Science in Christian Perspective

Letters to the Editor



From: JASA 15 (September 1963): 98-100.

The following open letters are republished with minor editing from Threefold Advocate, the campus paper of John Brown University.-D. 0. M.

Dear Dr. Hearn:

It was a pleasure to have you on our campus Dec. 4, 1962. The talk you gave in Chapel was well received and stimulated much thought and discussion, pro and con, among the students . . . .

I write in the spirit of the ASA, that of open, friendly discussion of matters relating to science and our Christian faith. Your comments on Genesis I were quite interesting to me, as I have given considerable study to its Hebrew text. You described the creation account both in your talk and in your contribution to Russell Mixter's Evolution and Christian Thought Today (p. 67) as a "beautifully poetic narrative," and so, apparently, not to be taken too literally.

All Hebrew scholars I know of concur that Genesis I is not Hebrew poetry. Even a beginning Hebrew student can easily see that it is in the ordinary Hebrew narrative form. Keil and Delitzsch, well-known Hebrew commentators, write:

The account of the creation, its commencement, progress, and completion, bears the marks, both in form and substance, of a historical document in which it is intended that we should accept as actual truth, not only the assertion that God created the heavens, and the earth, and all that lives and moves in the world, but also the description of the creation itself in all its several stages. (Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1, The Pentateucb, p. 37, italics added.)

You also said that the statement of Adam's being made from the "dust of the ground" (Gen. 2:7) made it seem to you to be a story primarily intended for children; that we are not to take it literally, because God would not make a man as a child would make a mudpie; that it was so stated in order that even a child could grasp it.

May I suggest that later reference to this act of God requires that it be understood literally. In Gen. 3:19 God tells Adam, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return to the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." If a man literally becomes part of the ground when he is dead and buried, then it must be true that man was literally formed out of the dirt (or dust) of the ground by the agency of God. If not, language ceases to convey meaning. "Ground" cannot be both figurative and literal in the same sentence, with no indication of change.

Genesis 3:23 shows the same thing: "Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to fill the ground from whence he was taken." As surely as Adain worked the literal soil to provide his food, fighting literal thorns and thistles, just as surely and literally it must be that Adam was taken from the ground.

Again, thank you for being with us. I hope that frank, open discussion of these problems . . . will continue within the bonds of Christian friendship and love.

Gilbert B. Weaver
Instructor in Bible and New Testament Greek
John Brown University

Dr. Heam's Reply to Prof. Weaver:

I am extremely glad you have taken the trouble to write to me. . . . Publication of our letters may stimulate others to contribute to the discussion of these problems and help both of us to arrive at more satisfactory answers than we now have.

I hope I made it clear that my current ideas are working hypotheses only; I intend to keep working with them and on them continually. The ASA through its meetings and publications has served as an excellent forurn for friendly discussion of such issues; your letter is certainly in its finest tradition.

First of all, you are quite right about Genesis I not being technically in the form of Hebrew poetry . * * * My use of the term "poetic" was not intended to be in this technical sense, but rather in the sense of "esthetically pleasing, " as opposed to "analytical ......

I reject the term "myth" for the same reason that Alan Richardson does in his Genesis I-XI (London: SCM Press, 1953). In this case "myth" would be appropriate in its technical sense ("a narrative of deep religious significance not intended to be taken literally"), but it undoubtedly would be misunderstood to be meant in the popular sense of the word ("a madeup tale which didn't really happen"). Yet when I use 11 poetic" in the popular sense, someone always corrects me for my technical inaccuracy. Richardson's alternative (pp. 27-32) is to use "parable"...He says that the word Parable

word parable

has the advantage of not necessarily implying that the happerting to which it alludes is only a fiction. When Jesus speaks the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the word does not imply that mustard seeds do not really growa conclusion which would surely be implied if we spoke of the 'myth' of the mustard seed. A parable is a story which may of may not be literally true (no one asks whether the Good Samaritan ever literally 'happened'); it conveys a meaning beyond itself.

"Parable" is preferable to "allegory" because in an allegory every object mentioned stands for something else; a parable has just one point, and it is the meaning of the parable as a whole that is the important matter.

It is of the utmost importance to realize that the parables of Genesis are to be read in the way that we read poetry, not prose. Their language is as far removed as possible from that of a scientific textbook. They make use of poetic images and symbolism, which must be treated as such.

Your quotation from Keil and Delitzsch says that the creation narrative in Genesis "bears the marks, both in form and substance," of a historical document intended to be taken literally . . . other commentators argue that the earliest chapters of Genesis are a unique form in Hebrew literature, and therefore technically neither ordinary Hebrew history nor poetry. Saga is a term I have seen used to describe their literary form. From my non-technical point of view, the first eleven chapters . . . seem to have a style which sets them apart from the rest of Genesis; the format of subsequent chapters seems to be dearly that of a historical document.

I am perfectly willing to let Genesis speak for itself as a part of the inspired Word of God; it is only with interpretations of the creation account that I am willing to differ. I tried to illustrate this by telling about my three-year-old daughter who thought that God must live in a farmhouse around which a harvest of pumpkins had been piled because she had learned in Sunday School that "God makes the pumpkins." I did not argue with her statement about God's creative activity in the pumpkin field but merely tried to show her an alternative interpretation.

This leads me to your point about my statement that the creation story seems to be written in a simplified form so that even a child can understand it. I think we are in semantic difficulty here about what it means to take a passage "literally." Language is used for such a variety of purposes that the same word is customarily used by the same person in different contexts with many different degrees of precision or concreteness. Yet you argue that the same word cannot be both figurative and literal in the same sentence or else "language ceases to convey meaning." This points up exactly what I mean by "poetic language," which certainly does carry a variety of meaning in a single expression. When I write poetry, I try to choose words which will have one meaning on superficial reading but one or more deeper meanings as well.

Even ordinary speech conveys a variety of images to an imaginative listener. When my wife calls, "Dinner is on the table!", she may mean: (1) Dinner will be ready by the time it ordinarily takes you to get your hands washed and the children rounded up; (2) Dinner is now served; (3) Dinner is literally "on the table"the children have dumped a dish and the tablecloth is soaking up the gravy! If I assume that the customary meaning is intended, I will be right most of the time, but unless I keep alert to other possible meanings, I may be wrong on some very unfortunate occasions. Clues in my wife's tone of voice suggest which particular meaning is intended; in written prose there also are clues, but in more poetic language the clues are missing or are less obvious.

This is why the question of the literary form of the early chapters of Genesis is so important. If they are intended to be poetic (whether or not in the classical Hebrew form) or "parabolic," we are obligated to read them imaginatively or we may miss the point entirely. Did not Christ choose the parabolic form for much of His message because of its double meanings? (See Mark 4:1-34.)

With regard to Adam's creation from the dust of the ground, I did not intend to say that we should not take this literally "because God would not make man as a child would make a mud-pie." . . . God could make man in any way He chose; He is certainly not limited to the capacity of my powers of understanding or imagination.

I agree that there is significance to the earthly origin of Adam . . . . Our point of disagreement, if any, lies in the possible interpretations of God's use of the earth in making Adam. "As one would make a mud-pie" is not part of the Scripture but is, I think, the picture that most Christians have from reading the story; many of us conceive of this creative act as taking place "one afternoon." When I said the creation narrative seemed simplified down to the level of a child's understanding, that is what I was talking about-the creation takes place in a specific week, with something new being made each day. However, once we have examined modern scientific evidence that the earth is extremely old, but some forms of life are more recent and man is much more recent, we have had opened up an additional possibility of interpretation.

Indeed, the creation was orderly; man was the last thing made; man was made "out of the dust of the ground"; but now we can get two different images from the words describing these things. Surely the language of Genesis 3:19 may be called figurative to a great extent: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" means something more than that Adam's dining room will be hot, and "dust thou art" in the present tense cannot be taken most literally without stretching the ordinary "literal" definitions of dust or dirt. Clarity is not lost here by the use of figurative language, and dramatic force is certainly gained. We can agree on the significance of the expressions, whether or not they convey to each of us a different set of images, if we are both confident that they are God's message to us.

Walter R. Hearn
Assoc. Prof. of Biochemistry and Biophysics Iowa State University