I am convinced that as readers of the Bible we consistently make two fundamental errors.
First, we miss things we should’ve seen and second we ask questions the text was never designed to answer. Nowhere are these errors more obvious than a study of the opening chapters of Genesis. I admit I have blinders that too often keep my from really seeing/hearing the text as it was meant to be seen/heard. As to the first error, I can’t recall how many times I’ve re-read a passage and then noticed something that has been there all along. As to the second error, I have been guilty of asking the text questions that, after further deliberation, it was never meant to answer.
Let me give you an example of each of these errors, from the first chapters of Genesis, that reflect my own interaction with the text.
As an example of missing something in plain sight (but hidden), I direct your attention to Genesis 1:14. In the majority of English translations, you will find the word “seasons” in this text. While “seasons” is not a bad translation, it does not fully reveal what the author was trying to convey. The Hebrew word for “seasons” is “moedim,” which does refer to calendar events but not to summer, winter, spring and fall. The word “moedim” is further explained in Leviticus 23 as specific “appointed times” when G-d desired to meet with His people on an annual calendrical cycle. My error in thinking this referred to an issue of weather cycles came because I was dealing with English language and not Hebrew, and because I was not reading with a view to the entire canon of Biblical texts (ie Leviticus 23).
As to the second error of asking the text questions it was never designed to answer, allow me to use Genesis once again. I grew up in the era where science became incredibly important and where scientific discoveries were happening at a feverish pace. In my estimation, we have placed too much importance on science and found that science doesn’t have all the answers to life’s most important questions. As Darwinian evolution gained prominence in the classrooms of our country, Biblical scholars went back to Genesis to show that “science” and the Bible could be viewed and harmonized with Genesis.
For some time I was guilty of trying to harmonize the science of the Bible in opposition to evolution but eventually realized that Genesis was not addressing the Darwinian theory/hypothesis. For that matter, Genesis is not a book about science at all. I am not promoting evolution nor do I believe evolution, but I also don’t believe we should use Genesis to debate modern scientific “facts” or theories.
Several notable Biblical scholars have noticed that the opening chapters of Genesis have resonant language with later texts of the Bible (canonical connections). Hebrew Bible scholar Richard Davidson wrote an article in the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society (Vol 11, Spring 2000) where he noted 17 places where the opening chapters of Genesis had echoes in other places within the Torah (first five books of Hebrew Bible). Davidson noted that there were significant parallels in both language and themes that connected Genesis 1-3 with later texts dealing with the tabernacle/temple and the priests who served those places. This discovery of seeing tabernacle and priestly language in the opening chapters of Genesis has opened many doors of inquiry and is seeing and hearing the text as it was meant to be seen and heard.
Let’s take a look at a connection between Genesis and the priestly language of later texts. In Genesis 2:15, Adam is told to “work/serve” and to “keep/guard” the Garden of Eden. This pairing of Hebrew words is found again in Numbers 3:7-8, where the Levites are to “serve” and “keep” the tabernacle. This correlation of language telegraphs two things to the attentive listener. First, the Garden of Eden is being compared to the tabernacle, and secondly Adam is being compared to a priest. If Adam is functioning as a priest within the Garden Tabernacle, this opens up other possibilities for understanding other aspects of Genesis 1-3.
Let’s explore another feature of Genesis 1 to see how temple language is used within an Ancient Near Eastern context and resonates with other Biblical texts. In Genesis 1:26, man is made in the “image” and “likeness” of G-d. What does this idea of man being an image bearer mean here in the opening chapter of Genesis? If we understand that Eden is a temple, then what do other people put inside their temple?
If you have a temple then you either have an image of your god (idol) or a figurine of the king who rules on behalf of his god. Later in the Bible, we will see images of kings/gods (think Dagan and Nebuchadnezzer), placed inside temples to communicate that the image indicates who rules in that area. Rather than placing an image of Himself, the G-d of Israel asks humanity to function as His image bearers and He places them within the Temple of Eden. Notice that the remaining section of Genesis 1:26 speaks of Adam/humanity “ruling” over the creation just as we would expect based on the language of Temple and images.
Brent Emery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.