mostly reading the Pentateuch through a modern lens with modern concerns. Many Christians today misunderstand what the Pentateuch is and simply read it incorrectly. They ask of it questions it did not intend to answer and while fussing over its errors and inexactitudes, they miss a huge, glaring elephant sitting in the center of the room. I myself missed that elephant for years. 

Section 1: Defining the Elephant in the Room 

Point 1: Tradition attributes the Pentateuch to Moses but this idea is rejected in most educated circles today. The Pentateuch is a compilation of complimentary and contradictory sources describing the same events. In other words, different versions of the same story are interwoven or located side-by-side throughout the Pentateuch. It consists of separate traditions that were edited together. I often wonder how I did not see two different flood narratives or two different accounts of Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery in Genesis? How did I, and how do millions of Christians and Jews who read scripture regularly miss the glaringly obvious? It is one of those things that is easy to miss but once you see it, you simply can't unsee it. 

The following is a partial list of these incidents that is appropriated from William Propp [The Priestly Source Recovered Intact? Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 46, Fasc. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 458-478]:

Not all of the doublets (or triplets) in Scripture have contradictions in them. In fact, there are a lot of repeats in the text that relay the same information without any contradiction and it may be possible to view some of this as a literary tecnhique. Yet there are many cases where the text appears impossible to reconcile or very difficult to do so without excessive imagination and mental gymnastics. The listing of 31 Pentateuchal doublets below is from Richard Friedmann's book, The Bible with Sources Revealed.

  1. Creation. Gen 1:1-2:3 (P) and Gen 2:4b-25 (J).
  2. Genealogy from Adam. Gen 4:17-26 (J) and 5:1-28,30-32 (Book of Records).
  3. The Flood. Gen 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 7,10,12,16b-20,22-23; 8:2b-3a,6,8-12,13b,20-22 (J) and 6:9-22; 7:8-9,11,13-16a,21,24; 8:1-2a, 3b-5,7,13a, 14-19; 9:1-17 (P).
  4. Genealogy from Shem. Gen 10:21-31 (J and P) and 11:10-2 (Book of Records).
  5. Abraham's migration. Gen 12:1-43 (J) and 12:4b-5 (P).
  6. Wife/sister. Gen 12:10-20 (J) and 20:1-18 (E) and 26:6-14 (J). (Triplet)
  7. Abraham and Lot separate. Gen 13:5, 7-11a, 12b-14 (J) and 13:6, 11b-12a (P).
  8. The Abrahamic covenant. Gen 15 (J, E, and R) and 17 (P).
  9. Hagar and Ishmael. Gen 16:1-2,4-14 (J) and 16:3,15-16 (P) and 21:8-19 (E). (Triplet)
  10. Prophecy of Isaac's birth. Gen 17:16-19 (P) and 18:10-14 (J).
  11. Naming of Beer-sheba. Gen 21:22-31 (E) and 26:15-33 (J).
  12. Jacob, Esau, and the departure to the east. Gen 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:1-9 (P) and 27:1-45; 28:10 (J).
  13. Jacob at Beth-El. Gen 28:10,11a,13-16,19 (J) and 28:11b-12, 1 7-18, 20-22 (E) and 35:9-15 (P). (Triplet)
  14. Jacob's twelve sons. Gen 29:32-35; 30:1-24; 35:16-20 (JE) and Gen 35:23-26 (P).
  15. Jacob's name changed to Israel. Gen 32:25-33 (E) and 35:9-10 (P).
  16. Joseph sold into Egypt. Gen 37:2b,3b,5-11,19-20,23,25b-27, 28b, 31-35; 39:1 (J) and 37:3a, 4, 12-18, 21-22, 24, 25a, 28a,29-30 (E).
  17. YHWH commissions Moses. Exod 3:2-4a,5,7-8,19-22; 4:19-20a (J) and 3:1,4b,6,9-18; 4:1-18, 20b-21a, 22-23 (E) and 6:2-12 (P). (Triplet)
  18. Moses, Pharaoh, and the plagues. Exod 5:3-6:1; 7:14-18, 20b-21, 23-29; 8:3b-11a, 16-28; 9:1-7,13-34; 10:1-19, 21-26, 28-29; 11:18 (E) and 7:6-13,19-20a,22; 8:1-33,12-15; 9:8-12 (P).
  19. The Passover. Exod 12:1-20,28,40-50 (P) and 12:21-27,29-36, 37b-39 (E).
  20. The Red Sea. Exod 13:21-22; 14:53,6,9a,10b,13-14,19b,20b, 21b,24,27b,30-31 (J) and 14:1-4,8,9b, 10a, 10c, 15-18,21a,21c, 22-23,26-27a, 28-29 (P).
  21. Manna and quail in the wilderness. Exod 16:2-3,6-35a (P) and Num 11:4-34 (E).
  22. Water from a rock at Meribah. Exod 17:2-7 (E) and Num 20:2-13 (P).
  23. Theophany at Sinai/Horeb. Exod 19:1; 24:15b-18a (P) and 19:2b-9,16b-17,19; 20:18-21 (E) and 19:10-16a, 18,20-25 (J) (Triplet)
  24. The Ten Commandments. Exod 20:1-17 (R) and 34:10-28 (J) and Deut 5:6-18 (D). (Triplet)
  25. Kid in mother's milk. Exod 23:19 (Covenant Code) and 34:26 (J) and Deut 14:21 (D). (Triplet)
  26. Forbidden animals. Leviticus 11 (P) and Deuteronomy 14 (D).
  27. Centralization of sacrifice. Leviticus 17 and Deuteronomy 12.
  28. Holidays. Leviticus 23 (P) and Numbers 28-29 (R) and Deut 16:1-17 (P). (Triplet)
  29. The spies. Num 13:1-16,21,25-26,32; 14:13,2-3,5-10,26-29 (P) and 13:17-20,22-24,27-31,33; 14:1b, 4,11-25,39-45 (J).
  30. Heresy at Peor. Num 25:1-5 (J) and 25:6-19 (P).
  31. Appointment of Joshua. Num 27:12-23 (P) and Deut 31:14-15,23 (E).

Taking each one of these doublets and reading the referenced scriptures side-by-side will be quite informative. We will take a deeper look at a few of them below.

Point 2: If it is true that a complier wove together different streams of thought, clearly the Biblical author was not nearly as concerned with contradictions in the text as are modern Christians preoccupied with questions of inerrancy and a desire for intellectual certainty. The author or final editor of the Pentateuch wasn't concerned with complete consistency. He let glaring errors stand side-by-side in the finished text. If God stands behind this compiled text as its inspirer, then it may only be natural to conclude that God wasn't concerned with them either. I take it as tautological that if God wanted us to have scripture that was entirely consistent internally, we would have nothing short of that.

If it is believed that scripture is inspired, the author who put these traditions side by side, at the behest of God, had no issues with errors existing in the text side-by-side and made very little attempt to correct them. Even ancient historians would contradict one another at times. One can compare how the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who lived during New Testament times, described the same events differently in his works Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. Craig Keener writes, "That Josephus composed differently even in such elite works, each potentially read by the same audience as the other, suggests that ancient audiences normally saw little problem with, and probably often expected, such rhetorical variation." The primeval history in Genesis and much of the Pentateuch is not of the same genre as the writings of Flavius Josephus. Even there, where the concern for historical accuracy and details must be considered higher, we do not find anything close to modern academic history. A great deal of leeway is allowed. The expectation that scripture would all be internally consistent is a modern one that does not cohere with how ancient literature was written or appreciate the looser conventions of the time. Even the three different versions of Paul's conversion in Acts--though they tell the same general story--have conflicts between them and they were allowed to stand there by the author of the text. Acts 9 says Paul's companions heard the voice but saw no one whereas Acts 22 says they heard not the voice but saw the light. Acts 26 says they saw the light, that was allegedly brighter than the sun, and fell down but Acts 9 depicts them as standing speechless. We can also ask as Keener does, "Did the commission come on the road (26:16-18), through Ananias (9:15-17), or in Jerusalem (22:21)?" (Baker Exegetical V2). Quite a few translations harmonize one difficulty by interpreting 22:9 as "they did not understand the voice" instead of "they did not hear the voice." This is undesirable as Fitzmyer writes, "This distinction may be valid for Greek in general, but it 'does not accord with Lukan usage.' See 10:46; 11:7; 14:9; 15:12; 22:7." [AB Acts Commentary pg 426] Keener extends this: "Some scholars seek to resolve the difference by appealing to classical usage: άκονω with the genitive (as in 9:7) means to "hear a sound" whereas with the accusative (as in 22:9) it means to "hear with understanding." Luke, however, does not observe this distinction in his writings (e.g., Luke 2:47; 6:18, 47), and it appears that the lxx, other nt writers, and Epictetus also do not." Biblical apologists are usually well versed in the idea that the Gospels and literary conventions at the time are fine with "imprecise citation" and "non-chronological narration." A synopsis of the four gospels makes this impossible to deny.

Point 3: A third point follows from the first two for me. The Pentateuch is not overly concerned with history or science. It most likely contains some history, but it is not primarily a history book nor is it overly concerned with making sure it provides a factually accurate and consistent record of past events. This includes the details of Genesis 1. As with all books of the Bible, the concern of the final editor was with the present during its composition. Derek Kidner wrote the following in his commentary on Genesis:

"We have in the Bible some of the most beautiful poetry: pious, lyrical and erotic, and also some of the angriest. We have narratives of epic proportions, aetiologies and folktales that are at times stunningly profound and evocative, romances and adventure stories, some of them are ideologically tendentious or moralistic. There is patent racism and sexism, and some of the world's earliest condemnations of each. One of the things the Bible almost never is, however, is intentionally historical: that is an interest of ours that it rarely shares. Here and there, the Bible uses data gleaned from ancient texts or records. It often refers to great figures and events of the past . . . at least as they are known to popular tradition. But it cites such 'historical facts' only where they may serve as grist for one of its various literary mills. The Bible knows nothing or nearly nothing of most of the great, transforming events of Palestine's history. Of historical causes, it knows only one: Palestine's ancient deity Yahweh. It knows nearly nothing of the great droughts that changed the course of Palestine's world for centuries, and it is equally ignorant of the region's great historical battles at Megiddo, Kadesh and Lachish. The Bible tells us nothing directly of four hundred years of Egyptian presence. Nor can it take on the role of teaching us anything about the wasteful competition for the Jezreel in the early Iron Age, or about the forced sedentarization of nomads along Palestine's southern flank. . . . The reason for this is simple. The Bible's language is not an historical language. It is a language of high literature, of story, of sermon and of song. It is a tool of philosophy and moral instruction. To argue that the Bible has it wrong is like alleging that Herman Melville has got his whale wrong! Literarily, one might quibble about whether Jonah has it right with his big fish, but not because the story could or could not have happened. On the story's own terms, the rescue of Jonah is but a journeyman's device as far as plot resolutions go. But no false note is sounded in Jonah's fig tree, in Yahweh's speech from the whirlwind in the Book of Job, or in Isaiah 40's song of comfort."

Section 2: Finding the Elephant in the Room

Here we are going to read some stories again in the Pentateuch for the very first time, highlighting the abundant evidence that multiple conflicting strands of tradition lie behind many of these stories. In doing so, a plethora of evidence will be provided for what scholars term the documentary hypothesis which I have written about elsewhere on this site.

The Two Creation Accounts: [Gen 1:1-2:3 (P) and Gen 2:4b-25 (J)]
The Pentateuch starts off with what scholars believe are two separate creation accounts. The evidence indicating this is as follows: [1] God's name is different (Elohim vs YAHWEH-Elohim) in Genesis 1and 2, [2] the order of creation is different (animals created before or after humans?), [3] the duration of creation is described differently (six days of work and one of rest vs "the day"), [4] how God creates is different (by divine word: bar'a, or by fashioning: yatsar), [5] the purpose of humans is different (rulers/stewards of the earth or caretakers of a garden), [6] the primordial earth is different (watery-formless chaos that is ordered vs a desert turned into an oasis), [7] and the image of God is different (transcendent in the first account but anthropomorphic and primitive in the second where we must ask if God does not know beforehand if none of the animals will be a suitable helper for Adam as he parades them all by him one by one (Gen 2:18-20). We have two separate creation stories placed back to back.

The Two Genealogies in Genesis 4-5:
We also see two different genealogies with a different order in Genesis 4-5. Kenton Sparks writes: "These two creation stories are followed by two different genealogies. As table 3 shows, these two genealogies are versions of the same genealogy, one that uses the name Yahweh (chap. 4) and another that uses Elohim (chap. 5). The names in the lists are almost identical and are in nearly the same order. The chief variation is that the version in chapter 5 has combined the Seth and Cain segments from chapter 4 into a single, linear genealogy. Each genealogy provides the transition from the respective creation story to the flood story in chapters 6-9. As a result, we have two parallel creation/genealogy narratives leading up to the flood story, the Elohim version in chapters 1 and 5 and the Yahweh version in chapters 2-4." [God's Word in Human Words]

The Two Flood Narratives in Genesis 6-9:
Ken Sparks (ibid) writes, "Do the parallel sources continue into the flood story? At first glance, the flood story itself impresses us as a single, coherent story. Nevertheless, a close inspection reveals that it too was based on two older sources that have been combined into one. Each of these stories has a distinctive beginning, chronology, and ending. In the first of these stories (the Yahweh version), Noah brought seven pairs of each clean animal onto the ark. He and the animals entered the ark seven days before the flood began because Yahweh commanded them to do so: "Go into the ark. . . . Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth. . . . And Noah did all that the Lord commanded. . . . And after seven days the floodwaters came on the earth" (see 7:1-5, 10 NIV). After a flood of forty days and forty nights, Noah exited the ark and offered sacrifices to Yahweh. Yahweh then responded with a promise: "Never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done" (8:21 NIV). Yahweh also removed the curse that he had placed on the ground after Adam's sin in Genesis 3 (cf. 3:17; 8:21). Notice that this curse motif thematically connects the Yahwistic flood story with the Yahwistic creation-fall story in Genesis 2-3. Hence we seem to have a coherent Yahwistic story that includes three parts: creation (chaps. 2-3), genealogy (chap. 4), and flood (chaps. 6-9)."

We see that the flood account, even with its marvelous chiastic structure, is two accounts in one. Joseph Blekinsopp observes: "The arguments which have led scholars to postulate a combination of sources are fairly straightforward and have never been refuted. There are inconsistencies with respect to what was brought into the ark, the chronology, and perhaps the manner in which the deluge was brought about. We hear of one pair, male and female, of each species (6:19-20; 7:14-16), but also of seven pairs of clean and one pair of unclean animals (7:2-3, 8-9). We are told that the flood lasted 40 days (7:4, 12, 17; 8:6), or sixty-one, counting every day until the ground dried out (8:6-12), but we also hear of a duration of one hundred and fifty days (7:24; 8:3), a figure compatible with the five months from the beginning to the grounding of the ark on Ararat (8:4). While the description of the disaster as a downpour of rain (7:4, 12; 8:2) is not necessarily incompatible with the more mythological language of the bursting forth of the fountains of the great deep (7:11; 8:2) it is more natural to think of the latter as providing a quite distinctive perspective, especially if read in the larger context of Genesis 1-11.

We have often been reminded that repetition is not in itself an indication of the composite nature of a narrative . . . and with this we may readily agree. But the situation is rather different when we encounter parallel versions of episodes in which the parallels consistently exhibit distinctive characteristics. So, for example, Noah is told to board the ark with family members and specifically designated livestock. He does so, and then the command is repeated with the same people and differently designated livestock, and he does so again (6:18b-21, 22; 7:1-5). In such cases it is unreasonable to exclude editorial activity carried out according to canons somewhat different from those we would follow today." [The Pentateuch, pp 77-78]

A Mini-Conclusion for the Primeval History: While this is only the tip of the iceberg, we have analyzed much of the primeval history in Genesis 1-11 and observed that there are two strands of tradition with conflicting details running throughout. An editor has compiled these traditions and interwoven them with little regard for working out their contradictions. To approach Genesis with historical concerns and the desire to harmonize it all is to impose a foreign standard on the text and to disagree with the process the inspired editor of scripture used to compile the Pentateuch's traditional narratives in the first place. Ultimately, this is projecting our own will onto the Bible instead of letting Scripture stand on its own terms and serve as conscience and corrector for God's people. While some of these stories might be considered necessary or more important than others to Christian theologians concerned with salvation history, from the Pentateuch's very conception, the very first pages when the primeval history was edited together, the text was never intended to provide us with an inerrant and infallible record of events in the past. That simply was not the editor's concern. Preserving ancient and sacred traditions from Israel's past seems to have been the main goal. The Bible is primarily concerned with God and our relationship to Him. Its scarcely an accident to me that in the opening chapter of the Bible, the name God appears as many times as there are verses.    

Some other Potential Contradictions and Doublets in the Pentateuch

It becomes readily apparent, given these incongruities exist side by side, often in the same text, that different traditions have been woven together and one author is not responsible for them. It might be possible to employ a divide and conquer technique and offer explanations for some of them, but we are quickly inundated with so many examples the cumulative force is especially vociferous. The Jewish Study Bible writes, "Inconsistencies such as these have alerted scholars to the presence of different written sources that were woven together to form the version we now have, and characteristic variations in vocabulary and ideas have guided them in identifying the sources from which various components stem."

Different Law Codes Suggest Different Authors.
Sparks writes, "First, the laws in the Pentateuch are not collected into a single code but are instead nested in several separate collections, namely, the Book of the Covenant (BC, in Exod. 20:22-23:33), the Deuteronomic Code (DC, in Deut. 12-26), the Holiness Code (HC, in Lev. 17-26), and the Priestly Code (P, primarily in Exod. 25-31, 32-40; Lev. 1-16; Numbers). This evidence suggests that we have not one but several codes stemming from different contexts and authors, an impression that is reinforced by other evidence. Second, not only do we have several blocks of law, but these blocks of law repeat the same materials. For instance, one finds repetitions of the festival laws, [Exod. 23:14-19; 34:18-26; Lev. 23:1-44; Num. 28-29; Deut. 16:1-17.] of Sabbath rules, [Exod. 20:8-11; 31:12-17; 35:1-3; Lev. 23:3; Deut. 5:12-15.] and of that enigmatic command, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk." [Exod. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21.]

Repetitions like this would be unnecessary in a single code, but they make good sense if we imagine that the Pentateuch contains several law codes that originated in different situations. The third feature that suggests various authors have written the Hebrew laws is the presence of significant differences among the law collections. For example, the prescriptions for the altar of burnt offering differ significantly from text to text (Exod. 20:24-26 [altar of earth]; 27:1-2 [altar of wood overlaid with gold]), as do the Passover regulations given in Deuteronomy 16:7 ("boil the meat") and Exodus 12:8- 9 ("roast the meat, do not boil it"). The repetitions, tensions, and differences within the laws of the Pentateuch imply that they are not the work of a single author but are instead a product of several different authors and redactors who lived in quite different situations. Consequently, biblical scholars deduce that the Pentateuchal laws were traditionally "Mosaic," but certainly not literally so."

We can even see different regulations for slavery throughout the Pentateuch. Peter Enns (How the Bible Really Works) writes:

"It is clear from the book of Exodus that slaves were treated as property, not as full humans. The famous eye for eye, tooth for tooth law (Exod. 21:23-25) guarantees that justice will be fair in the event of physical injury, but not for slaves. If a slaveowner knocks out a slave's eye, he needs only to let the slave go, not lose an eye himself--the repercussions are merely economic.

A male Hebrew slave, however, has the option of going free after six years of service (along with his family, as long as he came in with one). No such choice is given to a female slave. Freedom can only be granted if she displeases her master (an ambiguous and unregulated idea) or if she is not properly provided for by her master, in which case she'd have to be bought back by her father. You can read all about this in Exodus 21:1-11.

The book of Deuteronomy, however, has a different take. Now both male and female Hebrew slaves may choose freedom after six years of service. Further, they are not to leave empty-handed. The slaveholder is instructed: Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the LORD your God has blessed you (15:14).

This law is much nicer--let's call it more humane--and the motivation given for such treatment is Israel's own experience of being mistreated as slaves in Egypt (15:15). Sure, six years is still a long time, but that might have been the only way for some to get out of debt and survive. It's not a perfect system, and I'm happy to say that human civilization has come a long way. My point here, however, is that these two slave laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy don't match up, even though they are both said to come from the same divine source: God revealing his will to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Let that sink in.

The book of Leviticus adds a third voice (25:39-47): no Hebrew is a slave, but a hired hand. In the "year of Jubilee" they all go free, no questions asked, because all Israelites are technically slaves of God, who brought them out of Egypt to serve him. Foreign slaves don't get this kind of treatment; they are still property."

The Story of Joseph Betrays the Hand of Different Authors
Joel Baden writes of the well-known story of Joseph that closes Genesis: "There are some aspects of this text that appear strange--repetitions, awkward transitions, apparent gaps--but these could plausibly be attributed to authorial style. The brothers seem to decide to kill Joseph twice, once described in narrative ("they conspired to kill him," v. 18) and once in dialogue ("let us kill him," v. 20). Reuben's plan to save Joseph ("cast him into that pit," v. 22--that is, instead of killing him with our hands) is identical to the brothers' original plan to kill him ("let us throw him into one of the pits," v. 20--that is, to dispose of his body after we have killed him). Judah's argument for not killing Joseph ("let us not do away with him ourselves," literally, "let our hands not be against him," v. 27) is almost a duplication of Reuben's ("do not touch him yourselves," literally, "do not stretch a hand against him," v. 22)--and when Judah proposes his plan, the brothers had already accepted, and even carried out, that of Reuben. These issues can perhaps be interpreted away on a case-by-case basis, but taken together they present a challenge to any reader. 

There are, however, problems in the text that cannot be easily resolved, problems that preclude any straightforward reading of the plot. These derive from the narrative presence and action of both Ishmaelites and Midianites in the sale of Joseph. When we read the text as it stands, according to its plain meaning, these two foreign groups are the source of great confusion. The Ishmaelite traders arrive on the scene first (v. 25), leading Judah to persuade his brothers that rather than kill Joseph, they ought to sell him; they will be just as effectively rid of him, and even profit in the process (vv. 26-27). Before the transaction can take place, however, the Midianite traders pass by, and though it was the brothers who had planned to sell Joseph to the caravan of Ishmaelites, it is the Midianites, according to the plain reading of the text, who pull Joseph from the pit, and it is the Midianites who sell him to the Ishmaelites. The Midianites, therefore, appear to frustrate Judah's plans, as it is they who reap the benefits of selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites. If the brothers are present for this, they are strikingly silent.

Far more difficult is the notice at the end of v. 28 that the Ishmaelites, upon purchasing Joseph, brought him to Egypt. This is expected in light of what preceded in v. 25, where the Ishmaelites are said to be heading toward Egypt. But it is expressly contradicted by what follows at the end of the chapter in v. 36: "The Midianites, meanwhile, sold him in Egypt to Potiphar."5 If this were not problem enough, Genesis 39:1 states that Potiphar bought Joseph "from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there." [The Composition of the Pentateuch p 3-4]

We see that this narrative is problematic as it stands as are many others throughout the Bible as a whole. The last few thousand years have produced a myriad of attempts at harmonizing this account (see Baden's overview) but the better posture to take is the one we have seen suggested repeatedly: there are simply different versions of the same story woven together with conflicting details in the Bible. As it turns out, if we take a deep dive and examine how scripture interprets and comments on itself, we will find something similar occurs. The text was fluid and more open to change than many commentators would like to admit today.

Conclusion: Reading Genesis or really most of the Bible as if God intended to provide us with a consistent, scientifically, and historically accurate account of reality seems ruled out by the text itself. The composition of the Pentateuch involved frequently taking older traditions and two versions of the same events with conflicting details and weaving them together into a single narrative. The two creation and flood accounts in Genesis are no exception. I want to quote the Jewish Study Bible one more time: "This could not have happened, however, if the existence of variation was seen as a serious defect or if rigid consistency was deemed essential to effective storytelling." There are times where the editor does attempt to fix things, but many glaring cases are left untouched. I am coming more and more to see the Bible as a book of wisdom meant to be wrestled with as opposed to a book of rules or facts. This does not mean it is void of history or that major events of salvation history as understood by Christians or Jews did or did not happen. It simply means that the Bible was not written by modern, post-Enlightenment, fact-literal Westerners. The authors had standards of writing very different and often-times alien from our own. Some might wonder how we can trust such a work. We don't require sources to be inerrant to be trustworthy in life and one pushback question I would a  is trust it for what? If you are approaching the work to learn science, then I do not think you will fare too well. Rather than wondering if Genesis 1 gets scientific things right, we should ask what it intends to teach us about God through the worldview and background knowledge at that time. It says a lot if you place the account in its ancient context and is far more rewarding if you read and compare it to other ancient Mesopotamian mythology.

In Genesis 1 the thrust is clearly towards establishing the primacy of God in a polytheistic culture. When we read it considering other Ancient Mesopotamian creation stories, it plainly tells us God has no rivals, no prior lineage, there is a monopoly on power and only one true God. All these other stories present a different account and depict bickering gods. It's hard to tell who is in charge but not in Genesis 1. Unlike in the Atrahasis epic, God doesn't need a discussion amongst peers or the approval of anyone to create human beings. Humans weren't an afterthought! Unlike in the Enuma Elish, we weren't created after he proved himself defeating Tiamat the sea goddess in some cosmic struggle and gained the renown of the other gods. The sea monsters in Genesis 1:22 are just big fish--another part of God's good creation. Many people worshipped astral deities, but the author of Genesis 1 tells us that they are but lights created by God to demarcate the seasons. Unlike surrounding creation narratives, there is no conflict mythology in Genesis because the author is plainly telling us God cannot gain what he never lacked and there has never been a challenger worthy of Him. A rise in power is not possible for one who has never not been in power. Bill Arnold writes of Genesis: 

"Israel's God has no rivals. There can be no struggle with forces opposed to his actions or corresponding to his power. There can be no victory enthronement motif because God's victory was never in doubt; rather, God has never not been enthroned. There can be no enthronement portrait here because God has not become sovereign; he has simply never been less than sovereign." 

Genesis 1 tells us plainly that the form and function of the world around us were established by God. If you never noticed it, compare the events on days 1 and 4, 2 and 5 and 3 and 6. We see three days of forming/preparing and three days corresponding to a filling in order. We also learn that humans are the climax and stewards of creation, made in God's own image. We should not approach Genesis to learn science. Instead, we should see how it describes God in its ancient context. Likewise, we should not approach the Bible to learn history. I suppose we can glean some and certainly there are very important historical events in terms of salvation history, but that is not strictly what the Bible is interested in teaching either. It assumes these events and uses them to move the reader. If we are approaching the work to learn about God and how to live properly as one of his followers, then we should be able to look at the big picture of what Scripture intends to teach and apply that in our lives. There is no guarantee this will be an easy or instant process. The journey in arriving at God's truth may be just as important as that truth itself for us fallible sinners.

 The Bible was not written to be a scientific text nor is it a strict work of history in the modern sense. Its purpose is to preach the good news so that we might be saved by it. Its purpose is mediating the sacred and its business is salvation. Its record speaks for itself in that regard so we can deem the Bible reliable and useful for its intended purpose by God, whether inerrant or not. Historical, scientific, or normal human errors do not impugn upon its efficacy at achieving this purpose. For the Bible to be considered useful and inspired it must only serve the purpose for which God intended it. The purpose of the Bible is not to teach us exactly how Judas died or how long it took God to fashion the earth or whether Abiathar or Ahimelech was high priest when David ate the showbread. It doesn't care who exactly purchased Joseph. The purpose is to bring people to God through the redemptive work of Jesus. God and the Holy Spirit can work through a text with errors. It would be obnoxiously belittling to God to suggest otherwise. The Old Testament story of the Patriarchs and Kings provide a good model in that God was able to accomplish His will through sinners repeatedly. The Patriarchs and Israel constantly screwed up, just as the Apostles did, the early Church did and we do today. But God's will was still accomplished. We should not short-change God's abilities or underestimate Him. If life were a game of chess, He would be a grandmaster and we would all be novices. No matter what moves we make, eventually He will win. 

I understand how uneasy we are with a lack of intellectual certainty. It strikes me as forcefully as anyone. We are so afraid of being duped or giving our intellectual allegiance to any falsehood, but we cannot force the Bible to be something it is not to assuage our fear or desire for certainty. We need to conform to the Biblical message, not the other way around. I don't even trust my ability to truly understand the teaching of Scripture without the work of the Holy Spirit. As much as I use and love the Bible, my trust and faith is not in a book but in Him who I think inspired it. Properly stated, I don't trust the Bible, I trust God. I trust that God knew what kind of Sacred Scripture we needed even if we don't always see it that way. The one He graciously provided us with does not seem too concerned with science, history or being inerrant. Instead, Scripture wants to make us wise for salvation in Jesus Christ and to equip us to do every good work (2 Tim 3:15-17). True religion is looking after orphans and widows and listening to the word of truth and doing what it says (James 1). If God was concerned with doctrine, He would have left us a systematic theology. Instead, we have story.  

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