I don’t think there is any part of the Bible that is more disputed than the opening chapters of Genesis. It is not only the meaning of these verses that is the subject of endless debate, but their very nature. What is their genre? Are Genesis 1-11 meant to be understood as history? As fiction? Or are they something else altogether? This is the subject of a fasinating new “Counterpoints” book from Zondervan.
The format of the “Counterpoints” series is well-known to most of us: A number of authors present their understanding of a controversial passage or subject, and then interact with one another. In Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither, each of the authors is asked to respond to four elements: identify the genre of Genesis 1-11; explain why they believe this is the genre; explore the implications of this genre designation for biblical interpretation; and apply their approach to three specific passages: the story of the Nephilim, Noah and the ark, and the Tower of Babel. James Hoffmeier defends Genesis as history and theology, Gordon Wenham defends Genesis as proto-history, and Kenton Sparks insists it is ancient historiography. While the terms may be intimidating, each viewpoint can be simply summarized.
Hoffmeier admits that there are various literary genres on display in Genesis, but says that “the general tenor of the book, and Gen 1-11 in particular, is intended to be thought of as describing real events.” He understands the geographical precision of the author, as well as the framing of the book into various family histories, as clues that Genesis is meant to describe history. This means that an ancient audience would “consider the Nephilim episode, the flood, and Tower of Babel narratives as historical events.” And if they read it that way, so too should we.
Wenham largely agrees with Hoffmeier, and also sees history behind the events of Genesis 1-11. However, he describes Genesis as proto-history, “a form of writing that has links to the past but interprets history of the sake of the present.” If history (as a genre of writing) can be compared to a photograph of events, he suggests that Genesis 1-11 is more like an abstract painting in that it intends to convey meaning more than specific facts. If this is true, recovering the message of the text is more important than defining its genre and determining which elements are firmly historical. In his view some of the events may be grounded in history and others may not, but the distinction is a secondary concern.
Kenton Sparks takes a much different view and insists that there was no Garden of Eden, no tree of life or tree of knowledge of good and evil, no talking serpent, no worldwide flood or ark, and no Tower of Babel. “Whatever the first chapters of Genesis offer, there is one thing that they certain do not offer, namely, a literal account of events that actually happened prior to and during the early history of humanity.” In this way Genesis 1-11 represents myth or legend. He still believes Genesis is important for what it means to convey, but considers it ridiculous to believe that any of it is grounded in fact (even though the original readers probably did believe it was factual).
For a number of reasons I am comfortable setting aside Sparks’ essay as being outside the bounds of Evangelical theology. It quickly becomes clear that he prioritizes scientific discovery over Scripture and that he reads the Bible through an all-too-familiar biblical criticism straight out of the nineteenth-century. The more interesting comparison is between Hoffmeier and Wenham, both of whom are orthodox, godly scholars who have contributed much to our understanding of Scripture and Christian theology. (Preachers and those who closely study the Bible will no doubt recognize Wenham as the author of superior commentaries of Genesis, Leviticus, and Numbers.)
My honest assessment of the book ranks Wenham as making the strongest case for his position. This is not to say that I agree with his perspective; I find his description of proto-history uneven and more than a little convenient—it allows him to do an end-around past difficult questions such as a literal Garden of Eden and a worldwide flood. At least in this chapter there seem to be few guidelines as to how we can decide which events are historical and which are not. However, I appreciate his reliance on the Bible and his tone in addressing the other authors.
While my view would best be represented by Hoffmeier, I say that only with one major caveat: He believes in an old rather than young earth. Here is a gaping hole in this volume: It contains three views of the Bible’s earliest chapters, but not one of the authors believes in a literal six-day creation. For Wenham and Sparks this is no surprise, but it is disappointing that the scholar defending Genesis as history holds that the earth is ancient and was not created in a literal six-day time period. (It is also odd that this becomes clear only in his response to the author contributors.) While his inclusion does prove that an old-earth view can be reconciled with a historical reading of the early chapters of Genesis, I would have found it much more helpful to have a six-day view represented. I understand that the distinction between young earth and old earth is not the purpose of this volume, yet few six-day adherents would recognize a truly “historical” reading of Genesis 1-11 that sees these events unfolding over millions of years. In that way one major view is not adequately represented.
I enjoyed reading Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither and benefited from the author’s essays and rejoinders (though the editor’s conclusion is both underwhelming and disappointing). It adequately and tersely describes three varied perspectives on the Bible’s most foundational passage, and it provides a mountain of food for thought. Sadly, it is weakened—perhaps not fatally, but certainly significantly—by failing to represent one common and compelling understanding—that Genesis 1-11 should be read both literally and historically as describing real events just as they took place.
A friend of mine expects that she will soon be engaged to be married, and finds herself wondering about the nature of engagement. We assume it: We must get engaged to be married before we actually get married. But what is engagement? Is it an inviolable agreement with all the significance of marriage? Is it a tentative agreement that can be broken off on a whim? What exactly is this thing we call engagement?
The first thing we must admit is that there is no New Testament command that a couple must be engaged before they are married, and no New Testament edict about what an engagement looks like. We see a description of betrothal—something similar to engagement—in the lives of Mary and Joseph, but no prescription that we are to imitate this exact form of it. We see glimpses of similar traditions in the Old Testament but, again, nothing that binds us today.
Whatever engagement is, we need to admit that it is a cultural, not a biblical, construct. Like the white dress at the wedding or the black suit at the funeral, engagement is a construct that varies significantly from culture to culture. We see this when we can look past our own traditions.
My church has a significant Ghanian population and I have learned that the West African view of engagement is very different from the Canadian and American view; I have learned as well that many first- or second-generation immigrants practice a kind of hybrid engagement that combines elements of Ghana and Canada. As I travel to the southern United States I see that engagement there is a little bit different from engagement here in the Great White North. When I was in India I met a wonderful Christian couple who had been introduced to one another at their engagement ceremony, and who were still strangers on their wedding day. Each of these cultures has a form of engagement, but there are significant differences between them.
So what is true of engagement here in twenty-first century Western culture? And how can we do engagement well?
I understand engagement as a relationship where a couple deliberately increases the intimacy of their relationship as a prelude to marriage. The primary business of engagement is increasing relational intimacy to ensure compatibility. The couple makes their agreement (or engagement) with one another before their friends, family, and church, making it not only a personal agreement, but a community one. Engagement is a formal agreement that these two people are serious about pursuing the lifelong commitment of marriage and that, though they are not yet fully committed to marrying one another, they are escalating their intimacy to ensure that they can be suitable for one another.
Let me be clear: I am not talking about sexual intimacy. I am not even necessarily talking about physical intimacy. I am talking primarily about relational intimacy. While a man and woman are dating they may discuss previous relationships or past traumas, but when they are engaged they must begin to discuss these things—at least they must if they are wise. Their engagement gives them the structure, the urgency, and the end-goal that allows them to pursue topics that are too intimate for those who are dating, but too serious to leave until after wedding rings have been exchanged.
How does a couple do this? Primarily by both deliberate and casual communication. They talk together on their own, and tell one another about their joys, their fears, their strengths, and their weaknesses. They open up about their family backgrounds, their sexual history, their traumas, and their triumphs. They talk openly, honestly, exhaustively, and intimately.
But there is more. They take pre-marriage counseling together under the guidance of a godly pastor and his wife, or under the guidance of an experienced Christian couple. They read the Bible, pray, and worship together both together and corporately. They spend time with godly couples they admire, peppering them with questions and simply observing how different marriages works. They read books together—books on marriage, of course—but also perhaps books on money or sex or any other area that tends to cause difficulty in young marriages. They ramp up their relational intimacy toward what they will experience as husband and wife, while carefully holding off the sexual intimacy that will eventually seal their relationship.
Can an engagement be broken off? Yes, I believe that it can. After all, the couple has not yet taken their vows and has not yet experienced sexual union. And there is a sense in which this kind of engagement only makes sense if it can be broken. The increase in relational intimacy may expose certain sins or character traits or past traumas that one of them simply cannot tolerate. This makes the modern Western engagement somewhat different from ancient betrothal, and perhaps different from contemporary engagement in other parts of the world. Engagements can be broken off, but the tacit agreement is that this will happen only under the saddest or most serious circumstances.
That is engagement as I understand it at this time and in this place.
I recently sat with a group of young adults, men and women in their late teens and early twenties, and we spoke about singleness, dating, and courtship. Eventually the conversation advanced to marriage and to both the joys and the difficulties of marriage. We realized together that as these young adults are considering relationships and begin to pursue marriage, they are wondering how they can divorce-proof their marriages. Many of them have grown up surrounded by divorce and its effects. Some are afraid of commitment because they are afraid they may not be able to keep that commitment.
One young man asked how to ensure that a couple does not bring into their marriage a seed that could bloom into divorce. And it did not take me more than a moment to realize that in my marriage and in your marriage and in every marriage, there is already the seed of divorce. In every marriage is an issue, a belief, a habit, a heart idolatry—indeed, many of them—that can lead easily and naturally to the complete destruction of the union. The world, the flesh, and the devil are all committed to the destruction of marriage, and each of those enemies brings its own evil seeds. The question is not whether those seeds are or will be present in a marriage, but what we will do with them.
It may be that in your marriage, you have allowed the seed of divorce to grow. Perhaps it has already put down roots and is digging in. Maybe it has already poked its head through the soil and begun to grow to full bloom. Do not despair. There is still hope for your marriage. A marriage is not ruined by the presence of such seeds but by accepting, ignoring, or embracing them.
The very same seeds that may lead to destruction may also lead to increased strength and growth. Though powerful forces are arrayed against marriage, God is the creator of marriage, and He is far more committed to its growth than Satan is to its destruction.
Each of those seeds that may lead to divorce represents an opportunity for health. Each is an opportunity for a couple to have open and honest discussion, to identify these seeds, to talk about them, and to commit to stand firmly against them. Each represents a matter to take to the Lord together in prayer, to seek God’s strength and protection. And, of course, each represents an area in which the Bible can and must speak. Those seeds of error are countered and overcome by the truth of Scripture.
Stuart Scott says it well: “The more each mind is renewed (changed) by the Scripture, the more similarly a couple will think (Rom. 12:2). One of the worst things a couple can do is work to change one another into each other’s likeness. They are to be changed, rather, into Christ’s likeness.” And they are changed by going together to God’s Word day by day, week by week, and year after year.
I grew up in a church culture, a catechizing culture, and a family worship culture. Each of these was a tremendous, immeasurable blessing, I am sure. I am convinced that twice-each-Sunday services, and memorizing the catechisms, and worshipping as a family marked me deeply. I doubt I will ever forget that my only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own, but belong in body and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, or that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I can still sing many of the psalms and hymns of my youth, and I have precious memories of my family bowing our heads around the kitchen table.
What was true of my family was true of many of my friends’ families. They, too, grew up around churches and catechisms and rigid family devotions. In fact, in all the times I visited their homes, I don’t think I ever witnessed a family skip over their devotions. It was the custom, it was the expectation, and it was good. Our church had near 100% attendance on Sunday morning and near 100% attendance on Sunday evening. It was just what we did.
But despite all of the advantages, many of the people I befriended as a child have since left the faith. Some have sprinted away, but many more have simply meandered away, so that an occasionally missed Sunday eventually became a missed month and a missed year. Not all of them, of course. Many are now fine believers, who are serving in their churches and even leading them. But a lot—too many—are gone.
Why? I ask the question from time-to-time. Why are all five of my parents’ kids following the Lord, while so many of our friends and their families are not? Obviously I have no ability to peer into God’s sovereignty and come to any firm conclusions. But as I think back, I can think of one great difference between my home and my friends’ homes—at least the homes of my friends who have since walked away from the Lord and his church. Though it is not universally true, it is generally true. Here’s the difference: I saw my parents living out their faith even when I wasn’t supposed to be watching.
When I tiptoed down the stairs in the morning, I would find my dad in the family room with his Bible open on his lap. Every time I picked up my mom’s old NIV Study Bible it was a little more wrecked than the time before, I would find a little more ink on the pages, and a few more pieces of tape trying desperately to hold together the worn binding. When life was tough, I heard my parents reason from the Bible and I saw them pray together. They weren’t doing these things for us. They weren’t doing them to be seen. They were doing these things because they loved the Lord and loved to spend time with him, and that spoke volumes to me. I had the rock-solid assurance that my parents believed and practiced what they preached. I knew they actually considered God’s Word trustworthy, because they began every day with it. I knew that they believed God was really there and really listening, because they got alone with him each morning to pray for themselves and for their kids. I saw that their faith was not only formal and public, but also intimate and private.
Here is one thing I learned from my parents: Nothing can take the place of simply living as a Christian in view of my children. No amount of formal theological training, church attendance, or family devotions will make up for a general apathy about the things of the Lord. I can catechize my children all day and every day, but if I have no joy and no delight in the Lord, and if I am not living out my faith, my children will see it and know it.
For all the good things my parents did for me, I believe that the most important was simply living as Christians before me. I don’t think